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The Time for Home

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Prologue: In Winter

‘There can be beauty in winter, too, Bilbo,’ Gandalf commented as they stared out of the door of Bag End. The snow had started not long after Gandalf’s arrival, and now a white coat covered the fields and had begun to hide the road as well.

It was a guest even more unwelcome than the wizard, in the opinion of the Master of Bag End, but he had little hope that either guest would leave him in peace.

‘There are those who will choose to see beauty in anything,’ Bilbo said, instead of “Oh, go away and leave me be”. He would have much preferred the latter, but not even all that he'd suffered could completely erode the manners he'd grown up with.

Bilbo had not quite apologised to the first orc he'd ever killed, but it had been a near-run thing.

‘Just because they choose to see beauty in approaching death doesn't mean I must do the same,’ he continued, tone as sharp as he ever dared to be with the wizard.

‘You are not the only one who lost, Bilbo,’ Gandalf said in return. ‘Why can you not find acceptance as others have? The world does not allow us to keep those we love forever. It is hard, but it is the way of things.’

‘Oh, of course,’ Bilbo replied bitterly, ‘I must be a true hobbit, mustn’t I? We cannot have one of the Shire-folk with his eyes actually open to reality! You would much prefer that I cower from what comes. That I hide in my home and wait for someone else to save me. Never mind that they will not come until it is too late. Well, I am afraid I will not cower. I will not hide. I will not rely upon others. I do not ask you to worry for me, Gandalf!’

‘How have you come so far from her?’ was Gandalf’s only response. ‘From all she taught you and all she believed? I would never have credited it had I not seen it with my own eyes.’

‘I have not come far from her,’ Bilbo answered bleakly. ‘Not at all. It was she who went from me.’

To that, finally, Gandalf had no reply.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter One: All Fall Down

‘It’s bad, then?’ Dwalin questioned as he approached Thorin. The King in Exile stood rigidly at the entrance to Ered Luin’s mines, staring into the darkness within with no hint of an expression. Dwalin knew that stance. It was the one he had seen on a young dwarf who had just inherited a throne because every other male of his bloodline was dead.

This was not going to be pretty.

‘It is,’ Thorin answered briskly. Dwalin waited to see if he would add anything further, but nothing was forthcoming.

‘How many dead?’ he asked instead.

‘Thirty,’ Thorin replied, and this time his voice was softer, if only in comparison to his usual harshness. ‘Five of them apprentices, including Dendrit.’

Ah, so that explained the stillness. Thorin was trying to control the blinding rage. Best get him home before he lost the battle in front of their people.

‘The boys will want to know about their friend,’ Dwalin pointed out quietly. Dendrit had been a similar age to Fíli and Kíli and, as there was little reason to stand upon ceremony in Ered Luin, the three had formed an easy friendship. Why the lad had been part of all this, Dwalin could not imagine. A mystery to untangle later. ‘Dís will need to know as well. It won’t be long before she has concerned family members at the door. Everyone was wakened by the racket; they’ll soon start to realise their menfolk are missing.’

‘Yes,’ Thorin agreed, though for long moments he remained standing exactly as he had been. Dwalin didn’t know what was whirling through Thorin’s head, but he’d bet his arse it was nothing good.

Then Thorin spun on one heel and began marching through the settlement in the direction of his home. Dwalin was only a few steps behind him.

They sped through the depressing sight that was Ered Luin. It looked like the poorest quarter of a town of Men, with only the straightness of the buildings to signify that dwarves were the residents instead. No dwarf ever built a home that leant to one side, even if they did have to build most of them out of wood instead of good, solid stone. There were many reasons that Dwalin had travelled so far in his life, including an obligation to his Kings, but a major one had been his desire to escape this place.

Thorin, Dís and the boys did not live far from the mines and the walk was short. As they approached the home Thorin had built after Azanulbizar, notable for both its stone walls and its simplicity, Dwalin spotted Fíli and Kíli standing outside. They were positioned like sentries guarding the entrance, and each had black ribbon twined into their hair. Kíli’s hair was actually braided in one long, neat plait, which was something of a miracle.

News must have travelled fast.

When Thorin appeared the boys straightened and came to attention, which was Dwalin’s first clue that something was wrong within. The boys had a healthy fear of their Uncle, perhaps even a tad more than was healthy, but they did not normally act like soldiers in their own home.

‘Fíli?’ Thorin asked abruptly, thinking along the same lines as Dwalin.

‘Wikan has come to visit Mum,’ Fíli replied quietly. ‘To pay his respects after the tragedy.’

In the blink of an eye, Thorin’s face became a raging storm that even his own kin instinctively backed away from. Lips twisted in a snarl, he slammed the door open and charged through while Dwalin, Fíli and Kíli hurried to follow him.

By the time Dwalin made it into the room, Thorin already had Wikan up against the far wall and his hand around Wikan’s throat.

Dís, rather than looking startled, looked eminently pleased.

‘You dare,’ Thorin was growling, ‘you dare to enter my home and utter pretty words to the Princess of Erebor when your weaselling has killed thirty of her people!’

‘I…,’ Wikan gasped, but the hold on his throat was too tight for him to actually speak.

‘Let him go, Thorin,’ Dís requested. When Thorin turned to look at her, she smiled the wolfish grin that always made Dwalin wish he could be transported 50 miles hence immediately. ‘I want to hear his reasons before you kill him. Besides, with Ered Luin’s best warriors in the room he will not get far in an escape attempt.’

Thorin paused a second more, then dropped Wikan back to his feet and stepped away. Not far away. Dwalin knew he would want Wikan well and truly intimidated.

Wikan gasped and spluttered a moment longer before he finally had enough breath to speak. Dwalin would suspect him of pausing to concoct his excuses, if he did not know that Wikan always had those to hand. The dwarf was a snake in their midst.

‘You would attack an elder who visits in friendship?’ Wikan began, and Dwalin almost sighed. The dwarf didn’t know when to stop.

‘You have been no friend of mine since before I took the King’s mantle, Wikan,’ Thorin snapped. ‘Let us have no dissembling here. Why were those dwarves in the mines? Night mining is forbidden and they knew it, as all know it. They were your men. What were they doing?’

‘Ever you make judgements without checking your facts, Thorin,’ the elder dwarf said patronisingly. ‘Whose word do you have that they were “my” men? Those ragged miners you keep as pets? One addled by the axe in his head and the other no doubt addled by drink.’

Dwalin had been aware of his brother entering the room, but up to this point he had ignored him in favour of the scene unfolding. Now Balin brought himself to everyone’s attention.

‘He has my word, Wikan,’ he stated firmly, shoulders squared and eyes locked on the pompous old dwarf. ‘Will you now argue that that is also not good enough to make judgements from?’

Thorin turned sharply to look at Balin, one eyebrow raised in query. Balin shook his head.

‘No survivors,’ he confirmed sadly. That would explain why Balin had not been with Thorin earlier, Dwalin realised. He’d been with the rescue crews they’d sent it.

Kíli made a small, grief-stricken noise at the news that all the miners were dead, and Fíli moved to wrap his arm around his brother. They must already have been told that Dendrit was among those lost. Dwalin really ought to investigate their spy network more closely. It was more effective than his and the knowledge rankled.

‘One of the packs in the entranceway to the mines belonged to Thrak,’ Balin continued evenly, looking back to Wikan again. ‘He was a cautious dwarf, it seems. He had kept the letter with his orders tucked inside.’ Balin held the parchment up and Wikan’s face went pale. Arrogant as he was, it was no great leap to conclude that Wikan had conveyed all of his commands in letter form and never thought it might come back to haunt him.

Fool.

‘The central tunnel holds more riches than all the others put together,’ Balin read from the parchment in his hand. ‘It has been blocked on the word of idiots. Open it and mine it out. Take as many dwarves as you can get with the money you have. All goods are to be brought to me at the end of each night. Tell no one. If Oakenshield finds out, I will be sure it is your head that rolls.’

Balin left a short pause, then looked at Thorin once again. ‘He signed it,’ Balin told his King simply, his tone holding deep disappointment. Whether that was for the betrayal or the stupidity of it was hard to tell.

‘How many nights did they manage before they brought it crashing down, Wikan?’ Thorin snarled, his whole body tense from listening to treason written so casually. ‘Shall I send to your home to check? How much did their lives cost?’

‘Don’t come high and mighty with me, boy,’ Wikan growled back, his usual façade entirely absent. Apparently, now he had been caught he had decided to reveal himself entirely. Not the option Dwalin would have chosen, but then Dwalin would not have committed treason against his King.

That was the problem, really. Dwalin and Wikan served very different kings. For a start, Dwalin’s King was alive, and Wikan’s was very much not.

‘This whole situation can be laid at your door, Thorin,’ Wikan was saying when Dwalin drew his attention back to the present. ‘That tunnel was vital to the success of this colony. Thror knew it and mined it for years. It was rich enough to keep us viable, to fund the war against the orcs, and what do you do within a month of Azanulbizar? Close it down for no reason except your own arrogance!’

Dwalin almost laughed. Of all the people to accuse another of arrogance.

‘I closed it on the word of two dwarves with the best stone-sense I have ever come across,’ Thorin said slowly, sounding drained. The anger was not gone, but it was banked briefly by sheer exhaustion. Dwalin and Thorin had not been in bed above two hours when the whole colony had shaken with the force of the collapse. ‘Dwarves who told me that it had been over-mined and would not hold if we continued. They have been proven right, and now your greed has doomed us all.’

‘You will not lay this at my door, Thorin Oakenshield,’ Wikan railed, flushing purple with anger. ‘I follow your grandfather’s legacy, the legacy that made us a great and respected kingdom, as should you…’

‘My grandfather is DEAD!’ Thorin shouted as his fraying temper snapped. ‘He no longer rules here!’ Thorin stopped and took a breath, and when he spoke again his voice was controlled but brittle, almost deadened with despair. ‘The central tunnel took four others with it when it collapsed. We have three left. Three of the poorer ones. Come winter we will starve.’

Dís gasped and Dwalin resisted the urge to do the same. Fíli and Kíli, when Dwalin glanced at them, wore expressions of sheer horror. Only Balin seemed unsurprised by this news. He must have been with Thorin when he was told.

Wikan lost all colour once more, and this time he slid to the floor and stayed there, staring blankly ahead. Dwalin, more interested in his friend’s welfare than in the thoughts of the dwarf who had brought them to ruin, turned to Thorin.

The King in Exile would have been utterly still, were it not for the way that he clenched and unclenched his hands as he gazed down at Wikan. Dwalin knew it was taking all of his will not to throttle the dwarf and call it good. Wikan would be executed - there was no other punishment for so serious a crime, and all but his cronies would be baying for his blood when they discovered what had been done - but Thorin had to be tempted to do the deed himself in the face of such disaster. Only his devotion to their laws and customs would hold him back.

Seemingly sensing that Thorin was close to the edge, Dís stepped in once more and touched her brother’s arm, prompting him to lean down so that she could murmur in his ear. What she said seemed to calm Thorin, who nodded and gently squeezed the hand resting on his bicep.

‘Dwalin, take him to the holding cells,’ Thorin commanded. ‘Let Maral visit him if she wishes. It is not her fault her husband is a fool. No one else sees him except those in this room. We will have justice done, not a lynching.’

Dwalin nodded, but before he could move Fíli broke in.

‘Uncle, should someone not warn Maral before we start dragging him through the streets?’ Fíli’s face was a picture of contempt as he glanced at Wikan, who was finally recovering from his shock. Dwalin knew he voiced true concern, however. Maral had sometimes cared for the boys when they were little and they were fond of her. Her marriage to Wikan had been forged in the old days, when Thror’s nobles often made alliances for profit and power. It had not been a happy one, and the Line of Durin knew it.

Thorin looked at Balin, who inclined his head in agreement and began to walk out of the room.

‘Come with me, you two,’ Balin told the boys kindly. ‘There will be much bad news to give in the coming days. Best you learn how to do it as gently as possible.’

That resolved, Dwalin walked forward and grabbed his prisoner by the arm, hauling him to his feet and marching him across the room and into Fíli and Kíli’s bedroom. It was hardly an ideal prison, but it would do until Balin had completed his task and it would give Thorin and Dís a little privacy.

‘What will we do, Thorin?’ he heard Dís ask just as he passed through the doorway.

He didn’t hear Thorin’s reply.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: Road’s End

Bilbo Baggins sighed heavily as he unlocked the door of Bag End and pushed his way through. It had been three weeks since he had been home; he was dusty, tired and a little fed up, though that feeling also warred with a certain amount of triumph. He’d like to say that being proven right about the dangers on the edge of the Shire hadn’t pleased him, but a small part of him was pleased.

Everyone liked to be right, especially after spending so long being ignored by those determinedly clasping their hands over their ears as warnings were shouted.

Bilbo had told them that the Bounders were not patrolling far enough out, or thoroughly enough, to make the Shire truly safe. That there were signs of evil encroaching into their lands.

That this time it wasn’t just wolves at their borders.

No one had believed him, of course. They did not wish to believe him.

No one wanted another Fell Winter.

The difference was that Bilbo was willing to work to prevent one. His fellows simply closed their eyes to the danger and pretended that if they could not see it, it could not see them.

Hobbits were a hugely frustrating bunch when you were the only one with your eyes open.

It had taken Bilbo a week, and the occasional brush with danger, but he had eventually found an orc and its warg alone and unawares. They had been across the Brandywine River and towards Bree, which no doubt would have the good hobbits of Hobbiton and Michel Delving assuring Bilbo that they were far too far away to cause trouble, and besides they were a problem for Bree and the men there.

Bilbo doubted that the good hobbits of Stock would agree. They were far closer to the problem.

They, like Bilbo, still remembered all too well when the Brandywine had frozen.

They knew how easily all could be lost.

The orc and warg had not died easily, but they had died. Then, safe in the knowledge that he would not be attacked from behind, Bilbo had followed their trail. It had led into the edge of the Old Forest and then back out again, which made the orcs braver than Bilbo had given them credit for.

Or more stupid. Everyone knew there were things in the Old Forest that did not care for company, and they were likely no fonder of orcs than they were of hobbits.

The trail had culminated just at the edge of the Barrow Downs, on the wrong side for these orcs to be Bree’s problem. They had been a large group, thirty or so, and a number of them had mounts. What they were doing there was unclear. The danger was not.

Bilbo would have to speak to the Thain. The orcs could not be allowed to remain where they were. Someone would have to send for help, for the Rangers.

None among the hobbits except Bilbo was even slightly equipped for dealing with such a danger. Not even the more adventurous Tooks and Brandybucks.

Bilbo sank down into his favourite armchair, the one which had been his mother’s before her death, and closed his eyes. He really needed a bath, but the quick wash in the sink would have to do until after dinner. Bilbo had eaten sparingly on his travels, he hadn’t wanted to keep stopping all the time, and now his stomach was convinced his throat had been cut.

He had just heaved himself to his feet, ready to go and retrieve a roast chicken, potatoes and a loaf from the pantry, when there was a pounding on the door.

Bilbo’s heart leapt.

No one ever knocked at Bag End at this time of night now that Bungo was gone. No one. Bilbo Baggins had no friends who would have noticed the candles flickering and come to welcome him home. He had acquaintances aplenty, but they would wait until the morning before approaching for new gossip.

A knock could only mean bad news.

Yavanna above, the orcs could not have followed him into the Shire, could they?

They had not known he was there. He would have sworn to it.

Bilbo shoved himself out of the chair and sped to his front door, heart pounding with panic. His sword sat in the umbrella stand and Bilbo eyed it as he yanked the door open, wondering how soon he would need it.

Then he found himself face to face with the last thing he had expected.

A dwarf.

***

‘Who are you?’ were the first, entirely rude, words out of Bilbo’s mouth. He glared up at this intruder with all of the irritation that any sensible person would feel after being scared out of their wits, plus a little extra because Bilbo disliked visitors anyway, and disliked visitors he did not know even more.

The visitor did not answer immediately. He looked Bilbo up and down, tilted his head to one side for a moment, then shrugged and began to push his way through into the hall.

‘Be a good lad and let me sit down, will you?’ was his only response to Bilbo’s query. ‘I’ve been travelling all day and my feet are… oof!!’

The unfinished sentence and sound of pained shock were courtesy of Bilbo’s ill-temper, which had found the intruding dwarf on the floor, on his back, with Bilbo’s foot on his stomach and the tip of Bilbo’s sword at his throat.

‘Who. Are. You?’ Bilbo gritted out as he glared down at the tall, tattooed dwarf, eyes slitted and teeth ground together with anger. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I was invited here,’ the dwarf replied, recovering from the shock and growing angry himself. Bilbo felt a hint of fear. Yes, he had trained with elves and Rangers. Yes, he had recently fought an orc and won.

The elves and Rangers were only training him. The orc was too stupid and too surprised to fight him properly.

This dwarf was big. He was angry. He was clearly a fully trained warrior.

He was quite possibly mad, if he thought he’d been invited into Bilbo’s home.

‘I did not invite you,’ Bilbo protested. ‘I do not invite strangers here.’ He didn’t invite anyone here, but that was not the point.

The dwarf said nothing more and Bilbo found the continued silence unnerving. He found this entire encounter unnerving. It was time it was brought to an end.

Using the tip of his sword as a prompt, Bilbo nudged the dwarf backwards towards the open door. It wasn’t far to go. The dwarf had only made it two steps in before Bilbo had hooked his legs from underneath him. Bilbo reached out with his free hand and grabbed the edge of the door, pulling it with him as he guided the dwarf out. As soon as the stranger had crossed the threshold, Bilbo swiftly drew his sword back, stepped sideways and shoved the door closed with all his might.

He heard a swift curse in a low, rough voice as he did so, and the brief resistance holding the door open disappeared.

Inside, Bilbo grabbed his house key, shoved it into the lock and turned it quickly.

That had best keep any more mad dwarves out of his beautiful hobbit-hole.

***

Well.

So far this was turning out wonderfully.

Dwalin blamed his brother for that, as he did for many things. Why could Balin not have been the first one to arrive? Where was he, for that matter? They had been due to meet here, but Dwalin had waited half an hour past their allotted time and Balin still had not arrived, so he had gone in alone.

He’d been hungry, and hoping the hobbit had food. No one could blame him for that.

It wasn’t his fault that Bilbo Baggins was several lumps of coal short of a fire.

Who attacked weary travellers who were guests of your King? Thain. Whatever power ruled this Shire place.

How was Dwalin supposed to have predicted that reaction?

‘Brother, what on earth are you doing?’ Balin’s voice asked from above him. Dwalin had slumped next to the hedge on the edge of the lane, deciding that staying on Bilbo Baggins’ property was asking for trouble. Dwalin could take him if he attacked, of course, but they had travelled here for a reason. Fighting with the locals probably wouldn’t advance their cause.

‘Enjoying the night air,’ he told Balin irritably. ‘What do you think I’m doing?’

‘I haven’t the foggiest idea,’ Balin replied evenly, ‘or else I wouldn’t have felt the need to ask. I know I am late; I was held up. Why didn’t you just go in?’

‘I tried,’ Dwalin growled, the injustice of the whole thing overtaking him again. ‘Our oh-so-gracious host shoved me out at sword-point!’

‘Sword-point?’ Balin cried in shock. ‘Shoved you out? What in Mahal’s name did you do to him?’

‘I didn’t do a thing except ask him to let me in so I could sit down,’ Dwalin protested. ‘How was I supposed to know that he was a lunatic like Thror?’

‘Do not let Thorin hear you say that,’ Balin warned, as he took a seat next to Dwalin on the ground. Dwalin waved him off unconcernedly. Thorin had an errand to complete before joining them, one he had gone on alone. He was probably wandering in circles somewhere three miles away at this point. Dwalin was perfectly safe from him.

‘Perhaps you’d better start at the beginning,’ Balin said patiently, watching his brother with the same amused expression he always wore when he thought Dwalin had done something ridiculous. Dwalin growled under his breath.

***

Ten minutes later, Fíli and Kíli had also arrived and Balin was laughing so hard he could barely breathe.

‘You didn’t….’ he gasped, as he fought for breath, aware that the lads were watching him warily. ‘You didn’t check for weapons, did you? My big, strong, warrior brother, taken down by a hobbit with a sword he didn’t even notice. Wait until I tell Glóin!’

‘Try it,’ Dwalin suggested menacingly. ‘See how long all your pretty piles of parchment last when we get back.’

‘You wouldn’t dare and we both know it,’ Balin scolded. ‘Don’t make threats you won’t keep, Dwalin. Have I taught you nothing?’ Then he began chuckling again. ‘Oh, I want to meet Bilbo Baggins. There is a hobbit with spine.’

‘Am I missing the part where that spine is a good thing for us?’ Fíli asked with some concern. ‘Balin, Uncle is going to explode when he finds that the hobbits’ representative threatened Dwalin and threw him out of his home.’

‘At least someone will be suitably offended by the insult to my dignity,’ Dwalin muttered.

‘Never mind your dignity,’ Kíli put in, frowning mightily. ‘Uncle won’t care about that.’ Dwalin glared at the younger Prince, but he barely seemed to notice. ‘Gandalf promised this hobbit would help us. Does throwing the first of us to arrive out make it seem like he’s going to help us?’

‘Clearly there has been a misunderstanding,’ Balin said calmly. ‘It will be resolved soon enough, but I think perhaps we had best give Master Baggins some time to calm down first. I’ll explain the situation to Thorin and suggest we come back in the morning.’

Fíli and Kíli shared a glance that Balin did not miss, though he pretended that he had. He was actually in agreement with the two of them, and pleased that they had immediately seen the problems with this scenario. Thorin had been in the foulest of moods ever since the tunnel collapse and this was not a good start to their time in the Shire at all. They needed this deal with the hobbits desperately. The food they could provide would stop the colony at Ered Luin starving while Thorin and Balin were trying to arrange a more permanent solution.

It would do no good to panic, however. If Thorin knew Balin was worried about this, if Balin showed anything but the most even-tempered facade, then calming him would be near impossible.

Balin had always been the rock upon which Thorin’s storm broke. This was no time to change that.

‘Alright, lads?’ a cheerful voice interrupted his thoughts. Bofur had just turned the corner of the lane and stood staring at them all in bemusement. Behind him were the rest of their party, all but Thorin. ‘Don’t tell us you’ve already been thrown out!’

Fíli groaned as Dwalin began to bristle, and Balin resisted the urge to join him.

Trust Bofur to begin with the worst possible thing he could have said.

***

By the time Thorin arrived, the Company had been decorating the lane outside Bag End for nearly an hour and a half. Luckily it was a balmy night and Bombur, as always, had come prepared for a sudden food emergency. They had snacked on cheese, bread and apples and were now entertaining themselves by regaling Fíli, Kíli and Ori with tales of Ered Luin before Azanulbizar. The boys were always eager to hear about the Grandfather and Uncle they had never met, and Ori was fascinated by tales of the past.

They were so caught up in their chatting that Thorin was upon them before they even realised he was there. He jumped over the fence across from them, not having come from the road at all, and Balin paused for a moment to wonder just how lost their King had been for the last few hours. It was a perfectly valid consideration. Thorin’s mood worsened proportionately to the amount of time he spent going in circles.

‘Thorin,’ Balin greeted pleasantly. ‘Did you get what you needed?’

‘We will have enough to deal with the hobbits,’ Thorin confirmed, his face grim despite the positive words. Clearly it had not been an easy thing to organise the release of the money they had stored in the vaults in Bree. Balin wished he could be surprised, but the Men had been difficult at every turn since word of the mine collapse had filtered out of Ered Luin.

There was a brief pause as Thorin surveyed them with cool eyes.

‘I had expected food and a bed when I arrived,’ he said after the pause. ‘Apparently that was overly optimistic. What is going on?’

***

To say that Thorin Oakenshield, King of Ered Luin, was fuming would have been an understatement. How dare this hobbit leave his people, good people, sitting outside on the ground when they had come so far to do business? Was there no good faith in this place? Were they so well-insulated from the outside world that they had become insulated against the idea of honour as well?

Thorin was beyond angry. He had reached angry as soon as Dwalin hit the ground in Balin’s tale. By the time he reached the front door of one Bilbo Baggins, he had made it all the way to furious.

He pounded the door with his fist, much as Dwalin had some hours before, and waited only a few seconds before pounding again. The movement did not truly release his frustration, but action had always felt better to Thorin than inaction. The last few weeks of plotting and planning how to save his people had been almost unbearable. An invasion of orcs would have been easier to deal with. At least then there would have been an enemy, something to fight.

Something other than a pompous old dwarf, broken by the realisation of what he had done, not even protesting as he was led to the gallows by Thorin’s dearest friend.

The friend who had stood by him all his life, through everything they had suffered.

The friend who had been turned away, had been attacked, by this hobbit who ought to have been offering them shelter by his Thain’s command.

Thorin pounded on the door again, and suddenly it was being hauled open, his fist moving through the air where it had been moments ago and nearly pounding on Bilbo Baggins’ head instead.

Thorin assumed it was Bilbo Baggins. The hobbit in question was pointing a sword at him, so it seemed fairly likely.

‘Another one?’ the hobbit questioned angrily. ‘Who are you people? Why will you not leave me alone?’

‘Who are we?’ Thorin exploded. ‘Who are you to turn us away when your aid was offered to us? I am Thorin Oakenshield, King of Ered Luin. We were invited here. Your Thain directed us to you for assistance.’

‘He most certainly did not,’ the hobbit responded, eyes snapping with anger. Thorin was not one for finding good in his enemies, but he had to admit that the hobbit had courage. Greater people than he had backed down in the face of Thorin’s wrath. ‘I have received no such instruction. All I have received this evening is the sight of one of your people – or at least I assume he is one of yours, for how many packs of dwarves can there be wandering around the Shire? – trying to force his way into my home!’

‘Of course you have not received instruction tonight,’ Thorin snarled. ‘This meeting was set up over two weeks ago, when Gandalf spoke to your Thain and organised our arrival here.’

‘Gandalf,’ Bilbo Baggins hissed angrily. His eyes narrowed, but at the same time they also flickered with something like worry and the tip of his sword faltered in the air. The movement reminded Thorin of its presence and he huffed out a breath, reaching to bat it away and twist it out of Master Baggins’ hand.

Baggins’ gaze, which had drifted into the distance for a moment, snapped back up to Thorin’s face as the sword left his hand. The worry had departed and the anger had retaken its place.

‘Give me my sword,’ he commanded Thorin in a low voice. The demand set Thorin’s hackles even further up.

‘Has no one ever told you it is rude to give orders to a King?’ Thorin asked, dangerously quiet in a way that his own people would have recognised. It would have made them wary. It made Baggins’ shoulders straighten and his head come up.

‘There are no kings in the Shire,’ he informed Thorin firmly. ‘We do not bow here.’ Their eyes met and held for a long moment, neither willing to back down. Finally, Thorin realised that the longer he stood here, the longer it would be until he could lie down and rest. If he was to have no bed this night, no proper meal, then so be it. It would hardly be the first time. He would speak with the Thain in the morning, see what excuses he could offer for such ill-mannered behaviour. See if the dwarves still wished to deal with these hobbits.

Internally, Thorin laughed bitterly. Fine words from a hemmed-in King. He would have to deal with the hobbits, no matter what insult was offered.

There was no one else.

Silently, Thorin flipped the small sword, little more than a dagger really, until it faced Master Baggins hilt first. Baggins reached out and pulled it from his hand. His face showed a moment of surprise, then went blank again.

Thorin snorted in disgust and began to leave, meaning to return to his people and guide them to the empty field across the road. They would bed down there for the night. Thorin was exhausted.

‘I have not been home for three weeks,’ a quiet voice said behind him. Thorin fell still, then slowly turned back to Bag End.

The front door was shut; its Master was out of view.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: A Dull Roar

The nerve of some people! Shoving their way into his house, thumping on his door at all hours of the night, accusing him of being ill-mannered, stealing his sword…

Oh, alright, maybe he shouldn’t have pointed his sword at the person knocking at his door.

The King of Ered Luin, if King he actually was, hadn’t truly threatened Bilbo in any way.

Nor had the other one, though Bilbo was not going to apologise for pointing his sword at that one. There was nothing remotely acceptable about barging your way into someone’s home without an invitation.

Even if you thought you had an invitation.

That was ridiculous, of course. The Thain would not have invited anyone to Bag End without asking Bilbo first.

Perhaps that would not have been as easy with Bilbo away from home, but if nothing else he would have sent Bilbo a…

Letter.

Oh.

He would have sent a letter.

In fact, most likely he had sent a letter. Fortinbras was a true hobbit. He did love sending letters.

Only Bilbo did not receive that many letters worth reading.

Or any.

Ever.

He received a lot of obligatory party invitations, sent by hobbits too polite to exclude any of their neighbours, including Mad Baggins at Bag End. Just not many letters.

So when he had returned from his patrol, he had not bothered to check his post.

Oh bother.

Bilbo leaned back in his chair and felt his shoulders slump. The dwarves had been rude, and presumptuous, and extremely ill-tempered, but if they had honestly thought themselves invited and had then been shown the door so abruptly, it was hardly surprising that their King had been irascible.

Bilbo would have been as well.

Bilbo really did need to speak to Fortinbras. Why had the hobbit not arranged for other accommodation for his guests when he realised that Bilbo was not at home? Surely he must have recognised that something was wrong when he received no reply.

It was not as if Bilbo regularly ignored letters from the Thain because he was irritated at the other hobbit’s obtuseness.

There had only been those two.

Possibly three.

He truly couldn’t remember if he had answered that third one or not. He’d meant to, but then the Rangers had come to see him and time had slipped away a little.

Oh bother.

Hauling himself out of his chair for the third time that evening, Bilbo went to his door and very quietly opened it. He crept down the path with the silence only a hobbit could manage, pausing for a second to glance over at the lights in the field across from Bag End. The dwarves really should not have planted themselves in that field, it was in use.

It was possible that Bilbo had not left them with a great deal of choice, turning them away at this time of night.

Pushing the thought away, Bilbo pulled his post out of the box and hurried back into Bag End. Once inside, he flicked through almost frantically.

Invitation. Invitation. Stray feather (one of the postmen must have left the postbox open again, damn them). Invitation.

Ah. Letter.

From Fortinbras.

Bilbo ripped it open and scanned through quickly.

Hope this letter finds you well etc etc. Missed seeing you at such-and-such’s birthday last month (pile of nonsense, of course). Would very much appreciate your help with some visitors to the Shire arriving in the next fortnight.

Oh bother!

***

‘Can I help you?’ Ori asked, eyeing Master Bilbo Baggins nervously. He’d heard the story; this hobbit had taken down Dwalin without any effort at all. Ori didn’t want to think about what Master Baggins might do if he upset him.

He didn’t know what Thorin would do if he somehow made things worse with Master Baggins. Or if he tried to make things better. Trying to make them better might actually be worse.

There went his hopes for an easy watch.

‘Your King, Thorin,’ Master Baggins said quietly. ‘I need to speak to him.’

‘Um, he, I,’ Ori stuttered, cursing himself even as he did so. He was on a journey with three members of the royal family, his Master and… well, lots of people who needed to be convinced to treat him like an adult. Stuttering like a nervous child was not going to help his cause.

It didn’t. Kíli rose from his seated position nearby and approached, clearly intending to deal with the hobbit himself.

‘I’m afraid King Thorin is occupied at the moment,’ he said with great formality, somehow managing to make it sound as if Thorin was dealing with important state business in a royal council chamber, rather than eating bread and cheese about ten feet away by their campfire. ‘How can we help you?’

Ori had never heard his Prince sound so royal in his life. It was disconcerting. Also irritating. Ori would have got around to saying that in another few seconds. Kíli could at least have given him the chance. He glared balefully at his fellow dwarf, but it didn’t seem to make much of an impression. Ori supposed he shouldn’t have expected it to. Kíli didn’t exactly find Ori intimidating.

Master Baggins surveyed Kíli for a moment, looking over in Thorin’s direction and opening his mouth as if he was about to call out. Then he stopped and looked at Kíli again. He seemed to come to some decision, though Ori had no idea what about.

‘If I could speak with your King, I think we could clear up a misunderstanding,’ the hobbit said, both gentle and firm at the same time. ‘One that has caused you to set up camp on top of our vegetable plots,’ he added, this time with a pointed, slightly scolding tone that caused Kíli to look shamefaced before he remembered that he was trying to be regal.

Bifur, who had approached to find out what was going on, uttered a stream of Khuzdul. Master Baggins looked both startled and concerned and took a step back. Ori, who knew that all Bifur had said was, ‘Bombur told us that this wasn’t the best place to camp,’ just smiled at the older dwarf.

He liked Bifur. He was more like his cousins than most people realised, and also very patient when trying to show Ori new things. Even when Ori accidentally hit him on the head for the third time.

It took a particularly gentle sort of person to assure you that their head had had worse when you kept whacking them with the end of a spear.

‘A moment, please,’ Kíli said to Master Baggins, still keeping up the façade that Thorin wasn’t within ‘just raise your voice a bit’ range and listening to every word they said. He moved over to their King, kneeling and murmuring something in Thorin’s ear. There was a long pause, then Thorin nodded abruptly and rose to his feet.

‘Master Baggins,’ he said gruffly in greeting as he walked over.

‘Your Majesty,’ the hobbit answered, after an obvious battle with himself. Master Baggins really didn’t want to defer to them, that much was entirely clear, but he was doing it anyway. It made Ori curious and he began observing the hobbit even more thoroughly.

Neither Master Baggins nor Thorin spoke immediately after this exchange, both just looking at each other. Kíli cleared his throat uncomfortably, and around them the rest of the Company gradually rearranged themselves to get a good view.

‘A letter about your visit seems to have arrived while I was away from home,’ Master Baggins said stiffly. ‘I had not yet checked for post when your companion arrived, so I was unaware of the arrangements that had been made.’ The hobbit stopped and again seemed to be warring with himself for a long moment. Ori got the impression that there was something he did not wish to do, but felt that he should all the same. He soon realised he was right.

‘You are all welcome to come inside,’ Master Baggins uttered uncomfortably after a few seconds. ‘I have room, as the Thain was aware, though not much food in the pantry after three weeks away.’

‘That will not be necessary,’ Thorin replied with equal stiffness. It was clear to Ori that he was about to refuse the invitation entirely, and Ori could not say he blamed his King. The hobbit couldn’t have made a more reluctant proposition. It was hard to accept an offer of help when it was so very clear that you would be putting your host out by doing so.

‘We have eaten our fill for the evening,’ Balin added, before Thorin could say anything else. Ori immediately turned his head to look at his mentor in surprise. Balin’s comment could have made sense in the context of their discussion, but it was also very clearly not what Thorin had been intending to say. Ori could see his King twitch slightly as he realised what Balin was doing. He also noticed that Balin did not immediately follow his first statement with anything else.

Fascinated, Ori realised he was watching a King’s Steward at work. Balin had used his comment to direct Thorin’s attention to him, to signal that he didn’t approve of the tack that Thorin was taking. Now, however, he was waiting for his King’s decision. Waiting to see if Thorin would take his hint, or if he would push forward regardless.

‘We will be happy to take you up on the beds,’ Thorin stated simply, nodding to Master Baggins more graciously than Ori had expected. ‘My nephew tells me our choice of camping spot left something to be desired anyway.’

There was some unhappy muttering from the Company, and Ori could pick out Dwalin’s voice easily. The King’s chief bodyguard had made his irritation with their hobbit host plain, and no doubt he was displeased about accepting any help from him at all. Ori was surprised to hear Fíli as well, though less surprised that Glóin was dissenting. In any case, all objection stopped when Thorin tilted his head sideways at the noise.

They were all aware of how sharp Thorin’s temper was at the moment. None of the Company wished to test him too much.

‘We will break down the camp and then join you shortly,’ Thorin told Master Baggins peremptorily. The hobbit tensed once more, but did not retract his offer. Instead, he nodded shortly and then left to return to his home.

***

‘Explain,’ Thorin demanded of Balin abruptly once the hobbit was out of earshot. He had been unhappy to hear his second chip in during his discussion with Master Baggins, but Balin rarely did anything without reason.

Which did not in any way mean that Thorin always agreed with those reasons, but for now he would listen.

He tried not to think about the fact that Balin’s interference had matched his own natural inclination. Thorin had been thinking about what Master Baggins had said before he closed his front door ever since he’d walked away and, once he had begun to calm, Thorin had recognised the sound of regret in Master Baggins’ voice.

He had also recognised the apology implicit in Master Baggins’ appearance in their camp, though it had not been spoken.

The hobbit was, in his own way, admitting he had done something wrong.

As long as he did not have to say so aloud, Thorin could admit that Dwalin had not covered himself in glory either. Thorin suspected Dwalin knew it too, even if he was also refusing to acknowledge the fact.

Thorin’s first instinct had still been to throw the invitation back in the hobbit’s face, and that was the instinct he had followed. He had not wanted to come here to ask for help in the first place. He would much rather have requested aid from his own people than deal with hobbits, but the only one among Durin’s folk who was likely to lend assistance was Dain and he was too far away to provide help as quickly as it was needed. Thorin’s journey to the Iron Hills would take months, and his people needed to eat this winter. Coming to the Shire first had been his only option. They needed the hobbits.

Perhaps that was why Balin had intervened. Thorin would give him the chance to explain.

‘Thorin, we cannot allow hurt pride to get in the way of our aims here,’ Balin said bluntly, looking pointedly at his brother at the end of this sentence. ‘No matter whose hurt pride it is,’ he appended. Dwalin did not respond, which was likely for the best. Thorin did not wish to be stuck in the middle of an argument between those two today. There was too much chance that something, potentially he himself, would get broken.

‘It might be easier to ignore hurt pride if the hobbit was a little more courteous with his invitations,’ Fíli commented. Thorin heard the anger in his elder nephew’s voice and was surprised. He had always imagined Kíli as their hothead, but Fíli appeared to have taken the incident more to heart. Thorin looked over to see that Fíli’s eyes were resting firmly on him. ‘He pretends to show Uncle respect but he does not mean it,’ Fíli continued, meeting Thorin’s gaze though he was ostensibly talking to Balin, ‘and he very carefully did not admit that he had done anything wrong.’

‘Perhaps in his mind he hadn’t, lad,’ Bofur threw in knowingly. ‘He said himself that he’d been away for weeks. It’s hardly a crime not to check your post as soon as you get home, or to be offended at someone barging into your house if you don’t think they’re invited.’

‘The point is,’ Balin interjected before a disagreement could break out, ‘that there have been misunderstandings, rather than insults given. We must focus on that, not on how we wish this had gone. Would it have been pleasant to be received enthusiastically and with honour? Yes, of course it would. But we weren’t. We were greeted by a grumpy, stubborn individual who mistook our intentions and is now trying his best to make up for that fact. Take it from someone who is around grumpy, stubborn individuals every day of his life… sometimes you just have to take what you can get.’

Thorin and Dwalin were not stupid people. They knew exactly who that statement was aimed at and they moved as one to reach Balin.

Balin was also not a stupid person. He immediately jumped over the field’s fence and began making his way back to Master Baggins’ home.

‘Feel free to join me when you have broken camp,’ he called to them cheerfully. Thorin considered going after him to get his revenge, before realising that it would not in any way match the dignified appearance he needed in this place.

Damnit. Sometimes he really wished he had not become King. Life had been so much easier before that moment. And a great deal more fun.

***

Bag End had not seen such liveliness since before Bilbo’s mother had passed. There were dwarves everywhere, calling to one another, laughing, tripping over things and generally making a racket.

It was almost… pleasant, though Bilbo was convinced that was simply proof he was going mad.

He had already adjusted his opinion of the dwarves a little before all thirteen of them had thundered their way into his home. It had been clear when he approached the camp that the young lookout (Ori, he had learned) was nervous and shy, two emotions that Bilbo was intimately familiar with from his childhood. It had also been clear that the dwarf who had leapt to Ori’s defence (Prince Kíli, apparently) was determined to take care of his fellows whether they wished for that care or not. Again, a feeling Bilbo was entirely acquainted with.

The realisations had softened him towards them. Perhaps not all of their party were as hopelessly arrogant and ill-tempered as he had assumed after meeting the first two.

He could also confess to a growing respect for Master Balin, who had somehow entered Bag End a stranger and within minutes had begun acting like an old, rather fatherly friend. His genuine appreciation for Bilbo’s offer of hospitality had soothed Bilbo’s ruffled feathers whether Bilbo had wanted it to or not.

It was nice to receive honest thanks for his efforts, when he received such so rarely from his own people.

Whether this softening towards the dwarves would survive an extended stay in his home Bilbo did not know, but likely it wouldn’t matter. He was going to speak to Fortinbras about housing them elsewhere come morning anyway.

The other hobbit really could not expect to just foist visitors off on Bilbo because he had decided that was the best place for them. As Bilbo had told King Thorin, the Thain was not a King. He had no true authority over Bilbo, cousin or no.

The fact that the dwarves assumed the Thain had power to negotiate with them, as well as the power to command Bilbo’s actions, revealed far more about their own way of doing things than it did about the Shire.

‘Master Baggins, do you have any tea?’ a polite, formal voice asked, jerking Bilbo from his thoughts. ‘I confess, I’m dying for a decent cup after being on the road.’ Bilbo looked up to see a dwarf he was not yet familiar with standing before him.

‘Oh, yes, of course,’ Bilbo replied, his rusty hosting skills coming back to him. Then something caught his eye and he gasped in horror. ‘That’s my mother’s glory box!’ he squeaked without meaning to, his dismay clear in his voice. The other Prince, Fíli, was currently using it to wipe his boots in a display of utter vulgarity. Perhaps Bilbo would not be changing his mind about these people after all.

Bilbo had been so caught up in his thoughts that he had not noticed the polite, tea-drinking dwarf move. Still staring at Prince Fíli in alarm, he only realised that the grey-haired dwarf was no longer beside him when an arm shot out, caught Prince Fíli by his bicep and hauled him away from the glory box. Rather than saying anything to the Prince, the grey-haired dwarf looked around Bilbo’s hobbit hole with narrowed eyes, caught the attention of Master Balin and gestured sharply. Bilbo could not hear what he said, but Master Balin immediately moved across the room to the tattooed dwarf Bilbo had first met, and their brief conversation was followed by a roar that could have halted a group of hungry hobbits in their tracks even if a party feast was behind the speaker.

‘STOP!’ the tattooed dwarf shouted, and every one of the dwarves in Bag End did so, save for their King. Thorin Oakenshield did not even look up from the parchment he was perusing, apparently completely used to such extraordinary behaviour.

‘Bofur, pipe down,’ the tattooed dwarf commanded the loudest of the shouters. ‘Nori, just because we’re not in Ered Luin doesn’t mean I can’t arrest you.’ A dwarf with a most peculiar hair arrangement sneered at his fellow but also seemed to return something to Bilbo’s china cabinet. ‘Kíli, pick those weapons up and store them properly. I taught you better than that. Ori,’ the dwarf’s tone gentled, ‘have you asked Master Baggins’ permission to raid his library?’ The young dwarf blushed furiously and Bilbo could not help but smile to soothe him, gesturing for Ori to continue examining the tomes he had lying around. ‘All of you,’ the tattooed dwarf finished firmly, ‘wait quietly for Master Baggins to tell you where you’re sleeping and make sure you put your things away tidily once he has.’

‘Yes, Dwalin,’ various voices chorused, though Nori sneered again and made a show of turning his back on Master Dwalin.

‘Arrest him?’ Bilbo yelped into the much quieter room.

‘Nori will keep his sticky fingers to himself unless he wishes to lose them,’ King Thorin stated, as if that settled the matter. He still had not looked up from his parchment.

Oh Valar above. Whatever had Bilbo got himself into now?

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Living Conditions

‘Bilbo, dear,’ Adara Boffin said with a bright smile as Bilbo opened the front door of Bag End. ‘How wonderful to see you back. You didn’t tell us you were expecting visitors!’

As she spoke, Adara was slowly edging forward in a most determined manner, peering over Bilbo’s shoulder to try and get a glimpse of the dwarves cluttering up Bag End. Bilbo had yet to see the young Princes or their Uncle-King, but he still had far too many dwarves in his hobbit-hole to be comfortable with further unexpected visitors.

Especially hopelessly gossipy ones who were clearly angling for an invitation to enter so that they could be at the heart of Shire society for the next week.

There wasn’t a great deal he could do, however. Adara’s approach was as subtle as it was insidious, and Bilbo could hardly shove her back out the door. The woman was old enough to be his great-aunt!

She might actually be one of his great-aunts; Bilbo was not exactly on top of his family tree this morning. He was too busy trying to work out how he was going to feed the motley bunch staying in his home.

‘I’m sorry,’ Bilbo said, in a last ditch attempt to defend his privacy. ‘This is not the best time. Perhaps you could come for tea later in the week?’ He braced his body in the hopes that it would stop the advance of his nosy neighbour, but clearly Adara was stronger than she looked. Bilbo began to worry a little. He trained in swordplay every day; it could not be natural for an elderly hobbit to be stronger than him.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that, dear,’ Adara replied airily. ‘You know I don’t expect you to stand on ceremony and I’ll only be a few minutes.’

Suddenly Bilbo felt another presence at his back, broader and taller than any hobbit. A hand rested above his own on the edge of the door and slowly, gently began to push it shut. Adara, faced with this unexpected, stronger resistance, retreated a few paces back unintentionally. At the same time, a cheerful voice said, ‘Sorry, lass, Bilbo can’t stay to chat. My brother needs him in the kitchen. I’m sure you’ll have chance to catch up soon.’

And with that, a very startled Adara Boffin had the door of Bag End shut in her face for the first time in her life.

‘You know, lad,’ Bilbo’s rescuer informed him wryly, ‘it’s a lot easier to block them out if you actually put some muscle behind it. You weren’t even trying.’

Bilbo, as startled as Adara had been, turned to stare at the dwarf behind him in complete astonishment.

‘What?’ Bofur asked him with a twinkle in his eye. He was clearly finding his thoughts, whatever they were, most entertaining.

Bilbo wasn’t sure whether to hug him or hit him.

‘You just called a matron of the Boffin family ‘lass’ and then pushed her out of my hobbit-hole!’ Bilbo exclaimed, not sure whether this was in the manner of congratulation or despair. Yavanna, if he hadn’t been the centre of gossip before he surely would be now!

‘I didn’t push anyone,’ Bofur replied innocently. ‘Never laid a finger on her. I just helped her with the door, that’s all. Nothing wrong with me calling her lass, either. It’s a compliment. Means I think she’s a lot younger than me, and what woman doesn’t want a man to assume she’s younger than 98?’

Bilbo stared at his guest in continued surprise for some moments, and then he began to laugh helplessly, shaking his head all the while. Bofur smiled even more brightly, almost as if he had received exactly the response he was hoping for.

‘Kitchen,’ Bilbo said when he had recovered his breath. It occurred to him that he hadn’t laughed that hard in years – that he couldn’t actually remember the last time he had truly laughed – but the thought was quickly gone in the face of the mammoth task before him. ‘I need to find something for the lot of you to eat.’

***

Bilbo was learning all sorts of things about his guests this morning. The first, of course, had been that the be-hatted dwarf was completely without shame. The second was that his brother, Bombur, was a wizard of Gandalf’s stature in the kitchen. The dwarf had helped him turn his winter stores into a breakfast fit for thirteen dwarves and a hobbit without turning a hair, and also without using up everything that Bilbo had. Though if they wanted elevenses then that would change rapidly.

Thankfully for Bilbo’s pantry, if not his nerves, events overtook them after breakfast. A message came from Fortinbras, wanting to check that his guests had arrived and passed a comfortable night, and suggesting that they join him for dinner that evening. It was a very welcome invitation for a number of reasons, at least one of which was that Bilbo was quite looking forward to having words with Fortinbras about his houseful of dwarves.

Even if they were growing on him.

Unfortunately for Fortinbras, the King of Ered Luin was also looking forward to speaking to him and he was not feeling quite as patient.

‘I assume you can show us to your Thain’s home, Master Baggins?’ he asked in a way that made the question more of a demand. ‘My people are here to do business; I can see no reason to wait any longer than necessary.’

King Thorin’s tone was grim as he said this last bit, and Bilbo wondered if he would even need to give Fortinbras a piece of his mind. If this dwarf got hold of him, Fortinbras might never dare to speak to another outsider again, let alone send them in Bilbo’s direction.

Bilbo had had his disagreements, sometimes outright arguments, with the Shire’s Thain, but he was still Bilbo’s cousin. He couldn’t, in good conscience, loose a furious dwarf in Fortinbras’s direction without trying to calm the situation at least a little.

‘I imagine Fortinbras thought that your people might be tired after the journey, Your Majesty,’ Bilbo told the dwarf, using his title though it still rankled a little to do so. ‘He probably wished to give you the day to settle in. Besides, Fortinbras lives some way from here and the journey will take time. If we were to go for lunch, we would have to hurry.’

‘So he invited us to treat with his people and then housed us well away from him. That’s encouraging,’ a dour voice muttered. Bilbo eyed the red-haired dwarf, Glóin, uncomfortably. He hadn’t had a good word to say in the few hours Bilbo had known the dwarves and Bilbo wasn’t quite sure what to do with him.

The dwarf’s older brother apparently knew exactly what to do with him. He removed his ear-trumpet, clouted Glóin over the head with it, then replaced it calmly.

‘Stop trying to find insult where there isn’t any,’ Óin said tartly. ‘We’ve trouble enough without you borrowing more.’ Óin looked over towards King Thorin while he said this, but didn’t speak to him directly. Bilbo had noticed how careful they all were of their King, and it did not improve his opinion of the dwarf at all. Ruling by fear was hardly an impressive feat.

‘If you insist on arriving at the Great Smials early then I can, of course, show you the way,’ Bilbo told King Thorin bluntly. ‘Fortinbras is a generally good-natured hobbit. I do not imagine he would immediately assume the worst of you for it. Not until he had further evidence of your motives, at least.’

Alright, so perhaps that wasn’t actually calming the situation, but it had made Bilbo feel better. He was all for a healthy amount of suspicion in most instances – it was certainly better than assuming that the world was nothing but sunshine and cool breezes – but really! It was not as if Fortinbras had stuck them in the pig pen. There was no finer hobbit-hole than Bag End, and Hobbiton was hardly the middle of nowhere. The dwarves were not exactly hard done by.

At least some of the dwarves appeared to be able to speak sense, even if the rest of the party seemed to speak louder most of the time.

King Thorin met Bilbo’s eyes, then swiftly looked away again, but Bilbo saw his anger. This dwarf was apparently unused to being challenged by anyone and did not react well when he was. Bilbo slashed another mark against him on the list he was keeping in his mind.

‘It is mid-morning now,’ the King declared in a tone of finality, aiming his words at his own people. ‘If Master Baggins is right, it will take us some time to reach our destination. I would not like us to be late. Be ready in an hour.’

The majority of the dwarves scrambled to obey, chairs scraping and voices rising as family members called questions to each other about this or that item which hadn’t been seen since last night. There were also a few who did not rush. Balin moved to speak with his King, but was beaten there by Prince Fíli, who had continued to frown prodigiously all morning.

Whatever he said to his Uncle did not involve glaring, more a wry twist of his mouth that made him look as young as Bilbo was sure he was. More shockingly, it produced a reaction in King Thorin that Bilbo had yet to see once.

He smiled, and his whole face changed.

Oh.

***

‘Fortinbras, what in the Shire were you thinking?’ Bilbo snapped at his cousin as soon as he managed to drag the hobbit into a side-room. Bilbo and his party had arrived about fifteen minutes beforehand, and had caused something of an uproar in the Great Smials. Admittedly, you had to be very familiar with the Smials to identify an uproar as different to the usual chaos caused by several generations all living in the same home, but Bilbo had spent a fair amount of time there over the years. He could tell the difference.

Lalia’s volume increased even more significantly when there was an uproar.

How Fortinbras lived with the woman was anybody’s guess.

Fortinbras just looked at him without responding, a tactic Bilbo recognised from watching his cousin deal with his outspoken wife. It did not calm him in the slightest, and he immediately fell into the same trap that Lalia always did.

He ranted.

‘I came back from my travels to find a party of dwarves on my doorstep, all apparently convinced that they had been invited to stay with me for some weeks, led by the most arrogant, imperious personage it has ever been my misfortune to encounter… and I had no idea they were even coming!’

‘I did send you a letter,’ Fortinbras informed Bilbo wearily, slumping back in his chair.

‘Well much good that did me when I wasn’t even at home!’ Bilbo snapped.

‘Bilbo, what was I supposed to do?’ Fortinbras asked, and this time his tone was exasperated. ‘Gandalf appeared several weeks ago - without a word of warning, as usual – and insisted that I would want to welcome these dwarves to the Shire and forge some sort of deal with them. Then he disappeared without so much as a by-your-leave, or any explanation of how one treats a dwarven King and his entourage. He did, however, specifically mention that it would be a good idea to enlist your help during their visit.’

Bilbo growled in his mind and filed that particular tidbit away for further consideration later.

Fortinbras had paused for a moment, and Bilbo almost thought he wasn’t going to continue. Then his cousin looked up and met his eyes with the most pathetic, pleading expression Bilbo had ever seen. Including the look Bilbo himself used to use on his mother when she told him that he wasn’t old enough to go chasing after elves yet.

‘You know what Lalia’s like, Bilbo,’ Fortinbras continued pitifully. ‘I didn’t get a moment’s peace from morning ’til night after that. Sometimes not even at night. The woman talks in her sleep! It was nothing but, “How dare that wizard tell us what to do in our own home? Doesn’t he realise you’re the Thain, not him? I don’t CARE if he’s a friend of your Grandfather’s.” Now, really, Bilbo, is that sensible? As if I could turn the Old Took’s oldest friend out and tell him we weren’t having anything to do with his plans.’

‘It’s considerably easier than you’d think, actually,’ Bilbo responded, but he did so quietly and with no expectation that his cousin would listen. Fortinbras was entirely caught up in his own troubles.

Lalia would have made a wonderful wife for another hobbit, one who was strong enough to stand up to her and put her in her place now and then. His cousin was not that hobbit. He had, however, been the presumptive-Thain and that had been Lalia’s main interest. Fortinbras had never known what hit him.

The fact that the Thain had found, in Gandalf, someone he was more fearful of upsetting than his wife was something of a revelation.

‘So you decided to send the dwarves to me rather than deal with Lalia?’ Bilbo asked impatiently, when Fortinbras trailed off.

‘It wasn’t just that,’ Fortinbras retorted, a little bit of the spirit he’d shown as a child reappearing. ‘I am the Thain, Bilbo, no matter what you think of me. I do my best for the Shire, just like you do. If Gandalf thinks these guests are important for us, then I want them to have a good visit and for their trip to be a success. You’re a lot more used to outsiders than anyone else in the Shire, and a lot more interested in them as well. I thought they might be more comfortable with you. Certainly more comfortable than they would be here, listening to that,’ Fortinbras waved his hand in the direction of the noisy rooms outside his study.

‘I wasn’t even at home,’ Bilbo repeated, but this time the words were not shouted with frustration. He still thought it was rich of Fortinbras to simply decide that his guests could stay with Bilbo, but the hobbit did have a point. The Shire received dwarven visitors from time to time, but they were treated with more caution than welcome. Hobbits just weren’t keen on foreigners. Too many years of only ever seeing the same faces and interacting with the same families.

‘You went out a month and a half ago,’ Fortinbras pointed out. ‘I had no idea you intended to travel again so soon.’

‘You would have, if you ever listened to a word I said instead of sticking your hands over your ears and humming a merry tune,’ Bilbo groused. Fortinbras just sighed.

‘Bilbo, I have thirteen dwarves here in need of dinner,’ he said. ‘Let’s not start this again.’

‘Now you know how I felt last night!’ Bilbo exclaimed.

‘Curse it, Bilbo, it’s all very well for you to come high and mighty with me, but we both know this is not the first time you’ve deliberately ignored me. It probably won’t be the last, either. If you will choose not to respond to people’s letters, you can’t be too surprised when a lack of response doesn’t raise alarm.’

Bilbo might have argued further, but in truth he could see Fortinbras’s point. It was sheer bad manners on his part to ignore the Thain when he was contacted, and he had done it anyway because sometimes he didn’t like the message he received. Fortinbras could have checked, should have checked, that Bilbo actually knew about his guests, but it was perhaps not entirely surprising that his cousin had chosen not to. He might well have imagined that Bilbo was… it was painful to use such a childish phrase, but, well…

Sulking.

Not that Bilbo did so often. Only occasionally.

The part of him that still felt guilty for how he had treated the dwarves upon their arrival also agreed with Fortinbras now. This was probably not the time to get into another argument about their differences. The last thing they needed was any further displays of hobbit rudeness. When Fortinbras rose to leave the room, Bilbo followed.

Neither of them noticed a peak of auburn hair disappearing around the corner of the corridor as they exited the room.

***

‘Well?’ Thorin asked Nori sharply, as the thief appeared at his elbow. Reluctant though he would be to admit it, he had almost been enjoying the sight of the Thain’s Lady turning all on ear as she vented her frustration at the inconvenience of their early arrival on her household. Thorin was not above a little revenge at times, and he and his party had been thoroughly inconvenienced last night.

Then he had seen one of the younger Took lasses looking as if she was set to either cry or, more likely, throw the dish she was carrying at the nearest wall.

After that he had set Balin to calming the situation, and Kíli to cheering the young one up.

‘Baggins really had no idea we were coming,’ Nori reported quickly. ‘His Thain had no idea he wasn’t at home. And part of the reason this Fortinbras sent us to Bag End was because most hobbits aren’t so good with strangers, which we all knew. The other part was to try and keep us away from the harridan,’ Nori gestured, unnecessarily, at Lalia Took.

‘Opinion?’ Thorin asked quietly as the Thain and their host entered the room.

‘Benefit of the doubt,’ Nori summarised succinctly. Thorin nodded.

If he had gold in his hand he would not trust Nori as far as he could throw him, but the dwarf knew people even better than Balin. If Nori thought they were being told the truth, Thorin would accept it.

A liar would recognise another liar, after all.

***

The sheer amount of food laid on the table before them struck Fíli as sickening. He truly had never seen so much food on a dinner table in his life. If the hobbits ate like this every day – and certainly none of their hosts seemed at all unused to the sight – then they must go through more food in a week than a family in Ered Luin ate in a month. The table was groaning under the weight, and there must have been at least eight different main dishes fighting for room.

Fíli could understand how his fellows were having the opposite reaction to his, thrilled beyond measure at both the choice and the evidence that the hobbits could so easily provide Ered Luin with the supplies it needed.

All Fíli could think of was how much of this would go to waste later, even with thirteen dwarves and several hobbits descending upon it.

Would Dendrit have risked his life, lost his life, if they had grown up like this? Would he have been stupid enough to believe in Wikan over Uncle, over Fíli, if he had not been so hungry all the time?

Fíli should have given him more of their food. He could have lived with a little less. He was used to going without.

Uncle looked over at him, seeming worried, and Fíli smiled as brightly as he could. The last thing he wanted was for Uncle to worry any further. He had been so tense since the collapse that Fíli half expected him to snap in half. Losing their people hurt. Knowing that those people were lost because they did not trust their King to provide for them hurt even more.

Receiving a cold reception from the people they thought might help them had not improved the situation at all. Uncle had been grim ever since and even Fíli's best efforts had only broken that tension for a few moments.

Fíli hated people who made Uncle withdraw like this, when he and Kíli spent so much time trying to draw him out and make him happy. Mum had told them so many times that it had not always been like this; that once Uncle laughed as often as any other dwarf.

Fíli found himself frowning in Master Baggins’ direction again and quickly shifted his gaze to the table, hoping that he hadn’t been caught. Getting into a fight with their host would not help Uncle at all, and Master Baggins did not seem the type to let hostility go unchallenged.

He certainly hadn’t let their arrival at his home go unchallenged.

Balin was right. Fíli needed to learn how to hide his emotions better. With strangers, anyway.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: Ideas

This might be the first time that Bilbo had ever known the Great Smials to be quiet during a meal.

Partly, of course, it was that most of the family was eating elsewhere this night. Only Fortinbras, Lalia and Adalgrim were present to represent the Tooks. It left them somewhat outnumbered, but at least they all fit into the best dining room. It really wasn’t meant to feed an army of distant relatives the way that some of the other rooms in the Smial were.

The other reason for the silence was sheer awkwardness. Hobbit practice was not to discuss business during a meal. Dwarven practice, Bilbo suspected, was to deal with business whenever it suited them or whenever it inconvenienced their hosts, depending on which concern was paramount at the time.

Either way, after Fortinbras had gently shut down any discussion of the dwarves’ purpose for being here, King Thorin had retreated into silence and his Company had followed him.

Bilbo, never exactly garrulous, had not felt up to rescuing the situation.

Luckily, Lalia Took was not easily perturbed. She also appeared to have resigned herself to the necessity of dealing with their guests at some point while Bilbo was scolding her husband.

‘Your people travel far more widely than our own, I am told, King Thorin,’ Lalia said into the silence as they ate their main course. ‘You must have seen some wonders on those travels.’

‘Some, Mistress Took,’ King Thorin replied. He raised his eyes from his plate for the first time in some minutes and clearly made an effort to act like a proper dinner guest. At least he had some manners. ‘Though few more impressive than the greenness of this land. We are mountain dwellers. Far more used to arid climes than the lushness you have here.’

‘Yes,’ Lalia agreed. ‘We are lucky indeed. Though luck does not account for all that you see. Farming is hard work, both in bad years and good.’ Having made her point, Lalia allowed herself a very small smile. Bilbo immediately became nervous. It was not that Lalia never smiled. She was not that much of a dragon, even if she had scared off every prospective wife her son had ever looked at.

It was just that usually she smiled because she was about to be amused at someone else’s expense.

‘There are also dangers that come along with having such fertile lands,’ Lalia continued. ‘If you do not keep it in check, plant-life has a tendency to try and swallow you whole. Bilbo could tell you all about that.’

‘Lalia,’ Bilbo groaned in horror. Though mostly only because of the presence of their guests. He knew exactly which story she was aiming at. Bilbo would be the first to admit that the story was entertaining for his fellow hobbits, and his mother had pulled it out at many a family party to amuse guests. It was just that he was usually related to the people who heard it.

‘What happened?’ Prince Kíli asked, ears pricking up as he sensed a story. A number of the others also looked livelier than they had since dinner began.

Bilbo resisted the urge to bang his head on the table.

‘Nothing half as diverting to others as it is to my family,’ he assured the dwarves, giving Lalia an unimpressed look. She smiled a little wider and, though it had a sly edge to it, the expression invited Bilbo to smile with her. His cousin-in-law wasn’t all bad, Bilbo supposed. She was just far, far too used to getting her own way.

‘Humour us, Master Baggins,’ Balin interjected. ‘As Mistress Took no doubt intended, we will be dying of curiosity all night if we do not find out.’

‘Speak for yourself,’ Dwalin told his brother. Balin rolled his eyes.

‘I know you,’ he told Dwalin, the comment loud enough to be heard by all, but still clearly meant for his brother alone. ‘You were dying with curiosity the moment Mistress Took finished her sentence. Do not try to pretend you’re above the rest of us, young one.’

Dwalin hmphed, but he didn’t seem to have anything further to say on the subject.

Seeing expectant eyes all turned towards him, Bilbo decided to accept defeat gracefully. Sitting back in his seat, he made sure he was comfortable before starting.

‘Many years ago…’ Bilbo began, then paused. ‘Well, many for us anyway. Some people probably think 40 years is merely the blink of an eye, old as they are,’ he grinned at Bofur and saw several pairs of eyes widen, including King Thorin’s. Bilbo wondered if his jest at their expense had caused offence, then decided if it had they were all far too sensitive and moved on.

‘A young faunt – a hobbit child – decided that he had had quite enough of being tied to his mother’s apron strings. He was a sturdy lad now, had turned 7 years old weeks before, and he was ready to go out into the world for an adventure. His mother did not agree, of course, but she was always distracted on washing day and his father could be relied upon to fall asleep for an hour or two after lunch. The chance for escape was easy enough to grasp.’

A few of the dwarves chuckled, perhaps thinking of mischievous children they had known. Lalia and Adalgrim did as well, but then both of them, older than Bilbo by around ten years, remembered this adventurous young hobbit well.

‘He charged out into the world with no real understanding of what he would find. He had only ever been allowed to play in gardens within the sight of someone’s parent, and when he went out with his mother she made sure she had a firm hold on him.’

‘With good reason,’ Lalia pointed out. Bilbo shrugged, conceding the point.

‘With good reason. Regardless, the temptation to slip out of the garden was great. He had some difficulty with the gate, and with avoiding the hobbits out about their business, but with some careful ducking and a little crawling, soon he was further from home than he had ever been alone.

‘Clearly the next step was some decent exploration, and the most likely-looking candidate was a field of long grass. It was being allowed to lie fallow for a few years, though our faunt did not know it, and it had got a little out of hand. He plunged in, certain that all sorts of wonders must await, and indeed they did. A woodlark on her nest, familiar enough with hobbits not to immediately be scared away. A rabbit disappearing back into its warren as it sensed him approaching. A cracked egg shell, which he didn’t understand the significance of at that age… it merely made him realise he was a little peckish.’

Fortinbras snorted, and Bilbo gave him a stern look. They had wanted him to tell this story, he would tell it however he chose.

‘Unfortunately for our adventurer, any field of this type has its dangers. As he ventured further in, he was startled by a squirrel which wasn’t at all happy to see him. He shrieked, the squirrel did a very good impression of a shriek in return, and our faunt bravely turned to run away. Alas, he had no idea which way ‘away’ - or rather ‘home’ - actually was. He had become completely turned around, and he could not see above the grass to find his way. He ran on rather blindly, somewhat in a panic from his unexpected encounter, stumbled, tripped, and promptly fell into a rut full of water from the rain two days before.

‘Completely overcome by these trials; scared, disappointed and, worse, wet through; our brave adventurer promptly curled up in a ball and began to scream at the top of his voice for his mother. He was found some minutes later by a hobbit who happened to be walking down the lane about fifteen feet from where he sat, still sobbing his little heart out. His hobbit rescuer soon called for our faunt’s mother, and she arrived shortly after to find her son still sobbing and insisting that both the animals and the field itself were trying to eat him, much to the later amusement of all who knew him. And never has he been allowed to forget it since!’

Bilbo finished with a flourish, and a small round of applause ensued. It was hardly the most exciting of stories, though it was embarrassing enough in front of these well-travelled dwarves, but Bilbo had tried to make it entertaining at least.

‘Oh, we all have those tales in our families, Master Baggins,’ Dori told him kindly. He looked at his younger brother as he said it, and Ori frowned mightily in his direction. Dori held his hands up to placate Ori.

‘Not that I have any intention of sharing any of them,’ he assured Ori patiently, and the young dwarf’s dander went down quickly.

‘I assume the lesson we are meant to take from that story is that travelling away from what you know is a dangerous business,’ Glóin commented dryly.

‘The lesson,’ Bilbo responded, his tone even drier, ‘is that the young are always certain of themselves, even when they should not be. Alternatively: if you are going beyond what you know, try taking a map!’

King Thorin snorted a laugh, eyeing Glóin with amusement.

‘You walked into that head-on,’ he told the red-headed dwarf. Glóin sat stone-faced for a moment, then broke into a grin that made his eyes twinkle.

‘Reminded you of Gimli, didn’t it?’ King Thorin said mysteriously.

‘Mmm,’ Glóin agreed.

Bilbo had no idea what they were talking about, but he didn’t let it concern him. At least two of the grumpiest dwarves had finally thawed a little.

***

Meal finally over, and all of their party enclosed in one of the parlours, the talk turned to business.

That was probably for the best. If Thorin had been put off much longer, he would have had to make a good attempt at strangling someone. The hobbits might not understand how precious time was in this situation, but Thorin knew it only too well.

‘I am afraid Gandalf explained precisely nothing of the reason for your visit, King Thorin, except to inform me that you would wish to discuss food supplies with us,’ Fortinbras opened the discussion. ‘Perhaps we had best start there.’

Oh, for… the sake of Mahal. No wonder they did not comprehend Thorin’s urgency. Gandalf might have at least mentioned the imminent starvation.

Though not in those words, obviously. There was such a thing as being too honest about one’s problems.

‘We come in the hope of arranging a deal which would see my people through the winter, Master Thain,’ Thorin informed him. ‘We have had ill luck in recent months and cannot afford the prices that the Men near to us would charge for food. Ered Luin is a mining colony, we have no good land for farming, so we cannot produce our own food. My steward, Balin, suggested – and Gandalf agreed wholeheartedly – that your people might be willing to help us at more reasonable prices.’

‘Could you not have come to a compromise with your neighbours?’ Fortinbras asked. Thorin felt himself bristle. ‘Surely there must have been something you could have traded them instead of the coin.’

‘The offer was made, and rejected,’ Thorin answered abruptly. He could not entirely hide how badly that had stung. The Men could forge nothing of the quality that Thorin and his people could provide, even years after they had lost their home, much of their equipment and some of their best people. The rejection had been a clear message to Thorin of how little the Men thought of the dwarves’ friendship. He would not forget it in better times.

There would be better times. Thorin would make sure of it.

Starting now.

‘Our relationship with the Men around Ered Luin has always been… difficult to balance,’ Balin added, putting as diplomatic a slant on it as possible. ‘They had their eyes on Ered Luin around the time that Thorin’s grandfather arrived, with most of Erebor’s exiles, to take up residence. With us in place, Ered Luin was a far more formidable target and the Men’s plans came to nothing. Though a number of lifetimes of Men have passed since that day, the resentment remains. Perhaps they do not even remember where it came from.’

Thorin had been watching his hosts keenly during this speech, using the time Balin had given him. Fortinbras was clearly not a hobbit comfortable with conflict. He had sunk back into his seat and a frown creased the skin behind his eyes, though he might not even have noticed himself.

Was he assuming that, despite their story, the dwarves must be at fault for the dispute? Would this make him reluctant to support their cause?

‘Like the Bolgers and the Bracegirdles,’ Master Baggins suddenly interjected, though his voice was quiet. ‘They will never forgive each other for the insults that were given. But have you ever found a single Bracegirdle or Bolger who can tell you what those insults were? Of course you cannot. The enmity is far more important than the cause.’

Fortinbras looked over at his cousin and rolled his eyes, though it appeared to be more in agreement than derision. Maybe the Thain had suffered the consequences of that rivalry the way Thorin had the disputes amongst his people. A King’s subjects did like to know that he shared in their problems.

Either way, the Thain’s frown lines had disappeared for the moment.

‘In the long-term,’ Thorin now chose to reassure the hobbits, ‘we will seek help from our own people. My cousin, Dàin, rules in the Iron Hills and he has long been a good friend to us. However, the Iron Hills are many months’ travel from here. I need to be sure my people are taken care of before I leave.’

‘You have an idea of what you would need?’ Fortinbras queried, expression now thoughtful.

Thorin turned immediately to Balin, who produced a long screed of parchment from somewhere upon his person. Thorin was half-convinced that there were magic pockets sewn into that coat of his.

On occasion, when Balin had fooled him into “just dealing with this small pile” and had then produced another stack from somewhere within the coat, Thorin had considered burning the thing.

‘I have an account of what we would usually use in a month here. Further details of how many months we would need and how payment would be organised we can, of course, discuss later.’

‘Of course,’ Fortinbras murmured. He scanned the parchment, then returned his gaze to Thorin.

‘It will take me time to speak to all of those I need to,’ he clarified. ‘As Gandalf likely explained, I merely represent the Shire when needed. I will have to make your case to those who could provide what you require and see what arrangement they are willing to come to. Not all of them will see the need to supply those outside our lands when they are already making a living as they are.’

That, Thorin thought, was a pretty way of saying that they might not wish to enter into a bargain with dwarves. Valar, was this place truly so small-minded? The Men had turned their gold down from malice, or perhaps excessive greed.

Did people truly deny themselves a further source of income through fear?

Thorin looked up and caught Mistress Took’s eyes upon him. She must have seen something of his thoughts, for her face hardened.

‘You said yourself that you prefer to ask help from your own, King Thorin,’ she pointed out. ‘Is it so strange that some amongst our folk might prefer to sell solely to their own? At least then they know who they are dealing with.’

That was not actually what Thorin had said, but it was a fair representation of his reasoning, so he did not object. The Thain’s wife was a shrewd woman.

‘I would have you be honest with me,’ he stated instead of arguing, focusing on Mistress Took. ‘Will your people work with us, Mistress Took?’

‘Yes,’ she answered plainly. ‘Some. We just need to tip the balance in your favour, particularly with those who are reluctant.’

Before Thorin could respond, Master Baggins interjected once again.

‘There, I had an idea,’ he informed them all.

***

Bilbo had been thinking hard during dinner, and since they had finished. He still did not like the King of the Dwarves. He found Thorin rude, abrasive and overly suspicious, at the least. However, he could admit that the dwarf had brief moments where he was… easier to deal with. Not amiable, exactly – Yavanna forbid the King should bend that much – but bearable.

More to the point, Bilbo did feel sorry for his Company and his people. Remembering his own pangs of hunger when he had returned from his travels, and then imagining truly going hungry, with no food in sight, distressed him greatly.

Imagining some of these dwarves - Balin, Kíli, Ori, Bofur, Bombur - starving in such a way made him deeply sad.

It was not right that good people should suffer just because those nearby would do nothing to help.

Bilbo had received help once, from those who could easily have denied his pleas and returned to their lives with little concern for his wellbeing. He had tried, in the years that followed, to help others in turn to balance out the debt.

They had not seemed to want his help, but he had tried.

Maybe now he could kill two birds with one stone. Help his own and get these dwarves what they needed at the same time.

If it finally got Fortinbras’ attention and knocked him out of his complacency, then Bilbo might actually consider himself blessed for once.

So, when the right moment came, he interrupted Lalia’s conversation with King Thorin.

‘There, I had an idea,’ he told those collected in the parlour.

‘You did?’ Adalgrim asked in surprise. He looked a bit embarrassed afterwards, and Bilbo was almost certain what he’d been thinking. How could Bilbo Baggins, pariah of the Shire, know how to persuade his fellows to abandon their prejudices?

Bilbo did not reply to the comment. It was not meant to hurt, he knew. Most of what his closest remaining family said to him was not meant to hurt. Bilbo had learned not to respond to the unintended slights. Such constant arguments only upset everyone and exhausted him.

He and Bungo had argued so often in those last years that he had been almost permanently exhausted. What was the point of doing that again if he did not have to?

‘The farms of Stock are some of the most fruitful, are they not?’ Bilbo asked Fortinbras instead. When his cousin nodded, Bilbo allowed himself a small smile.

‘Then you need to get them, particularly Farmer Maggot, on your side,’ he told King Thorin. Thorin raised an eyebrow, as an invitation to continue.

‘Tell me, King Thorin,’ Bilbo said easily, ‘can your Company fight?’

‘Almost all dwarves have some skill at fighting,’ King Thorin responded. ‘It is how our people keep ourselves safe. How would that help us here? You do not seem to have much cause for fighting in your land, Master Baggins.’

‘No, Bilbo,’ Fortinbras said pointedly. ‘We do not!’

‘Fortinbras, for goodness’ sake, just hear him out,’ Adalgrim insisted. When Bilbo looked at him in surprise, Adalgrim shrugged. ‘If anyone knows about fighting around here, it’s you,’ Adalgrim told Bilbo. ‘Yavanna knows the rest of us don’t have a clue.’

That, Bilbo was happy to agree, was more than true. At least someone had the sense to see it, and to listen.

‘I went out three weeks ago for a reason,’ Bilbo told the dwarves. ‘On my travels I had seen signs of evil where no evil should be. Nothing obvious, nothing that anyone else believed, but enough to make me uneasy. I know the Shire well, Master Dwarves, and the creatures that inhabit it just as well. Wolf-prints are not unheard of, unfortunately. Prints three times the size of a normal wolf paw are not normal. Not at all.’

‘You have found these prints?’ Master Dwalin asked him sharply. His face was already drawn with concern.

This was what Bilbo had expected when he had brought these concerns to his own people. This was the sense of danger they seemed to lack so completely.

It was refreshing to see it at last.

‘I found more than that,’ Bilbo replied harshly, anger rising at the thought of what he had seen. ‘I found the wargs, and the orcs they serve too. Thirty or so of them.’

Lalia shrieked and clutched at her chest.

Fortinbras paled and sank back in his chair.

Adalgrim continued to pleasantly surprise Bilbo. He sat forward and, without questioning the veracity of Bilbo’s statements once, asked, ‘Where?’

‘They are camped on the other side of the Brandywine, at the edge of the Old Forest by the Barrow Downs. Still close enough to do plenty of damage should they choose. So far the only thing that has saved us is their decision to ignore us.’

‘And you think that if my Company helps to rid you of these creatures, it will earn us goodwill with the farmers who live in the area?’ King Thorin clarified.

‘I cannot see how it would do anything else,’ Bilbo told him with a grim smile. ‘We may be an insular people, King Thorin, but most of us are not stupid. They will not want to die.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: Secreted

‘You realise the main problem with this plan, don’t you, Bilbo?’ Adalgrim asked quietly. Bilbo looked at him in query, and Adalgrim sighed. ‘Before they can be grateful to be saved, they must believe that they are in danger in the first place. No one but you has seen these signs.’

‘No one this far into the Shire, no,’ Bilbo answered. ‘I highly doubt no one has seen any signs at all. I was still in the Shire when I picked up this trail, Adalgrim. The wargs, at least, have crossed over. That means they’ve been in Buckland as well. They’re camped just by the Barrow Downs, and not that far from the Road either. Someone will have seen something.’

‘You say the orcs are on the other side of a river?’ Dwalin enquired. When Bilbo nodded, he huffed. ‘Wargs would swim across easily enough if they had the incentive. The orcs wouldn’t manage it, they’d be weighed down by the armour and wouldn’t want to risk drowning. That might be why you’ve seen no orc signs yet.’

‘If they’ve been in Buckland then we need to talk to Gorbadoc, clearly,’ Lalia stated firmly. ‘If the Master of Buckland hasn’t heard of anything amiss then these foul things must be stealthy indeed.’

‘Could we not just take one of your people - the Bounders, your guards – with us when we go?’ Prince Fíli queried softly. Bilbo looked over and saw that the young Prince was frowning, but in concern rather than the disapproval Bilbo had seen thus far. ‘It seems dangerous to risk the orcs suddenly taking action while we’re busy trying to work out if anyone but us knows they’re there. They are there, Master Baggins has seen them. Isn’t that the most important part?’

‘This is the problem when you try and mix politics with nice, clean fighting, lad,’ Dwalin replied with a roll of his eyes. ‘Everything gets overcomplicated.’

‘You think anything that doesn’t involve a direct sword-blow to the heart is overcomplicated,’ Nori muttered irritably. He subsided as King Thorin gave him a warning look.

‘It seems an efficient solution,’ King Thorin said to those assembled. ‘If we have a witness to spread the word then we have our evidence, and if the Shire is anything like Ered Luin then the tale will travel faster than we can.’

‘That’s true enough,’ Fortinbras said wryly. ‘Nothing travels faster in the Shire than gossip.’

‘Bilbo could invite that nosy neighbour of his along,’ Bofur suggested cheerfully. ‘She’d see the news around quickly enough.’

When Lalia raised an eyebrow in Bilbo’s direction, he sighed.

‘I had a visit from Adara,’ he told her, and she shook her head in response.

‘Talk to Gorbadoc and see if he’ll send one of his people with you,’ Fortinbras told Bilbo. When Bilbo narrowed his eyes, Fortinbras held his hands up to ward off the tirade he probably imagined was coming. ‘The farmers in the Marish look to Buckland first and me second,’ Fortinbras hastily added. ‘If the word comes from the Master of Buckland, they’ll not ignore it.’

Bilbo heard, though he was not sure anyone else did, Prince Kíli whispering to his brother, ‘Should Gandalf not have sent us to this Master of Buckland instead, then?’ Realising that the dwarf was probably right, Bilbo heaved an internal sigh at the old wizard’s ongoing meddling. Gandalf had placed these dwarves exactly where he’d wanted them, in the midst of hobbits he was well acquainted with and close to Bilbo.

The next time they met, Bilbo was going to have several things to say to Gandalf. Interfering old busybody.

***

With the Thain’s promises to further their cause with the farmers ringing in his ears, Thorin, his Company and Master Baggins returned to Bag End the next morning. It was frustrating, retracing their steps when they’d be back this way to go to Brandy Hall soon enough, but Balin had tactfully pointed out that none of them had set out expecting to be away from Master Baggins’ home more than a day. The hobbits could not possibly have clothes to fit most of the dwarves, and Thorin’s people did not have the majority of their weapons with them.

It was the last argument that swayed Thorin from immediately heading out after this orc pack. While he could manage without clean clothes easily enough (that was what brooks and rivers were for, to wash out your clothes when you needed to), he refused to go into battle without the proper equipment. That was simply asking for disaster.

‘This would go a lot faster with ponies,’ Glóin pointed out after about half an hour of walking. Thorin just looked at him.

Had it been any of the others, Thorin might have thought that they were trying to be helpful. It was true, after all; traveling was a lot faster when you were mounted.

As it was Glóin, and Glóin knew exactly how much money they did not currently have, Thorin knew he was just trying to irritate his King. If that was not worthy of a glare, then he did not know what was.

‘Oh, don’t go pulling that face at me,’ Glóin muttered, first checking to be sure that the hobbit was not in earshot. Seeing that Master Baggins was up at the front of their group, talking seriously with Kíli and Ori, Glóin raised his voice a little. ‘I can get us some from around here, if we need them.’

‘I highly doubt that pony-rustling is going to endear us to the Shire-folk, Glóin,’ Thorin disagreed.

‘Aye, well, that’s where this will come in handy,’ Glóin replied, and suddenly Thorin could see that he was bouncing a purse in his hand. A purse that Thorin hadn’t been aware he had.

‘Where is that from?’ Thorin demanded suspiciously. It was not that he didn’t trust Glóin to be honest, but… the dwarf was a merchant.

‘Wikan’s house,’ Glóin answered shortly. When Thorin started to speak, Glóin interrupted, ‘Aye, I know you had it searched, Thorin, but the man was a snake. He was just the sort who’d hide the money as if it was worth more than his life, and then do something utterly stupid like write his orders down.’

Thorin could not disagree with that assessment at all.

‘I took Nori with me,’ Glóin added. ‘Just before we set out for this trip. Maral knew. I reckoned what the two of us could not find was not worth finding. I was right. Two stashes in nooks and crannies no honest person would know to look for.’ Thorin gave him a pointed look and Glóin huffed.

‘Do you want the gold or not?’ he asked Thorin sharply.

‘Do I wish for the gold that was stolen from my people by a greedy dwarf who brought ruin upon us?’ Thorin asked in return. ‘No, Glóin, I thought perhaps I would leave it unused to make a point!’

Glóin snorted.

‘That’s exactly the sort of thing you’d do, you over-principled arse, so you can keep your sarcasm to yourself.’ Glóin threw the bag to him and Thorin immediately concealed it in his coat. ‘There’s 15 gold in there. Should buy us a ride to Buckland and back, according to that Adalgrim fellow, and with a fair bit left over. They’ll not let us take the ponies beyond Buckland, but it’ll still be quicker. The rest can go towards the deal.’

Thorin contemplated his cousin for a few moments before speaking again.

‘Thank you, Glóin,’ he said at last.

Glóin just waved a hand in response, then sped up to get within hearing range of his brother. Which, with Óin, meant standing next to him and bellowing as loudly as possible.

***

Thorin and Glóin need not have been concerned that Bilbo would hear any of their conversation, for not only was he some way ahead of them, he was also focused on his own concerns this morning.

The chief of them, surprisingly, was a young dwarven Prince.

‘Tell me, Prince Kíli, what have I done to so upset your brother?’ Bilbo began once he was sure they were out of earshot of the others. He, Kíli and Ori had been chatting about far less serious topics up to now and had outpaced the rest of Thorin’s Company while they were distracted. If this was not a good time to bring up the problem, there would never be one.

‘Upset?’ Kíli asked, attempting to sound innocent. Seeing Bilbo’s disbelieving look, Kíli slumped a bit and sighed.

‘It’s not… it’s not really about you,’ he tried to assure Bilbo.

‘It certainly feels as if it is about me,’ Bilbo commented. ‘I can understand Master Dwalin’s antipathy; I embarrassed and annoyed him at our first meeting. Master Glóin, as far as I can tell, is just generally suspicious and displeased by everything. If I thought Prince Fíli was the same I would ignore it, but he appears to be pleasant and happy with everyone but me. Clearly I must have done something.’

‘It isn’t like that,’ Kíli protested. ‘He’s just better at pretending with the rest of us than he is with someone he doesn’t know.’ When Bilbo remained unconvinced, mostly because that made very little sense to him, Kíli visibly struggled with himself before continuing.

‘We haven’t told you everything,’ he said to Bilbo quietly, wincing when Bilbo’s eyebrows shot upwards instantly. ‘Not in a bad way,’ Kíli insisted. ‘This isn’t important for why we’re here, honest. It’s just important for understanding Fíli.’

‘Very well,’ Bilbo said, though he knew his tone was wary. ‘Enlighten me.’

Ori, who had been silent until now, must have had some idea of what Kíli was going to say, for he suddenly broke in.

‘Kíli, are you sure King Thorin would like you discussing this?’

Now Bilbo really was curious. He’d assumed he was about to hear of some youthful insult taken, not something that their King would wish to have kept from him.

‘What does it matter if Master Baggins knows or not?’ Kíli asked his friend shortly. ‘I’d only be telling him the truth of what happened.’

Ori looked like he might wish to protest further but he backed down in the face of Kíli’s opposition. Bilbo was not surprised. The youngest dwarf was obviously still finding his feet, and did not have Kíli’s confidence in himself. Likely Bilbo should have been a gracious host and let the matter drop, but he did not. He was certain that he wanted to hear this, whatever it was.

‘When Uncle said we’d had “ill luck”,’ Kíli informed Bilbo softly, ‘he did not mean in the general sense. The reason we can’t afford food from the Men is because we lost half of our income when a dwarf who wouldn’t obey Uncle’s laws decided to go his own way. He thought he knew best, that the mines would be fine even if he worked in one of the tunnels we knew was precarious. They weren’t. Several of the tunnels collapsed and now we can’t use them at all. We lost all the money they used to bring in.’

‘I am sorry, Prince Kíli,’ Bilbo said gently when Kíli paused, clearly upset at the thought of what had happened. The younger Prince breathed in deeply and let it out on a heavy sigh, keeping his eyes averted.

‘We lost one of our friends in the collapse,’ he continued, and Bilbo winced in sympathy. ‘He was only forty. We don’t know why he was there. I… I think I do, actually, but it still makes no sense. If things were that desperate, he could have asked us to help. We would have. That’s one of the reasons Fíli is so upset. He feels like Dendrit’s decision to help Uncle’s enemy means he didn’t trust us, particularly Fíli, to help him when he needed it. Or to help our people. Uncle was trying; he was looking for better markets for our goods, other trades and crafts we could work on so we wouldn’t be as dependent on the mines. Some people can’t wait, though. They only want a solution if they can have it now.’

‘Yes,’ Bilbo murmured in agreement. ‘I know exactly what you mean.’

‘Anyway, Fíli was already angry over that. Then we got here and had our misunderstanding, and Uncle got all wound up about it and that made Fíli even angrier. Fíli is Uncle’s heir, he thinks it’s his responsibility to help him, but because he can’t do anything about the situation we’re in he just gets frustrated instead. And then last night, when we saw how much food your people have - there was just so much and we’ve never had anywhere near that much - and that’s why Dendrit and those others were stupid enough to go into the mines….’

‘Your brother decided that hobbits were somehow to blame for his troubles?’ Bilbo queried dryly. Kíli flushed, and Ori was apparently prompted to speak up once again.

‘That isn’t fair,’ he told Bilbo, quiet but very firm. ‘Fíli isn’t being deliberately difficult. He hasn’t said anything against any of you. Not since we came to stay with you,’ he appended to his statement, compelled, Bilbo assumed, by innate honesty.

‘He has done an awful lot of frowning in my direction,’ Bilbo pointed out.

‘You’ve done an awful lot of frowning at all of us,’ Kíli returned spiritedly. ‘And pointing swords at some of us as well!’

‘Yes, well… there you have me,’ Bilbo admitted. ‘I suppose in contrast to that your brother has been positively civil.’

When Kíli gazed at him hopefully, Bilbo felt his irritation melt a little more.

‘Very well, Prince Kíli,’ he murmured. ‘I will leave your brother be until he recovers from his current mood. I do sympathise, you know. I know it is not easy to lose those you are fond of, or to feel betrayed by them.’

‘I’ll talk to him,’ Kíli promised in return. ‘He knows none of this is your fault, he just needs to be reminded.’

‘Thank you,’ Bilbo responded. ‘And you may tell him from me that what you saw last night was hobbit hospitality for very important guests. It was an unusually large and grand spread, not common at all no matter how much we have. Anything remaining will be eaten by the rest of the household for lunch today. There’s a lot of them in the Great Smials. Nothing will go to waste.’

‘Oh,’ Kíli exclaimed. ‘You don’t eat like that normally, then?’

‘No, Prince Kíli,’ Bilbo assured him. ‘We do not.’

‘Oh,’ Kíli said again. Then he nodded abruptly. ‘I’ll tell Fíli.’

With that, he was gone, heading back down the group to reach his brother.

Bilbo shook his head. Goodness, no wonder the dwarves had looked shocked last night. Bilbo had not seen such a feast for many a year. If they thought hobbits ate like that all the time, when they were apparently not well off even before their disaster, it was a wonder none of them had gone mad with jealousy and murdered someone right there at the table.

As for this dwarf who had defied his King and seemingly destroyed their livelihood… that was interesting, and something Bilbo would have to bear in mind.

Perhaps it was not so surprising that King Thorin had been in a generally foul mood after all.

***

The Company remained in Bag End that night, setting out once they were fresh the next morning. Bilbo decided not to enquire how Master Glóin had managed to find fourteen ponies for them to ride at such short notice. That way he could, if necessary, truthfully claim ignorance at some later point.

To say that they drew attention as they travelled through the Shire would be an understatement, but the majority of hobbits were well-mannered people who did little more than shout questions such as, ‘You off on your travels again, Master Bilbo?’

Bilbo had been given strict instructions by Fortinbras not to alarm the rest of the Shire by spreading news of the orcish problem near Buckland. Had he felt it necessary, Bilbo would, of course, have roundly ignored these instructions, but as it was he agreed with Fortinbras for once.

This far into the Shire, there was little that relating such news would do but cause a panic. Or earn Bilbo further derision, depending on whether anyone believed him or not.

Much better to let his fellow hobbits mutter to one another about ‘Master Bilbo and his strange dwarven companions’ and make as much haste as possible to Brandy Hall.

The endless questions, whether worried or disbelieving, would only slow them down anyway.

Here Bilbo was in agreement with the dwarves.

The sooner this problem was resolved, the better.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven: Moment

‘Bilbo, if you realised that there were orcs on the borders of Buckland, why did you not come straight to me?’ Gorbadoc Brandybuck asked his fellow hobbit as soon as Master Baggins had finished explaining the purpose of their visit.

Thorin could see that the hobbit was visibly stymied by this question, and he resisted the urge to sigh. This was the problem with kingdoms that had no clear leadership. In Ered Luin, if there was a problem then a petition was made either to Thorin, or to Balin as Thorin’s Steward. There was none of this confusion over who was owed what fealty by whom.

Of course, there were always those who completely ignored the rules for reasons of their own… but Thorin was refusing to think about them right now. He had pressing concerns in the here and now, and that problem had been dealt with.

‘Gorbadoc, is that really the most important issue at the moment?’ Master Baggins asked, without a hint of deference. Thorin had to hand it to the hobbit – he was equally rude to every figure of authority that he came across. It made Thorin view his own introduction to Master Baggins in a slightly different light.

He was still annoyed, but it was no longer the annoyance of one who felt singled out for ill treatment.

‘The key point here,’ Master Baggins continued, ‘as Prince Fíli so aptly pointed out to the rest of us recently, is that there are orcs on the borders of Buckland and something needs to be done about them. Going home meant that I could bring the dwarves here with me to help with the problem. That makes it a good choice, surely?’

Thorin heard a snort behind him, and then a voice pointing out, ‘That sounds very impressive, until you realise that he did not know we were coming.’

Thankfully the voice was Bifur’s, and so the Master of Buckland understood not a word of what was said. Even so, Bombur spoke for Thorin as well when he muttered to his cousin, ‘This is not the time, Bifur.’

‘In Buckland, we appreciate it if our guests speak a language all can comprehend, King Thorin,’ Gorbadoc Brandybuck informed him acidly. Thorin raised his eyebrows and stared the fellow down. He would not be lectured by this hobbit as if he were a wet-behind-the-ears pup.

‘Bifur can speak no language other than Khuzdul, Master Brandybuck,’ he retorted. ‘The axe in his head, earned in defence of our people, has made very sure of that. I will not ban him from speaking simply because he cannot be understood by other races.’ Even if I am of the opinion that a general ban on speaking might be a good thing at the moment, Thorin added in his own mind.

The Master of Buckland was not easily discomfited. Rather than pursuing the topic any further, he changed tack entirely.

‘You wish for assistance in defeating this orc pack, then?’

‘No,’ Master Baggins countered, with what little patience he seemed to possess. ‘I wish for one of your Bounders to accompany us. They will bear witness to the existence of the orcs and their defeat, to ensure that there are no wild tales flying around afterwards, but need take no part in the fighting. You know what the Shire is like, Gorbadoc, and so do I. If I do not have another to support my version of events, then we will either have Lobelia Sackville-Baggins petitioning to have me removed as Master of Bag End for seeing orcs where there are none, or half of the Shire pestering us day and night convinced that one of the orcs escaped and is camping in their back garden!’

There was no immediate response from the Master of Buckland, but the young hobbit who had been introduced as his son, Rorimac, laughed quietly.

‘That’s true enough,’ he told Bilbo with a friendly smile. ‘That woman would do anything to get her hands on Bag End, and goodness knows the Bounders have enough trouble with nervous hobbits as it is. Gammer Goold had the whole clan in an uproar a fortnight ago, claiming that there was a bear prowling in the back garden. It turned out one of the dogs had jumped into a haystack and come back covered in the stuff.’ He paused for a moment, as if thinking, but Thorin was almost certain it was for effect only. ‘Perhaps I’d better come with you, Bilbo.’

‘That is a fine idea, Rory,’ Master Baggins uttered with visible relief. When the Master of Buckland seemed likely to object, his son offered him a sunny smile.

‘Father, if there are dangers near Buckland then people will feel much better if they are sure that they have been dealt with. Who better to reassure them than one of our family? Even Lobelia would have to think twice before questioning the word of a Brandybuck. Besides, I can hardly ask another of the Bounders to do this if I am reluctant to go myself.’

Thorin took this to mean that Rorimac was serving time as a Bounder as training for his future role, which made him think well of the young hobbit. A willingness to serve one’s people from an early age was a good sign in a ruler. It was one of the things that had endeared Fíli and Kíli to the dwarves of Ered Luin. They were always willing to help however they could, no matter how dirty the job.

Unless it involved paperwork, of course, but Thorin and Dís were working on that.

Gorbadoc Brandybuck surveyed his son critically for a long moment before giving a reluctant sigh.

‘Very well, Rory,’ he said with exasperation. ‘I imagine I will have as much success deterring you as I normally do – which is to say none at all. Go ahead with them, but mind you’re careful. Dealing with orcs is not a job for a Bounder!’

Master Baggins gave an extremely disdainful sniff at that. Thorin wasn’t sure if it was because he disagreed or because he agreed all too well. Thorin was beginning to realise that Master Baggins’ opinion of his fellow hobbits, especially those charged with defending their borders, was not generally high.

It was one of the reasons that Thorin was inclined to like this Rorimac. Bilbo had seemed happier to see and deal with him than he had any of the other hobbits they had been introduced to so far. That suggested he had a fair amount of sense, always a good trait in one who would be following you into battle.

Not that Thorin intended to let the hobbits too near to the fighting. An orc pack was clearly a far greater danger than they were used to dealing with, and, as a warrior and a King, Thorin was responsible for defending those weaker and less able to defend themselves. There was no reason they should have to get very involved when he had capable fighters with him.

***

‘I beg your pardon?’ Bilbo exploded. It had been two days since they’d left Brandy Hall, and they had travelled steadily during that time. Bilbo might never have found the orcish camp originally if he hadn’t been able to follow one of the orcs to it, but once you knew where it was it was fairly easy to reach. They had followed the river to the Great East Road, then followed the Road until they were near. The final stretch had been across the countryside, skirting the edge of the Old Forest, but there had been little to trouble them. This close to the edge, most of the trees were firmly asleep, much to Bilbo’s relief.

Give him an orc over a moving, vindictive tree any day of the week.

Although, apparently, King Thorin had no intention of giving him either.

‘What do you mean, stay here?’ Bilbo continued, giving the King of Ered Luin his fiercest glare. ‘How, exactly, were you intending to find the orcs without the only person who knows where they are?’

‘Lad, we’ve been hunting orcs in the wild since before you were born,’ Dwalin explained. Bilbo transferred the glare to him, not liking the patronising tone at all. ‘You’ve given us a good idea of where to look. I doubt we’ll have any trouble.’

Bilbo heard a comment in that strange dwarven language he couldn’t make out, followed immediately by at least three cries of, ‘BIFUR!’ King Thorin gave Bifur a look which could have frozen the Brandywine.

Bifur just shrugged, pointed at Bilbo, pointed in the direction of the Barrow Downs and uttered something else Bilbo didn’t understand at all. He guessed from the dwarf’s gestures and expression that Bifur was supporting his cause and suppressed the urge to shout, ‘Exactly!’

It was never wise to agree with something you didn’t fully understand, just in case. Elladan and Elrohir had taught him that the hard way.

‘Bifur has a point,’ Óin contributed. ‘We could find the orcs on our own, but why take the extra effort when we have a guide?’

‘The hobbits asked us to deal with the problem, Óin,’ King Thorin responded. His voice was as grave as it had been when he informed Bilbo and Rory that they need come no further. Those had been his exact words. As if they had somehow become irrelevant in the space of a few seconds, when they had been valued travelling companions only a moment before. ‘That is part of the bargain, our skill in turn for theirs. Taking them further into danger surely breaks the spirit of that agreement.’

‘It most certainly does not!’ Bilbo objected. ‘I had no intention of sitting this fight out, any more than I would have done if we had summoned the Rangers. I have no need of protection, King Thorin. Either yours or anyone else’s. These will not be the first orcs I have faced.’

The look on King Thorin’s face made it plain that he was not convinced by these statements, and the very idea that someone might think Bilbo were lying boiled his blood.

Thankfully for the budding relationship between the dwarves and the hobbits, Rory intervened.

‘King Thorin, my role in this is to confirm that the orcs have been dealt with fully. I can hardly do that from five miles away.’

‘We will happily escort you to the battlefield once the fighting is done,’ King Thorin offered. Bilbo almost sneered. How gracious of him!

‘No,’ Rory countered, ‘I’m afraid that would, to use your phrase, break the spirit of the agreement. The idea is that I confirm that all of the orcs were present and were killed. I cannot do that without seeing the fight myself. Nor can Bilbo, unless he took a mental inventory of every orc present.’

‘Are you implying that we might lie about whether we killed all of the orcs to cheat your people?’ Nori interjected. His tone suggested that he was more impressed with Rory’s gall than offended by the implied insult.

King Thorin’s expression strongly suggested that he and Nori disagreed on this issue.

‘Not at all,’ Rory countered calmly. ‘Two days’ travel is quite enough to convince me that you are dwarves of your word. I am simply saying that I wish to be able to give my word to my fellow hobbits with complete honesty, and that is easiest done if Bilbo and I are close enough to see the battle.’

All of the dwarves turned to look at their King for his response. Rory turned instead to Bilbo and winked.

He was trying to get Bilbo close enough to the battlefield to take part in the fight. Close enough to prove to this dwarven King what a hobbit could do if necessary.

Bilbo intended to do exactly that.

While Rory and Bilbo had had their silent conversation, another must have been taking place between King Thorin and his Company. When Bilbo turned his attention back to them, King Thorin was nodding his head reluctantly.

‘Dwalin, Kíli, stay with them,’ he commanded. Both dwarves nodded immediately and moved closer to the hobbits. Bilbo did not kick them in the shins, but only because he was a hobbit of great restraint.

Also because they were wearing thick leather boots and it was possible he’d have broken a toe, but the part about restraint sounded better.

‘Rest for another ten minutes,’ King Thorin finished. ‘Then we move out.’

***

Really, Dwalin thought irritably, some people just would not be helped.

They called in experts to solve a problem, offered goods in exchange for services (or the possibility of goods, anyway, but the dwarves were desperate enough to take what they could get), and then still wanted to be in the thick of the situation.

It just made no sense.

Why hire a blacksmith and then forge the sword yourself?

Especially if you were going to be so prickly about the whole thing. Master Baggins clearly fancied himself a warrior, that move he had pulled when Dwalin arrived at Bag End had shown that much, and his pride was ruffled by their suggestion that he let the real warriors take over now.

It was not that Dwalin didn’t think the lad had some good training. He was sure he did. No one without it would have got the drop on the Guard Captain of Ered Luin, no matter how distracted he was by thoughts of food.

Dwalin just couldn’t see how the hobbit could have gained much fighting experience in a place as peaceful as the Shire. Experience he would desperately need to make up for his small size.

Dwalin could admit that he was not entirely confident about taking Ori and Dori into battle… or Bofur and Bombur, for that matter. None of them were fully trained warriors and Dwalin didn’t like endangering those he was unsure of if there was another option. But at least Ori, or Bofur, or any of the dwarves, had the strength to make up some of their lack of skill. Crack something’s skull hard enough and it wouldn’t have chance to exploit your weaknesses.

Ah well, they were about to find out if this had all been a huge mistake. The orcs were just over the next rise, and Master Baggins had pulled his sword from its sheath.

As they crested the rise, Dwalin was pleased to see that Rory had the sense to hold his club by his side whilst also staying carefully positioned behind Kíli, where he would be safer. Kíli would be holding position at the rear with Ori, shooting from afar rather than being in the thick of the action. It would reduce the risk of Rory being trampled, if nothing else.

Below, the orcs were mostly sprawled on the ground around their thrown-together camp, which was situated in the lee between two small hills. A couple were making a cursory attempt at keeping watch, but this mostly involved sitting nearer to the two most obvious entrances and keeping their weapons lying next to them.

It was exactly the sort of laziness that Dwalin would expect from orcs, as well as the usual lack of imagination. They always prepared for the sort of frontal attacks that they favoured. They rarely looked upwards.

Thorin and Dwalin had spent most of their lifetime assisting orcs in regretting that carelessness whenever possible.

Now, Thorin was gesturing the various members of the Company to the places he had chosen for them. Nori, by far the quietest of them all, crept as far down the hill as he felt comfortable with. Fíli, on the other side, waited for him to get into position and then trod carefully down until he drew even with Nori. Dwalin and Glóin were dispatched to the far ends of the rise, where they could descend quickly to bottleneck the path.

Thorin himself then descended the centre of the hill, remaining several feet further up than Nori and Fíli, and gestured for the rest to fan out above him. Dwalin could see his friend watching the orcs carefully, waiting for the ideal moment to strike, and could feel the grin widening on his face.

Nori was right (though Dwalin would never say such a thing aloud for fear he would swallow his own tongue in horror).

There was nothing Dwalin loved quite so much as delivering a direct, uncomplicated sword-blow to the heart.

Today would be a good day.

***

Thorin stood utterly still on the hillside, surveying the orcs below with calculating eyes. He had been in similar positions so many times, watching and waiting, knowing that the right moment would come.

It had been one of the areas in which he and Thror had disagreed most loudly during the War with the Orcs. Thror had always favoured bold attacks, charging headfirst at their enemy, throwing his dwarves against superior forces and letting fate decide the outcome.

Thorin had favoured tactics that might actually allow them to win.

He enjoyed a headlong charge as much as the next dwarf, but not if it left half of those under his command dead come battle’s-end. He had argued time and again that they would do better to ambush parties of orcs, to whittle their forces down slowly over time. Those were the tactics Thorin had used whenever possible, and a number of other captains had begun to do the same.

Thror had been incensed over Thorin’s continued disobedience. They had quarrelled and quarrelled, at first in private and then, as Thror’s temper frayed, in the middle of war councils. Finally, Thorin’s parents had begged him to bend, to avoid a rift with his grandfather which could not be healed.

So Thorin had bent. He had held his tongue. He had followed meekly when they were commanded to Azanulbizar.

And he had lost Frerin, and his father, and the madman wearing his grandfather’s face too.

That was the last time he had willingly bent to anyone.

Finally, Thorin felt what he had been waiting for. He doubted he could explain it to anyone else, that moment when he knew the timing was perfect. Sometimes it was obvious; something occurred at exactly the right time and all of their enemies left themselves vulnerable as they focused on the distraction.

Sometimes it was not obvious at all. There was just something, a feeling in the air, which told Thorin that guards were down and minds were wandering. That no attention was being paid to possible attacks.

Either way, it was the perfect moment.

He raised his hand, knowing that his Company would be waiting for his signal, then jerked it forward.

Mere breaths later, the whistle of an arrow flew past, followed almost immediately by a stone hurtling at speeds a hand could never match. The youngest member of his Company had reminded Thorin of a magpie in the last few days, constantly picking up stones as they walked and checking them for size and weight. By that morning, Ori’s collection had been truly impressive. Now he put it to good use. The stone struck an orc on the forehead just as Kíli’s arrow found the heart of one of the largest orcs in the pack. Both dropped to the ground, dead in an instant.

Cries of surprise, curses and hurled abuse echoed from below as the orcs reacted to the sudden deaths of their comrades. A few of the more intelligent ones began looking for the source of the attack and, spotting the dwarves, yelled and ran to attack. As Kíli and Ori fired again, Fíli and Nori joined the battle. Nori whipped three throwing knives out almost quicker than Thorin could see, felling the orcs heading for their position. Fíli had another target, taking careful aim before he buried his throwing axe in the head of the biggest warg before the orcs’ leader could mount it.

The orc roared in anger, focusing in on Fíli in an instant and charging in his direction, determined to make Thorin’s nephew pay for killing his mount. At that point, Thorin decided that the element of surprise had well and truly expired. He ran down the hill at an angle that would allow him to cut the orcs’ leader off before he could reach Fíli, raising his sword as he prepared to do battle. Behind him, he could feel the rest of the Company descending as well, choosing their targets and moving in. Out of the corner of his eye, Thorin could already see Glóin immersed in a fight with two mounted orcs, striking out and then retreating so that the two wargs ended up head-butting and clawing one another instead of him. Instinct won out over training, and the orcs soon had bigger problems than Glóin on their hands as they struggled to tear their mounts away from one another.

The leader of the orcs was still thirty feet from Fíli when Thorin reached him, immediately slashing at the orc’s neck to gain his attention. The orc was clearly not a master of concentration for, having blocked the blow, he abandoned his previous intention easily enough and turned to engage Thorin instead.

‘Dwarf,’ the creature snarled at Thorin, ‘good of you to make life easy. We thought we’d have to find your little…,’ he uttered a word in the Black Speech which Thorin chose not to try to decipher, ‘but you’ve delivered yourself like a good slave.’

Thorin twisted to the side to dodge the sword-blow that accompanied this outlandish statement, turning in a full circle around the orc to stab at its unprotected back. He opened a deep cut in the orc’s side and it roared again as the wound began to bleed profusely.

‘What are you talking about?’ Thorin growled at the orc, abandoning his usual policy of refusing to talk to things that were attacking him. He generally didn’t care why something was trying to kill him, but this was such a bizarre turn of events that he knew he needed to probe further.

The orc simply snarled again as it changed position and aimed a mighty swing at Thorin’s head. Thorin blocked and stepped back, forcing the orc to follow him if it wanted to stay within range. Conveniently, the movement took them further away from Fíli, though Thorin suspected the orc was now so focused on him that it had forgotten its original aim.

‘Tell me what you mean,’ Thorin insisted, staring intently at the orc and searching for something that might get him a reaction. ‘Or are you only trained to say one phrase? You utter meaningless rubbish to fool people into believing you can actually think?’

They exchanged several more blows whilst the orc insulted Thorin in both Westron and Black Speech, but Thorin wasn’t interested in anything except the answer to his question. Instead he manoeuvred himself between the orc and Fíli’s position, pressing the creature until it was on the retreat. As he’d hoped, the orc finally responded to his query in an attempt to distract Thorin from the fight.

‘We were sent to catch you,’ the orc said, with a grating, wheezing laugh that made Thorin wince. ‘Get the dwarves and bring them to me. The King and the Princes. I have a surprise for them.’ The last was clearly the orc quoting its orders, and Thorin ran them through his mind swiftly. Someone had meant to catch him, and Fíli and Kíli as well. Who? Why?

Either way, it gave him an advantage here. The orc had said catch, not kill. Whoever this was wanted them alive.

‘Who sent you?’ Thorin demanded. ‘Who gives your orders?’ The orc had gone silent again, and Thorin cursed silently.

Then, suddenly, he heard a shout of horror from behind him. Cursing aloud this time, he swiped his sword at the orc’s belly in the split second it looked away from him, opening a wound on its stomach in the hope it would buy him some time. As the orc stumbled back, Thorin whirled towards the hill, only to see Kíli lunging at an orc who had flanked him and was stabbing viciously at a startled Rorimac. The hobbit managed to smack the orc’s sword away with the club he wielded, then took several hasty steps back before it could attack again. Kíli, bow abandoned, threw himself bodily at Rorimac’s attacker and took it to the ground, smashing its head on a nearby rock and then, in the seconds that gave him, drawing a dagger from his boot and slitting its throat.

Thorin could already tell, from the graceless way that Kíli had handled the situation, that his youngest nephew had been caught entirely off guard, and he knew they would have to talk later. Kíli had been trained better than that and whatever had gone wrong had nearly cost poor Rorimac his life.

That situation dealt with, Thorin turned back to his own opponent… only to find the orc gurgling on the ground, hands failing to hold his innards in place. Rushing forward, Thorin grabbed it by its scraggly hair and pulled its head up.

‘Who sent you?’ he asked urgently. ‘Tell me and I’ll give you a quick death.’

‘Too… late…,’ the orc gasped, a maliciously satisfied smile on its lips. It took one last rattling breath and collapsed back to the ground, clearly dead.

Slamming his hand to the ground in frustration, Thorin looked up to find that many of the orcs had already been dealt with. Only a handful remained now, harried by Thorin’s Company and fighting less to kill than to escape from the battlefield.

‘KEEP ONE ALIVE!’ Thorin bellowed across the field. Even as he did so, Dwalin took out two orcs in one great swing, his face growing thunderous as he realised he had unintentionally disobeyed an order from his King. Bombur stopped aiming at his opponent’s head and began going for the legs instead, trying to prevent it from escaping, but the creature’s warg broke free of its battle with Bifur and came to its master’s aid. The orc lunged onto its back and began to ride away, and Ori and Kíli were forced to take the pair down to prevent them fleeing.

Thorin turned frantically and realised that there was a last hope. Almost on the other side of the battlefield from Thorin, Master Baggins was facing two orcs. His face was set with a cold fury as he ducked and dodged, dealing shallow wounds at every turn. The orcs, large and clumsy, were unable to catch their faster quarry, though they came closer than Thorin would have liked more than once. How had the hobbit been allowed to join the battle? He ought to have been back with Kíli and Ori.

Thorin moved to help Master Baggins, worried both about his chance of getting the information he needed and his chance of getting the hobbit home safe and sound. Yet, even as he did so, he came to a startling realisation.

Master Baggins was not struggling.

He was simply biding his time.

Each of the orcs was now bleeding from multiple slices to their legs and torsos, some deeper than Thorin had first realised. Black liquid slicked the floor around their feet and they slipped, turned even clumsier by the lack of grip and the loss of blood. Master Baggins, barefoot in the hobbit fashion which Thorin found so odd, did not even seem to notice that the floor was bloody. The rage on his face would have been truly frightening if he had not been so small, and the clinical way that he manipulated his prey stunned Thorin. Ducking another failed blow, Master Baggins took his sword in both hands, crouched low and then propelled himself upwards with his sword-tip raised, shoving it into the heart of the closest attacker.

The orc dropped like a stone as Master Baggins wrenched his sword free, turning his attention to his final attacker.

‘Master Baggins, take him alive,’ Thorin shouted desperately, but to Thorin’s disbelief the hobbit ignored him completely. Rather than simply hamstringing his foe, which would have been easy enough considering its other injuries, the hobbit took advantage of the orc’s faltering steps to trip it and bring it to the ground.

‘Don’t,’ Thorin roared, one final time, sure that Master Baggins must be able to hear him by now, but he was ignored once again. Lips twisting in disgust, the hobbit swiftly cut the orc’s throat.

Seconds later, almost gasping with both exertion and incredulous anger, Thorin reached the hobbit and grabbed his shoulders, startling him out of an apparent stupor. He only vaguely recognised that Master Baggins had not moved since he dealt with his final opponent; that he had, instead, been staring at the body on the ground with unseeing eyes. He was too outraged to give that much thought.

‘What were you doing?’ Thorin demanded, so livid he had to force the words out. ‘Why did you not take it alive as I ordered?’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight: Bewilderment

‘I….’ Master Baggins stuttered, eyes coming up to meet Thorin’s slowly. ‘What?’

The expression on his face looked most like bewilderment, as if he wasn’t quite sure what Thorin had said or how he had come to be there.

Thorin opened his mouth to speak again, then stopped. He considered the hobbit for a moment, noting not just his blank appearance, but also the way he was trembling slightly.

He looked across at the nearest of his Company, Fíli, and raised a querying eyebrow.

‘I don’t think he heard you, Uncle,’ Fíli said simply. Thorin looked down at Master Baggins once more, and sighed.

From twenty feet away it had seemed impossible that the hobbit might not have heard him. Thorin’s bellowing could have woken the dead. It had, on several occasions, easily woken those who were so drunk that they might as well have been dead only moments before.

He didn’t think he’d ever been too quiet before.

Except that it did not appear to have been volume that was the problem. Not if the hobbit’s demeanour was a guide. He took a deep breath, and forced himself to relax his grip.

‘Master Baggins, I was asking…’ he began to say, but before he could finish Kíli, Ori and Rorimac came hurtling up.

‘Bilbo, are you alright?’ Rorimac called over the top of Thorin’s words. ‘Look at you, you’re shaking!’ To Thorin’s irritation, Rorimac pulled Master Baggins out of Thorin’s grip with so much as a by-your-leave and tugged him closer so he could inspect him.

Thorin ignored the fact that there was no good reason why Rorimac would need to ask his leave to do so.

That wasn’t the pertinent point.

‘I’m fine,’ Master Baggins protested, though to Thorin’s ears it sounded instinctive and unconvincing. ‘I’m fine, Rory,’ he insisted, pulling away from his friend. ‘It’s excess energy, that’s all.’

‘It’s not excess energy that leaves you unable to hear a bellowed order when it’s issued right next to you, lad,’ Dwalin advised knowingly. He was eyeing Bilbo with what Thorin knew was empathy and understanding, but something about what Dwalin said seemed to put Master Baggins’ back up immediately.

‘Order?’ he exclaimed. ‘Whose order would that be? You said something about that as well,’ he accused, rounding on Thorin in an instant. Whatever had been wrong with him, it seemed to have dissipated now.

‘It was a battle, Master Baggins,’ Thorin pointed out in response, ‘and I was leading it. Dwalin would consider anything I said in such a situation to be an order. As would I,’ he added, with a firm glance at the indignant hobbit.

‘Well I would not,’ Master Baggins objected strenuously. ‘I am not under your command, Master Oakenshield!’ Thorin noticed that his title had disappeared all of a sudden. Mahal, this hobbit really did have a problem with anything resembling a leader, didn’t he? Thorin’s sympathy was beginning to dwindle, much as he knew he should hold onto it. Master Baggins had been truly unwell at the end of the battle, Thorin was sure of it.

‘Is that how you were trained, lad?’ Balin asked, before Thorin could speak. That was probably for the best. ‘Did those who taught you to fight expect you to enter battle and do whatever you pleased, no matter what everyone else was doing?’

Master Baggins did a very good impression of Thorin, some minutes ago. He opened his mouth, then closed it again without saying anything. His expression was mutinous, but he did not comment.

‘The orcs may have had valuable information,’ Thorin said into the silence. He was proud of himself for keeping most of the harshness out of his tone. ‘However you wish to view my words – request, order, prayer to the Valar – I had wished to take one of them alive so I could extract that information.’

‘We were here to kill them, not have a nice chat with them,’ Master Baggins informed him. ‘What information could they possibly have had that would have been of interest?’

‘They might have told me,’ Thorin answered, voice tight with restrained temper, ‘who had sent them to hunt myself and my nephews. That is the sort of information I find very useful!’ Master Baggins was clearly determined to strike out at him and Thorin would not be drawn into an argument, but he could not prevent himself venting some of his frustration.

Master Baggins’ mouth pinched together and he stared at Thorin for long seconds before responding.

‘I did not hear you,’ he stated when he finally did so.

‘So I had gathered,’ Thorin bit out.

‘They were hunting you?’ Master Baggins asked after a few breaths.

‘So their leader claimed,’ Thorin confirmed.

‘That is not good,’ Master Baggins muttered, almost to himself. ‘Why would they be hunting you?’

‘A question we would all like answered, I think,’ Balin interjected again, ‘Alas, we are now unlikely to find an answer here.’

‘It’s unlikely,’ Dwalin agreed, ‘but not impossible. Search the corpses,’ he commanded the Company, and they moved to do so. Nori, Dori and Ori all pulled faces, each likely for a different reason, but they complied nonetheless.

Dwalin did not move. He surveyed Master Baggins closely, taking in every detail from head to foot.

‘Does that happen in every battle, lad?’ he asked, and his tone was as gentle as Thorin had ever heard it, save for when the boys were little.

Master Baggins stared straight ahead and refused to meet their eyes.

‘No,’ he answered shortly, though at least he did not snap Dwalin’s head off. After a pause, he added, ‘I haven’t fought a lot of orc packs. Not like that.’

‘So it’s the orcs that are the problem?’ Dwalin queried.

‘Yes.’

‘Alright then,’ Dwalin said softly. ‘If I’d known, I’d have kept a closer eye. You’ve been well-trained,’ was his final remark before he departed.

Master Baggins looked at Thorin defiantly, almost daring him to ask further questions.

Thorin didn’t. He recognised the look of one who had been pushed far enough for one day. If it were likely they would fight another battle together, then he would want answers and reassurances. For now, their battle was done. Why rake over someone else’s wounds when there was no need?

Instead, Thorin turned and walked to join Fíli and Kíli in searching for something, anything, which might tell them who wanted them so badly.

***

They found nothing.

They hadn’t really expected to. Orcs weren’t the sort for carrying written orders and, while they had some symbols on their gear which might have told another orc something, none of them meant anything to the Company.

Of course, being orcs, there was every chance that the gear had been stolen and passed around at least five different companies since it was made. There was no guarantee it would have told them anything useful.

Thorin kicked the nearest corpse in anger, feeling his temper bubbling close to the surface again. He turned his back on the orc he had been searching and took several deep breaths as he tried to push the anger and frustration back down. A little temper would always be excused amongst dwarves, but his Company did not need to see him losing his hold on himself, much as he wished to rant and rave and punch something fifty times.

How could they hold negotiations with the hobbits in the face of this? It would only take a hint that the dwarves, far from solving the problem, had actually been the reason for the orcish presence on their borders and that would be it.

All of this would be nothing but a waste of precious time which Thorin could have spent travelling to the Iron Hills.

He turned back to the orc to give it one last kick, on the theory that it might not make things better but could not possibly make them any worse, only to discover that he was no longer alone.

‘OW!’ Fíli exclaimed indignantly as he hopped on one foot. Thorin’s kick appeared to have caught his ankle. Luckily the boot-leather was thick enough to absorb much of the blow, but even so it had to have been forceful enough to hurt. ‘Uncle! What did I do?’

‘Wrong place, wrong time,’ Thorin quickly reassured him, moving to support his nephew as he guided him down to the ground. ‘Here, let me check that.’

‘No, it’s fine,’ Fíli dismissed swiftly. ‘Even if it had done any damage, we’d be better not taking the boot off. If we can’t get it back on again afterwards, I’ll look like a right idiot tramping into Brandy Hall with only one shoe on.’

‘I am almost certain that Óin would not agree with that sage healer’s advice,’ Thorin said sternly, giving Fíli his best parental look of disapproval. Fíli waved him off immediately.

‘It’s nothing, Uncle. It only hurt in the moment because I wasn’t expecting it.’

Thorin considered him carefully for another second, then nodded reluctantly.

‘Very well, then,’ he agreed. ‘Up you get.’ He stepped back, watching as Fíli hauled himself easily to his feet and confidently tested the weight on his ankle. There seemed to be no real pain from it and he walked comfortably enough, so Thorin let him be.

He managed not to laugh when Fíli, returning to Kíli’s side, did a brief jig just to prove to Thorin that all was well. If he had to glare in order to suppress the laugh, then that was no business of anyone else’s.

There was no need for Master Baggins to look at him in such a dire manner.

***

With nothing of any use to be found where they were, all they could do was begin the return journey to Brandy Hall. They were only about two miles into the journey when Rory decided to break the silence and inform the dwarves of the agreement he and Bilbo had reached.

They had spoken quickly and quietly as the dwarves searched for information on the battlefield, and hadn’t taken long to agree that there was no need, currently at least, to tell anyone that the orcs had been hunting the dwarven Company.

Rory had stated, and Bilbo had agreed, that they could hardly blame the dwarves for the evil intentions of a pack of orcs they had clearly had no knowledge of. If they had known they were being hunted, then King Thorin would not have been so desperate and panicky at the realisation that the orcs were after him and his nephews.

The best they could do, in Bilbo’s opinion, at least, was ensure that a deal was reached early on and that the dwarves were soon on their way. The border patrols would have to be increased anyway, now that the Shire knew there were orcs abroad. The reason why those orcs were there changed very little.

No doubt Gorbadoc and Fortinbras would take a slightly different view, but Bilbo and Rory could both foresee what would happen if news got out, and neither of them wished an entire colony to risk starvation for the sake of kneejerk reactions.

Bilbo had also, as they were having this conversation, kept a close eye on King Thorin. He did not know what to make of the dwarf, and none of the new evidence he was accumulating helped him at all in making a decision.

The King had grabbed and shouted at him, which usually would have been good cause for Bilbo to give him the dressing down of his life and send him on his way instantly, but then had calmed when he realised Bilbo was… slightly absent. He had clearly been irritated by the situation, but he had not pushed for an explanation for Bilbo’s behaviour as most would, which left Bilbo with some gratitude. Even the elves he had trained with had found Bilbo’s occasional lapses unnerving, but the dwarves had, after the initial shock, followed their King’s lead and taken it all in their stride.

In fact, Bilbo could have sworn that Dwalin had given him a compliment.

As if that was not confusing enough, King Thorin simply could not seem to be consistent in the way he treated others of his party.

Kicking his nephew had clearly been accidental and had been followed with immediate concern; yet, only moments later, he had been back to glaring at the lad for a little light-hearted fun.

Both boys clearly adored their Uncle, but was he worthy of that adoration, or was it simply the behaviour of those who did not know any better?

Bilbo did not know.

He did know that he was now committed to helping these dwarves as far as he possibly could.

The last few days had reinforced his conclusion that most of them were good, decent people who had simply fallen on hard times. They were willing to work to earn the help of the hobbits, as their fight today had proved, and also to risk themselves for others. Rory had told him of his moment of danger during the battle, and how thoroughly Prince Kíli had moved to deal with it. Even more, how horrified he had been that Rory had been in danger at all and how concerned he had been about whether Rory was injured.

They were caring people, beneath the wariness and gruffness, and Bilbo would help them as they had helped him here.

He was certain that both Fortinbras and Gorbadoc would take his warnings more seriously now that he had firm proof that he had not been imagining things, and the borders of the Shire were not the impenetrable barrier they preferred to imagine.

***

They camped as evening began to fall, some distance from the eaves of the Old Forest, well out of the way of any unusually energetic trees. Kíli and Ori had caught several rabbits on their travels, and Bilbo had contributed one or two of his own, so Bombur prepared a rabbit stew that somehow managed to taste better than any other trail food Bilbo had ever had.

He was full and, as long as he did not think about his earlier lapse, which as always he was very determinedly not doing, well satisfied with the day’s events.

The day had been pleasantly warm and, with the fire going, Bilbo began to feel almost too warm and also rather sleepy. Unwilling to fall asleep yet, he decided to take a short walk. The area had been devoid of danger as they travelled so he had little to fear, though he strapped on his sword before he left just in case.

It was only when he’d ambled some distance from the camp that he realised he was not the only one who had wandered off.

He heard King Thorin first.

‘I have told you before, Kíli, that you cannot always watch where Fíli is in battle. I separated the two of you for a reason. You chose to train with different weapons, and that means I will send you to do different tasks.’

‘I know, Uncle,’ Prince Kíli responded, voice small and sad.

‘You say you do,’ King Thorin countered, ‘and yet after almost every battle we must have this same conversation. You are not concentrating on what you ought to be doing because you are constantly trying to watch Fíli’s back instead, and today Rorimac was very nearly badly hurt because of it. You should have seen that orc well before it reached the hobbit. When you are defending someone, as you had been chosen to defend him, you watch all possible routes of approach, not just the ones most convenient to you.’

‘I didn’t…’ Kíli began to say, but then he stopped again. ‘I’m sorry, Uncle. I will do better, I promise.’

‘You will need to,’ King Thorin said gravely. Bilbo had crept closer during their exchange, though he knew he should not, and he was now close enough to see King Thorin grasp Kíli’s shoulders as he had grasped Bilbo’s earlier. ‘If you cannot learn to focus on the commands you have been given first, and your own wishes second, then you will be no good to any army, Kíli. Not even mine.’

It seemed as if King Thorin held his nephew’s gaze for several breaths, forehead pressed close to Kíli’s as if to drum his point home even further, before letting him go and turning to leave. Kíli also moved away, at a rather quicker pace, all but running to where his brother sat with others of the Company.

Bilbo felt himself frowning fiercely at Kíli’s clear distress and, rather than moving away to pretend he had never been there and had heard nothing, he moved to stand clearly in King Thorin’s way.

‘Master Baggins?’ King Thorin queried in surprise, stopping abruptly to avoid tripping over Bilbo. ‘What are you doing out here?’

‘I was getting a little air,’ Bilbo said shortly. Determined to say his piece, he allowed no further time for small talk. ‘You should not be so hard on them!’

Immediately, King Thorin’s spine stiffened and he straightened to his full height without seeming to realise what he was doing.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Your nephews, Thorin,’ Bilbo clarified, dropping all titles as he decided he needed to talk to the uncle rather than the king. ‘You are needlessly harsh with them. Kíli knew he had done wrong, his behaviour with Rory this afternoon proved that. There was no need to belabour the point just now.’

‘Not that I can see how that is any of your business…’ Thorin growled, face going flat, ‘but there is nothing needless about it. Pressure applied correctly turns metal into a sword.’

‘And too much pressure turns stone into nothing but gravel!’ Bilbo responded immediately, irritated to be dismissed in such a trite way. ‘You cannot treat those boys as if they are inanimate objects which need to be bashed into the form you expect them to fulfil. They are people and, for some reason, people who love you dearly. Kíli seemed crushed after your telling off.’

‘Kíli was upset because he knew he had done wrong and that he had not taken the advice he has been given several times by several people, including his mother, Dwalin, Balin, and Fíli, as well as myself,’ Thorin insisted. He stopped abruptly, and Bilbo sensed that he was about to walk away and end the conversation. Then, surprisingly, he continued. ‘I do them no favours if I do not point out when they are making mistakes, Master Baggins. I assure you, whatever hurt Kíli might feel now, it is nothing to how he would have felt had Rorimac died this afternoon due to his distraction. Kíli will always be a Prince. He will eventually be expected to lead dwarves into battle, as I was already doing at his age. It is bad enough to lose those you simply could not save. To lose others due to carelessness is the worst feeling in the world. I would rather bruise my nephews’ feelings than have them bear that weight all their lives!’

Coming to the end of this speech, King Thorin looked startled, as if he had said a great deal that he had not meant to. Bilbo also felt rather startled.

He had begun this discussion because he had been angry at Thorin’s seeming lack of care for his nephews, and because he had assumed that the dwarf’s glares and harsh words meant he cared about them only as soldiers.

He had not expected so impassioned a lecture on Kíli’s emotional state

‘I will always be both their Uncle and their King, Master Baggins,’ the dwarf offered softly, though he seemed as surprised to speak as Bilbo was to hear him continue the conversation. ‘It is not the privilege of royalty to care only for one's own family. My boys must be prepared to lead, even if I would never wish such a burden upon them. They have no choice. No more than I did.’

With that, Thorin turned and walked away, leaving Bilbo alone.

Alone, and more confused than ever.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: Telling Tales

Their return to Brandy Hall was greeted with little fanfare, but then Dori had not expected there to be much. It had been perfectly obvious that the hobbits wished no one to know about their task until it was already complete.

It was a wish Dori could fully support. He had seen how people reacted when they were panicked….

Oh, alright, and he had been the one panicking, too, when there was danger near his brothers. It led people to do all sorts of stupid things.

Like agreeing to go off on a journey that could last months, all the way to the Iron Hills and through various hostile lands. As if the danger to Nori and Ori would somehow be less if he was there as well.

Of course, if he was there he had the option of throwing himself between whatever trouble there was and whichever of his brothers got closest to it. Probably Nori, but Ori was becoming increasingly bold as he found his feet and there was every possibility that it might be him instead.

Not that Dori would share this plan to preserve their safety with either of them. Nori would laugh at him for even thinking it might be necessary, and probably say a great deal on the theme of melodrama. Ori would fret.

Much like the hobbit they called Broadbelt.

He was doing an awful lot of fretting at the moment, as he surveyed his son and tried to assure himself that Rorimac was unharmed.

That was familiar to Dori, too, and he watched with sympathy. The Company were congregated at one end of the entrance hall, a little way away from the Master of Brandy Hall. As soon as they had entered, Master Brandybuck had called out to Rory and the younger hobbit had moved quickly to join him and be thoroughly checked over. Thus far, Thorin was waiting fairly patiently. There was no telling how long that would last, of course, but Dori knew their King could appreciate Master Brandybuck’s urge to ensure that his son was well.

Bifur called out to the large hobbit after a few moments, a wide smile on his face, and Master Brandybuck stopped fussing long enough to glare at Dori’s fellow dwarf.

‘I am glad you find the situation so amusing,’ the hobbit snapped at Bifur. ‘I cannot say my child’s danger is something I find particularly funny!’

‘Ease off, lad,’ Bofur responded immediately and, unlike Bifur, he was not smiling. Dori did not blame him. Master Brandybuck needed to control his impulse to jump to conclusions. ‘Bifur was only saying that Rory had done very well during the journey. He was a great help, and he was smart enough to let us protect him when the battle came. There’s not a scratch on him, that we can promise you.’

‘That is… good to hear,’ Master Brandybuck responded, giving Bifur a nod which Dori’s companion, being a good-natured dwarf, accepted easily enough. Dori spotted Bofur smiling slyly at Rory, who laughed silently where his father could not see him. No doubt at Bofur’s generous fudging of events. Broadbelt turned back to Rory and continued questioning him, though there was less worry in his tone this time.

‘Because, of course, allowing oneself to be protected by others is the only sensible action a hobbit can take in battle,’ Master Baggins sniped quietly. He had remained with the dwarves as his fellow hobbits reunited.

‘Don’t you start,’ Nori, ever the diplomat, whispered to him. ‘Haven’t you ever heard of telling someone what they want to hear?’

‘All of you, quiet,’ Balin interjected, before the discussion could go any further.

‘Yes, yes, my apologies, Bilbo,’ he continued, when Master Baggins’ expression made plain exactly what he’d thought of that instruction, ‘but Master Brandybuck will not be distracted by his son forever.’

That was plainly true. Just as Dori spotted Thorin straightening himself, clearly ready to interrupt the reunion, Master Brandybuck turned to them.

‘Come,’ he announced, some cheer restored now he was reassured that Rory really was fine. ‘Let us move to one of the parlours where we can all sit.’

The fact that this Hall actually had multiple ‘parlours’ was something of a shock to Dori, as the size of the Great Smials had been. These hobbits had so much room in their homes and he had been taken aback to discover it.

In Ered Luin, even Thorin had a modest home with just a kitchen, three bedrooms and a small room where he took care of business. Dori hadn’t been in it above once - they had all congregated there before leaving on the journey and Lady Dís had insisted on giving them ale and some breakfast before they departed – but he knew that it was neither as large nor as lavishly decorated as the homes of these hobbit Lords.

Then again, hobbits had several generations of very large families all living in one home. Thorin had only his nephews and his sister to house.

Dori only had Nori and Ori to look after, and Nori was gone from home more often than not. Normally hiding from Dwalin and his fellow guards. For them to live in a dwelling as large as Brandy Hall would simply be absurd.

It made Dori wonder why Master Baggins lived all alone in Bag End, which was clearly intended to be a family home.

Not that Dori would ever ask, of course. That would be the height of rudeness.

Once they were settled, Thorin took firm hold of the conversation.

‘The orc pack has been destroyed,’ he told Master Brandybuck. ‘Master Baggins had counted 30 orcs and several warg mounts when he was scouting, and all were present and accounted for when we left. Rorimac can attest to that.’

‘I can indeed,’ Rory hastened to add. Dori like the young hobbit immensely. It was rare to find someone who was simply good, in Dori’s experience of the world, but Rory truly was. Happy and willing to help anyone in need, which must make him a wonderful Bounder, if Dori understood their work correctly.

Master Baggins seemed to be a good sort as well, though he was rather more complex than Rory.

Grumpier, too. But then, as Balin had reminded them that first night, it was not as if dwarves were unused to dealing with grumpiness. There weren’t many of them that didn’t have their irritable moments.

‘That being the case,’ Thorin continued, ‘we mean to return to Tookborough and see what progress the Thain has made negotiating with the local farmers on our behalf.’

‘Negotiating?’ Master Brandybuck queried curiously. ‘Negotiating for what? I’ve heard nothing about this.’

‘No, we decided to deal with the bigger problem first when we arrived in Buckland,’ Master Baggins replied. ‘The orcs seemed a rather more pressing issue. Now they are dealt with, we can turn back to finding hobbits to provide King Thorin’s colony with food over the winter, which was the original purpose of their visit.’

‘Hmm,’ Master Brandybuck murmured. Then sharp eyes rose to meet Thorin’s. ‘You hoped that ending the threat from the orcs would improve the deal your received from our farmers, King Thorin?’

‘I hoped it would improve my chances of actually reaching a deal at all,’ Thorin said plainly. ‘The Thain suggested that might be a problem otherwise.’

‘He wasn’t wrong,’ Master Brandybuck agreed. ‘How did you get mixed up in all this, Bilbo? I thought you’d recruited these dwarves specifically to deal with the orcs.’

‘Gandalf sent them to me,’ Master Baggins replied, altering the course of events somewhat. When Master Brandybuck bristled at the mention of the wizard’s name, Master Baggins sighed heavily.

‘There’s no use getting excited about that, Gorbadoc,’ he advised jadedly. ‘Yavanna knows Gandalf irritates me even more than the next hobbit, but he comes and goes as he pleases, and makes his plans no matter what we think of them. I could have refused to have anything to do with this plan, but what would be the point? It’s not the dwarves’ fault that he always causes chaos in the Shire. Besides, it ended well. The presence of the dwarves meant we were a lot quicker dealing with those orcs than we would have been otherwise.’

Master Brandybuck sat quietly for moments, turning over what he had been told.

‘Your people have done us a service in ending the threat on our borders, King Thorin,’ he said at length. ‘I am well aware of the damage that could have been done had the orcs descended upon us. Any hobbit who has… concerns… about forging a contract with your people can be directed to me and I will reassure them that you are, indeed, dwarves of your word.’

‘We appreciate your assistance,’ Thorin replied sincerely. Dori knew, just from travelling with him, how deeply Thorin had felt the worry of providing for their people. All assistance really was welcome, even if asking for it sometimes grated.

‘Stay the night and ride out in the morning,’ Master Brandybuck suggested, rising to his feet. ‘It’s late afternoon now, you’d not go far if you headed out.’

‘Our thanks,’ Thorin said with a nod, also standing. ‘It will be good to clear the road off ourselves before we set out to get more of it on.’

With that, the group broke up and Rory organised for various members of the household to show the dwarves to the guest rooms. Dori spotted Fíli and Kíli having some kind of tug of war in the corner of the room and shook his head.

Boys took so long to grow up.

***

‘Leave it, Kíli!’

‘I will not leave it!’ Kíli objected, trying to pull Fíli out of their corner and move him towards Bilbo. ‘You should talk to him.’

‘I don’t need to talk to him,’ Fíli argued. ‘I promised I’d behave better from now on. I’m not blaming him for anything except his own rudeness, and I told you I would stop dwelling on that. That will keep the peace. There’s no need for anything else.’

‘Yes, but that’s not the point,’ Kíli insisted. ‘It isn’t about keeping the peace. He’s nice, Fí. You’d like him, if you gave him a chance.’

‘Perhaps he doesn’t want a chance, Kíli. Did you think of that?’ Fíli sighed. His brother was like a dog with a bone. ‘He doesn’t like us. Maybe he doesn’t want to know us better!’

‘He does like us,’ Kíli said, though his tone was suddenly uncertain and he looked hurt. ‘He likes me.’

Fíli growled in annoyance at himself and tugged Kíli forward into a quick, fierce hug. Which conveniently stopped their progress towards Master Baggins, but that really was coincidental.

‘Of course he likes you,’ Fíli reassured softly, ignoring that there were others still in the room and pressing a kiss to Kíli’s temple. ‘Everyone likes you. You’re the approachable member of the family. I meant me.’

‘People like you, too, normally,’ Kíli reminded him. ‘When you try. Why won’t you try with him?’

‘I don’t think Uncle’s sure yet,’ Fíli said carefully, wondering if there was a way he could possibly word this that wouldn’t make Kíli feel he’d done something wrong. ‘Sure whether Master Baggins is a friend or not,’ he clarified when Kíli looked confused. ‘I just want to wait until he is. Then he won’t be worrying about us as well.’

‘He’s worrying about us?’ Kíli asked. ‘Why? We’re fine. He’s the one who’s having all the problems.’

‘Except Dendrit,’ Fíli reminded him, though he didn’t think for a moment that Kíli had really forgotten. He’d just accepted it as something they couldn’t do anything about and… tried not to think about it too much. It made him a better person than Fíli, but it didn’t stop Uncle worrying about him being hurt.

‘Oh,’ Kíli said briefly. Then, after a few moments, ‘I can’t just stop talking to Bilbo, Fíli. That’s not fair to him. Besides, how will we know if we can trust him if we don’t try?’

‘No, I know,’ Fíli said tiredly. ‘I don’t… I don’t know what to do, Kí. I should, but I don’t.’

‘Just talk to him, Fíli,’ Kíli suggested gently. ‘We don’t have to tell him all our secrets. Just be pleasant.’ Kíli blushed a little and Fíli’s older brother warning bell started ringing. What had he done?

‘Kíli…,’ he started, but he received the obstinate look that always made it plain his brother wasn’t going to tell him anything.

‘We’ll just be friendly,’ Kíli said instead. ‘Uncle won’t mind that. If the hobbits like us, then they’ll be easier to work with.’

‘Alright,’ Fíli conceded, more to please Kíli than anything. Kíli was so keen for him to get to know Master Baggins and Fíli hated to be at odds with him. He’d just have to make sure he was friendly without being too friendly.

***

‘You must think I’m mad, Fortinbras,’ a loud voice rang out from the Thain’s study. ‘I’m not…’, suddenly the voice dropped away, as if the person speaking had been hastily shushed. Thorin contemplated being a good guest for a few moments.

Then he decided upon being a wise one instead. A flick of his hand dispatched Nori to find out what was going on.

They’d been told that Fortinbras was having a number of meetings about the dwarves’ proposition, after all. It was their business that was being discussed.

Nori was gone for several minutes before he slipped back into the room they had assembled in.

‘Definite no,’ he reported. ‘He sees “no need to deal with untrustworthy dwarves when there are plenty of hobbits with perfectly good coin” in the Shire.’

Balin sighed. Thorin attempted to release his grip on the arms of the chair, which was creaking under his hand.

Hobbit furniture really wasn’t sturdy enough to be worth the name. Dís would flatten the whole lot on a bad day.

‘I would not worry,’ Master Baggins spoke, surprising them all. Thorin had not noticed him sliding in after Nori, and apparently nor had Nori. He jumped a mile, then turned to glare at the hobbit irritably. Master Baggins’ shrug could have been considered an apology, if you were being generous. It was probably more of a dismissal.

‘It was Theo Goodbody,’ the hobbit added. ‘His farm’s as small as his mind. You haven’t lost a great deal. Fortinbras was only asking him because he wanted to keep your options open. Also, he didn’t want anyone to feel left out. That breeds bad feeling quicker than you would think in a place like the Shire.’

‘Trust me, Bilbo, it’s no different in Ered Luin,’ Balin assured him.

They were all startled, at that moment, by a knock on the door.

‘Enter,’ Thorin called, looking curiously at the door. They’d been offered tea and biscuits only a few minutes before they’d heard Theo Goodbody’s explosion, so it couldn’t be one of the young lasses who had made it their job to take care of the dwarven visitors. Thorin was sure they mostly just wanted to gaze at the boys so they could giggle together later, but he ignored that with the ease of long practice.

When Fortinbras appeared in the doorway, Thorin allowed his surprise to show.

‘Come in,’ he invited, not realising until afterwards that he was inviting the Thain into a room in his own house. ‘I thought you had more meetings all afternoon.’

‘That I did,’ Fortinbras responded. ‘Do, I mean. This visitor wished to meet you, King Thorin.’

A tall hobbit, broad and sturdy, entered the room. He walked straight over to Thorin and offered his hand, which Thorin instinctively reached out to clasp in greeting. He had, mostly, become used to the fact that very few hobbits thought to bow to a King.

‘King Thorin,’ the hobbit said in greeting. ‘I’m Farmer Maggot. Rory Brandybuck tells me it was your Company, and Bilbo here, that drove off the orcs and wargs near Buckland.’

‘It was,’ Thorin confirmed. ‘It sounds as if you were aware of their presence,’ he said, lilting his voice up at the end to make it akin to a question.

‘I didn’t know what they were, or where precisely,’ Farmer Maggot replied, ‘but I knew there was something out there, sure enough. There’s not much my dogs are scared of, but something had been sniffing about that had them putting their tails between their legs. Makes sense now I know what was there. No normal animal puts fear like that into them.’

‘They’re about the size of a full-grown wolf,’ Master Baggins threw in, ‘and with their own little pack. There’s not much reason for them to be scared.’

‘True enough,’ Farmer Maggot smiled at Master Baggins. ‘I’ll thank you, as well, Bilbo. You did a good thing checking into that trouble for us. Mrs Maggot sent these for you,’ he produced a basket and passed it to Master Baggins, who viewed it as if someone had handed him pure gold. Thorin was suddenly extremely curious about what it held.

‘Now, I’ll not trouble you further,’ Farmer Maggot said firmly. ‘I’ve told the Thain that I’ll be happy to sell you some of my surplus this year. I usually take it up to Bree, but it’ll be as easy to make an arrangement with you. Once the Thain’s spoken to all the others we’ll have a look at what you’ll need and set a price. Good afternoon.’

With that he was gone. Thorin turned his gaze from the door, somewhat startled to have been thanked and assured of someone’s cooperation, even though that had been the point of the whole exercise. He was just in time to see Master Baggins smack sharply at Bofur’s wandering hand.

‘Mine,’ the hobbit said firmly, almost cuddling the basket he’d been given. ‘These mushrooms are more valuable than anything else in this smial, and tastier besides. Get your own.’

Bofur gave him a pitiful look that did not seem to move Master Baggins at all.

‘I make a really wonderful mushroom dish, Bilbo,’ Bombur said hopefully, as most of Thorin’s Company looked on with equally optimistic expressions.

Master Baggins looked undecided for several moments, before catching sight of the yearning looks Ori and Kíli were giving him. He unruffled his feathers and huffed quietly.

‘Oh, very well,’ he agreed, with a show of reluctance, ‘but we’re using one of the small kitchens to cook, and the knowledge of their existence does not go beyond this room. You also earned these. The Took family did not. No!’ he exclaimed with utter certainty, when the Thain started to speak. ‘You can buy some yourself. Out!’

Thorin couldn’t help it. He burst out laughing at the sight of the fierce hobbit warrior fervently protecting his basket of mushrooms. Bilbo seemed taken aback at the sudden merriment, as a number of the dwarves joined in, but when he caught Thorin’s eye, he gave a small, secretive grin. It made him look like a younger, more mischievous version of himself, and Thorin smiled back.

Thanks, cooperation and mushrooms, all in one afternoon. What could be better?

***

‘Good morning, Bilbo,’ Violet Chubb said with a smile, as she approached the door to the Great Smials. Bilbo was sitting outside on a bench, enjoying the sunshine in a rare moment of peace, with his eyes mostly shut and his legs stretched out in front of him.

‘Mrs Chubb,’ he responded, returning the smile and rising to his feet. ‘It is a pleasure to see you again.’

‘And you, my dear,’ she offered. ‘Now enough of this formality! Where’s my kiss?’

Bilbo laughed, and leaned forward to press a quick peck to her cheek. They had played this game almost all his life, ever since he had first practised his ‘adult’ greeting on her when he’d gone for a visit with mother. She’d insisted that she received quite enough polite greetings, and not nearly enough kisses. She always got one from Bilbo.

‘I have missed you, Bilbo,’ Violet scolded gently. ‘It has been months since you visited.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Bilbo replied quietly, with true regret. Sometimes he got so frustrated with most of his fellow hobbits that he forgot the ones he really did like. ‘I’ve been so busy.’

‘I did hear something like that,’ she said, worry in her eyes. ‘Patrolling borders and fighting orcs. You will give me spasms one day, Bilbo, I swear it.’

‘I know what I’m doing,’ Bilbo tried to reassure her. ‘Truly.’

‘Oh, I don’t doubt that, my dear,’ Violet answered immediately. ‘I just worry. The old tales make it quite clear that even those who know what they’re doing get hurt in battles. You need to be careful.’

‘I am,’ he promised. ‘Always.’

Violet gave him a long look, then nodded. ‘I’ll believe you, but mind you keep that promise. Now,’ she announced as a clear change of subject, ‘I’ve been hearing plenty of rumours about these dwarves that the Thain would like us to sell to, and most of them too tall to have more than a grain of truth in them. Tell me what’s really happening.’

That was the other thing Bilbo had somehow forgotten about his mother’s old, dear friend. When she had become ‘Widow’ Chubb, she had inherited control of large amounts of farm-land from her husband. Farms she had managed wisely and added to over the years.

Between them, she and Bilbo owned a good chunk of the farmland around Hobbiton, though Bilbo rented most of his to other hobbits. Violet hired a good many farmhands and oversaw their work herself. It was a golden opportunity for the dwarves, and Bilbo was going to take full advantage of it on their behalf.

‘Come with me,’ he told Violet, guiding her inside. ‘I can do one better than telling you about them. I can introduce you to Prince Kíli, and he can tell everything you wish to know.’

***

As Bilbo had expected, five minutes with a boyishly excited Kíli, eager to meet any friend of Bilbo’s and confessing without a hint of embarrassment that he missed his mother a lot, had melted Violet’s heart.

She’d still asked a number of shrewd questions about their situation, which Kíli had answered as far as he could. When he could no longer answer, he called his brother over and Prince Fíli made an equally good impression. The blond dwarf had been far less grim towards Bilbo in the last few days, and he was anything but grim now. By the time they were finished, Bilbo was sure that Fortinbras would have a very easy meeting with Violet.

Unless she decided to pretend reluctance just to see how he would try to convince her. Bilbo would not put it past her.

‘Did we do well?’ Kíli asked anxiously after Violet left. ‘I didn’t say anything I shouldn’t have, did I? We don’t normally do this part yet. Uncle and Balin take care of negotiations. Or Mum, sometimes.’

‘You were perfect,’ Bilbo rushed to reassure him. ‘Mrs Chubb just wanted to know what your people needed and what you were like. The real negotiations will start once she’s met with Fortinbras.’

‘Everything is a real negotiation when we come away from home, Master Baggins,’ Fíli said seriously. Bilbo looked at his solemn face and realised that the Prince truly meant it. In their eyes, they had been ‘on show’ ever since they arrived in the Shire. ‘Balin always tells us so. We must be careful.’

‘Goodness,’ Bilbo said kindly, with a little amazement. ‘That must be a very tiring life.’

‘Well, we don’t leave home very often,’ Kíli countered. ‘This is only the second time Uncle’s taken us with him anywhere. The last time was just to help him with some repairs in one of the towns of Men near Ered Luin.’

‘Besides, your life must be tiring, too,’ Fíli added matter-of-factly. ‘You do the same thing we do, always showing a strong front to everyone else.’

‘Yes,’ Bilbo said, both surprised and struck by the comment, ‘I suppose I do.’

‘That’s why we have family,’ Kíli continued brightly. ‘So Uncle says. You can trust family, and that means you can relax. The Company is a kind of family, too, because we’re all going to be travelling together for months. We can trust them… except with valuables. Sometimes Nori can’t help himself.’

‘Nori helps himself a great deal too often,’ Bilbo retorted, though he smiled to take the sharpness out of it. ‘Usually to someone else’s belongings.’

‘Dwalin did make him give it all back,’ Fíli pointed out with a grin. The boy was really very engaging when he smiled. It was no surprise that most of the Company doted on the pair of them. They had Bilbo wanting to do it too, ‘and Uncle told him he’s not allowed to do it again.’

‘Yes, well, Dwalin can help me shake Nori down before we leave,’ Bilbo said resolutely. ‘Then we’ll see how much effect your Uncle’s warnings have had.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten: We

‘We!’

‘What?’

‘He said we!’

‘Who did?’

‘Bilbo, you idiot. He said, “before we leave”.’

‘Oh. Ohhh. That’s interesting.’

‘I wonder where he’s going.’

‘I wonder if Uncle knows where he thinks he’s going.’

‘We’d have heard about it if he did.’

‘True. Do we want to be there when he finds out or not?’

‘Of course we do. Idiot. We want to be wherever the fun is.’

‘Well, yes, but is this going to be fun? Or is it going to be an Uncle-explosion? I could do without one of those right now.’

‘It’ll be fun. Uncle does like Bilbo, he just won’t admit it. He’s smiled at him at least twice, and he laughed when Bilbo was being silly about the mushrooms.’

‘True. Better make sure we stick close to Bilbo, then. He’ll have to break the news to Uncle eventually.’

Fíli grinned at his brother, who grinned back. Perhaps he still wasn’t sure if he trusted Bilbo completely. However, just as Kíli had promised, he did like him.

Also, Kíli was right. Uncle was thawing towards Bilbo and he had allowed himself to laugh in front of both the hobbit and the rest of the Company the other day. If that wasn’t a good sign, Fíli didn’t know what was.

The journey could only be more interesting if Bilbo came along.

***

‘Morning, Bilbo!’ Kíli announced cheerfully as Bilbo entered the dining room. The hobbit looked slightly bleary-eyed, but then he often did in the mornings. Bombur had quickly noted that their host was not a fan of early starts, if they were avoidable, and had quietly taken over responsibility for cooking breakfast.

He’d also had a few gentle conversations with other members of the Company, and now they all moved very quietly around Bag End in the mornings. Even the ones who didn’t accompany Uncle and Balin to the Great Smials knew better than to stamp around the place before its Master was awake.

‘Good morning,’ Bilbo said, shaking his head slightly as if trying to bring everything into focus. As always, the sight of breakfast helped his transition to the land of the living. He made a beeline for the last of the bacon and eggs, which Bombur had left Fíli and Kíli to guard when he went out.

Kíli was almost certain that some of his fellow dwarves were continuing with their usual trades in the Shire, while Uncle was busy. He was sure he’d heard Óin giving a hobbit healing advice when he passed him in the lane the other day.

‘What are we doing today?’ Fíli asked curiously as Bilbo piled his plate high with food. Bilbo and Balin had come to an agreement, which they seemed to think Fíli and Kíli didn’t know about, that left responsibility for Fíli and Kíli in Bilbo’s hands while they were in the Shire. Kíli had expected Balin to know better by now – he and Fíli knew everything that was going on where they were, even Dwalin admitted it – but he wasn’t about to enlighten their mentor.

Balin was always telling them that knowledge was power, and knowledge you had that someone else didn’t was even more so.

Really, you’d think Balin would pay attention to his own teachings a little more.

‘I have a few visits I would like to make,’ Bilbo told them in between mouthfuls. ‘To some of my tenants. I’ll be taking the pair of you with me. We won’t go for a little while yet, however. They likely won’t be finished with their morning chores for another hour or so, and I won’t get a good response if I interrupt them while they’re busy.’

‘People make that mistake with Mum, sometimes,’ Fíli commented. ‘Not normally twice, though.’

‘No, well, with what you’ve told me about your mother that surprises me not a bit,’ Bilbo said with an easy smile in Fíli’s direction. Kíli was hopelessly proud of them both. Watching them for the last few days, no one would ever have known that they couldn’t speak to one another the week before.

He’d been giving Fíli extra hugs as a reward every night.

He wasn’t entirely sure that Fíli appreciated the extra hugs as the reward they were (there’d been a fair amount of ‘Oi, get off, Kíli!’) but Kíli was sure he’d work it out eventually.

‘In the meantime,’ Bilbo continued, ‘there are some things I’ve been meaning to ask you.’

Kíli could see Fíli stiffen, just as he had, and they exchanged a wary look.

Bilbo began to laugh. It was still a rare sound from the serious hobbit, one that was mostly produced by whatever ridiculous thing Bofur had done recently, so Kíli appreciated it even as he tried to think of what he might have done to get in trouble this time.

‘Don’t look so scared,’ Bilbo chided them. ‘Unless you want me to wonder what you’ve been up to that has put that nervous look on your faces. I meant questions about your home.’

‘Oh!’ Kíli exhaled loudly with relief. ‘That’s alright, then. Not that we’ve done anything. Obviously. It’s just…’

‘Habit,’ Fíli concluded, in a tone of finality that didn’t invite further questions or comments. Bilbo, being a hobbit of great intellect (in Kíli’s personal opinion) decided to let the matter drop.

‘It is only idle curiosity,’ he informed them. ‘After working on their behalf, I wondered a little about what your people were like. What Ered Luin was like.’

‘It’s…,’ Fíli began. ‘It’s a typical mining town, I think.’

‘Humour the hobbit who’s never seen a mining town, Fíli,’ Bilbo suggested with a smile. Fíli chuckled, and leaned back in his chair.

‘It’s not all one town,’ he told Bilbo, after a moment’s pause. ‘We’re a bit spread out, though most of our people live in the main settlement. The majority are miners, even the families that weren’t when we lived in Erebor are now. Some of the soldiers from Erebor’s army went into the Guard, like Dwalin, but there weren’t enough positions for everyone, so many took up mining. We’re like most people, really. We work, we spend time with our friends and families. We like our ale, just like hobbits, though ours is a bit stronger than yours. Only our lives revolve around the mine and yours revolve around planting and the harvest.’

‘There’s a… rhythm,’ Kíli added thoughtfully, trying to think what Ered Luin would be like if you hadn’t grown up there, had never been there before. ‘Partly because of the work; the miners do long shifts, and they breakfast early and have dinner late. Those who don’t work in the mines adjusted to match. The rest is because of where we live. Uncle’s house, which we share, is close to the mines and it’s almost as if you can feel the rhythm the miners keep through the floor. It’s probably silly; you can’t, of course, but sometimes it feels that way. Like a faint heartbeat that runs through the place. I find myself walking to the beat, sometimes.’

It was something he and Fíli had discussed with each other before, and realised they each did, though they’d never spoken about it with anyone else.

‘Interesting,’ Bilbo said softly. ‘Bifur and Bofur said something similar the other night, when we talked after dinner. That they can feel the beat of the mining songs even when they aren’t in the mines. They tell me they have your – ‘stone-sense’, is it?’

‘Yes,’ Fíli answered. ‘Bifur and Bofur, and Bombur to some extent, know more about the stone than anyone else we know. Some of the other miners are good, but their family has lived in Ered Luin since before our people arrived. They know it better.’

‘Hmm,’ Bilbo murmured. ‘Bofur tells me he felt it when the mine came down.’

Fíli looked up sharply and Kíli resisted the urge to shrink back in his chair. Oh, he shouldn’t have told Bilbo about that. Fíli was devoted to keeping their secrets, just like Uncle and Dwalin were, and he’d be annoyed that Kíli had told Bilbo.

Bilbo noticed Fíli’s shoulders straightening and his face closing into a frown, and told him firmly, ‘I asked them why they had come all this way with Thorin, why there were planning to go on to the Iron Hills with him, if they were miners and were needed for their stone-sense. They explained that there was very little mining going on due to a collapse, and so they were of more use on the journey than they were in Ered Luin.’

‘Uncle only let them come because they were sure that the mine had settled as far as it was going to,’ Kíli interjected, beyond thankful for Bilbo’s rescue. He would tell Fíli about his explanations to Bilbo at some point. Just not today. ‘No one went back in until they were sure it was safe.’

‘Some people didn’t go back in even after that,’ Fíli added. ‘It was too much of a risk. Some of the dwarves going down the mines are the only support that their families had. Even though miners accept that these things are going to happen, this accident was worse than any of the others we’d ever had. They didn’t want to be caught in another collapse like that and leave their families with no way to earn money at all. A few were leaving before we set out. Going in search of better things in other settlements.’

‘Were the mines so important?’ Bilbo asked. ‘I know you were a mining town,’ he amended quickly, ‘but there must have been other incomes too.’

‘There were, but far more dwarves worked in the mines than anywhere else,’ Fíli told him sadly. ‘It’s just… what our people do. It’s what dwarves have always done. We mine the metal and precious gems, and then we work them once we’ve mined them. Without the products from the mines, the metal-workers and jewellery-makers have less to craft with. That means we have less to sell. We’ll recover in time, but not everyone can afford to wait. It’s not as if there was a huge amount of money coming in before,’ he finished quietly, with a tinge of bitterness. ‘People move away most years. It’s just more this year.’

‘We’ll survive,’ Kíli said into the brief silence, using the words Uncle had said to them all their lives, when things were harder than normal. ‘We always do’

Fíli gave him a grin, a sincere one, Kíli was happy to see, and nodded.

‘Yes, we do.’

‘It’s amazing,’ Bilbo commented, ‘the things we can survive that we never imagined we could.’

‘Exactly,’ Kíli agreed. Then he looked at the clock. ‘Bilbo, don’t you need to start getting ready if we’re going out soon?’

‘Oh, good gracious!’ Bilbo gasped, also glancing at the clock. ‘I most certainly do.’ He dropped his napkin on the table, jumped to his feet and rushed out of the room without another word. Kíli had noticed that hobbits had very strict ideas about punctuality, even when they weren’t necessarily expected somewhere. Bilbo more than most.

That was probably a good thing, if he was planning to come with them on their journey.

They were on a bit of a deadline themselves.

***

‘You summoned me, Fortinbras?’ Bilbo said pointedly as he entered the Thain’s study.

‘Yes,’ Fortinbras replied steadily, ‘and you actually came. Wonders really do never cease.’

Bilbo wasn’t sure he liked what the dwarves’ visit was doing for Fortinbras; all the serious work and long debates with other hobbits were making him far more confident, and he seemed to be aiming a good portion of that confidence in Bilbo’s direction.

He hadn’t quite managed to stand up to Lalia yet, but Bilbo had a feeling it was coming. As long as he was there to see her face when it did happen, Bilbo decided, he could probably forgive Fortinbras for practising all this new assertiveness on Bilbo.

They stared at each other for a moment, each waiting for the other to break, before Fortinbras snickered like a faunt and gestured at one of the seats.

‘Sit down, Bilbo. We look ridiculous.’

They probably did, so Bilbo complied without objection.

‘Is it good news or bad?’ he asked his cousin warily.

King Thorin and Balin had spent the last day or two in lengthy conversations with various hobbits who had agreed to supply Ered Luin. Bilbo had not been involved, only because he was working quietly in the background to drum up a few more potential suppliers.

He could not force his tenants to involve themselves, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t gently encourage their involvement.

If he took Fíli and Kíli with him to try and improve his success rate, well, that was just good tactics on his part.

He’d still met with varied success – some of his tenants much preferred it when Bilbo’s only involvement in their lives was collecting the rent – but the Cottons were good people and had stepped forward. Once they were counted in, there should have been enough farmers involved to provide the amount that Balin had been aiming for.

Now the only question was whether the dwarves could pay the asking price. Fortinbras had insisted to all involved that there would only be one asking price per type of goods. The total figure for any farm would reflect the amount provided, but he wasn’t having twenty different rates to keep track of.

It had been another surprising moment of decisiveness and Bilbo did wonder if some of their fellow hobbits had complied as much out of surprise as anything. One or two had pulled out in a huff, hence Bilbo’s mission in recent days, but they’d got there in the end.

‘Good. Well, almost good. A little bad,’ Fortinbras vacillated, a frown on his face as he tried to decide which description was the most accurate.

Bilbo stared at him until Fortinbras was paying attention once more, then raised one eyebrow in query.

‘Was there a helpful answer in there, somewhere?’

Fortinbras sighed.

‘We’re almost there,’ he clarified. ‘We’ve enough to supply them with, we’ve got a rate almost agreed, and it will be manageable for the dwarves… just. I can tell they’re not entirely happy about it, though they’re putting on a good face in front of the others. Master Glóin seems to be their Treasurer and he assures me that they can pay what will be asked, but I’m sure I spotted King Thorin wincing when a total was mentioned today. Farmer Cotton’s unlikely to announce he wants less for his produce, and in all honesty I can’t see the others going any lower even if he did… except perhaps Violet Chubb, but we all know she has a soft-spot for you, and another developing for the Princes.’

Bilbo studiously ignored this last statement. Violet was a business-woman. She’d take care of her own interests and wouldn’t offer anything less than she could afford, no matter how fond she was of those involved.

Unlike Bilbo, who was strongly considering doing something entirely un-business-like.

Should he?

‘What is the total?’ he asked Fortinbras carefully.

Fortinbras named a sum that made Bilbo hiss in sympathy. No wonder King Thorin had winced. Bilbo had, very cautiously, pressed the young Princes for information on their colony. They hadn’t given away much, but what they had said suggested strongly that that would eat away a very large chunk of their available funds.

Pushing up out of the chair, he began to pace about the room as he thought, letting the repetitive movement guide his thoughts.

It was not a wise thing to do, really. These people were still strangers to Bilbo, even if he had spent large parts of the last few weeks with them.

Yes, he’d fought in battle beside them and been pleased by Dwalin’s acknowledgement that he could fight. He had been equally pleased by the off-hand compliments from some of the other dwarves in the days that followed. He had not expected such a thing from Glóin, or Bifur, and the rare recognition was very welcome. He had received little of it in the Shire, up to now. Farmer Maggot was still the only hobbit to actually have thanked Bilbo for his part in killing those orcs.

Farmer Maggot and Violet, he forced himself to admit in the spirit of fairness. She had always made her pride in Bilbo clear; even when everyone else, including his own father, was trying to act as if he had never picked up a weapon in his life.

That was by-the-by, Bilbo reminded himself. This was about the dwarves.

Yes, they were good people, and Bilbo had promised to help them if he could. He had helped them, to a great extent. He’d housed them, provided them with a way to earn the Shire’s trust (most of the Shire), had made what introductions he could to those worth knowing.

He’d caught both Bofur and Dwalin before they could make huge blunders that would have left them pariahs amongst the other hobbits, and had steered them gently out of the awkward moments.

Bofur had howled with laughter when Bilbo told him about the insult he had very nearly offered to Lotho Sackville-Baggins. He and Bilbo had agreed that, at any other time, it would have been worth it just to see the horror on the sly hobbit’s face.

Then Bofur had hugged Bilbo and told him thank-you for keeping his head on his shoulders, as Thorin would surely have removed it had Bofur ruined their deal in such a fashion.

Bilbo wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.

Dwalin had been less candid with his gratitude, but he had blushed wildly when Bilbo explained his mistake to him, then clapped Bilbo on the shoulder and muttered a gruff, ‘Thanks, lad.’

The next day, when King Thorin was in a particularly grumpy mood and took offence at Bilbo’s perfectly sensible suggestion that glaring at everyone he met would not endear him to hobbits, it was Dwalin who broke in with, ‘Lay off him, Thorin. It’s not his fault you slept poorly.’

Bilbo had wondered, briefly, what could disrupt the King’s sleep enough to make him that moody, in a land as peaceful as the Shire and with beds as comfortable as those they had been given.

Then he remembered his own nightmares – less frequent these days but still harrowing when they came – and decided to drop the subject.

None of which was getting Bilbo any closer to a decision!

‘Bilbo, what are you doing?’ Fortinbras’ voice broke through his thoughts. ‘You’ve been marching back and forth for nearly five minutes.'

That, Bilbo was sure, was an exaggeration, but if any of his frustration had been playing out on his face then he could hardly blame Fortinbras for being concerned.

With a sigh, Bilbo threw himself back into his chair and gazed at the ceiling for a long moment.

Time to go with instinct. He liked these dwarves (most of them). They were good people. They were in dire need.

What would it hurt Bilbo to help them?

He had plenty.

‘Can you convince the farmers to pretend that they’ve offered a ten percent discount?’ Bilbo asked Fortinbras quietly.

‘Pretend?’ Fortinbras replied, confusion flooding his voice. ‘Possibly; it would hardly do them any harm. What would be the point, Bilbo? If it is fake then the dwarves will still have to pay.’

‘No,’ Bilbo said, his tone now resolute. ‘They won’t. Tell those you are negotiating with that the extra ten percent will be paid. In fact, if you give me a day or two then I can provide half of it now as an extra deposit. That should sweeten the deal for them.’

You can provide it?’ Fortinbras gasped. ‘Bilbo, that’s madness. We’re organising to feed an entire colony. Even ten percent will… you’ll bankrupt yourself.’

Bilbo laughed dryly, and shook his head at his cousin.

‘No, Fortinbras, I won’t,’ he said plainly. ‘I’m not like you. I don’t have a huge family to support, or the largest smial in the Shire to maintain. I don’t have many expenses at all. I’ll be poorer for a while, but it won’t bankrupt me. Give it a few years and the rents will have me more than comfortable again. You know the Bagginses have always been well off. That’s why Grandfather allowed my parents to marry. He knew Mother would want for nothing if she wed Bungo.’

‘Bilbo, are you sure?’ Fortinbras insisted. ‘I know you have become friendly with these dwarves, but this is…’

‘What else do I have to spend it on, Fortinbras?’ Bilbo replied. He left a pause but Fortinbras did not reply. ‘I’ve no spouse, no children, no siblings to leave it to. I’m sure some of our cousins would argue that I should give it to them instead, if I’m so eager to divest myself of a fortune, but I’m afraid I don’t agree. Besides, there’s no need for them to know about it. I will ask you to keep this between us.’

‘Of… of course I will,’ Fortinbras agreed after a slight stutter. ‘Bilbo, you are sure?’

‘Yes, Fortinbras,’ Bilbo said, even more resolute now. ‘I am. Can you organise it for me?’

Fortinbras scrutinised him a moment longer, then nodded. Now he was all business, and Bilbo smiled at him in gratitude. He felt they understood each other a little better recently. There was a time when Fortinbras would have pushed him about this for hours before accepting Bilbo’s decision.

‘You can have the money to me quickly?’

‘Yes,’ Bilbo confirmed. ‘Just give me a day or so. Some of it is resting in the vaults and I’ll have to withdraw it.’

‘That will let the cat out of the bag,’ Fortinbras pointed out. ‘You know that. They won’t be able to resist gossiping.’

‘They will if they want to keep the tip I’ll be giving them,’ Bilbo said slyly, and Fortinbras chuckled.

‘Poor Ted, he’ll have some sort of apoplexy trying to keep the news to himself, but Poppy will murder him if he lets it out and you end up asking for the tip back.’

‘Or if I suggest to Lalia that her niece and nephew-in-law have become hopelessly loose-lipped and need correction,’ Bilbo added. ‘She’d descend on them in an instant.’

‘Oh yes,’ Fortinbras concurred, ‘and if my wife can’t put them back on the straight and narrow then no one can. Alright, Bilbo, you make sure the funds are with me and I’ll do the rest.’ Fortinbras said nothing more for a moment and Bilbo thought the conversation was over.

Then, abruptly, Fortinbras exploded with, ‘You watch if I don’t give Gandalf a piece of my mind the next time I see him. He’s turned my life on ear these last few weeks!’

‘He won’t be sorry,’ Bilbo informed his cousin. ‘He never is. Gandalf loves nothing more than turning people’s lives on end and then rushing off before he has to face the consequences.’ He heard the resentment in his own voice and deliberately pushed it aside. ‘I’m going to see if the dwarves are ready to go back to Bag End. I’ll need to visit the vault in the morning before we come back. Thank you, Fortinbras.’

‘You’re welcome, Bilbo.’

His decision made, and the arrangements begun, Bilbo felt lighter than he had in a long time.

He’d forgotten how good it felt to be able to do something for someone else. Something that was likely to be appreciated, even if the dwarves would never know what he had done.

***

Something, Thorin knew, was going on.

More than the usual something which had been going for the last week or more, the discussions and negotiations with the Shire-folk.

This just made no sense.

Deals did not suddenly become ten percent cheaper for no apparent reason, no matter what Fortinbras said about ‘discounts for buying in bulk’ and ‘shows of good faith’.

If anything, it should have been the hobbits demanding a show of good faith from his people, not the other way around.

Not that Thorin was going to complain, of course. He trusted the Thain of the Shire as much as he trusted anyone outside of his own kingdom (more than some of those he called his own) and Fortinbras swore to him that there was no catch to this offer, that it was made fairly and honestly.

It was a blessing from Mahal, more than the hobbits could possibly imagine. Thorin had withdrawn a hefty sum for a possible down-payment, fully expecting that he could leave the remains of it, minus some coin for the Company’s travelling expenses, in Bree for a trade caravan to take back to Dís. The coin left over would be all Dís had to see the colony through the winter and with the full payment the hobbits had requested it would have been a truly paltry sum.

Not that the hobbits had been unfair in their dealings. It was just that Ered Luin had so little to begin with.

This extra money would do so much.

If only Thorin could shake the feeling that he was missing something.

And that that something had to do with Bilbo Baggins.

Bilbo had had a long meeting with the Thain the previous evening, then he had disappeared for several hours that morning. Thorin had thought little of it until he arrived at the Great Smials and heard of the change of plan.

Had Bilbo been organising this discount for them? Was it his doing? Something had to have prompted it. Such strokes of good luck did not just fall out of the sky for no reason.

Bilbo must be involved. It was too convenient to be a coincidence.

Now Thorin would have to work out how to repay the debt. Somehow.

Charity was not a sword Thorin cared to have hanging over him.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven: Matter of Fact

‘You have everything prepared?’ Thorin asked Glóin as his cousin entered Bilbo’s dining room and sank into a seat. Most of the Company were sitting around the table, entertaining themselves in some form or another. The Thain had held a special celebratory dinner last night to mark the successful conclusion of the negotiations, with plenty of ale, and there were more than a few sore heads being nursed this morning.

Thorin’s was not one of them, of course. He didn’t get drunk in public for a number of reasons.

Most of which involved preserving his dignity, but at least one of which was Dwalin’s strict rule about ‘Not making my job any harder than it needs to be, damnit, Thorin!’

Thorin humoured him, because they had always known he had a number of enemies in Ered Luin who would like to stab him in the back. There was no need to present it to them and hand them the dagger.

‘Of course,’ Glóin responded to his query. ‘Don’t I always? We can leave in the morning. We’ve even got ponies to go as far as Bree, though we’ll have to leave them there. If they go any farther, then the stable-master can’t retrieve them.’

Any further conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Bilbo, with Fíli and Kíli as his ever-present shadows. Thorin was more than slightly curious about why the boys were so firmly glued to their hobbit friend. He knew that Balin had asked the hobbit to take them under his wing while they were in the Shire, but the boys seemed to have taken it even farther than that. Bilbo was rarely without them at his side.

‘Serious discussions?’ Fíli asked Thorin carefully, as the three took seats around the table. Thorin had been relieved to see the lad lose a little of his sadness and gravity in the last week or so, but Fíli still checked with him instinctively every time he entered a room and kept tabs on Thorin wherever he went.

Thorin knew a lot of people assumed he had no idea how devoted Fíli and Kíli were to him, and how seriously Fíli took his position as heir, but that was not the case. Thorin knew, and did his best to reassure, but he could only do so much to ease their concerns about Ered Luin’s future.

You could not force the sun to shine when the clouds were pouring rain upon you.

‘Only making sure all is ready,’ Thorin said now, letting the calm in his eyes ease Fíli’s tension. ‘Glóin has done well. We are prepared to leave for the Iron Hills come morning.’

‘Time to visit Cousin Dain,’ Kíli commented wryly, and a few of the dwarves chuckled. This was far from a typical family visit.

‘I wish I had known you were planning to leave tomorrow,’ Bilbo interjected, with a slight irritation which surprised Thorin. Was the hobbit not looking forward to being free of his unwanted guests? Thorin had thought this was a good way of thanking him for the mysterious help he had clearly given them; getting out of his hair as soon as possible.

Even more puzzling, Thorin saw Kíli perk up suddenly, while Fíli’s eyes locked onto Thorin’s face as if he was expecting Mahal’s own wisdom to spill from Thorin’s lips.

Chance would be a fine thing.

Wary, because such excitement in his nephews was out of character at the moment, Thorin asked, ‘Is there a problem, Bilbo?’

‘Not as such,’ Bilbo replied, waving his hand dismissively, ‘but I’m going to have to move very quickly to be ready to go by tomorrow, and Fortinbras will not be amused when I disappear yet again without much warning. I had meant to actually tell him I was going this time. In person. Goodness knows letters are a sore subject between us at the moment.’

A worrying suspicion was dawning in Thorin’s mind but, determined to be fair, he settled on asking another question first.

‘Were you planning to go somewhere?’

‘Of course,’ Bilbo responded, as if that should be blatantly obvious. ‘I need to travel to Rivendell, to speak with Lord Elrond. Your Company are going in that general direction, I might as well travel part of the way with you.’

There was a long moment of quiet in the room, and Thorin took a deep breath before asking Bilbo tightly, ‘Did you not think it might be helpful to ask me about these plans before you settled on them, Master Baggins?’

***

Bilbo had no intention of letting the dwarves see how close he was to quaking in his boots.

What he was doing went beyond rude. It was probably approaching the edges of unwise. He ought to have spoken to Thorin about his plans days ago. He could have explained his intention to go to Rivendell, asked to join the Company on the journey.

Answered the questions Thorin would undoubtedly have about his fitness to fight if the need arose, based on what had happened with the orcs. Thorin had let it go then, but this was different. This was a journey that would last hundreds of miles, through some dangerous lands.

He could have done all of this in private, where the dwarves’ leader could make his own mind up about the risks without needing to consider anyone else’s opinion.

Instead, Bilbo was trying to force Thorin’s hand in front of his Company, to escape the need to answer those questions at all.

It could so easily explode in his face, the tentative truce he had with Thorin failing to withstand the weight.

Because the King of the Dwarves knew what he was doing, Bilbo was sure.

He had not bought Bilbo’s irritation about leaving without speaking to Fortinbras for a second, even though it had a shred of truth in it. Bilbo was regretful that he was about to disappear on the Thain for the third time in a two months, but it could not be helped.

He had to go to Rivendell and speak to Elrond and the twins.

The Bounders had found and spoken to a Ranger on the borders of the Shire a few days ago, and he had sent a message to Bilbo. There were only a few Rangers assigned to guard the Shire. The majority had other tasks, and lately those tasks required help from the Shire’s guardians more often than not.

If they were to protect the Shire fully from the orcish threat, then they would need help. More help than one armed hobbit could provide.

Bilbo could think of only one place that help might come from.

The elves had ridden to their rescue before. Perhaps, if asked, they would do so again.

Bilbo did not trust that the orcs would leave the Shire alone when the dwarves left.

For a start, how would they know the dwarves had left? It was not as if any of the orcs were left to report the Company’s movements and Bilbo had little faith in the orcs’ desire to check their facts before attacking.

Killing a few dozen hobbits before finding that their quarry had already departed would hardly present a major moral dilemma to orcs.

Bilbo wanted to make sure his fellow hobbits were protected, and that meant getting to Rivendell to persuade the elves in person.

A task that would likely be quicker and easier if he was travelling with Thorin’s Company than if he was on his own. Alone, no matter how much faith he had in his own skills, he could not even be sure of making it to Rivendell alive.

The things a person would do for pride. He should have just had the conversation with Thorin.

He should have just admitted why he found orcs the most difficult of enemies.

But he had not. Could not. The waking dreams made him feel weak, and he hated to admit to weakness.

Of course, all of this could completely backfire, particularly if he did not stop wool-gathering and actually answer Thorin’s question.

‘I did not think it would be a problem,’ Bilbo replied, which was probably the most dishonest answer he had ever given to a question. ‘I will provide my own supplies and be sure to pull my weight, and it is not as if I will be going with you all of the way. Once we near Rivendell I will strike off on my own. I am only one more person.’

Bilbo met Thorin’s eyes reluctantly, and shivered at the suspicion which filled them once more.

It should not matter what the dwarf thought. If he refused to allow Bilbo to accompany them, as Bilbo was sure he was about to, then they would never see one another again.

If Bilbo lost his good opinion, what of it?

Yet, somehow, the thought still made his heart ache.

***

What Thorin simply could not understand was why Bilbo… Master Baggins… had not simply asked if he could accompany them.

It would have been simple enough. It would have been polite.

It would have given Thorin a chance to think about whether he wished to take the hobbit along on this journey or not.

Why the subterfuge? What was the hobbit hiding? What did he hope to gain?

‘It can’t hurt, can it, Uncle?’ Kíli asked innocently, when Thorin did not immediately respond to Master Baggins’ words. ‘Bilbo’s right, he’s only one more person.’

And that, Thorin suspected, was exactly what Master Baggins had been hoping for, and was the one thing Thorin would have wanted to avoid.

For, now, he could not refuse without upsetting his nephews. They had become fond of their hobbit friend and obviously wanted him to join them. They were also not alone. A number of the Company were now friendly with the hobbit, and would be annoyed if Thorin refused his request.

All of this would cause disharmony, just as they were about to embark upon a months-long journey.

The temptation to refuse anyway, to make the point that he would not be pushed into doing something by anyone, was very strong. Thorin did not have to be liked, he only needed to be obeyed. It did not truly matter what his Company thought.

Except that he did not enjoy being at odds with those he travelled with, and conflict within his own group could be dangerous if things did go amiss.

Then Thorin remembered his certainty that he owed Master Baggins for the coin they had saved. If this was the repayment that the hobbit wished to insist upon then, as a matter of honour, Thorin had little choice but to accept.

‘Master Baggins is, of course, free to join us,’ Thorin said, deliberately hiding his irritation. ‘In fact, we will accompany him all the way to Rivendell. It is on our way,’ he continued, speaking to Bilbo now, ‘and I would hate for you to come to harm we might have prevented. We could hardly allow you to travel alone when the danger would be so great.’

‘Thank you,’ Master Baggins replied, and Thorin was sure there was regret in the tone. ‘I will make my preparations today, and be ready for the morning.’

‘Nori, take a message to the Thain informing him that Bilbo will leave with us tomorrow,’ Thorin commanded. Nori rose, looking somewhat confused at Thorin’s choice of messenger, and Thorin realised what he had done.

‘No, not you,’ he corrected, with a wave of his hand. ‘Apologies, Ori, I meant you.’

‘Of course,’ Ori agreed, looking pleased to have been given a job to do. The group began to scatter as Ori and Bilbo both moved away, and others of the Company joined them. Thorin heard Bofur exclaim happily about Bilbo joining them, and Dori check that his brother was sure of the way to the Great Smials.

Amongst all the movement, he signalled to Balin and Dwalin, and the three of them slipped out of the room to find somewhere to talk.

***

That was it, then.

Bilbo had his answer, and it was the answer he had wanted.

So why did he feel so let down?

Bilbo laughed to himself, chuckling over his own foolishness. He knew exactly why he felt let down.

First, because King Thorin had made it quite clear that he was allowing Bilbo along because he did not trust Bilbo’s skills to see him safely to Rivendell.

And second…

Because he was, once again, only Master Baggins.

He had preferred being Bilbo.

***

‘What in the blazes was that all about?’ Dwalin asked as soon as the three of them were alone.

‘I wish I knew,’ Thorin responded bluntly.

‘He may truly have thought it would not be a problem,’ Balin pointed out fairly. ‘The protocol is different here, we have seen it time and again.’

‘I’m pretty sure that inviting yourself along on someone else’s trip is rude wherever you are,’ Dwalin objected. ‘Mahal knows it’s not as if I object to the lad coming, Balin. I just don’t understand why he felt the need to do it like that! None of his arguments were anything but rubbish, even I could see that. He didn’t believe them any more than we did.’

‘No,’ Thorin said, and Dwalin could hear his own confusion reflected in Thorin’s voice, ‘he did not. Either way, it does not truly matter. We owe him a debt, I am sure of it, and it is a debt we will pay. My only concern is to be sure he is safe in battle. I will not endanger the Company or our aim because Master Baggins… loses his focus. The incident when we fought the orcs worried us all.’

‘Yes,’ Balin said slowly. ‘It did.’ Dwalin watched his brother carefully, curious about what had caught his imagination. Usually when Balin’s mouth slowed it was to compensate for his brain working at ten times its normal speed. After a second, Balin’s eyes cleared and he focused on the two of them once more.

‘Why not let me speak to Bilbo about that?’ he suggested to Thorin. ‘I am not the warrior the two of you are…’

‘Bollocks!’ Dwalin announced, not willing to let that stand, and Balin gave him a pleased smile.

‘The blade is clearly my second choice,’ he amended, ‘whereas it is your first. It makes me less intimidating. Also, I am old…’

This time it was Thorin who interrupted, his eyes twinkling as he also exclaimed, ‘Bollocks!’

Balin began to laugh.

‘Very well, very well,’ he conceded. ‘I am slightly older than Thorin, which makes me little more than a spring chicken, but for some reason encourages people to confide in me. Perhaps I can convince Bilbo to tell me about whatever affected him that day. I presume you will trust my judgement about whether we need to worry?’

‘Of course,’ Dwalin answered, at the same time that Thorin said, ‘Completely.’

‘Good,’ Balin concluded. ‘I will speak to him tonight.’

***

‘Master Baggins, might I come in?’

Bilbo’s head jerked up, startled by the voice coming from the slightly open door. He had not pulled it all the way shut; enjoying, for one more night, the sound of cheerful voices echoing around Bag End.

None of the dwarves had ever come to Bilbo’s rooms to find him. If they had, Bilbo would have expected it to be one of the young ones rather than Balin.

‘Of course,’ Bilbo replied after a moment. ‘Please, have a seat,’ he directed as Balin entered, gesturing at the armchair he kept near the fireplace. Bilbo himself knelt by the bed, checking that he had everything he would need. Now, he rose and sat on the foot of the bed instead.

‘I think I am almost ready,’ he told Balin, assuming that the dwarf had come to check on him. ‘I have travelling gear, of course, and I managed to purchase enough food for myself in Hobbiton earlier.’

‘You need not worry about that too much,’ Balin assured him. His demeanour was as friendly as always, but something about the way he was studying Bilbo closely made Bilbo feel oddly nervous. ‘We will hunt as we go, and Glóin will have fought for the best possible deal, so we should have plenty. I would be more worried about tonight’s food, actually. Bombur is determined to waste none of what we cannot take with us. I have a feeling it is going to be a very eclectic meal.’

Bilbo chuckled, though it was less enthusiastic than it might otherwise have been.

‘We are all set, then,’ he said with forced cheerfulness.

‘We are,’ Balin confirmed. ‘Bilbo, there is something I need to ask you.’

‘Yes?’ Bilbo replied, and he knew he sounded wary even though he told himself to relax. The question could be about anything.

‘What is it about orcs that causes you such trouble?’ Balin continued, obviously choosing his words with care.

Bilbo sighed, and tried desperately to think of what he could say that would be truthful and still give little away. He could understand why Balin felt he had to ask – wasn’t this exactly what he had feared would happen if he told the dwarves he would join them? - but this was such a personal thing.

‘If you ask anyone in the Shire,’ Bilbo said, at length, ‘they can tell you about the Fell Winter. Even those too young to remember it. It was the coldest winter we had ever had. The Brandywine River froze, and it left us vulnerable. Very vulnerable. The wolves came first, but the orcs followed. Not many – Gandalf tells me few had made it this far from their usual haunts – but any is too many in the Shire. It… did not end well for us.’

‘I am sorry,’ Balin said quietly, and Bilbo could hear his sincerity. He forced a small smile.

‘Thank you.’

‘How old were you?’ Balin asked.

‘Too young to do anything about it,’ Bilbo replied. ‘Old enough to understand how bad things were. We began to starve, and we could not stop the wolves when they attacked. The Rangers and the elves saved us in the end, but it was already too late for some.’

He paused a moment, trying to think of some way to bring the conversation to an end without revealing any more.

‘I do not care for orcs, Balin,’ he finally stated. ‘That sounds obvious, I know. Who does?’ He sighed. ‘I have only faced them once or twice since the Fell Winter. What you saw is memory taking over, but not dangerously so. I have never hurt anyone but an orc. I did not hear Thorin’s command, true, but I did what I thought we were there to do. I killed our enemies. It is not ideal, but none of those I have fought with considered me a risk. I am told I am simply – overenthusiastic, when it comes to orcs.’

‘In that, lad, you are in good company,’ Balin informed him, trying to lighten the mood. ‘I’ve never met a soul with as much enthusiasm for killing orcs as my brother, and Thorin is not far behind him. Thorin might actually be worse, he’s just less obvious about it.’

Bilbo allowed his lips to twist in amusement.

‘If we do find the orcs on our tail,’ Balin continued, ‘Dwalin will stick close to you.’

Bilbo started to protest, but Balin held a hand up to prevent him.

‘I am sorry if that offends you, Bilbo, but it is how it must be. I believe that you are unlikely to be a danger to any of us, and I know that you deal with orcs well enough, but if we do need to stop you – either from hurting an orc or from hurting yourself – Dwalin is best placed to do so. You wish to travel with us. That is our only condition.’

Bilbo considered arguing further, hurt and annoyed at this show that he was not trusted completely, especially after the sting of Thorin’s words earlier, but he knew what Balin was saying. Accept this, or make your own way to Rivendell.

And truly, was it so harsh a condition? Did it really matter if it was Dwalin next to him, or someone else? He could fight either way.

‘Agreed,’ Bilbo replied, and Balin stood and bowed.

‘In that case, I will leave you to finish,’ he told Bilbo courteously. ‘I know I check everything at least three times before I am sure I have remembered all I need.’

‘Not four?’ Bilbo asked, hoping that a joke would restore their usual friendliness.

‘Ah, it probably would be,’ Balin smiled, ‘but at three my brother takes the pack from me and refuses to let me touch it again before we leave. Younger brothers are a great trial, Bilbo!’

With that, he left Bilbo alone. Bilbo sat still for several moments, then turned back to his packing once again.

He felt rather a fool, right now. He had created a mountain out of a mole-hill, enacted a scene that morning all for nothing.

Balin had not pushed at all. Bilbo was still able to travel with them. No one was insisting on every detail of his past.

What an idiot he was sometimes!

Perhaps Fortinbras was right.

Maybe solitude really had destroyed his knack for dealing with other people.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve: Beyond Bearing

The inhabitants of Bree were too used to travellers for the arrival of a company of dwarves and a hobbit to arouse any comment. Balin was very happy that they passed basically unnoticed, and he knew Thorin and Dwalin shared the feeling. While it was unlikely that a full-blood orc would come wandering into the middle of Bree to ask about their prey, the dwarves of Ered Luin had long suspected that half-orcs, who looked enough like men to be able to pass in their towns for a short time, were used as spies by some of the orc-bands that still existed in the north. The less attention the dwarves attracted the better.

In fact, the only part of their day-long stay which was of any interest at all was the drinking contest.

Bofur had heard about a potential contest – or had proposed one, Balin wasn’t entirely sure which – around lunchtime on the day they arrived. He had waited until just before dinner to announce its existence, and his intention to take part, to the rest of them.

Thorin’s response had been immediate.

‘You are not taking part in a drinking contest!’ he ordered with utter certainty, his face clouding with irritation that Bofur should even have suggested it. ‘We are attempting not to draw attention, Bifur.’

‘I’m Bofur,’ the other dwarf corrected, though with the matter-of-fact air of one who has said this many a time.

‘Whichever one you are,’ Thorin replied impatiently, clenched fist resting on the table before him as if he would quite like to thump it on the wood but was restraining himself, ‘you are still not partaking.’

‘Well, I suppose if you’re going to insist then I won’t,’ Bofur said easily, ‘but you’d be making a mistake.’ His voice held no fear or trepidation at all, despite his open defiance of his King. Balin had never quite been able to decide whether this was the result of a deep well of courage or a complete and utter unconcern about the potential consequences of Thorin’s legendary temper.

Balin had seen generals in Thror’s army, dwarves who had fought campaign after campaign in their long lives, cower before Thorin when he was driven to rage.

The one time Thorin had unleashed that level of displeasure on Bofur (and he had called him Bifur then, as well. The more annoyed Thorin was, the less likely he was to pick the correct name), the miner had smiled calmly, patted him on the arm and assured him that there was no need to fuss.

Dwalin had, despite his occasional frustration with Bofur’s carefree manner, been all for presenting him with a medal of valour.

Bofur demonstrated said valour again now, not batting an eye in the face of Thorin’s fierce frown.

‘Oh, would I?’ Thorin asked, after drawing a deep breath and controlling his voice. His first instinct was always to shout but he would not do so here, not with so many Men so close to hand. Much good it would do his argument to be the one causing a scene.

‘Yes,’ Bofur confirmed, ‘you would. We want to be commonplace. Everyday. Not even worth a second glance. What’s more commonplace than a dwarf downing ale and drinking a bunch of men under the table in the process? If we keep too much to ourselves, we’ll cause more comment than if we mix a little.’

They all stared at him for a long moment, absorbing this contention in silence. Bombur, demonstrating his own bravery, was the first to speak in his brother’s defence.

‘He has a point, Thorin.’

‘Aye, he does,’ Dwalin added almost immediately. He’d been returning from the bar when Bofur made his original announcement and he now stood behind Bofur and placed a hand on his shoulder. It was his way of making Thorin think, for Dwalin rarely interfered with Thorin’s decisions in public and he knew it would get his King’s attention.

Thorin did not immediately respond. As he considered his decision, he unclenched his hand and pressed it flat to the table, stretching it for a moment to release the tension. He was staring across at Balin, but not seeing him.

After a pause of a few breaths, Thorin turned his focus back to Bofur.

‘You will not enter alone,’ Thorin commanded. ‘Balin stays down here to keep an eye on you, though he won’t be participating,’ Balin nearly thanked his friend for that aloud. He had taken longer than he would have liked to recover from his last encounter with copious amounts of ale.

Bofur nodded at both of these conditions, then waited for the final instruction he was sure was coming.

‘Break anything in this bar and I will break your head as an apology to the barkeep,’ Thorin finished.

Bofur chuckled and nodded again.

‘I’ll behave,’ he promised cheerfully.

‘No,’ Thorin countered, ‘you won’t. You never do. As long as you are no worse than any other contestant, however, I will pretend I know nothing about it. Decide between yourselves who else will be joining in, though if there is an entry fee then I will not be paying it.’

With that, Thorin rose and strode out of the room.

‘Must everything be a battle with him?’ Bilbo asked, once he was certain Thorin was out of earshot, his tone annoyed. ‘I have never seen anyone so excitable!’

‘Haven’t been looking in many mirrors lately, I take it?’ Glóin replied. Balin closed his eyes for the briefest of moments and held his breath, but the insulted response he’d been expecting never came.

Instead, he saw Bilbo meet Glóin’s eyes, fight back a smile and shrug almost shyly. Glóin chuckled, then turned his attention to Bofur.

‘You know I’m in,’ he told the miner gruffly. ‘Got to show these Men how lightweight their weak ale has made them.’

This led to a round of muttering about the pathetic state of mannish fermented products, and the innate superiority of anything produced by a dwarf.

Bilbo only shook his head.

***

Of course, the biggest surprise about the whole thing was not Thorin’s concession that they could take part.

It was the sight of Ori, his brothers beaming proudly behind him, surveying his defeated opponents with an air of surprise.

‘I hope they’re going to be able to walk tomorrow,’ he whispered to Dori, just loud enough for Balin to hear, as he prodded Bofur’s shoulder gently and received nothing but a snort in response. ‘Thorin will be ever so mad if they can’t!’

‘Don’t worry, little brother,’ Dori murmured in response, patting Ori’s shoulder gently. ‘I’ll not let any of them slow us down.’

He was as good as his word. Two hours after daybreak, all of the Company were upright, packed and gathered outside the Prancing Pony, ready to leave at Thorin’s order.

Bofur, Glóin and Kíli were green around the gills, sopping wet and utterly miserable, but they were there and they kept up. Whenever one of them began to lag behind, Dori would turn and look at them with utter calm. Whichever of them had slowed would speed up again immediately and force himself to make up any ground lost.

Balin had a multitude of questions.

He asked none of them.

***

Bilbo was not enamoured of the Trollshaws.

They were stunning, of course, particularly to one who had lived all of his life in the Shire and had no prior experience of such a place. The trees were thickly clustered on either side of the Great East Road, but still allowed light to filter through and guide their way. This light had allowed all sorts of foliage to grow under the canopy, and Bilbo spotted a number of plants he had never seen before, but knew of from his library at home. Yellow sunbursts with leaves of the palest green. Flowers that looked much like bluebells, but flushed pink at the tips and twice the size of any bluebell Bilbo had come across.

Part of him longed to explore, but Thorin kept a brisk pace and Bilbo was only able to search about when they camped. That was usually around dusk, and he did not like to venture far from the camp, even in the pursuit of such loveliness.

Bilbo had long known that there could be beauty in anything, even a death-trap.

Sometimes especially a death-trap.

Before they had yet reached the Last Bridge, Bilbo had been aware of ancient fortresses on the hills in the distance. They loomed grimly over the land below, a testament to a fallen civilisation, and Bilbo was not the only one who watched them suspiciously. Too many things could be sheltered in such ruins, and the dense trees and tall rocks which filled the landscape would provide plenty of cover for anything that left that shelter in search of prey.

Ambushes would be only too easy to arrange here, and while the Road sped them on their way, it also told any attackers exactly where they could be found.

That alone would have limited his enjoyment of their travel, but it was not the only thing that preyed upon his mind.

The boulders could also claim that honour.

There were everywhere. Not just close to the rock formations that must have spawned them, but in the midst of the trees, in clearings that the Company passed, once or twice even on the Road. Many were taller than a dwarf and as wide across as a hobbit.

They reminded Bilbo how this place had received its name.

For, while there could have been any number of perfectly reasonable explanations for their presence, Bilbo was gripped by a certainty that trolls had been responsible for the random placement of these objects which no man, dwarf, elf or hobbit could have moved. In his imagination, they had the look of items which had been thrown at another, or picked up casually and then dropped when the creature holding them tired of whatever it had been doing.

Bilbo muttered a daily prayer to Yavanna that the trolls who had scattered these stones were long gone, but he was filled with a tension that carried over into his sleeping hours, leading him to dream of huge campfires surrounded by ghastly figures that casually discussed mincing him up and gnawing on his bones.

It did not put him in the best of moods, and for several days he had to bite his tongue not to snap at whichever dwarf spoke to him. Fíli and Kíli noticed almost immediately, throwing Bilbo worried looks several times a day. Ori, too, took note after Bilbo nearly tore a strip off him simply for asking if he was done with his bowl.

Bilbo - aware that he was being utterly unbearable, even as he found himself unable to stop - waited for them to draw away from him. He watched them almost as closely as they watched him, though he hoped he was subtler about it.

He watched, as the three youngest members of the Company formed themselves into the strangest honour guard the dwarves had likely ever seen. For, rather than protecting him from attacks and assassination, their purpose appeared to be to protect him from all potential annoyances. Including those inside his own mind.

Bofur, at his loudest and most cheerful, determined that Bilbo should join them in conversation, was distracted by Ori and guided away towards Dwalin. The young scribe had obviously guessed that Dwalin, who was almost as twitchy in this place as Bilbo, would clamp down on Bofur in the name of safety. There was, he informed Bofur, ‘no need to let the whole of the Trollshaws know that we’re here.’

Nori, who made the mistake of borrowing Bilbo’s pipe and weed without his permission – whether he intended to give this back later, Bilbo never did ascertain – found himself faced with the irate Heir of Ered Luin. Fíli held his hand out with the most peremptory look Bilbo had ever seen cross his face, saying not a word, and Nori simply pulled the pipe out of his mouth, removed the pipeweed from his cloak pocket, and passed both things over in silence.

Fíli returned them to Bilbo’s pack just as quietly, with no idea that Bilbo had returned from collecting firewood and had seen the entire incident.

Kíli, sweet as he was, was the one to tackle the source of the trouble. He settled down each night as close as he could get to Bilbo’s bedroll – well, as close as he could get without prompting Thorin to ask why his nephew was climbing into bed with their hobbit companion – and waited until they were all almost asleep.

Then he began to sing, oh-so-softly, under his breath. They were songs Bilbo had never heard, with strong, steady tempos, in a language he could not hope to comprehend. They captured his attention and his imagination, evoked images of old traditions and tasks, carried out by generations of dwarves. They were, quite plainly, the mining songs that Kíli and Fíli had previously spoken of, designed to keep a rhythm during long hours in the dark.

And Bilbo, who had never seen the deep caverns in which they were usually sung, who had never mined a day in his life, who understood not a word, felt them wrap around his mind and lead him into another world.

He dreamt of trolls no longer.

***

Thorin was well aware of what his boys were up to.

Most of the Company were. All had marked Master Baggins’ tension and watched him swallow ill-advised words.

Few of them were strangers to bad dreams, which were hardly limited to those who had fought in the War, and they all recognised the signs of restless sleep.

Thorin could admit that he was proud of the way that Fíli, Kíli and Ori had stepped in to protect their companion. He watched them gently manipulate events in the camp with a benign gaze, wondering if Master Baggins knew how lucky he was to have earned such friendship, and how rare it was for dwarves to take so strongly to one who was not their own.

They had risen early that morning, determined to get a good start on the day. A number of the Company were packing up the camp. Bombur was tidying away breakfast. Óin was gathering some healing herbs that he had spotted in the morning’s light. Dwalin was carrying out one of his periodic inspections of their weapons, and Thorin was taking a rare chance to watch his boys.

It was while he was watching, absent-mindedly humming the tune that Kíli had been singing last night when he slipped into sleep, that life decided to take him unawares.

One day, when all of this was done, he was going to have several choice words for life about its spiteful tricks, and why they should not be practised on good dwarves who had suffered quite enough shocks for one lifetime.

His first indication that something was amiss was not subtle.

‘Óin!’ Glóin bellowed. Thorin looked up to see that his cousin had abandoned the bedroll he was folding and was staring intently at the trees behind Thorin. When he received no response, Glóin swore viciously and began to move, grabbing his axe from the ground. ‘OÍN!!’ he roared, breaking into a run when he still got no reply.

By this time Thorin had also retrieved his weapon, as had every other member of the Company. When Glóin began to run after his brother, they followed without hesitation. Thorin had no idea what was going on but Glóin was not the type to panic for no reason.

Thankfully Glóin, shorter and stockier than Thorin, did not move as quickly and was easy enough to catch. Thorin drew alongside his cousin just as they reached a small incline and they slithered down together, the dew-dampened plants crushed under their boots as they struggled for grip.

Glóin’s attention was fixed on a point at the bottom of the incline. When Thorin looked over to see what the problem was, he was so surprised that he nearly kept sliding and fell face-first onto the floor.

‘Mahal’s balls, has he lost his mind?’ Dwalin gasped beside Thorin. Thorin seconded that thought, and added a few curses of his own inside the privacy of his head.

What in the name of their Maker had possessed Óin to wrestle a bear?

Admittedly it was more a cub than an adult, but still.

Was his entire family utterly insane?

‘Don’t just stand there,’ Óin suddenly shouted at them, coming up for air as the bear paused for a moment in its efforts to shake the dwarf off its back. ‘Help me. It’s got my trumpet!’

Glóin, of course, had not been ‘just standing there’ at all. He had continued to run towards the fight and now slashed his axe at the bear’s underbelly as it reared up onto its hind legs and began to shake itself again.

In any other circumstances, the scene would have been entertaining. The bear was not an accomplished dancer, but it certainly made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in talent.

Unfortunately, it had also just remembered that it had paws and could use them. It swiped out with one paw, batting Glóin across the clearing so that he disappeared into the dense undergrowth with a yelp of pain. Then it began to reach over its shoulder with the other, trying to grip Óin and pull him around where the bear could seize him in its mouth.

Thorin had seen a carcass left behind by a bear once, years before.

It had been a mangled mess.

Oín’s shout had prompted Thorin to action, as intended, and he was only steps away from the bear and its prey when Glóin went flying. Now, he aimed his sword at the bear’s nearest limb, hoping it would abandon its attempts to reach Óin. As soon as he felt himself make contact, he darted back out of reach, reluctant to suffer Glóin’s fate and be removed from the fight.

The bear, wounded and furious, opened its mouth wide and growled its fury. Thorin battled the instinct to freeze, to curl up and play dead, which might help him but would not help Óin. Forcing his muscles to unlock, circling to get another opening, Thorin did not see exactly what happened next. Only the bear, clumsy and uncoordinated, tumbling to the ground and going still, while Óin rolled away to avoid being trapped underneath it.

Thorin took a breath to be sure that the bear would not be getting back up, then glanced up to check on his Company. His eyes were immediately drawn to Kíli, who stood with his feet firmly planted and his bow still outstretched in his left hand. Thorin looked back at the bear and saw the broken arrow end lying next to its mouth.

‘Well shot, Kíli,’ he called to his nephew, giving a small smile as Kíli beamed with pleasure.

Then Óin, his breath returned, let out a victorious cry. One hand was raised triumphantly in the air, his crushed ear trumpet clenched in his fist.

It was too much for Glóin, just emerging from the nearby plant-life, to tolerate. Despite the hand clutching ribs that Thorin was sure were broken, Glóin managed a growl that the bear would have been proud of.

‘You Valar-damned idiot,’ he howled at his brother in utter fury. ‘You’ve got a cursed spare!’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen: High and Low

Glóin did not say a word to his brother for the best part of three days.

He said a great many words, most of them at such a volume that even Óin could not possibly miss them, but none of them were directed to his brother.

Well, Bilbo supposed that rather depended on your viewpoint, actually.

As almost every single word was on the subject of ‘dimwits with more skull than sense, who nearly got themselves and their family killed’, one could quite easily argue that the entire diatribe was said (or shouted) to Óin. But as Glóin didn’t actually use his brother’s name, look at him while he was speaking or pause for a response at any point, it would have been difficult to prove conclusively.

Bilbo would have been more concerned had the rest of the Company not been quite so amused by the display. As it was, the fact that not even Ori batted an eyelid at the ongoing drama led Bilbo to believe that this was a not infrequent occurrence, and probably nothing to worry about.

At the close of this three-day period, Glóin threw the now-undented ear trumpet at Óin and announced, ‘And for Mahal’s sake, keep hold of it this time!’

Bilbo took that to mean the disagreement was now over.

Families really were the strangest thing, he thought to himself, eyeing the brothers with great curiosity. When Bilbo and Bungo had begun to disagree constantly, their response had been to avoid conversation as far as possible, and then later to avoid one another. There had been almost endless polite silence, not this deluge of words which ended in quiet only when the argument was over.

Bilbo thought perhaps he would prefer this manner of disagreeing, but he was not willing to commit to that viewpoint yet.

After all, he hadn’t spent several days being yelled at yet.

He had no doubt the novelty would wear off quickly.

Glóin’s ongoing grumbling had provided distraction when there was little else to attract their attention. Now that Kíli was doing such a good job of protecting Bilbo’s sleep, Bilbo was feeling much less tired and less likely to eviscerate someone for looking at him the wrong way. He had spent some time searching their surroundings for possible dangers but, since none seemed to be forthcoming, instead turned his attention to the dwarves.

Some might argue they were a danger in themselves, particularly given Oín’s recent behaviour, but Bilbo found them strangely comforting.

There was a rhythm to travelling in a group that he was unused to, even if he had spent time with both elves and Rangers in the past. Each member had their own duties, which seemed to have been set without much discussion, for Bilbo had never heard any.

He was not at all surprised to find that Bombur took care of almost all of the cooking, assisted by his brother when he could command Bofur’s attention for long enough. When he could not get Bofur to settle to the task, Óin tended to step in and help, in between making sure their healing supplies were as well stocked as possible.

Dori was involved in a seemingly endless round of mending, whether it be clothes, bedrolls or packs. Bifur, Glóin and Nori examined the rest of their supplies most days, making sure everything was still fit for use. Dwalin insisted on seeing their weapons (except Bilbo’s, but Bilbo had decided to present his sword for inspection anyway) daily to be sure that they were fit for use. Fíli, Kíli and Ori had first responsibility for setting camp and packing it away again each evening and morning.

Balin kept a weather eye on just about everything that was happening, and Thorin organised the watches and led the way when they were travelling.

Bilbo had wondered why Bofur got away with wandering off and abandoning his duties so often, until the morning that he returned from one of his wanders, spoke briefly to Thorin, and then led them carefully around a pack of wolves tearing a meal apart close to the edge of the road.

‘Is that what you do?’ Bilbo had asked Bofur quietly that evening. ‘Spot trouble?’

‘After a fashion,’ Bofur replied. ‘I ask the stone if there’s anything nearby I should worry about. Takes a bit of interpreting sometimes, because stone doesn’t really worry about the same things we do – not much a pack of wolves can do to a rock except piss on it, and rocks are used to that by and large – but mostly it helps us guess when something’s coming we’d rather not meet.’

Bilbo had discussed the stone-sense with Bofur before, but this particular application of it had never occurred to him. He found it fascinating and Bofur, more than willing to demonstrate, took Bilbo along that evening when he went to ‘see what the road had to say’. There wasn’t much for him to see, of course, except Bofur with his hand pressed to the ground concentrating rather hard, but Bofur explained what he was feeling as best he could and Bilbo enjoyed that as much as anything.

He had heard mention of ‘dwarven magic’ in the past, but nothing he’d read had ever indicated what sort of magic dwarves actually possessed. To learn more of it, to be invited to learn more of it, where so few had before, made Bilbo feel both honoured and accepted.

It had not escaped his notice that, when he had first questioned Bofur on the subject, the miner had looked momentarily to his King.

Nor that Thorin had nodded his permission for the conversation to continue.

***

The next day, Bilbo was given the third watch. It had been a tiresome day of uphill walking, without any particular slackening of the fast pace that Thorin set for them, and Bilbo interpreted Thorin’s decision to take the second watch - instead of his usual third - as a sideways apology. This way, Kíli and Bilbo, who were on first and third respectively, would at least get a solid chunk of sleep.

Bilbo was most of the way through his own turn, and beginning to eagerly anticipate breakfast, when suddenly a small quake shook the camp.

What followed happened so quickly that Bilbo caught only snatches of it.

As Bilbo shoved himself to his feet, sword drawn, Thorin’s eyes flew open and looked directly at him. Before Thorin could ask the question he clearly meant to, another small quake hit, and Bofur shot upright in his own bedroll, already shouting and gesturing with the hand not pressed to the ground.

‘Up, up!’ Bofur called, shoving the blankets away, then grabbing for his pack and mattock with either hand. ‘Everybody up!’

Neither Bilbo nor Thorin hesitated.

Grabbing whatever was nearest, Bilbo simultaneously shoved at Kíli and Fíli with his feet until he was sure they were moving. Thorin reached for Bombur and Dori, their heaviest sleepers, and shook them furiously. Balin, who had woken only seconds behind Thorin, dumped water on their campfire to douse the light, though Bilbo knew the smoke and their possessions would make it fairly obvious they had been there. Dwalin hauled a startled Ori to his feet, then began moving to the rear of the camp to make sure he was closest to the threat, settling Grasper and Keeper in his hands as he did so.

‘Troll,’ Bofur called to Thorin, as they all found their feet and their weapons. ‘I think. Whatever it is, not good. Definitely time to leave.’

‘Leave everything you can’t carry,’ Thorin ordered the Company, who were scrambling to collect their belongings. ‘It does us no good if we’re dead. Follow Bofur. GO!’

Bofur took off at a run, presumably away from the disturbance, and they sped off after him.

‘Never been so glad to sleep in my boots,’ Dori gasped as he ran next to Bilbo, his pack somewhat haphazardly slung across his back.

‘Or that I taught you to sleep with your weapons,’ Nori pointed out, and Dori offered him a short nod of agreement. Bilbo knew, from talk around the camp, that Dori was the strongest of them all, but he was already panting quite a bit and Bilbo worried about how long he would be able to run at such a pace.

Unfortunately, it was possible that wasn’t going to be a problem quite as long as Bilbo had hoped.

‘Oi, food!’ an unpleasant, nasally voice called behind them. ‘Where you goin’? No runnin’ away. ’S rude, that is.’

‘We’re devastated to have upset you,’ Bilbo heard Fíli mutter.

‘Quiet,’ Dwalin ordered. ‘We’re making enough noise as it is.’

This was true, though the thundering of their pursuer almost covered their own racket as they scrambled through the forest. There were quite a few thumps and the occasional hiss near Bilbo, which he took to mean that the rest of the Company were having the same problem he was, unable to see their surroundings well. He had stubbed his toe on a rock only a minute or so into their flight and was determinedly ignoring the sharp pain and watering of his eyes.

He’d rather be punched. It would hurt less.

They must have run for another few minutes, the pounding footsteps growing closer far too quickly for Bilbo’s liking, when Thorin suddenly shouted, ‘Split up!’

That was actually very easily accomplished. Bilbo had only vaguely been able to follow the others by listening carefully and looking for movement in the dark. Free of the need to stick together, he heard those on either side of him (he thought Fíli and Dori) speed up as they sprinted away. Bilbo himself tried a different tack. Knowing he was quieter than most of the dwarves, he dove sideways and slid behind the nearest tree he could find, going utterly still.

It took more than a little nerve to stay there, hearing the troll getting closer and closer, but Bilbo knew he would be safe once it outpaced him. He listened closely and realised that the troll did not seem to be the fittest thing on two legs, huffing and panting even more than Dori had. In fact, Bilbo did wonder, from the sound of its breathing, if the troll had a cold. Annoyingly, it was struggling enough that Bilbo was sure they could have outrun the troll entirely… had it not been endowed with legs almost twice the length of Bilbo.

The little quakes continued to approach him and Bilbo was beginning to feel that he had made a terrible mistake, when suddenly he heard Thorin and Dwalin both shout dwarven battle-cries off to his left. The troll veered, clearly distracted by the noise, and headed away from him as fast as it could go. Bilbo wondered which of the Company had been in so much danger that it had prompted Thorin and Dwalin’s intervention.

He stayed still a while longer, then emerged from his hiding place.

This was most definitely Bilbo’s preferred method of fighting. He had a great dislike of being hunted.

Being the hunter, on the other hand, was something a hobbit was well-equipped for – even if most of his fellows would deny they were equipped for anything remotely resembling fighting.

Freed of the immediate risk of capture, Bilbo was able to hurry after the troll and his intended victims. It was not hard to find the trail, all he had to do was follow the utter destruction that the troll had wrought in its charge. Small trees had been trampled, and bushes had been wrenched out of the ground as the troll yanked them out of its way.

Bilbo rushed along in its wake, hoping fervently that Thorin and Dwalin were still leading the troll on a merry chase rather than having to face the thing head on.

Of course, like most of Bilbo’s hopes, that one was not meant to come true.

The troll had caught up with Dwalin in a small clearing, which on second look appeared only to have become a clearing because the troll had bashed half the trees down with the club it was wielding. Dwalin darted back and forth, quicker on his feet than Bilbo would have expected for so large a dwarf, dodging swings and yelling insults at the top of his voice.

‘You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, you dull-witted dunce,’ the dwarf roared. ‘How’d you get to be so fat when you can’t even catch your food?’

Bilbo, who had heard Dwalin lecturing members of the Company on wasting their breath during battle, immediately knew that something was up.

He stopped before he reached the scene of the fight – if fight it could be called – and looked around carefully. He could see nothing close by, though it did briefly occur to him that he could see more now than he had when they began running, and wondered what Dwalin was waiting for.

There must be something, surely.

‘Bilbo!’ he heard abruptly, and he looked up sharply to see Balin waving to him from his perch on a tree branch. It was not a high branch, but it was certainly a better vantage point than he would have found on the ground. ‘Go to the other side.’

Bilbo did not argue. Balin’s words about unity in battle rang in his ears, as they had done for some time following the fight with the orcs, and he knew that the best thing he could do was not interrupt whatever plan the others had in mind.

Hurrying off, he skirted the edges of the makeshift clearing. He kept one eye on Dwalin as the warrior executed a rather impressive pirouette, shouting all the while, and changed direction to avoid having his skull caved in. Bilbo had almost reached the opposite side of the clearing when Dwalin yelled something which most definitely caught his attention.

‘Oh, come on, lads!’ the dwarf exclaimed, sounding more irritated than anything else. ‘Hurry up. I’m running out of things to say here.’

‘When has that ever been a problem before?’ Balin shouted, loud enough for Bilbo to hear and also to attract the attention of the troll. It turned towards him, taking thick branches off a couple of trees with its club as it did so, and began to lumber forward.

Three things happened almost all at once.

Balin threw something, though Bilbo could not see what, directly into the troll’s eyes, prompting it to drop its club and raise both hands to its face.

Thorin rushed in from the side, and dropped to the ground, curling forward so that his back was arched upwards.

And Fíli, wielding Bombur’s battle-spoon for some reason, ran in from behind Balin and used his uncle’s back as a platform to jump high. He swung the battle-spoon in mid-air and caught the troll firmly between the legs.

The troll wailed in agony.

Bilbo winced in instinctive sympathy.

Thorin simply got to his feet, pulled Fíli out of the way as the troll sank to its knees, and yelled again, ‘Go!’

Go they did.

Bilbo still wasn’t sure exactly how many of the Company were around, though he was fairly certain that Kíli must be nearby if the rest of his family were here. This time following Dwalin’s lead, Bilbo shoved his way through the undergrowth, trying to put as much distance between them and the troll as they could while it was distracted.

Balin soon drew even with him and, though he knew he should save his breath, Bilbo could not help asking, ‘Why didn’t we try to kill it?’

‘We don’t need to,’ Balin assured him. ‘Just keep running.’

Well, Bilbo was hardly going to argue with that instruction. Especially as the troll was apparently following them again (trolls must have better protection in that area than hobbits) and was, by the sound of its screaming, less interested in food than in revenge.

‘I’ll grind you to paste, you little rat,’ it screeched, voice a lot higher-pitched than it had been earlier. ‘I’ll make you into a pie!’

Alright, perhaps it hadn’t entirely forgotten about food.

Dwalin suddenly changed direction, heading left instead of straight on, and the others followed him without question. The troll was catching up to them, which Bilbo felt was highly unfair considering all they had done to get rid of the damned thing, but they still had a bit of a lead. Then, up ahead, Bilbo saw a clear area that had to be the Road, just glimpsed through the trees.

Why was Dwalin leading them back to the Road?

They’d have no chance of hiding there, and if the troll continued to gain ground they’d have to try and hide.

Unless the dwarves meant to stand their ground again. In which case, Bilbo would need to follow Balin’s example and get out of the way of those tromping feet. He had no desire to be trampled today, thank you. This was already far more excitement than he appreciated before breakfast.

Battle he could accept, battles happened whether you were ready or not, but all of this running was just unseemly at this hour of the morning.

Catching sight of a shallow spur of rock up ahead, Bilbo adjusted course to aim for that instead of the Road. He ran up the slope, arriving at the top about the same time as the dwarves reached the middle of the Road, and glanced to the side to see the troll grasping at Balin, who had dropped to the back of the pack.

‘Oi!’ Bilbo shouted as loudly as he could, waving to catch the troll’s attention. ‘Over here!’

What he was planning to do once he’d distracted the troll, Bilbo didn’t know. He had a vague plan of scrambling down the back of the spur and hoping that the troll was too dumb to think to move around the side, which even he would admit was not one of his better plans.

Thankfully - and Bilbo offered up yet another prayer to Yavanna later, this one of devout gratitude - it did not matter.

Two thirds of the way across the road, arms outstretched as it tried to reach Bilbo, something strange began to happen to the troll. A hissing noise began, and patches of grey appeared on its face and arm, spreading to the rest of it. The troll stumbled to a halt, arms still stretched before it, and twitched for a moment.

Then it stilled, and did not move again.

‘Oh good,’ Balin said prosaically, though he was leaning forward with his hands on his thighs as he did so. ‘I was a bit worried I was going to be hanging by my hair when the sun came up. That would have been unfortunate. Short hair just does not suit a dwarf. Thank you, Bilbo.’

Bilbo just looked at them all. Then he sighed and made his way down from the spur, only pausing for a moment in surprise when Thorin reached a hand up to help him jump down.

‘You knew that would happen,’ he said, sure enough that he did not make it a question.

‘The name “stone-troll” is apt in more way than one,’ Thorin informed him. ‘They turn to stone when the sun rises.’ When Bilbo sank down to sit on the edge of the spur, relieved to have a moment to catch his breath, Thorin sat next to him. ‘You did not know?’

‘No,’ Bilbo replied simply, leaning back and closing his eyes. ‘We don’t get trolls in the Shire so I’ve never needed to study them.’

‘Then what were you planning to do when it caught you?’ Fíli asked, curious and with a hint of disbelief.

‘Ah,’ Bilbo stumbled. ‘I… hadn’t got quite that far. I would have thought of something.’

‘No doubt,’ Dwalin said slowly, and Bilbo opened his eyes again to see the dwarf looking at him with respect. ‘Thank you, lad,’ he continued, patting him roughly on the shoulder.

‘Now,’ the dwarf continued, clearing his throat, ‘how do we get the rest of them back? We need to see what we can salvage from the camp.’

***

Strangely, retrieving the rest of the Company was actually easier than losing them had been. As they walked back to the camp, they heard a shout and found Dori and Ori approaching the Road from the forest.

‘Is everyone well?’ Dori asked concernedly. ‘Did you manage to distract it long enough?’

‘We did,’ Thorin confirmed, ‘between us. It’s stuck about half a mile that way,’ he jerked his thumb back in the direction they had come.

‘I’ll call Nori, then,’ Ori said quietly. ‘We didn’t want to do it before in case the troll heard us. The sun’s only just come up.’ So saying, Ori baffled Bilbo and his companions by pulling a flute out of his pack.

‘Ori, lad, is this really the time for a concert?’ Dwalin asked, but Ori ignored him. Raising the flute to his lips, he let out a series of high, long notes that soared through the air, setting off a round of birdsong. Ori grinned happily at his brother, and Dori smiled fondly in response.

‘He won’t be long,’ Dori told them calmly. Thorin looked at Balin, who shrugged and settled down to wait. Ori repeated his series of notes once more, a few minutes after the first set, and sure enough, shortly after they heard a crashing in the brush. Nori and Bifur appeared, with Bofur and Bombur in tow.

Bombur immediately walked up to Fíli and held out his hand. He was doing a valiant job of not looking at any of them, which Bilbo was almost certain was due to embarrassment. Fíli handed the battle-spoon over without a pause, then deliberately turned back to his brother as if nothing had happened.

Bombur caught Bilbo looking his way and, more than slightly shame-faced, whispered, ‘By the time I realised I didn’t have it, it was too late.’

Poor Bombur. Bilbo would not have wanted to admit to forgetting his weapon in such company either. ‘Fíli put it to good use,’ he murmured, trying to be reassuring. ‘It ended up being a key part of the plan. Probably best you didn’t take it, really.’

Bombur smiled shyly in thanks. At the same time, perhaps seeking to create a distraction for his cousin, Bifur said a few sentences in the language Bilbo now knew as Khuzdul. Seeing Bilbo’s confusion, Kíli translated.

‘They saw Óin and Glóin not long ago,’ he told Bilbo. ‘The two of them were going to circle back and see if anything we left behind could still be rescued.’

Alas, when they got back to camp they found that a good chunk of their gear had been trampled by the troll as it chased them. Even worse, the troll hadn’t been alone.

Two equally ugly, and equally stony, figures were frozen there. They were crouched, as if they’d originally been bent over to pick through the Company’s supplies, but were turned to face each other instead, mouths wide open.

‘Why didn’t they join the chase?’ Bilbo wondered aloud, surveying the trolls curiously. It seemed odd that they had left one of their number to chase so many dwarves.

‘Who knows?’ Balin answered. ‘Too late, perhaps. Or too lazy. Maybe it was the other one’s turn to catch their dinner.’

‘Do you think there are any more?’ Ori asked worriedly, glancing nervously about them despite the fact it was broad daylight now. ‘They might come after us if they wonder where these three have gone.’

Thorin and Dwalin exchanged grim glances.

‘Can’t hurt to look,’ Dwalin offered. ‘There’s a clear enough trail to follow.’ Thorin considered for a moment, then nodded.

They packed up what was left - enough to see them to Rivendell, if they tightened their belts, but no more than that – then prepared to head off in the direction the trolls had come. Again, all they’d have to do was follow the destruction.

‘Bloody trolls,’ Dori grumbled unhappily, looking morosely at several flattened, muddy apples. ‘As if it wasn’t bad enough that they were trying to eat us.’ Balin patted him on the back in a consoling manner, then gently prompted him forward.

The only consolation for their losses and short rations was what they found at the end of the trail.

The smell alerted them first. Thorin and Dwalin were sure that the trail ended at this break in the trees, and were searching around for further signs of trolls when suddenly Dwalin began to cough, clamping his hand across his mouth.

‘What is it?’ Balin called. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘It stinks over here,’ Dwalin shouted through his hand, and Thorin immediately changed direction to join him. Following the reek, he found the small opening it was coming from.

Bilbo watched as he entered carefully, sword drawn and held before him. Dwalin was right behind, doing his best to hold his breath, then Fíli and Kíli. The rest of the Company stood just outside the entrance, ready to go to their aid should the cave be hiding further trolls.

Instead, they discovered it held only the remains of the trolls’ victims… and a truly impressive troll hoard.

Bilbo had never seen the dwarves so excited, even when they caught sight of all the ale that Fortinbras had stocked up for their celebration. Glóin, Nori and Bofur immediately began gathering items into a small chest, and Bilbo watched in amusement as Dwalin stood over them like a disapproving Gammer, barely restraining his glare.

Thorin, meanwhile, had been drawn to a weapon rack on one side of the room. He drew one of the swords, examining it closely and brushing away dust and cobwebs. At one point he paused, frowning suddenly, and Kíli nudged his brother over to join him.

Thorin looked closer, reached out as if to put the sword back in the rack, then paused again. Kíli rested his chin on Thorin’s shoulder to get a closer look and Thorin brought the sword back towards him so Kíli could see. His nephew’s happy noise as he viewed the craftsmanship seemed to make Thorin’s mind up.

‘It is a fine blade,’ Thorin told them, ‘despite not being dwarven-made. Better than we have been able to make since Erebor fell.’ Reaching out, Thorin grasped the second sword on the rack and held it out to Kíli, who appeared delighted.

All three turned towards the exit, and Bilbo took this as his cue to leave as well. He followed Fíli, at the back of the queue, and nearly stumbled when Fíli stopped abruptly. Crouching down, Fíli searched around in the debris on the floor before making a triumphant noise and pulling something free.

He came out of the crouch with a short blade in his hand, giving it the same close examination that his uncle had given the swords. He nodded after a few moments, apparently content with what he saw.

Then he turned and held the blade in his hand out to Bilbo.

‘Yours is good,’ Fíli said softly, when Bilbo gave him a questioning look, ‘but, like Uncle said, this is better.’

‘Then why not keep it?’ Bilbo asked pointedly. Fíli laughed, eyes brightening as he did so. He pushed the sword forward a little, until Bilbo took it from him, then unsheathed two of the daggers he wore on his back.

‘Mine come in pairs,’ he responded, holding them out in demonstration. ‘If I try to use them without the right partner, the balance is off.’

That, Bilbo thought, eyes already on the beautiful weapon that was revealed when he pulled it from the sheath, seemed a fair answer. He ran his finger along the blade’s edge and whistled at the sharpness.

Then he re-sheathed the sword and began to work out how he could add it to his belt.

It wouldn’t do to put Fíli at a disadvantage, after all.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen: Homely

Despite Bilbo’s protests earlier in their journey, Thorin had not been swayed from his decision to see the hobbit all the way to Rivendell. Now, that proved to be fortuitous. If they were to make it across the Misty Mountains, they would need to buy supplies from the elves.

Kíli and Ori were good hunters, as Dori, Óin and Balin himself were good at foraging, but the time it would have taken to hunt and gather each day would have slowed them to a crawl.

None of them ever forgot that there were those who would suffer a great deal more if the Company did not complete this journey quickly.

Thorin, of course, was manifestly unhappy at the thought of having to ask the elves for anything, and equally unhappy to have to spend more of their precious coin on replacing destroyed supplies. He was, however, slightly mollified when Nori (following a rather impressive battle of facial expressions with Dori, which he clearly lost) handed over some of his spoils from the troll cave for use in barter.

Thus, when Kíli pulled Balin, Dwalin and his uncle aside and suggested that perhaps the elves would give them something in return for his new sword, Thorin simply took it out of his hand and carefully re-sheathed the blade at Kíli’s waist. He informed his nephew that their defence in battle was equally as important as being able to eat along the way, and that if the elves had not missed the blade in the last millennium, they were unlikely to suddenly do so now.

Balin took this to mean that Thorin had resigned himself both to dealing with elves and to the idea of owning elven weapons. He waited until Thorin had turned his attention to Dwalin, then patted Kíli on the shoulder and sent him on his way with a whispered, ‘Good lad.’

Thorin waited until Kíli was out of earshot, then murmured to his closest friends, ‘Who knows, perhaps Master Baggins will be able to procure us a miraculous deal here as well.’

Dwalin snorted and rolled his eyes, but there was a glint of amusement in them nevertheless as he replied, ‘Aye, well, we already owe him half your kingdom. Where’s the harm in owing the other half too?’

Balin was not fooled by the dry sarcasm. Bilbo had risen significantly in Dwalin’s estimation when he had risked his life in order to save Balin. Now it became clear that he had risen once more in Thorin’s esteem as well. Thorin would not have been half as blasé about the debt owed otherwise.

They rubbed along well enough for the next few days, though there were some hungry bellies and grumbling mouths due to the rationing Balin had now imposed. Just because they were due to arrive in Rivendell shortly did not mean that economy was a bad idea. The more they had left, the less they would have to buy when they got there.

Balin noticed that, as they walked, Bilbo was being carefully herded from one group to another by his young shadows. Not that he needed to be herded in Bofur’s direction, particularly. That friendship was on its way to being well-established and Bofur had quite firmly taken the hobbit under his wing. Bilbo now often accompanied Bofur when he went out to scout for them. When Glóin raised an eyebrow at Bofur before one excursion, the miner proclaimed loudly and clearly, ‘I’m taking him for my protection, aren’t I? Never know what might be out there. I need a warrior to guard my back.’

Where once Glóin would have rolled his eyes at Bofur’s pronouncement, now he favoured Bilbo with a wink and a, ‘Good luck with that, lad.’

Perhaps it helped that, at Fíli’s urging, Bilbo had joined Glóin and Óin at dinner the night before, and had survived a long conversation about Glóin’s family and their many virtues. Bilbo had handled it all very well, which Balin found unsurprising after spending time amongst hobbits. No doubt Glóin was far from the first proud parent that Bilbo had come across.

Actually, having met Gorbadoc Brandybuck, Balin was certain that Glóin was not the first.

Bilbo was still a hobbit amongst a party of dwarves, of course, but really he fit in even better than Balin had hoped. He was quick and quiet when needed, always had his sword to hand, and was more than capable of seeing off dwarven teasing with a few sharp witticisms.

They could, Balin concluded, have found themselves with far worse a travelling companion.

He was certain that Thorin agreed.

There would have been considerably more grumbling from that quarter if he had not.

***

Bilbo had to admit that Rivendell was not the easiest place to find. Considering it was the Last Homely House before one hit the Misty Mountains - with their decidedly unhomely peaks and freezing winds - one would think the entrance would be a little more obvious.

Then again, Bilbo could appreciate that a hidden entrance made it much more difficult for your foes to find you. It just frustrated your friends rather a lot in the process.

Not that the entrance was ‘hidden’ in the traditional sense of being deliberately obscured exactly.

It was just… very, very easy to walk past without noticing.

Twice.

Even if you did have directions from the sons of its Lord, which you’d written down carefully when they’d been given so that you’d be able to find it if needed.

Elves. They never could make anything simple.

Regardless, after only a few audible complaints about going around in circles, blasted elven secrecy (which Bilbo thought was rather rich considering the legendary dwarven attempts to keep even their language safe from others) and hobbits who couldn’t read a simple set of directions, they had finally found the long, winding cleft in the rock which led down towards the valley.

The complaint about Bilbo’s literacy skills had started to fall out of Dwalin’s mouth, but had been frozen on its way by a glare from Bilbo which was worthy of the icy blasts over the Hithaeglir. The fact that Dwalin had stopped speaking, turned away and continued in (mostly) placid silence thereafter was happy proof that dwarves could, in fact, learn good manners.

Elves, on the other hand, spent far too much time being amused at the expense of other people.

‘Oh, so you are coming in, after all!’ a lilting voice announced as the Company rounded the first bend in the passage they’d found. ‘We had news of your arrival so long ago that Elladan went out to see if he could find you, but when you seemed determined to walk past the entrance a second time, he thought perhaps you had changed your mind about visiting.’

‘He thought no such thing, you horrible excuse for a friend,’ Bilbo rattled out, though he could feel a smile trying to fight its way out even as he did so. ‘I cannot believe neither of you had the goodness to let me know I was so close!’

‘Oh, but my dear Bilbo,’ an almost identically musical voice interjected, before the first could answer, ‘where would be the fun in that?’

‘Life is not always about fun,’ Bilbo retorted grumpily, suddenly and forcibly reminded of why they were all here. Orc attacks on his homeland were not fun, no matter how much enjoyment Bilbo received from killing the foul things. Nor was an oncoming famine fun, and goodness knows the dwarves would not have been here otherwise.

Clearly sensing that the abrupt change in Bilbo’s mood was entirely serious, the twin elves before him sobered instantly.

‘Of course it is not,’ Elladan agreed. ‘We take ours where we can find it because it can never be relied upon. What is it, Bilbo? You are not come only for a long-overdue visit, are you?’

‘No,’ Bilbo confirmed wearily. ‘Nor are my companions simply visiting. We hoped to speak with your father, if he is home. I think we would appreciate a meal before we go into things any further, however.’

‘That can most certainly be arranged,’ Elrohir said promptly, turning to give an order to one of the two elves standing behind him. The elf nodded sharply, turned about and moved swiftly away without ever seeming to actually hurry. Bilbo wanted to learn that trick, he decided, though he suspected it came a great deal more easily to those with legs twice the length of his own. ‘Come, we will see you the rest of the way.’

They made fairly slow progress towards the Last Homely House, but Bilbo was willing to own that that was actually his fault. He had never before visited the famed Imladris, and it truly was breath-taking. The first waterfall alone held him captive for some minutes, and that was not even the most impressive of the bunch. The dwarves were remarkably patient with him, and with Ori, who was just as captivated. Perhaps they were not as immune to the sense of peace and beauty which surrounded them as they would have liked the elves to think. Everywhere verdant life was peeking through. Brightly coloured flowers had even managed to grow on the harsh stone walls of the passage which - along with the steep rocky drops at the side of the path they eventually emerged onto - should have made the place feel inhospitable and yet somehow did not.

Bilbo almost felt that he could hear music on the air, though perhaps it was an illusion created by the falling water and the birdsong which abounded when they passed the border of Elrond’s lands. Whatever it was, it sank beneath his skin and made him feel calmer than he could ever remember. It was not that all of his worries were forgotten. They simply felt more manageable now, when he had finally reached his destination.

Ori was clearly itching to begin drawing, his pencil already in his hand even though his sketchbook was still tucked away in his pack. As they were led away from a particularly beautiful view, Nori had to tug on his brother’s arm to get Ori moving again, and the young dwarf’s disappointed expression could have melted sterner hearts than Bilbo’s.

‘I’ll bring you back later,’ Nori assured, with the slight exasperation that older siblings managed so well. When Elladan turned back to look at them, Nori glared at him in challenge, daring him to dispute their right to return unaccompanied. Elladan ignored him, focusing his attention on Ori instead.

‘If you wish for a truly awe-inspiring view, Master Artist,’ the elf spoke warmly, ‘then I can show you once you are all settled. Many have seen, and drawn, the vista before you, but there is a place which my sister is especially fond of that I think you might prefer. Arwen is away visiting our grandparents now, but I am sure she would not mind me sharing her spot with a friend of Bilbo’s.’

Bilbo was not sure that Lady Arwen of Imladris even knew who he was, but he appreciated the kindness to his friend. Ori positively beamed with happiness, whilst Nori visibly tried to decide whether he should object to his brother being spirited away by elves to mysterious viewing points.

‘You are more than welcome to join us, Master of the Knives,’ Elladan said graciously, though Bilbo noticed that he made a point of referencing the weapons which should have been well-concealed about Nori’s person. It was not a threat, but to a suspicious mind – which Nori was most definitely in possession of – it might well appear to be one.

Luckily, before things could deteriorate any further, Elrohir chose to distract them all with a completely different topic.

‘Did you see our new swing on your travels, Bilbo?’ he asked, out of nowhere, causing everyone but Elladan to cast him perplexed glances. ‘It was right there on the Road, almost as if someone placed it there for us. Of course, Elladan squealed like a child when we first came upon it in the dark….’

‘Lie,’ Elladan announced, aiming his statement at Bilbo rather than trying to argue with his brother. ‘Complete lie.’

‘BUT,’ Elrohir continued, unperturbed, ‘once we had a moment to think, the possibilities were only too apparent. What better way to break a long journey than with a handily-located swing to enjoy?’

‘What are the two of you talking about?’ Bilbo queried, when no further information was forthcoming. Honestly, he’d forgotten quite how maddening the two of them could be when they started acting as if the way they thought was somehow normal.

‘Our troll-swing, of course,’ Elrohir replied with a wide grin. ‘You must have seen it! It had its arms outstretched perfectly. We strung a couple of bits of rope and a plank of wood between them and there it was. Ideal.’

Kíli and Fíli were not the only dwarves to begin laughing at this point, though they were by far the most obvious about it.

‘How did you get here before us?’ Kíli demanded after a moment’s thought, occasional giggles still escaping him. ‘We were the ones who turned it to stone, we should have seen you on your way back.’

‘Oh, we do not often use the Road when we travel around Imladris,’ Elladan answered airily. ‘We only happened to stop there because Elrohir thought he saw something in the distance. There are so many quicker ways to go. Now, what is this about you turning the troll to stone? Tell us!’

Bilbo would have liked to think the statement about ‘quicker ways’ was not aimed at him, but both his own experience of the twins and the wink Elladan gave him after he spoke made it difficult to believe.

Really. Elves.

***

There was something about this place, Thorin thought as they entered the Last Homely House, which defied explanation. Something which made his troubles less heavy, and the thought of dealing with elves less difficult to bear. He could not put his finger on it but, like any self-respecting dwarf, he suspected some elven magic at work. Which did not make it any easier to resist the feeling, much as he continued to try. It was alluring, the thought of taking some moments to rest from care, but it was not the place of royalty to simply lay the burden of ruling aside.

If part of the temptation came from the sight of Bilbo’s bright smile as he interacted with his merry elven friends and viewed their home, and the instinct to return that smile on the occasions it was aimed his way… well, that did not make it any less necessary to resist.

They had not been more than a minute or two inside the Last Homely House when Thorin was drawn out of these thoughts by one of their dark-haired elven hosts suddenly springing into action, catching an equally dark-haired blur by the scruff of the neck as it darted past and holding it aloft.

‘And where, exactly, do you think you are going?’ the elf queried ominously, light grey eyes drawing together in a frown. Not an expression that seemed natural to him.

‘It’s a lesson, Elrohir!’ his squirming handful protested. ‘I have to try and stay hidden for half an hour.’

‘Oh really,’ the elf, who was apparently Elrohir, replied. The sheer disbelief in his voice was so palpable that Thorin found himself chuckling without meaning to. Goodness, how many times had he used that voice on one of the boys when he caught them where they ought not to be?

Elrohir, hearing him, turned and gave Thorin the most exasperated roll of his eyes that Thorin had ever seen.

‘He thinks that we are stupid,’ the elf informed Thorin dryly.

‘He believes,’ another voice interrupted, this even drier than Elrohir’s, ‘quite mistakenly, that you did not practice those tricks yourself in your time. Thus he believes, even more mistakenly, that I am not more than practiced in both catching miscreants of this sort and setting them suitable punishments.’

The lad – human, at Thorin’s guess, and fairly young yet – wilted visibly.

‘Erestor…’ he began. Then he gave up, daunted by the look of utter disapproval being fixed upon him.

‘Another hour of schooling today and tomorrow,’ Erestor pronounced. ‘If you are particularly well-behaved this afternoon, you may be allowed to eat dinner in the Hall and introduce yourself to your brothers’ guests. Another incident like this and you will not see that training sword you are so fond of for a week at least.’

Before the lad could put up any further protest, a soft, female voice called, ‘Erestor? What is going on?’

The boy froze, turning pleading eyes upon both Erestor and Elrohir. Erestor clucked his tongue lightly, sounding enough like Balin that Thorin’s lips twitched involuntarily in an attempt to smile, then the elf turned and faced the woman slowly approaching them.

Elrohir, realising that he still had the young one by his tunic collar, though he was no longer dangling him in mid-air, released his grip swiftly and dropped his hand.

‘Nothing of note, my lady,’ Erestor said respectfully. Thorin noted that he did not use her name, and belatedly noticed Erestor’s comment about the lad’s ‘brothers’ guests.’ Interesting. It seemed unlikely that Elrond had sired a bastard with a mortal woman, though it would not be entirely unusual for him to raise the lad in his own halls if he had. Thorin was fairly sure that elven marriages, like dwarven ones, were lifelong. Although perhaps elves did not have the danger of their wives trying to castrate them if they strayed…

‘We stopped for a moment to speak to the twins before returning to lessons,’ Erestor continued. An artfully told truth, Thorin was forced to approve. The young lad was obviously relieved, and flashed Erestor a grateful smile that the elf pretended, for dignity’s sake, not to see.

‘Very well,’ the woman murmured, her eyes turning from the scene as soon as she received Erestor’s reassurance. ‘I will see you this evening.’

‘Goodbye, Mother,’ the boy called. Thorin was not sure she even heard him, for she had already drifted away. The lad deflated a little, and Elrohir’s hand rose again, this time to ruffle the boy’s hair.

‘Go on, now,’ he ordered gently. ‘Behave yourself, this time, and we will see you at dinner.’

Erestor guided the young one away, and Elrohir turned back to the Company. Though he was under no obligation to explain, he still seemed compelled to do so.

‘She lost her husband very young,’ he offered. ‘The bad days are rare now, but they still come.’

‘We all have those,’ Balin said diplomatically, his voice gentle and understanding. ‘He seems a lively boy. I hope we see more of him this evening.’

‘He certainly enlivens Rivendell,’ Elladan stated wryly, ‘and Erestor, for that matter. It is good for him. Life has been far too quiet since we grew up.’

‘I hear much of this fabled “growing up”,’ an elf who could only be the twins’ father, Lord Elrond, said as he descended one of the magnificently decorated swirling stairwells nearby, passed through an arch at the bottom and joined them, ‘and yet I see precious little evidence of it in general. Did you mean to keep our guests standing in the entrance hall all day, my sons?’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen: Fairy Tales

Lord Elrond was very much what Bilbo had expected from all he had heard of the elf. Completely calm, seemingly unflappable, and with an aura of wisdom which led you to believe he had the answer to any question you might think to ask him.

Bilbo had thought himself far beyond the days of innate belief in someone else, but Elrond might well be able to prove him wrong. Even if his home was full of chairs which did not allow Bilbo to bend his knees whilst seated, and tables that were at eye-level when Bilbo sat at them.

Elrond really ought to commission some hobbit-sized furnishings for visitors, Bilbo mused, completely forgetting for a moment that he was the only hobbit in Middle Earth likely to actually venture as far as Rivendell.

‘You fear that these orcs will not necessarily abandon thoughts of the Shire just because the dwarves are no longer there,’ Lord Elrond was saying now. They were in Elrond’s library, with the dwarves eating rowdily in a dining room not far away. Bilbo had claimed first audience and Thorin, still in the overly polite mood which had been putting Bilbo on edge since they left the Shire, had not objected.

Bilbo liked to think he had learned his lesson about jumping to conclusions. He had been trying not to see Thorin’s show of good manners, and insistence that they accompany Bilbo to Rivendell, as a comment on his ability to take care of himself.

It just didn’t come naturally.

When someone tried to protect him, his instinct was to argue, to insist that he was perfectly capable of getting where he needed to go on his own.

The same when someone suddenly started offering help over awkward bits of road, or tree limbs that were blocking their way.

He was not a child.

He did not need to be taken care of by one older and more experienced at travelling than himself. He’d been going hither and thither through the Shire and the lands immediately beyond for years, entirely on his own, and he had managed perfectly well, thank you very much.

It had taken a great effort of will not to announce all of this to the King of Ered Luin at high volume and with great emphasis, but Bilbo was managing.

Nor was he above taking advantage of Thorin’s behaviour when it suited his purposes.

‘Yes, that is what concerns me,’ Bilbo responded to Elrond’s query, gazing abstractedly at the table for a moment as he worked things through in his head. ‘The orcs have no reason to believe the dwarves are gone, not when we destroyed all of their scouts and there was no one to tell the tale of their departure. If they knew Thorin and his Company were there, it would make sense for them to come looking when all goes quiet. If they choose to search the Shire, there’s no reason to think they won’t do damage while they are there. We both know how few defences hobbits truly have. The Rangers cannot be everywhere.’

‘And that is why you have come to me,’ Elrond concluded gently. ‘To ask for protection for your fellows.’

Bilbo only nodded. It went against the grain to ask for more help from the elves, who had once offered him so much and to whom he still owed a debt for that help, but he could not protect all of the Shire himself.

Without the dwarves, he would never have seen off that first group of orcs. A second, possibly bigger, band would certainly be beyond him.

‘We will assist, of course,’ Elrond confirmed, and Bilbo tried not to slump with relief. He had not expected to be rebuffed, but to hear such an easy agreement was still a blessing. ‘The protection of the Shire should not be a task the Rangers undertake entirely alone, not when danger is this close at hand. I will send Elladan and Elrohir with two patrols to tend to the borders. We will see that the orcs do not encroach any further than they already have. They will not find the Shire the easy pickings they might think, Bilbo. This I promise you.’

‘Thank you,’ Bilbo breathed, smiling up at the Lord of Rivendell. ‘That is very kind.’

‘It is very practical,’ Elrond replied, though the smile he offered Bilbo in turn was all kindness. ‘The Shire is, with a few very small exceptions, one of the great bastions of peace and goodness left in Middle Earth, Bilbo. It would be remiss of me, as part of the White Council, to allow it to fall to evil.’

Bilbo paused, the words he had been about to say stuck in his throat as he considered this new idea. He had never considered the Shire in such terms before. To him it had always just been home, and a rather uncomfortable one since his mother’s death.

Having one’s sense of security stripped away tended to change the way one viewed everything, even one’s home.

‘That seems strange to you?’ Elrond questioned gently.

‘I… don’t know,’ Bilbo answered slowly. ‘It has never seemed so very good to me; only full of gossips, and those who want their safe, comfortable life at the expense of ever knowing what is really going on outside their narrow world. Those who would deride anyone who wishes to be their own protection, rather than relying solely on others for anything more serious than a fight at the inn.’

‘I think it is perhaps much like Rivendell,’ Elrond proposed thoughtfully, which made Bilbo’s head come up sharply. In his mind, Rivendell and the Shire were worlds apart. Elrond laughed.

‘Not in particulars, Bilbo,’ he amended softly. ‘It is simply that Rivendell, like the Shire, is not for everyone. I try to create a sanctuary here. A place of tranquillity. A place which is, in its own small way, outside of time. For some, that balm of peace is exactly what is needed. They have travelled here in the past, for reasons of their own, and have never left because they need what it holds. For others, more than a few days here makes them begin to jump out of their own skin. My ward, Estel, is not quite in that category, but I suspect he is not far off some days. He always wishes to be doing, moving. A life of contemplation will not be his. Perhaps the life of a Shire-hobbit was not meant to be yours. The Valar have done stranger things to their children.’

‘That is an interesting thought,’ was Bilbo’s non-committal response. He was unwilling to say more when such an idea had only just been sprung on him. Elrond did not seem to mind.

‘Like many interesting thoughts,’ he said easily, ‘it will perhaps take a little time to digest. Now, if your companions have finished digesting the fare I have on offer, I should probably speak to Thorin Oakenshield. If nothing else, I would like to propose that I trade the services of his most excellent Steward and young Master Ori for some supplies. I have a particular dwarven text which does not wish to translate into anything resembling sense when I make the attempt. Perhaps a dwarf will have better luck!’

***

‘You should come with us, you know,’ Bofur declared. After returning to the dwarves following his conversation with Elrond, Bilbo had decided to take an evening stroll around Rivendell to think. Somehow, and he had no idea how, Bofur had ended up accompanying him.

‘You have said so more than once,’ Bilbo acknowledged wryly, shaking his head. Bofur had been stuck on this theme for almost a week now, though he at least had the goodness to start on the topic only when they were alone. The last thing Bilbo needed was all of the Company wading in on one side or other of the debate.

‘Then clearly that means I must be right,’ Bofur replied, completely without logic.

‘I begin to perceive a major fault in your education,’ Bilbo told him, with great amusement. ‘Contrary to what you have clearly been taught, Bofur, he who speaks most often is not always in the right!’

‘Nonsense,’ Bofur proclaimed, the size of his grin showing that he was enjoying himself thoroughly. ‘Don’t know who put that ridiculous idea in your head, lad, but you should know that I always speak most often and so am always right.’

‘What would Bifur have to say to that, I wonder?’ Bilbo pondered, unable to help grinning in response. He had noticed early on that - despite Bofur’s loud, exuberant nature - it was the quieter Bifur who ruled that particular family grouping. Much as Balin ruled over Dwalin with a velvet-covered fist of iron.

‘Nothing I’d translate for you,’ Bofur answered, laughing. ‘Only problem is, Bombur would probably tell you instead. Anyway, don’t think you’ll be distracting me like that. Why won’t you join us? You said you’d like to see more of the world than your Shire. What better way than to come on with us? You could be the first hobbit to go all the way to the Iron Hills.’

‘Given that I am the first hobbit in living memory to travel all the way to Rivendell,’ Bilbo countered with asperity, ‘I think perhaps I have come far enough. I will be putting up with little comments about this for years.’

‘Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb,’ was Bofur’s prosaic reply. ‘If they’re going to mutter anyway, what does it matter how far you’ve gone? Besides, the longer you’re with us, the longer it is before you have to start putting up with those little comments.’

‘Delay the pain as long as possible?’ Bilbo asked. ‘Not a very dwarf-ly attitude, is it?’ He immediately winced at the cattiness in his voice, but Bofur waved him off the moment he tried to apologise.

‘Ah, never you mind,’ the dwarf dismissed. ‘Takes more than that to penetrate a hide this thick.’ There was a pause while they continued to walk, Bofur letting the harsh words drift off into the night before he started on his topic again.

‘Really, Bilbo, you should join us,’ he insisted. ‘I know we’re not the best-behaved bunch you’ll ever meet, but we’ve not been that unbearable, have we? The boys would love to have you with us, and so would I. I haven’t travelled as far as Erebor before. Not many of us have. The more friends we have with us as we go, the better, and you’re part of the Company now.’

‘I do not think your King believes so,’ Bilbo commented. ‘He has little faith in my abilities; I doubt he wishes to take dead weight on your journey.’

‘Dead weight?’ Bofur asked disbelievingly. ‘Where on earth did you get that idea?’

‘He keeps a constant eye on me,’ Bilbo began to list, ticking off on his fingers. ‘He’s been helping me down from heights I am perfectly capable of managing myself, he lifted me over that tree trunk a few days ago when I was already halfway over…’

‘And you think Thorin’s treating you a bit more carefully because you can’t take care of yourself?’ Bofur continued, still sounding entirely startled by the idea.

‘Well, isn’t he?’ Bilbo asked brusquely. ‘He was willing to go out of your way just to get me here!’

‘He was treating an honoured guest with courtesy,’ Bofur contradicted forcefully, eyeing Bilbo as if he had suddenly grown an extra head. Bilbo resisted the urge to elbow him in the stomach in response. ‘Bilbo, you gave us a lot of help in the Shire. Thorin is obliged, under dwarven custom, to make recompense for that help.’

‘You helped with the orcs,’ Bilbo objected, but Bofur waved that away with a flick of his hand.

‘That was as much for us as for you,’ he pointed out. ‘You were the one who originally told us so. To take your help and then do nothing to help you in return would dishonour Thorin, and through him Ered Luin. The least he could do was see you to Rivendell safely. As for the rest, he was… treating you a bit like Dís, I suppose.’

When Bilbo gave him a questioning look, Bofur clarified, ‘His sister. Thorin always says she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself in any situation he could name, but that doesn’t mean she should have to. Dís does a lot for Thorin, as you’ve done a lot for us, so Thorin tries to take some of the annoying little difficulties life’s full of out of her way. That’s what he was doing with you, I think. Just trying to make things a bit easier.’

Bofur seemed very pleased with his summary, as if he’d managed to explain himself exactly as he meant to, for once, and Bilbo found himself speechless for the second time in one day.

Thorin was treating Bilbo like his sister.

That was…

Unexpected.

Yavanna above, what was he meant to do with that?

***

Thorin’s conversation with Elrond had apparently gone fairly well, for their King closed the door quite gently as he entered the parlour where the Company had gathered… minus Bofur and Bilbo, who were off doing who knew what somewhere else. Ori was beginning to think that Bofur was attempting to cause the first ever instance of stone-sense in a non-dwarf by teaching Bilbo about it in the greatest depth.

It made him a little jealous, really. Ori had never had much chance to study stone-sense properly, and he’d always wondered what it would be like to hear the stone the way Bofur and Bifur did.

No matter, if they were going to stay here for a few days - and the way Thorin calmly took a seat suggested that they were - then at least Ori would have chance to draw the view that Elladan had been talking about.

As long as he could get Nori to stop mentally carving the elves apart long enough to accompany him, of course. He did not think for a second that his brothers were going to let him go alone. What they thought the elves were going to do to him, Ori didn’t know. The only thing Ori could think they might try was suddenly tipping him off the edge of a cliff, and… well, they could do, of course, but Ori had no idea what the point of the exercise would be.

Brothers. Sometimes their overprotective instincts really did defy all reason.

‘We will stay three days,’ Thorin informed the Company. ‘Lord Elrond is happy to supply us, and it would appear he is also happy to take Balin’s expertise as part exchange for the goods.’

‘I am useful like that,’ Balin told them with a beatific smile, which caused Dwalin to snort and kick his brother’s ankle idly from the chair opposite.

‘I would ask all of you to avoid the elves as much as possible,’ were Thorin’s next words, and Ori felt the smile fall off his face. He had so wanted…

‘Without needlessly offending our hosts, Ori,’ Thorin continued, with barely a pause. ‘You have received an invitation which seems to be in good faith. I would be displeased to find the elves had had their gentler feelings hurt for no reason.’

Ori allowed himself to smile again. He’d heard Bilbo grumble sometimes about Thorin’s lack of care for others – the hobbit seemed to have got the impression that Thorin’s problem with their names was because he could not tell them apart, and Ori had not got around to correcting him yet – but Ori knew better. Thorin had set this up so Nori and Dori could not forbid him from going, which was just the sort of kindness their King liked to hide under all his gruff orders.

‘Other than that,’ Thorin ordered, ‘try to keep to yourselves. We are not among friends here, even if the elves have given me no cause for true concern. We are on display, as we were in the Shire, and I would have no… misunderstandings before we leave.’

Of course, it was at that exact moment that there was a crash outside, and they all heard Bofur exclaim loudly, ‘Oh, sorry about that, lass. They’re a lot more fragile than they look, aren’t they?’

Thorin closed his eyes with a truly pained expression upon his face. Dwalin groaned. Bombur winced.

Bifur rose to his feet, with Balin only a moment behind him, and headed off to find out what his cousin had got into this time.

***

Bofur did not seem to have caused any lasting harm to relations with the elves, thank Mahal and all his siblings, but nonetheless Thorin’s brief moment of peace was shattered only half a day later.

He heard the commotion, if such it could be called when the elves took everything so calmly, just after lunch. The boys were dragging him off to show him the shards of Narsil, which they had found during their wanders. As the blade was a fine example of dwarven craftsmanship, Thorin was more than happy to be accosted and was quietly enjoying the way that Fíli and Kíli talked over the top of each other constantly as each tried to be the first to tell him all about their find.

Sometimes, as in the Shire, he could see so clearly the adults they were becoming.

Sometimes, as now, he could see nothing but the children he had watched over all their lives.

It was the sound of hooves clattering into a courtyard that alerted him to the arrival of a new guest, and the speed with which those hooves appeared to be moving caught Thorin’s attention immediately. The boys, hearing the same thing he did, also quieted and paused.

‘Uncle?’ Fíli asked, waiting for instruction.

‘Let us go and see who that is,’ Thorin said, after a moment’s thought. ‘We can return to see Narsil later.’

The boys immediately started back the way they had come, and Thorin moved quickly to get ahead of them. An ill feeling was crawling down his spine and, whatever this was, his nephews would not be the first to face it.

He had gone no more than fifty feet when Dwalin joined them. Thorin noticed that Dwalin was tense with readiness, and the feeling of foreboding only strengthened.

‘What is it?’ Thorin asked him lowly, using Khuzdul as he slipped back into the mindset he was most familiar with, wary and ready for any eventuality.

‘Tharkûn,’ Dwalin growled. ‘The elves began speaking of him as soon as crossed the border into their valley.’

Tharkûn.

The wizard.

No wonder Thorin had such a bad feeling about this.

He had thought the wizard’s meddling in their affairs was done. Gandalf had tried to make himself useful, but when he had visited Ered Luin it had been plain that he had some purpose he was not telling Thorin of. Certainly, his ‘helpful’ mention of Bilbo Baggins’ name had not been as simple as it seemed, for Bilbo bore him no great love and they had not had a smooth beginning with the hobbit. That it had all worked out well in the end was more by luck than by design, or so it appeared to Thorin.

When Gandalf had left them, Thorin had fervently hoped that was the last he would see of him for many years.

He had a kingdom to secure. He did not have time for the plots of a wizard. No matter how well-intentioned those plots might be.

By the time they arrived at the courtyard where guests were welcomed, Gandalf was already deep in conversation with Lord Elrond. They both looked up when they caught a glimpse of the small party of dwarves approaching, and Gandalf smiled widely.

‘Ah, Thorin,’ he greeted. ‘I am glad to find you here. I was not sure how far advanced your journey would be. I feared I would have to follow you across the Misty Mountains.’

He did not seem the slightest bit perturbed by Thorin’s wary expression, nor by the way that Dwalin, Fíli and Kíli were gathered about their King like a suspicious honour guard. Of course, none of them truly thought that Gandalf was going to try and hurt Thorin. That was ridiculous.

They just did not trust him.

Well, Thorin and Dwalin did not trust him, and that was enough for the boys.

‘You are in luck, as you can see,’ Thorin told the wizard carefully. ‘We leave shortly. What need did you have of me?’

‘A few words,’ Gandalf said, giving nothing away, as usual. ‘I hope your business in the Shire went well?’

‘It was concluded adequately,’ Thorin replied, determined to be no more forthcoming than Gandalf was. Let him be on the receiving end of some of his own cryptic nonsense for a change.

‘Mithrandir, perhaps you would like to have your words with Thorin inside?’ Lord Elrond suggested easily, not at all disturbed by the wizard’s unexpected arrival, or by Thorin’s clear unhappiness at seeing him. ‘You are cluttering up my courtyard somewhat, and we are expecting a patrol in soon.’

‘Of course,’ Gandalf said graciously. ‘Thorin, if you would join me?’

Thorin almost growled. This was not Gandalf’s kingdom any more than it was Thorin’s; the wizard had no right to treat Thorin as if he were a visiting vassal.

‘I think we would do better if both of you joined me,’ Lord Elrond commented, still apparently unperturbed, but with a sharper look in his eyes than they had held only moments ago. ‘After all, Gandalf, I presume you wish to use my study for your discussion, and I fear without me you will find yourself locked out.’ He held a key up between long, slim fingers, as if to use it as evidence to prove his case.

Perhaps the elves were not so bad after all.

***

Thorin had bidden the boys return to their exploring, and had dispatched Dwalin to keep an eye on them, before following Lord Elrond to his study once again. It was a pleasant, cosy room; while Thorin was by no means the scholar that Balin was, he was still intrigued by some of the texts held here, and in another life he might have whiled away a week or two investigating what the shelves held.

This was not another life, however, and frankly he had seen enough of this room for one week.

Possibly for a year.

‘I believe I may have a solution to your ongoing problem, Thorin,’ Gandalf announced within moments of their sitting down. For one who had a professed dislike of wasting time, Gandalf seemed to have a strange aversion to speaking clearly. Thorin had only met him once before, but even then the desire to point out the contradiction had been strong.

He had resisted, but only because he had not wished to face Balin’s wrath when he discovered that Gandalf would not be assisting them with his connections after all, because Thorin had mortally insulted him.

One never knew when wizards would choose to be sensitive about such things.

‘Indeed,’ was all Thorin said instead, waiting to see what Gandalf would come out with, though he was itching to hurry events along.

‘Yes,’ Gandalf continued serenely. ‘You are, I believe, in need of a way of keeping your people safe for many years to come. The agreement with the hobbits, as we all know, is not an ongoing solution to your problem.’

‘Thus I will visit my cousin, and seek his aid,’ Thorin reminded the wizard. Gandalf was old even by elven standards. Perhaps he had forgotten that this strategy had already been agreed by the dwarves and explained to him when they previously met.

‘Yet Dáin has his own kingdom to care for,’ Gandalf pointed out, ‘and may not be able to give all you might wish. Surely you would be safer with a more dependable answer to the problem.’

Thorin had tried, truly he had, but he was a dwarf known for his ability to survive overwhelming odds, not for his patience.

‘Spit it out, Gandalf,’ he snapped, temper worn thin by all the tiptoeing around the point. ‘What is it you suggest?’

‘Only that you find a true home for your people,’ Gandalf replied, tone sharp in the face of Thorin’s temper. ‘Or re-find, I should perhaps say. Reclaim Erebor, Thorin. Then your people will never need worry about their survival again.’

‘Gandalf!’ Lord Elrond began to object, as animated as Thorin had ever seen him. His horror at the idea, at what it suggested, was entirely apparent to Thorin, but it was unnecessary.

Thorin had his own answer on the tip of his tongue.

‘I have no time to waste on fairy tales, Wizard,’ he said plainly, his tone as hard as the rock of their former home. ‘If that is all you have for me, you might have saved yourself a journey.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen: Among Friends

‘You should go with them.’

‘Oh, not you as well!’ Bilbo exclaimed, only narrowly resisting the urge to roll his eyes. He had been quite enjoying his quiet time in one of the smaller libraries, just himself and a book and a world of adventures he could enjoy without people pestering him! That plan, it would appear, had just met an untimely demise.

‘Me as well as who?’ Elrohir asked with great curiosity, and now it was a groan that Bilbo was suppressing.

Curse his unwary tongue! Did he not know better than to give the twins an opening by now?

‘No one,’ he lied as smoothly as he could. ‘It was an expression, that is all.’

‘It is a very specific expression, Bilbo,’ Elrohir said sternly, though his eyes were gleaming merrily and Bilbo knew that the solemnity was a façade being put on for effect. ‘One that implies something has happened before. Come now, you know I will not give up. I never do. You may as well simply tell me.’

‘It will be less painful for all involved?’ was Bilbo’s sarcastic reply. Elrohir laughed.

‘Let us say, “less painful for you”,’ the elf chuckled. ‘That is surely the most important thing.’

‘One would think so, yes,’ Bilbo muttered, ‘and yet somehow simply leaving the topic be, which would be least pain… irritating for me, never seems to be an option.’

Bilbo, stop avoiding the question,’ Elrohir said, and now the sternness was not a façade. Bilbo sighed.

‘Bofur – the one with the hat -’ he explained, when Elrohir did not appear much enlightened, ‘has expressed the opinion that I should accompany them further once or twice.’

‘Or ten times?’ Elrohir queried, seeing right through Bilbo as always.

‘I think it was eight at last count, but I will admit I may have lost track,’ Bilbo acknowledged.

‘You do not agree with him, or with me?’ Elrohir asked. Bilbo shook his head.

‘I came this far because there was a need, Elrohir,’ he insisted. ‘The Shire required more protection than I could give and this was what I could do. There is no reason for me to be away for months more when I am able to be there.’

‘Bilbo, I know that this runs counter to everything you believe,’ Elrohir said, crouching before Bilbo’s chair and making very sure that their eyes were meeting before he continued, ‘but the security of the Shire is not your responsibility. You are not chained to it for life simply because you are the only martial hobbit of your generation.’

‘Who is going to look to their defence if not me?’ Bilbo demanded. ‘You know none of the others would ever think to do anything but pray the Rangers arrive in time, Elrohir. You have seen the results of it!’

‘I think a good deal of this problem arises from one hobbit who did not simply pray, but we will leave that aside for a moment,’ Elrohir murmured so quietly Bilbo almost didn’t catch it, before raising his voice to a normal level. ‘Bilbo, did it ever occur to you that what you came here to do has now freed you up to do whatever you wish? Elladan and I will be there, and with two full patrols. You are not their sole defender anymore.’

Bilbo just… sat there for a moment.

That seemed to be happening to him quite a bit since he’d arrived in Rivendell.

First Elrond, then Bofur, now Elrohir.

Was everyone determined to turn his world on its ear all of a sudden?

‘I have a life there,’ he said weakly, suddenly realising he must have been silent too long. ‘I have responsibilities.’

‘Which you no doubt set in order before you left,’ Elrohir reminded him patiently. ‘Anything else that may be needed, you can tell me about now and I will see to it.’

‘Why are you pushing for this?’ Bilbo asked, hands clenching on the edge of the chair as he resisted the urge to jump to his feet and begin pacing. ‘Why does it matter?’

‘You have been smiling,’ Elrohir said simply. ‘You even laugh. Do you know, Bilbo, Elladan and I barely knew what your laugh sounded like? We were with you for months and hardly ever heard it, only a choked-off version when we did something particularly ridiculous.’

‘It was not the easiest of times,’ Bilbo objected, insulted and angry with it. ‘Were you expecting me to burst into paroxysms of laughter every five seconds?’

‘Of course not,’ Elrohir countered gently, and that was the second time in two days someone had made Bilbo feel like a complete arse for snapping at them, ‘but a little bit would not have been unusual, when with family or friends. You were so sad, and nothing seemed to help. Even when we met you later, you were still so solemn. Can you blame us for wishing you to be happy?’

‘You are being melodramatic, my friend,’ Bilbo scolded. ‘I am perfectly well as I am.’

‘As you are now,’ Elrohir insisted. ‘Bilbo, travel has been good for you. Leaving the Shire has been good for you. Why not see how you like going further? What can it hurt?’

‘I could be gone a year with the dwarves’ plan,’ Bilbo reminded him in exasperation.

‘What is a year?’ Elrohir asked airily, though Bilbo thought his eyes had lost most of the merriment they had held earlier.

‘Very little, when you are immortal,’ Bilbo said tartly. ‘Quite a lot when you are a hobbit!’

‘Bilbo, you told me once you owed my brother and I a debt,’ Elrohir told him, gentleness returned. Bilbo nodded. He knew the debt, and acknowledged it. On his darker nights, its existence was yet another thing that prodded him with sharp, icy fingers. He hated not being able to pay them back for all they had done.

‘Then go,’ Elrohir stated simply. ‘A year of your time in return for six months each from Elladan and I, if you choose to see it that way. Go, have your adventure, leave your Shire in our hands, and we will call the debt paid.’

‘You care about this so much?’ Bilbo queried, finding that hard to believe. He did not understand why Bofur and Elrohir both seemed so set on Bilbo travelling to the Iron Hills but, to himself at least, he could not deny that the idea had its appeal.

He liked the dwarves. He enjoyed their company, and their stories, and their songs. He had become ridiculously fond of a pair of young Princes and their scribe, and it was hard to resist the idea of continuing to know them, of watching them as they came to know more of the world and their place in it.

He could even admit, as long as it was only between him and himself, that he would not mind knowing a little more of the world and his own place in it.

The Shire felt so far away now, and Bilbo was realising slowly that he liked that. He had good friends there, though he sometimes forgot it, but so many of the memories associated with the Shire were unhappy.

Perhaps Elrohir was on to something.

Perhaps it was time to get away from the bad memories for a while.

Perhaps it was time to make some new ones; ones which included loud laughter instead of quiet tears and stony silences.

Bilbo thought for some time, mulling things over and unconsciously alternating between tracing patterns on the chair arm and tapping it in a rhythm of his own devising. Elrohir said nothing, sitting quietly and presumably thinking deep thoughts of his own.

Or possibly contemplating where his next bout of havoc should be aimed.

With the twins it was often a toss-up which was occupying their minds.

Bilbo’s own mind had slipped sideways now, and was contemplating another facet of extending his trip. The dwarves’ King was… well, he was a mystery, and one that Bilbo would not object to having time to study further.

Thorin appeared to Bilbo to be made up of endless contradictions. Grumpy and gentle by turns, clearly fond of his nephews and cousins, but unable to keep his companions’ names straight. Almost unbearably rude and then, turning about completely, suddenly as courteous – perhaps more so – than any well-brought-up hobbit.

No, Bilbo would not object at all to learning more about Thorin Oakenshield and trying to get to the bottom of those contradictions.

It only made sense, after all. Ered Luin was a fairly close neighbour to the Shire, and it never hurt to know your neighbours.

It made them all the easier to avoid if the need arose.

In Bilbo’s experience, the need generally did.

‘Very well, then,’ Bilbo said at last. ‘I will go.’

Elrohir’s smile was bright and beaming.

‘Wonderful,’ he exclaimed happily. ‘I will tell Erestor’s staff to increase the provisions for your Company,’ when Bilbo began to object, having suddenly realised the extra cost involved, Elrohir waved him away. ‘You fed us all the time we were in the Shire, Bilbo,’ he reminded firmly. ‘A little food from our stores will simply balance that debt. We are very well-balanced people today, had you noticed? I must tell Erestor, he will be impressed with my good sense. A novel feeling for him! I will see you at dinner.’

Elrohir turned to leave, then paused. Looking over his shoulder, he called, ‘Bilbo?’

Bilbo simply rolled his eyes in response. How likely was it that Elrohir had lost his attention in the two seconds before he’d changed his mind about going?

‘You should tell them about the Winter.’

With that, Bilbo’s elven friend sailed out of the door before Bilbo could utter a word, leaving the hobbit gaping.

Elves!

***

‘You convinced him?’

‘Of course.’

‘And you didn’t have to….’

‘Have to say, “We think you should go because falling in love with these dwarves is good for you and we have a strong suspicion that, given the opportunity, they will keep you”? No, brother, I did not. Have a little faith.’

‘We share a soul. I have exactly as much faith in you as you deserve.’

‘I hinted. That’s all. I do not think he caught on. He was a little busy attempting to fight his own inclination to follow them.’

‘Very well, you are forgiven.’

‘Gracious as ever. Now as long as the dwarf is not as thick-skulled as he appears at first, all should be well.’

….

‘Yes, alright, perhaps a few prayers might not go amiss.’

***

‘Thorin, you are being unreasonable!’

Unreasonable?’ Thorin did not shove the wizard across the room, but it was a near run thing. The conversation had worsened swiftly after Thorin informed the wizard he was wasting his time, and it had yet to recover. In fact, Thorin was as near to being toe-to-toe with Gandalf as he could be without finding himself face-to-stomach with him instead.

‘You would suggest that I take thirteen of my best dwarves to face a dragon that wiped out dozens of my people, that successfully drove us from our kingdom without appearing to expend any effort at all, and I am being unreasonable?’

Thorin was almost incandescent with anger. Maybe if Gandalf had simply accepted his first refusal it would not have come to this, but the wizard could not help but push. Always so convinced he had the answers.

Always so very convinced that he was the only one who did.

It felt like Thror all over again, and Thorin could not let that stand. Every time he did, disaster followed and his people suffered.

‘Thorin, I tell you, there is a way in,’ Gandalf insisted. He slapped an old piece of parchment onto the table, along with a large metal key which was clearly of dwarven make. ‘A way that Smaug knows nothing of. No one knows of it except your family, and Thráin entrusted me with the knowledge and with the means to open it. It can be done.’

Could it, Thorin wondered, gazing at the items before him, apparently heirlooms of his family. It was… Mahal, it was such a tempting thought. To be home, to be safe, not scraping by but living as his people should be, taking what was their right, driving that thing from their kingdom, from life itself…

Thorin laughed bitterly, barely realising that he was doing so aloud.

Where have you heard such words before, he asked himself. Did Thrór not say the same, all the years of their exile? First about Smaug, then turning his fury upon the orcs in Azanulbizar. What had all his dreaming come to, in the end?

Blood.

His, and that of far too many of their warriors. Too many innocent dwarves merely following their King.

Not this time.

Thorin would not be Thrór. He would have care for what was entrusted to him.

He would not destroy everything for pretty stories spun in nothing but air.

‘No,’ he told Gandalf adamantly. ‘We go to the Iron Hills, to Dàin. Erebor is lost to us. It is time my line admitted to it. We are Kings of the Lonely Mountain no more.’

‘You will choose the narrow view then,’ Gandalf said wearily, looking utterly disappointed. Thorin felt nothing but the faintest pang of sympathy. ‘Little risk for little gain.’

‘It may be little gain to you, Tharkûn,’ Thorin retorted, shoving his hands through his hair irritably, trying to dissipate the quivering tension in his limbs. He felt as he had when he shoved Wikan up against the wall mere weeks before, burning with impotent energy. Unable to undo the past, and knowing that was the only way to truly solve his problems. ‘It is not to us! We do not value our lives as little as you clearly value them.’

The small movements had not succeeded, Thorin was on the verge of shaking with pent up emotion. It was the same instinct that had driven him to accidentally kick Fíli, but he could hardly start abusing Elrond’s furniture. Besides, the elf actually appeared to be on Thorin’s side here. He had weighed in to support Thorin’s arguments at the beginning, until he realised that Gandalf had every intention of ignoring him.

‘You are deliberately misunderstanding me,’ Gandalf complained. He was indignant, almost as if he were the wounded party, and Thorin’s temper slipped its leash again.

‘And you are trying to treat my Company like pawns in the great chess game you are playing,’ he shouted. He forced himself to lower his tone before continuing. You’re on display, Thorin, he reminded himself. You said it yourself. You are not among friends here. ‘Can you not see how that leads me to think we are dispensable to you? This is not about my people, Gandalf, not truly. At least be honest about that!’

He met Gandalf’s eyes squarely and after a brief pause, Gandalf gave the slightest of nods.

‘It is as much about your people as any other,’ Gandalf spoke, and Thorin wondered if the wizard could avoid hedging if he tried. Maybe it was so ingrained that he really could not help himself. ‘It is about the evil in our world more than anything. Smaug is a powerful force for evil, Thorin.’

‘Trust me, I remember,’ Thorin sighed, turning his back on both Gandalf and Elrond. He clasped his hands behind him, hoping it would help him to stillness. ‘If you are concerned about the dragon, find yourself an army. Thirteen dwarves will not avail you. Not against Smaug. That is not the narrow view, Gandalf, it is reason. You do not stop an avalanche with a pebble.’

‘You do not stop an avalanche at all,’ Lord Elrond stated firmly, re-joining the conversation. ‘Gandalf, I will tell you now; even if you did convince Thorin to follow this plan, you would not convince me to let their party out of Imladris. We cannot risk turning the dragon’s ire upon the world. The days of my father are gone. We have not the strength to face every evil which walks Middle Earth.’

‘And when the evil chooses to face us instead?’ Gandalf demanded. ‘What then, Elrond?’

To that Lord Elrond had no reply, but Thorin was not much concerned. The blatant threat to imprison his Company here if they decided to go along with Gandalf’s plan had brought home forcibly what Thorin had told himself earlier. This was enemy territory, and the sooner they were gone the better.

That meant not wasting precious time arguing over decisions which had already been made.

This conversation was over.

He swiped the parchment and the key on the way out, hoping that the argument Elrond and Gandalf were having was sufficient distraction.

He might not use these pieces of his heritage to enter his lost kingdom, but damned if he was going to let Gandalf convince some other fool to do so instead.

***

‘Thorin?’ a wary voice asked carefully, as Thorin slipped quietly through an archway and crossed the balcony it led to. Thorin cursed under his breath. Then he turned and leaned back against the balustrade, to face the small figure perched on a bench hidden in the corner. It was set back from the rest of the balcony, which explained why Thorin had not realised he was out here.

‘Bilbo,’ Thorin murmured as politely as he could. He reminded himself that he had made it all the way through the evening meal without letting slip how unsettled he was by the day’s events. Perhaps he had wished for a few moments alone in this (apparently not) empty spot, but he could wait a little longer.

Balin and Dwalin were on their guard, following a quick, pointed briefing from Thorin, and would make sure the Company were safe. It would not matter if Thorin was gone a little longer than planned.

‘What brings you outside?’ Bilbo queried.

‘I thought to get a little air,’ Thorin told him, wondering if Bilbo would catch the allusion to the night they had discussed Fíli and Kíli. Bilbo’s wry smile confirmed that he had.

‘This is a good place for it,’ the hobbit said blandly, but there was a little crease on his forehead which made Thorin think the hobbit had something else to say.

Resigning himself to conversation, even though that had been exactly the thing he had not wished for when he escaped the rest of the Company, Thorin looked around for somewhere to sit. Preferably somewhere that was not directly next to Bilbo. There were a shortage of options – typical. After a moment’s thought, Thorin moved across to the side of the balcony, a few feet distant from its only bench, and sank to the floor so he was sat at right angles to the hobbit.

‘It is a very peaceful place,’ Bilbo said after a moment, looking at Thorin more closely than usual. Thorin felt himself tense at the scrutiny, and forced himself to relax again. He did have some friends in Rivendell, he told himself firmly, and Bilbo had already proven himself one of them.

‘It is,’ Thorin acknowledged. ‘Perhaps the most peaceful I have ever been, even including your Shire.’

‘Yet, you are not tempted to stay,’ Bilbo stated, without even a hint that this was a question. ‘In fact, everything here seems to put you on edge.’ He smiled slightly at Thorin.

‘No, I would not stay,’ Thorin confirmed. ‘As we discussed before, my responsibilities lie many miles away from here; in opposite directions, at the moment, but thankfully Dís can be relied upon to take care of Ered Luin in my absence. I cannot afford to tarry here. Besides, the inactivity such peace invites is not in my nature.’

‘No’ Bilbo echoed, eyes distant for a moment. Then he looked sharply at Thorin once again. ‘Nor mine. I would not stay here either.’

Now that did surprise Thorin. Bilbo had appeared very comfortable here, particularly in his friendship with Elrond’s twin sons. Thorin had quite expected to hear that Bilbo would be spending some time here before returning to the Shire.

‘It does not appeal?’ Thorin asked curiously. ‘Your friends were certainly glad to see you. I am sure they would welcome you here, and clearly you are fond of them.’

‘I would not be so sure of that,’ Bilbo muttered in response, and Thorin raised an eyebrow in response. Bilbo must have realised how that sounded, for he shook his head and hastened to clarify. ‘Oh, I am certainly fond of them, maddening though they can be. It is only that they have their own views about what I should do next, and remaining in Rivendell does not form part of their plan.’

‘Indeed?’ Thorin queried, astonished to hear it. Were he Elladan and Elrohir, he would not be so swift to send a good friend out into the world again without him. Perhaps elves, with all their immortality, were not properly aware of how fragile life could be. How soon it could be lost.

‘Yes,’ Bilbo said bluntly. Then he paused again, and the look on his face suggested that he was somehow gathering his courage before he continued. Thorin was tempted to press, but instead he waited as patiently as he could. There was a feeling washing over him, a sense of something important coming, and he had a sudden suspicion that if Bilbo did not say his piece – whatever it may be – now, he might never do so.

‘They would have me travel further with your Company,’ Bilbo blurted out, at length. ‘In fact, they would have me travel all the way to the Iron Hills with you. They have requested it as payment of a debt I owe them.’

Thorin was silent a moment, though not as long as Bilbo had been, while he pondered this. He wondered if he looked as confused as he felt.

‘That is… a strange way to pay a debt,’ was what eventually came out of his mouth and, even to his own ears, he sounded bemused. ‘Is there aught they would have you do in the East? Is there some task you are to complete?’

‘No,’ Bilbo replied, and he sounded almost as confused as Thorin. ‘They have asked nothing else. Simply that I travel with you. They are elves,’ he added, as if hoping that would be an explanation in and of itself.

In fairness, to a dwarf it was. Elves were flighty, contrary creatures, everyone knew that. Who knew what strange fancy had come into their heads to have them request this.

The question was, would Thorin accept their request?

Only a moment’s thought was enough to tell Thorin the answer to that.

It would very much depend what Bilbo wished to do.

For while Bilbo owed the elves a debt, Thorin’s own debt to Bilbo was still very much owing. The hobbit was a competent fighter, a quiet, steady travelling companion (most of the time), and well-favoured by Thorin’s nephews. He had no reason to refuse to take Bilbo further.

Unless Bilbo did not wish to come along.

If that was the case, Thorin would make sure the elves knew quite clearly whose fault it was that their plans had failed. He would not have the hobbit pushed into something he did not wish for.

‘Would you like to accompany us?’ Thorin asked Bilbo sincerely, looking closely to judge his reaction. ‘Has Bofur convinced you of the wisdom of his plan?’

Bilbo visibly started, and a smile crept unbidden onto Thorin’s face.

‘A word to the wise, if you are to come with us, Bilbo,’ he teased kindly. ‘Balin knows almost everything, and the majority of what he knows is passed to me. What Balin does not report, Dwalin generally does. And the very little that escapes them, the boys can be relied upon to pick up. I am, in the main, exceptionally well-informed.’ He finished this litany with a proud expression cribbed from some of Erebor’s most arrogant nobles.

Bilbo began to laugh, head falling back as his mirth broke the still atmosphere briefly.

‘Goodness,’ he said through his chuckles, ‘I am in the company of accomplished spies. Maybe I should rethink my original answer to your question.’

‘I promise they only use their powers for good,’ Thorin assured him, his smile now widening to a grin. ‘My good, at least, which is all that counts.’ Bilbo grinned back, and Thorin’s heart stuttered in a way he determinedly ignored. He shoved the sensation into the back of his mind, along with a variety of impulses which had cropped up of late, and which he had occasionally let slip.

He had no time for such things, not now.

Then the moment passed, for Bilbo sobered again and Thorin remembered what he had wished to ascertain in the first place.

‘Bilbo, if you do not wish to join us, I will tell one or both of Elrond’s sons that their assistance with populating my Company is neither needed nor wanted,’ Thorin promised the hobbit. Bilbo’s eyes widened, then he shook his head again.

‘No, I would… I think I would like to come with you,’ he said, voice strengthening as he finished his sentence. ‘Yes, I would like that,’ Bilbo nodded sharply. ‘I have always wished to see a little more of the world, and the twins assure me that they will defend the Shire thoroughly even in my absence.’

‘Then you are welcome in my Company, Bilbo Baggins,’ Thorin assured him. A wry smile quirked the corner of his lips, and Bilbo tilted his head in question. ‘And we can make Bofur happy into the bargain. A good day’s work.’

They sat a moment in silence, and Thorin suddenly realised that the worst of his tension had indeed faded, even if he had not found the solitude he’d sought. He was just musing on this, eyes closing briefly, when Bilbo spoke again.

‘How much did Balin tell you of our conversation before we left the Shire?’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen: Lost Patterns

‘How much did Balin tell you of our conversation before we left the Shire?’ Bilbo forced himself to say, though it was perilously close to the top of his ‘things I never, ever wish to do’ list. There were one or two things which beat it to the top of that list – invite Lobelia Sackville-Baggins to live at Bag End, face a dragon from the old tales single-handed, take advice from Gandalf etc, etc – but discussing his history with another was still fairly high up.

It was only fair, however. They were to be his travelling companions for months on end. It was right that they should know the truth behind his waking nightmares. Goodness knows, the journey to the Iron Hills was not likely to be safe. They might yet be faced with orcs, and Bilbo might slip again.

Besides, much as he hated to admit it (and he truly did) the twins had rarely steered Bilbo wrong with their advice.

Certainly they had been the only ones to take him seriously all those years ago, which suggested they viewed the world with clearer eyes than many Bilbo had met.

‘Very little, except that he saw no cause for concern,’ Thorin replied, surprising Bilbo greatly. His surprise must have shown, for Thorin immediately added, ‘I was truthful when I said that Balin reports most of what he knows to me, Bilbo, but he makes an exception for information which is truly private. In those cases I must trust to his judgement, but I always do. Balin would not be my Steward if I could not place my confidence in him.’

‘No,’ Bilbo murmured, thinking fast, ‘I suppose not.’

Now, it seemed to Bilbo, there was another choice before him. Did he tell his story to Thorin, who would lead the Company, or did he take the easy way out and tell only Balin, who already knew a small part and would apparently keep his secrets for him?

He pondered for a moment, thankfully not long enough for Thorin to become restless with their stuttering conversation, then upbraided himself firmly.

Thorin was trusting him to join an important undertaking simply because Bilbo was curious about the world and had a debt to pay. He had, of late, been nothing but kind. Had offered, in fact, to do battle with the sons of Elrond on Bilbo’s behalf, in defence of his right to do as he pleased.

What reason had he given Bilbo not to trust him, really? Grumpiness did not equate to being untrustworthy. Nor did an occasionally short temper.

Otherwise, Bilbo admitted in a burst of frankness, no one would ever trust him with anything!

And it might feel… good, he suddenly thought, to tell someone who didn’t already know what had happened. Someone who hadn’t had a role, however small, in this story. Bilbo could say what he liked to Thorin, didn’t have to worry about hurt feelings or well-meaning corrections of his memory. He could just… Get it out in the open. Just once.

Coming out of his musings, Bilbo removed his gaze from his knees (which he had apparently been contemplating with great fervour for the last minute or two) and met Thorin’s eyes.

‘Very well,’ Bilbo said, taking a deep breath. He noticed that Thorin immediately straightened, as if sensing that the conversation was to turn serious again. Bilbo quirked his lips wryly, and settled more comfortably on his bench.

‘It began with the Fell Winter,’ he told the King. ‘2911, by your reckoning.’

‘I remember it,’ Thorin informed him gently. ‘It was not a year I will soon forget. I do not think any who lived through it will.’

‘You might be surprised,’ Bilbo replied darkly, then shook it off and continued. ‘I was 21 that year, still 12 years from my majority but beginning to feel, as all young people seem to at that age, that I could do anything and knew everything. I must have driven my parents mad.’

Thorin chuckled, his face showing sympathy. Bilbo suspected he had been on both sides of that particular problem, with Fíli and Kíli so recently grown to manhood.

Almost-manhood. There were still a few creases to iron out in that pair.

‘At first I didn’t truly concern myself with the changes to our normal winter weather,’ Bilbo continued. ‘It was colder than usual, yes, but what is a little cold when you are in your tweens? It was an adventure. More snow than I had ever before had to experiment with, which was simply a good reason to find entirely childish things to do with it, whilst still assuring myself that I was far beyond such juvenile pastimes.’

‘The blissful ignorance of youth,’ Thorin murmured, his expression kinder than Bilbo would have expected when dealing with such folly. Thorin shook his head. ‘At 22, I took it into my head that I was quite ready to leave the custody of my parents and live on my own. I was certain that I was far too old to spend so much of my time with my considerably-younger siblings… in truth, there were five years between my brother and myself, but I would not be told. My mother, being a wise woman, swiftly found a way to disabuse me of this notion, but I am not unfamiliar with the feelings you describe. As you said, almost all young people seem to suffer from the affliction.’

‘Do they all miss the disaster right before their eyes, I wonder,’ Bilbo said. His tone was bitter, for this was a crime he had charged himself with many a time. Perhaps if he had noticed what was happening, he might have done… more.

Done something.

‘My grandfather was losing his grip on sanity,’ Thorin told Bilbo bluntly. ‘At that age, the change in him barely registered. He was an adult, and therefore of little importance in a world where I was, ironically, convinced that I was an adult also.’

Having finished, Thorin wore the same expression he had after they spoke of Fíli and Kíli, as if he could not quite believe what had fallen out of his mouth. He did not take it back, however, or try to gloss over it. He simply left it there, sitting between them as a balm to Bilbo’s regret.

Strangely, despite the failure of every other reassurance Bilbo had received over the years, this one made him feel better.

Maybe it was because Thorin’s situation had been equally grave, and yet Bilbo could not imagine criticising the 22-year-old Thorin for not having been more aware of the problem. In fact, he realised, Fíli and Kíli were years older than either Bilbo or Thorin had been, and yet Bilbo still would not blame them for being unaware of the brewing disaster in Ered Luin…

It was certainly something to consider further.

***

Thorin’s last words had, it seemed, given Bilbo cause to think. He was happy for it. Thorin was not unfamiliar with that sort of guilt, the type that insisted you ought to have acted, because hindsight gave you such a wonderful view of all the roads that could have been taken.

Bilbo, unfortunately, did not seem to have had a Balin or a Dwalin to take him to task over it.

More than that, he had not had a Dís to lose patience with him entirely and all-but bash him over the head with reality.

Which was not to say that Thorin did not hold himself accountable for what had happened with Thror in later years, but he had, at the least, admitted some years ago that he did not hold the main responsibility for Erebor’s downfall.

He tried not to think too often about who did hold responsibility for that. It was too painful a subject.

Self-reflection aside, Thorin was aware that they were drifting off Bilbo’s original topic, and that the hobbit had by no means reached the end of his tale.

‘So, the winter came in hard…’ Thorin stated, allowing his voice to trail off in an invitation for Bilbo to continue.

‘Yes,’ Bilbo said abruptly, also realising that they had wandered and taking up his thread again. ‘The first time I really noticed what was happening, it was because we had smaller portions at meal-times. It was not something I had ever encountered before, the sort of rationing I now know my mother was practising. After a few days, I asked why she was trying to starve us, thinking it was all a joke. That was the first time she suggested the food might be running out.

‘I hardly believed her at first, though she was not in the habit of lying to me, but the next time I was at the market I realised it was true. There was far less to buy than there usually would be. Worse, the poorer hobbits were taking scraps that were usually left for the pigs. When I went home, I looked more closely and realised that the Gamgees’ eldest children were already beginning to look gaunt. I mentioned it to Mother that evening, and the next day there was even less on our table, but more on theirs. In the end, even that was not enough.’

‘Famine,’ Thorin said, voice laden with sadness, thinking of the curse he was trying so desperately to avoid in Ered Luin. Thinking of the times, both during the Fell Winter and during their exile, when that curse had overtaken his people despite his best efforts.

‘Yes,’ Bilbo confirmed gravely. ‘I did not know what to call it then, but I soon learned. The stores ran dry. We began to starve… and then the Brandywine River froze.’

This last he uttered as if it were a death knell, then gave Thorin a shy look which took him entirely off guard.

‘You probably didn’t need to know the rest of that,’ Bilbo told him, though he did not seem particularly dissatisfied with where he had begun his tale. ‘It was just…’

‘Important for you to tell, perhaps?’ Thorin concluded, when Bilbo trailed off. The hobbit nodded sharply.

‘Yes, I think it was,’ he agreed. Conclusion reached, he shook his head slightly and carried on with his recounting.

‘With the river frozen, the wolves began to cross into the Shire. White wolves from the frozen lands in the North, near twice the size of the type we were used to. The Horn-call of Buckland sounded when they first appeared, a warning to all, and everyone who could retreated into their homes and barred the doors. Some were not so lucky, and the wolves soon realised that crossing the frozen river would earn them a meal. Particularly with the famine gripping us. People were desperate, they went foraging even knowing that it was dangerous outside. What else could they do? Their children cried for food, some wasted away from the lack of it, as did the elderly. They weighed up the risk of the wolves against the certainty of starvation and took their chances. Some won, some lost.’

Thorin nodded sombrely, all too familiar with weighing up such risks. This was exactly the sort of conundrum that had sent Thorin out on his journey. Was it better to act, and hope that nothing worse caught you unawares, or to hide away and hope that the original problem did not kill you off?

He scolded himself firmly for his arrogant assumption that the hobbits, particularly Bilbo but also all of the others he had met, could not have known suffering like his own people. Clearly they had known more than anyone should.

‘We had been amongst those locked in our homes,’ Bilbo said, lost to the present now and gazing distantly into the past. ‘We had had some small stores left when the horn sounded, and Mother had invited some of our neighbours to join us with their own stores as well. Bag End was sturdy and well-built, more capable of withstanding a possible attack. The Rangers had been sent to, they were always our first line of defence in times of trouble, and the adults reassured themselves it would not be long… but a day turned into a week, and still no help came. Only the wolves.’

Thorin’s brow creased in surprise, for he knew of the Rangers and had never heard them to be lax in their duties.

‘I learned, months later, that our defenders had been hard pressed in their own lands, trying to deal with roving bands of orcs driven out of the mountains by the snow and ice. They had received our calls for help and had, in turn, sent their fastest riders to Rivendell to ask for aid. As many of them as could gather together were pushing forward to the Shire, defending their backs all the time from the orcs and other creatures in search of easier food. They were only a few days away when Mother lost patience with waiting.’

Internally, Thorin winced. That did not bode well, not when he felt instinctively that they were now coming to the crux of the matter.

‘Mother had always counted Gandalf as a good friend,’ Bilbo explained sadly. ‘I vaguely remember meeting him as a small child, when he came to the Old Took’s Midsummer’s-Eve party to provide the fireworks.’ His voice turned nearly wistful for a moment, and in other circumstances his next words would have made Thorin smile, ‘I believe I beat him with a wooden sword. It is a thought that has often comforted me over the years.

‘When Mother grew impatient with the waiting, concerned that the Rangers had not received our messages and would not come, she decided to set out to find them and, more importantly, find Gandalf. He had promised to visit her near Yuletide with a curiosity they had discussed during his last visit, and she was certain that he could not be far away. My parents argued about it, that much I remember clearly, though they kept the arguments in their own room. They did not like to be seen disagreeing in public.’

By now, silent tears had begun to run down Bilbo’s face from his closed eyes, and he had a death-grip on the edge of the bench he sat on, though his voice remained remarkably steady. Thorin felt frozen in the face of his grief, not sure Bilbo remembered who he was telling his tale to.

Or if he even remembered there was anyone there at all.

‘The arguments lasted three days. On the fourth day, she set out before dawn, while everyone else was still sleeping. We slept as often as not, by then, when sleep would come. It helped stave off the hunger. Only I was awake. I’d heard her moving through the smial. I sat up as she began to open the door, and she looked over, held her finger to her lips, and winked. Even then, she still tried to pretend as if everything was alright for me. I knew what she meant to do, I did, but I was so used to Mother having all the answers, being able to solve every problem, that it didn’t occur to me to try and stop her. I do not think Bungo ever forgave me for it.

‘She left, closing the door behind her, and never returned. I do not know how long she was gone before she ran into trouble, but it cannot have been long. It was no more than a week before the orcs arrived in the Shire, holding her head aloft as a trophy.’

Thorin could not help a groan of horror, and Bilbo’s eyes opened briefly, focusing on Thorin for only a second before pain forced him to close them again.

‘I did not see it,’ the hobbit whispered, perhaps as a reassurance. ‘Of course, the orcs did not know where their trophy would have most effect, and they reached Brandybuck lands first. They arrived at about the same time that Gandalf, the elves and the Rangers did; they never made it as far as Hobbiton. There were reports, however, from the Brandybucks who had tried to guard their borders. It was definitely Mother.’

‘Bilbo, I am sorry,’ Thorin murmured, though he knew it could make no difference to so deep a grief.

‘It was a long time ago,’ Bilbo replied, then shook his head disbelievingly. ‘We learn to do that, have you realised?’ he asked Thorin starkly. ‘To say things like “it was a long time ago”, to let people feel as if we are somehow better now. As if the pain has somehow lessened.’

‘Yes,’ Thorin agreed, equally blunt. ‘I know.’ When Bilbo looked at him questioningly, drawn out of his own mind by the sincerity of Thorin’s response, Thorin added, ‘I have lost all of my family except Dís and the boys, Bilbo. Some griefs do not heal. Not truly. I think perhaps some of us do not know how to let them.’

‘No,’ Bilbo concurred. ‘I do not, though Gandalf preaches that I must every time we see one another, the interfering old busybody. As if my grief is somehow his business simply because he knew my mother, even though he would do nothing to help me when it mattered.’

‘When it mattered?’ Thorin questioned, sensing that there was another poisonous wound sitting beneath that statement. Perhaps one that also needed leaching. Bilbo had told his tale so far as if he could not stop. As if, having started to let someone see all that he usually hid, he had to get everything out at once. Thorin could only hope there was some sort of healing in it.

Whether there was or not, Bilbo chose to answer.

‘Danger came to the Shire and none of us could do a thing about it,’ he explained. ‘Looking back, I can see it was madness for Mother to even try and reach Gandalf. She knew nothing of swordplay, or of travelling in that sort of weather. She was, quite literally, a lamb among a wolf pack. Or an orc pack. Even then, however, I knew that we could not rely on others to save us. We had to be ready to save ourselves. Elladan and Elrohir were amongst those who came to our aid. When I asked to be taught to fight, they agreed to try and teach me. Gandalf objected, strenuously. He said I had no need of the lessons, that it could do no good. They discussed in private, in the main, but that much I heard. He did not wish me to be able to defend myself. Maybe it offended his view of the Shire as a well-protected idyll, I do not know. Regardless, as you can see, the twins ignored his objections and I learned. When they returned to Rivendell in the late summer, I… convinced the Rangers to continue my training, and then to take me out on patrol with them sometimes.’

‘They trained you well,’ Thorin offered, suspecting that Bilbo’s fighting prowess was as much a point of pride for the hobbit as it would be for a dwarf. He was glad now that Dwalin had offered praise even when Thorin had not thought to do so himself. Thorin could understand, only too well, the driving need to be able to protect what you loved when you had suffered such a loss.

‘Thank you,’ Bilbo replied, though Thorin was sure the response was as much training as, “It was a long time ago,” had been. The hobbit remained thoughtful, focused inward, for several moments longer before he added one final verse to his tale.

‘This is why I want to come with you,’ he told Thorin fiercely, when he spoke again. ‘To see a different world. It was like… like when you see a pattern or an image in a mark upon the floor. It is clear as day one moment, but if you look away and then back it is gone and you can never see it again. The Shire will never be the same for me now, and I think Elrohir is right. It is time I saw more of the world. Maybe then, when I return, the Shire will have changed again.’

‘Then we will take you with us,’ Thorin promised him once more. He rose to his feet, stiff and achy after so much time spent in one position, and crossed to clasp Bilbo on the shoulder. ‘We will take you with us, and see if we can find you a different way of looking.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen: Another Way to Fall

‘You took the map and the key.’

By a strong effort of will, Thorin prevented himself from spinning around and drawing his sword on the person who had somehow crept up on him. Instead, unarmed, he pivoted smoothly towards Lord Elrond, who had positioned himself in the doorway to Thorin’s room, and cursed elven light-footedness in his head.

The elves were worse than Nori and Bilbo combined when it came to scaring a dwarf out of his wits.

‘They are heirlooms of my people,’ Thorin said carefully, purposefully keeping his face blank. The elven Lord had not come here idly, not when Thorin’s Company were on the verge of departing from Rivendell. Not when he had begun with something that could be interpreted as an accusation.

‘They are,’ Elrond acknowledged. ‘Yet somehow I do not think you took them for the sake of sentimentality.’

‘I took them by right,’ Thorin pointed out harshly. ‘They may have been given into Gandalf’s keeping, but that does not change the fact that they were given to him by my father, for me, and belong to my Line. My people do not have many pieces of our history left to us. The dragon sits upon most of them now. Or has treated them all to a fiery death, for all I know. I am not willing to give up any of what is left.’

‘I have no argument with that, Thorin,’ the elf told him, and Thorin barely resisted the urge to scoff. This from the person who had threatened to lock his party up if they looked likely to use the map and key as intended. Did he think to convince Thorin he bore them no ill will, after that?

‘I can see by your face that you do not believe me,’ Elrond said quietly, ‘but it is true. I regret how I phrased my disagreement before. It is not the first time that Gandalf has provoked me into saying what I did not mean to, but I hope it will be the last. I would like to believe that after thousands of years I would grow out of such things.’

‘So you would not imprison us?’ Thorin asked sharply. Elrond sighed.

‘I hope it would not come to that. I hope that we would be able discuss the matter sensibly and reach an agreement,’ he replied. To Thorin it sounded like an evasion, and his expression must have told Elrond so.

‘Tell me, Thorin, were it someone other than yourself bound for Erebor, intent on trying to kill the dragon, and you had every reason to expect what we both fear could happen, what would you do?’

It took Thorin a moment to parse the question, and the first thing he felt obliged to point out was, ‘I am not bound for Erebor.’

‘Yes, my pardon, I mean hypothetically,’ Elrond replied immediately.

Thorin paused to think. What would he do? If it were a party of elves bound for his homeland to try and reclaim it?

‘No other has a claim to Erebor,’ he informed Elrond, meeting the elf’s eyes squarely to force his point home. ‘Any other who travelled there would be an intruder and I would deal with them as such.’ Elrond looked thoroughly frustrated for a moment, and Thorin felt a little pity for him. He knew he was being awkward so, having made his point, he let it go and took the question in the spirit it was meant. ‘However, if one of my own people now announced that they were travelling to Erebor to face the dragon, I would prevent them, both for their own safety and that of others. The dragon is simply too dangerous.’

‘Yes,’ Elrond agreed. ‘I hope, then, that you can at least understand my motives, even if we will not agree on my authority to intervene.’

Thorin gave a reluctant nod in response. They would not agree over Elrond’s authority in this matter because Thorin would still, and always, maintain that he had none and that what Thorin chose to do with his former kingdom was his own business. However, he could acknowledge that they were of the same mind on the topic of whether Smaug should be disturbed.

He would never truly trust this elf, but nor did he feel the need to begin another feud the likes of which his Line had fallen into with the Woodland King. Such feuds were simply a waste of energy that could be better used for other things.

‘I would offer an… apology of sorts, if I may,’ Elrond added. Thorin looked over questioningly, curious as to what an apology “of sorts” might look like.

‘You say much of your history is gone,’ Elrond continued, ‘and I can easily see how it might be so. However, there is a little more included in that map, I suspect, than there might first appear. Gandalf did not choose to meet you here with it, rather than giving it to you at the beginning of your journey, without a reason. Besides which, it would be very unlike your people to leave access to a secret passage, meant only for the direst of emergencies, lying out in plain sight as it appears to be.’

‘That it would. Very unlike them, indeed, especially if my father and grandfather had some part in its creation.’ Thorin repeated quietly, thinking aloud. His interest caught, Thorin reached into his coat and extracted the map from the inside pocket, where he had placed both map and key for safe-keeping. Opening it and laying it on the table, he took a proper look at this part of his heritage. It took him only moments to come to a realisation. ‘Moon-letters. If there was something to hide, that is how my forebears would have hidden it. Dwarven secrets kept safe with a dwarven invention.’

‘So I, too, believe,’ Elrond confirmed. ‘The only question, then, would be how safe they chose to keep it. If it can be read at any time, we will be able to look now. If not, then you will need to keep looking as the weeks pass.’

Thorin eyed him suspiciously again, wondering if this really was the apology that Elrond was making it out to be, or whether it was simply an attempt to gain more information about Erebor’s secret entrance. Elrond, ever sharp, held his hands up as if to show he was unarmed.

‘You are under no obligation to share with me what, if anything, you find, Thorin,’ he insisted. ‘By all means, look in private or not at all. There is a good viewing point on the south terrace, not far from my study. Whether you choose to use it or not is entirely up to you.’

With a nod, the elf exited, leaving Thorin with a quandary.

Could he resist knowing what might be there? Could he resist looking now?

It might be nothing. There might be nothing. It was naught but pure speculation on Elrond’s part, and on Thorin’s as well.

Yet, there might be something. One final message from his family, left for him to find.

How could he give up the chance to learn of something like that?

Patience had never been the strongest of his virtues, after all.

***

There was nothing.

Thorin was bitterly disappointed in himself for being so disappointed.

What did it matter what was or was not there? He had no intention of ever returning to Erebor. He was only heading that way at all because Dain lived on the other side and Thorin would have to pass by in order to reach him.

Fool.

Sentimental fool.

What had he hoped to gain? Neither Thrór nor Thráin had left him anything but trouble, unless one counted Dís.

Perhaps even if one did count Dís. She was hardly a paragon of serenity, even on her best days.

Either way, it was ridiculous to be disappointed that he had not found something which might not even be there.

Thorin sighed, ready to scrunch the cursed thing up in his hand and stuff it away again, even if Balin would murder him for treating old documents with such disdain.

Then he saw it.

Just the barest flicker of silver on the bottom of the parchment.

Tiny.

Barely there.

But something.

The phase of the moon was not right yet, but it seemed it would be soon. The moon-letters were just beginning to reflect the light.

It seemed Thorin was destined to learn this secret after all.

***

Bilbo was quiet as they left Rivendell, but then Thorin had expected him to be. The hobbit had spoken a great deal of something he rarely held up to the light, and it would take time to tuck those memories away again. It was the same reason that Thorin almost never spoke of Azanulbizar. The remembering was difficult, but trying to forget again was almost worse.

The Company had been, for the most part, plainly delighted by Bilbo’s decision to continue on to the Iron Hills with them. Thorin had even received a wholly unexpected hug from his youngest nephew, accompanied by a beaming smile from the eldest, which appeared to relate to his agreement that Bilbo should come.

It worried Thorin a little that the boys seemed to be using the same tactics he and Dís had used on them when they were small, trying to reward what they viewed as good behaviour, but he chose to ignore it for now.

The celebrations over Bilbo’s decision had been muted, however, by normal dwarven standards. The Company had picked up on the steady wariness Balin and Dwalin had been exuding prior to their departure from Rivendell, and also on Bilbo’s pensive mood. None of the Company knew what Thorin and Bilbo had spoken of - Thorin was no rattle-mouth, to spill someone’s secrets to the world – but they respected Bilbo’s evident desire for quiet time to think. They were good dwarves, those he had brought with him, even the ones who were… of occasionally dubious morality.

Now, as they broke camp on the second day since their departure, Thorin moved between them, checking that all was well. The Misty Mountains always made him nervous. They were not mountains like those in Ered Luin, or the solitary peak of Erebor, used to being mined and lived in by generations of dwarves. These mountains were inhabited only by orcs and goblins and other fell things Thorin preferred not to encounter. They did not feel friendly to his kind, and it set Thorin on edge.

‘Adjust that strap, Bombur,’ he murmured quietly, tapping the reserved dwarf on the shoulder and gesturing to the pack he wore. ‘Tighten it just a little. They are uneven at the moment, and one is wearing more than the other.’ Bombur smiled, without speaking, and moved to do as Thorin suggested.

Thorin carried on, but paused almost immediately and tried to hide a smile.

‘Dori,’ he said patiently, only to snort when he realised he’d done it again. Sometimes dwarven naming conventions were a curse. ‘Ori,’ he corrected himself, and the young dwarf looked up at him expectantly. ‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’

Ori looked thoroughly puzzled, until Thorin gestured to the rock on which the scribe had left both his spare shirts after washing them last night. Apparently, covering everything you owned with ink on a regular basis was one of the perils of being an apprentice scribe, at least according to Dori’s cries of tolerant exasperation when he’d discovered the damage.

Ori immediately abandoned the sketchbook he had been packing so carefully and shot across the campsite to collect his belongings, presumably before Dori worked out he’d nearly left them behind. Thorin stopped trying to hide the smile.

Which wasn’t a problem, because it was short-lived anyway.

‘What, exactly, do you think you are doing up there?’ he rapped out, striding forward and catching a handful of Kíli’s hair. His troublesome nephew was hanging upside down from a tree, of all things! Thorin could not wait to hear the explanation for this one.

‘I was… er, that is… I was…,’ Kíli stuttered.

‘Doing your best to break your idiot neck and get me in trouble with your mother for the rest of my life?’ Thorin suggested helpfully, loosing Kíli’s hair long enough for him to get down.

‘No,’ Kíli replied brightly, looking relieved to be able to answer this question. ‘No, I am absolutely certain I wasn’t doing that. No matter what else I was… might have been… doing on a dare. Such as seeing how long I could last upside down without going purple.’

This last section came out all in a rush, and Thorin lost the power of speech for several seconds, then viewed Kíli with utter disbelief for several more.

‘Oh, just… go and do something useful!’ he commanded eventually, unsure if anything else he said would even make a difference. The trouble with his nephews was that they always applied the commands he gave them (in these sorts of situations, anyway) in the most frustratingly specific fashion.

Well, yes, Uncle. We KNOW you said not to try hunting for honey from bee-hives anymore, but that was in the summer. It’s nearly mid-winter now, we thought they’d be asleep!

Sometimes it just wasn’t worth wasting his breath.

Thorin pinched the bridge of his nose and took several deep breaths, then turned back to checking on his Company. When he did, he caught sight of Bilbo looking at him curiously. Thorin raised an eyebrow in question, wondering about the wry quirk at the corner of Bilbo’s mouth. Bilbo said nothing, however, just gave him the most beautiful smile and then turned back to the pack at his feet.

That was… odd.

Very odd.

Not unpleasant, though.

***

It had taken Bilbo some time to settle himself after his conversation with Thorin, which he supposed was only to be expected. He had wondered if he would have nightmares again, after dragging it all back up. Reminders of those days normally left a week’s worth of bad dreams behind. However, while the first night had been restless, it had been nowhere near as bad as he’d feared and once they were back on the road he had been fine. Perhaps it was being surrounded by so many others whose presence was so obvious in the night. At home, Bilbo had always felt very much alone at night-time, even when Bungo was still alive and sharing the smial.

His days had been filled with quite a lot of thinking, but that was also not as painful as it could have been. Bilbo had found himself turning his memories over, viewing them first from one angle and then from another, and discovering that somehow, some of the worst of the pain had drained away. It still hurt, and he had wiped away more than one tear at the thought of his feisty, determined mother discovering that the world was harder than she had ever thought, and that sometimes not even immense courage could save you.

Yet, impossible though it was for Bilbo to explain, the harshest pangs had eased now he had shared the worst of his life with someone and had received understanding and sympathy in turn. He knew the sympathy in the Shire had been genuine, but his fellow hobbits generally preferred to forget such evils as soon as possible. Bilbo had been unable to forget, and they had not understood. Even Violet had urged him to move forward.

Thorin, it seemed, did understand, and was equally unable to forget his own griefs. Just knowing it made Bilbo feel less alone.

Besides, it was hard to feel alone when there were dwarves everywhere, and half of them were fussing over you in the gentlest way imaginable. The boys had, for the most part, been stuck to him like glue, and he was half-convinced that Kíli’s antics in the tree had been designed solely to make him laugh. Ori had given him a truly beautiful drawing of the twins as a gift only last night, ducking his head when Bilbo praised his talent profusely. Nori had magically produced mushrooms out of nowhere (as far as Bilbo could tell) and Bofur and Bombur had happily included them in dinner that night and ensured Bilbo had the largest portion.

They were sweet and, though Bilbo wasn’t quite sure what to do with such sweetness, he could not help enjoying it. It reminded him of all the best parts of life with his family, years and years ago.

Thorin, Bilbo was increasingly realising, was also surprisingly sweet when you watched a bit more carefully. Bilbo had been keeping an eye on the dwarven King as he made his way around the camp, and had noticed the easy way that he checked up on his people and the small steps he took to solve their problems.

He had also concluded, after further observation, that Thorin could actually tell the Company apart, he was just abysmal at picking the correct name when speaking to them. Bilbo could accept that. Apparently giving your children confusingly similar names was something of a dwarven tradition, and in all honesty it was a wonder any of them were ever called by the correct name.

Or perhaps they were not and just, like the larger hobbit families, got used to answering to a variety of names. Fortinbras’ father, Isumbras, had always claimed that as long as his mother didn’t reach the cats’ names before she got to his own, he counted himself perfectly content.

Either way, Bilbo could not help but smile when Thorin’s gentle patience with Ori gave way to a kind of exasperated tolerance as he dealt with Kíli’s mischief. It was easier, now, to see the fondness underneath it all.

And that made Bilbo fonder of Thorin, even if Bofur had told him that Thorin was treating him like a dwarven princess.

Some changes happened whether you wanted them to or not.

***

The Misty Mountains were, Bofur soon decided, a climate unto themselves. The weather hadn’t been all that bad when they left Rivendell, but the winds up here could freeze Mahal’s balls off.

Ah well, as long as they didn’t freeze Bofur’s off, that was the main thing.

Still, he was keeping a close eye on their hobbit, walking along in front of him. Bilbo was such a little thing, for all his ferocity, and those clothes were not made for this sort of weather. He needed something fur-lined, really, but they hadn’t been able to find anything to fit him in Rivendell. Instead they’d made do with adding a layer or two underneath his cloak and then putting him in between Bofur and Bombur so that the two of them could try and block the wind out.

Not that they’d told Bilbo this. There was no need to set the lad off when he’d only just stopped bristling at the slightest hint that they didn’t think he was a warrior.

Other than the cold – or possibly including the cold – the Misty Mountains were very boring, in a life-threatening, death-possible-at-any-moment, sort of way. There was nothing to do except stare at the head of the person in front of you, or the stone next to you, which was hardly thrilling.

Bofur liked stone, as a general rule. Most people said you couldn’t talk to the stuff, but Bofur had yet to find anything he couldn’t talk to. Things didn’t always answer back, but if he was going to let something like that stop him then he’d rarely talk to anything. Anyway, the stone did answer back, after a fashion, with images and feelings if not with words and Bofur had spent many a happy hour entertaining himself that way.

The problem was, this stone was wrong.

Bofur had tried to talking to it when they first began walking, though admittedly it was more difficult when he had to keep moving all the time and couldn’t keep steady contact with the surface. It didn’t respond like he’d expected though, and Bofur wasn’t sure why. He’d had his brother and cousin try as well, and they’d both reported the same thing, but neither had been able to explain any better than he had.

It was as if the stone was separated out into much smaller sections than normal, which Bofur had never come across before. Those sections were none too friendly, either. Bofur had been receiving definite ‘get lost and leave me alone’ impressions from it, which was one of the main reasons he’d given up. He’d never yet been rejected by the stone like that and he didn’t much like his chances if it decided to take serious exception to his presence.

If the whole thing made him think of old legends – ones so old that their origins were lost in time – about stone giants that lived in the mountains and came out in thunderstorms to battle one another. Well, he kept those thoughts to himself. Some of their Company were more nervy in this setting than others, and there was no need to set Dor… well, set any of them off over an old story.

Not that he’d have worried about all that, of course, if he’d known what was going to happen next.

***

It was Dwalin who realised first, which didn’t surprise Ori in the slightest. Dwalin always seemed to spot these things before anyone else did, which was one of the reasons he managed to keep Nori almost in line when no other guard had ever done so. Dwalin was bringing up the rear of the line, with Ori just in front of him, and Thorin was leading the way at the other end. They all startled when Dwalin suddenly bellowed at the top of his voice, but particularly Ori, who wondered if he’d just lost his hearing on that side permanently.

‘Thorin, look down,’ Dwalin roared at full volume, pulling both axes into his hands, and inevitably they all did exactly that. Below them, a group of goblins were scaling the rock face with a speed that Ori, at least, found frightening. He fumbled for his sling, wondering if he could hit them at that angle when they were moving so fast. Then, unexpectedly, he felt Dwalin shove a dagger into his hand. He looked down and discovered that he was holding one of Nori’s blades, which confused him utterly, but moments later he no longer had time to think about it.

The goblins were on them, and it was immediately clear that it was going to be a hard-fought battle. Thanks to Dwalin’s warning all of the Company were armed, but they were also hemmed in on a narrow path, with a horrific drop only inches away if they faltered. Almost as one, they pressed their backs to the rock behind them and held their weapons before them. Ori lost sight of what the others were doing only seconds later, caught up in fending off the first of his attackers.

He managed that first one fairly well, catching it in the throat as it scrambled up over the ledge and killing it quickly. It fell back off the edge, unable to find purchase because its hands had instinctively come up to staunch the wound at its throat.

Unfortunately for Ori, the next two goblins decided to work in tandem. As one of them came up onto the path to face Ori directly, the other remained below and grabbed at his ankle, tugging forward as it tried to unbalance him into falling.

Ori kicked out with his other foot once, then had to pause as the goblin on the path lunged for him with a dirty, serrated knife. Ori knew he needed to buy himself time to deal with the goblin below, so he knocked the knife out of its hand and used his own free hand to grab the goblin by its skinny throat and thrust it away from him, holding it at arm’s length. With its much shorter reach it was now unable to get to him. The goblin made as much fuss as it could, scrabbling at his hand and trying to yank it away, but the move at least bought Ori the time he needed.

He kicked at the goblin below a second time, then a third, and finally on the fourth go he caught it on the head and stunned it. It, too, fell to its death. When it tried for a handhold, realising too late what was happening, it only succeeded in pulling a goblin that was attacking Bofur down with it.

‘Thanks, lad,’ Bofur shouted gaily, breaking another’s goblin’s hand with the end of his mattock as it tried to pull itself up over the ledge.

At this point, the goblin Ori was holding succeeded in pulling Ori’s thumb back enough to make him howl unintentionally. It shrieked gleefully as Ori released it, leaping forward at him only to find itself impaled on the dagger he’d thrust forward. Ori yanked the dagger back out and shoved the goblin backwards off the path.

Then there was another attacker to deal with, and another after that, until suddenly Ori found himself with no goblin in front of him. He looked around, startled, to find that many of the others had also run out of enemies; Óin was reaching forward to untangle a goblin that had all-but plastered itself to Glóin and, once done, hurled it casually into the abyss before them.

Fíli and Kíli, at the far end, were exchanging places so that Kíli could fire on a particularly large goblin that Thorin was facing, while Fíli took his daggers to the three goblins all attacking Balin at once. Balin was wearing, from what little Ori could see, the same expression he wore when having his beard tugged by young dwarflings at the market, so Ori wasn’t too worried about him.

Having checked that the others were alright, Ori was about to turn to see if Dwalin needed help – it didn’t sound as if he was struggling but it was only polite to check – when he discovered that the goblins had one last surprise for him.

A final wave had somehow, perhaps by pressing close to the rock face and creeping up ever so slowly, escaped their notice. Suddenly, the goblins launched themselves upwards all at once and the Company were each under attack once more. Ori heard a yelp and some scrambling from his left, but he did not have time to worry about it. He had been stupid, and lax, and had not been prepared for this final assault.

Before he even had time to protect himself, a goblin had shoved in close and was making a concerted effort to rip his throat out with its teeth. Ori dropped his weapon in surprise.

The goblin didn’t even seem to have a weapon, or not that Ori could tell in his admittedly distracted state. It wasn’t trying to stab him, or club him, just to gets its sharp, pointy teeth into his jugular.

Now, abruptly, Ori found that he was the one scrabbling around his neck, getting one hand onto the goblin’s forehead and another on its chin and shoving back with all his might. That worked to keep him alive, but he could not seem to free himself from the goblin completely. It had one hand clawed in the back of his coat, the other yanking down on his hood to bare his throat, and both legs wrapped around his waist as it clung on determinedly.

Ori knew that he needed to loosen its grip. He wanted to try and slam back against the rock behind him, thinking he might be able to break its knee or one of its hands, to buy himself some room, but he didn’t dare take an ounce of his attention off keeping its head pushed back. If he lost that fight, he was done for.

All he could do now was hope that Dwalin or Bofur came to his aid.

In the end, however, it was neither Dwalin nor Bofur who saved him.

Instead, one large, hairy foot shot past his head and impacted on the face of the goblin holding him. Ori had been holding it with its head almost horizontal, facing the sky, and so the foot broke the goblin’s nose… and possibly one of Ori’s fingers in the process, but Ori was hardly going to complain at the result. The goblin squealed madly and lost its grip on Ori’s hood and coat in surprise. Ori, not in as much pain and so reacting quicker, leaned forward and then jerked backwards, inflicting as much damage on its legs as possible. He heard another satisfying crack, and one of the goblin’s legs slipped loose.

That was all Ori needed.

He let go of the goblin’s face, caught it by the scruff of the neck and yanked backwards. Still squealing with pain, the goblin detached from him and Ori let it go, dropping it off the edge.

All should have been over and done, but the goblin flailed upwards for a hold, grabbed Bilbo’s foot and yanked at the thick hair that covered the top. Bilbo, balanced rather precariously on the side of the mountain, slipped, toppling past Ori and into nothingness, and Ori heard himself yell with fright.

At the same time, he heard two separate shouts as Bofur and Dwalin threw themselves forward to grab for Bilbo. Dwalin got a handful of jacket at almost the same time that Bofur – thank Mahal and all the Valar – clasped Bilbo’s hand and upper arm, and between the two of them they hauled Bilbo back onto the path.

Bilbo looked as shaky as Ori felt, and for long moments they all stood there, pressed together and breathing hard with leftover shock. There were, to everyone’s relief, no more goblins.

From down the line came various cries of, ‘Bilbo! Is Bilbo alright?’ and ‘Ori? Ori!’, and after a pause to steady himself Dwalin shouted back, ‘They’re fine. Everyone’s fine, calm down!’ but he didn’t move.

‘That was exciting,’ Bofur finally spoke, sounding distinctly shaky. ‘Let’s not do it again, lads. Ever, please.’

‘Agreed,’ Dwalin grumbled instantly. ‘The two of you took nearly a hundred years off my life.’

‘We’d better hope I didn’t lose a hundred as well,’ Bilbo said smartly, though his voice quavered as he did so. ‘Hobbits don’t even live that long. I’d drop dead in a few minutes, and wouldn’t that surprise you all?’

‘I think I’d like to get off this mountain now,’ was Ori’s contribution, and the thought of doing so straightened them all up.

‘Also agreed,’ Dwalin replied. ‘Thorin!’ he yelled again, ‘get moving, will you? The sooner we’re off this blasted death-trap, the better.’

Thorin didn’t hesitate and, though they were still careful, they travelled very swiftly after that.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen: Perspective

‘You are well?’ Thorin asked Bilbo with concern, once they had found a spot where they could rest for the night. For all their eagerness to be out of the mountains and onto clear ground again, and the speed which came alongside such eagerness, Thorin estimated they still had another week and a half of hard travel.

‘I am,’ Bilbo replied evenly. ‘You’ve no more cause to worry about me than you have about Ori, Thorin. I saw you checking on him a minute ago. Neither of us were badly harmed, though I will admit I owe Ori a debt for breaking his finger. Poor boy, I ought to have aimed better.’

‘You were clinging to a rock face, a thousand feet up in the air, whilst trying to dislodge a goblin. A goblin that came very close to killing him. Trust me, Bilbo, you will get no complaint from Ori. Or from any of us. The battle was well-fought.’

‘I would consider it better fought had I not nearly decorated the bottom of that thousand foot drop, but thankfully Dwalin and Bofur are quick to action,’ Bilbo smiled self-deprecatingly.

‘It would have made for a wonderfully ironic tale,’ Thorin pointed out, a mischievous light in his eyes. Bilbo was still getting used to the idea that Thorin could be mischievous. He had seemed so unrelentingly serious when they met, but now he was showing these occasional glimmers of humour. They often prompted Bilbo into his own moments of humour which might, he admitted to himself, be one of the reasons Elladan and Elrohir had claimed he laughed more with the dwarves. ‘Our warrior-hobbit nearly dragged to his death by his own foot-hair. You could have competed with that elf who was pulled to his doom by his girlish ponytail.’

‘I do not think it happened quite like that,’ Bilbo scolded though, true to form, he could not keep laughter out of his voice. ‘Is this what the dwarves do for entertainment? Rewrite elven history?’

‘We don’t rewrite it,’ Fíli countered. He settled on the floor next to Bilbo, while Kíli chose the spot next to their uncle. Fíli threw his arm around Bilbo’s shoulders and pressed Bilbo in against his side. Bilbo presumed this was meant to be a gesture of affection, but he could have done with a little less strength applied on Fíli’s part. He had been jolted rather hard not long ago. ‘We just edit the pomposity out of it a bit. It sounds better our way!’

‘I’m sure,’ Bilbo responded dryly. ‘How would the elves edit dwarven history, I wonder?’

‘Badly,’ Thorin informed him with a frown. ‘Our Line is never covered in glory in any elven re-telling, which is why we take little account of their sensitivities when composing our own stories. I heard the elves speaking about our first encounter with the Balrog in Moria once. It was less than flattering. My grandfather nearly started a war over that, but thankfully Fundin headed him off.’

‘What did happen?’ Bilbo asked curiously, tilting his head sideways to get a better view of Thorin. ‘In Moria, that is, when the Balrog first emerged.’

The King of Ered Luin winced, and Bilbo regretted asking the question. Then again, he consoled himself, Thorin was the one who’d brought it up.

‘Two kings dead in two years,’ Thorin summed up succinctly, ‘and an entire realm of dwarves in flight from their home after the second death. They refer to the Balrog as Durin’s Bane with good reason.’

‘Hmm,’ Bilbo murmured, feeling it best not to make any further comment. He had already seen that dwarves could be tetchy in their pride, and the last thing he wanted was to offend Thorin when they had now come to such a peaceful understanding. ‘My people always claim that Eärnur’s scribes wrote us out of their history. The Shire’s historians state that a company of hobbit archers travelled to join the Battle of Fornost, but the Men say they have no record of it themselves.’

‘Do you believe them?’ Kíli asked, eyes lighting up at the idea of hobbit archers. ‘That your people fought?’

‘I would like to,’ Bilbo told him thoughtfully. ‘I would like to think that I follow a tradition of hobbit fighters, and certainly hobbits are good marksmen on the whole. If we were to have sent any soldiers to the Battle it would have been archers. Also, there were hobbits who fought against orcs in the Battle of Greenfields, around 200 years ago, so it does not seem completely absurd. I had to point that out repeatedly when my relatives and neighbours learned that I had taken up sword-fighting. It is rather out of fashion in the Shire now.’

‘You were just born into the wrong time, that’s all,’ Fíli said, giving Bilbo another squeeze. Bilbo poked him in the stomach at the same moment that Thorin warned, ‘Fíli.’

‘Mind who you’re treating like a child’s ragdoll, Master Fíli,’ Bilbo said firmly. ‘You should have more respect for your elders.’

‘You aren’t our elder,’ Kíli pointed out. ‘We’re both older than you.’

‘One’s mental age is of far more importance than their physical age,’ Bilbo pronounced loftily. ‘Besides, if he keeps squashing me like that, I will ask Dori to do the same to both of you. I imagine you prefer all of your ribs intact.’

Fíli very pointedly removed his arm from around Bilbo and laid both hands in his lap.

‘Good boy,’ Bilbo said gently, patting his hand in a patronising manner.

Fíli pulled a face and stuck his tongue out. Bilbo found himself laughing once again, and was pleased to hear Thorin’s voice join his own.

***

‘How did Ori come to have my dagger?’

Dwalin, his back to Nori, stilled so briefly that it would have been unnoticeable to most people.

Nori was not most people. He was a dwarf used to reading others’ bodies, sensing how someone might move in the next moment and how that might affect his chances of stealing their purse, or escaping from their bedroom with the goods without them waking.

He did not claim to be a good dwarf. No one would have believed him if he had.

Especially not the one in front of him.

‘He needed a weapon to fight,’ Dwalin said laconically. Nori felt a ripple of irritation but deliberately did not show it.

This was only part of the game. He had done the same thing to Dwalin a hundred times, when Dwalin was interviewing him about some crime or other and Nori was trying to rile him. He could not allow Dwalin to use his own tactics against him.

That would just be embarrassing.

‘It’s always good to know that you understand the basics of battle, Dwalin,’ he said affably, pretending a cool that he usually found surprisingly difficult to maintain around the Captain of the Guard. ‘Now, how did he come to have my dagger?’

‘He needed a weapon,’ Dwalin repeated. Luckily for his continued existence, he did not leave it there. ‘We were about to head into the Misty Mountains and I, at least, know how little room there is to manoeuvre on those paths. His sling would have as much chance of hitting one of us as it would an enemy, even if he did get enough room for a good swing. My weapons are too heavy for him, and I need both of them. You have more than enough daggers with you. Besides, you are his brother, Nori. Surely you wouldn’t grudge the lad a dagger?’

Nori growled, his spine straightening, infuriated at the very suggestion. He begrudged Ori nothing and never had. Not all the money they had spent on his education, not all the attention his younger brother had received from Dori. Not even the fact that Nori’s temporary break from Ered Luin had somehow come to include spending day and night with Captain Dwalin and their King, because Ori had decided he just had to join this expedition and Nori could hardly allow him to go alone. If Nori had been in charge of his travel plans, they would have involved fewer people with the authority to have him imprisoned or executed!

‘You stole from me,’ he snarled at Dwalin, glaring with all his might, his determination to keep his temper forgotten. If part of his anger was built on the fact that Dwalin had spotted Ori’s need when he had not, he would never admit it. Nor that the other part was built on the fact he had not noticed the theft until it was too late. He had been too distracted by…

Never mind that. Dwalin had stolen the thing, that was what was important.

‘I did,’ Dwalin acknowledged, making no bones about it now. ‘Unpleasant feeling, isn’t it, Nori? Still, at least you know where your property is if you need to reclaim it. That’s better than most of the people you stole from.’

Dwalin met his eyes squarely then, and Nori continued to glare as he tried to decide how to react to that little comment. Then, after several moments, he decided the only way he could react was to ignore it completely, or else he would no doubt lose the war as well as the battle. For some reason, he was not his usual quick-witted self right now. It must be the shock of nearly losing Ori on the mountainside.

Turning abruptly and marching away without a word, Nori determinedly ignored the sound of Dwalin’s low chuckles in the background.

***

‘They’ll murder one another, Balin.’

‘No, they won’t.’

‘Nori was just about ready to slit Dwalin’s throat a moment ago, and all that over an appropriated dagger. I do not usually accuse you of too much faith, my friend, but I cannot understand the trust you place in their restraint. They both have tempers.’

‘They are dwarves. How many of us do not have tempers? They will be fine.’

How, Balin?’

‘How does Dwalin look to you now?’

‘As if he was just trying to taunt Nori into attacking him!’

‘And…?’

‘And… as if he was thoroughly enjoying the entire encounter.’

‘Aye, so he was. He’ll not let Nori kill him, nor will he do any killing himself. Nori entertains him too much. He’ll deny it until he’s blue in the face, but it’s true.’

‘And Nori? What will stop him? Even Dwalin cannot be on his guard every second of the day.’

‘Nori is a thief and a liar, but he’s no murderer. If he was, Dwalin’s men would have tried harder to make the charges stick. They’ll be fine, Thorin. Stop worrying.’

‘Stop worrying. Of course. Can you see any pigs flying, Balin? No? Nor can I.’

***

Bombur was happier than he could express to be out of the Misty Mountains. He knew that they all were, in truth, but he suspected his relief had a different cause than most of the Company. Paths were rather difficult to navigate when you were wider than they were. He had spent most of the last fortnight convinced that he was one jagged piece of rock-face away from a very long fall.

He had kept his mouth shut, of course. Bilbo had so nearly fallen himself, and after that Bombur didn’t feel he had much right to be complaining, even if he had spent the journey in a cold sweat. Bifur had known, and had made sure to stay in reach at all times, so it was not as bad as it could have been. Despite realising that Bombur was likely to pull him to his death if anything happened, Bifur had made it clear he would not hesitate to try and catch his cousin. Bombur knew Bofur would not hesitate either, but he and Bifur had agreed to keep Bombur’s fears secret. Bofur hated it when Bombur was upset about something, and then he got nervous and made unwise jokes in front of people who weren’t family and the whole situation just got worse.

Anyway, they were down now and on a path where they could walk more than single file. The woods were not quite as good as open fields – there was a lot of brush and debris on the path to avoid – but there was less danger of imminent death and at least they were now travelling downhill.

Besides, the woods only lasted a day, all told, and then they were out into the open again. They moved quickly, aware always that the sooner they reached Dáin, the sooner their people’s problems would be resolved. Bombur, with his growing family constantly in mind, forced himself to be more energetic than he had been in years in order to keep up.

He and Dori often walked together now, so that they could exchange silent glances of understanding when Thorin put off resting for another hour, and instead pushed them on. Dori was not a natural traveller either. He much preferred being at home with his tea collection and his tailoring work, and the children he watched for others when he had a spare evening. Bombur and his wife had even made use of his services once or twice.

Family, Bombur had finally decided, drove people to do all sorts of things they would not normally do.

Would either he or Dori be here if it were not for their younger siblings?

Probably not.

Still, Bombur mused as they took their lunchtime rest a few days after exiting the Misty Mountains, younger siblings did keep life interesting. Watching Bofur try to teach Ori a song the lad was probably a bit too young to hear, and watching Ori’s ears turn red as he valiantly refused to utter such words in front of the rest of Company, was an amusing way to spend an hour.

Even more amusing was Dori’s expression when he returned from relieving himself and discovered what Bofur was up to.

Bombur was just considering whether he needed to intervene – Bofur could generally hold his own, but Dori was the strongest of them all by quite some way, and he didn’t look as if he was calming down any time soon – when they were all distracted by a shocked cry from behind.

Glóin had seated himself at the back of the party, perhaps looking for a little peace after a morning spent in a heated debate with Dwalin and Balin about something that had happened 50 years before. By chance, Glóin had chosen to face back the way they had come and now Bombur could see him scanning the horizon with sharp eyes, as if searching again for something he had only glimpsed a moment ago.

He must have found it, for he cursed a blue streak and shouted for them all to get up a moment later.

‘There!’ he announced, pointing to a spot in the foothills that was almost a day’s walk away. Seeing what was there, Bombur broke the habit of years and joined Glóin in cursing.

Mahal, of all the bad luck! Just when they’d left that accursed place behind, and Bombur thought they were likely to have an easier journey for a while, they were going to have to run.

Still, he thought, as he hauled himself to his feet and grabbed everything he needed to carry, better to run than to be slain by orcs.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty: Guardians

‘Are… are you elves?’ a small voice asked Elladan as he dismounted from his horse just outside Brandy Hall. He and his party had travelled swiftly after leaving Rivendell; Elladan was conscious that they ought to have set out immediately after Bilbo’s discussion with his father, but it had been some years since he had seen Bilbo and he had wanted to have a little time with his friend before charging off to the Shire. Elrohir had agreed, and they had left the day before the Company were due to depart.

They had made good time in the end. A journey which had taken the dwarves and Bilbo a full month had been only two weeks’ travel on elven horses, especially as they did not need as much sleep as mortals would.

‘We are, little one,’ Elladan said kindly, crouching to face the hobbit faunt who was gazing at them with such startled awe. Two full patrols of elves, with Elladan and Elrohir at the head, must have made a fairly impressive sight going by her expression. ‘And who might you be?’

‘I’m Primula,’ she announced, ‘Primula Brandybuck.’ She did not immediately meet Elladan’s eyes; she was too busy staring in fascination at his ears, visible because he’d braided his hair away from his face. Elladan smiled widely, taken by her innocent wonder. Now he was closer, Elladan suspected the lass was older than he had first guessed, close to the age Bilbo had been when they first met him and so more a tween than a faunt. Yet, despite the similarity in age, his first meetings with the two could not have been more different.

Primula was wide-eyed, happy, excited by the sudden appearance of elves in her world.

Bilbo had been a boy broken by the loss of his mother; silent and watchful at first, then furious when he realised what had happened, that help had been so close at hand and Belladonna had died regardless.

The twins had not argued when this sad, solemn tween insisted on learning to wield a weapon. What right had they, when he had suffered so much? Better, they had told Gandalf, to give him a way of working out that anger than to let him turn it on himself or those around him.

For some years they had worried that they’d been wrong, for Bilbo had not lost that anger, had shown clear signs of it every time they visited him. It was only recently, with this first visit Bilbo had made to Rivendell, that Elladan felt confident they had made the right decision after all.

Perhaps their lessons in swordplay and archery had not calmed Bilbo then, but they had given him the skills he needed to accompany his dwarves on their journey now, and his new friends were doing more to soften Bilbo than anything else had in the last 30 years.

‘Well-met, Lady Primula,’ Elladan replied. ‘I am Elladan, and this is my brother, Elrohir,’ he gestured to his twin, who had also dismounted and had come to join him. Elrohir bowed extravagantly and made the young lass giggle and blush. ‘Is the Master of Brandy Hall at home?’

‘He is,’ a different voice, deeper and lacking the breathless quality of Primula’s, replied. Elladan looked up from his crouch to see a male hobbit, probably around 40 years old, leaning against one of the posts which supported the front porch of the Hall. He did not look entirely comfortable in his pose, yet he also did not seem particularly tense. Elladan stored the observation away to be considered later. ‘I’m sure he will be glad to welcome you. I assume Bilbo has sent you to us?’

‘You assume correctly,’ Elladan agreed. ‘Let me make an assumption of my own, and see if I do so well. Rorimac?’

The hobbit smiled, not brightly but still friendly enough, and nodded.

‘Yes, that’s me,’ he agreed. ‘Call me Rory, Bilbo certainly does. Where is he?’ Elladan realised that Rory must have been scanning the courtyard while he was talking to Primula, searching for his absent friend. Elladan paused for a moment, not quite sure how to respond, and Elrohir instinctively took up the conversation for him.

‘Bilbo travelled on with the dwarven party when they left Rivendell,’ he informed Rory easily, though Elladan knew he was watching carefully to see how the hobbit reacted to this news. ‘They have some danger ahead of them, most likely, and they welcomed the addition of another fighter.’

‘I did wonder if he’d come back immediately,’ Rory replied slowly. Elladan, too, was watching for signs that Bilbo would have trouble when he returned, but Rory’s expression did not convey condemnation, only a little sadness. ‘The dwarves are more his type of people than we are, though I did try to be a friend to him. It is probably for the best. They will have more trouble than they were likely expecting.’

Elladan looked at Elrohir, knowing from that glance exactly how he himself must look in this moment. Eyes a little wide, brows drawing down, a frown beginning to appear and muscles tensing almost imperceptibly.

‘More trouble?’ he questioned, unintentionally sharp.

‘Yes,’ Rory said, though he added no further detail. Instead, he gestured towards the door to the Hall. ‘Come in, Master Elladan, Master Elrohir. We have a tale to tell you.’

***

Rory was holding onto his calm, as he always did in front of his younger siblings, but inside the relief was so strong he felt almost faint with it. Bilbo had been gone for seven weeks, and Rory had begun to wonder if he had met with some accident and would never return.

He still had not returned, but at least now they knew he was safe. Rory was disappointed but, as he had told the elven lords, unsurprised by Bilbo’s decision not to come straight home. His relationship with the dwarves had been uneasy, often fraught, but Rory had seen enough moments of friendship between Bilbo and Thorin’s Company to suspect that Bilbo would become close to them on his travels. The grounding had been there.

Anyway, Bilbo had sent the help he had gone to get, and that was now the most important thing.

After a short discussion, Elladan and Elrohir directed their fellow elves to a grassy area at the far edge of Bucklebury, where they could set up camp and let the horses roam freely. Rory felt a little shame that they could not house their visitors comfortably in the Hall, but they simply didn’t have enough rooms that would be big enough to hold them. They did not have many Big Folk visiting, really, and certainly not entire parties of elven warriors all at once. The twins followed him into the Hall while the other elves got to work, ducking their heads to make it through the door.

‘Father, these elves are from Rivendell,’ he announced as they entered his father’s study. ‘Bilbo has sent help, as he promised he would.’

Both Gorbadoc and the Man sitting with him looked up. The Man was positioned awkwardly in a chair far too small for him, and Rory felt a pang of sympathy, as he did every time he saw their visitor in that positon. His knees were almost up by his ears; that could not possibly be comfortable.

‘Master Brandybuck,’ Elladan acknowledged. Rory had the idea that he was the eldest of the two, if not by very much given that they were clearly twins, because he seemed to take the lead in discussions. Then, before he could say anything further, Elladan looked at their other visitor and suddenly he became less solemn, more akin to the elf Rory had first seen greeting Primula outside.

‘Halbarad,’ he cried happily. ‘Well met. I did not realise you had joined the Shire guardians. I did not realise you were old enough to join them!’

‘That,’ the young Ranger replied, smiling briefly before his face returned to its usual serious expression, ‘is because elves do not pay close enough attention to the passing of the years. I am well past my majority by now.’

‘I think “well past” may be a slight exaggeration,’ Elladan contradicted, chuckling. ‘It has not been that long since last we saw you.’

Rory watched, curious, as some secret conversation seemed to pass between the two. They said not a word, but Halbarad raised an eyebrow in query and Elladan gave a short, sharp nod in return. Halbarad seemed to rest easier after this exchange, though Rory had no idea what it meant.

‘Rory implied there was some great tale to be told, Halbarad,’ Elrohir commented then, perhaps intending to mask the brief exchange. ‘Something more than the orcs Bilbo and his companions defeated in Bree-land. What has happened?’

‘Trouble,’ the Master of Brandy Hall growled in annoyance. Rory wondered if his father’s ill-temper, which had been a permanent feature these last few weeks, had been further exacerbated by that moment where he was almost forgotten in his own house. Such things rarely bothered Rory, but Gorbadoc was used to being respected and listened to. He was very rarely ignored, even temporarily. ‘Orcish trouble, right here in Buckland, the likes of which we haven’t had since the Fell Winter. You are too late, Elves of Rivendell. The dwarves have already brought chaos upon us, as I knew they would. No good ever comes of outsiders in the Shire!’

‘Outsiders like ourselves, Master Brandybuck?’ Elladan asked mildly, a hint of pure steel behind the gentle tone. ‘Like Halbarad?’

Rory froze. His father had been winding himself up for a tirade that Rory had heard multiple times in the last few weeks. It had not taken Gorbadoc long to conclude that the dwarves were somehow responsible for the presence of the orcs, and Rory had felt himself in an awkward position. His father was right, of course, the orcs had come for the dwarves. Rory, of all people, knew that. He could not honestly argue that his father was talking rubbish when he knew the truth.

Yet just because Gorbadoc was right, it didn’t mean he’d reached his conclusion for the right reasons. Rory had told him nothing about why the orcs had come, not when he first learned of it and not since Bilbo had left with Thorin’s Company. For Gorbadoc, this was just blaming the nearest scapegoat. The dwarves were strangers, therefore it must be their fault trouble had come.

And now he was on the verge of insulting their guests when they’d only just arrived to help.

‘No, of course not,’ Gorbadoc blustered. His father was not a stupid hobbit, he knew he had erred there. ‘I just meant… well, we had none of this before those dwarves came.’

‘That does not immediately mean it must be their fault, Father,’ Rory pointed out, feeling like the worst sort of liar, but determined not to let his father slip further into this state of mind. One idiot in the family was more than enough and Rory feared he had already claimed that title. ‘No one controls orcs, we all know that.’

‘I am sorry,’ Elrohir interjected with an air of command, disproving Rory’s theory that Elladan was somehow the leader of the two, ‘but I would like to be very clear here. What exactly has happened since Bilbo left? Have there been deaths?’

‘No hobbit deaths,’ Halbarad replied instantly, seeking to reassure. Rory was ashamed of himself. He should not have let himself get drawn into a disagreement before they had even explained things to the elves. ‘We lost two Rangers last month.’

Elrohir reached out and clasped the young Ranger’s shoulder in sympathy, his brother doing the same when he had finished, and Halbarad acknowledged their kindness with a grateful nod. Rory knew the loss had hit all of the Rangers hard. Rory had learned more of their guardians in these last weeks, and he knew now that they lived hard lives, often cut short by violence as they struggled to defend Eriador. Halbarad said that death was accepted amongst his companions, something that came to them all sooner rather than later, but it seemed to Rory that their small numbers must make every loss harder than Halbarad was willing to admit. He also suspected that one of the dead men had been a relative of Halbarad’s. He had seen them together once and there had been a family resemblance.

Halbarad began to explain recent events, and the elven twins sank gracefully to the floor, sitting cross-legged rather than trying to find furniture that would be comfortable for them.

‘We drew in closer to the borders of the Shire once Bilbo’s message about the orcs reached us, trying to form a perimeter of sorts. There aren’t enough of us to make it a really good defence, but we thought it was our best chance of keeping the Shire-folk safe. Falarad and Erlain went to look over the orcish camp, thinking to try and track them a little way and work out where they’d come from. They must have been there when the rest of the orcs arrived.’

‘Rest of the orcs?’ Elladan questioned. Halbarad nodded.

‘The first group weren’t a stray pack, Elladan,’ he explained wearily. ‘As best we can tell, they were a scouting party, just as Master Baggins was afraid of. When the ones who sent them had no word back, they must have come to check what was happening. They came up from the south about five weeks ago, through the Barrow Downs, we think, and made a fair amount of noise while trying to find their fellows. Luckily that gave us warning. Master Gorbadoc sounded the Horn and everyone withdrew into their homes; many of those in the outlying farms came in to Bucklebury. The orcs took a fair few cattle and sheep, wrecked a few empty homes, but thankfully they seemed less interested in the hobbits than in finding out what had happened to the rest of their party.’

‘Which did Rory all the good in the world, didn’t it?’ Gorbadoc demanded testily. Halbarad nodded slowly.

‘I am extremely sorry for that, Master Brandybuck, truly,’ he said earnestly.

‘There is nothing for you to be sorry for,’ Rory countered. ‘Father, this is enough now. I will not have you blaming Halbarad for things that are not his fault. I put myself in the wrong place at the wrong time and I have not suffered that much for it.’

‘You could barely move!’ his father objected.

‘Then,’ Rory said firmly. ‘Five weeks later, I am almost good as new. We all know how much worse it could have been. The world has not ended because I had some spectacular bruises and very sore ribs.’

‘You were caught?’ Elrohir queried, concern clear in eyes which suddenly betrayed his age.

‘Yes,’ Rory said briefly, ashamed. ‘My own fault. Being around Bilbo and his dwarves made me too brave, I fear. I was skirting the edge of the Old Forest, towards the south, trying to find out more about what was going on. Out beyond the Rangers’ protection, which I knew when I did it. The orcs must have been returning back the way they came. They were on me almost before I knew what was happening. Stupid. I should have been more careful.’

‘You survived the stupidity,’ Elrohir told him gently, giving him a wry smile, ‘and no one else was hurt by it. That is the important part. You have learned from it.’

Rory nodded, appreciating the absolution. He knew that his father was only worried about him, that his anger was the remnants of the fear he had felt when he realised Rory was missing, and then when the Rangers returned from their search and were carrying him because it had hurt too much for him to walk. It was just that the angrier his father got with other people, the more clearly Rory saw how stupid he had been. It was embarrassing to admit his lack of sense in front of experienced warriors who risked so much for his people.

‘The orcs wanted to know where the dwarves were,’ Rory finished up, wanting to get the explanation out of the way as quickly as possible. ‘They were clearly in a hurry, only interested in me for the information I could give them. I told them the dwarves were long gone, away over the Misty Mountains. I should have lied, I know, but I was terrified. Terrified they’d somehow catch me in the lie and kill me for it. As it was, the most they did was throw me on the floor and give me a few kicks before they charged off south again.’

‘South,’ Elladan murmured. ‘Orcs who came from the south.’

‘Moria,’ his brother suggested, and they shared concerned looks. Clearly this was significant to them, though it was meaningless to Rory.

‘Have you had any further difficulties?’ Elladan asked Halbarad worriedly.

‘Nothing outside the normal,’ the Ranger stated. ‘Wolves in the Old Forest, some bandits on the Road coming down from Bree. Still, I don’t like the fact that the orcs felt so comfortable coming here. This area is known to be under our protection, but they had no fear of us and now our numbers are reduced still further…’

‘Not anymore,’ Elladan reassured him. ‘We promised Bilbo we would guard the Shire in his absence, and so we shall. The Rangers are not alone now, Halbarad.’

Halbarad’s smile reappeared and the lines around his eyes softened as he relaxed.

‘That is good to hear,’ he told them. ‘I thank you.’

‘As our father told Bilbo before we set out, the defence of the Shire should not be a task solely for the Rangers.’

‘No,’ Rory said, uttering a thought that had been preying on his mind since he’d watched Bilbo kill the orcs that threatened their home. ‘Nor should it be solely the task of those who do not live in the Shire. I think I would like some lessons, Master Elladan. You taught Bilbo. Will you teach me?’

Rory wasn’t sure who was more surprised that he had said the words: himself, Elladan, or his father.

Looking at Gorbadoc’s expression as he realised what sort of lessons Rory meant, he knew it was going to be a very long day.

***

Bilbo, completely unaware of the tiny revolution he had unwittingly set in motion in the Shire, was muttering imprecations under his breath as he ran. He hadn’t had time to settle his pack comfortably before he took off and now it was banging against him uncomfortably with every step he took. His sword was not much better. He had loosened the belt while he rested and it was hanging lower than it should. He would have bruises later, he was sure of it.

‘Cursed orcs,’ he complained passionately. ‘Mindless, unwashed, foul-breathed brutes. I hope you fall down that mountain and knock all your teeth out. See how much fun you have tormenting innocent hobbits when you have to mash your food before you can eat it. I hope you….’

‘Bilbo, as impressed as I am by your fervour,’ Thorin told him, hardly seeming out of breath despite their pace, ‘you might do better to save your breath.’

Bilbo considered briefly, then decided Thorin was right.

Besides, he could curse just as well in his head as he could aloud. It wasn’t quite as satisfying, but at least it wouldn’t interfere with running.

Behind him, he knew that the orcs were gaining ground, many of them mounted on wargs which could easily outpace a dwarf or a hobbit. The Company had a good head start, and they were travelling as fast as they could, but they had no clear safe haven to aim for. Their only hope was to lose the orcs in the forest of Mirkwood, now directly ahead of them.

Bilbo did not find the name of the forest particularly comforting.

He had a feeling they weren’t going to be stopping any time soon.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One: Stings and Bites

Why, Thorin asked himself furiously even as kept up his outward semblance of calm, could nothing ever go to plan?

Why must there always be orcs, or dragons, or idiot dwarves so stuck in the past that twenty years’ work by a miner with a pick could not extract them?

Why did the orcs have to appear now, when another day would have seen the Company already under cover?

Thorin knew that aiming straight for the Old Forest Road, as he’d originally planned, was not going to work now. The orcs had seen them too clearly, they knew which direction the dwarves were going and they would expect them to take that route. It was the Dwarf Road, after all, even if that name had long fallen out of use. It was the straight, clear path through the forest… and right now that made it the most dangerous place for them to be.

So, rather than aiming for the Road before him, Thorin angled to his left and made for the closest trees. If they could just lose the orcs then perhaps they could make their way back to the Road further on. They needed to make up some of their lead, to give themselves some room to breathe. They still had enough supplies that they could find somewhere to wait the orcs out, if need be. The orcs’ leader would have a hard time keeping them focused if they lost their prey and were simply wandering blind. The group might splinter, some might give up the chase, and that would give the Company a better chance of escaping.

With these thoughts still running through his head, Thorin was first of the Company into the eaves of Mirkwood and the sight before him nearly made him stop dead.

Perhaps not. Despite Dwalin’s occasional mutterings, Thorin had a very healthy sense of self-preservation and, currently, a large group of orcs on his trail. Even as his mind registered the terrible transformation that Mirkwood had suffered since he last had cause to travel this way, Thorin continued to push forward, putting as much distance between himself and the orcs as possible.

Mahal knew that Mirkwood had not been the safest of locations since long before Thorin was born, but he had never known it was this bad.

What in the name of the Valar had the elves been doing since the dwarves were forced out of Erebor?

No wonder Thranduil had been no use to them. He could not even keep his own realm in order.

Not that Thorin considered that an excuse for Thranduil’s utter betrayal of the old alliance between their peoples. Incompetence did not buy forgiveness. Not from a dwarf. If you had a problem, you took steps to fix it. You did not allow this sort of decay to set in and let your kingdom rot from the inside out.

Mahal, it was foul in here!

And confusing.

In fact, he suddenly realised, he had no idea which direction he was going.

Didn’t that tree look familiar?

He could have sworn he had seen it before. A few minutes ago. Or had that only been one that looked similar?

Where was he?

He had been angling north, he was certain of that, and yet now he had not the slightest confidence about which way north was.

Thorin came to a halt, forgetting how close behind him Bilbo and Balin were, and had to catch both of them as they nearly went down in a jumble of limbs and weaponry. Even once they were steady on their feet, it took a little bit of work to separate the three of them, for Balin’s beard had somehow become caught on Thorin’s coat and Bilbo’s pack had tangled with Balin’s sword.

‘Why are we stopping?’ Dori asked breathlessly, as the Company drew in close around them.

‘Thorin, they were gaining on us,’ Dwalin warned. As soon as they’d slowed, Dwalin had turned to defend them, Glóin at his side, both with axes at the ready. ‘We still have a lead but we would do better to move on.’

‘Move on to where?’ Thorin asked. He saw Dwalin draw in breath to speak, look around… then stop.

‘Exactly,’ Thorin said. ‘Does anyone know which way we should be going?’

‘Well, that way, obviously,’ Óin started to say, pointing ahead of them. ‘We came from there,’ he gestured behind him, ‘so we must want to go…’

He trailed off, and Thorin watched looks of confusion take over the rest of the Company as they all realised the same thing.

Nothing looked familiar, except the things that looked far too familiar, as if they’d seen them several times before.

They were completely lost.

In fact, Dwalin and Glóin’s valiant attempt to guard their backs might well be aimed the entirely wrong way.

‘Does anyone recognise anything?’ Nori asked, and Thorin was surprised to hear his voice hit a higher register than normal, alarm tinging the edges. ‘There must be something! That pile of rocks, I saw it in front of me when we first came into the trees, I’m sure I did.’

‘Easy, lad,’ Dwalin murmured, taking hold of the back of Nori’s neck and gripping, as if he was trying to ground Nori by touch. ‘It’ll do us no good to fret.’ At Dwalin’s look, Ori moved closer to his brother and made sure he was pressed against Nori’s side. Nori’s breathing, which had begun to speed up as he panicked, slowed again.

Thorin gave Dwalin a questioning look, but Dwalin shook his head and signed, ‘Later,’ at him.

Fair enough. They had far more important problems to worry about. Taking a deep breath of his own, Thorin took a moment to assess their situation.

The first thing that had struck him as they entered Mirkwood was the complete lack of light. The sun did not penetrate here, though they could not be that far from the edge of the wood. The trees ought to have been spaced enough to allow some light through, the leaves shouldn’t have been so dense that they’d block a stray beam from illuminating the path, and yet there was nothing. Thorin could see only because dwarven eyesight was meant for the utter black of life under stone.

He wondered if Bilbo could see anything at all, or if he had just been blindly following the footsteps of the others.

Of course, the second problem was that he could not trust even what he could see. He was certain he had not become so lost by natural means. He had run straight ahead, after all; he had not veered at all. A small paranoid voice in the back of his mind again began to mutter about elven magic, and the dangers it could bring. Had he been wrong about their neglect? Was this how the elves protected their kingdom now? After all, you could not attack what you could not find.

They were, Thorin had soon realised, in serious danger of blundering forward or, more worryingly, round in circles for hours without the faintest idea if they were actually making any progress at all.

Which would be a very dangerous business, Thorin concluded, eyes now locked on the problem that worried him most.

For it was clear, when one viewed the webs hanging from nearby branches, that the elves were not in command of this part of Mirkwood now.

The forest had been overrun.

***

‘What do we do?’ Kíli asked Uncle quietly. None of them had moved in the moments since they had identified their dilemma, and Kíli knew they were all waiting for Uncle to come up with a solution.

This was why Kíli was glad that Fíli was the eldest. He could not imagine ever being comfortable with everyone looking to him for the answers to their problems. Half the time he couldn’t even solve his own.

Uncle looked around them again, as if something might have changed since he last surveyed the surrounding forest, then looked at his Company. Kíli could tell the moment that an idea occurred to him, for the bleak look faded from his eyes for an instant.

‘First of all,’ Uncle said, voice taking on the confidence that always made feel Kíli feel everything was going to be alright, even when he knew that was unlikely, ‘everyone needs to have weapons to hand and be on the alert. There are foul things in this place, you do not need to be one of the Eldar to feel it.’

‘Spiders,’ Balin muttered balefully, eyeing the webs nearby with great distaste. ‘I’d almost rather take my chances with the orcs.’ Bilbo patted his arm gently in sympathy.

‘Yes, well, if you would like to wage a one-dwarf war against the orcs out in the open, Balin, do not let me stop you,’ Uncle offered, ignoring the glare Balin sent his way. ‘Bofur, what does your stone-sense tell you?’ Uncle requested hopefully. ‘Are there any paths other than the Old Forest Road? Something that might give us a direction to follow, at least. All paths lead somewhere.’

‘Aye, they do,’ Bofur replied, looking dubious. ‘I’ve still managed to follow a few I wish I hadn’t, mind.’ He crouched down and dug his fingers into the earth beneath their feet, searching for something, then shook his head. ‘If there is a path, it’s small enough that I’d have to be in contact with part of it in order to find the rest. I’m sorry, Thorin. Find me a section and I’ll lead you down it, but here I’ve nothing to work with.’

Uncle cursed and his eyes flicked up to the back of the group, where Dwalin and Glóin were standing ready for action. Dwalin must have felt Uncle’s gaze – or else he was using his eerie ability to know exactly what his King needed at any given moment again, Kíli thought it could have been either – because he responded as if Uncle had asked him a question.

‘We can’t stay here for hours deciding what to do, Thorin,’ their Guard Captain informed Uncle shortly. ‘If they get into this forest, the only thing that will save us is if they get as lost as we are. There are too many of them, we can’t take them all.’

‘Oh, hang on,’ Bofur suddenly said. The whole Company turned to look at him expectantly, and Kíli joined them, a prayer running through his mind. Let this be good news, please don’t let it be another troll! He saw that Bofur had his eyes half shut and was facing away from them, one hand slightly outstretched as if he were reaching for something.

‘Mountains,’ the miner finally said, satisfaction utterly clear in his voice. ‘That way,’ and he pointed. ‘They’re a fair distance away so I had to really concentrate before I could feel them, but I knew they had to be about here somewhere. They’re on all the maps of the forest.’

‘And they’re north,’ Balin added, looking much happier and eyeing Thorin significantly. ‘If we cut across the forest, keeping the Mountains of Mirkwood on our left…’

‘Then we’ll appear closer to Erebor,’ Thorin concluded. ‘It seems our best shot. Bofur, Bifur, can you guide us towards the Mountains?’ When they both agreed that they could, Bifur clearly getting a grasp on whatever had caught his cousin’s attention, Thorin nodded firmly. ‘The rest of you, keep your eyes open and stay ready.’

Decision made, they forged onwards nervously, guided only by the cousins’ conviction about where the Mountains were and their very basic plan. They spoke little, though Kíli heard Bilbo questioning Bofur and Bifur more closely about their talents when they paused for the night.

At least, they thought it was night. It was hard to tell in the midst of such unrelenting gloom.

‘You could not sense a path,’ Bilbo asked the two curiously, ‘even the Forest Road and that can’t be that far away. How do you know where the Mountains are if they’re so distant?’

‘It’s not a very exciting answer,’ Bofur responded prosaically. ‘The Mountains are just so much bigger. That much stone in one place pulls at me, as long as I concentrate. When I get closer I won’t even have to think about it that much. Like a lodestone, with me as the bits of iron.’

‘Are we going to need to tie you to Bombur?’ Bilbo asked jokingly. ‘It would be hard to follow you if you suddenly shot off towards the Mountains and left us behind!’

‘Doubt it’ll come to that,’ Bofur answered, smiling fondly at Bilbo, ‘but if I do feel my feet starting to slip, you’ll be the first to know. Just not the first I grab onto. I’m still half-worried you’ll disappear in the next strong breeze.’

Bilbo gave Bofur his most unimpressed look, but anyone who could survive Thorin’s ire without even flinching – as Bofur so often did – was unlikely to be affected by Bilbo’s attempts. Their hobbit just lacked the extra hundred years of practice.

***

Several days later, reaching the first of Mirkwood’s peaks, the Company were already fed up of the forest and making idle plans to take the long route on the way back just to avoid it. Bilbo thought it was highly unlikely they would do so - they would be in just as much of a rush on the way back and would need to take the quickest route - but it was a nice dream. The place was foul and seemingly endless, and he too would be glad never to see it again.

Nori had actually made an argument that the detour would still be quicker, as they’d be able to see where they were going and would not risk going around in circles for hours on end, but Bifur had taken exception to the implied slight against their talents and the thief obviously hadn’t wished to get on his bad side because he had not pushed.

Bilbo could see Nori’s point, of course, even if he did not necessarily agree with it. Despite his faith in Bofur and Bifur and what he had seen of the stone sense, it was easy to believe that they were actually getting nowhere. It was like walking in place, for there never seemed to be any change in their surroundings and he felt no further on each night than he had in the morning.

Until one day, at what Bilbo guessed to be about lunchtime, they emerged from the dense woodland and found themselves, as Bofur had promised, practically tripping over the furthest edge of the mountain range.

‘Told you,’ Bofur said shortly, eyeing the worst of the grumblers with disfavour. Even the most cheerful of their Company was rattled after several days fumbling and tripping along through the dense undergrowth. They were all finding this walk difficult, but the heaviest responsibility fell upon Bofur and, when he needed a break, Bifur. Bilbo didn’t think some of the others had considered what it must be like to concentrate constantly for days on end because everything relied on you and you could not falter.

A movement in the corner of Bilbo’s eye caught his attention, and he spotted Ori nudging Nori firmly in the back, muttering something in his ear. A moment later, Nori approached the miner and spoke to him quietly, patting him on the back in congratulation as he did so. Bofur stayed stiff for a moment, but then his natural good humour won out and he gave Nori one of his typical smiles.

‘We’ll have an easier time of it if we follow the edge of the Mountains now,’ Fíli said to Bilbo, a smile also gracing his face for the first time in days. ‘It’s a bit rockier here, but at least we can see what we’re doing a little better.’

‘We don’t want to go up into the Mountains at all,’ Bofur told Thorin firmly, and possibly unnecessarily. Bilbo could not see any reason why they would want to climb up when they had the option of flatter ground. ‘There’s nothing good up there, I can feel it.’

‘As can I,’ Thorin assured him, eyeing the rising peak with disfavour. ‘It’s hardly surprising. If there’s a single good thing in this entire forest it would come as a complete shock to me. Regardless, I like our chances better down here. I think we’ve all had enough of mountain battles for one journey.’

‘Or a lifetime,’ Bilbo commented. He got a number of sympathetic looks, which made him feel better. He could still clearly recall the sensation of that terrible fall, the world dropping out from underneath him as it never had before, and the horrible moment when he had been certain he would die still engulfed in that sickening feeling. He shuddered at the thought, then shushed a worried-looking Fíli and scolded himself for being dramatic.

Mind on the present, Bilbo, he told himself. No point dwelling on might-have-beens.

They pressed on for several more days, and by the end their water had begun to run short. Balin imposed new rules about how much they could drink and when, because they still had very little idea how much further they had to go and how long they would have to make their supplies last. A number of the Company began to eye the occasional pools of water they came across with longing, but Thorin refused to let anyone touch them. Bilbo could not blame him. Any traveller knew that still water carried the greatest risk of sickness.

Then the lack of water became the least of their problems.

***

‘Can you hear that?’ Nori whispered nervously, looking at Dori with wide eyes.

Dori resisted the urge to sigh. His brother, it turned out, had a fear of being trapped that Dori had never noticed until now. It seemed an odd fear for a dwarf, considering how much of their life they traditionally spent underground, but Nori informed him that being under rock and stone was very, very different from being trapped in an evil, magical wood where you should be able to see the sun but couldn’t.

Dori was willing to accept that point – goodness knew he could not stand Mirkwood either – but unfortunately it had the result of making Nori jumpier than Dori had ever seen him.

Which should have been hard, considering Dori had frequently seen him when he was on the run from the Guard, but apparently Nori feared forests more than he did punishment for his crimes.

Somehow, Dori found that did not surprise him.

‘I can’t hear anything,’ Dori told Nori with (he thought) great patience. ‘Except perhaps your heart jumping around like a startled cat. Calm down, Nori. We’ll be out soon enough, I promise.’

‘No,’ Nori argued, ‘this isn’t me being jittery. Listen.’

Dori stopped, his sigh actually escaping this time. Wasn’t he supposed to be the nervous one of the two of them? Then, because he almost always caved in and did as his brothers asked in the end, he listened.

That was when he realised they were in trouble.

The trees were moving, shaking as if in a strong wind.

The only problem was, there was no wind. There hadn’t been the slightest refreshing breeze in the whole time they’d been walking through this blasted wood.

Dori looked up, head twisting as he tried to identify the source of the movement, only to realise that it was all around them and, worse, coming closer rapidly.

‘Weapons,’ he shouted desperately to the others, snatching his flail off his belt and readying it. ‘Look up, something’s here!’

Bilbo had his sword out first, Glóin not far behind him. When the first spider skittered down from the canopy above, the two of them hurried forward to take care of it. Glóin, with years of experience in war, hadn’t the slightest compunction about hacking at the thing’s front legs to try and slow it down. Bilbo dived underneath, between two of its other legs, and stabbed upwards. His elvish blade made easy work of its belly and he rolled quickly out of the way as it began to drop to the ground.

‘Stingers,’ Bilbo called out to the rest of the Company. ‘Mind yourselves.’

Dori spared only the barest moment to be utterly disgusted by the existence of giant spiders in general (which idiot had thought that was a good idea?), and giant spiders in possession of some sort of poison in particular.

Then he became rather busy defending himself, his brothers and his friends.

He quickly decided that he would be better aiming at the spiders’ eyes. He wasn’t sure how much damage his flail would do to legs and bodies, but he was fairly sure that nothing in Middle Earth cared for sharp bits of metal in its eye. If they ended up with their wits knocked out of them, all the better.

By now, several more spiders had descended upon them, some dropping from above and others rushing in from further back. Dori turned to face the first, whipping the flail through the air with all his strength behind it and connecting solidly with the creature’s head. It collapsed almost instantly, and Dori allowed himself a moment of satisfaction for a job well done.

Then he turned to the next.

This time he could not get close enough to attack it properly. Perhaps clued in by the fate of its fellow, this spider reared up onto its back legs, refusing to get its head in range. It shot some sort of webbing in Dori’s direction, and he only just managed to avoid it. Running as quickly as he could, he moved behind the spider to search for a better target, and once more let fly with the flail. The spider jerked, as if in pain, but quickly spun around and aimed the webbing at him again.

Dori cursed, ducked again, and decided it was time to swap weapons. Pulling his sword free with one hand, he used the other to tuck his flail away and resigned himself to getting much closer to the filthy thing than he’d have preferred.

He dodged around the back of the spider again, trying to find an opening, then leapt forward and slashed at an unprotected section. Again, the spider jerked, pulling away and trying to turn so it could aim at Dori.

Unfortunately for it, Dori had no intention of spending all day dancing with the damned thing. Taking advantage of its distraction, he copied Bilbo’s earlier manoeuvre, dropping low underneath its stomach and stabbing upwards, finally ridding himself of his enemy.

Ugh. Ichor in his hair. And his beard. Thorin owed him a nice warm bath when this was over.

Even if it would take a minor act of wizardry to produce one here.

He took a brief pause and looked around the battlefield for his brothers. A short distance away, he could see Nori standing close to Óin, letting the older dwarf stun the creatures before moving in to ensure that they did not rise again. Ori, on his other side, was also aiming for their eyes, casting stones swiftly. Dori was grateful that Dwalin had thought to arm him with a dagger as well, for he worried that Ori would run out of stones before the battle ended and would be left defenceless.

Dori began to move towards Ori, wanting to be safely in reach in case his youngest brother needed help, before realising that Ori needed him far less than a certain Prince.

Thorin had Kíli close by him, but Fíli had somehow become separated from them all and was engaged in a rather desperate struggle with two spiders. They’d cornered him by a large tree, so at least he had his back to something, but he was clearly struggling to keep his eye on sixteen legs and two stingers at once.

Dori hurried forward, dodging first Balin and then Dwalin. The Guard Captain had also spotted Fíli’s trouble. He was clearly on the verge of abandoning his battle to go to Fíli’s aid when Dori caught his eye and called, ‘Got him.’ Dwalin nodded, and turned back to hacking at any spider-parts in reach.

That was the one bonus of travelling with Dwalin. Almost every enemy that saw him immediately focused their efforts on taking him down, and that left the rest of them (or in this case, Balin) with more time to think and act.

Viewing Fíli’s battle, Dori had quickly decided that he would be better off with his flail again, given that all of Fíli’s weapons were meant for close quarters. Now he was glad of that choice, for as he neared the fight, one of the spiders lashed out with a sharp-clawed foot towards Fíli’s head. Dori flipped the flail forward so that it locked around the spider’s leg and pulled backwards. His immediate concern had been to stop the attack on Fíli but, with Dori’s strength behind the pull, the spider also found itself off balance and toppled sideways. Dori concluded that Fíli must have dealt damage to some of its other legs. Either that, or being in possession of multiple legs did not actually help your balance.

Seeing his opponent fall, Fíli quickly moved forward to land the killing blow. It was good clean work, Dori thought, even as he tried to release his flail. The spider would not be rising again.

Alas, in that one moment, they had both forgotten something rather important.

There were two spiders.

Dori let out a cry of horror, eyes on the second spider lunging for their young Prince, and Fíli whipped around, sword and dagger held before him.

He was too late.

The spider did not get a perfect grip - Fíli was not quite where it had expected him to be – but still its fangs sank down through his cloak and tunic and into his flesh.

Fíli cried out in pain, striking out instinctively and stabbing the spider in the eye as he tried to free himself. It worked, but too late.

The spider released its fangs, rearing back. Dori, grabbing Fíli’s sword from his numbed hand, rammed it home without pity. Fíli staggered back, leaning against the tree and desperately trying to breathe through the pain.

Yanking the sword free, after a second’s pause to check the monster was dead, Dori hurried to Fíli’s side and caught him as he began to slide to the ground.

‘Easy now, lad,’ he murmured gently, steadying Fíli until he was seated. ‘We’ll need Óin to look at that and get you fixed up.’ He looked around frantically, thinking the pastiness of Fíli’s skin was a clear indication that they needed Óin now, but the battle continued. Another spider was making its way towards them and Dori swore, about to shove himself to his feet, when it fell with one of Kíli’s arrows embedded in its eye.

Then Thorin and Kíli were there, a solid guard between Fíli and danger, and Dori breathed a tiny sigh of relief.

This was still a mess, but at least Fíli had seasoned warriors defending him now. Dori might be skilled with weapons, but a battle-blooded warrior he was not.

‘Fíli?’ Thorin called worriedly, but Dori knew Fíli could not answer him. His eyes were already glassy, no doubt shock setting in, and breathing was taking all of his effort.

‘He needs a healer, Thorin,’ Dori called back, trying to keep the panic from his voice. ‘We’ve got to end this.’

‘You two get back into the battle,’ Bilbo cried. He appeared almost from nowhere, probably because Dori was concentrating so hard on what was before him, and made them all jump. ‘Go on, go,’ the hobbit commanded firmly, looking straight at Thorin. ‘Dori and I will protect him. Kíli’s arrows are needed elsewhere, and you’ve a better reach than I have.’

Thorin stood motionless for only a moment, then with a roar he moved back into the battle, with Kíli only a step behind him, already firing.

‘How bad is he?’ Bilbo asked Dori concernedly, though he kept his back to them so he was facing the fight.

‘Bad,’ Dori answered honestly, touching one hand to Fíli’s clammy skin and hissing with worry. ‘It’s bad, Bilbo. I think these things are venomous.’

‘Yavanna, I wish I had a bow with me,’ Bilbo muttered. Dori could tell that his eyes were flickering from one enemy to the next, his head moving to keep track of the battle, and no doubt he was wishing he was still part of it. ‘Not that it would do me much good. I could throw things at the cursed beasts if that wouldn’t defeat the whole idea of keeping them away from Fíli.’

‘I think we’re winning,’ Dori offered, eyeing the flow of the battle and seeing that the spiders, now far fewer in number, seemed to be on the defensive. Kíli’s hands were moving quickly and steadily, and Ori was moving swiftly around the battlefield to pluck out the arrows already fired, delivering them back to the archer. The others were gathering together to defeat the remaining spiders, forming pairs or trios and harassing them until the spiders could not decide which way to turn first.

To Dori, it seemed like fair revenge on the creatures who had done the same to Fíli. When the spiders finally broke and hurried back up into the canopy, Dori cheered quietly.

‘Won?’ Fíli asked, his voice laboured and weak.

‘For now,’ Bilbo answered before Dori could. ‘If they go for reinforcements then we will struggle.’

Dori gave him a dour look. Fíli was as sick as Dori had ever seen. Surely they could spare the brutal realities for a few moments!

‘The spiders are gone,’ he told Fíli, which he hoped was both cheering and truthful.

‘Fíli,’ Kíli called at that moment, skidding past Bilbo and dropping to his knees next to his brother. ‘What happened? How badly are you hurt?’

‘Move out, lad,’ Óin ordered, gently hustling Kíli to one side. ‘Let me have a look at him.’

‘He was bitten,’ Dori informed the healer, the reality of it hitting now. ‘I tried to warn him, but I wasn’t quick enough.’

‘You did the best you could,’ Balin reassured immediately. ‘Sometimes these things just happen, no matter what we do.’ Dori suspected Thorin did not agree, for the look on his face was dire and the aura around him thunderous, but he would take what reassurance he could get. He was fond of Fíli, they all were. The thought that he could have prevented this if he had been faster, better, was nauseating.

‘I need to try and flush the wound out,’ Óin explained to Thorin. ‘If there’s poison in there then that’s the best thing for it. I’ve a salve to put over it and a tonic I can give him to try and help him fight it. The rest is up to his body.’

‘Do it,’ Thorin commanded. ‘Then we will need to move on. The sooner we leave this place the better. They know we are here now. If they come back I would rather not be here waiting.’

With that Dori was in firm agreement.

He owed Nori an apology.

Clearly there was every reason to fear being trapped in this place.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two: First and Last

By the following evening, it was quite clear that Fíli was very ill indeed.

Deathly ill, Óin was sure, though the thought was so fiercely painful that he shied from it instinctively.

This was his little cousin, Fíli. The child of Durin’s blood his people had longed for when all seemed to be falling to pieces despite Thorin’s best efforts.

Óin had delivered him, and wept alongside Dís when they managed it safely. They’d waited for him to start screaming, as all the new-born babes Óin had delivered had done. When nothing had happened, Óin had feared he’d done something wrong after all, that the birth had been deceptively easy and something serious was wrong with the lad.

He’d lifted Fíli oh-so-carefully towards him, to get a better look… and the babe had calmly reached up with one hand and patted him on the cheek, as if reassuring him that everything was alright.

Not so much as a whimper.

He was whimpering now.

He was trying so hard not to, trying not to distress Kíli and Thorin any more than they already were, but he could not keep the sounds back. Fíli was in agony, they all knew it, but he was determined for their sake to pretend he was not.

Still reassuring them all, even now.

Mahal, would this curse Thror had laid over their family ever leave them?

At first, Dori had carried Fíli carefully as they walked, draping the lad over his back so that Fíli could rest his head against Dori’s shoulder and try to sleep. The strength in that family was one of those well-known pieces of gossip that Óin had never really believed until he’d seen it first-hand. Dori seemed to have no trouble at all carrying Fíli, and Nori had shouldered two extra packs without appearing to notice the additional weight. Óin, who would be the first to admit that he judged quickly and rarely changed his opinion, found increasing respect for both of them.

For all this Company, in fact. They had pushed on without rest since the battle and there hadn’t been a single complaint. He could feel them willing Fíli on, hear murmured prayers at intervals as they all tried to intervene with their creator for Fíli’s life.

Let it work. Please let it work.

Their only hope now was a miracle. Óin had done all he could.

No one had mentioned, when he’d gone into the healing profession, how many people he would singularly fail to save.

If they had, he’d probably have changed his mind. No doubt that was why they hadn’t mentioned it.

A few hours before, Fíli had finally whispered to Dori that he couldn’t hold on any longer. His arm was going numb and he couldn’t grip. At that point Bifur had found them two sizeable branches and they’d lashed a blanket between the two. Now Dori, Dwalin, Bombur and Thorin carried their sick Prince, taking as much care as they could in the forest.

Bofur led the way, his face a mask of concentration that Óin had never seen on him before. He had an idea, from the conversation between the miner and his cousin, that Bofur was not only guiding them but also seeking constantly for some sign of how far they had to go.

Something for Fíli, Kíli and Thorin to hold onto.

‘Did they execute the dwarf who caused that mine collapse?’ Bilbo asked him suddenly. Óin was so startled by the choice of topic that he tripped and had to catch hold of Bilbo to keep upright. He hadn’t realised the hobbit had joined him. Whether that was due to Bilbo’s quiet way of moving or Oín’s own deafness was hard to say.

‘Aye, they did,’ Óin confirmed. ‘Only punishment for treason.’

‘Pity,’ Bilbo said mildly, but Óin looked over and saw that his eyes were anything but mild. Inside, they held a banked fury that rivalled dragon-fire for heat. ‘I would have liked to have met him.’ Óin nearly gaped, but then Bilbo continued and he understood that this was the hobbit version of rage, tucked nice and polite-like behind their social masks. ‘I would have brought him to this forest and lashed him to one of these trees and then found somewhere to wait. I’m sure the spiders would appear soon enough if I laid their food out for them.’

‘We would thank you to keep your criminals to yourself,’ said a light, clear voice that nevertheless managed to sound hard as iron. Oín’s head whipped round and he saw that, for the second time in as many days, they were surrounded.

Elves, a whole patrol of them, all armed and all pointing their weapons directly at the dwarves. The one who had spoken was blond, though most of the others had hair the colour of deep mahogany, and he held his bow like an extension of himself. It was pointed at Bofur, who was still in the lead, and his hands didn’t waver for a second.

Bofur groaned, looking straight at Thorin and ignoring the arrow less than ten feet from his face.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t even feel them coming…’

‘I should think not,’ one of the other elves said. ‘Dwarves are as sensitive as the stone they were made from. You must consider yourselves lucky if you manage to avoid the trees more times than you walk into them.’

Bofur glowered at the elf but, seeing a quick sign from Thorin, said nothing.

‘You are trespassing,’ the blond elf – stern and imperious – informed them. ‘These are elven lands. You will come with us and explain yourselves to our King. Tie them up,’ he ordered his companions. The dwarves bristled, but did not resist as the elves moved to search and bind them. They were entirely outnumbered and they knew it.

Of course, that level of compliance only lasted until the elves went for Oín’s brother. Of course. All guts and no brain, or so Óin tended to tell people.

‘Oh, and you’re going to carry the lad, I presume,’ Glóin snapped, stepping towards the elf who had tried to move Dwalin away from the litter and gesturing to Fíli, who had gone utterly silent by virtue of biting his lip so hard it bled. Ignoring the elves for a moment, Óin crossed to him and pulled said lip from between his teeth.

‘No use causing any more pain than you have to,’ he told Fíli very quietly.

‘I won’t be weak in front of them,’ Fíli replied in Khuzdul, doing his best to sound defiant despite the weakness in his voice. ‘I won’t.’

‘Enough,’ the leader of the elves cracked out. ‘Move away from him. Lay the litter down. Now,’ he added, when the dwarves hesitated. Reluctantly, Dori, Dwalin, Bombur and Thorin followed his orders, eyes on the weapons around them, but when they placed Fíli on the floor it must have jolted his wound. He keened loudly and Thorin moved to stroke his forehead, murmuring apologies in their own language.

The elven leader moved forward, bow suddenly gone from his hands and sword appearing just as swiftly. Thorin felt him coming, looked up and growled, baring his teeth in a snarl.

‘You will not hurt him,’ he ordered, with the weight of decades of command behind him. ‘He is hurt badly enough as it is.’

‘Then perhaps he ought not have been where he did not have permission to be,’ the elf responded cuttingly, but he signalled to four of his fellows and they approached. ‘Carry him carefully,’ he commanded, examining Fíli closely. ‘He’s no threat as he is. The spiders have had him.’

Óin, because he was watching them all carefully, saw one of the new litter-bearers flinch at the words. His heart sank even further. The elves knew what this was.

There really was no hope.

Whether the regret which briefly crossed the elven leader’s face was comfort in the face of this fact, or simply a further dose of salt in the wound, Óin couldn’t decide.

***

With the elves leading them onwards, they moved swiftly away from the Mountains and further into the forest. Bofur heard the elves mutter that the Company should not have been able to travel so far into their realm without using the Road, and felt a certain satisfaction at that.

Only a stone-blind elf could so easily underestimate dwarven senses.

Arseholes.

Unfortunately, the satisfaction was nowhere near strong enough to dull the fluttering panic as they were led away from their one point of reference in this place. Even if they were able to escape, how long would it take Bofur to get them back where they needed to be?

He wasn’t thinking about whether they would be a full Company in such a future. There was naught to be gained by dwelling.

Nor by daydreaming. They were outnumbered, Bofur had known that even as he was staring down an elven archer, and now they had been stripped of both weapons and supplies. Escaping into the forest with nothing but the clothes on their backs would be pointless. If they truly wanted to die, King Thranduil would no doubt oblige them.

Bofur might not be a dwarf of Erebor, but he knew the stories. Thror had loathed the elves, and the feeling had been more than mutual.

Though Bofur had reason to believe that not all Mirkwood elves felt the same about all dwarves. He’d held a quick conversation in Iglishmek with Bifur the first morning after they’d been captured, when the elves were getting them all lined up. One of the elves was treating Fíli’s wound with… something. Something for the pain, Bifur thought, because Fíli was easier afterwards.

The blond elf, the one who seemed to be in charge, must have known but he said nothing either to encourage or forbid it.

Bofur had tried to get the message to Thorin, thinking it might help at least a little, but their King was kept at the head of the line and Bofur couldn’t catch his attention. Instead, Thorin’s anger simmered along, obvious in the ramrod straightness of his spine and the tension in his shoulders. Bofur had seen it before, most memorably on the morning Thorin had stood before him while Bofur explained they would never be able to mine the central tunnels again.

Bofur had never feared his King – Thorin had been nothing but good to him, despite their occasional disagreements – but in that moment he had come close.

Just hold it together, Thorin, he begged in his mind. Hold it together until we find a way to escape.

There must be a way.

There must.

***

Arriving at Thranduil’s Halls, most of the Company were taken straight to the dungeons. Most, but not all.

At some point during the journey, Prince Legolas had finally recognised Thorin. Thorin had known him early on, not by sight but because one of his party had called him by name. They had never formally met, but Thorin had been a Prince in Erebor and had been taught the lineages of the neighbouring kingdoms as a matter of course.

Prince Legolas had not had the advantage of hearing Thorin’s name, because he refused to allow the Company to speak to one another, but he had the virtue of an elven memory and the same training Thorin had been given. He’d worked it out in the end.

Thus, rather than being relegated to the cells with the rest of the Company, Thorin was instead dragged to an audience with King Thranduil of Mirkwood.

Not immediately, of course. Apparently it was vitally important that the Prince speak with Thranduil first, leaving the King of Ered Luin standing in an ante-chamber like a petitioner who must wait until the more important personages had been seen to before being granted a turn.

Thorin felt the rage that had hounded him since he realised that Fíli was hurt, the rage he had tried to expel by slaying spiders as violently as possible, bubbling up again. He began to pace, squeezing his hands into fists as he often did when he was fuming over something. He was King in his own right, yet he had been taken prisoner without hesitation and for no reason. He did not have time for petty elven games. He didn’t have time for their arrogance and insistence on doing everything their own way.

When Thorin was finally led before Thranduil, he had built himself into such a fury that he barely resisted the urge to spit in Thranduil’s face. Or at least on the floor, as his face was sadly out of reach.

‘Thorin, son of Thráin,’ the Elven King stated calmly, icy and collected on his throne. ‘Why have you been found trespassing in my realm?’

‘Your son happened to be in the right place at the right time,’ Thorin snapped. His patience was all but non-existent at this point. Even in the ante-room, as he had tried to focus on other things, more than half of his mind had been down in the cells with Fíli, hearing his nephew whimper with pain as the poison burned through his veins. Now it was even worse.

At first, the fact that the poison was slow-working had given Thorin hope. He had thought Fíli was fighting it off, holding his own against the death the spider had tried to inflict upon him.

Then he had realised that the spiders were simply vicious enough that they wanted their prey to suffer. The poison was slow-acting, eating away at Fíli a little more each day, leaving him in agony.

It was agony for Thorin as well, though he could not let it show before his nephews. Poor Kíli did not have the experience to hide his emotions. His distress was palpable even as he pretended to be fine for Fíli’s sake.

Thorin was their Uncle and King, he had to set a good example.

He was drawn back to the present when Thranduil barked out an order in his own language and everyone, including his son, left the room abruptly. The door closed behind Prince Legolas with a snap.

Thranduil rose from his throne slowly, the movement graceful despite the coldness of his expression, which made him look brittle and sharp. He took the steps down equally slowly, then stopped without approaching Thorin.

‘Why are you here, Thorin Oakenshield?’ he asked. Strange, Thorin thought, that the news of his battle-name had travelled even here. Somehow he had not expected the elf to know it.

‘I am travelling, Thranduil,’ he returned, glaring up at the elf with disdain, hands clenched at his side. ‘People do. The better question is why your elves have begun arresting travellers.’

‘You have not come into this forest without purpose,’ Thranduil insisted. ‘Few travel through my realm except my own people.’

‘Well that is hardly surprising,’ Thorin said caustically, remembering his thoughts from earlier in their travels. Perhaps it was time someone gave this elf a few truths, knocked some of that conceited composure out of him. ‘I do not know what you think kingship entails, Thranduil, but I was taught we had a duty of stewardship to our realm. Your forest is a haven of evil, surely you’ve noticed! The trees fall to sickness, the water is undrinkable, you have a truly impressive collection of Ungoliant’s spawn breeding… what have you been doing? Have you done nothing to stop this decline?’

If it was possible, Thranduil’s face grew even icier. He took several steps forward, hand rising, and for one moment Thorin was certain he was about to be struck. He raised his head to meet the blow – what could one scrawny elf do to a dwarf, after all? – but Thranduil stopped abruptly. He stared unblinkingly at Thorin for a long moment, then a disturbing, nasty smile spread across his face.

‘I have not been attracting a dragon to my kingdom with my greed and then whining to other realms when I lose it forever,’ he commented, sneering. ‘That is what I have not been doing.’ He paused, allowing Thorin to fully absorb the insult, then spoke again. ‘Will you tell me why you have come?’ he enunciated clearly.

‘It is no business of yours,’ Thorin informed him, feeling utter satisfaction in being able to deny Thranduil as he had once denied the dwarves when they came for help. Especially after that last slight. ‘I do not answer to you, King of Mirkwood.’

‘Of course not,’ Thranduil replied, the cruel smirk fading only a little. ‘No matter, you will have plenty of time to change your mind. I am told my dungeons are relatively comfortable, though I cannot say I have ever tested the accommodation.’

The Elven King returned to his throne, seating himself with apparent unconcern and reaching for a staff which sat beside it. He rapped it sharply on the floor twice, and the doors opened.

‘Take King Thorin to the rest of his party,’ Thranduil commanded Prince Legolas. Thorin wondered if it was normal in Mirkwood for the heir to the throne to act as a common guard. Perhaps the younger elf was bored.

‘The young dwarf…’ Prince Legolas began to question. Thranduil waved a hand like a knife and Legolas trailed off.

‘King Thorin tells me his business is none of ours,’ the King told Legolas firmly, ‘and I have no desire to waste resources on an ailing dwarf. Take him away.’

The Prince hesitated only a moment, then drew Thorin out of the room. They followed the stone corridors down to the cells in silence.

It was beginning to dawn on Thorin that his temper, which Dís had always sworn was his greatest fault, even before his pride, had just led him terribly astray.

***

When they reached the dungeons, Legolas led Thorin not to one of the unoccupied cells but to that which housed Fíli. The elf still did not look at him, his face was almost impassive, but his mouth twisted as he locked them in.

As he walked away, Thorin looked desperately around, trying to locate the rest of the Company. Kíli and Bilbo were across from him, imprisoned together, and Balin was a little further up. They were the only ones Thorin could see.

‘The rest?’ he called to Balin.

‘All here,’ Balin replied. ‘What did he say?’

‘Nothing of use,’ Thorin hedged, not wanting to tell Balin he had insulted their host so thoroughly. Not in front of Kíli, whose brother lay dying before his eyes. Rather than say any more, Thorin turned and sat, checking Fíli’s forehead. At first he had been deathly cold, now he burned and shivered with fever.

Thorin gathered Fíli up off the ground and laid his head in Thorin’s lap. Stroking Fíli’s hair back from his forehead, he murmured softly.

‘How are you, sweet lad?’

‘Cold,’ Fíli whispered, though he felt like a furnace to Thorin. ‘Not so bad.’

‘Fíli, don’t lie to me,’ Thorin requested. When Fíli forced his eyes open and looked up, Thorin made sure to hide all of the worry and guilt and show only the steadiness he had tried to offer the boys all their lives. ‘It is not your job to protect me.’

Of course it was not. It was Thorin’s job to protect Fíli, and what a truly wonderful job he had done of that so far today! Or a few days ago, when Fíli had been fighting alone because Thorin had not stayed close enough to him.

‘Pain’s getting worse,’ Fíli admitted, the walls he had built as an adult crumbling and the child showing through. ‘The elves were treating it but that’s fading now. Feels like the thing’s still biting at me. Was just the shoulder at first, but now it feels like I’m being eaten alive. I’m scared, Uncle.’

‘I know,’ Thorin replied, feeling sick with shame and grief. Fíli had always been his shadow, a little more serious than his brother, aware of the responsibilities that would fall to him on Thorin’s death and feeling an obligation to begin shouldering those burdens as soon as he was able.

Always so ready to help.

Why could Thorin not have helped him today? Why had he not even tried to hold his tongue?

‘I will be here,’ he promised Fíli quietly, knowing it was all he could give now. ‘I will be with you.’

‘Alright,’ Fíli murmured, eyelids already falling shut again as he tried to fight the growing pain. One hand came up to grip at Thorin’s coat, as if to make sure he stayed right where he was.

‘Try to sleep,’ Thorin whispered, and Fíli hummed a response.

Thorin looked up, across the landing, and saw Kíli pressed up against the door of his cell, staring desperately at his brother.

There were tears rolling down his face.

***

Things worsened.

Fíli’s muscles began to cramp unexpectedly, his body going into spasm and lifting off the floor with the violence of the cramps. It seemed to wake him any time he actually managed to sleep, and that wasn’t often. He told Thorin he had a terrible headache, that his vision swam, that he felt constantly sick. He could keep no food down, though he was still taking water.

After that first night, the elves appeared with a small pot of salve every time they brought food, and Thorin applied it every time. It helped a little; Fíli was more likely to sleep after it was placed on the wound. The effects didn’t last, however, and as the days passed they weakened.

The elves were also kind enough – or perhaps just fastidious enough – to bring a larger bowl for Fíli to throw up in. Mostly it was bile now, he had nothing left in his stomach, and the waves of nausea that wracked him were painful to watch.

Thorin soothed, and wiped him clean, and sang old lullabies he had not used in years, but he could not help.

He had tried to request another audience with King Thranduil and the elf had denied him. Thranduil had years, after all. There was no urgency on his part.

Kíli, of course, became increasingly frantic. At first he pretended calm so that Fíli would not worry, but as Fíli began to lapse into unconsciousness at intervals, he took to pounding on the bars, shouting pleas and invective by turns. A few days into their confinement Prince Legolas appeared, and Kíli nearly broke something trying to get out of his cell, even as Bilbo desperately tried to calm him.

‘Why won’t you help him?’ Kíli cried, looking at Legolas with utter disbelief. ‘Elves are supposed to be good, aren’t they? How can you let him suffer like this?’

‘He was beyond the usual methods of healing before we ever reached these Halls,’ Legolas told Kíli, and now his mask fractured and his voice was endlessly sad. ‘Their poison is virulent, it must be treated quickly or else by one with great power.’ He turned away from Kíli and looked to Thorin. ‘Such power comes with age,’ he explained sombrely.

And Thorin understood.

Legolas had known what would be required before they left the forest. He had brought Thorin to his father immediately upon their arrival, had met with him privately to pave the way, and had sent Thorin in expecting him to plead Fíli’s case; but Thorin had thrown his chance away. Thranduil had been their hope, and Thorin had been too blinded by rage to see it.

He closed his eyes, and when he opened them Legolas was still there, looking at Fíli with an expression that was almost lost.

‘There is no hope?’ Thorin asked him.

‘No,’ Legolas replied. ‘None. I have asked the healers. Were it one of our own we would have…’

Would have treated it more quickly. Would have appealed to their King for his aid.

Thorin gazed down at his sister-son, who had been the apple of his eye all his short life, and felt himself begin to weep. Not loudly, but like Kíli, silent tears of despair.

He would have given his life for these boys willingly. Without a moment’s hesitation.

That was no good to Fíli now.

Looking up again, Thorin met Kíli’s eyes and knew his dark-haired lad had heard their exchange. They stared silently for a long breath, then Kíli nodded. They both knew what Thorin had to do.

The one thing he had never dreamed of. The exact opposite of every parental instinct he had.

He met Prince Legolas’ gaze.

‘Bring me a dagger?’ he requested, voice catching on the words. ‘Please.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three: Deathless

Legolas froze.

For a long moment he simply stood there as he tried to decide if King Thorin truly meant what Legolas thought he meant.

The sounds of grief from both before and behind him proved that he did.

Valar, how had it come to this?

Legolas was aware that the Woodland Realm was no Rivendell or Lothlórien. His kingdom did not provide a haven of peace and tranquillity. Theirs had been a hard life in recent years, the safe areas of their forest shrinking bit by bit as evil spread towards them. Latterly, his father had more often chosen to retreat rather than lose any more of their people, but they were not unfamiliar with the losses that came with battle and strife.

It was just that those losses did not normally come upon them like this.

He was acquainted with the idea of mercy killings after a battle for those who would not recover. Better for the end to be quick rather than let soldiers suffer further.

And he had just told the dwarven King that there was no hope his nephew would recover.

But still…

Still.

Not like this.

He could not bear for this to be how things ended.

‘No,’ he heard himself tell Thorin Oakenshield, though he had not consciously made the decision to speak. ‘No, I will not.’

Then he turned on his heel and hastily ascended the stairs once more.

***

That was it then, Thorin thought to himself.

The elf was a coward, and Fíli would continue to be tortured by this poison until he died. Perhaps the Prince of the Woodland Realm did not have the stomach for blood. Or perhaps an armed dwarf struck fear deep in his heart, even when that dwarf was locked in a cell Mahal-knew-how-many feet underground and had not the slightest hope of escape.

When all he wanted was to end his kin’s suffering.

Did they truly think he would stage some sort of escape attempt now? When Fíli was dying in agony here and all the rest of his Company were still locked in their separate cells?

Apparently the elves gave him far more credit for ingenuity than he actually deserved.

He heard the bitterness in his own thoughts but could do nothing to change it. He had, for some ridiculous reason, thought better of Prince Legolas. The young elf had seemed less unfeeling than his father, a better sort of person. A little more like Lord Elrond, perhaps, with some compassion for those outside of his own race.

The Prince had sent that salve, after all. At least Thorin had assumed it was him. He did not think the guards would have been brave enough to do it without their Prince’s support. That had suggested a level of empathy, or so Thorin had thought.

Apparently not.

‘Uncle?’ Kíli whispered across the hallway. Even locked in his thoughts, Thorin heard the plea in his nephew’s voice and it brought him back.

‘I’m here,’ he replied, making sure to catch Kíli’s eyes again.

‘What will we do?’ Kíli asked. He glanced down at Fíli and then away again, as if he could not bear to look. Probably he could not. Increasingly, when sleeping, Fíli’s face was a cruel facsimile of the death to come. Thorin looked down himself and flinched.

Fíli was so still now. So pale.

What would they do?

What could he do, if the elf would not help him?

‘Thorin,’ another voice called, and Thorin looked over to see Bilbo standing at the front of their cell. The entry was narrow, so Bilbo had moved in front of Kíli and all Thorin could glimpse of his nephew was his eyes.

Bilbo’s face was filled with compassion, and a grief that matched Thorin’s own, though it could not equal it.

Bilbo cared for the boys too. Despite a troubled start, he and Fíli had taken to each other almost as well as Bilbo and Kíli.

This loss would leave holes in so many lives.

‘There will be something,’ Bilbo reassured him. ‘We will find a way.’

It should have sounded like meaningless reassurance, yet there was something about Bilbo’s face that made Thorin think there was more to it than that. He waited for Bilbo to say something else, but nothing came for several seconds. He thought briefly that Bilbo seemed conflicted, as if he could not decide what to do, but in an instant the look was gone.

When Bilbo spoke again, it was only to repeat himself.

‘We will find a way.’

***

Can you do it? Bilbo asked himself, leaning against the bars of the cell and staring across at the hopeless scene before him. Can you kill that boy?

It would not be like that, he knew logically. For a start, Thorin would take responsibility for Fíli’s death, would deal the wound himself when the time came. He had already made that clear. It would not be by Bilbo’s hand, and it would not be Bilbo’s decision.

But it would not now happen unless Bilbo told Thorin what he knew.

For while Thorin had been in the audience with the Elven King, Bilbo had been here. Trying to comfort Kíli.

Watching.

He had watched the elves lay Fíli out in the cell, as gentle as they could be in the circumstances. He had watched them search Fíli’s body – search Fíli, he was not dead yet – and seize his weapons.

Had watched them miss a small dagger that Bilbo knew Fíli kept tucked into a hidden pocket inside his coat. Fíli had amused him one afternoon by disarming bit by bit and showing Bilbo just how many weapons he had managed to secret about his person. It had been a true lesson in dwarven ingenuity. And dwarven tailoring. Bilbo knew that one blade was still where it was always kept. The elves had not found it and had not known to take it away.

Kíli had not noticed. He had been too distraught, and had had to turn away from the scene so that the elves would not see his tears. Bilbo was sure none of them had thought less of Kíli for his distress, but Kíli had a young one’s pride in these things.

Bilbo could understand that. Though he was no longer young, he also had that same pride.

Either way, that now meant that the decision to mention the dagger, or not, was Bilbo’s alone.

Or was it?

Thorin and Kíli were Fíli’s nearest kin, and they had made a decision in that moment when Prince Legolas confirmed that Fíli would surely die. What right had Bilbo to assume he knew better?

Besides, it was not as if Thorin would take such a step without even consulting Fíli first. The poor boy was failing fast but he was only asleep, not unconscious. Thorin would ask him what he wished them to do when he woke.

If he had the power to act upon the answer. If Thorin did not have the means to give Fíli mercy, he would not dream of asking Fíli the question.

Did Bilbo speak, or stay silent?

He just didn’t know what to do.

Damn it all, no one should have to make such a decision! Bilbo pounded his fist on the wall in frustration, turning his back to be sure Kíli did not see him do so. This was madness. Cruel, vicious, soul-destroying madness.

Movement in the other cell caught Bilbo’s attention, and he turned back to see Thorin adjusting his position carefully as Fíli began to wake. The younger dwarf gasped as his retching began again, and Thorin reached swiftly for the basin he kept close at hand. By the time Fíli finished heaving into the bowl, tears running down his face both as a natural reaction to his body’s spasms and from the pain, Bilbo had made his decision.

Fíli ought to at least have the choice.

He opened his mouth to get Thorin’s attention, but at the same instant he heard a cell door open and close above, and the sound of steps on the stairs. It would be the elves bringing their midday meal.

Bilbo could not risk them finding out about the dagger and removing it.

For now, the chance to speak was lost.

***

‘Father, I must speak with you,’ Legolas informed Thranduil, slipping into the chamber where the King dealt with day-to-day business just as Thranduil’s Steward exited by another door. Thranduil looked up sharply, for Legolas’ intrusion on his day was extremely unusual.

In fact, Legolas’ continued presence in their Halls was extremely unusual. With the growing danger outside, he was gone for weeks at a time more often than not, trying to patrol the limits of their kingdom and contain the worst of the damage.

He could not remember the last time he had spoken to his father.

He spoke to his King fairly regularly, to make official reports and receive his orders, but very rarely to his father.

‘Do we have another incursion?’ Thranduil asked, with only the slightest hint of worry. ‘If so, you know that you are permitted to deal with them as you see fit. If it is outside the boundaries we have drawn then you know what my answer will be for that also.’

‘It is not about a threat to the kingdom,’ Legolas replied. ‘Not as such.’

His father’s face clouded with confusion.

‘Then to what do I owe the honour of your visit?’ he asked, and Legolas could hear the wariness in his tone.

When had it become so strange for them to speak to one another? Legolas was certain that, in another family, a father would not be surprised to speak to his child for something less than an emergency.

He did not imagine that Thorin Oakenshield was startled if one of his nephews came to speak to him.

Or perhaps he was, and what Legolas had seen and heard over the last few days was an exception. A reaction to the stress they were under.

How could you ever know what was normal in someone else’s family?

‘It is about the young Prince,’ Legolas began, and immediately Thranduil’s face went blank, even as his voice grew bleak.

‘I have said all I am willing to say on the matter,’ he declared with great finality. ‘Legolas, the boy is simply dying, as mortals do. The experience comes to them all in their time. I fail to see why you are attaching such importance to the event.’

Legolas sucked in a breath, though he thought he had been quiet enough that Father would not hear him. He knew that Thranduil had become colder as the years passed, but this? To attach so little importance to another’s life? To their suffering?

Had they truly fallen so far as this?

He paused, searching for the words that would convince Thranduil that it would not benefit the kingdom to allow a dwarven Prince to die just to punish the boy’s uncle for an insult. Searching for an argument that his father would, in his anger, be willing to accept.

What came out instead was, ‘If it were me, if I were dying like that, would you even care, Father? After all, this sort of death comes to elves as well. The spiders do not discriminate as we do!’

‘Legolas…’ was Thranduil’s toneless response. His mouth tightened as he said it, and the corners became pinched with displeasure. It was clearly a warning.

Legolas ignored it. He had started now, had broached the subject as he had never intended to. Had already damned himself, if Father chose to take exception to his feelings on the subject.

He might as well continue.

‘I have been to the cells. For three days, I have listened and I have looked,’ he continued obstinately, allowing all the passion he felt on this subject into his voice. ‘He sits there, the Dwarf King, holding his nephew as if he can keep him through sheer force of will. He sings to him. He reassures him. He sleeps rarely and briefly. He hardly eats. He devotes all his time and attention to the boy. And now, with no other way out, he asks to be allowed to give him mercy. He wants me to bring him a dagger, Father. So that he might protect Prince Fíli from pain if not from death. If it were me, would you even be there?’

‘Legolas!’

And this time Legolas did stop. Not because there was a warning, but because his father sounded truly… distraught.

‘Nothing means more than you,’ Father said after a moment, though it seemed to pain him to say it. The words were taut, harsh, as if strained by the effort it had taken to force them out. Father’s face remained almost blank, but the slight lines of tension had moved from around his mouth to his eyes. ‘Of course I would be there.’

‘Then help him!’ Legolas begged. He did not think he had ever begged before, but Thorin Oakenshield was not the only one who had barely slept in the last few days. He could not forget what was happening in those cells. The boy, Fíli, was dying so slowly. Just listening to him was agony. ‘Not for them, but for me. If you would want someone to help me, then help them.’

Father remained motionless for several seconds, utterly still in the way that Legolas had never seen anyone else manage.

Then, suddenly, he was in motion like a whirlwind.

Legolas flew after him as Thranduil strode through the corridors of the palace with his long silver robe flaring out behind him. The elves they came across plastered themselves to the walls in an effort to clear the way, certain that disaster must threaten to have their King in such a hurry. Legolas might have smiled had things been different. He was sure the Halls would be in uproar within half an hour as the rumours began to fly.

In the corner of his heart which had for so long felt unloved and somewhat unwanted, hurt by his father’s seeming disinterest in Legolas outside of his position as heir, a little healing took place.

His father was hurrying like this for Legolas.

He hoped.

He certainly wasn’t doing so for Thorin Oakenshield.

Thranduil reached the stairs to the dungeons, Legolas only a step behind, and stopped. Legolas could not understand why and worried that Father had changed his mind, or perhaps that Legolas had misunderstood his intentions, until he gestured for Legolas to lead the way.

Of course, Legolas realised, Father would not know which cell he needed. Legolas moved past him to take the lead, caught the eye of one of the guards who had just finished serving the prisoners’ meal and gave a quick signal of his own.

The elf’s reluctance to approach reminded Legolas just how daunting most of Thranduil’s people found their King. He felt his expression harden as the elf failed to obey his summons, and the guard took the last few steps in a hurry. Legolas wasn’t sure if he was pleased or saddened that he was apparently just as daunting.

‘The key to the lowest cell,’ Legolas ordered, and the guard quickly removed it from the ring and handed it over. Legolas nodded a dismissal, and the guard withdrew with unseemly haste.

Perhaps it was a good thing they did not often have prisoners, Legolas mused. The calibre, or at least the courage, of their guards did not appear to be high.

Legolas began their descent once again and he saw the dwarves come to their feet as he and Father passed, hands reaching for weapons they no longer had, as if somehow they could protect their Prince even from within their cells.

As if they would protect him against something, even if there was no protection against the poison in his blood.

Clearly the dwarves recognised Thranduil’s crown, if not his person, and were drawing dire conclusions. Legolas could not entirely blame them. They had had no reason to think well of the Woodland Realm, or its King.

Not until now.

Legolas slowed his descent as they reached the final few cells, and it took no introductions for Thranduil to know they had reached the end of their journey.

Prince Fíli was awake and moaning softly with pain. The smell from their cell made it clear that he had not long finished emptying his stomach, and his face was deathly pale and clammy with sweat.

Father paused, so briefly the dwarves in view likely never noticed, then held out his hand for the cell key. When Legolas handed it over, he opened the door behind which King Thorin and his nephew lay and swept through.

King Thorin immediately rose to his knees, arching over Prince Fíli’s whimpering form and murmuring apologies to the boy as he keened in agony.

‘I am sorry. Hush, Fíli, I am sorry. It is alright now.’

‘Let him go,’ Father commanded. King Thorin sneered.

‘If he is to be killed then it will not be by you, Thranduil of the Woodland Realm,’ he spat out.

‘Let. Him. Go,’ Father ordered, biting out the words. He took a long breath and Legolas sensed he was on the verge of walking out again and letting the poison take its course. Heart pounding, afraid that he had already used his greatest weapon and it would not prove keen enough, Legolas stepped up to his father’s side, just close enough to appear in the corner of Father’s vision.

Father’s head moved almost imperceptibly, then he exhaled and looked King Thorin directly in the eye.

‘I cannot heal him if you do not let him go,’ he told the dwarven King fiercely. Thorin stared, silent, disbelieving. The quiet dragged on.

‘I could leave,’ Father suggested, pleasant as he always sounded when his temper was trembling on a knife’s edge.

‘NO!’ Legolas heard the younger Prince shout from the opposite cell. It was enough to throw King Thorin out of his trance. He loosened his hold on Prince Fíli, easing him towards Father. Legolas watched as his father reached out, taking the boy more carefully than Legolas had thought possible after so many years of watching the ice creep over his heart.

There was utter silence as Thranduil gazed down at the young dwarf he now held, and Prince Fíli stared back hazily. The lad’s hand reached up, as if he was about to touch something, then the haze cleared a little and it dropped again. Thranduil rested a hand, just for a second, on the Prince’s forehead, as a parent might when checking for a fever.

Then the King of the Woodland Realm set to work.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Four: Understanding

By the time Thranduil finished his task, he was almost as grey as Fíli had been. In stark contrast, Fíli was noticeably healthier, with colour back in his face and a peaceful expression he had not worn in days.

Thranduil remained kneeling on the floor, breathing harder than Thorin had ever seen in an elf, for several moments. Then he looked up from Fíli’s sleeping form and nodded to Thorin.

‘He will live,’ he said tiredly. ‘He may suffer the occasional fever in the coming months, if I did not burn all of the poison out, but he will live.’

It was a hope that Thorin had given up, even before Legolas had confirmed that Fíli could not survive without assistance he had never dreamed they would get.

Fíli would live.

There was no greater gift he could have been given in Middle Earth at that moment.

‘Thank you,’ he told the Elven King with all the sincerity he could muster.

Thranduil rose to his feet, nodding regally at the same time as he said, somewhat dismissively, ‘Thank my son. It was his doing, though the power may have been mine.’

He glanced away from Thorin, and something across the hallway caught his attention. Thorin looked that way himself and saw Kíli pressed, as it seemed he had been for hours, up against the door of his cell. The look of hope on his face was almost painful, and Thorin immediately called over to him.

‘He is alright, Kíli,’ he promised. ‘It will be well now.’

Kíli made a noise of relief that was almost a whimper and sagged against the bars.

Thorin, who had moved to sit close to Fíli again and had one hand pressed firmly above his blessedly-still-beating heart, could sympathise entirely. He saw Bilbo also deflate at the reprieve and take hold of Kíli’s arm to steady him.

‘Another of the royal line?’ Thranduil asked, and Thorin saw that he was speaking to Legolas and gesturing to Kíli. Though he continued to look rather pale and drained, he was perfectly steady on his feet and showed no other signs of distress. Thorin worried, in a way he would have thought impossible only an hour before, that Thranduil was simply putting on a show for them and that he would suffer for what he had done later.

‘Yes,’ Legolas answered. ‘The younger brother, I think.’

Thranduil nodded, and said nothing for a second or two.

Then, just as he began to walk away, he said, ‘Put them in together. It will do no harm. They are not going anywhere.’

As the Elven King ascended the stairs, the rest of the Company began to shout and call to one another in an attempt to work out what was happening. Thorin heard the noise only vaguely, he was still closely focused on Fíli’s continued breathing, but he clearly heard Thranduil’s announcement as he continued to climb. It was meant to carry.

‘Your Prince will live,’ the elf decreed in his most regal tones, sounding for all the world as if the whole business had not a thing to do with him. ‘You may now cease disturbing my Halls with your abominable racket. Instantly!’

Thorin could have sworn he saw Prince Legolas smile wryly, just before he turned with the keys in his hand and opened the door to Kíli’s cell. Seconds later, Thorin had his younger nephew practically in his lap as they both willed the elder to wake. He clasped Kíli close and sent a prayer to Mahal in gratitude, with a small plea for further deliverance.

It couldn’t hurt to ask.

Thranduil was right, they still weren’t going anywhere, but Thorin found it hard to care too much at that moment.

***

Once he was done with the dwarves, Legolas moved rapidly back up the stairs and along the route Father would have taken to reach his rooms. Legolas was well aware of the effort it must have taken to heal Prince Fíli; he had judged himself incapable of it only an hour or two after he had discovered the dwarves wandering the forest.

His father’s power was truly impressive – he was among the eldest of the Eldar still remaining in Middle Earth – but it was not limitless.

Legolas would never forgive himself if Father had come to harm in an attempt to win back his good opinion.

Thranduil had, in fact, made it all the way to his rooms, but it seemed he had used all his strength to do so. When Legolas entered, unbidden, he found Thranduil slumped in a chair not far from the door, elbow resting on the arm of the chair and his head in his hand.

‘Father?’ he asked, concern mounting, but Thranduil waved him off quickly enough.

‘I will be fine,’ he insisted. ‘It was tiring but not beyond me.’

‘You are sure?’ Legolas queried, too worried to consider that questioning his father’s word might not please him.

‘I am,’ Thranduil confirmed, straightening fully in the chair and signalling for Legolas to take a seat. ‘The display of concern is heart-warming, Legolas, but misplaced. I am in no imminent danger of death. Even so, if you could choose a slightly less dramatic labour the next time you wish me to prove myself, it would be appreciated.’

The latter was acerbic in the extreme, and Legolas flinched at hearing it.

Thranduil sighed.

‘I did not mean that,’ he assured Legolas. ‘As I said, I am tired, if unharmed.’

‘You would not accept the dwarf King’s thanks,’ Legolas stated carefully. ‘Will you accept mine? I would have deeply regretted the boy’s death on my conscience.’

‘It would not have been on your conscience,’ Thranduil said with complete certainty. ‘You had already made your entreaty and, while Oakenshield was far from conciliatory, still I ought not to have ignored the situation. Simple mercy should not require thanks.’

They sat in silence for some minutes, then Thranduil spoke again.

‘It is so easy to forget how young they are; particularly the ill child and his brother, but also the King himself. We live so long, and see so much, but they will never have the years we have. It is easy to become weary with it, to assume that their lives have less value because they are so short. Then you see how desperately they love in those short years, and wonder if they have not the right of it after all, protecting every minute because they will have so few.’

‘He loves his nephews a great deal,’ Legolas commented, because it was the only thing he could think to say. He had never heard Father speak so. When it came to battle, of course, he treated Legolas like an equal - he could not have made Legolas a captain and done any less - but Father did not bare his inner thoughts like this, not to anyone.

‘And now you wonder if my own love for my child pales in comparison,’ Father said, and it was not a question. Legolas flushed, embarrassed to be understood so thoroughly, though he had only himself to blame.

If it were me, would you even be there?

What conclusion had he expected Father to draw from such a question?

‘It does not,’ Father asserted, steady and sure in both speech and manner. ‘You have had cause to doubt it in years gone by. It is likely you will have cause to doubt it in years to come. I am not a demonstrative person, Legolas, and I do not imagine I ever will be now. Yet, I hope you will not allow that doubt to take root again. I would do more than was done today at your bidding. Know that, if nothing else.’

Legolas could not allow that to go unanswered, though he knew not what to say.

Instead, he moved to kneel in front of Father’s chair, took his hand and kissed it, as a loyal subject might when granted an audience. Then, in a move no mere loyal subject would ever be allowed, he rested his cheek against it for a moment afterwards. When he made to move back, Thranduil rested the same hand briefly atop his head and there was the barest stroke over his hair.

‘I hold audience tomorrow morning,’ Thranduil told Legolas when he rose, though there was nothing unusual in that. His father held audiences most mornings, unless he had pressing business elsewhere. ‘Wait upon me afterwards, in my study. I suspect we will have decisions to make.’

A cryptic utterance which might have been designed to send Legolas mad with curiosity, but he knew he’d pressed his luck far enough for one day.

He left the room almost silently, heart easier than it had been in years.

***

He had not lied to his son.

Thranduil rarely lied to anyone. What would be the point? Dishonesty suggested that you wished for something that could not be acquired by other means: an emotion, an outcome, a gift or something which would never be gifted to you. There was little Thranduil wished for which he could not acquire, and he did not trouble himself overly with what remained.

Except peace, of course, for his kingdom and his people, but no amount of lies could bring him that.

Mordor was not overthrown. The forces of darkness lived out their days, as he did, and no doubt they would meet again before the end. When they did, no amount of lying would convince Mordor he was not their enemy, for he could not have told such lies with any hint of conviction.

No, he could not buy peace through dishonesty, nor would if he could.

He owed Sauron and his vassals a number of deaths, and one day the debt would be repaid.

Here and now, as he told Legolas, there were decisions to be made and rather smaller concerns to deal with.

A dwarven King and his thirteen companions, cluttering up his cells and making the place untidy. And noisy.

Perhaps not now, Thranduil admitted, as he paused on one of the walkways above the cells. Now they were mostly silent, save the snoring. It was not pleasant, certainly, but it was quieter than their earlier caterwauling.

Some impulse had driven him here, as the rest of the Halls went to their beds, and he was not quite sure what it was. What did he hope to learn? Did he expect to know more of the dwarves simply by being in their presence?

Then he heard sound – sound that was not snoring – from below.

***

‘They’re sleeping now?’ Bilbo called across quietly. Thorin looked down at Fíli and Kíli, lying just behind where he was leaning against the metal bars, and chuckled slightly.

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘like a pair of puppies. I would not have thought that position could possibly be comfortable, but they do not seem particularly concerned.’

‘They’re young,’ Bilbo told him wryly. ‘The aches and pains from sleeping in strange arrangements come with age.’

‘And just how many “strange arrangements” have you slept in in your time, Master Baggins?’ Thorin queried with great amusement.

Dwarven eyesight allowed him to see that Bilbo blushed a fairly impressive shade of red, and also stuck his tongue out.

‘I refuse to dignify such an impertinent question with a response,’ Bilbo rebuked. ‘Honestly, dwarves!’

‘You would be lost without us,’ Thorin retorted. ‘Just think of all the tales you would not have to tell your grandchildren if we had not taken you with us. Troll swings; fights with bears; goblin battles and daring acrobatics in the Misty Mountains; plus being chased by orcs and imprisonment in an elven king’s dungeons? We don’t offer this sort of excitement to everyone who travels with us, I hope you realise that.’

‘Do you know,’ Bilbo replied contemplatively, ‘when you arrived on my doorstep with that dreadful scowl, growling at me and stealing my sword…’

Disarming you,’ Thorin muttered, feeling that this was an important point. ‘If you want to keep the sword you shouldn’t point it at innocent dwarves.’

‘I would never have believed that you could be so utterly ridiculous,’ Bilbo finished, raising his voice to drown Thorin out. Then he hastily dropped it again to avoid waking their sleeping boys. ‘You are, you know. There’s a sense of humour hiding under all that glowering.’

‘Not much of one, if most of my people are to be believed,’ Thorin assured him. Bilbo snorted, and Thorin smiled across at him. ‘I’m sure it is possible to be dour and angry with the world every moment of the day, Bilbo, but it must make raising children very difficult. Without some sort of sense of humour, trying to drag these two up would have driven me out of my mind. And that was with help from their mother, and from Dwalin and Balin.’

‘They are a little unconventional,’ Bilbo said kindly. ‘I have wondered… what happened to their father? You mention their mother, but never their father.’

‘He died,’ Thorin confirmed, ‘not many years after Kíli was born. A wave of sickness came through Ered Luin, and it took Vili from us. We had been having a hard winter, and he had been eating less to ensure Dís and the boys had enough. We all tried to do so, but somehow we did not notice all the weight Vili had lost until it was too late. He had not the strength to fight the disease and such things always take the weak first.’

Bilbo hissed in sympathy. ‘I am sorry,’ he said, and it was heartfelt, not said by rote.

‘All I can do, all Dís has ever asked me to do, is try to make our people strong enough to endure when illness comes. I would have done it anyway, but it is still a debt I owe her. We must get to the Iron Hills,’ he murmured, and by this time he was talking mostly to himself, reminding himself of the duty he owed his people and that complacency must not be allowed. ‘Every day here is a day longer before Ered Luin has the supplies it needs.’

‘They will be fine over the winter,’ Bilbo hurried to reassure him. ‘My people will make sure of it. I may not always have described them in the best light, but they are far from unfeeling. They will not renege on the deal that was made.’

‘It did not seem to me that you had much time for them,’ Thorin pointed out, as gently as he could. Bilbo shook his head and then rested it back against the bars.

‘I did not,’ he answered, ‘for many years. It is too easy to see the bad in people, Thorin, and miss what is in front of you. I thought them all against me, and yet in a few short weeks several of them proved their friendship. Violet Chubb had always been good to me, but I had allowed myself to forget it. Farmer Maggot thanked me for my help. Rory proved himself more than willing to be a friend if only I would make the attempt. Fortinbras, for all our arguments, was quick enough to help me get that “discount” sorted once I made it clear I meant it.’

‘Ah yes,’ Thorin said, distracted from darker thoughts by deep curiosity. He straightened from his slouch and was sure that his face was alight with interest, ‘About the “discount”….’

‘Oh bother,’ Bilbo grumbled. ‘Bilbo, you Yavanna-damned idiot!’

‘Now, now, Bilbo, don’t be like that,’ Thorin hushed, trying not to grin. ‘You might as well just tell me what you did. I knew you had done something even before we left the Shire.’

‘Of course you did,’ Bilbo muttered. Then he huffed out a breath, but did not speak.

‘Come, Bilbo,’ Thorin encouraged. ‘Put me out of my misery. Dwalin is convinced I owe you half of my kingdom. If I do then I ought to know it.’

‘If I had wished to be owed anything then I would not have tried to keep the secret!’ Bilbo snapped. Then he took a deep breath and appeared to let his temper fade away. ‘It was not done to create a debt, Thorin. It was done to help friends. And, perhaps a little, in memory of those in the Shire who suffered as your people might if we do not resolve this problem. I could hardly allow your people to starve when I had the means to prevent it.’

‘You would be dismayed how many people would do exactly that,’ Thorin told him sadly. ‘What did you and Fortinbras agree, Bilbo?’ He had begun to have strong suspicions after what Bilbo had said, but he wished to have confirmation nonetheless.

‘The ten percent that we offered was a fiction,’ Bilbo said bluntly, at last. As if, having decided to tell it, he wished to get it out there and done with as soon as possible. ‘I paid it. A deposit to begin with, to encourage my fellow hobbits to agree without a fuss, with Fortinbras to take the rest at the same time your people paid the balance owing.’

It was no more than Thorin had thought Bilbo would admit, but all at once the enormity of it hit him.

Ten percent.

A king’s ransom.

Almost literally.

Valar above, Dwalin was right.

‘Bilbo, that is…’ he tried, then faltered when he realised he did not have the words for such a gift. For gift it had surely been, and one with no expectation of return.

‘It was what I could do,’ Bilbo said with finality. ‘It was not as if I was Thranduil, saving Fíli’s life in the face of near-certain death, so there is no need to sound so impressed; it is only money. I had plenty of it and I have not beggared myself in the giving.’

‘You can say that only because you do not know what Dís will do with the extra your generosity has given us,’ Thorin assured him. Bilbo looked over in query, and Thorin clarified.

‘She buys medicines, Bilbo,’ Thorin told him solemnly. ‘Every winter. As many as she can afford with what we have, and any dwarf who has need can come to her, or to Óin, to request them. You have saved lives, Bilbo. I promise you that.’

‘Oh,’ Bilbo said after a short space, apparently absorbing what Thorin had said. ‘Well, good. I am happy to hear it.’

Thorin almost laughed. It was such a prosaic, Bilbo-type response.

He must have chuckled at least a little, for Bilbo scowled over at him. ‘I don’t want half a kingdom, Thorin,’ he protested. ‘For goodness’ sake, don’t go spreading such a thing around. I have enough trouble with Bag End. You’ve all given me a place to feel like I belong for a while. That’s plenty for me.’

That was perhaps sadder and more telling than Bilbo realised, but Thorin could appreciate the sentiment behind it. It was no small thing, a place to belong. Thorin knew that, after the years his people had spent in exile, and he had always had Dís, and Balin and Dwalin too.

It had not sounded, from their previous conversations, as if Bilbo had had much of anyone to care for him in the small ways that counted.

‘Fair enough,’ he replied after a moment, keeping his voice mild. ‘After all, by your reckoning I would owe Thranduil half my kingdom too, and then I would have no kingdom left. I’ll admit it’s not much to look at, but it is mine nonetheless. I think I will keep hold of it a little longer.’

Bilbo hmphed a response, but Thorin saw the smile of gratitude and returned it. He still wasn’t sure if Bilbo could see them in the dark, but he felt better for doing it.

‘Of course, it will all be for naught if we cannot get out of here,’ Thorin sighed after some minutes of quiet. ‘We must make it to the Iron Hills soon. In the morning, I will ask again for an audience with Thranduil and this time, if I can get one, I will try to keep my temper for once.’

‘It would probably help,’ Bilbo agreed.

They lapsed into silence after that. These had been some of the longest days Thorin could remember, longer than any since his grandfather’s death and the loss of his father and brother, and he fell into an exhausted sleep not long after.

***

Above them, the Elven King stood still and silent for some time.

It had been a most enlightening conversation after all. On a number of levels.

He had assumed, without questioning the assumption, that the dwarves were headed for their lost kingdom.

That they planned to take the Lonely Mountain back.

A quest to reclaim a homeland, and slay a dragon.

Apparently not.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Five: Surmises and Suppositions

When Thorin woke the next morning, it was to the sound of joyful whispering nearby.

Whispering in voices he knew well.

‘I didn’t dream it?’ Fíli was asking quietly. Though the question was not in itself funny, laughter bubbled in his voice as if his happiness at being healed had to find an outlet somewhere. ‘It really was him?’

‘Yes,’ Kíli said. ‘The Prince, Legolas, went flying off and half an hour later he was back with the King and then the King healed you. It took a long time and he looked awful when he was finished, but he said it will be fine now. You’ll live to be just as stupid as you were before.’

‘Say that again when I can lift my arms and I’ll give you the thrashing you deserve,’ Fíli muttered in response, this time chuckling for real despite his attempt to sound threatening.

‘The only one in this family distributing well-deserved thrashings will be me,’ Thorin took the opportunity to interject. ‘Can I surmise from the threats that you are feeling better, Fíli?’

He sat up and looked sternly down at his two nephews, both of whom looked suitably chastised at being caught needling each other.

‘Yes, Uncle,’ Fíli responded. ‘I’m still so tired I could sleep for a year, but nothing hurts and I don’t want to throw up anymore. I’m actually quite hungry. I don’t suppose we can expect breakfast any time soon?’

Thorin reached inside his coat and pulled out a hunk of bread that had been delivered the day before. He’d tucked it away when it arrived, intending to eat it later, but then Thranduil had arrived and he’d become rather distracted.

Fíli fell upon it like he hadn’t eaten in a week, which wasn’t far shy of the truth. It didn’t really count as eating if you couldn’t keep down anything that you ate. Not in Thorin’s book, anyway.

Once Fíli had finished devouring the bread, he settled so that his back was resting against Kíli’s chest (probably the only admission Kíli would ever get that he was the taller of the two) and looked solemnly at Thorin.

‘How are the others?’ he asked worriedly. ‘Is everyone else alright?’

‘The rest of the Company is fine,’ Thorin confirmed. ‘Balin has been keeping in contact with Bifur, who’s been watching over the others. They’re all much better now that we know you’re going to live, of course, but there were no injuries other than your own.’

‘Good,’ Fíli said firmly, then found himself interrupted by a yawn. ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous,’ another yawn. ‘I haven’t even been awake for half an hour.’

‘Your body knows what’s good for you,’ Thorin reminded him, reaching out to touch Fíli’s forehead, just to be sure the fever hadn’t returned. Thranduil had said it was a possibility, after all. Everything seemed fine, however, and Fíli was no warmer than Thorin would expect when he was leaning against a living furnace.

‘The Elven King did that too,’ Fíli murmured vaguely, eyelids already starting to slide shut. Kíli wiggled out from behind him slowly, lowering his brother to lie back against the cloaks laid out on the floor. Once he was lying down, Kíli tugged a blanket up over him. By now, Fíli’s eyes were firmly closed. ‘I don’t think he’s as bad,’ another yawn, ‘as we thought he was, Uncle.’

‘No,’ Thorin conceded. ‘Perhaps not.’

He had no idea if Fíli heard him or not. If his nephew was not already asleep, he headed that way shortly afterwards.

***

‘What does Balin say? Is Fíli getting better…? Bifur?’

‘Give me a chance. We’re still talking.’

‘Talk faster. You’ve been at it an age.’

‘Five minutes.’

‘Exactly. An age! I’m dying of boredom over here. Oomph.’

‘If you hadn’t been trying to climb over me, Bofur, that wouldn’t have happened!’

‘Well, if you hadn’t been taking up two thirds of the cell, brother dear, I wouldn’t have had to climb over you.’

‘Enough! Next time we get locked in a bloody dungeon, I want smaller and quieter cellmates!’

‘Now, don’t be like that, Bifur. Think how boring these days would have been without us.’

‘That’s what I am thinking of.’

‘I’m sorry, Bifur. I don’t know why they put us all in together. Anybody could have seen we wouldn’t fit easily. They should have given me a cell of my own.’

‘Because they’ve got a nasty sense of humour, that’s why. Bloody elves. Never mind, here…’

‘OI! Mind me hat!’

‘That’s better. More room now.’

***

‘We will have the truth from him this time, I hope,’ Father told Legolas, in a tone suggesting a level of certainty Legolas found quite surprising. Then again, Father had just saved the life of King Thorin’s kinsman. Perhaps expecting honesty in return was not too much of a stretch after that. ‘Go, bring him up.’

Legolas nodded, and set to his task.

His conversation with Father had been short and fairly simple this morning. Thranduil would see King Thorin now, having finished his morning audiences, and would put several questions to him regarding his purpose in coming to the Woodland Realm and where he intended to go from here. If Father was convinced that he was receiving an honest answer, and that there would be no harm to the Woodland Realm, then the dwarves would be allowed to leave.

Legolas wondered if the dwarves realised how lucky they had truly been.

They had come so very close to living out what was left of their lives in those dungeons.

Legolas himself had to admit curiosity about their Halfling companion. With all of the goings on in the last few days, the hobbit’s presence had barely registered before. In earlier years, before the darkness had fallen over their realm, Legolas had travelled to Bree and beyond and had seen some of the small folk there. Yet now Legolas realised that he had never seen one of that kind so far from their homeland.

It was a mystery, and one Legolas hoped to solve before the dwarves disappeared with their smaller companion. He did not imagine he would ever see them again once they left.

As Legolas began to descend past the line of cells that held the dwarves, he was distracted momentarily by a low-voiced, ‘Oi, Prince!’

Legolas would admit that, at first, he stopped mostly because he had never been greeted in such a way in his life.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he asked icily, turning to see one of the dwarves beckoning to him from a landing slightly further down. When the dwarves were captured, Legolas had remarked this one only because he had been carrying twice as much gear as any of the others, and wore one of the most ludicrous hairstyles.

‘C’mere,’ the dwarf ordered impatiently. Legolas was sorely tempted to move on regardless, to teach this dwarf a lesson in manners, but something in the furtive nature of the summons caught his curiosity, so he approached anyway.

The dwarf’s eyes were shifty, even for a dwarf, and he seemed to have developed a nervous twitch which led him to flick his eyes to the right every few seconds. When Legolas glanced casually in that direction, it appeared that the most dangerous-looking of the dwarves – big, bald and tattooed – was the object of all this nervous attention, though he was currently occupied in conversation with his cellmate and oblivious to other goings-on.

The presumptuous dwarf appeared, at first, to have no cellmate, but then Legolas caught sight of a mild-mannered, cardigan-wearing figure sitting in the back corner. Almost as if he was being hidden away. Dwarves were a truly strange people. It was no wonder the elves so often found themselves at odds with them.

‘Yes?’ Legolas demanded, though some instinct led him to keep his voice as low as the dwarf who had accosted him.

‘Here,’ the dwarf offered, sticking his hand through the bars and opening it once Legolas was close. On his palm lay two items; one was entirely familiar to Legolas, the other not at all.

‘What...?’ Legolas began, before changing his mind mid-thought. ‘Where did you get that?’

He snatched up the ring, a token of his mother’s which was usually kept on a chain around his neck, and stared at it suspiciously. Then he turned that suspicious gaze on the dwarf in front of him.

‘You dropped it in the forest, didn’t you?’ the dwarf replied. The performance was convincing, sounded utterly so, and still Legolas did not believe a word of it. He hadn’t dropped that ring once in the few hundred years he’d owned it. How likely was it that the first time had been in sight of this dwarf, who had then picked it up?

Then again, how likely was it that a dwarf had somehow managed to remove the ring from around Legolas’ neck without him noticing?

‘Anyway,’ the dwarf continued, unconcerned by Legolas’ obvious suspicion, ‘if you’d proved to be the arsehole you were looking to be, I’d probably have kept it, but one good turn deserves another.’

‘And if it had been valuable, Dwarf?’ Legolas asked sharply, in the tone that usually sent his soldiers scurrying to obey his commands.

‘Then it would be like Fíli’s life, wouldn’t it?’ the dwarf asked, voice easy and eyes hard. ‘And our freedom.’ He smiled, but the smile was mostly teeth.

Really, Legolas should report something like this to Father. The dwarf might not have admitted the blatant theft – from his captors, no less – of a valuable keepsake, but he had come damned close. Even if Father didn’t choose to hold Thorin Oakenshield responsible for his companion’s actions, he might well choose to punish the thief for his sheer cheek.

The part that made such an action stick in Legolas’ throat was this moment here.

The moment where the thief all-but-admitted his theft, and returned the stolen property.

One thing of value for another.

If Legolas had allowed Prince Fíli to die, could he really have blamed the dwarf for keeping a piece of jewellery as revenge, when he had no idea of its significance? Or even if he did?

Valar, all these moral questions were going to give him a headache.

‘Indeed,’ Legolas said slowly, hoping that was non-committal enough. ‘And the other?’ The second item in the dwarf’s hand was a brooch of some kind. Worked in gold, with a single emerald inlaid, it was not an elven style, and yet was still the sort of thing Legolas could see himself wearing if the occasion was right. It was finer and more delicate than he would expect of dwarven craft, engraved with runes that Legolas did not understand.

‘That’s one of ours,’ the dwarf replied, gesturing between himself and his cell companion. ‘Or was. Like I say, Fíli’s life is valuable, and one good turn deserves another.’ He lowered his tone a little further, and Legolas was very glad of elven hearing.

‘It was our brother guarding Fíli’s back when he was injured,’ the dwarf commented. ‘Now, if he’d died, there might have been some that suggested he ought to have been better protected. As he didn’t, in all likelihood it will never come up again, and Dori won’t need to think on it any more than he already has. That’s worth some thanks, in our minds. Take it or leave it. Up to you.’

Legolas paused a moment longer, looking between the two dwarves before him and trying to measure their sincerity. The younger, silent one met his gaze guilelessly, and Legolas could see that whatever innate dishonesty there was in the elder, it had no foothold there.

He looked down at his hand again, considering, and then mentally shrugged.

Why not? What harm could come from accepting honest thanks, as this appeared to be?

Besides, there were not many firsts left in life when you had lived so long, but he had never yet received a piece of dwarven jewellery gifted to him by a dwarven thief.

It would be a story to tell, one day.

He closed his hand around the two small items of jewellery, tucked them into a pocket in his tunic, and moved on without another word.

Time to do the job he had originally come here for.

***

Thorin’s second audience with the King of the Woodland Realm began a great deal more auspiciously than the first.

For a start, he had not been dragged in with the mud of Mirkwood still ground into his person. The elves were not entirely unpleasant captors. They had provided water for washing.

It was cold water, but any survivor of winter in Ered Luin was well-used to that.

Thorin was also, in contrast to last time, not kept waiting in an ante-room before being shown into Thranduil’s presence. He was taken straight to a small room which appeared to be Thranduil’s study, rather than to the throne room, and Prince Legolas used only a brief knock to announce their presence.

‘Enter,’ Thranduil called, and moments later Thorin stood before the Elven King. There was no throne here. Instead, Thranduil sat with a desk at his back, the chair he was using clearly the desk’s usual partner.

‘King Thorin,’ Thranduil said, with a very slight nod of acknowledgement. He did not ask Thorin to sit, but then Thorin had not expected him to. The dwarves were still prisoners, after all.

He had promised Bilbo good behaviour, Thorin reminded himself, and now would be a good time to begin.

‘Our thanks, once again, for your intervention with my nephew,’ Thorin said plainly, turning to include Prince Legolas in the statement. ‘I am relieved beyond measure to see how much better he is this morning.’

‘We are glad to hear it,’ Thranduil replied magnanimously. Whether this was a royal ‘we’, or if he was speaking on behalf of his son, Thorin was not sure. ‘The spiders are a curse, which is why visitors are now advised to keep solely to the path through the forest. Advice you presumably did not receive.’

‘No,’ Thorin agreed. ‘Gandalf did not mention it, but then we parted on ill terms.’

‘I often find that Gandalf fails to mention all manner of pertinent information, whether one is on ill terms with him or not,’ Thranduil said with great asperity. Out of Thorin’s vision, Prince Legolas gave a startled sounding cough. ‘Still, it is a brave person who quarrels with a wizard.’

‘It is a pity Master Baggins did not join us,’ Thorin found himself saying, completely unplanned. ‘As best I can tell, he has spent nearly thirty years doing nothing but quarrelling with Gandalf, without ever considering the possible consequences. A greater act of bravery I cannot conceive.’

‘I meant to ask about that,’ Prince Legolas said abruptly, then stopped short as he apparently realised that he was inserting himself into his father’s conversation. Thranduil’s brows drew together in a frown, but he waved a hand lazily for Legolas to continue anyway. ‘It just seemed odd, that a hobbit had travelled so far with you. How did that come to be?’

Here, Thorin realised, he had best choose his words a little carefully. He did not have Bilbo’s permission to discuss his life with all and sundry, and Bilbo clearly held his secrets close.

‘Bilbo is a friend of Lord Elrond’s sons,’ Thorin told the Prince. ‘He had assisted us in the Shire when my Company stopped there on our way east, and when we moved on he joined us to visit them and ask for their help. The twins suggested, at that point, that Bilbo might find it interesting to journey further with us. I do not imagine they were expecting our journey to be quite so eventful when they made the suggestion.’

‘With Elladan and Elrohir, anything is possible,’ Legolas commented, eyes glinting with humour. ‘I have not seen them for many years, but I remember how they loved mischief.’

‘Perhaps, but I believe they love Bilbo, too, and I do not imagine that an elven cell is the sort of mischief that they wish on their friends,’ Thorin pointed out. Legolas looked abashed.

‘No, of course not.’

‘To other matters,’ Thranduil interjected, and the subject was finished with. ‘I asked once before why you were travelling through my realm, and you chose not to answer. Now I ask the question again.’

There were moments in life, Thorin decided, which were designed to make you feel rather stupid. For him, this was clearly one of them.

It was hardly a difficult question, after all.

Nor particularly unreasonable.

Nor was his answer drastically confidential.

Yet, out of pique, he had refused to answer and had caused a great deal of fuss over nothing.

Sometimes he really was a monumental fool.

‘We travel east to visit my cousin, Dáin, Lord of the Iron Hills,’ he informed Thranduil calmly. ‘I wish to negotiate a deal between our kingdoms, preferably as soon as possible, and it is far quicker to reach the Iron Hills through Mirkwood than it is to travel around.’

‘That it is,’ Thranduil agreed. ‘Might I enquire about the subject of this negotiation?’

Thorin paused, wondering how much he wished to reveal. He was far more in charity with Thranduil than he had been previously, but this was state business, and sensitive state business at that.

And this, said a voice in Thorin’s head which sounded very much like Balin at his most painfully tolerant, is the elf who has the power to hold you here indefinitely and ensure that business is never completed.

Fair enough, Thorin thought in response. A little truth would not hurt.

Just a little.

‘Our food supplies begin to run lower than I am comfortable with each year,’ Thorin informed Thranduil, ‘and the local Men seem unwilling to help. Bilbo’s people have been accommodating over the winter, but I would rather deal with my own kin in the long-term. Dáin is, by blood, the nearest of those kin.’

Thranduil’s nod of acceptance somehow seemed to acknowledge the vagaries of dealing with Men, and the desirability of dealing with one’s own people instead, all without a word being spoken.

‘One could, perhaps, be forgiven for expecting that your journey, passing as close as it does, might involve a stop at your former kingdom, King Thorin,’ the elf said, after a second’s pause. ‘That is a prospect that would make me rather nervous, given our own proximity to the dragon. If you could put my mind at ease, it would go a long way towards resolving our… misunderstanding.’

What was Thranduil up to? Thorin wondered confusedly. What misunderstanding? Thorin had angered him and that, on top of a long-held grudge, had been sufficient cause for Thranduil to throw them in the dungeons. What was there to misunderstand in that?

And why would he assume Thorin was going to Erebor? Had Gandalf been spreading rumours of some sort that Thorin did not know about?

‘I have no intention of going to Erebor,’ Thorin stated baldly, partly from sheer surprise. ‘I am in a hurry, even more so now than before, and there is nothing near Erebor save ruin and desolation. Not ideal travelling conditions. We will travel directly east and turn north once we are below Dáin’s lands, where the ground is less treacherous and the route better guarded.’

‘Then I see no reason to detain you any longer,’ Thranduil granted easily, though his eyes had weighed Thorin thoroughly before he spoke. ‘Particularly in light of your desire for haste.’ Thorin felt very much as if his head was spinning. Had someone dealt the Elven King a blow to the head the previous night?

Had healing Fíli taken more out of him than they’d realised?

Surely there had to be some reason for such a sudden change of heart.

Even his son seemed surprised, if the short, sharply-contained jerk of movement in the corner of Thorin’s eye was any indication.

‘My people will return your belongings later today, and Legolas will see you to the edge of the forest. You will no doubt be able to find your way from there. I wish you luck on your journey, Thorin Oakenshield. I doubt we will see you when you return this way, all being well. Do try to keep to the path.’

With that, it seemed, his audience with the Elven King was over.

It was quite the strangest audience of Thorin’s life.

And this was from the dwarf whose Grandfather-King had been an acknowledged lunatic!

***

The next morning, just after a breakfast which was of considerably better quality than any they had been served so far, the elves returned their packs to them. Thorin rifled quickly through his own, checking that everything was still there that ought to be. He was surprised to discover that, not only was he still in possession of everything, there were a few additions as well.

‘Your supplies did not survive the week here,’ Prince Legolas told him, as if this should have been obvious. ‘Naturally, we replaced them.’

They had been replaced, it seemed, by an elven waybread. Not a great deal of it, considering how far they had to go, but Thorin was not going to complain. He was still too relieved by Thranduil’s easy decision to let them go.

Prince Legolas led them out of Thranduil’s Halls and into the forest, accompanied by the same patrol of elves who had taken them captive all those days ago. They were a quiet group, often uneasy in each other’s’ company after such a difficult start, but not entirely silent.

Prince Legolas, in particular, seemed continually fascinated with Bilbo’s presence despite Thorin’s explanation. The two chatted in fits and starts as they travelled, even as they both kept a wary eye on their surroundings. Thorin suspected that Legolas’ curiosity had been awakened further when it fully dawned that Bilbo did not just travel with them, he also bore weapons with the surety of a trained warrior. This had led them to a discussion of Elrond’s sons and Bilbo’s training – though Bilbo carefully avoided all mention of the reasons he had chosen to learn sword-craft – which lasted them a good long while.

Thorin had been most worried, before they left, that Fíli would struggle to keep up. His nephew had barely been able to stay awake after his healing, and that was not a state which leant itself to travel. The elves, however, were ahead of him. Before they left, Fíli was given a drink of a cordial that none of the others were offered, and it provided him with a renewed energy that lasted most of the day. By the time he began to flag, they were already considering stopping for the night.

The next morning, Fíli was given another sip of the cordial but, by then, it seemed that the effects of the healing were wearing off. That night he was weary but not debilitatingly so. The following morning, their last in the forest, he did not need the cordial at all.

In the eaves of the forest, they said their goodbyes to the elves with little ceremony. Even from here, Thorin could see the imposing peak of the Lonely Mountain in the distance and its appearance left him uneasy. He was eager to be off, even though the next stage of their journey would only bring them closer to his lost kingdom for a while. In the end, at least, it would lead them away.

‘On we go,’ he told the Company, as the elves melted back into the forest. ‘We’ve a long journey yet.’

‘You’re not kidding there,’ Dwalin grumbled, eyeing the horizon with disfavour. Balin had just opened his mouth, likely to tell Dwalin to stop moaning, when Dwalin’s general frown became a growl they usually only saw in battle.

Even as Thorin swung to look at what Dwalin had seen, he heard two separate voices groan aloud.

‘Oh, not again!’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Six: Despatch

Cowards.

He ought to have expected it from Oakenshield and his ilk, but Azog still fumed silently.

The orcs around him cringed away, and he realised perhaps he had not been so silent after all.

He spat on the ground. They were all cowards as well.

He was surrounded by mewling weaklings, even amongst his own orcs, but at least this lot would make themselves useful eventually.

Azog would make sure of that.

He grinned widely and watched those nearest recoil again. The pathetic little dwarven fools might have managed to run away from the fight this time - they might have managed to hide behind trees and elven skirts rather than standing to face his wrath head on – well, let them.

It would not save them.

Eventually they would have to stop running and stand fast.

Face up to their cowardice.

Put up a good fight.

Give him a little entertainment while he took his revenge.

They could not run forever. He would make sure of that, too.

Eventually they would die, one way or another.

Ungoliant’s spawn would do their job. He would know when the mice crawled out of their hole to try and flee again.

Azog would wait.

***

One could be forgiven, Bilbo thought seriously, for believing that someone amongst the Valar did not wish Thorin and his Company to make it to their destination.

It did seem that obstacles were deliberately being thrown into their path for the entertainment of someone with a truly warped sense of humour and far too much time on their hands.

Really, how did these things keep happening to them?

Thorin had been right, back in Thranduil’s dungeons. Bilbo had seen first-hand the excitement of travelling with dwarves. All the myriad dangers that seemed to appear at every turn; trolls, goblins, orcs, wargs, spiders, elves (the elves being the least expected and the hardest to escape). Had he been paying to accompany them, he might well have asked for a refund by now. After all, when he’d mentioned wanting to expand his experience of the world, he hadn’t meant quite like this.

He could hardly blame Dori and Bombur for their despairing cries at the thought of having to take off running yet again. Despite their time as Thranduil’s prisoners, it felt as if they’d only just stopped, and Bilbo was no more enthused than they at the thought of another chase. Just the thought was suddenly exhausting.

Of course, that might have something to do with the way that Bilbo’s heart was suddenly, at the sight of the orcs ahead, trying to force its way out of his chest. The way his treacherous mind was presenting him with the illusion that said heart was expanding to twice its normal size and was squashing his lungs so that he couldn’t breathe. It was ridiculous, he told himself. He was being ridiculous. There was nothing wrong with him. Nothing was happening here that he could not deal with perfectly well. He just needed to focus.

He needed to focus on here and now, on the people he was with and the situation to come, not on things long finished and people long gone.

The dwarves were here. Thorin was speaking now. That was what was important.

Concentrate, Bilbo.

Get a bloody grip.

‘Balin, how many?’ Bilbo heard Thorin question, as he forced his attention outside his head once more. Bilbo turned to glance at Balin and saw that the dwarf’s brow was furrowed in deep concentration.

‘Fewer than there were before, I think,’ Balin said hurriedly. ‘Forty, maybe. I was not exactly taking a headcount when they chased us into Mirkwood, Thorin, but I could have sworn there were more than that.’

‘Lost some in the forest, perhaps,’ Dwalin posited, settling Grasper and Keeper firmly in hand, his own eyes scanning. ‘Thorin, did you see…?’

‘See what?’ Thorin asked, but Balin gave Dwalin a subtle thump in the ribs and Bilbo was almost certain that what came out of the warrior’s mouth next was not what he had originally planned to say.

‘How fast they’re coming?’ Dwalin said instead. ‘We’re not going to outrun them this time, they’re directly in our way. Not unless we go back into the forest, and we know how well that went before.’

‘No, I know,’ Thorin confirmed shortly. ‘Weapons out, all of you, and draw in. We’ll have to stand and fight.’

‘What about the elves?’ Ori asked quietly. He had his sling in hand, and was opening a heavy pouch of stones which he usually kept tied to the strap of his pack. ‘If we called them back…’

‘Not enough time,’ Thorin concluded harshly, eyeing the approaching orcs with disfavour. ‘They’ll be too far into the forest without us to slow them down.’ Bilbo knew that Thorin was right. The terrain here held many places to hide and the orcs had taken full advantage, which was why the Company had not spotted them until the elves were well and truly gone. No doubt the orcs had deliberately planned it that way. For whatever reason, they wanted the dwarves, and they did not want to have to take on a patrol of elven warriors to get them. With the elves gone, the orcs had not been shy about showing themselves, and they had been far closer than Bilbo would have credited. Now, they were approaching at a rapid pace.

There was no getting away this time.

‘Form a circle,’ Thorin commanded, already moving to put himself between Fíli and Kíli, where he would be best placed to defend them. The rest of the dwarves did the same thing, and Bilbo manoeuvred so that he stood next to Kíli, with Nori moving to place himself on Bilbo’s other side. Ori settled on the far side of Fíli, and beyond that Bilbo didn’t really notice their arrangement. Given more time, they might have tried to make tactical decisions about who stood where, but now it was more happenstance than anything.

‘Kíli, Ori,’ Thorin continued, ‘if you can take some before they reach us we will owe you a debt.’

‘They’re not the only ones who can do damage from here,’ Bilbo heard Nori mutter, his voice more savage than Bilbo expected, and a second later a throwing knife whipped past and slammed into one of the leading orcs. ‘I am getting very tired,’ another knife took to the air, ‘of being,’ and another, ‘attacked.’

‘I think we can all agree with that,’ Bilbo murmured in response, though he was not sure that Nori really expected an answer. It helped to give one anyway. Anything that kept him in the here and now. That was why he had put himself near to Thorin, after all, in the hopes that his newly-formed habit of keeping constant track of the dwarven King would stop his errant mind from drifting off as it sometimes did during battle.

Please let it work.

They could not afford for Bilbo to break this circle. It was their best defence against being overwhelmed.

Kíli, Ori and Nori had each been choosing their shots with care, and the orcs had first slowed their original charge and then backed away. There had been much shuffling and glancing between them, as each waited for the others to move first and distract the dwarves by becoming a target. The brief peace could not last, however. Behind the orcs, Bilbo could hear a roar of Black Speech. Obviously someone was unhappy about this display of self-preservation, and most likely the orcs were being told to get a move on or face the consequences.

‘What’s happening?’ Glóin shouted irritably from the rear of their circle. ‘Trust you to come up with a blasted formation that has my back to the battle, Thorin!’

‘Stop carping, for Mahal’s sake,’ Dwalin shouted back. ‘You’ll not be away from the battle for long. Thorin, they’re coming round the sides.’

And that, Bilbo realised, was how you could tell that Dwalin had waged campaigns in war and Bilbo had not. He had been so focused on what was going on in front of him, it had not occurred to him to look off to the sides. Now he did, and he saw that Dwalin was right. Other groups of orcs, beyond the reach of their ranged fighters, were moving around to attack from behind.

If Thorin had not ordered them into this circle, they would have been routed already.

‘Be ready at the back!’ Thorin ordered, and a minute later Bilbo heard the first sounds of close-quarters fighting behind him. Around the same time, the orcish roaring reached a fever pitch and the orcs before him succumbed to its command, breaking into a run. Instinctively, those at the front of the circle tightened their formation – there was no need now to give Ori or Kíli the room to fire – and raised their weapons before them.

‘Steady,’ Balin warned, when the orcs were only paces away, and that was the last Bilbo heard. The orcs crashed into them in a jarring impact which would have knocked him off his feet had Nori not been better prepared than Bilbo, and braced him with one arm locked behind his back. Bilbo’s first attacker had obviously expected him to go down easily and Bilbo used the advantage of its surprise to deal with it quickly, so that Nori could have his hands back for his own fight.

Glancing sideways for a brief instant, he saw that Nori had been well-prepared for the eventuality of lacking both hands; there was a blade sticking out of the front of his boot, now dripping blood after being impaled in some part of his opponent’s body.

Bilbo began to wonder if he had been drastically underestimating some of his companions on this journey, and just how much trouble that could potentially get him into.

There was no time, however, to worry about it now. More orcs followed the first wave, unsurprisingly, with barely a breath in between, and Bilbo had to look to his own defence or risk becoming the hole in their wall.

His second orc was clearly not high on the intelligence scale, for its first attack flew wildly off course and missed Bilbo by a mile… mostly because it was aimed a foot above his head. Perhaps the lack of fighting hobbits in Middle Earth meant the orc was unaccustomed to the idea of such small foes.

Its loss. Bilbo gutted it while it was still trying to decide where its opponents’ head had gone, then used all of his strength to shove it back off his sword to clear his way.

He was clearly having some luck, for the next of his attackers stumbled over the fallen orc’s corpse and slipped to one knee, which put its neck conveniently within reach. Bilbo did not have the strength behind him to behead an orc, as some of the dwarves might, but he could slit a throat as well as anyone else. Another corpse joined the pile.

He was going to have quite the little barricade here if this kept going.

Alas, it was not enough to prevent a more determined attack. A pair of orcs moved forward together, an ugly gleam in their eyes as they focused on Bilbo, and Bilbo could read their thoughts as clearly as if the town crier preceded them, bellowing in full voice.

Easy prey, they thought gleefully. A nice simple way inside.

Bilbo’s temper, not the coolest in Middle Earth, blazed to life.

He snarled a challenge, hefting his sword into a guard position and making sure his feet were spread and balanced so that he could turn either way at need. One of the orcs leapt forward to stand atop the bodies of the fallen, stabbing down at Bilbo and he shifted to one side, allowing the blade to slide past him into empty air. The orc’s momentum left it slightly off balance and it soon regretted its choice of platform, for the bodies beneath it shifted and it staggered forward. Bilbo stabbed into its thigh, the easiest part to reach, but knew it would not be a battle-ending blow.

The orc yelped with pain, but it swiftly regained its footing and moved to attack Bilbo again, forcing Bilbo to parry its blade or lose his head. He parried twice more, and dealt one blow of his own which was parried in turn. He was hampered by the lack of space; normally he would be moving more than this, forcing his foe to chase him around the battlefield and wear itself out in the attempt to catch him. Brute strength was never going to be his speciality.

He held his own, but as seconds turned into minutes it became more and more difficult. The orc was pressing him harder, sensing Bilbo’s struggle, and Bilbo’s arms began to ache madly with the strain of stopping the blows. He was aware of the second orc edging around the corpses that had been forming part of Bilbo’s defence up to this point, less worried about its footing now that it was clear that Bilbo was struggling to hold his own. His attention drawn to this new threat, Bilbo narrowly missed a strike to the face that would have blinded him and had to press himself almost into Kíli’s side to avoid it.

Of course that, in turn, drew the attention of Kíli’s opponent, and Bilbo caught the briefest flash of a leer of interest in its eyes before Kíli dealt with it mercilessly. Bilbo had no time to think any more on that. He turned his attention straight back to his own fight, managing to get a blow in this time while his foe was taking a second to gloat. It was only a graze of the ribs, but it reignited his confidence for a moment. He could do this. It was only a fight and he had won plenty of those.

He fell back into the rhythm of it – strike, parry, strike again – his focus once more filtering down to the space around him and the two opponents he could not afford to lose sight of. Yet soon enough frustration bubbled back to the surface. He might be holding his own but he wasn’t getting anywhere!

Then, suddenly, some sense he did not realise he possessed warned him that the person at his side had changed. Kíli was gone, replaced by a sturdier form as steady as a barred door. Before Bilbo had time to do more than recognise this fact, a hand came down upon the back of his head and pressed, as if trying to guide his head between his knees.

It made no sense, it interrupted his fight, it was a ridiculous thing to do in the middle of a battle… and Bilbo did not hesitate.

Without a second thought, he let himself be pushed forward.

A breath later, Orcrist whistled through the air above his head and the opponent before him was gone. Another second or two passed, and the sword swung back the other way. Bilbo just glimpsed an orc’s head bouncing away. The hand disappeared.

Bilbo looked up, and there was Thorin, looking down at him as calmly as if they were taking a late afternoon stroll.

‘We’ll close the circle up,’ Thorin told him swiftly, eyes breaking contact to scan the battlefield for more trouble. ‘I’ve already sent word down the line through Fíli. Move out on your own. See what damage you can do outside. You’re not used to formation fighting and it shows, and I don’t like giving the orcs so clear a spot to aim for. I’d rather they aimed for Dwalin, as would he.’

Bilbo became vaguely aware, at this point, that Dwalin was bellowing insults and challenges at the top of his voice again. Some part of his mind wondered if this was standard practice for Thorin and Dwalin, so commonplace that they never thought to mention it to anyone else; Dwalin forever making himself a target on the battlefield to take the heat off everyone else.

The Bilbo of several weeks ago might have argued. He would certainly have been insulted. He would have considered this a slight on his skills as a warrior, on his stature and on a great many other things that did not immediately spring to mind.

The Bilbo of right now was just desperately relieved not to be pinned in place any longer.

He moved forwards without a word, darting past the orc facing Nori and slicing at its knee as he went to catch its attention, causing it to turn on him with a yowl of fury. That gave Thorin time to pull Nori in to fill the gap Bilbo had left, and the others further round to move in as well.

With that done, Bilbo took off at full speed, leading the orc on a merry chase right around the ring of dwarves which had shaped the orcish formation. He ducked and dodged in and out of the battle, dealing blows to other orcs where he could without drawing too much attention to himself. He wanted to cause some chaos, after all, not end up with the entire orc pack on his tail. More than once, his orc-shadow – incensed at not being able to catch its prey – blundered into others of its own kind and sparked a brawl that had nothing to do with the dwarves.

Bilbo was entirely proud of himself for that.

Once he was satisfied with the level of mayhem he’d produced, Bilbo pulled himself a little clear of the battle, where he had some room to move, and turned to face his pursuer. The orc charged up behind him and came to a clumsy stop, panting for breath and opening its mouth wide to reveal all of about five rotting yellow teeth and a black tongue. Snarling in fury, it watched Bilbo closely for a reaction.

Bilbo just glared in disgust and refused to otherwise dignify the display with a response. This was a battle, not a spitting contest in an inn, and all the orc had truly done was prove to Bilbo that he had worn it out as he’d planned.

Taking advantage of its posing, Bilbo moved around the orc quicker than it expected and aimed for its calf. The orc tried to turn at the last second, sword raised as its growled something in Black Speech that was probably a threat or a curse, but Bilbo was far ahead of it. His blade came down across the back of its calf without a pause and its hamstring was cut. The orc’s leg gave way and it fell, allowing Bilbo to deliver the killing blow through the heart. Or whatever an orc had where the heart should be.

He looked up, meaning to assess the battlefield and decide where he would be of most use next, when his attention was drawn by a sight which filled him with instinctive dread.

A massive orc, the biggest he had ever seen, with skin the colour of bone bleached by exposure to the elements. That skin was scored with lines, though whether they were scars or deep tattoos Bilbo could not tell from this distance. What concerned him rather more was the slow, steady way that the orc was approaching the battle, mounted on a warg as white and oversized as it was. It must, until this point, have been holding back and watching the battle from a distance, but now clearly it had decided to join in.

What concerned Bilbo most of all was the way that the orc’s eyes, all of its attention in fact, was focused solely on Thorin.

It was palpable even from where Bilbo stood. The orc had no interest in anything else on this battlefield. The other participants might as well be wooden soldiers for all the notice it paid them.

And Thorin, focused so much on his people and their safety, had not the faintest idea that he was being targeted.

Without conscious thought, Bilbo began to run.

He had mounted a small rise to get away from the battle at the edge of the forest and now he skidded down it with less control than he would normally allow, sacrificing stability for speed. He could not let Thorin face this enemy alone. Something told him that, though there was no logic to the conclusion, only instinct. He had to reach the dwarf before that orc did. Had to be by Thorin’s side when the orc got to him.

Bilbo’s swift descent, however, had caught the attention of those rather closer than the huge white orc. Another of its party had heard a noise and spied him, and now it moved forward to attack. Bilbo, still sliding, dropped his shoulder and braced himself, stopping his descent by thumping shoulder-first into the orc’s stomach. The orc was winded and bent double, its mouth opened wide in shock, gasping for breath that refused to come.

That would teach it to underestimate the solidity of hobbits.

Bilbo did not have time for subtlety, or for style, or even for a basic pretence at skill. He dropped his shoulder again, took a quick glance to be sure of his aim, and rammed it into the orc’s groin. The creature, which was just about regaining its breath, let out the wheeziest of little squeals, then its eyes rolled back in its head and it fainted.

Bilbo killed it and moved on.

The white orc was closer to the dwarves now, and Bilbo knew the moment that it was spotted, for Kíli let out a roar of Khuzdul that Bilbo suspected was half expletive and half warning. Thorin’s head snapped up and his eyes went so wide that Bilbo could see the movement from a distance.

Then the dwarf’s face went flat and blank, his whole body stilling for a long moment, and Bilbo felt a wave of sickening horror flood him, as if in sympathy.

Wrong, his body told him. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

This was all wrong. This scene, this orc, was a nightmare come to life.

He had to get to Thorin.

He pushed on even faster, but suddenly there was another orc in his way, leering evilly as it reached for him.

‘Snack-sized,’ it wheezed. ‘The spiders said one of you was little. Think I’m feeling a little peckish.’

‘I’ll burn all the way down,’ Bilbo promised him, letting a snarl rise to the surface even as he dodged to the side to try and get a glimpse of what was going on further ahead. Had the orc reached Thorin yet? Was it still crawling along?

Blast this thing for getting in his way!!

‘I’ll take my chances,’ the orc decided, then came at him more quickly than most orcs were able to. It was longer and leaner than most of its kind; the sort that would make a stringy, unappetising dinner if one had the appalling bad taste to try and eat an orc, Bilbo decided.

Thankfully its speed did not equate to a particular level of skill. It swung wildly with the blade it held, and Bilbo used his own speed to duck out of the way. He struck a blow a split second later and the orc only just avoided it. They exchanged a few failed blows, the orc a tad quicker and Bilbo more accurate, before Bilbo made a stupid mistake.

He had been unable to fully tear his attention away from what was happening elsewhere, had broken the rule that Thorin and Dwalin had drilled Kíli on so often.

Mind your own battle first, THEN worry about someone else’s.

He flicked his eyes to the side, thinking he had a free moment, trying to see what the white orc was doing, and learned of his mistake when a line of fire flamed across his upper arm.

Air hissed between his teeth in an involuntary reaction to the pain, and his gaze jerked back to where it should have been all along: the face of his foe.

The orc grinned unpleasantly in triumph, seeing victory in Bilbo’s wounding, and dropped into an easy stance.

‘Burn before you go down too,’ he pointed out with a rasping, nasty chuckle, thoroughly amused by his own cleverness, nodding his head at Bilbo’s injured arm. In other circumstances, Bilbo might have rolled his eyes at such a pathetic quip.

Clearly the orc’s companions were such utter boneheads that it had come to the conclusion it was a master of wit.

Rather than waste time disillusioning it, Bilbo took advantage of its peacocking and its assumption that he was unable to fight and pretended to stagger forwards. The idiot thing actually took a step towards him in its eagerness to see him fall, completely missing the way that Bilbo’s left hand joined his right on the hilt of his blade during his ‘stumble’.

Bilbo dropped to one knee, his opponent bent over him – perhaps to push him to the floor or perhaps to deal another blow – and Bilbo swiftly reversed his blade and stabbed upwards, slamming the blade through its chest with all his might.

The orc’s whole body seized up; partly from the blow and partly from shock, Bilbo suspected. Bilbo shoved himself to his feet and let the orc fall backwards, the momentum helping to loosen the blade. The orc’s eyes were still wide open and it wasn’t yet dead. Bilbo’s aim had not been perfect and it had not been a deathblow, though there was no chance the thing would recover.

The orc focused on him as Bilbo pulled the sword free with a sharp tug, and Bilbo was a small enough person to ask, ‘Did that burn?’

He was still a good enough person to end the orc’s life there and then, rather than leaving it to suffer any longer.

Unfortunately, while he was otherwise occupied, events had played out elsewhere without him. By the time Bilbo had finished dealing with the fallen orc, he was already far too late to reach Thorin in time. Far too late to influence the outcome of that encounter at all.

The first he knew of it was a scream so distraught that it stopped Bilbo’s heart for an instant.

‘UNCLE!’ he heard, and turned so quickly that he almost overbalanced and fell to his knees. His eyes went first to Fíli, the source of the scream, gripping onto Balin as if his life depended on it, with his own gaze locked on something in front of him.

Then Bilbo saw the source of that focus, the sight that had prompted the scream, and slumped to his knees anyway.

The white orc on its white warg was no longer moving slowly.

In fact, it was racing ahead as if the Nazgûl themselves were on its heels.

Away from the battle.

With Thorin Oakenshield thrown over its shoulder.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Spoken For

‘Where are they taking him?’

‘What was that?’

‘It was Azog, of course!’

‘It looked like the tales of Azog.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. Azog’s dead!’

‘Didn’t look very dead to me.’

‘Is Thorin dead?’

‘How dare you say such a thing!’

‘Well there’s no point snarling at me. He didn’t look terribly lively, did he? Someone’s got to be realistic here.’

‘Of course he’s not dead! Thorin’s harder to kill than that.’

‘How are we going to get him back?’

‘Where are they taking him?’

Are we going to get him back? How do we know there isn’t another army out there?’

One more word out of you…!’

‘Glóin, don’t!’

Dwarves had a tendency to descend into cacophony even at the best of times.

And these were most definitely not the best of times.

Therefore it probably shouldn’t have surprised Bilbo that they were fit to burst his eardrums by the time he reached them. Nor that they were practically on the verge of a brawl.

His own nerves were stretched to breaking point, and most of them had known Thorin a damn sight longer than he had.

Still, enough was enough.

This wasn’t helping anyone.

‘All of you, quiet, right NOW!’

Thankfully, Bilbo had earned himself enough respect in the last few months that his shouted command did not go ignored. To a dwarf, they fell silent and turned to face his frown of disapproval.

‘You know very well he would not permit such a display,’ Bilbo continued softly, and a number of faces turned sheepish. Balin’s, in contrast, looked rather grateful and he opened his mouth to take control of the situation.

Unusually, however, Fíli beat him to it.

‘He’s not dead,’ the young dwarf insisted. He looked first at Bilbo, then at Balin, and then at Nori, who Bilbo had identified as the one who’d first suggested the idea.

‘It seems unlikely,’ Balin agreed, giving Nori a baleful look that had the thief as close to squirming as Bilbo had ever seen him. Apparently Dwalin inspired little fear, but even Nori knew better than to cross Thorin’s chief advisor. ‘I cannot imagine what purpose Azog would have in running off with our King’s corpse. Still, accidents do happen, especially when orcs are involved.’

‘Yes,’ Fíli agreed, ‘but that’s why I checked. I wasn’t screaming for dramatic effect, Balin. I was trying to get Uncle’s attention. I saw him take the blow to the head and I wanted to know if he was conscious or not. He turned towards me when I yelled. He’s definitely still alive.’

Bilbo could feel the tension drain out of the Company in the same instant that his own strained muscles apparently received a silent signal to turn to jelly. He did not sink down to sit on the ground, but only because he was determined not to succumb to the sort of dramatics Fíli had just so clearly disdained.

If Thorin’s own nephew was strong enough to keep his head in such a situation, Bilbo could hardly go around having fainting fits.

‘We’re losing time,’ Glóin pointed out, practically vibrating with the desire to move. ‘We need to get after them.’ His axe was still clenched in his hand, though currently it was resting on the ground as he leaned on it, and it was quite obvious to Bilbo that he was ready to launch back into battle right that second.

The fact that there was nothing to battle at this precise moment – all of the orcs having fled after their leader and his prize – was neither here nor there.

Bifur uttered something in Khuzdul which Bofur rapidly translated as, ‘And if there are more of them waiting somewhere ahead?’ Glóin practically growled.

‘They have our King. This is no time for cowardice!’

‘How about self-preservation and common sense, eh?’ Bofur shot back, not waiting for Bifur to speak. ‘Seem like a good time for those, you block-headed berserker?’

‘Boys!’ Balin snapped irritably, and they both subsided immediately. ‘None of this is helping and petty arguments do nothing but waste time. Stop it. Glóin, while I commend your courage, as always, if this is a trap then I would prefer not to march both the remaining heirs to the throne straight into it. Currently, if things go ill, we have a viable alternative King. If we do this Azog’s way, then the next person to sit on the throne of Ered Luin will not be of Thráin’s line. Thorin will not thank any of us for that.’

Bilbo saw the looks of horror that Fíli and Kíli exchanged at the use of ‘viable alternative’ and immediately gestured them both to his side. They came without hesitation, and he gave each of them one of his hands, squeezing gently.

‘The only way we’re viable alternatives is if the definition was agreed by madmen under the influence of strong ale,’ Kíli whispered to him. He was clearly trying to joke, but it did not sound as if he found himself funny.

‘It will not come to that,’ Bilbo soothed. ‘We’ll get him back.’

‘Of course we will,’ Fíli agreed, giving Kíli a reassuring look. ‘Besides, Uncle will be trying to free himself as well, so it won’t just be up to us.’ Kíli nodded, but Bilbo knew that he would not truly believe until Thorin was with them again.

Nor would Bilbo.

Curse the Valar-damned oversized orc.

Which reminded him…

‘Who is Azog?’

***

If Thorin had ever wondered what well-forged metal felt like, he need wonder no longer.

It would be something like this.

Pounded all over, he ached from head to foot; though he would admit that his head ached considerably more than his feet. The small miners with pickaxes who had taken up residence inside his skull were much more enthusiastic than the people with pins and needles who were pricking at his feet.

It was possible that that was actually a bad sign – Thorin knew that a lack of feeling was sometimes worse than too much feeling – but he could only worry about so many things at once.

Right now, his biggest preoccupations were how in Mahal’s name Azog had survived to torment him, where they were going and what was going to happen when they got there.

If he was likely to die by nightfall, the fact that his feet would turn gangrenous three days hence was of no great importance.

He would speak to Balin of this moment the next time he was accused of lacking the ability to prioritise.

They had paused several minutes into their original flight, so that Azog could tie Thorin securely and then throw him over his mount’s shoulder rather than Azog’s own. Thorin did not know whether to thankful for that or not. The ride was somewhat bumpier down here, but at least the warg smelt better than Azog did.

It probably bathed more often.

Thorin was trying to pull together some clues that might tell him what was going on, but the blow he'd taken to the head had been strong enough to stun him, and now his mind seemed determined to wander at every opportunity.

He'd lost track of both time and distance so far, though he could tell they were travelling north from the position of the sun.

He didn't know how many orcs Azog had with him, but he had a vague idea from brief glimpses that some had fallen behind because they were not mounted.

How was Azog alive? How?

He had crawled into Moria and died of his wounds. All knew that.

It was justice. The only justice the dwarves of Erebor had ever received for the tragedies that had befallen them.

That Thorin had ever received.

Now that was gone too.

Azog was not a maggot-riddled corpse turned rat-gnawed skeleton somewhere in the depths of the dwarves’ former glory.

He was here, threatening Thorin’s family once again.

Making a fool out of Thorin.

Mahal damn him.

Thorin must have lost track of things again, for abruptly it seemed that they were no longer moving and that Thorin was being dumped on the ground carelessly by one of Azog’s underlings. He managed to roll away from the orcs before he began to retch, and counted that as a victory.

He was unlikely to get any but small victories here.

The miners had abandoned their pickaxes for now and had replaced them with sledgehammers. For long moments, Thorin considered the possibility that he was going to lose consciousness.

Then he heard the one word almost guaranteed to keep him alert no matter the circumstances, from amongst a long string of Black Speech.

‘Erebor.’

***

‘He is a curse, Bilbo,’ Balin answered, when neither of the boys seemed able to enlighten him. ‘A curse on Thorin’s Line. He claimed their former kingdom in Moria and, when Thorin’s grandfather tried to reclaim it, Azog killed him. That battle killed Thorin’s father and brother as well, along with far too many of our people.’

‘I thought Durin’s Bane lived in Moria,’ Bilbo asked, confused. ‘Surely that would make it too dangerous for anything else to live in?’

‘Apparently things that hate us find ways to coexist with one another,’ Kíli muttered. ‘Isn’t that a cheering thought?’

‘Orcs don’t mine,’ Bofur pointed out gently, giving Kíli an equally gentle squeeze on the shoulder. ‘Balrogs like the deep, and we dwarves have a habit of delving too far. I doubt the orcs have the same problem. Either way, probably not something we have to worry about right now.’

‘No, of course not,’ Bilbo said, embarrassed. After all his scolding, here he was getting them off track. ‘Where would Azog take him? Moria is west, is it not? Yet Azog was headed north.’

‘If we catch him quickly enough then it will not matter where he is going,’ Glóin insisted. ‘Why do we waste time here?’

‘Because Bifur is right,’ Kíli argued. ‘What if there are more of them? Azog planned this, Glóin! He knew we would be here. He brought enough orcs to overwhelm us long enough to get what he wanted, then abandoned the fight once he had. We have to be sure that we can get Uncle back. We need help.’

‘Especially if we’re going to catch them,’ Bombur added quietly. ‘They’re mounted and we’re not. Glóin is right in that, we’re losing time. If we’re going to ask the elves for help, we had best get moving.’

There was a sudden silence, as everyone stared at Bombur.

‘That was going to be the next suggestion, wasn’t it?’ Bombur asked, looking perturbed at all the attention. ‘They will have the mounts and soldiers to help us catch up and fight.’

‘It was indeed,’ Balin confirmed, sharing a glance with Dwalin which ended in a sharp nod from the Guard Captain. ‘The problem is, how do we find them? If they returned home swiftly then they will be long gone by now and we have no easy way to track them.’

‘Then we don’t track them,’ Fíli stated. Something in his voice made Bilbo give him a close look, and suddenly he saw the panic that Fíli was just about managing to conceal under a veneer of calm. It reminded Bilbo of how recently Fíli had been at death’s door himself, and how close uncle and nephew had proven to be in that time.

Without another word, Fíli turned away from them all and marched back towards the trees.

‘Fíli, what are you doing?’ Kíli asked, more curious than worried despite everything.

‘Getting the elves’ attention,’ Fíli called over his shoulder. ‘We’re dwarves, Kíli. You don’t honestly think they’re going to be able to ignore us if we really try? Collect your arrows up. We’re going to need them soon.’

And that, apparently, was all a younger brother needed to know. Without another word, Kíli turned back to the battlefield and began retrieving his shafts from their unlucky recipients.

‘I suppose I’d better get Nori’s daggers too!’ Bilbo heard Ori mutter, which made sense when Bilbo saw that Nori was quite determinedly following behind Fíli, along with Dwalin, Balin, Glóin, Bifur and Bofur, in the camp of those who wanted to know exactly what their young Prince had up his sleeve.

Bilbo took a moment to decide which camp he sat in, then took off at a trot to catch up with the party heading for the forest.

***

As it turned out, Fíli’s strategy was so simple that it didn’t require any explanation at all.

‘LEGOLAS!’

‘Mahal’s balls, lad, you’ll have every evil creature that ever walked the forest down on us in five seconds,’ Dwalin complained, glaring at Fíli as if he was seriously considering clamping one large hand over the boy’s mouth.

‘Good,’ Fíli replied stubbornly. ‘Then the elves will get here quicker. Legolas!’

‘How do you know that he’ll even hear you?’ Glóin questioned brusquely. ‘We could be wasting time here with you yelling your head off for nothing.’

What else are we supposed to try?’ Fíli almost shouted at him, the calm mask beginning to crack. He turned away from Glóin swiftly and yelled ‘Legolas!’ again, at the same moment that Bilbo grabbed hold of Glóin’s elbow and yanked the dwarf backwards.

Another tug had the red-headed dwarf down to Bilbo’s height.

‘I understand that you want your cousin back as much, if not more, than anyone else in the Company,’ Bilbo murmured under his breath, allowing a bite into his voice that had Glóin’s eyes widening, ‘but if you do not stop lashing out at people, particularly the boys, then you and I are going to argue, Glóin. Do you understand me?’

‘I just meant…’ Glóin began, but trailed off when he met Bilbo’s eyes.

‘I know what you meant,’ Bilbo acknowledged, because truly he did. They all felt the urgency, and knew what a wrong decision could mean here. ‘Imagine what it will mean to Fíli if, Yavanna forfend, it turns out we are too late. Even if there was never a chance we could have got there in time.’ He allowed a moment for his words to sink in. Then, once he was sure Glóin understood, he released the dwarf and went back to shadowing Fíli.

‘For one who was almost dead not so long ago, you possess a most powerful set of lungs, Prince Fíli,’ Legolas announced some time later, dropping out of the canopy before them and startling them all immeasurably. ‘I really must congratulate my father on a job well done. Though myself less so. I did think I had shown you the way out rather successfully, and yet here you are, lost once again.’

At any other time, Fíli would no doubt have greatly enjoyed this sally and would have treated it with the respect that it deserved. Now, unfortunately, he was simply too upset.

‘Uncle’s been taken,’ he blurted out, then visibly shook himself as he tried to put his mask back in place. Bilbo remembered a conversation they’d had, what felt like a long time ago now, about always showing a strong front when away from home. Fíli had tried it even when he was ill, but now he had finally come to the end of his tether.

Time for someone else to take over, just for a moment.

‘Orcs were waiting for us outside the borders of your forest, Prince Legolas,’ Bilbo interjected, trying to draw all eyes away from the lad for a second to give him time to shore himself up. ‘We fought them off as best we could, and I don’t think we did too badly given their numbers compared to our own, but they were led by a huge orc who was quite determined to take Thorin captive and I’m afraid he succeeded. They took him away to the north, mounted on wargs, and we have no way of catching them.’

‘That is dire news,’ Prince Legolas said slowly, any remaining amusement having drained from his face during Bilbo’s recounting.

‘For the dwarves, certainly,’ another of the elves was brave enough to say, ‘but I cannot see what it has to do with us, Hiren, or why the dwarves have come crashing through the forest screaming for you as if you were a servant late to his chores!’

Prince Legolas’ expression did not change, but his head cocked slightly to one side. ‘Do you often scream at your servants, Dairith? I was not aware.’

Had he been a hobbit, the elf would have flushed bright scarlet at the implied reprimand. Still, he must be brave, for he was not entirely deterred.

‘Hiren, surely the King has been more than generous with his assistance to these dwarves. The Prince lives, does he not? If their King is gone, let him take on his responsibilities, not try to foist them off on us.’

‘I cannot be King!’ Fíli cried, then snapped his mouth shut. Everyone present fell silent, including Dairith. Fíli squared his shoulders, met Balin’s eyes, then met Prince Legolas’ gaze dead on as well. ‘That is not trying to “foist my responsibilities off” on anyone, it is fact. There’s a kingdom full of dwarves at home expecting their King to return with a solution to their problem, a steady hand to rule them and all the wisdom gained by years of experience and… basically everything I don’t have. They need Thorin Oakenshield, King of Ered Luin. Fíli, son of Dís, not even past his majority yet, just isn’t going to be good enough. Still,’ Fíli waved his hand dismissively, ‘your soldier is right. That’s not your problem. Surely, however, large groups of orcs roaming the world at will counts as everyone’s problem.’

‘They are not in our lands,’ Dairith argued, having apparently appointed himself spokesperson for the Woodland Realm. Bilbo wondered what Prince Legolas thought of that, and whether what they were hearing matched the Prince’s views or not. Perhaps it was convenient to have another make all the unpopular arguments for him… or perhaps he simply wished to give his companion plenty of rope to hang himself.

‘Oh, and the problem just disappears,’ Fíli snapped his fingers sharply, ‘like that as soon as they travel outside your borders, does it? No one ever gets hurt outside of here.’

‘The elves are not the only ones who can deal with orcs,’ the elf countered. ‘Let someone else take a turn. You do not see anyone else in here trying to control the spider population.’

‘Actually, lad, I think you’ll find that’s exactly what we did in the fight where Fíli got hurt,’ Bofur argued. ‘We made a nice dent in it too. If your borders weren’t so closed, you might get more help. If you talked to your neighbours a bit more often, you might find their resources were shared with you. You don’t ask for something, likelihood is you aren’t going to get it.’

‘We’re asking,’ Fíli said, ignoring Dairith now and looking at Prince Legolas again. ‘I know this is another favour, but please. Help us. I don’t know what the orcs want with Uncle, but I know for sure he won’t be the only person that they hurt. It’s never just one person.’

‘The King will not like it,’ one of the other elves put in.

‘It is a brave elf who speaks for the King,’ another elf, red-headed and sharp-eyed, retorted, and the barb was met with a hiss of agreement from some of the others.

‘Yet I think, as his son, I can perhaps claim that right,’ Prince Legolas said calmly, and they all fell silent. ‘My father will trust my judgement in this matter,’ he continued, and it had a ring of finality to it which made clear he would hear no further argument on the subject, ‘and my judgement is that I do not care for orcs who are so bold that they kidnap visitors to the Woodland Realm as soon as they exit our borders. I like it even less when they take their captives north. There is very little to the north of here.’

‘Aye,’ Balin uttered in agreement, though what he was agreeing with Bilbo had very little idea. ‘That was my worry as well.’

‘The tunnel from the stables to the edge of the forest lets out not far from here,’ Legolas informed Fíli quickly. ‘We prefer not to offer the spiders too much temptation if we can avoid doing so. Tauriel,’ the elf who had reprimanded her fellows stood to attention, ‘ask the stable-master to provide us with mounts quickly please. The dwarves will ride with us. We will meet you at the tunnel exit.’

Tauriel nodded sharply, turned and disappeared towards the edge of the forest.

‘Will we be able to catch them?’ Dwalin asked, and while his tone was worried, it lacked the abrasiveness that Bilbo usually expected from Dwalin. ‘Their lead grows by the minute.’

‘No warg is a match for an elven steed, Master Dwarf,’ Prince Legolas assured him. ‘No matter what they like to believe. We will catch them. Come, you seem to be missing a few of your members. I hope that means they are simply elsewhere.’

‘Yes, Kíli and the others stayed behind to clean up the battlefield,’ Fíli confirmed, gesturing for Prince Legolas to follow. ‘No one was taken but Uncle, although we need to get Óin to take a look at everyone. Especially Bilbo.’

Bilbo’s head snapped round to look at Fíli, who rolled his eyes. The outburst earlier had apparently been good for him, for he seemed to be regaining his composure and, with it, some of the attitude that he usually treated his elders and betters to.

‘Your sleeve is bleeding, Bilbo,’ Fíli said pointedly. ‘Did you think we wouldn’t notice?’

‘I thought you might be preoccupied darning the hole in your cheek,’ Bilbo returned with equal emphasis, pointing to a cut on Fíli’s right side.

‘That’s not from the battle,’ Fíli said dismissively. ‘Lucky tree branch.’

‘Now, now, boys,’ Bofur said jovially, though Bilbo was fairly certain it was at least half-faked, as was all of their humour at the moment. They needed something other than worry to pass the time before they could follow the orcs. ‘Don’t be like that. There’ll be plenty of Oín’s wondrous gunk to go around, I’m sure. No need to fight over it.’

‘Perhaps,’ Prince Legolas said, ‘you might instead explain to me why these orcs were waiting to take your uncle captive. Clearly this was not a random accident.’

‘Ah,’ Fíli said. ‘We’re not completely sure on that, but for what we do know, we’re going to need...’

By the time he finished, Bofur was already waving Balin over to take up the tale.

***

Prince Legolas was true to his word.

The elven horses proved swifter than any Bilbo had ever encountered. He would admit that his experience was limited, and that ponies were unlikely to cover the same ground as a full-sized horse, but even that would not account for the difference in speed.

It felt much as Bilbo thought flying must, as if their hooves were barely touching the ground. At first he tried to concentrate on where they were going, and calculate how much of the terrain they were covering.

Then he realised he was just making himself dizzy, gave up and closed his eyes.

They did not ride without pause. The elves stopped now and then so that Prince Legolas or one of the others could check for signs of the orcs’ passage and be sure they were going the right way, but it soon became clear that the orcs were doing little to hide themselves.

‘Do they want to be caught, do you think?’ Ori asked quietly, when they finally stopped for the night. Much as they wanted to continue, the elves had rightly pointed out that it was dangerous to ride any further in the dark, and Prince Legolas swore that they had gained most of the orcs’ lead back.

‘I’m not sure what they want, lad,’ Balin replied equally quietly, ‘but whatever it is, it isn’t good. He’s definitely heading towards Erebor,’ the orcs’ trail had recently turned far enough east to make that their most likely destination, ‘and we’ve every reason to believe he’s keeping Thorin alive to take him there. I don’t like that at all.’

‘I wouldn’t put it past Azog to want an audience for whatever he’s doing,’ Dwalin growled. ‘He made Azanulbizar a challenge. The filth thinks he’s the chief villain in a tale of old, not the minor character he truly is.’

‘Then we’ll have to rewrite the tale for him, won’t we?’ Bilbo forced himself to say mildly, even as his mind was drawn back to the scene from earlier that day. Azog with his gaze constantly locked on Thorin, and Thorin frozen as he stared at the orc who had murdered his grandfather and slaughtered hundreds of his people in battle.

Looking, Bilbo had realised instinctively, far too much like Bilbo must when he lost himself during battle.

Bilbo would not be letting that happen again.

***

Whatever Azog had noticed about Thorin’s demeanour when he’d heard Erebor mentioned, it had amused the white orc greatly, for he’d let out a booming laugh and spoken directly to Thorin for the first time.

Of course, he’d spoken in Black Speech, so Thorin had not the first idea what he’d actually said, but the mocking tone had been easy enough to understand.

Thorin had treated him to a Khuzdul diatribe that Dwalin would have been proud of, but that had only prompted more laughter. After that he had refused to respond again.

It let Azog think he had won, and that was the most important thing.

What Azog didn’t realise, of course, was that he had just lost a battle in the war.

For now Thorin knew, or at least strongly suspected, that Azog’s purpose was not to kill him, or to take him to a gathering of his orcs and then make a display of his death.

There were only so many reasons to take the former-Prince-now-King of Erebor to his lost Kingdom. Only so many that Thorin could think of, at least.

None of those reasons were assisted by his death before they arrived.

Which meant that Thorin could get away with being just a bit more… unhelpful, than he had been up to now.

He knew the Company would be behind him, and that with Balin and Dwalin leading them they would be making a good effort at saving him. He just had to give them some time.

Thorin could do that.

So, when it was time to begin their journey once more, the orcs found that Thorin was remarkably difficult to position on the warg this time around.

It was terrible really. They just could not seem to get him in a position where he’d stay balanced. They’d put him up on its shoulders and he’d just… roll off again.

The orcs found this extremely frustrating. The poor warg found it even more so. Then it started to nip at the orcs. Which made them even more frustrated. Which meant Thorin had to put even less effort into being unmanageable.

Finally, Azog himself came over, cuffed the warg about the head until it settled and stuck Thorin in place.

He made sure to stay put that time.

Which, of course, only made Azog angrier with his own orcs for being so completely useless.

It was a tough life, being an orc.

Particularly as they were being forced to travel in daylight at the moment, to be sure they were out of the reach of Thorin’s companions. Thorin was almost certain that the Company’s emergence from the Woodland Realm at mid-morning had been very inconvenient for the orcs and they would have been much happier had the dwarves appeared at full dusk.

In the end, after only a few hours Azog chose a place to camp for the night, presumably to save his ears from further whining about the sun, and they stopped. The orcs’ attempt to make camp was beset by minor inconveniences. Nothing to make Azog truly lose his temper – Thorin did want to survive this encounter – but enough to slow their progress and make their passage clearer to anyone following behind.

It earned Thorin a number of kicks and punches from frustrated orcs, and once or twice from Azog himself, but Thorin had had worse. Nothing broke, that he could tell, and as long as he was still fit to make an escape that was the most important thing.

He had tried to loosen the bindings at his wrists and ankles but they were too well done to try while he was moving (Thorin was not particularly in favour of dismounting from the warg whilst it was in motion on this rocky terrain) and he was better watched when they stopped.

He told himself his chance would come, and settled in to wait.

Of course, that was when he discovered the other reason they’d stopped. Reinforcements had arrived.

Curse it all.

***

They rose shortly before dawn the next morning, and were on the move just as the first rays of sunlight crept over the horizon. Bilbo had slept poorly, but he was so relieved to be on Thorin’s trail once again that he barely noticed his tiredness. There had been much restlessness amongst the dwarves as well, but none of them complained about the early hour either.

‘The orcs will have been travelling all night,’ Glóin told Bilbo, and he made a determined effort to keep his voice low so it would not carry to either Fíli or Kíli, who were packing their blankets away on the other side of the camp. ‘They do better in the dark. We’ll need to make up the time now, so it’s good these elven horses are so sure-footed even in low light.’

One of said elven horses – the nearest and the one that had been carrying Glóin and Captain Tauriel – dropped its nose and nuzzled in against Glóin’s bearded cheek.

‘Aye, alright,’ Glóin muttered gruffly, pushing its face away with a much more gentle touch than his demeanour would suggest. ‘No need for any of that carrying on.’

‘I quite agree,’ Prince Legolas concurred, although his tone carried a hint of amusement that belied his words. He approached with own mount in tow, and held a hand out towards Bilbo, who had been riding with him. ‘Master Baggins, if you’re ready?’

Bilbo nodded, took the hand, and shortly found himself mounted once more. Only minutes later they were off once again. Bilbo closed his eyes, and willed them on.

Thorin could not be much further now. Surely they must be gaining on him.

***

They were.

Or rather, they had.

Scarcely three hours after midday, the elf Dairith – carrying Balin with him – rode back from scouting ahead and reported that the orcs were camped up ahead.

‘They have Thorin in the centre of the camp, as you would expect,’ Balin confirmed. ‘Azog’s not far from him, and that overgrown warg of his as well.’

‘How many orcs?’ Legolas asked Dairith. The elf was apparently one of their best scouts, which was why he had been sent. To his credit, he was also perfectly capable of laying aside his own feelings about something to follow orders. He had not uttered so much as a whimper of complaint since Legolas had made it clear that they would be fighting the orcs, whether the rest of his patrol approved or not.

It probably helped that Balin had appointed himself as Dairith’s co-rider. Balin was about as inoffensive a dwarf as you could get, and much less likely than the others to put his foot in it.

‘Fifty,’ Dairith confirmed.

‘He’s restocked,’ Dori commented dryly. One of the elves giggled, then immediately blanked her face when Captain Tauriel looked in the direction of the noise.

‘Apparently he has a fairly endless supply somewhere,’ Balin replied, tone equally dry.

‘We have twenty elves and twelve dwarves,’ Prince Legolas said. ‘That is not bad odds against fifty.’

‘I would like the odds better if Azog didn’t have Thorin tied up in the middle of the camp,’ Dwalin told them all plainly. ‘Hostages make things messy, that’s why everyone wants them. If we attack now, the first thing he’s going to do is put a blade to Thorin’s throat and the whole thing is over in an instant.’

‘You’re forgetting about Bilbo,’ Óin put in. The look of confusion on the elves’ faces was almost comical, but Bilbo felt a flush of warmth. Prince Legolas had forgotten him in his count, but the Company had not. It was really quite touching.

Then he realised that wasn’t what Óin had meant.

Well, not all he’d meant, anyway.

‘Bilbo’s as light on his feet as anyone I’ve ever come across,’ Óin informed them all. ‘He’s been creeping up on me this entire journey – and yes, I am aware that I’m partially deaf!’ he added, when Glóin opened his mouth to speak. ‘Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me he couldn’t get in there and get Thorin loose before we attacked.’

‘Could you?’ Prince Legolas asked Bilbo with great interest.

Bilbo took a moment to think about it - this was important, after all, and not a time for making snap decisions – and came to the conclusion that yes, he could. He’d spent most of his adult life moving silently through the fields and forests of the Shire, and he’d scouted that party of orcs not long before the dwarves arrived at Bag End. Perhaps he hadn’t quite walked into the middle of them all, but then he hadn’t had the same motivation, had he?

If it meant getting Thorin out, he was certainly going to try.

He gave Prince Legolas a short, firm nod, aware that his nose was doing the nervous twitch he’d never been able to train himself out of, and then tried not to stumble forward as Kíli thumped into his back.

‘Oomph,’ he huffed, catching himself before he could hit the ground. ‘Gently, Kíli,’ he muttered under his breath.

‘Sorry,’ Kíli whispered back. ‘Thank you.’

‘Thank me when he’s free,’ Bilbo returned. ‘Right,’ he raised his voice so he’d be audible to everyone else, ‘we’d better all get ready. I doubt Thorin’s going to be able to creep out again, so once I get him free that’s going to be your signal to attack. Someone’s going to need to bring Thorin his sword fairly quickly as well. I’m not going to be able to carry it in.’

‘I imagine I can take care of that,’ Prince Legolas offered. ‘I would quite like to test the legendary Azog, and he will be where you are.’

‘Hmm,’ Bilbo agreed, deliberately non-committal. ‘Oh, I take it someone’s going to deal with the sentries for me?’

‘Of course,’ Prince Legolas confirmed. ‘There’s only two. Tauriel, shall we?’

The two of them moved off, each nocking an arrow to their bow as they went, and Bilbo thought no more on it. If you could not trust an elf to shoot an orc silently, really there was no hope in the world.

Satisfied that the others could take care of themselves, he loosened his sword in its sheath, checked himself for any loose fastenings or other bits of metal that might give him away, and set off towards the orcs’ camp. As he passed Nori, the dwarf slipped him a small, wickedly sharp knife, the type perfect for cutting ropes, with a wink and a nod. Bilbo returned both.

He made the first part of the trip as quickly as possible. The biggest worry was that one of the other orcs would wake and see the dead sentries before Bilbo had completed his task. He could do without the whole camp on alert while he was still trying to free Thorin.

He skirted the impromptu warg pen as distantly as possible, not wanting to risk them catching his scent, and aimed for an area where the orcs had dumped their supplies in a tumbled heap that Dori would never have allowed. He might have to mind his feet a bit more here, but at least nothing he stepped on was likely to come awake with a shout.

It took some careful manoeuvring, but Bilbo made his way slowly but surely through the outer layer of the camp, making sure to breathe calmly and quietly the whole time. Holding his breath would only make him gasp when he did breathe, he reminded himself, and that would give him away. No sharp moves, no sudden noises. Fade into the background. Just another part of the furniture.

Finally, he slipped between two large orcs who seemed to be bodyguards of a sort to Azog, sleeping several feet away from him but close enough to be there in an instant if he called. Bilbo spared a glance for the white orc, wondering if he shouldn’t change direction and just kill Azog now while he was sleeping.

The only thing that stayed his hand was the knowledge that if, somehow, he failed, Thorin would still be bound and relatively helpless when everything started to go to pot.

No, best to stick to the plan.

Bilbo turned away from Azog, moved past him and walked silently over to where Thorin lay. He made to bend down and place a hand over Thorin’s mouth, to try and wake him without causing a stir, only to find Thorin’s eyes wide open and the dwarven King looking at him with a wry smile.

‘Took your time,’ Thorin mouthed to him soundlessly.

Bilbo blamed a very stressful day and a sleepless night for his next actions.

He stuck his tongue out at the King of the Dwarves.

Thorin still did not make a sound, but his eyes laughed as merrily as if he could be heard for miles.

Bilbo held up the knife, and Thorin held out his arms. With two short flicks of Nori’s blade, the ropes were cut and Thorin’s hands were free.

Bilbo stepped backwards, bending to reach the ropes at Thorin’s ankles, when he heard a noise out of nightmare.

‘Oi, what’s this…? Hey, that’s an elvish arrow, that is!’

The blasted thing would have to shout loud enough to be heard in Lothlórien.

The whole camp was awake in seconds.

Azog, of course, came awake with a roar. It was too much to hope that he would be a slow riser, groggy for the first few minutes.

Bilbo met Thorin’s eyes, pressed the knife into his hands, drew his sword and turned to face disaster head on.

Oh bother.

***

Legolas heard the commotion as soon as it started, and knew instantly that Bilbo and King Thorin would need help. He had been watching events unfold from the top of the nearest rise and had seen King Thorin’s hands come free, but the fact that the dwarf had not risen told the rest of the tale.

‘Mount up,’ he called to his elves immediately. ‘Charge at them, now, while they’re still half asleep. The more confusion, the better. Master Dwalin…’

‘Don’t worry about us, we’ll sort ourselves out,’ the dwarf called, and Legolas gave him a wave of gratitude. The dwarf was a most capable warrior and Legolas was relieved to be able to concern himself with his own battle alone. It was just cleaner that way. He and his elves would provide the distraction, and kill as many orcs as they possibly could – which was, after all, what they were ostensibly here to do – and they would let Dwalin and the dwarves worry about their King.

If half of Legolas’ decision had been made in the instant that he’d heard, and felt echoed in his own heart, the words ‘I cannot be King!’ then that was no one’s business but his own.

It was only seconds before Legolas and his patrol were riding the orcs down, firing a volley of arrows as they went. As expected, the sight of them caused both chaos and panic in the orcish ranks. Some of the weaker orcs broke immediately and began to run.

‘You know what to do,’ he shouted to Tauriel, aware of his own promise to Bilbo before the battle, holding Orcrist up in one hand. ‘I will return.’ Ever capable, Tauriel only nodded and Legolas turned his horse with his knees before they reached the battle, veering off around the edge of the camp to head towards King Thorin. He found a likely spot to enter, jumped his mount over a pile of abandoned detritus and a surprised orc, killing it in the process, and rode through the camp as quickly as he could. Alas, it was not as quickly as he would have liked. This was no well-kept elvish camp, there was rubbish everywhere and the last thing he needed was a horse lame from treading on a dirty weapon or an old nail.

An orc charged at him and Legolas swept his sword out, severing its head before it could get any further, then had to quickly juggle his own sword and Orcrist to deal with the orc that appeared on the other side. A swift stab to the heart felled that one, but it became clear that he would need both hands, so he laid the dwarven King’s sword across his knees, carefully balanced, and drew a dagger from the sheaths on his back.

Now he just had to hope he did not have to turn too abruptly.

Steering entirely with his knees, Legolas managed to navigate without any accidents, at one point sheathing both blades to shoot two huge orcs approaching King Thorin with intent looks. The first went down easily, but he did not manage a fatal shot on the second and King Thorin just managed to slash the bonds on his legs in time to roll out of the way of its cudgel.

Grabbing Orcrist, thankful he was now close enough to make the move possible, Legolas shouted a warning and threw the blade through the air end over end in King Thorin’s direction. The dwarf, who was just rolling out of the way of another blow, turned in time to see the sword embed itself point first in the ground about three feet in front of him.

He rolled to his knees, reached forward, grabbed the hilt, shoved himself to slightly shaky feet, turned to face his stunned opponent and finished the job Legolas had started.

He was just offering Legolas a bow of thanks when their attention was caught by a roar of anger.

King Thorin’s head whipped around as quickly as Legolas’ did, dark hair flying as fast as blond, and the sight that greeted them must have almost stopped his heart.

Bilbo, with his sword still clutched in one hand, hung nearly three feet off the floor, suspended by Azog’s grip on his neck.

The white orc was bleeding from multiple slashes to his legs and a few to his good arm, while the hobbit seemed relatively unharmed.

Except, of course, for the fact that he was now turning almost blue from lack of air and was grappling desperately at the muscled forearm he could not get to release him.

Legolas heard a second roar, from King Thorin this time, and the dwarf charged at the orc in rage, slamming into his legs hard enough to knock even the giant flying. It was not a skilled move, but it had the desired effect. The orc instinctively reached to catch himself, and Bilbo slipped to the ground as he was released.

He’d likely have preferred a softer landing, but at least now he could breathe.

Legolas wondered if he should intervene. One well-aimed arrow, after all, and this would all be over.

Yet something stayed his hand.

Perhaps the tale that Balin had told, of all that had been lost to this orc by the dwarves of Durin’s Line.

Perhaps the ‘Hmm,’ from Bilbo earlier, which had told its own tale, little though Bilbo might have realised it.

Not that that meant Legolas intended to be entirely passive.

That warg was not welcome in this battle and it was about to be very much in the way. Legolas drew an arrow out of his quiver, set it to his bowstring, and loosed a sharp whistle. The warg turned purely by instinct, the noise probably one that had been used with it since it was whelped, and Legolas’ arrow took it clean through the eye. It died instantly.

Legolas turned for a moment to survey the rest of the battle, and realised that it was all very much under control. The dwarves were driving the orcs from one side, his elves from another. One or two orcs were trying to creep up on their Master’s fight, and Legolas dropped them too before they even knew they were in danger.

That, he decided, would be his role. To watch, not to interfere unless things seemed truly bleak, and to be sure no one else interfered either.

He turned back again, scanning to be sure he had missed nothing, and saw that King Thorin was now exchanging blows with the leering orc. The dwarf’s fighting style was wilder than Legolas had expected, unfocused, as if he could not get his balance. Legolas sharpened his gaze immediately, concerned. Grudges could be dangerous, he knew that, and here one was playing out before his eyes. Perhaps he had made the wrong decision, and if so he would not hesitate to step in.

He had not come this far to let the dwarves fail now.

Of course, he was not the only one who had made such a promise.

In the pause Legolas had taken, Bilbo had regained his breath. He hauled himself to his feet, chest heaving but face grim with determination, and steadied his grip on his blade. Then, with one glance to be sure that Azog was properly distracted by gloating over his enemy (fool), he circled around.

His approach was slow, and steady, and silent.

Azog knew nothing of it.

Until the blade slammed down through his right foot.

Legolas revised his opinion of Thorin Oakenshield almost immediately, with a mental apology to the King.

He had quite clearly not been completely distracted, for he timed his own stab into the orc’s left calf with a short blade only seconds after Bilbo’s attack.

Azog howled in agony, his leg giving way as he fell to his knees, and Legolas saw the hobbit smile with relief as he received an opening.

Without hesitation he raised his sword, grasped Thorin’s right hand, settled it on the hilt and rested his own over the top.

Azog sneered and began to reach for the blade but, before he could do so, hobbit and dwarf together rammed the sword home through his heart.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Here For

Dead.

Thorin stared at the body on the ground, trying to bring another thought to mind, but nothing would come.

Dead.

Azog was dead.

It was… almost incomprehensible.

Mostly because it was so damned confusing.

Until a day or two ago (he was losing track of the days, with so much happening) Azog had been dead. Clearly not in reality, but if you believed something completely and had no evidence to the contrary then it was… well, not true, obviously, but… true for you, perhaps.

Mahal, he did not know what to think.

Thorin stretched the hand that Bilbo had so recently grasped around his sword hilt, conscious of the hobbit standing next to him and offering silent support, but too caught up in his thoughts to acknowledge him outwardly.

Azog had been dead. Then alive. And now he was dead again. So fast that Thorin was still catching up with what had happened.

So fast that, really, it should not change very much at all. Thorin had thought he was dead. Now he was dead.

And yet.

And yet somehow, a feeling of lightness was spreading through Thorin deep inside as he stood here, staring at the dead body of one of his oldest and most hated enemies. The nemesis who had sneered at him over his grandfather’s head, whose filth had murdered his brother and so many of his people.

Perhaps he had never truly believed Azog’s death before, not having seen it for himself.

Now, with the evidence so clear before him, he could finally accept it.

It was done.

Thrór was avenged. Frerin was avenged.

Only the presence of others, of so many elves, kept tears of joy from Thorin’s face as relief and a tingling euphoria began to sweep through him.

Dead.

Azog was dead.

Perhaps the Valar had not abandoned his people after all.

Then Thorin staggered sideways, silent contemplation ended abruptly and entirely by the two bodies that hit him like stones fired from a ballista.

‘Uncle!’ Fíli and Kíli cried, almost in unison. Bilbo, who had been rather more aware of his surroundings, had ducked out of the way in time and avoided going down in the pile of limbs that the Line of Durin became.

Lucky hobbit.

Taken by surprise, Thorin was not quick enough to suppress the grunt of pain when his abused body hit the floor with two solid dwarven frames atop him. Fire shot up both sides of his torso as his ribs protested, something in his arm cracked in a way that Thorin was fairly sure didn’t indicate a break (he hadn’t fainted, after all) but still did not sound particularly healthy, and his head began to buzz rather alarmingly.

Boys!’ Bilbo said sharply, though something went wrong partway through and the word cracked and failed. Thorin started to consider it, but the sudden loss of the weight that had been pinning him distracted him and the thought was gone suddenly as it had come.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ Fíli said, though his voice sounded quite far away. ‘We didn’t mean to.’

‘We weren’t sure he’d be okay,’ Kíli murmured miserably, and that was enough to clear Thorin’s mind, if not to drive all of his aches away. Past master at dealing with injuries that he did not have time to allow to heal, Thorin forced himself upright. Bilbo had knelt beside him to check on him, and Prince Legolas had also appeared from somewhere in that uncanny way that elves had of being right where they were needed just when you needed them there. Between them, they got Thorin on his feet easily enough.

‘I am fine,’ Thorin told his nephews, and if his voice was not quite firm and the words not quite as convincing as they would usually have been, no one had the ill-grace to challenge him on it. ‘Come here, both of you.’

Fíli and Kíli approached, far more gently this time, and Thorin pressed his forehead against each of theirs in turn, trying to pass reassurance through the gesture. He held it with each of them until he could feel them settle, the tension of fear and of battle flowing away, and then released them.

Now he just had to work out a dignified way of getting back on the ground without it becoming apparent how badly he needed to be there.

The trials of kingship.

‘Sit,’ Bilbo muttered, grabbing his wrist and tugging downward, his voice rasping oddly over the word. With that, Bilbo sank down to sit cross-legged on the ground as if this was the most natural thing in the world, and Fíli and Kíli followed suit. Thorin did the same with great relief, shaking his head almost imperceptibly at Bilbo’s ability to be three steps ahead of him at all times.

Then Thorin caught sight of Bilbo’s throat, and a new slew of memories hit him like the boys had not long before.

Bilbo fighting Azog off alone.

Bilbo hanging feet above the ground, dangling by the throat.

Bilbo’s voice rasping and breaking as he tried to speak.

Damnit, what had Thorin been thinking?

Where was Óin?

***

‘Well, that wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be,’ Bofur informed his fellows as they all moved to join their King in the aftermath of the battle.

Then he realised that Bilbo was treating him to one of those looks he was so good at, which combined the iciness of the Misty Mountains with a solid vein of mithril running through its core.

Realising that he’d put his foot in it somehow, Bofur looked at their hobbit a little more closely and became vividly aware of the livid bruising all around Bilbo’s throat and the rather protective way that Thorin was hovering over him. Along with the way that Thorin was signalling urgently to Óin, who was hurrying over with his pack full of medicines.

Alright, perhaps that sentence hadn’t come out quite the way he’d meant it to.

Story of Bofur’s life, really.

‘In comparison to the encounter where we lost a good chunk of our armies and our King, still didn’t manage to reclaim our lost kingdom and had to return home empty-handed and actually worse off than we’d been before,’ he clarified for Bilbo quickly.

Bofur couldn’t help but think that this outcome was a great deal better than a battle in which his cousin had lost his ability to speak anything but Khuzdul and had ended up with an axe permanently sticking out of his head, but he wasn’t going to say that aloud.

Bifur might be upset.

Only now Thorin was the one glaring at him.

And Dwalin.

And Balin too.

Shit, hadn’t Fundin died at Azanulbizar?

Mahal, some days he wondered why he bothered opening his mouth. Truly, he did.

‘Cousin, this is one of those times when you just stop talking before it gets any worse,’ Bifur advised, whacking him over the back of the head gently. ‘He means well, and you know it,’ Bofur’s cousin continued, aiming his second comment at Thorin.

Thorin glared a moment longer, then sighed and waved a hand in curt dismissal, turning his attention back to Oín’s examination of Bilbo. Though, now that Bofur was paying attention, he began to wonder if the healer shouldn’t be having to a closer look at their King. He was a bit pasty under the glower, and even royal training couldn’t hide the way he was favouring one arm.

Just as Bofur was finishing this thought, a number of the elves arrived to join their grouping, offering brief salutes to their Prince as they did so.

‘All dealt with,’ the red-headed Captain Tauriel confirmed to Legolas shortly. ‘The wounded orcs have been dispatched. None escaped.’

She was a curious one, Bofur thought, the Captain. In fact, they all were. The Prince demanded respect from his patrol and received it; salutes, titles, silence when he chose to speak, obedience to his orders without question. Yet, at the same time, there’d been that whole scene the day before where that Dairith had spoken as if he was the Captain or the Prince, whilst Captain and Prince themselves remained mostly silent.

Then there was this. Captain Tauriel used all the formality one would expect with her Prince here, but it seemed… false, somehow. Not that she did not mean it, exactly, but as if it did not come naturally.

Like Bofur using his company manners with Thorin when visiting Men were brought to see the mines at Ered Luin, ‘My Lord-ing’ here and ‘Your Majesty-ing’ there when they both knew damn well that Bofur hadn’t used Thorin’s title since about three weeks after he took over as Dean of the Miners’ Guild.

Ah well, perhaps it did make sense then. Company manners in front of the Company.

They were still dwarves amongst elves, after all.

Or vice versa.

Allies, but not friends.

Good allies, though, Bofur concluded, as one of the elves spoke up.

‘I could do nothing about a wound as severe as Prince Fíli’s,’ she offered cautiously, aiming her comments at Bilbo and Óin. Bofur identified her as one of the elves in possession of a sense of humour, which immediately added her to his ‘good person to know’ list. ‘I could probably heal some of that bruising, however. I have enough skill for that.’

‘That,’ Bilbo said with great relief, his voice raspy and painful-sounding, ‘is the best offer I have had all day. Please do.’ He rose to his feet and approached the elf, allowing her to guide him away from the knot of elves and dwarves that was developing where she could work in peace.

Prince Legolas, who had been standing silently to one side surveying the work of his elves up to this point, now moved to take Bilbo’s place. The elf began a quiet conversation with Thorin, gesturing at the camp as he did so. Making provision for cleaning it up, no doubt, and ensuring it did not sully the earth any longer than necessary.

That would likely keep them busy a little while longer, which meant that the Company probably wasn’t going anywhere just yet.

Plenty of time to go and check on certain people (Bombur first, then Ori, then Fíli and Kíli, just in case) before going in search of any stashes of ale the elves might be hiding.

They struck him more as wine people, generally, but one never knew. A dwarf might get lucky.

***

‘It seems I am destined to owe you a debt, Your Highness,’ Thorin told the Prince of the Woodland Realm evenly as the elf sat next to him. He was still keeping one eye on Bilbo, concerned about the damage to the hobbit’s neck and any other injuries that Bilbo might be concealing, but he managed to spare a grateful smile for the elf nonetheless.

‘Not at all,’ Legolas responded, dismissing a fairly significant effort on his own part without fanfare. ‘Your nephew, and others among your companions, made a compelling argument for orcs being the concern of every race in Middle Earth, no matter their chosen captives. I did not take much convincing. The loathsome things should not be allowed to walk freely about any land, and particularly not so close to my own. It will only make them bolder. The death of their greatest leader will, I hope, send them scurrying back to their pits for some time.’

‘We can hope,’ Thorin agreed. ‘Though I would be happier about such an eventuality if they did not always seem to breed more soldiers every time they retreated. They outpace every race but Men, and I wonder when we will ever have the strength to deal with them properly.’

A silence fell for some moments, and briefly Thorin regretted speaking such fears aloud. He had not shared them with any outside of his closest circle up to now. Only Balin and Dwalin knew what truly concerned him.

Then Prince Legolas spoke again, and the moment passed away.

‘We will burn the corpses before we leave,’ he told Thorin. ‘I would not like to leave them for animals to find. It is possible disease might spread. Anything useful that might be found here is, of course, yours to take or leave as you wish. I must return to my father’s Halls shortly. While I asked Tauriel to leave a message when she rode out, I imagine my father will wish to speak to me in person.’

Thorin had a feeling there was much left unsaid in that statement, and for a second he considered pushing. How much trouble had the elven Prince got himself in by aiding Thorin and his Company in their need?

Then he decided to leave it be. There was nothing he could do at this juncture in any case. Legolas had made the choice, and seemed confident enough in facing the consequences. Thorin needed to move on, and doubtless his interference in the matter would do nothing to improve Thranduil’s temper in any case.

‘Your help has been greatly appreciated,’ was all Thorin said instead. ‘I cannot imagine at this point how my people could aid you, Prince Legolas, but if ever we can then you have only to ask.’

‘To be able to say that is no small thing,’ Legolas replied with a smile. He held his arm out and they clasped forearms. Thorin had expected it to be a brief clasp, but the elf held it a few moments longer than normal, much to his surprise. Then, suddenly, Thorin felt a jolt of something pass through him; something he neither recognised nor could explain. He looked at Legolas sharply, startled, but the elf only gave him a small smile and rose to his feet, calling commands to his patrol. Dwalin quickly realised what he was doing and set some of the dwarves – those who were not under Oín’s command at present – to the same task.

Thorin sat quietly for a moment, trying to work out what had just been done to him, but all he could tell was that his head felt clearer and that the pain was less fierce than it had been since the boys knocked him down.

That and that he was swiftly approaching a state of utter exhaustion, but he thought that had less to do with the elven Prince and more to do with the fact that he was sitting quietly with no interruptions for the first time in many hours.

Likely what Legolas had done was nothing harmful, then. A little of the healing magic that the elves seemed to wield so well, perhaps. Another debt he owed the Prince of the Woodland Realm, for all that Legolas denied it. A paltry thing, in comparison to Fíli’s life, and his own, so Thorin let it go and turned his attention to other things.

In a short time the elves were finished with their appointed task, mounted and on their way. Prince Legolas stopped a few moments to speak with Fíli before he departed, but otherwise they did not tarry and soon the Company were alone once more.

Thorin, whose exhaustion had grown even in that short time, came to the decision that the Company were going no further that day, even though it was no more than noon.

His announcement of this decision, understated though it was, was met with groans of relief.

When Thorin raised one eyebrow at Balin in query, his Steward only replied, ‘I do not think you’re the only one who slept poorly last night, Thorin. You’re certainly not the only who fought two battles on either side of that poor sleep.’

Thorin acknowledged that as an excellent point and dismissed them to do as they wished. As Fíli and Kíli slid back into range, he gave them his most patient look and uttered a pre-emptive, ‘I’m fine, boys.’

‘Óin hasn’t checked you, yet,’ Fíli pointed out. ‘You’ve sent everyone else over, but you haven’t been checked yourself.’

‘He has a very good point,’ Bilbo concurred as he, too, approached. Thorin was pleased to see that his throat looked worlds better and to hear his voice almost completely back to normal, with none of the tortured rasping that had afflicted it before. ‘Do not think we have forgotten your injuries just because you decided to focus on my own.’

‘It is the duty of a king to see that everyone else is healed before he is dealt with,’ Thorin asserted, though he had a strong suspicion that Balin could make a convincing argument for the reverse. ‘Now that you are all finished, Óin is free to come over whenever he likes. I can’t say I will getting up again.’

‘Is it that bad?’ Fíli asked worriedly, brows drawing together in concern.

‘No,’ Thorin said wryly, though it was somewhat ruined by the yawn that broke through, ‘I am simply that comfortable on this bit of ground. I have no intention of moving from it unless I have to.’

‘The prerogative of kings, I suppose,’ Óin said loudly, having been summoned by a gesture from Kíli a minute before. ‘You can laze around on your arses and force the rest of us to drag our old bones to you.’

Thorin ignored this, because pointing out to Óin that Thorin was actually the elder never got him anywhere, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to remind Bilbo that he was ancient by hobbit standards and simply aging well. Vain, perhaps, but Thorin had never claimed to be without flaw.

His mind tried to raise the question of why it mattered what Bilbo thought of his age, or his appearance, and Thorin batted it away almost unconsciously. He was becoming so practiced at the manoeuvre that it was now habitual. He had a mission to complete and a people to save from potential ruin. Now was not the time for such things.

Mahal, with the way that they were tumbling from one crisis to another at the moment, he dreaded to think what would happen if he actually allowed himself to become distracted!

Which he would not, because there was nothing to become distracted by.

He was too tired for this. He was starting to confuse himself.

Óin poked and prodded at him for some time, during which Thorin made a valiant attempt to keep his eyes open, but by the time the examination was over it was almost a lost cause. Faintly in the background he could hear the clatter of pots and pans, which usually signified that Bombur was about to begin working magic with whatever he had to hand, but even that was not enough temptation to keep Thorin awake. Finally he lay back, vaguely surprised when his head landed on rolled blankets rather than hard-packed earth, and was asleep in seconds.

***

‘Is that normal?’ Bilbo asked Óin worriedly, more than slightly concerned by the way that Thorin had descended from mostly conscious and stringing sentences together to completely unconscious in such a short space of time.

‘It’s not abnormal,’ was Oín’s frustrating response. Bilbo considered hitting him, but refrained because he really did not need to start a feud with Glóin right now.

Óin must have sensed his worry, for he chose to elaborate.

‘He’s just exhausted,’ the healer reassured Bilbo, taking in Fíli and Kíli at the same time. ‘We’ve all had a long two days, but Thorin hasn’t had a moment to relax and he’s taken more than one blow to the head if I’m right. All of that, on top of finding Azog alive and then seeing him die… He kept himself going while the elves were here because he had to, but now it’s just us and he knows that everything’s under control, so he’s stopping for a bit. Stop worrying and just see it as the mark of trust that it is.’

Bilbo took a moment to let all of that sink in, mouth twitching from side to side without his permission as thoughts tumbled through his head, then decided that it sounded infinitely better than panicking about unseen injuries and possible consequences. Óin knew his business, after all. If he said Thorin was well, then Bilbo could hardly claim to know better.

‘Might as well follow his example,’ he said at last, gesturing Fíli and Kíli to the spaces on either side of their uncle. ‘Someone will wake us when there’s food, and the two of you look as tired as I feel.’ Neither of them argued with him. One of the others had retrieved their packs after the battle and now Bilbo fetched his blankets as Fíli and Kíli did the same. Within minutes, they were settled in a group around Thorin, Fíli and Kíli at his sides and Bilbo back to back with Kíli, who provided enough heat to make a campfire unnecessary most of the time.

As soon as he was lying down, Bilbo had nothing but sympathy for Thorin. He was asleep in moments.

***

‘You and I need to talk,’ Dwalin informed his brother sternly, settling in for a long watch while the rest of the Company, now well-fed on Bombur’s stew, bedded down for the night.

It might only be mid-afternoon in reality, but they would sleep long and hard today, then rise early in the morning. Hopefully they could make good time tomorrow to earn back some of what they’d lost to the orcish filth.

Not that Dwalin could rest yet.

With everyone exhausted and wishing fervently for their bedrolls, it was the Captain’s job to take first watch and stay awake that bit longer.

And, in this case, it was his brother’s job to keep him company, because they needed to have this conversation and Dwalin didn’t think Balin would want an audience for it.

‘Words to strike fear into the stoutest of hearts,’ Balin said lightly, eyeing Dwalin with deep curiosity. Dwalin could understand that. He was hardly known for his insistence on conversation, and he might have suggested a few (thousand) times that Balin would do better if he spent less time talking things to death and more time practising practical skills like stabbing them to death.

Not that his brother couldn’t hold his own in that arena too.

Dwalin made sure of that, and Balin never objected.

They both wondered, had always wondered, if their father might have made it home had he spent a little more time on weapons training in those last years, before Thrór decided to throw everything and everyone he had at that last, desperate bid to reclaim Moria.

Dwalin huffed aloud.

What-ifs and maybes never got anyone anywhere, and this was no time for them. It was only seeing Azog that was bringing such things back now.

Of course, while he’d been thinking all of this, Balin had been sat watching him and waiting for him to get to the point, which he’d completely failed to do. Now his brother was eyeing him with a raised eyebrow.

‘Were we going to talk, Dwalin?’ Balin asked mildly. ‘Or should I go and join our fellows in slumber and you can wake me when you untwist your tongue?’

Viable alternatives?’ Dwalin spat out, which was not how he’d intended to start the conversation but was what Balin bloody well got when he decided to push Dwalin like that, the pain in the arse!

‘Pardon?’ Balin asked. Dwalin growled.

‘You called them sodding viable alternatives, Balin,’ he repeated, looking for a moment of understanding in his brother’s eyes. When it didn’t come, he rolled his eyes in exasperation. ‘The boys. There they are, panicking about losing Thorin, with Fíli only days from nearly dying, and you’re standing in front of the Company referring to them as viable alternatives to the throne. As if they’re a pair of chess pieces you can swap in and out as needed. Did you not see their faces? They went scurrying over to Bilbo like you’d just slapped them.’

Balin looked at him blankly for a second, as if the words were sinking in, and then went a shade of white that nearly matched his beard.

‘I was trying to get Glóin to stop and think,’ he said faintly, shaking his head. Then he took a deep breath and continued more strongly. ‘Mahal, you know what he’s like, Dwalin, and he’s not the only one. He’d have gone charging off after Azog without a moment’s thought to anything but pride and his version of honour and we’d have ended up with the whole Company dead. I just needed everyone to stop for a moment.’

‘Aye, I know that,’ Dwalin told him, deliberately gentling his voice a moment. He wasn’t a complete bastard, and he knew his brother better than anyone. He knew how Balin worked in moments of stress. So removed from what was happening, so determined to be detached and even-tempered, that sometimes he forgot to consider emotion at all.

It worked well to balance the hot-heads he was surrounded by (and yes, Dwalin did count himself and Thorin in that group) but it occasionally led him to say things that made those who hadn’t known him all their lives want to hit him.

Or feel as if they had just been struck themselves.

‘I’m just not sure the boys know that,’ Dwalin finished, looking Balin dead in the eye. Balin flinched, but that was necessary. It meant Dwalin’s point had struck home, and Balin knew what he needed to do next. Fíli and Kíli were practically Thorin’s sons rather than his nephews, and more Dwalin and Balin’s nephews than the distant cousins they truly were. Balin and Dwalin would guide and support them all their lives; such a wound could not be allowed to fester.

Nor could the bigger issue Dwalin thought he saw at the bottom of all of this, but that was going to be a little trickier to set straight.

Mahal, he hated dealing with words.

Where was Nori when he needed to stab something?

(Oh, fine, he wouldn’t actually do it, but a Guard Captain could dream!)

‘You didn’t think to ask me to help, did you?’ he asked Balin, after a few moments, hoping that would get his point across.

Balin’s look of confusion suggested it hadn’t.

Bugger.

‘With Glóin,’ Dwalin tried to explain. ‘Yes, he was being a complete pain in the arse about the whole thing, and I know Bilbo had to have a word with him later because he was winding everyone up a treat, but if he was getting that badly out of control you should have asked me to deal with him. You don’t have to do it all on your own.’

‘And what would you have done, Dwalin?’ Balin asked dryly. ‘Hit him until he behaved?’

Dwalin felt his eyebrows rise, the unimpressed look there to show his brother just how little he appreciated this dismissive tone. Balin flushed and ducked his head in apology. Which Dwalin accepted, because they were brothers and you took things from family you wouldn’t take from anyone else.

Which didn’t mean you couldn’t make them feel as stupid as they’d tried to make you feel.

‘No, Balin,’ he pointed out very clearly, ‘I would have pulled rank on him.’

The words hovered between them for long moments, as Balin worked it out.

Glóin wasn’t in the Guard. They hadn’t served together in the army for years.

But when they had, Dwalin had been Glóin’s commander, and those years had been the proudest of Glóin’s life. They were the years of his youth, of war. Rich in honour, if not in money.

Cousin or not, if Dwalin had given an order, Glóin would have obeyed it.

Dwalin watched it all sink in, and then went in for the deathblow.

‘You’re getting so used to everyone relying on you, Balin, you’re forgetting to rely on anyone else and it’s going to cost you in the end. You don’t fight a campaign single-handed, and there’s no greater campaign than keeping our faltering kingdom afloat. Even on this journey, you could be using other skills and you aren’t.’

He stopped there, but Balin was looking at him with great curiosity now, and he signalled almost immediately for Dwalin to continue.

‘No, go on, don’t stop there.’

‘Alright then,’ Dwalin paused a moment, getting his thoughts in order. ‘You could have put Ori with that elf who disliked us so much. He was charming elves left, right and centre yesterday, as was Dori for that matter, paving the way for us to work with them so well today. The thief’s a pain in every way possible, but Thorin’s been using him to collect information for us since the Shire and he’s bloody good at it, which we might need in the Iron Hills depending how things go. Bofur and Bombur fit in just about anywhere. People will tell Bofur things because they think he’s an idiot, and no one notices Bombur until he opens his mouth, even us. Most importantly, Bilbo’s keeping Thorin steadier than I’ve ever seen him, and Fíli and Kíli too. Depending how things go with Dain, that could be more important than ever, but he won’t be able to help you if he doesn’t know what you need from him. We’ve brought them along on this journey to help us, Balin. Use them. And for the Valar’s sake, you idiot, use me! Otherwise what am I here for?’

‘Entertainment value?’ Balin suggested, then rocked sideways to avoid the punch Dwalin aimed at his arm. His thoughtful look told Dwalin he had been heard, however, and that Balin would be flicking the beads back and forth on his mental abacus while he contemplated what Dwalin had said.

That was enough for now.

That and the apology that Fíli and Kíli would get in the morning.

***

Come morning they moved on, aiming east towards the Iron Hills and putting the Lonely Mountain and all the memories it held for the dwarves to one side. They pushed hard that first day, well-rested after their long sleep, and it was clear that Thorin planned many more long days in their future. The terrain was not easy, but their greatest concern was behind them and now was the time to make up lost ground.

With their days so long, their evenings were short and quiet, even Bofur’s usual cheer and enthusiasm dampened by exertion. Thus, Bilbo was surprised when Thorin not only joined him for dinner on the third evening after their departure from Azog’s camp, but did so with the clear intention of engaging in conversation.

Until now, the King had eaten with his nephews between them, or with Balin and Dwalin, and had then retired immediately to his bedroll.

Bilbo had assumed his healing wounds left him tired and in need of all the rest he could get, and he was curious about the change in pattern.

Thorin did not leave him curious for long, which was certainly a point in the King’s favour.

‘Why kill Azog as you did?’

Of course, just because he asked the question, did not necessarily mean that Bilbo understood it!

‘I’m sorry?’ Bilbo asked in return. ‘Why stab him? It seemed efficient, I suppose. At least I could be sure a sword through the chest was going to kill him.’

Thorin looked at him oddly for a moment, then a smile twitched the edges of his mouth and he shook his head.

‘No, Bilbo,’ he said gently. ‘Why not just kill him yourself? You had the sword there, he was down within reach and you might have lost the advantage in that moment’s pause. Yet you did pause. I wondered why.’

It was such a serious question, and Thorin looked so serious asking it, that Bilbo knew he should give the serious answer. He would, of course, for he owed it to the dwarf who had accepted him into this Company and extended friendship to him.

Just for a moment, however, he could not resist trying to tease out a little of the mirth that he had seen in the minutes before Azog had awoken and ruined their escape attempt.

It had been so beautiful to watch.

‘Well,’ he said with a pretence of solemnity, ‘I cannot say I recall exactly what I was thinking, but I do believe it may have been something to the effect of, “Goodness me, that looks like an annoyingly dense chest. Perhaps I’ll get some dwarven muscle behind this blow, just to be on the safe side”.’

Thorin stared.

He bit his lip.

He tried valiantly to retain his composure.

And then he dropped his head onto Bilbo’s shoulder as his own shoulders began to shake with irrepressible mirth and the occasional rough chuckle escaped his tightly sealed lips.

Bilbo began to laugh as well, also making an effort to control his volume so that he would not wake those who had already turned in for the night, and for several minutes the two of them sat shaking together like a pair of madmen.

It was not that funny, really. Certainly it would not have been so funny to anyone but them. It was just that there had been a moment, when Azog awoke and Thorin was still bound, when they had looked at one another and truly contemplated the thought that they might die. They had shared that fear but had not, until this moment, really shared the relief that it had not come to pass. That instead they had won the day.

The laughter was one way of doing it.

Dori, who was on watch and had been doing a circuit of their camp to stretch his legs, walked past them and shook his head.

‘I don’t want to know,’ he told Bilbo, the gentle pat on Bilbo’s head belying his harsh words. The sound of another voice seemed to bring Thorin back to himself, reminding him that his subjects were nearby, and he quickly sat up and calmed himself once more.

‘Feel better?’ Bilbo asked, not wanting Thorin to retreat all the way back behind his majesty, and it seemed to work. Thorin smiled again, and nodded.

‘Yes, oddly,’ he granted. ‘Although I would still like the serious answer to my question, if you would not object, Bilbo.’

‘Dwarves,’ Bilbo pretended to grumble. ‘Forever taking all the fun out of things.’ Then he pushed the silliness aside, and focused on giving his friend – this dwarf who had perhaps become the most important person in his world in a way that Bilbo could not yet contemplate – the answer that he needed.

‘I could have killed him alone,’ Bilbo offered, agreeing with Thorin’s earlier statement, ‘but he was not mine to kill. The worst I had had from him was a few bruises and a sore throat. Balin had told me some of Azog’s history with your people, Thorin. His history with you. I felt, and still feel, that it was right his end come at the hands of a dwarf. More particularly, at your hands. I know that honour is important to your people, and that your honour is different from that of hobbits. I wished you to be able to return to your people, and to the other kingdoms of the dwarves, and to say that you had avenged your King’s death, and the deaths of all those who fell at Moria. I wanted you to know that he had paid for Frerin’s loss at your hands. Perhaps it is not as important as I think it to be. Perhaps I have misunderstood. But I knew we would only get one chance at it. I did not want to miss that chance.’

Thorin’s stare was disconcerting. Very much so. His eyes seemed to bore into Bilbo without any clue as to how he felt about what Bilbo had said, or what he had done.

Then his face softened, and he reached out and pulled Bilbo to him. It was something Bilbo had only seen him do with Fíli and Kíli so far, and it took him very much off guard. The forehead which came to rest against his in the dwarven form of affection was… odd, but not unwelcome.

‘Thank you,’ Thorin said, and the warmth in it flowed through Bilbo from the top of his head all the way to his toes. ‘You are not wrong, Bilbo. It means everything.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Passages

Journeying, Ori had discovered early on, was the sort of situation where you had to make your own entertainment.

The landscape of Middle Earth was truly breath-taking - to the point that Ori sometimes had to stop and just take in the views even though they were meant to be travelling as fast as they could - but when you were seeing such sights day in and day out, there came a point when your ability to be awed ran out and you needed something else to occupy your time.

Luckily, when you had thirteen companions there was generally no shortage of ways to amuse yourself. Ori had spent much of the first month or so of their journey watching the different members of the Company to try and work out all of their little quirks, which was by far the most interesting field of study he had ever undertaken.

Any number of hypotheses had been formed and tested as he tried to identify habits, likes, dislikes, superstitions and the other foibles that made people fascinating. Dwalin, for example, was always the last person (other than whoever was on watch) to fall asleep, which had been an extremely difficult theory to test without driving both of them to exhaustion until it had finally occurred to Ori that he should only test it when he himself was on watch.

He was not mentioning that experiment to Master Balin, just in case apprenticeships could be revoked on the grounds of foolishness. He really ought to have concluded a tad earlier that he would not be able to find out when Dwalin fell asleep if Dwalin was waiting for him to fall asleep.

Anyway, best not to think too hard about that. It still said interesting things about their Captain of the Guard, even if it had been a bit of a muddle getting there.

Just as it was interesting to realise how thoroughly Glóin managed Oín’s deafness so that his older brother did not miss parts of conversations and always knew when people were talking to him. Whenever they stopped for the evening, Glóin placed himself within arm’s reach of Óin – always on the side with his good ear - and if someone addressed a comment to the healer then Glóin would prod his brother in the side and gesture at the speaker. Óin barely reacted except to turn immediately to look at whoever was speaking, and Ori had quickly concluded that Óin could lip-read, because as soon as he was looking at the person he joined the conversation perfectly.

People were intriguing, and Ori’s favourite part of the journey so far was the opportunity to join this particular group of people and learn so much about them.

He was determined that his chronicle, when he finally finished it, would be no ordinary chronicle. It would bring this journey to life in a way that normal records did not. Those reading in a hundred years’ time would be able to feel as if they, too, had travelled with these brave dwarves to the Iron Hills, had faced these dangers and slain these foes.

Ori might leave out the part where the chronicler had been endlessly harassed by the youngest members of the royal family, though.

There was such a thing as too much realism.

Ori,’ Kíli moaned unhappily, ‘it broke again!’

‘It would not keep breaking if you tried using it properly,’ Ori muttered, distracted from his writing yet again by the grumbling.

‘Not the first time he’s heard that complaint,’ Fíli commented pithily. The words made no sense, Ori was sure, but Kíli still dropped his writing implements on the ground and hurled himself at his brother to take his revenge.

‘KÍLI!’ several voices snapped all at once. Aside from his own voice, Ori identified Dori, Bilbo and Thorin in the chorus, though it surprised him to realise that he was actually the loudest and most irritable-sounding this time, and that he was the one who got the sheepish smile of apology from the dark-haired Prince.

‘Sit,’ Ori ordered, pointing back at the spot that Kíli had been in a moment ago, ‘and pick those up. These things are expensive, I didn’t give them to you so that you could abandon them on the floor where they could get damaged every time you felt like it.’

No, Ori thought, he’d given Kíli his bound parchment, along with the spare quill and ink he’d managed to negotiate from the Mirkwood elves because – miracle of all miracles – the idea of an ‘alternative chronicle’ had caught Kíli’s attention in Rivendell and had given Ori a modicum of peace ever since.

Fíli and Kíli had both been oddly fascinated by Ori’s attempts to record the journey once they’d realised what he was doing, somewhere between the Shire and Rivendell. Ori had no idea why, because goodness knew that their dislike of study and anything that resembled it was something Master Balin referred to with exasperation quite frequently. Still, they had been interested and they had become persistent, and often interfering, shadows at his shoulder when they weren’t preoccupied with Bilbo.

Ori’s idea had been something of a throwaway comment at the time, but the flash of interest in Kíli’s eyes had brought it to life.

‘Why don’t you try writing your own chronicle if you’re so interested?’ Ori had asked. ‘It doesn’t have to be like mine. It can be the sort you’d like to read, about what being on a journey is really like.’

Of course, he could have got himself into a lot of trouble if Master Balin was less easy-going; parchment was not cheap and one didn’t normally waste it on things like this, which were purely for one’s own entertainment. Still, these were the Princes, and Ori did have a small spare notebook that Master Balin had given him for practice. He’d given that up, Master Balin had asked the Rivendell elves politely for a little more ink than they’d usually have needed, and Kíli had been away.

It would be easier if Kíli would take care of his writing implements and stop breaking the quill nib every other day, but Ori told himself it was good practice for the time when he would have apprentices of his own and tried to be patient.

Besides, the Chronicle of Kíli (as they’d taken to calling it) really was quite entertaining.

He’d started with the day they met Bilbo, and he had not worried about being respectful or aware of the judgement of history at all. He had written, instead, with all the benefit he was afforded by hindsight and his tongue firmly in his cheek. The passage read:

On this day we arrived in the Shire to meet the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who was meant to provide us with shelter and assistance while we negotiated with the other hobbits. Pity no one remembered to tell him that. It was even more of a pity that Dwalin happened along to meet him first.

First thing we should have realised: don’t send Dwalin as your main diplomatic envoy.

Bilbo didn’t appreciate the visit. He certainly didn’t appreciate Dwalin walking in as if he had every right to be there, and he used his sword to shove Dwalin back out the door and left us all sitting on the front step.

Then Uncle Thorin arrived and tried to talk to Bilbo, and we ended up camped in someone’s field, squashing their potato crop. I was beginning to wonder at this point if ‘dwarves’ and ‘diplomacy’ were actually antonyms and Balin had been lying to me all my life.

It could all have turned into a political incident and a feud between our nations for a thousand years, but luckily Bilbo found the letter from his Thain, realised we were meant to be there after all, and came to save us from the vegetables. The beds at Bag End are much comfier so I, for one, appreciated that a lot.

Main lessons for Day 1:

  • Hobbits are a lot scarier and grumpier than their small size suggests.
  • Always check the umbrella stand for weapons.

Ori wondered if, in years to come, the literary world would thank him for encouraging Kíli in this endeavour, or if he was going to have scholars across Middle Earth baying for his blood.

Sometimes he honestly wasn’t sure.

***

The Iron Hills did not have the majesty of Erebor’s lonely peak, set as it was so far away from anything that could have competed with it. Something about the volume of summits all clustered together made them seem less imposing, or at least less remarkable.

So Thorin’s family had long claimed, anyway.

Thorin was happy enough to do without imposing and remarkable now. He wanted none of Erebor’s majesty and grandeur these days. The strength and stability of the Iron Hills were far more important to him.

Erebor was a very rich husk with no life inside it except a dragon with the same overweening pride as his grandfather.

Dáin could feed and house all of his people.

Thorin knew which one he preferred.

They were less than a day from Dáin’s kingdom now, with the River Redwater clearly in sight. It’s slightly reddish cast had drawn gasps of surprise from many of their party, and Thorin had allowed them a few minutes to stand and gawk. It was, he could admit, the sort of thing that would take anyone’s breath the first time.

Those who did not know the real cause of the phenomenon, of course.

‘It’s not…?’ Thorin heard Ori ask, his voice wavering between curiosity and tremulousness. ‘It’s not actually…?’

Dwalin’s laugh rumbled all around them.

‘Mahal no, lad,’ he answered, still chuckling. ‘The river’s not running with blood. Not unless Dáin’s started daily massacres since someone last came this way. It’s the iron from the hills, that’s all. Turns the river a slightly funny colour when it gets in the water.’

Ori started to flush much the same colour as said water and Bilbo, ever bold, stepped into the breach.

‘Hobbits having not the slightest idea about mining, Ori,’ he told the young dwarf, ‘I thought almost exactly the same thing you did. I’m very relieved to be mistaken. Otherwise you could all have gone to the Iron Hills and visited Lord Dáin on your own, and I would have waited here for you quite patiently for… oh, at least a week. Then I would have gone back to Prince Legolas and asked nicely if he would mind helping me get back to Rivendell. I would have been terribly upset that your cousin had turned into a bloodthirsty tyrant, of course, and would have mourned all of you for the rest of my life.’

The Company stared at Bilbo, whose innocent expression was truly a thing of wonder, for a good minute before they all followed Dwalin’s example and burst out laughing. Even Thorin could not help himself.

Mostly because he was almost certain that the presence of Fíli and Kíli meant that what Bilbo would actually do was storm the gates, take on Dáin and all of his Guard, save the Company and free the Iron Hills from a tyrant. Single-handedly.

Good grief, he was getting as bad as Kíli.

Bilbo would not have to do any of that, because it was IRON in the water, not blood!

Dáin was not a bloodthirsty tyrant and Mahal help Thorin if one of them blurted out this joke while they were visiting.

Time to get moving again.

‘Stop cackling, all of you,’ Thorin scolded them. ‘Bilbo, stop encouraging them! Some of this Company are twitchy enough as it is.’

‘Some people,’ said Dwalin, who Thorin may or may not have eyed unfavourably at the end of his sentence, ‘would be less twitchy if you got yourself kidnapped a little less often.’

‘Once,’ Thorin pointed out. ‘I got kidnapped once.’

‘Exactly,’ Dwalin replied tartly. ‘Try for less often.’

Thorin wasn’t answering that, he decided. It would only end badly.

***

Unlike the elves, dwarves did not believe in making their main entrances subtle.

There was never any doubt that one had arrived at the front gate of a kingdom of dwarven-kind. Their doors were always large, and usually showy.

They had something of a penchant for carving giant stone statues of themselves on either side of those doors, which was also a bit of a giveaway.

Although, in fairness to his people, Thorin had heard the tales of the Argonath in Gondor. The dwarves were not the only ones who could be accused of that particular form of arrogance.

Still, the important point was that any visitor arriving at the Iron Hills knew exactly where to go; unlike a visitor to ridiculously well-hidden Rivendell. Rather than wandering around for several hours becoming increasingly frustrated, they simply walked up to the front entrance, presented themselves to the gate-guards and requested an audience with Lord Dáin.

One of the guards opened his mouth and began to explain that audiences were held every other day from the end of breakfast until dinnertime… then stuttered, stopped, and looked very hard at Thorin.

Thorin looked very hard back.

Fíli began to laugh, tried to swallow it and ended up choking instead. Óin started slapping him hard on the back and had to be waved off by Nori, who began to explain that there was nothing blocking Fíli’s airway except his own idiocy.

Thorin resisted the strong temptation to roll his eyes.

A little decorum. Just a little.

That was all he asked for.

Bilbo, apparently reading minds again, patted his forearm gently in sympathy.

The interlude had, at least, given the guard time to regain his composure. When he spoke to regain Thorin’s attention, he neither stuttered nor stumbled.

‘Might I ask your name, my lord?’ the guard queried.

The lad knew his name, Thorin was sure, or at the very least had a strong suspicion. He hadn’t suddenly added the title because it amused him to do so. Thorin could play this game for him, though. It would do him no harm.

‘Thorin Oakenshield,’ he said evenly, ‘son of Thráin, son of Thrór.’ He allowed a second or two for that to sink in, and noticed a few others who had been lounging around nearby straighten jerkily, as if they’d been yanked upright by invisible hands. ‘I really would appreciate an audience with my cousin, lad.’

The guard snapped to attention in an instant, prepared as he’d been for the need to do so.

‘Of course, Your Majesty,’ he replied with a deep bow. ‘If you will follow me? Your, uh…’

He paused again as he attempted to find a word for the, admittedly ragtag, bunch that Thorin had accompanying him. They were all looking slightly the worse for wear after a few months of travel and more than one battle.

‘My Company will join us,’ Thorin informed him graciously. ‘I’m sure Dáin’s Steward will be able to assist us with rooms once I have spoken to Dáin.’

‘Yes,’ the guard agreed, seeming relieved to have the decision out of his hands. Thorin could just imagine the conversation with his superior in which the dwarf informed him that “the King insisted, Sir! There was nothing I could do.” Thorin was willing enough to let him have the excuse.

They travelled through the Entrance Hall swiftly. It was far less cavernous than that of Erebor, though far more sizeable than any indoor living area that the colony at Ered Luin could boast. Thorin had moved most of the homes and businesses of Ered Luin outdoors, explaining to his people as gently as he could that they needed to make use of all the available resources.

No doubt that was another of the measures that had made him so endlessly popular.

As they crossed the space, it became clear that rumours of their arrival were flying ahead of them in the way that only gossip could, for heads turned and whispers flurried behind hands all along the way. Thorin, trained from childhood for such things, kept his gaze ahead and ignored them. He could not see how others of the Company dealt with the situation, but the giggles that rang out from a group of dwarves just behind him and to his right suggested that at least one of the Company (Bofur; it would be Bofur, he knew it) had chosen to meet the curiosity head on.

He had probably winked, like the shameless hussy he was.

The thought of shamelessness made another image jump into Thorin’s mind and he immediately swung his right hand back and used it to snap a command in Iglishmêk. Instantly Dwalin was at his side.

‘Stay close to Nori,’ Thorin murmured under his breath, so that the guard would not hear, ‘and for the sake of Mahal and all that is holy, do not let him steal anything. If the aid we ask for gets negotiated down because I have to bargain to keep his head, then he will regret it for the rest of his days.’

Dwalin didn’t even bother to speak, only nodded and slipped away again.

Thorin could only hope he did not choose to keep Nori under control by murdering him. Balin had promised that Dwalin would not attempt such a thing, and Thorin would have to trust his old friend to be right about his brother’s actions in this case.

There were only so many things that Thorin could think about at once, and Nori was simply one too many.

From the Entrance Hall to the Lord’s Chamber, where Dáin conducted business, was only a short walk. The guard signalled to those on the door as he approached and they now stood at attention, one slipping inside to alert someone to the new arrivals. Thorin, conscious that he was here to ask a favour after all, slowed his pace to give them a little more time.

That also allowed Fíli and Kíli to draw even with him, one on either side, which was no bad thing. They had never met Dáin, and it was only proper that they should be with Thorin now so that he could perform introductions. Balin would keep the others back while Thorin took care of family business.

The messenger reappeared from inside the chamber seconds before Thorin stopped before the doors, smiling with relief when he realised he’d made it in time. He turned smartly on his heel, preceded Thorin into the room with a straight back and announced grandly – as if all present weren’t perfectly aware of what was happening – ‘Thorin Oakenshield, King of Erebor, my Lord.’

Thorin almost expected him to add a bow with a flourish.

Dáin was… well, just as Thorin remembered Dáin being.

He rose from his chair up on the dais (which wasn’t a throne but might as well have been), strode down the short flight of steps and embraced Thorin in a bear hug that made his ribs cry out in protest, particularly the sore ones Azog had recently abused.

Thorin, following their long tradition, thumped him in the spot where one of the Iron Hills’ war goats had once gored Dáin for doing something stupid and showy during a sparring match, a spot which had a tendency to ache on bad days.

Posturing complete, they released one another.

‘Thorin!’ Dáin exclaimed happily. ‘Now this is a happy surprise. What brings you all this way? And who’s this you’ve brought with you?’

‘Dáin,’ Thorin responded, with slightly less enthusiasm. It was not that he was any less pleased to see his cousin, only that he could never quite match Dáin’s volume or his verve. ‘I have more cousins for you to meet. Let me introduce you to Dís’ sons; Fíli, her eldest, and Kíli, her youngest. My heirs, of course.’

‘Of course. Wonderful to meet you, lads,’ Dáin greeted each of them with their own crushing hug, leaving the boys looking slightly startled but otherwise unharmed. Thorin didn’t think they really had any right to be startled. Not only had they seen him be manhandled only moments before, but Thorin and Dwalin had been telling them tales of Dáin for years.

‘The rest of my Company,’ Thorin added, ‘you will no doubt meet in time, though some you already know.’

‘Dwalin, you bastard, you still owe me an ale!’ Dáin shouted down the chamber. Dwalin gave him a rude gesture in return, which proved quickly enough that nothing had changed there.

‘Now,’ Dáin said easily, ‘you didn’t come all this way to introduce me to your sister-sons, Thorin, no matter how well they reflect on you and Dís. Why don’t you tell me what I owe the honour to?’

‘I have come to ask for your assistance,’ Thorin replied, keeping his voice a little lower than it had been. He wasn’t sure who was in the chamber and he didn’t particularly want to spread this far and wide just yet. ‘Ered Luin is in trouble, Dáin, and I need your help.’

Almost in an instant, the easy, convivial, jovial manner was gone. Not entirely, but it had certainly dropped from a boil down to a very low simmer. Dáin was no longer loose-limbed, and he put distance between them, retreating back up the steps to seat himself once again.

Thorin felt a rock settle at the pit of his stomach.

‘Aye,’ Dáin said, now feigning the cheer which had been so natural moments before, ‘you’ll take this evening to rest of course. We’ll get you rooms and make sure you get dinner served there. You’ll have had a bugger of a journey, no doubt. That’ll give the kitchens time to prepare a great feast in honour of your visit for tomorrow night! Got to introduce my people to the Crown Prince of Erebor, after all. Business can wait until after that.’

That, Thorin noted abruptly, was the second time Dáin or one of his people had referred to Erebor; as if Ered Luin did not exist, and the Line of Durin still held sway over a kingdom long out of their hands.

It was also blindingly obvious that Dáin was putting off a conversation between the two of them for as long as possible.

Even as he agreed with the plan - which was all he could politely do - and followed his guide to the rooms that Dáin had spoken of, Thorin turned one question over and over in his mind.

What in Middle Earth was Dáin so afraid to discuss with him?

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty: Strong-arm

‘I thought the mental instability was meant to run in our side of the line,’ Kíli announced, when they were finally alone in the large parlour that had been assigned for their use.

In the silence that followed, one could have heard a pin drop. Particularly if, like Balin, one was accustomed to listening closely for the sound of potential disaster in every moment of quiet.

Then, to a dwarf (and hobbit) they all turned to look at Fíli in disbelief.

‘What?’ Thorin’s heir protested loudly. ‘I don't know why you’re all looking at me! You,’ and here he pointed at Balin, Dwalin and Thorin in turn, ‘had the raising of him. Why is it always my fault when he says something like that?’

‘You’re the eldest,’ Dwalin told him sagely.

Fíli scoffed.

‘Balin’s the eldest,’ he muttered, in a voice that was as close to outright mimicry of Dwalin’s tone as he would ever dare come when he was in arm’s reach of Balin’s brother. ‘I don’t see Uncle punishing him when you cock up the guard rotation.’

‘Course you don’t,’ Dwalin shot back. ‘I never “cock up” the guard rotation, you insolent pup!’

‘Actually…’ Nori started to say. The look that Dwalin gave him was so flat that the auburn-haired dwarf’s mouth actually audibly snapped shut and he took a step behind Dori. Dori, after a moment of shock at this unaccustomed bid for protection, drew himself up and shot a Dwalin-worthy look of menace right back. This seemed to shock Dwalin out of whatever mood had come over him and he shook himself slightly, then turned away from the pair of them and back to Fíli.

‘Anyway,’ Kíli said, a little more loudly than was really necessary, probably in an attempt to cover the awkward moment, ‘is Cousin Dáin always that odd or was that performance for our benefit?’

Curious to see what Fíli and Kíli, who were still relatively inexperienced in the realm of diplomacy, had made of Dáin’s welcome, Balin held up his hand before Dwalin could answer them.

‘What made you think it was odd, Kíli?’ he asked interestedly. Kíli’s expression suggested that Balin had taken leave of his senses but, as one who had tutored the boys since they were very young, Balin was more than used to that and paid it little mind. Instead, he gestured for them all to take seats.

It did not escape his notice that Nori chose a seat in the farthest back corner, or that Dori and Ori went with him, but he would have that conversation with Dwalin later. Dwalin was not the only one who could dish out scoldings when they were suitably deserved.

That little performance had been completely unnecessary.

‘It’s not exactly complicated,’ Kíli exclaimed, once he’d decided which of the potential seats was comfiest, had a brief battle with Fíli over the claiming of it, lost, and seated himself on the rug at Thorin’s feet instead. ‘He was happy as anything to see us when we first arrived. Especially Uncle. You could tell he was really pleased that Uncle had come to visit, and he was content enough to meet us. No sign he was bitter, the way he might have been if he was really hoping to be Uncle’s heir. After all, Uncle’s not married. If Fíli and I didn’t exist, Dáin would be next in line.’

‘He’d have to be a bit of a fool to want it, though, wouldn’t he?’ Fíli interjected. ‘Who wants to inherit a dragon, a poor kingdom and a mediocre mine?’

Bofur and Bifur coughed, loudly and simultaneously. Fíli, much to Balin’s amusement, immediately flushed a fiery red that showed clearly against his pale hair and beard.

‘Sorry!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s a very well-managed mine, Bofur, Bifur, it’s just… well, it’s no Iron Hills, is it?’

‘No, lad,’ Bofur agreed, smiling his forgiveness. ‘That it isn’t. If it was, we wouldn’t be here.’

‘Would that I could give you a better inheritance, Fíli,’ Thorin said, so quietly that Balin almost missed it. It was possible that Nori and his companions, at the back of the room, did not hear it at all.

This time Fíli did not flush. Instead his colour drained to a pallor that reminded Balin a little too forcibly of those long days in Mirkwood.

‘No, I didn’t mean…!’ he objected. ‘I meant…. Oh, I’m just going to stop talking now. Kíli!’ He turned slightly desperate eyes on his younger brother, who immediately dropped his head back to rest against Thorin’s knee and tilted it so that he looked upward to meet Thorin’s eyes. It was an unwieldy position, most likely uncomfortable, and utterly adorable. Thorin’s mouth quirked up at the corner almost immediately, and Kíli grinned for an instant before becoming solemn.

‘Ered Luin is our inheritance,’ he informed Thorin firmly, ‘and we would not change it because it’s the… the heirloom of our line. It’s our kingdom and our people, and we love both. If anyone thinks they can take it from us then they can go hang. They’d soon find themselves with my arrow in their eye and Fíli’s dagger at their throat. Fíli just meant that, if they already had something like the Iron Hills, then they probably…’

‘Wouldn’t think to try and take what we have left to us away,’ Thorin concluded for him. ‘I have thought something not dissimilar myself before now.’ He rubbed Kíli’s neck gently when his nephew straightened, then met Fíli’s anxious eyes and smiled.

‘No harm done, Fíli,’ he promised. ‘Don’t look so worried. If you can forgive me for accidentally kicking you then I do not think this will be the end of us.’

That made Fíli laugh, and the look of anxiety Thorin had mentioned drifted away. Balin often wondered how many years it would take for Fíli to truly settle into his role, without always worrying that some mistake would be the one that made Thorin declare him unfit to be his heir.

Only time would tell.

And speaking of time, they still had not achieved Balin’s original object.

‘So, Kíli, Dáin was happy to see us. There is nothing odd in that. What makes you think him mad?’ Balin pushed.

‘How quickly he changed, of course,’ Kíli responded without hesitation. ‘As soon as Uncle mentioned that we needed help, Dáin could not get us out of that room fast enough. Anyone would have thought we had the plague. He even retreated from us, back to that throne of his, as if he might catch something from touching us. He didn’t even know what we wanted yet! We might have come to ask to borrow… oh, I don’t know, a winch or some blasting powder! It was a bit of an overreaction!’

‘In fairness, Kíli,’ Thorin murmured with a fond smile, ‘I probably would not have made the journey for a winch or some blasting powder.’

‘You know what I mean,’ Kíli replied airily, waving a hand and nearly clouting Thorin in the face. Thorin caught the stray hand and returned it firmly to Kíli’s lap, giving him a stern look which had Fíli giggling.

Sometimes it was just like they were ten years old again, Balin mused. He ought to remember that more often. It would avoid more awkward apologies like the one he had had to give some days before; although the crushing two-sided hug that had ended in had not been all that bad.

‘Either way,’ Balin concluded, once Kíli’s limbs were no longer a danger to the world, ‘it was definitely not just us imagining things, Thorin. We have made Dáin nervous.’

‘Clearly,’ Thorin agreed. ‘The question is, what do we do about it?’

‘Well,’ a higher voice piped up, and Balin turned to see that Bilbo – who up to now had been content to stay out of the way and let them natter amongst themselves – had moved forward to sit on the arm of Fíli’s chair, ‘I can tell you what you do not do.’ They looked at him curiously, and he favoured them with a mock-stern glare in return. ‘What you do not do,’ he continued, ‘is jump to conclusions about what your host must or must not be thinking, without waiting to find out his side of the story first!’

Balin, Thorin and Dwalin all shared wry glances, before turning and offering Bilbo the best bows that they could whilst seated.

‘Point taken, Bilbo,’ Thorin assured him.

At that moment, they were interrupted by a knock on the door, and a neatly-attired young dwarf entered at Thorin’s call to inform them that dinner had been laid out in the nearby dining room, if His Majesty and his Company were hungry.

His Majesty and his Company most certainly were, so they relocated themselves and paused the conversation for the best part of an hour as they gorged themselves on better fare than they had enjoyed since they left Rivendell.

Balin was certain that Thranduil had some wonderful cooks in his realm but, alas, they did not service the dungeons.

Once they were all full to bursting, and Bofur was contemplating aloud whether it was physically possible to roll one’s brother down a corridor without risking him throwing up everything he’d just eaten, they returned to the parlour and took up their original theme again.

‘Bilbo is right, we should not jump to conclusions,’ Balin told them. ‘In truth, so far Dáin has been a most gracious host. Still, I would like to know a little more about how things stand here before we meet with him. Even if it is only for my own peace of mind. It has been many years since any of our people set foot in the Iron Hills, and I would like to get the lie of the land. Which means that I am going to need all of you to be my eyes and ears.’

Dwalin’s grim expression broke into a brief grin, though he quickly wiped it from his face before anyone could see, and he gave Balin an approving nod.

Whether he would approve of Balin’s first order of business, Balin did not know, but he would just have to put up with it. Balin was not actually obliged to get his brother’s approval for everything he did, thankfully. Otherwise their kingdom would come to a standstill.

‘Nori,’ he said clearly, and the thief’s eyes snapped straight to him, ‘how are you with secrets?’ Nori gave him a wary look which said he wasn’t certain he wished to answer that question. Or, at the very least, that he wasn’t sure what answer Balin wished to hear and therefore which one Nori should give him. ‘Sniffing them out,’ Balin clarified.

No longer uncertain, Nori’s smile became razor sharp.

‘That I can do,’ he assured Balin easily. He eyed the richer members of the party unnervingly for a moment, then added, ‘A word of advice, my lords, in case you ever have them again. Your servants know everything. The only question is whether they like you enough to keep it to themselves. Let’s see if the servants here like Lord Dáin enough to keep his secrets for him.’

‘Don’t get caught,’ Thorin told him unyieldingly. ‘We cannot afford to have you in trouble for doing something illegal.’

Nori’s smile dimmed immediately, though his tone remained airy.

‘Get caught doing what?’ he asked, allowing only the slightest hint of acidity to slip through. ‘Talking? Being friendly? Perhaps flirting a little? Lord Dáin is a friendly dwarf. Surely those things aren’t going to be illegal here.’

Dwalin had growled partway through that little speech and Nori gave the smallest of flinches in response. Balin, who had always believed utterly in his brother’s honour up to that point, began to contemplate the possibility that Nori was now truly frightened of him. He looked to Dori in concern and saw a similarly worried look on the other dwarf’s face.

They were going to have to do something about this.

Soon.

For now, however, they had a strategy to prepare.

‘Nori, take Ori with you,’ Balin said evenly, allowing no hint of his uneasiness through. ‘If anyone starts to become suspicious, we can probably rely on Ori’s innocence to throw them off track.’

‘Off what track?’ Ori asked, giving a wide-eyed, guileless look that was too perfect to be real. A number of the dwarves laughed. Nori and Bofur applauded.

‘Yes, exactly,’ Balin agreed. ‘You’ll do just fine, laddie, but don’t even think about ever trying that one on me.’

Ori blushed and stammered something about not daring, and Balin winked at him. At some point he’d have to talk to Dwalin about that, too. He was thinking more and more, as the months passed, about making young Ori their heir and he needed to get Dwalin’s opinion of the idea.

‘Bofur, Bombur, your job is to spread out among the common folk and see that the rumours spreading about us are ones I’d approve of,’ Balin ordered, changing tack now Nori was dealt with. ‘There are going to be rumours, that’s inevitable, but I don’t want Dáin and his councillors to be the only source of information if they might, possibly,’ he emphasised, catching Bilbo’s eye, ‘be unfriendly.’

‘You,’ Bilbo told him dryly, ‘are hopelessly suspicious.’

‘I,’ Balin retorted immediately, ‘am a lifelong servant of the Royal House. Of course I am.’

‘Thank you, Balin,’ Thorin muttered, ‘for that rousing endorsement.’

‘What’s our story?’ Bofur asked, either uninterested in this conversation or deciding it was going nowhere good.

Despite their exchange a moment ago, Balin looked to Thorin then. Thorin deferred to his judgement in many things, but he was still the King and this was not Balin’s decision to make.

‘Tell them that there has been a terrible mine collapse in Ered Luin and that we have come to ask the advice of my cousin’s experts, who can aid us with such a difficult problem,’ Thorin replied at length. When Bofur gave him a very sceptical glance, Thorin shook his head. ‘Translate it into your own language first, of course, Bofur, but that is the general gist. There is nothing exceptionable in it, and it will be interesting to see how long it take for the news to get back to Dáin, and what his reaction is when it does.’

Bofur pressed a fist to his heart in salute, and the rest of the Company turned to Balin for their orders.

They were to be disappointed.

‘For now, the rest of you are to stay with us,’ he informed them. ‘If Dáin truly is nervous, he will only get more so if we seem to be wandering the length and breadth of his kingdom at random, when he is trying to contain us. A few amongst thirteen may not be noticed. The whole lot going missing certainly will be. I’m sure you can find some way to entertain yourselves.’

‘I, for one, mean to start in bed,’ Bilbo announced, rising to his feet. None of the others moved; perhaps, like Balin, trying to control their mirth over Bilbo’s unintentional innuendo. It took Bilbo some seconds to realise that he was the only one moving, then a few more moments to realise why. Then he followed Fíli’s earlier example by blushing the colour of a ripe Shire tomato.

He shot a look at Thorin which he aborted just as quickly, refused to meet the eyes of anyone else, proclaimed ‘Oh, damn you all!’ at some volume, and then stomped out of the room to gales of laughter in his wake.

***

‘What did you do to Nori?’ Balin demanded, before Dwalin had even left his room the next morning.

Dwalin had not, in fact, long been out of bed. He was still somewhat bleary-eyed as he stumbled out of the privy, the water he had splashed on his face not having entirely revived him, and he was only subconsciously aware of his brother’s presence in the room.

His subconscious mind had not chosen to inform his conscious mind, and so Balin was forced to swiftly duck the axe which came whipping towards his head a moment after he spoke.

Luckily, he was not unused to such treatment and used a neat manoeuvre to disarm Dwalin before anything important could get broken, like the particularly beautiful example of dwarven pottery displayed on an end table a few feet away.

‘Good morning to you, too, Brother,’ he commented calmly, losing the testiness he had been displaying a moment before. He would pull it out again the moment he felt it was appropriate, but really he ought to have remembered how useless Dwalin could be first thing in the morning when he did not consider himself to be on watch.

He was not on watch here because, however oddly Dáin might be acting, they did not for an instant consider themselves to be under physical threat from one of their own family.

Dwalin looked at him blankly for a second, then groaned like one in great agony, turned away and headed back into the privy. A moment later, Balin heard him dunk his head in the basin of water that had been left for him.

Ah well, at least he would be awake when he returned.

He was.

‘What are you doing here so blasted early?’ Dwalin grumbled. ‘Can’t a dwarf even have breakfast before he’s plagued by lectures now?’

‘Which suggests that you have, in fact, done something for which you deserve to be lectured,’ Balin concluded. ‘Wonderful. We make progress already! Would you like to make the entire situation painless and simply tell me what it was?’

Dwalin’s blank look returned.

Balin sighed.

He might have known it would not be that easy.

‘I would like to remind you that, when the boot was on the other foot not so very long ago, I was not anywhere near this recalcitrant about the whole affair,’ he pointed out.

‘Must you always speak as if you’ve swallowed a fucking chronicle, Balin?’ Dwalin growled. ‘It’s bloody painful, especially at this hour of the morning.’

‘You’re being an arse, Dwalin,’ Balin replied, deliberately using small words. ‘You’re being an arse on purpose, because you know you’ve done something wrong and you don’t want me to know what it is. Stop being an arse and tell me, or I’ll go and ask Nori instead.’

That worked.

Instead of continuing around the room, dressing for the day and generally pretending that Balin was not even there, Dwalin spun around and glared at him so forbiddingly that Balin remembered, momentarily, that his brother was one of the most dangerous dwarves Thorin had at his disposal.

Mahal, he hoped he wasn’t right about what had happened with Nori.

What did you do, Dwalin?’ he enunciated as clearly as could.

‘Thorin told me to make sure Nori didn’t steal anything while we were here,’ Dwalin answered elliptically.

‘And?’ Balin pressed.

‘I spoke to the thief,’ Dwalin said shortly. ‘We argued.’

‘Of course you did,’ Balin muttered.

‘I lost my temper,’ Dwalin added, voice so low that Balin could hardly hear him, and now Balin knew they had come to the crux of the matter. Dwalin rarely looked truly ashamed of himself, but he did now.

Balin said nothing. Experience told him that Dwalin would need no more pressing at this point.

‘He pushed,’ Dwalin said, then shook his head in disgust. ‘Of course he did, he always pushes, but that’s no excuse. I know better. He’s tiny compared to me. I grabbed him, tight, as I’d never have allowed myself to do in Ered Luin when I was on Guard business, then shoved him against the wall…,’ he sighed, ‘and he backed down. He never backs down, but he did then. He was scared. He’s been scared ever since. He really thought I was going to hurt him, even after I let him go.’

‘An impression likely not assisted by your growling, glaring and snapping at him every time he draws your attention,’ Balin pointed out sharply. ‘Did it never occur to you, Dwalin, that when he began to tease you yesterday, he had got up his courage to try and return things to normal? If you had treated him as usual, perhaps he would have been able to write it off as a mistake and would not have felt the need to hide behind his brother!’

By the end of this sentence, Balin’s voice had risen to a volume and pitch that he had not visited in a great many years and Dwalin had dropped down to sit on the bed, slumped over so that his shoulders almost rested on his knees.

‘I know,’ he snarled back at Balin in great frustration, raising his hands to scrub at his face.

‘Then what in the name of Mahal did you think you were DOING?’ Balin roared, driven to uncharacteristic anger by his brother’s stupidity and by the idea of Nori’s understandable fright. Dwalin had always been bigger than everyone else his age, and most of those older than him as well, but he had not always had his (usually) excellent control over his temper.

Balin could remember an incident from their adolescence when Dwalin, driven to anger over some youthful slight, had brought all that intimidating height and muscle to bear against his older brother.

It was easy to say that one should not fear those one loved, but not so easy to remember it when they were truly angry. Balin had never been so glad to hear his father’s voice in his life, for all he had known, deep down, that Dwalin would not truly hurt him.

Nori was not a blood-relation to Dwalin.

What reassurance of his own safety had he had?

‘He should not have to pretend that everything is fine,’ Dwalin shouted back, though he did not move from the bed and Balin, years and years from that incident in their youth, had not the slightest cause to fear. ‘It is not up to Nori to sweep the issue under the rug and pretend that he was not frightened and that there might not be bruises on his arms. We both know where that can lead. I’ve seen it.’

Balin lost his breath for a moment.

It was not that he had not suspected, but for Dwalin to speak such a thing out loud…

He needed to be sure, just in case he had misunderstood.

‘Is there a chance that Nori might become a spouse, Dwalin? Battered or otherwise?’ he asked carefully.

Dwalin laughed so bitterly even a lemon would have been hard-pressed to compete.

‘It’s probably not likely now,’ he replied, ‘but if I had a better hold on my cursed temper… there’s a reason he drives me mad, Balin, and it’s not because I could never damn well catch him. Took me long enough to work it out, but there it is.’

‘You idiot,’ Balin breathed quietly. ‘I might have told you that months ago.’

‘Of course you could,’ Dwalin answered, ‘but what would have been the point? I wouldn’t have believed you.’

No. No, he wouldn’t, and that was why Balin had never said anything even as they’d done the adult equivalent of pushing each other into mud puddles and pulling at each other’s braids.

Balin refused to think all was lost.

Nori, for all his not-inconsiderable pride, had done his equal share of the braid-pulling. He had also offered an olive branch yesterday evening. Life would be easier if Dwalin hadn’t figuratively snapped it in half, but Balin had been Dwalin’s brother for a very long time.

He was not used to easy.

I,’ he announced after a minute or two of quiet reflection, ‘am going to convince Nori to listen to an apology. You, you great lug, are going to spend the rest of this day forming one that will actually sound like an apology. I would ask for charming, but I am not a great believer in miracles.’

Dwalin gestured rudely in his direction and Balin allowed it. That insult had been unnecessary. Dwalin did not have any great experience of being in love, and Mahal knew Nori had probably not made it easy on him. It was no great surprise, in truth, that he had managed to – using Fíli’s own charming expression – cock it up.

‘We will sort it out, Dwalin,’ he promised. ‘That is what I’m here for.’

He rested his hand on Dwalin’s shoulder before he took his leave, and Dwalin rested his own atop it briefly.

Dwalin would never be the sort of brother to make Balin a long speech of thanks, but the gratitude was in his eyes nevertheless.

That was enough for Balin.

***

In the end, Nori was less difficult to convince than Balin had expected.

They gathered in the parlour mid-afternoon, before they had to prepare for the great feast that Dáin had promised them that evening. Thorin had seen nothing of their host that day and nor had Balin, but they had had a message from him to say that the preparations had all been made.

They had no clothes worthy of a celebratory feast at this point – and there was no time to have such made - but the best that they had left had been taken and laundered and would be worn tonight.

They could do no more.

This gathering was to share what intelligence the Company had been able to collect during the day, before they were on display once more. Balin intended to catch Nori at the end of it, and divert him in Dwalin’s direction while the others prepared themselves.

Thorin, knowing they were on a tight schedule, was brief and to the point.

‘Anything?’ he asked Nori quickly.

‘Dáin’s liked well enough,’ Nori said plainly. ‘Treats the servants well, for all he’s volatile. Never a danger to them, even though he’s famous for his temper. Saves the worst of that for sparring, where the soldiers can take it, which is as it ought to be.’

Balin spared a moment of pity for Dwalin. He did not think for a moment that Nori’s comments were pointed, he was simply answering Thorin’s question, but he could see Dwalin’s face going blank from here and that meant he was flaying himself inside.

‘It’s not the Lord that’s taken in dislike here,’ Nori continued, unknowing. ‘It’s some of the others in power. You get that everywhere, of course. You’re not going to find universal adoration anywhere. Still, it’s interesting to hear that the servants dread being summoned by some of Lord Dáin’s Council for various reasons. One’s a lecher, and the Steward won’t send the female servants next or nigh him anymore. He’s actually given the girls permission to break the twat’s wrists if he tries anything again; I like that dwarf. Another’s a drunk. But it’s the Guilds that interest me the most. That’s where the power is, and apparently it’s growing all the time. The nobility’s on the wane here, Thorin. Dáin might not know it yet, but his people do.’

There was a pause, as Balin and Thorin looked at each other and tried to make that puzzle piece fit into place.

‘I think he knows it,’ Thorin said, slowly. ‘I just don’t know where he thinks I fit in. Still, it’s very interesting. Good work, Nori, Ori.’

Nori nodded, trying to look unconcerned. Ori beamed.

‘Well, trouble?’ Thorin aimed at Bofur. Bofur also beamed, but it had none of Ori’s innocence, feigned or otherwise.

‘Not much to report,’ he said. ‘We wandered, we talked… I talked, anyway, Bombur sort of stood around looking interested and unthreatening. We told people about the mine collapse and how we wanted to talk to Dáin’s miners here. People were very interested, but not too interested, if you know what I mean. That carried on most of the day. Then we came back here.’

He shrugged.

‘And you managed not to cause a diplomatic incident,’ Thorin said wonderingly. ‘Or not one I’ve heard about yet. Wonders never cease. Congratulations, Bombur.’

Bombur gave him his trademark sweet smile in return, then heaved himself upright and shoved an indignant, protesting Bofur towards the door, correctly divining that Thorin was done with them. The Company immediately began to disperse to their rooms, and Balin quickly made his way across the parlour to Nori, noticing that Dwalin had not left yet either.

‘Nori, a word,’ he requested, just before Nori could make his way out of the door.

***

Nori stiffened, but he did not protest and he returned to the room. Glóin and Óin were still faffing with something in the corner, so they were not entirely alone yet. Besides, for all that he was wary of being near Dwalin at the moment, he did not believe the dwarf would lay a hand on him in front of his brother.

Very few dwarves were fool enough to cross Thorin’s Steward.

‘Dwalin tells me that he has reason to make you an apology,’ Balin said quietly, and Nori was glad of it. He had no wish to have this incident spread around the Company, and Glóin was a hopeless gossip, for all that he would claim otherwise. ‘Very good reason. I can understand, given the circumstances, that you might be reluctant, but I hope you will give him the opportunity to make it, Nori. I understand that I’m his brother and you might not consider me to be the most impartial judge, but I don’t believe every word out of his mouth any more than Dori believes every word out of yours. I really do believe he’s sincere.’

Nori hovered, undecided. It was true enough that Dori did not always believe Nori – witness almost every day of Nori’s existence – and Balin was a canny enough judge. If he thought Dwalin sincere then he probably was.

Still, Nori had tried to end their… quarrel, episode, whatever-one-called-it earlier and Dwalin’s temper had surprised him again. Nori had the nerves of a lifelong thief and all-around rogue. He did not startle well. There were only so many encounters with Dwalin’s temper he was willing to risk.

Yet, even so, it was Dwalin who made the deciding argument.

Approaching, but still keeping a good distance between them, he waited until he had Nori’s attention, then said, ‘I’ll do this in front of Dori if you’ll feel safer that way. The least I can do is grovel in front of your brother as well.’

It was obviously a sincere offer, and one designed to reassure. Of all their Company, only Dori matched Dwalin for strength, though Thorin’s skill made him more Dwalin’s match on the battlefield, along with Fíli and Kíli.

Despite their frequent disagreements, Nori knew that Dori would not hesitate to flatten Dwalin if he thought it was necessary to protect Nori. They had grown up in the poor end of Ered Luin, and Nori had been both a small and an uncommonly beautiful young dwarf. Dori had demonstrated his strength to more than one dwarf who thought that ‘poor’ immediately meant ‘for the taking’.

No, if Dwalin was willing to have Dori there, then Nori was willing to bet that Dori wasn’t necessary after all.

‘Come on, then,’ he said, jerking his head at the door in a command for Dwalin to follow. ‘But this had better be good.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-One: Foolhardy

Four.

Five.

Six.

‘Caltor, stop it!’ came the cry from below. Caltor of Rivendell, eyes fixed firmly on the approaching wolf-pack he’d been assigned to thin out, lined up his next shot and suppressed the grin that was trying to spread over his face. Not that the owner of that indignant voice could see him from his position, tucked away in this tree, but it seemed only mannerly to hide his mirth from the young ones when they were in such earnest.

Seven.

Caltor, STOP!’

And… eight.

There. That left three wolves still alive, and three was quite enough for the hobbits’ first attempt, no matter what they thought.

There was such a thing as biting off more than one could chew.

Even if Elrohir was down there keeping a firm eye on them.

‘Steady now,’ Caltor heard Elrohir call. ‘Remember what we practiced. Stay in your pairs and keep to your forms. Don’t get carried away.’

Caltor suppressed another smile, even as he made sure he had an arrow ready in case he needed to intervene himself. The wolves had slowed their approach, made wary by the barrage he had unleashed upon them, but they viewed the small group of hobbits as easy prey and no doubt they were anticipating a tasty meal.

Six hobbits between three wolves would keep them well-fed for a few days, after all.

A pity for them that these were some of Rory’s hobbits; members of the Bounders who had decided that they, too, wanted lessons in fighting.

It was quite possible that some of them would change their mind after this first encounter, of course. A taste of combat could do that to anyone. For now, however, the wolves would not find these six quite as easy a meal as they had expected.

As the lead wolf had just learned.

Elrohir had split his six hobbits into pairs, and each pair had one hobbit armed with a sturdy cudgel and one armed with a sword. Nate Hayward, a well-built blacksmith’s son armed with a cudgel, had swung said cudgel with enough force that that wolf’s ears had to be ringing. His companion, Hob Goold, slew it with his sword swiftly enough that Caltor gave them a little cheer of congratulation. Tidy work for a first attempt.

Now the elves would just have to ensure it did not make them overconfident.

That shouldn’t be a problem. Not after all the practice they had had with the line of Isildur.

Poor Estel. He had wanted to come with them so badly, and had been so terribly disappointed when it had not been permitted.

Rory and his partner were also having some success with the ‘stun and slash’ tactic, but the third pair, when Caltor looked over, made him straighten and raise his bow into firing position.

Whatever blow the wolf had taken had clearly not stunned it well enough. That, or Clove Rumble had faltered at the wrong moment, for the sword-wielding hobbit was now on the ground underneath the wolf and in very grave danger.

Before Caltor was required to intervene, however, Nate took steps instead. Reaching down, he grabbed a handful of loose earth and cast it into the wolf’s eyes, causing it to yelp and rear back. It momentarily forgot its prey as it shook its head from side to side, desperately trying to clear the dirt out, and Clove used the opening to scramble back out of reach. In that instant Rory stepped forward and used the wolf’s distraction to his advantage.

Relieved, Caltor lowered his bow and leapt lightly down from his perch, crossing to join the hobbits just as Elrohir also arrived.

‘Well,’ his fellow elf announced easily, ‘that wasn’t a complete disaster, which for a first battle means that we count it as a great success!’

Only Rory and Nate appeared to appreciate the humour in this statement, probably because they were the only ones not in a state of shock, but Caltor knew it to be true.

Their tiny militia had a very long way to go before it would be the Shire’s first line of defence… but it might yet get there, if they could recruit a few more volunteers.

Master Baggins would get quite the surprise when he arrived home from his travels.

***

‘Well?’ Nori demanded. He had just shut the door to Dwalin’s room behind them, and was leaning against it with his arms crossed defensively across his chest. Dwalin had been surprised at first to see that they were not heading for Nori’s room, assuming that Nori would want the advantage of his own ground. Then he’d realised that, this way, Nori could just leave whenever he wanted to.

His thief was no fool, but Dwalin had known that for a long time.

A fool he would have caught and imprisoned years ago.

Instead, here they were, and Dwalin was the fool without a word to say in one of the most important conversations of his life.

He half-expected Nori to walk out when he did not immediately speak, but instead Nori simply continued standing there, staring at him with one eyebrow raised.

‘Tongue in a twist, Dwalin?’ he queried, and though it sounded for all the world like his usual mix of acidity and bravado, there was just enough caution behind it to thump Dwalin between the shoulders and pop the words out of his mouth.

‘I’m sorry,’ he blurted, as graceless as a dwarf of 40 and as nervous as well. Mahal, he hated talking. Sometimes he thought he and Nori shouldn’t be allowed to talk to one another anyway. That was what had started this mess in the first place. They just didn’t know when to stop digging at each other.

‘Yes, that I had gathered from Balin, and from what you said in the other room,’ Nori told him drily. ‘I was expecting a bit more than that.’

Dwalin felt himself slump against the desk he had chosen to lean on. It wasn’t that he disagreed with Nori. He thought there ought to be more to say as well.

He just didn’t know what it was.

‘I didn’t mean to scare you like that,’ he said at length. ‘I really didn’t mean to hurt you. I lost my temper, and I try never to do that anymore, even in battle. It won’t happen again, Nori. I can’t make you believe it, but it’s all I have to offer. I haven’t done something like that in… well, longer than most of this Company have been alive, probably. I’m sorry.’

‘I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or not,’ Nori muttered defensively. ‘I’m sure it’s a wonderful thing that you rarely lose your temper, Dwalin, given that I’ve seen you break an orc’s neck with your bare hands on this journey, but I’m not sure I relish being the only one who can make you do it!’

Dwalin bit down on his first reaction, which was to point out that almost everything Nori did seemed to be aimed at trying to get him to lose his temper. It was a different sort of thing and he knew it. Nori wanted to irritate him, to provoke him to the point where he fumed and muttered under his breath and glared…

He most certainly did not want to be grabbed and held captive as he had been.

Mahal, what a mess.

Realising that he’d probably been silent too long again, Dwalin refocused on his companion, expecting to find himself glared at. Instead, he found Nori giving him a surprisingly patient look, almost as if he knew how difficult it was for Dwalin to get the words straight in his head.

Apparently, all those conversations during the long days of walking, when a bored Nori decided to enlighten him about the criminal underworld, had taught the two of them something about each other after all.

Although, now that Dwalin thought about it, it was probably the conversations that had drifted away from that underworld and onto other things which had taught them the most.

‘I’m a nervous sort of person, Dwalin,’ Nori said softly, breaking the silence. ‘We both know why that is. I’ve spent a lot of years around some unsavoury people, mostly avoiding the sort of law-abiding folk you represent. A dwarf in my line of work learns to watch their back and their front simultaneously or he doesn’t last long. If I’d seen yesterday coming we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all. I’d have kicked you in the balls or used some equally dirty trick to get myself free and that would have been that.’

‘And right now you’d be sitting here gloating because I’d have spent all day seething over being bested,’ Dwalin finished for him, thinking of twenty similar instances from their past, when Dwalin had come so close to arresting the slippery bastard and never quite managed it.

‘Exactly,’ Nori agreed, with the slightest of smiles to acknowledge that they both knew how the game was played. Then it slipped away, and he was solemn again. ‘I didn’t see it coming, Dwalin. That wasn’t a fight. Not the way we fight. That was you in a rage.’

‘Yes,’ Dwalin admitted, though it was not as if he needed to. It had been obvious to both of them.

‘I didn’t realise until then, you know,’ Nori said, quietly enough that Dwalin had to strain a little to hear him. ‘How much I’d let my guard down when it was you. Until you had your hand round my arm, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t get away. I’d stopped thinking I needed to get away.’

‘Had you?’ Dwalin asked, and the utter surprise must have been clear in his voice. ‘It doesn’t feel like you have. It feels as if you do nothing but try to get away.’

Nori looked at him sharply, and Dwalin immediately shook his head.

‘Forget I said that,’ he said quickly. ‘I didn’t mean to say it.’

‘Oh no,’ Nori hurried to contradict, straightening away from the door. ‘Don’t think you’re getting away that easily. What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Nothing,’ Dwalin muttered. ‘I just.. you know what I’m like. I’m not good with words.’

Nori scoffed, and treated Dwalin to a look that could have burnt him alive.

‘Don’t group me with the idiots, Dwalin,’ he ordered irritably. ‘I don’t appreciate it. You might convince people who aren’t paying attention that you’re just the muscle, but I didn’t spend nearly forty years trying to outsmart you without working out that you’re nearly as clever as your brother in your own way. You know people, and you don’t say things you don’t mean, even if you didn’t mean to say them. Explain!’

‘You just… you don’t give an inch,’ Dwalin shot back, goaded into giving the answer at the forefront of his mind, however unwise it might be. ‘It was the simplest request in the world - don’t steal anything while we’re here – but you couldn’t even give me that much easily could you?’

‘And why should I?’ Nori asked warily, fingers beginning to tap against the door behind him, though a glance at him convinced Dwalin he wasn’t scared, just edgy. ‘What if I give you an inch and you take the whole mile?’

‘How?’ Dwalin demanded, exasperated, scrubbing his hand over his bald head. ‘What exactly is it you’re convinced I’m going to do if you don’t fight me every step of the way? Arrest you for all the things I know damned well you did and never could prove? I’m not that sort of guard, Nori, and if you don’t know that by now then you haven’t been paying attention.’

‘Please,’ Nori mocked, forcing the edginess back behind his usual mask of unconcern. ‘It wouldn’t matter if you did arrest me. You couldn’t keep me captive, especially not on a journey like this. I’d have been out of that elven prison in a day if I hadn’t known Ori and Dori would refuse to leave without the rest of you.’

Dwalin hoped the look he gave Nori then showed his disbelief. The thief might have the worst grasp of ownership Dwalin had ever come across, but there wasn’t a chance he’d just leave the rest of them to their fate and Dwalin knew it. Nori actually flushed and shrugged. ‘Besides, abandoning Fíli in that state would have been in poor taste even for one of my profession.’

‘Then what is it?’ Dwalin pressed. He hadn’t moved an inch from his place against the desk, determined that Nori shouldn’t feel like he was being intimidated into answering, but he wasn’t letting this go. ‘What are you trying so hard to get away from?’

‘Nothing,’ Nori insisted, which was such a stupid answer after what he’d said a minute ago that he completely deserved the ‘Bollocks!’ which Dwalin gave him in reply.

‘Fine,’ Nori almost shouted, showing a fair bit of temper himself all of a sudden. ‘Pears!’

Alright, Dwalin thought, laughing inwardly but determinedly hiding his amusement behind his normal expression, you had to hand it to the thief. He certainly knew how to stop a conversation in its tracks.

Nori’s chin had come up defiantly, in a way that told Dwalin that one word was all he was getting and if he didn’t bloody well figure out the significance, then tough.

Fine.

Nori was the one who’d said Dwalin wasn’t stupid. If he thought the reference to fruit was going to stop a Captain of the Guard in his tracks then he mistook his dwarf.

After all, Dwalin had been wondering about the pears for quite a while as well.

In fairness, it had taken Dwalin the best part of five years to realise there was anything to wonder about, because he didn’t get pears that often. They were his one luxury, his favourite food, but they weren’t exactly easy to come by and, even when the passing merchants had some, Dwalin couldn’t always spare the coin.

Still, when he did have some he’d always kept them in a bowl on the desk in his office, as a treat for long days spent trying to stop Ered Luin from falling apart at the seams.

A bowl which had, all of a sudden, started emptying itself at random intervals without Dwalin’s help.

Intervals, he had eventually figured out, which always coincided with one of Nori’s escapes from justice.

The cheeky little shit was taunting him, Dwalin had realised. Sneaking into his office and stealing his fruit, just to prove he could, knowing Dwalin couldn’t do a damn thing about it and knowing that Dwalin would know it proved Nori really had done whatever it was they’d been trying to arrest him for.

That last sentence nearly made Dwalin’s head spin, which only went to prove that Nori was far too sneaky for his own good.

Balin had, he later informed his brother, been seriously concerned that Dwalin was going to have some sort of apoplexy when he first figured it out, but in the end it had only made him more determined to catch his thief.

Not that he had, but no one could accuse Dwalin of a lack of effort until this recent trip.

That was when the pear story had begun to get even stranger.

Because partway through the journey, rather than disappearing, the pears had suddenly started mysteriously appearing.

It could have been Balin, of course. His brother’s favourite fruit was exactly the sort of thing he’d have mentally filed away in his scarily organised mind. Still, if Balin had wanted to give Dwalin a piece of fruit, he’d just have handed it to him.

He wouldn’t have bothered hiding the things, and in the most ingenious of places.

Dwalin had no idea where Nori was getting the pears from, but he was sure it was Nori who was procuring them. In all honesty, until now he’d thought Nori was doing it to wind him up; taunting him by reminding him of all the past fruit thefts Dwalin had never been able to avenge. He’d been impressed by the courage, amused by the cheek and infuriated by the effrontery all at the same time.

Now, though, after Nori had spit the word out like an accusation, suddenly Dwalin was wondering… if perhaps it was also just the sort of thing the thief did when he wanted to be kind.

He’d found Bilbo mushrooms, after all, when he wanted to cheer him up.

‘If you’re that worried that I’ll take the pears the wrong way, Nori,’ he asked curiously, looking his thief dead in the eye as he did so, ‘why bother leaving them at all? Instead of going to all the trouble and then fighting me twice as hard to make up for it?’

For an instant, Dwalin had the satisfaction of seeing Nori’s eyes light up with surprised approval and knew he’d worked it out correctly. Then the approval disappeared, and Nori’s mouth quirked to one side as he shrugged a shoulder.

‘Because I’m an idiot, aren’t I?’ he told Dwalin self-deprecatingly. ‘Kept telling myself that it was fun to make you mad. By the time I realised I was actually trying to make you laugh instead… too late.’

‘Balin would tell you we’re both idiots,’ Dwalin answered, still holding his gaze determinedly, even as Nori tried to flick his own eyes to the side. Nori seemed to stiffen as the implication of his words set in, and suddenly Dwalin had all of his attention. ‘Personally, I’d say me more than you. If this ended badly, I’d be more likely to look the fool. You could always tell people it was part of a long con to keep yourself out of trouble on our travels or… anything you chose, I suppose. I’d just look like the dupe who’d been conned.’

‘If that is your idea of a… declaration, or a proposal, Dwalin…’ Nori managed to get out, looking somewhere been startled and indignant. Dwalin couldn’t entirely blame him. After a glance at Nori’s face, he’d run those words back through his mind and they hadn’t come out quite how he’d intended.

‘No!’ he protested. ‘Well, yes, but not like that.’

‘How then?’ Nori asked, and while he still sounded indignant, at least he now also sounded as if he was about to burst out laughing.

‘Oh, sod it,’ Dwalin announced, fed up with all of this and aware that they were running out of time before the feast and that Thorin would not be amused if they were late. ‘Nori, will you let me court you even though this is a terrible idea and we’ll probably end up killing each other?’

Apparently this heartfelt declaration was too much for Nori’s composure. Rather than answer, he burst into hysterical laughter so strong that he had to grasp the doorknob behind him to keep himself upright.

‘I’m glad you find this so bloody funny,’ Dwalin growled at him, now firmly wishing that he hadn’t said anything. ‘I don’t know why I had to be the one doing all the hard work anyway,’ he grumbled under his breath, assuming that Nori wouldn’t hear him.

He assumed incorrectly, as it happened.

‘That,’ Nori answered, as he gasped to get his breath back, ‘is your atonement for yesterday.’ He paused a moment and took several more gulping breaths that seemed to calm him, leaning his head back against the door so that the tip of his ridiculous hairstyle was squashed out of line. Dwalin made a mental note to straighten him up before they went to the feast. ‘It’s certainly good enough for me. Watching you make a tit of yourself on my account was even more satisfying than the apology anyway.’

Dwalin refrained from making a rude gesture in his direction, with the vague idea that you probably weren’t supposed to do that sort of thing to someone you wanted to court. Not before they’d agreed to the courtship, anyway.

Then Nori snorted a little, as if one last bit of mirth was determined to escape, before shaking his head wryly.

‘As for the rest, Dwalin,’ he continued. ‘Yes, I do think we should court each other even though it’s a terrible idea and we’ll probably end up killing each other.’ Suddenly he gave a sly grin and winked. ‘I’ve always wanted to die of laughter.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Two: Outrage

‘Where is he?’ Uncle muttered irritably, eyeing the door to his room with great disfavour. ‘It’s not like Dwalin to be late.’

There were five of them currently gathered together to prepare for the feast: Uncle, Balin, Kíli, Fíli, and Bilbo. Uncle had decreed that he wanted Fíli and Kíli checked over by himself and their usual mentors before they stepped foot in front of Dáin’s court, to be sure that they would give the right impression.

Bilbo was with them because…

Kíli wasn’t completely sure why Bilbo was with them, come to think of it. He hadn’t really questioned it until now. Bilbo was always with them these days when they gathered as a family.

It just made sense like that.

Anyway, Kíli and Fíli had already been checked over by Uncle and Balin, so Kíli didn’t really see that they needed Dwalin at this point, but his lateness was putting Uncle even more on edge than he already was. Dwalin was normally early, if anything.

‘He’s only late by a few minutes, Thorin,’ Balin pointed out easily, though he too was keeping a watch on the door. Kíli, looking on with interest, thought Balin looked a little less relaxed than he wanted Uncle to think he was.

‘I could go and get him,’ Kíli decided to suggest helpfully, now absolutely certain that something was up. He knew it. Dwalin had been acting funny since they got to the Iron Hills, and now Balin was in on whatever it was too.

Kíli wondered if his nose had started twitching like Bilbo’s sometimes did. It probably should have. He scented a secret.

‘No, Kíli, that won’t be necessary,’ Balin assured him, just as Uncle had opened his mouth, probably to say the exact opposite. ‘He’ll be here any moment now, I’m sure.’

And because the universe always seemed to conspire to prove Balin right about… well everything, at that point Dwalin opened the door and walked in. Kíli was so busy being irritated that Balin was right again that he almost didn’t see Nori for a moment.

Then he shook his head to clear it, before looking a little harder, because why on earth was Nori here?

Nori must have spotted him, because he glanced over and winked.

Damnit, Kíli knew something was going on!

Why did no one ever tell him anything?

He shot a quick look at Fíli, and was relieved to see that his brother looked equally confused.

Alright, as long as they hadn’t told Fíli either, he’d accept it for the moment.

‘You’re late, Dwalin!’ Uncle announced, giving Dwalin a stern look.

Dwalin shrugged.

‘Oh, untwist your knickers, Thorin,’ he told Uncle firmly, and the look on his face was a blatant challenge. ‘The blasted feast doesn’t start for another half an hour and it’s only a ten minute walk from here. Besides, it’s not as if I was kidnapped.’

‘Will you STOP going on about the bloody kidnapping, you arsehole!’ Uncle exploded, and Kíli wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to hide behind the nearest piece of furniture. You had to hand it to Dwalin. No one could make Uncle lose his temper faster when they wanted to.

‘No, I will not,’ Dwalin retorted. ‘Not if you’re going to give me grief over being three minutes late, just because you’re in a fret over tonight. It’s a feast. We go, we eat, nobody in our party gets drunk and makes an idiot of themselves because if they do they get my boot up their arse, but Dáin probably will unless he’s changed quite a bit… stop fussing!’

‘I am not fussing,’ Uncle shot back, ‘and none of this has got a thing to do with me fussing anyway. If you think I’m not going to notice Nori just because you’ve decided to irritate the life out of me then you’re the idiot. You can stop standing behind him now, Nori, I’m not blind. If he wanted to hide you then he shouldn’t have brought you in.’

At which point, Nori began to cackle and Dwalin threw the nearest cushion at Uncle, who promptly threw it back, while Balin threw his hands in the air.

‘Mahal and all the Valar, it’s like having Fíli and Kíli in the nursery again, only with more threats of violence,’ he told Bilbo, who began to laugh himself.

‘Lies,’ Uncle informed Bilbo. ‘Dís threatened violence all the time when the boys were little, she just did it where they couldn’t hear her.’ Kíli practically felt his ears prick up, and beside him Fíli suddenly perked up as well. Uncle gave them a baleful look. ‘You did not hear that from me,’ he told them sternly.

‘Now,’ he continued, ‘is someone going to tell me what Nori’s appearance has to do with Dwalin being late and whether I need to worry about a diplomatic incident?’

‘No diplomatic incidents,’ Nori assured him. He appeared completely at ease, or would have, if Fíli hadn’t pulled on Kíli’s sleeve and drawn Kíli’s attention to the way Nori was tapping his fingers against the back of his leg out of everyone’s sight but theirs. ‘We were talking, that’s all. Lost track of time a bit, so along I came.’

‘Aren’t you meant to be good at lying?’ Kíli asked, without really thinking about what he was saying until the words were out of his mouth. Then Nori glared at him, and he rather wished he hadn’t. It was never a good idea to upset a dwarf who kept a blade in the toe of his boot.

‘Long story short, we’ve just agreed to court one another, Thorin,’ Dwalin said into the silence that had fallen. ‘It took a minute to come to the agreement, that’s why we’re late. Now if you’re all quite finished being nosy, shall we get on with this?’

‘Courting… each other?’ Uncle asked faintly, his brow furrowing and his head tilting to one side as if the concept confused him quite as much as it did Kíli.

Dwalin… and Nori.

Nori and Dwalin…

No, it still didn’t make sense, no matter which way you looked at it. No wonder Uncle was pondering the announcement like a particularly complicated contract. He continued to do so for a few more moments, and then, just as the situation was about to become truly awkward, Bilbo interrupted.

‘Congratulations, both of you,’ their hobbit offered. ‘In the Shire, we always offer wishes for happiness and good fortune upon such occasions. I hope you have both.’

Which led to a scramble for everyone else to find their manners and say something polite as well, although luckily Nori and Dwalin seemed to find their surprise funny rather than insulting.

Kíli did hear Bilbo say something to Uncle which sounded like, ‘Really, Thorin? He’s your closest friend!’ and see Uncle looking suitably shamefaced, but he was fairly sure Dwalin would forgive them.

Then, before they could make any more of a muddle of things, Bofur’s voice came through the door quite audibly announcing, ‘So, are the rest of you coming or not? I mean, I can pretend to be Thorin but I’m not sure anyone’s going to buy it for very long.’

And that was that.

***

Ori would be the first to admit that he hadn’t attended a great many feasts in his lifetime. They just weren’t a regular occurrence in Ered Luin, and certainly not when you lived amongst the poorer dwarves like Ori and his family did.

Still, he did wonder if this was quite normal.

He could understand having the Lord’s standard up behind the dais on which Dáin and his chief nobles, as well as Thorin, Fíli and Kíli were sitting. That made perfect sense. In fact, Ori would have expected to see the symbol of the Iron Hills all over the place, from what he’d read of feasts and Great Halls in old texts.

Having it hanging almost cheek by jowl with the insignia of Dáin’s nobility, and of the various Guilds, just struck Ori as odd.

Glóin had identified one or two of the noble houses for him before they sat down, and the Guild symbols were easy enough to read. They were the ones you’d expect – the miners, the jewellers, the weavers – but Ori didn’t understand why Dáin allowed it, particularly at a feast to welcome his royal cousin.

He also wondered whose idea it had been to split the Company up as they had. Lord Elrond had let them sit all together at dinner, which had been a lot more comfortable, but here they were all over the place. Ori had his brothers with him, and Óin and Glóin were further down the table somewhere, but Bilbo and Bombur were off at the next table over. He had no idea where Bofur and Bifur had ended up, and Balin and Dwalin weren’t with Thorin, Fíli and Kíli either, which Ori had assumed they would be.

Ori wasn’t going to complain, of course. The dwarves at his table, from the Jeweller’s Guild, all seemed perfectly nice. Of course, some of them were digging for information about Ered Luin and its financial situation, which wasn’t very polite, but it wasn’t as if they were getting anywhere.

Ori was a little sorry for deliberately leading them round and round in circles by pretending to be a complete idiot, but he had reminded Nori of his promise not to steal anything when he’d realised which table they were at, so at least he could reassure himself that everyone would end the night with the same amount of jewellery they’d started with. Surely that outweighed some minor frustrations!

Shrugging, he went back to eating his food, talking to the friendly apprentice jeweller seated next to him and trying to work out why Nori was smiling like the cat that had got the cream even though he wasn’t allowed to steal anything. Ori could have sworn his brother had been about to tell him something when they were on their way here, but then they’d been interrupted by Glóin and Ori had been left in the dark.

He didn’t bother worrying again about Lord Dáin, or his strange way of organising feasts. Anything that Ori had noticed, Thorin and the rest of the Company would no doubt have noticed too. If not, Ori could always mention it to them in the morning.

***

Thorin had, indeed, noticed a few bits and pieces that had caught his attention during the feast that night, and he mulled them over as he returned to his room afterwards. They ranged from Ori’s own observations about the prominence of the nobility and the Guilds, to the recovery of his cousin’s amiability.

Dáin had been the perfect host all evening. Cheerful, talkative, interested in Fíli and Kíli and encouraging them to talk about their training and experiences so far, particularly the journey. He’d been full of concern when he’d heard of Fíli’s illness on the journey, unusually willing to be gracious towards the ‘pointy-eared bastards’ when he heard that they’d helped to save Fíli’s life, and – above all – delighted to be told of Azog’s final demise.

If Thorin thought he had spotted an instant of concern, just at the moment when Thorin mentioned killing Azog himself… he had no proof and Bilbo was right to caution him against being too suspicious of everyone he came across. Discussing Fíli’s illness had reminded Thorin clearly of where that had nearly got him in Mirkwood.

Dáin had invited Thorin to attend a meeting of his Council tomorrow, with as many of his Company as he cared to bring with him, and that would be early enough to find out what was going on here.

‘A word, Thorin,’ a voice said, apparently out of nowhere, and everything else nearly became academic as Thorin died of fright.

‘Mahal’s balls, Bofur, what are you doing down there?’ Thorin asked sharply, glancing down at the figure sitting against the door of his rooms.

‘Trying to get comfy,’ Bofur replied, hauling himself to his feet. ‘Took you longer to get here than I expected.’

‘The feast has only just ended,’ Thorin pointed out, unlocking the door. ‘It’s not like you to leave a celebration early, Bofur,’ he continued curiously.

‘Aye, well,’ Bofur answered, ‘had a bad taste in my mouth after the conversation Bifur and I had earlier. Didn’t much fancy feasting after that.’

All of the hairs on the back of Thorin’s neck rose, and he gestured Bofur sharply inside.

‘Why do I not like the sound of that?’ he queried wearily.

Bofur didn’t answer, but he did enter and go straight to one of the chairs near the unlit fireplace. Thorin took another and surveyed him. Bofur looked as solemn as Thorin had ever seen him.

‘Well?’ Thorin asked.

‘The Miner’s Guild here tried to poach us tonight, Thorin,’ Bofur told him, and Thorin closed his eyes even as his hands gripped tight on the arms of the chair. ‘We let everyone know that we’d had a bad collapse and we’d come here for help, and their response was to separate Bifur and I from the rest of the Company tonight and try to convince us to stay here and work for them instead.’

‘Do they have any idea how utterly insulting that is?’ Thorin bit out, struggling to keep the snarl from his voice.

Bofur shrugged in response.

‘I don’t think they’re much used to thinking about their Lord’s dignity above their own here, Thorin,’ he pointed out. ‘If it occurred to them that they’d just offered you insult, they probably ignored it.’

‘I didn’t mean to me,’ Thorin objected furiously. ‘Damnit, Bofur, you’re the Dean of Ered Luin’s Miners' Guild. You run our entire operation, with Bifur’s help. At a guess, the two of you have more stone-sense than any dwarf in their Guild or they’d not be so keen to have you, and they’ve just offered to let you work for them! How dare they?’

He was so angry at the insolence of the whole thing that he was almost seeing red, but the haze cleared a little when Bofur began to chuckle.

‘And that’s one of the many reasons I told them they could stuff their offer where the sun doesn’t shine,’ he asserted. ‘Bifur and I are happy where we are, thank you very much, so no need for you to worry about that. I only came to tell you so that no one could surprise you with it tomorrow. It seemed like there were plenty of decent folk in the Guild, but there were a couple of weasels as well and I don’t want anyone trying to twist things on their head to make it look like we’re going behind your back.’

‘I appreciate that,’ Thorin reassured him, ‘though I wouldn’t believe them anyway, Bofur. Backroom dealing is not what I’d call your speciality.’

‘True enough,’ Bofur admitted, with a smile that might have been sheepish had it not been for the tinge of pride it also held. ‘I’m more likely to blurt out something I’m not supposed to say than keep a secret. Anyway, I’ll let you get to bed. Night.’

Bofur rose to his feet and stretched again before making for the door. Thorin rose as well, following so he could lock the door when Bofur was gone.

‘Goodnight, Bofur.’

Inside, however, Thorin knew the night would be anything but good. This new information had set his mind spinning in a thousand directions again as he tried to slot it in amongst what he’d gleaned earlier in the night.

As, most importantly, he tried to work out how much his cousin knew about what his guildmasters were up to.

How dare they?

Whether Dáin knew about it or not, Thorin was not about to stand for such impudence.

***

They breakfasted early and as a group the next morning, prior to meeting with Dáin and his Council. The initial mood was celebratory, and more than slightly teasing, as various members of the Company became aware of Dwalin and Nori’s news. Ori was plainly delighted and beamed from ear to ear, entertaining them all by giving Dwalin a hug where he wasn’t quite able to get his arms around the warrior’s chest and then going bright red when Nori informed him that he was now more familiar with Dwalin than Nori himself.

Glóin was on the verge of saying something which Balin judged was entirely inappropriate for younger ears at that point, so he felt it necessary to borrow a leaf from Oín’s book and clout him just in case.

The resulting commotion, as Glóin indignantly protested this treatment, also provided a convenient moment for Dori and Dwalin to exchange a few quiet words unobserved, and Balin thought that was just as well. Dori would feel better for receiving a few reassurances from his brother’s intended, Dwalin would feel better for giving them, and Nori would be much happier for knowing nothing about the interlude.

Never let it be said that Balin did not discharge his duties as an older brother fully.

Alas, the merriment could not last forever.

Once breakfast was done, Thorin told the Company what had passed between Bifur, Bofur and the Miners' Guild, and the cheer immediately gave way to outrage instead.

‘But Bofur and Bifur are ours,’ Fíli protested angrily, looking as much like Thorin’s nephew as he ever did.

‘Quite,’ Bilbo agreed, equally incensed. None of them were wearing weapons (openly wearing weapons, anyway; Balin would have given no assurances about what either Nori or Fíli might have been concealing from view), but Bilbo’s hand hovered momentarily where his sword might have been.

Oh dear, that was not good. Balin needed Bilbo to be a calming influence, not to get Thorin all riled up.

With that thought in mind, he snagged Bilbo’s arm as the Company exited the dining room and drew him to the back of the group as they walked.

‘Do something for me, Bilbo?’ he requested quietly, flicking a glance to the front to make sure Thorin wasn’t looking for them. Thankfully, he was thoroughly involved in talking to Kíli.

‘Yes, of course,’ Bilbo replied, looking slightly startled. ‘What do you need?’

‘Sit between Thorin and myself at this meeting, and try to calm Thorin down if it seems likely that he’s about to completely lose his temper,’ Balin asked. ‘Fíli will be at his other hand, but you get through to him quicker than I do and I think this attempt to suborn Bofur and Bifur has pushed his temper further than he’s showing.’

‘I really don’t think that’s a good idea, Balin,’ Bilbo told him. ‘Even I know that the seats next to Thorin will be meant for family and close councillors. To place me above you….’

‘Will reflect your position in this Company, having helped us negotiate the vital trade deal which is currently preserving our people, and as a close friend of the King. Besides, it will also put Dáin’s people on the wrong foot because they won’t know what to make of you, which will give me more room for manoeuvre.’

‘Living in your mind must be absolutely exhausting,’ Bilbo said after a few seconds, in a way that suggested it probably wasn’t entirely a compliment. Balin was rather used to that - very few people truly appreciated the manipulations that went on behind a throne – so he just smiled and indicated that Bilbo should precede him through the door to the Council room they had reached.

‘I manage,’ he assured Bilbo. ‘Will you do it?’

‘Of course I will, if it will help,’ Bilbo assented swiftly.

‘Perfect,’ Balin said, equally quickly. ‘Here we go.’

As he entered the Council chamber, he quickly murmured the same prayer his father had used all his life for such situations, and had taught to Balin when it became clear Balin would follow in his footsteps as an advisor to the royal family.

Mahal, in your wisdom, please let nothing happen this day that I cannot undo if need be.

***

Bilbo entered the Council chamber rather more anxiously than he would have done half an hour ago, when he had thought his greatest concern would be entertaining himself for the whole length of what might become rather boring negotiations.

He had been expecting to sit at the far end of the table, probably with Bofur and Bombur, having very little to do with the important goings on.

Which would have been extremely easy because – good grief – the far end of this stone slab of a table was about six miles away from the top end. Exactly how many people was Dáin expecting to attend this meeting?

The room itself was just as large as you would expect it to be when it needed to house a table of that size, with the great vaulted ceilings which seemed to characterise dwarven architecture and a few hangings just to make it seem slightly less like a catacomb.

Not that Bilbo had ever seen a catacomb, of course, but if he had to guess what one would look like, some of these dwarven rooms would have fit very well.

Although he had to admit that the sheer volume within the room suggested that the acoustics were very good, which perhaps solved the mystery of the ridiculously long table. He supposed it didn’t really matter if you could see the person at the other end as long as you could hear what they were saying.

By this time he had reached the far side of the room, where a dwarf of Dáin’s court had guided Thorin, Fíli and Kíli to seat themselves in the centre of the table, opposite the chair which was obviously meant for Dáin. The rest of the Company had arrayed themselves to either side of the three, but Dwalin had deliberately left two open seats between himself and Thorin

Bilbo took a deep breath before sliding into the empty seat at Thorin’s left hand, quite expecting to receive a quiet but pointed question from the leader of their Company about what he was doing and where Balin was.

Instead, he received a slightly absent-minded smile from Thorin, and relieved looks from Fíli and Kíli, both of whom had been eyeing their uncle with some concern.

Which just went to prove that they were all as mad as Balin, really, but Bilbo supposed that he’d known that when he’d set out on this journey with them so there was no use crying over spilt milk now. He’d actually been sure that Balin was the sanest of the group, which was a most lowering thought.

Said lowering thought now swept around the top end of the table with a calm, benign expression on his face and slipped into the seat next to Bilbo as if all was right with the world. Bilbo resisted the urge to give him a swift kick in the ankle.

Only moments later, without fanfare, Dáin strode into the room and made straight for his own seat, treating Thorin and the assembled Company to a broad, welcoming smile which belied the serious inroads he’d made into his own stock of alcohol last night.

The Lord of the Iron Hills must have a constitution to match his kingdom’s greatest export.

‘Morning Thorin,’ he announced heartily. ‘No worse for wear, I see.’

‘Not at all,’ Thorin replied, finding a convincing smile of his own, thankfully. ‘Refreshed and ready to talk.’

‘Good, good,’ Dáin said, though some hitch in his tone made Bilbo wonder if he entirely meant it. ‘Come on then, you lot, let’s not keep my cousin waiting!’

At this signal, all the stray people who had been hovering about the room, most of whom Bilbo had mentally assigned as scribes or messengers of Dáin’s actual Council, began to flock to the table to take seats. Within moments, Thorin’s Company found itself facing down a veritable army of councillors and advisors and even Thorin’s eyes widened for a moment as he took in the view.

‘Your Council, Dáin?’ he asked mildly, giving his cousin the gentlest of inquiring looks.

‘Ah,’ Dáin replied with what seemed to be an honestly embarrassed chuckle, looking up and down the table. ‘There are rather a lot of them, aren’t there? They don’t usually all sit on this side. Makes them look a bit more…’

‘Gargantuan?’ Fíli offered helpfully.

Dáin roared with laughter.

‘Aye, lad,’ he answered. ‘That’s exactly what they are. Don’t worry, though. If it comes to a battle, you’ve got Dwalin over there and none of my lot have a patch on him.’

That, if Bilbo was any judge, ruffled some feathers in Dáin’s camp, but Dáin paid them no attention.

‘Now, Cousin,’ Dáin continued after a few seconds of silence, ‘you mentioned your mine collapse last night, but we agreed to keep the details for this morning. Why don’t you tell us what happened?’

So Thorin did, in a way which completely avoided all mention of the treacherous dwarf that Kíli had told Bilbo about when he’d enlightened him all those months ago. Bilbo had a feeling that, had Dáin given Thorin the slightest opportunity to talk to him in private, he’d probably have got the full story as well, but there wasn’t the slightest chance that Thorin was giving that information out here in front of half of the Iron Hills.

‘Which leaves us without the central tunnel and also without the four that surrounded it,’ Thorin concluded. ‘What is left will not support Ered Luin fully for these next few years. I was lucky enough to negotiate a deal with Master Baggins’ people which will see us through this winter…’

‘Is that why Master Baggins joins you then?’ asked Dáin’s chief advisor, a shrewd middle-aged dwarf who had impressed Bilbo the night before when he’d made a point of introducing himself to the Company’s only hobbit. He’d not only been polite, he’d had an air of genuine kindness and respect underneath it all. ‘To ensure full payment of the deal?’

‘Not at all,’ Bilbo responded immediately, before Thorin could speak. ‘Thorin paid a deposit and gave his word that the remaining payments would be made upon receipt of the goods. Why would we need more than that? I am here purely for my own purposes. The Company were kind enough to let me travel with them to Rivendell, where I needed to speak to Lord Elrond, and having gone that far I decided I wished to see more of the world, so I continued with them.’

That question satisfied, and in a way that Bilbo hoped left the Iron Hills’ dwarves no more enlightened about his presence than they were before, Thorin took up his tale again.

‘Either way, the hobbits will feed us this winter but a similar deal will not be possible again next year, or likely for some years to come until other plans I have put in place come to fruition. That is why we have come, Dáin. To ask for your aid in these interim years.’

There was a pause in the wake of this explanation, which Bilbo supposed was only to be expected - it was a lot of information to take in – but then the silence began to drag on. And on.

Wouldn’t it be normal, even among dwarves, for Dáin to offer some condolences for Ered Luin’s losses? Surely 30 dwarves killed in a mine collapse was not commonplace, even in a larger kingdom like this one.

Why did no one say anything?

Why did Dáin not say anything?

Bilbo could sense Thorin becoming wound tighter and tighter next to him, presumably taking the lack of response as a bad sign. Instinctively Bilbo reached out and grasped the nearest part of his friend, which happened to be his knee, in the hope that it might somehow answer his promise to Balin to help keep Thorin calm.

Finally, although perhaps it was only a minute or so later rather than the hour it had felt to Bilbo, Dáin seemed to come alive and spoke again.

‘We have, of course, every sympathy for your loss and your situation, Thorin,’ the Lord of the Iron Hills informed his cousin formally. ‘It is a terrible blow for any kingdom to lose so much and so many. I am certain that our Guild will be happy to offer your own Dean any advice he might feel he needs. On a larger scale, if you require assistance in rehoming any of your people then the Iron Hills always has room for skilled workers. I would be happy to discuss that further with you.’

Now it was Thorin’s turn to be silent for a long moment, as he stared at Dáin with a blank countenance. Dáin returned the stare, but Bilbo thought he did not look easy. He met Thorin’s eyes with difficulty, and his hand twisted the seal he wore on a long chain around his neck.

When Thorin did reply, it was not with words. It was with a driest, bitterest laugh that Bilbo had ever heard him utter. A laugh that made Bilbo wince internally, even as he forced himself to give no reaction other than to tighten his grip on Thorin’s knee.

Dáin went white, staring wide-eyed across the table and swallowing with difficulty.

‘That is your version of help then?’ Thorin said, and his tone sounded to Bilbo like fury mixed with acid contempt. ‘Just as it was before. When your family is in need, you will assist by taking the best workers among their people off their hands, those who could contribute to the rebuilding of a nation, and then consider your conscience clear?’

‘I did not say that, Thorin!’ Dáin growled, reddening as quickly as he had gone white, fists now clenching on the table before him as he leant forward. ‘You have no right to accuse me of such things.’

Bilbo, whilst perfectly able to see where Thorin was coming from, particularly in the face of the bitter disappointment he was probably feeling at this moment, couldn’t help but feel that the approach he was taking would lead nowhere good. Throwing caution to the wind, he dug his fingers sharply into the side of Thorin’s knee in a manner that no hobbit would have been able to overlook. Balin clearly agreed with Bilbo’s assessment, for he cleared his throat at the same moment and also jabbed Bilbo rather firmly in the side.

‘Skilled workers, you said,’ Thorin reminded Dáin, apparently disregarding Balin’s attempt at subtle intervention and Bilbo’s effort to get his attention as well. Bilbo was thinking frantically, but he had already come to the conclusion that Balin’s trust had been misplaced. What was he supposed to do? He would not argue with Thorin and embarrass him in front of all these people, and either his signals were somehow too subtle or they were being deliberately ignored. ‘What was I meant to take from that, exactly? Especially when your Miners' Guild has already tried to poach the Dean of my own and his cousin, who happen to be the two most able miners of their generation. Tell me, Dáin, was that at your instigation? Did you set the plan in motion as soon as you had word that the collapse had stopped our mining operation entirely?’

‘My Miners' Guild has tried to do what?’ Dáin exploded, but this time it was not aimed at Thorin. Instead, his fury was turned on the Dean of the Iron Hills Guild, seated four or five chairs down from Dáin, who threw his shoulders back and tried very hard to look unintimidated by the show of ire.

Grateful for the momentary distraction, Bilbo leant right in so that he was speaking directly into Thorin’s ear and began to whisper as quickly as he possibly could.

‘Thorin, please, please, calm down,’ he requested fervently. ‘You can yell and shout and break something when it’s just the Company again, but setting Dáin’s back up now will get us nowhere. Remember Thranduil, please. This isn’t just Fíli, this is all your people. We need help here. You must be calm.’

Then, as Dáin turned back to Thorin again, he sank back into his own chair, hoping that Thorin had listened and also that he hadn’t missed anything vitally important in those few seconds of inattention.

The two cousins joined stormy gazes again, both clearly fuming for different reasons…

And then Thorin’s hand, which had been clenched on the table all this time, opened, and dropped to his side.

And reached for Bilbo’s own hand.

And Thorin’s storm broke.

‘Forgive me, Dáin,’ he said with visible effort, as he squeezed Bilbo’s fingers in a manner that Bilbo chose to interpret as an apology for ignoring him. He and Thorin would have words about that at some point. ‘It has been a very long few months and you know the Durin temper as well as anyone.’

For a second, it seemed to Bilbo that events hung in the balance. Then Dáin nodded an acknowledgement.

‘Aye,’ he agreed, ‘don’t I just? Let’s break here a moment, Thorin. Apparently my people have been making offers to my guests that I’ve no knowledge of, and I’d like to find out what’s going on there. When I’m done, you and I can talk again.’

‘If King Thorin is so worried about losing his people that he cannot stand a little healthy competition…’ the Dean of the Iron Hills Miners' Guild said provokingly, with the sort of puffed up self-consequence that made Bilbo want to pop him with a pin.

Luckily, they had Bofur for moments like this.

‘Oh, Thorin doesn’t need to worry about that, lad, and well he knows it,’ their favourite miner informed the room. ‘Bifur and I wouldn’t work for anyone else for all the gold in the world, and we most certainly wouldn’t work for a pompous windbag like you. Thorin was more worried we might have taken insult at the offer. Bifur’s a sensitive soul, you know.’

Sniggering broke out up and down the table – which kind people would have attributed to Bifur’s affronted look and cynics like Bilbo attributed to the number of people who thoroughly enjoyed hearing Bofur put that arsehole in his place – and, on that quintessentially Bofur note, the Council meeting was ended.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Three: Fragile

The door had barely closed before there was a tremendous crash as a decorative bowl, which had previously been adorning an end table in Thorin’s room, flew past Dori’s ear and shattered in the fireplace.

Bilbo hadn’t intended Thorin to take his invitation to smash something quite so literally, but...

Ah well.

Better Dáin lost a fancy bowl than his head.

‘Feel better?’ Bilbo asked their glorious leader as he approached Thorin’s position next to the end table. Thorin was standing stock still, eyes on the floor and breathing rather hard, hands clenched into fists at his side. The rest of the Company had taken up positions elsewhere in the room, most of them some distance from Thorin, with Fíli, Kíli and Dwalin as the only exceptions.

Balin would probably have been near him too, but he’d entered last and had been occupied in shutting the door when the porcelain started flying.

‘Not really,’ Thorin said roughly, taking a deep, slightly shaky breath before raising his head to meet Bilbo’s eyes.

‘He won’t help us,’ Thorin uttered, almost as if he was testing the words out, seeing how they fit in his mouth. As if he did not yet quite believe them.

‘We don’t know that, Thorin,’ Balin objected. When they all turned to him, the white-haired dwarf shook his head slightly. ‘Something is wrong here, we’ve known that almost since we arrived. I don’t think these words are Dáin’s, even if they are coming out of his mouth. He wants to talk to you later, without all the… panoply that seems to attend his every move here. Let’s see what he has to say when it’s just him.’

‘If he cannot make his own decisions in front of his Council, then no decision he makes out of their sight will stick,’ Thorin said heavily. ‘You know that, Balin. This avenue comes to nothing.’

‘Just… do not despair, Thorin,’ Balin advised. ‘There may yet be a way to do what we planned.’

Bilbo thought Balin’s calm seemed forced, more habit than conviction, but it struck the right note with Thorin. Perhaps it reminded him of the need to put on a good appearance himself. Bilbo’s heart broke for him a little, as it had for the boys when they told him that they were always on show in public, but he could sense others amongst the Company steadying as their King drew his shoulders back and stood taller once more.

‘In the meantime, we’ll do no good hovering here like a flock of ravens,’ Dwalin announced to the rest of the dwarves, motioning them towards the door. ‘Come on, entertain yourselves in your own rooms for a bit.’

There was some slight grumbling, but the majority of the Company did as they were bidden and headed for the exit. Fíli and Kíli, both looking thoroughly unnerved by their uncle’s earlier discomposure, stayed where they were, and Bilbo chose the same tack. He spotted Balin and Dwalin having a silent discussion as the dwarves filed out, then each of them clasped Thorin’s shoulder briefly.

‘I’ll only be next door if you need me,’ Balin assured Thorin, who nodded, returning the clasp. Balin studied him a moment, then his eyes widened ever so slightly.

‘You’ll see him alone, then?’

‘I think so,’ Thorin answered. ‘I want to talk to my cousin, the dwarf who’s always been a good friend to us. You think he still occupies this throne, and you’re not often wrong. Perhaps an informal discussion between family will go better.’

Now it was Balin’s turn to nod, slowly and thoughtfully.

‘Alright then,’ he said quietly. ‘Good luck.’

With that, Thorin’s two closest friends followed their companions out of the room.

Which left Bilbo with a deceptively calm King, who was probably fuming silently inside, and a pair of Princes so anxious they were practically vibrating.

How did he get himself into these situations?

He sighed, hopefully silently.

No use moaning about it now. He was just going to have to get on with sorting things out.

His first task was to calm Fíli and Kíli down, so he tugged the pair of them over to the rug by the fireplace, checking that he wasn’t about to step on any pottery shards, sat down and proceeded to pretend that they were young faunts whose problems could be solved by a good cuddle.

Surprisingly, neither of them objected to this treatment at all.

Even more surprisingly, neither did Thorin.

Though he was now viewing Bilbo with a look which suggested he was assessing him for potential insanity.

Which was a bit rich, really, considering which of them had been destroying innocent ceramics not ten minutes before.

‘Well,’ Bilbo demanded peremptorily, deciding that the best approach was to act as if he was entirely sane and everyone else was mad, ‘are you joining us or not?’

Now Thorin just looked startled.

‘Joining you?’ he asked, in a tone of utter disbelief.

‘Yes,’ Bilbo continued, faking confidence and assuming a manner which implied that this was the most natural idea in the world. ‘You’re looming, Thorin. It’s giving me neck ache. Sit.’

Thorin sat.

Then he glared at Bilbo, probably because of the way the boys snickered at him as they straightened out of Bilbo’s hug.

This was confirmed when Thorin reached over and poked a giggling Kíli in the ribs.

‘I don’t know what you’re laughing at,’ he told his nephew firmly. ‘Don’t think I haven’t noticed how quickly you obey Ori when he gives you an order, Prince of Ered Luin.’

Kíli stuck his tongue out, which Bilbo had a horrible feeling meant he’d been spending too much time with the boys and they’d been picking up his bad habits.

Still, both of them had relaxed and no longer looked as if they were about to shatter, probably because Thorin was finally smiling honestly, so Bilbo decided he could be forgiven for a few bad habits.

Especially as Thorin took the opportunity to survey both of his nephews, noting the signs of their worry with gentle concern, and used his next words to reassure.

‘We’ll survive, boys,’ he said calmly, still hiding all traces of his earlier anger. ‘We always do. If this does not work then I will find another way.’

‘We came here because there was no other way,’ Fíli whispered, as if he did not quite dare say it. As if just the thought was a sort of blasphemy.

‘We came here because this was the best way,’ Thorin countered, and he was so convincing, so quietly certain, that Bilbo wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not. He himself had received the impression all along that this was the dwarves’ only option, but Thorin was suggesting… Had Bilbo been wrong? ‘There are one or two other routes we can try. I would rather not try them. They come with higher risks than I am comfortable with, but if this door closes then try them I will. I will find a way, Fíli, Kíli. Ered Luin will survive.’

The boys considered this a moment longer, then nodded as their expressions lightened.

‘Go on now,’ Thorin told them. ‘I want to talk to Bilbo about something.’

‘Yes, Uncle,’ they chorused, rising to their feet in a fashion that made Bilbo’s mind wail for lost youth, and heading to the door with a quick wave goodbye to Bilbo. Thorin also rose, if a little slower, and reached down to pull Bilbo up.

‘I prefer a chair, personally,’ he told Bilbo dryly, ‘when one is available.’

They settled in said chairs as the door shut behind Fíli, and Bilbo instantly hit Thorin with a hard stare.

‘Did you lie to them?’ he questioned sternly.

Thorin’s response was immediate and offended, and Bilbo realised he had put his hairy foot well and truly in his mouth.

‘No, Bilbo, I did not,’ Thorin replied, dignity drawn fully around him. ‘I very rarely lie to them, even for their own good. There are other options, none of which I care for and none of which I hope to have to turn to. However, if we fail here then I will consider them. Going home empty-handed simply isn’t a possibility.’

Bilbo held up a hand as a sign of truce.

‘Alright, I’m sorry,’ he said in return, though even to his own ears he sounded less than conciliatory. ‘Though, if I were the one who had so completely and utterly ignored well-meant attempts at assistance earlier today, I would be a little less eager to stand on my high horse!’

‘Ah,’ Thorin murmured, expression going sheepish almost immediately as he remembered the scene in the Council meeting. ‘Yes. There was that, wasn’t there?’

‘Yes, Thorin,’ Bilbo said tartly, ‘there was!’

‘My sincere apologies, Bilbo,’ Thorin said, and, not content with words alone, he rose from the chair and offered a deep bow as well. ‘I confess I’m not entirely sure how many times you tried to get my attention; I really was beyond angry for a good proportion of that conversation and I lost all track of what was happening. I did know you were trying to stop me, however, and I should not have ignored you.’

‘No,’ Bilbo agreed, ‘you shouldn’t.’ He left the sentence hanging there for a long moment, to ensure Thorin understood his displeasure fully, then let himself soften. ‘I’ll allow that you were suffering extreme provocation though. I haven’t the faintest idea what your cousin is doing, but what reaction he thought he was going to get to an offer like that except for fury, I do not know. Did he really take your best craftsmen after the dragon drove you out of Erebor?’

‘Not Dáin,’ Thorin explained, suddenly sounding and looking tired as he leant back in his seat. ‘His grandfather, Grór. He was not a bad dwarf, nor a treacherous one, and the offers were by no means unsolicited. The majority of those who had the skills to start a new life in a stable kingdom did so in the months and years after Erebor fell. Nor could we blame those who went. They had lives to live and families to feed, and we were a poor proposition and knew it. It simply stung more, coming from our own kin, and then to hear the suggestion repeated today. There is so much more we could have done, had those who left us stayed, Bilbo.’

He looked so defeated and despairing again, the light that Fíli and Kíli had brought to his eyes snuffed by memories of the past, that Bilbo wished he had never asked. He began casting about for something he could say to bring the smile back again.

‘Yes,’ he acknowledged, for Thorin was not the sort to appreciate empty reassurances. ‘Perhaps you could. But you would never have been able to rely on them, Thorin. If they left then, they might have left at any time when a better offer came up. They would never have been as rock solid as Bofur and Bifur proved themselves today. Surely that is better, even if it is less profitable? To know that you can be certain of people?’

Miraculously, and against all Bilbo’s expectations, that did make Thorin smile.

Which still didn’t stun him half as much as what came out of Thorin’s mouth next.

‘You would make a wonderful royal consort, Bilbo,’ the King informed him, as if he was commenting on the price of Longbottom Leaf. ‘That is exactly what my mother said after my grandfather spent an entire evening bemoaning our losses.’

Bilbo gasped in a breath of air in surprise, somehow swallowed the wrong way and began to cough helplessly.

Thorin could not have meant that the way it had sounded to Bilbo, could he?

That had sounded like…

Almost as if it was... a suggestion.

Thorin’s smile instantly disappeared as he shot out of his chair to come and slap Bilbo on the back.

Oh Yavanna. No, of course Thorin had not meant it that way. It had been an offhand comment, for goodness’ sake. The sort of thing anyone might say.

Oh bother.

Bilbo, you idiot!

Bilbo waved Thorin’s assistance off, trying not to die of embarrassment as well as lack of air, and managed to get his breathing back under control.

Thorin appeared rather white and shocked, and he did not meet Bilbo’s eyes. Bilbo wondered if he had understood the cause of Bilbo’s own reaction and was embarrassed on Bilbo’s behalf. He hoped not, but it seemed likely given Thorin’s appearance.

Either way, Thorin thankfully had the grace to continue the conversation as if nothing had happened, moving on to his next topic.

Not that Bilbo was sure this topic was an improvement, necessarily.

‘I would like you to come with me when I speak to Dáin,’ Thorin requested, settling back into his chair and gripping the arms tightly, much to Bilbo’s confusion. ‘I have asked Balin to sit this meeting out; I think Dáin intends our next discussion to be less formal and I’m curious enough now that I would like it to be so myself. I might have a better chance of getting answers out of him that way. I don’t care to go entirely alone, however. In another situation I might have taken Fíli or, if she were here, Dís with me. I think you might be a more calming influence instead.’

‘Thorin, you do realise that in the Shire I am accounted to have one of the worst tempers in all of Hobbiton?’ Bilbo asked. Then he blinked in surprise. That was not at all what he had intended to say. He was almost certain he had had something lined up about his position in the Company, the fact that he was not, unlike Fíli and Dís, related to Thorin, and a great many other sensible arguments as well.

‘That, my dear friend, does not surprise me in the least,’ Thorin replied. The smile was back again, and Bilbo thought his head was going to start spinning in a moment from trying to keep up with Thorin’s mood. ‘It is always easier to be calm about other people’s troubles than it is about your own. I have faith that you will probably not throw a butter dish at Dáin’s head, as I am told you once did to Fortinbras.’

‘I didn’t throw it at his head,’ Bilbo muttered irritably. ‘I threw it at the picture next to his head. Honestly, Fortinbras always exaggerates so!’

‘I shall forebear from asking what the picture did to deserve such treatment, for doubtless you’ll just ask me the same question about the fireplace,’ Thorin said, almost to himself. Then, everything about him utterly earnest, ‘You will come with me, Bilbo? I will feel easier if you do.’

‘Oh… yes. Yes, of course I will,’ Bilbo stuttered in reply, completely unable to resist the request when it was put like that, and when Thorin was giving him that beseeching look.

It really ought not to be allowed.

Thorin was quite dangerous enough normally, there was absolutely no need to give him any more weapons against innocent bystanders.

‘Thank you,’ Thorin offered sincerely, holding out his hand. Bilbo took it without even thinking, and found himself on his feet and clasping hands with the King of the Dwarves for the second time that day, still without the foggiest idea what was really happening.

Then Thorin’s forehead was touching his own, as it had once before, and that warm feeling he remembered from the last time flowed through him once again from head to feet. It was still welcome, but thoroughly confusing at the same time, especially now it was combined with a sort of fluttery feeling in his chest that felt a lot like the panicked sensation he got before a battle sometimes, except more pleasant.

If any sort of panic could ever be pleasant.

Good grief, what on earth was happening to him?

This was all quite ridiculous.

It would have to stop.

Just as soon as they got this mess with Dáin and Ered Luin sorted out, Bilbo was going to have a long sit down with a cup of tea and work out exactly what was going on and how to put an end to it.

Until then, he was just going to have to hope it went away… because that was someone knocking on the door again, presumably looking for Thorin, and it didn’t seem likely that they were going to have a moment’s peace before this was all over.

Anything beyond the immediate emergency was just going to have to wait.

***

Thorin was aware that he was treading on dangerous ground.

In fact, there was so much perilous ground around him at this point, it would be a wonder if he managed to put a foot on anything that wasn’t about to slide out from underneath him at any second.

One would have thought that the situation with Dáin, upon which the fate of his family, his friends and his entire nation depended, would have been quite enough for one person to be getting on with.

Not Thorin, apparently.

Oh no.

Thorin, it seemed, had decided that while dealing with all of that, he was going to try to dive into the far more treacherous waters of romance simultaneously!

Whilst also talking about himself in the third person, mixing and mangling metaphors, and generally risking making a complete and utter idiot of himself.

Mahal above, what was he doing?

More to the point, why wasn’t Balin stopping him?

Or Dwalin?

Or even Bofur?

Thorin was almost certain they all knew what was going on – all three of them had spotted him holding Bilbo’s hand earlier, of that he was sure - and also what a truly terrible idea it was for him to be considering it right now. He had been pushing the thought away and resolutely NOT doing anything about it for weeks for a reason.

Why were they letting him get distracted at the vital moment?

Someone needed to stop him, because he seemed to have lost the ability to stop himself.

In fact, he had managed to utter something that had sounded suspiciously like the beginning of a proposal only minutes ago, which had most certainly not been in the plan when he began his conversation with Bilbo earlier.

It was almost as if, having denied himself permission to consider Bilbo in this light while he was on the quest to save his people, his heart was getting away from him and throwing these moments out there when he stopped paying attention.

Like a pony bolting with you if you loosened your grip on the reins for a moment.

No wonder poor Bilbo had choked. It was a wonder he had not run for his life.

Except that…

Well, Thorin did not think he was completely alone in this madness. Not after all they had been through, and how steadfast Bilbo had been in his support. Even today, when Thorin had forgotten himself and grasped Bilbo’s hand to help get a grip on his temper in the meeting, Bilbo had not pulled away as most friends would once a certain amount of time had passed.

Just as he did not pull away now, as they stood with their foreheads resting together, long past the time that would be considered appropriate by any dwarven standard of friendship.

They just stood, and breathed, and Thorin took the moment as a shield to hold before him in the interview with Dáin to come.

A calm to wrap around himself, with the hope it would settle under his skin and stop his temper flaring when provoked.

Bilbo’s scent was always of earth, even indoors, just as dwarves always had a hint of the underground even when they were above. It mixed, however, with steel and something Thorin thought might be lemon.

He had overheard Bilbo telling Bombur one day that lemon drizzle cake was his favourite. It was strange, Thorin thought, how you always associated things that people loved with the way that they smelled.

He wondered if he would have enough time with Bilbo to discover whether the hobbit had a secret stash of lemons somewhere, or lemon-scented soap, or whether Thorin really was just imagining things.

He was just about to open his mouth to say something – Mahal alone knew what, at this rate it would probably have been an actual proposal of marriage – when the knock on the door came.

They both straightened, Bilbo pulling away at the same time that Thorin released his hand, and turned to face the interruption. Bilbo was blushing slightly, and Thorin spared a second to hope he wasn’t doing the same.

‘Enter!’

‘Your Majesty,’ a young messenger said humbly, entering only a little way into the room. ‘Lord Dáin requests the honour of your presence when it is convenient.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Four: Another Hopeless Cause

‘Your Majesty,’ a young messenger said humbly, entering only a little way into the room. ‘Lord Dáin requests the honour of your presence when it is convenient.’

It wasn’t at all convenient, of course - Dáin’s timing was abysmal, and always had been – but Thorin had only just been thinking about the responsibilities of kingship and the necessity of serving his people to the best of his ability.

He was hardly going to tell either the messenger or his cousin to sod off now.

‘Of course,’ he said instead, letting the moment of peace with Bilbo fade into a dearly-held memory and pulling a lifetime of royal duty to the fore instead, ‘tell my cousin I will be with him shortly.’

‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ the young lass replied. ‘He’s in his study when you’re ready.’ Her tone was one of great relief, which suggested she had expected a much rougher time of it than this. Clearly rumours were flying about his last encounter with the Lord of the Iron Hills.

Thorin wondered idly if that was why they had sent a female messenger instead of a male one, then decided it didn’t really matter. The lass backed out of the room hastily and shut the door, and Thorin turned again to Bilbo.

Bilbo, whose expression made it quite clear that he was about to pretend nothing out of the ordinary had happened this afternoon at all.

Oh.

Well.

That should make things easier, shouldn’t it?

Thorin had determined that nothing was to happen while the situation with Ered Luin was still up in the air. That would be a great deal easier if they continued to act as friends only and ignored the moments when Thorin lost his grip on his self-control.

Not that there were going to be any more of those.

Truly.

He was going to act like the King he was, not a dwarf scarcely past his majority, and he was not the slightest bit disappointed that Bilbo had the good sense to encourage him to do so even when no one else would.

Truly.

‘We had best make our way to Dáin,’ he managed to say to Bilbo, voice perfectly even. ‘A little delay does no harm, but I did say shortly.’

‘Certainly,’ Bilbo agreed. ‘It wouldn’t do to appear tardy. I’m at your disposal, Thorin.’

Thorin nearly cursed. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard to keep control of his wayward tongue and mind after all. If they were going to become this awkwardly formal after every lapse, he’d have an excellent deterrent to bear in mind.

Rather than saying anything further, he turned and made for the door. Bilbo followed him without hesitation, and Thorin forcibly shoved all thoughts of anything except Dáin, Ered Luin and the Iron Hills out of his mind.

There were important problems to resolve, which required his full concentration.

He must remember that.

***

The Dáin who met them in his study was not one Thorin was familiar with. No longer betraying any of the anger that had filled him at Thorin’s insult in the Council Room, he looked tired, slightly haggard, and old.

It was enough to stop Thorin before he’d fully cleared the threshold, and have Bilbo colliding with his back. Only a firm shove in the small of said back got Thorin moving again and allowed Bilbo to shut the door.

Dáin, apparently aware of the reason for Thorin’s abrupt halt, gave a wry laugh that was equally dissimilar from his usual booming tones.

‘No Balin, Thorin?’ he queried, just the slightest hint of bite to his voice. ‘It’s not like him to leave you unattended when things are at such a critical stage.’

‘I thought perhaps we would do better to put the diplomacy to one side for a moment,’ Thorin countered evenly, trying not to be goaded at such an early stage. ‘Balin didn’t think himself necessary for a talk between cousins.’

‘And yet you’ve brought your hobbit companion with you,’ Dáin pointed out, surveying Bilbo in the manner of someone drawing attention to an obvious flaw in argument.

‘Bilbo has proved to be good at… providing me with an outside perspective,’ Thorin answered, perhaps a bit more cautiously than he should have done. He’d been trying to avoid blurting out, ‘Bilbo might as well be family so there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be here,’ but Dáin’s raised hackles proved he’d managed to put his foot in it another way instead.

‘I thought we were putting the diplomatic bullshit to one side, Thorin,’ he rapped out, half-rising in his chair, though to what end Thorin had no idea.

Slightly exasperated with both of them, Thorin shot back with the first thing that came to mind.

‘Oh, fine; I thought he might be able to stop me punching you if you pissed me off, you over-sensitive arse! Is that better?’

Dáin was silent for a brief second, then he snorted unattractively before beginning to laugh genuinely.

‘It’s more sincere, at least,’ he responded. ‘Though what a little scrap like that is going to do against you…’

‘He disarmed Dwalin the first time they met, and he’s the one who started Azog’s deathblow, even if he was kind enough to let me finish it,’ Thorin shot back. ‘Underestimate hobbits at your peril, Dáin. Cousinly advice for you.’

‘Indeed,’ Dáin replied, eyeing Bilbo with dawning respect. Bilbo was looking a little irritated by the whole exchange, which made Thorin rather nervous, but then he just shook his head in exasperation.

‘Dwalin would do well to remember more of the lessons in manners that Balin tells me Lord Fundin tried to drill into him,’ he said briefly. ‘As for Azog, that was a joint effort. I told you, Thorin, it was a very dense chest and I needed some dwarven muscle behind the blow. Now, are we going to sit down or shall I stand here all evening?’

There was, of course, only one answer Dáin could give to such a question, and soon they were all seated around Dáin’s desk in a semi-comfortable silence.

‘You spoke with your Guildmaster, I assume?’ Thorin asked after a minute or so, to break the silence. Dáin heaved a sigh, and nodded.

‘Aye, I did,’ he agreed. ‘Supercilious bastard. He informed me it never occurred to the Guild that an offer of employment with them could be anything but a great honour, or that I would consider it necessary for the Guild to inform me of such offers before they were made to one of your entourage.’ Dáin paused, twisting the seal around his neck as he had in the Council chamber earlier. ‘Complete bollocks, of course. They knew exactly what they were doing, although I’m half-inclined to believe they’re so up their own arses that they truly believe working for them to be a great honour.’

Thorin absorbed that, entirely able to believe it was the case even from the very little he’d seen of the Dean of the Miners' Guild. Still, there was quite a lot it did not explain.

‘What is going on here, Dáin?’ he asked quietly, meeting Dáin’s gaze head on and refusing to let Dáin avoid his eyes. ‘Everything here has been wrong since almost the moment we arrived. As soon as I told you Ered Luin was in need of help, everything changed. It has been oddity after oddity ever since, but none of it seems to come directly from you. Tell me what it is.’

‘You haven’t figured it out yet?’ Dáin asked bitterly, leaning back in his chair, slamming both booted feet onto his desk and spreading his arms out expansively to encompass not only the office around them but everything that surrounded it. ‘I am powerless here, Thorin. I am little more than a figurehead in my own kingdom, permitted to make decisions only as long as they don’t run counter to the wishes of those with the real power.’

Thorin just stared for a moment.

It was not that he had not suspected something of that nature. It fit all of the facts that Thorin had seen so far.

It was just that it seemed so… unlikely.

How on earth had Dáin allowed things to get into such a state?

Thorin must not have been the only one staring, for suddenly Dáin uttered a gruff, ‘Don’t look at me like that, Hobbit. A dwarf is entitled to act as he likes in his own study.’

‘I do not believe I looked at you in any particular way, my Lord,’ Bilbo said blandly, ‘except perhaps surprised. I would not have guessed the situation was so bad as that.’

‘Nor I,’ Thorin interjected, not wanting Bilbo to be caught in the crossfire of Dáin’s temper. Apparently it worked, for Dáin deflated. After a moment, he sat up, took his feet off the table and looked at them sombrely once more.

‘It’s a bloody mess, Thorin,’ he said softly, quieter than Thorin had ever heard him. Though his words were addressed to his cousin, they encompassed Bilbo as well. ‘I’ve never had to explain it all before, so you’ll forgive me if I’m a little reluctant.’

Thorin nodded, fully able to understand the feeling. How much had he hated the knowledge that everyone in Ered Luin, and shortly afterward some of those without, had known of Wikan’s treachery and what it had cost his people?

Of what Thorin had allowed to happen right under his nose.

He hummed a little under his breath, not entirely realising he was doing so. Perhaps that was the answer; a fair exchange of information, a salve to Dáin’s pride.

It would hurt like bedamned to give it, but if they were to get the help they needed, sacrifices would have to be made.

‘You remember Wikan?’ Thorin asked, receiving a raised eyebrow from Dáin at the sudden change of topic. Bilbo showed no surprise at all, but then Thorin had not expected him to. Thorin was not a fool. He was well aware that someone had spilled the beans about the cause of the mine collapse to Bilbo during their journey, and likely earlier than Thorin would have preferred.

It mattered little now.

‘Aye, I remember,’ Dáin confirmed, tone questioning. ‘Pompous windbag, arrogant too, thick as thieves with Thrór.’

‘He collapsed the mine,’ Thorin said bluntly, and watched Dáin’s eyes widen. Just saying it made Thorin feel as if someone was dragging sandpaper up the inside of his windpipe and over his tongue, as if the words themselves were sharp and bitter, but he forged on. ‘Night-mining. He insisted I was wrong to heed Bofur and Bifur’s warnings about the stability of the richest tunnels. Insisted they were perfectly fine and should continue to be mined. I denied his arguments and continued the ban. So he went in with night crews, dwarves desperate enough to take his money and ignore the law. They brought the whole lot down.’

‘Mahal’s sweet mercy,’ Dáin breathed, a look of pure horror on his face.

‘Thirty miners killed,’ Thorin continued, not quite able to stop. ‘Our entire livelihood gone. I had him put to death for treason, of course, but what did that avail us really? The damage was long since done.’

‘Thorin,’ Dáin began, then stopped as if he had no idea how to continue.

‘We all have our shame, Cousin,’ Thorin told him solemnly. ‘I would happily have let Azog kick my arse to Moria and back before uttering those words again, but it has not killed me. Come, say it and have done.’

Dáin met his eyes, and whatever was in Thorin’s in that moment must have decided him. He nodded sharply, and sat up straight, clutching his seal in his hand.

‘It doesn’t all start with me,’ he informed them, ‘though that’s no great comfort to me. Years ago, Grandfather needed money for the War with the Orcs, just as Thrór did, and the Guilds were only too happy to provide it… for a price. They wanted seats on the Council, and at the time it seemed like a perfectly fair request. It hadn’t been done before in the Iron Hills, we’d been too traditional for that, but for Mahal’s sake we were a kingdom founded on mining and smithing. Why shouldn’t they have their say? So the deal was done, and no one thought much of it.

‘Only it wasn’t the only deal that was needed. That war drained us dry, Thorin. Thrór drained us dry. Nothing was enough for him, it was always more warriors, more arms, more money, and Grandfather saw a brother who had lost his kingdom – a brother whose kingdom he had refused to help reclaim – and would deny him almost nothing. So there were more deals, more seats, and soon the Council was growing and growing, and the Guilds were reminding Grandfather and Father more and more often that it was their money keeping the Iron Hills afloat. The taxes had been raised as high as they could possibly go and they weren’t even touching the sides. So on top of the taxes there were ‘gifts’ from the Guilds being given; but we all knew damn well those gifts would have become loans quick enough if they hadn’t got their way… and what were we going to repay a loan with? All the money was going to Thrór.’

‘You never said a word,’ Thorin murmured, mind desperately trying to take it in. He hadn’t guessed a thing. None of them had guessed a thing, unless Fundin and Thráin had known and never told him. Mother had been close to Dala, Náin’s wife, once upon a time. Had she known?

‘Grandfather swore us to secrecy,’ Dáin told him, answering that question at least. ‘The whole family. Not a word to anyone. By the time he realised how it was going, the shame was almost killing him. Our kingdom was no longer our own and he would not have Thrór know that. We were to say nothing.’

‘But surely your nobles would have...,’ Thorin began, only to be cut off by Dáin’s bark of humourless laughter.

‘Oh Valar, Thorin, we do not all have a Fundin or a Balin, but we are not stupid either. Grandfather’s Steward might have let us get into this mess but he thought of that!’

‘Then what happened?’ Thorin demanded, thumping his hand on the arm of his chair, past caring if he was being rude or not. This made some sense, yes, but still… not enough.

‘Grandfather gathered the nobles together,’ Dáin said shortly, ‘all those who had not died in the fighting. He told them their support was needed for a push against the Guilds, a reminder of who truly ruled in the Iron Hills. We learned two things that day.

‘First, that half the noble families were in debt to one or other of the Guilds as well. Second, that they could see their power waning, and they blamed us for the loss. They considered it our responsibility to solve the problem. They had fought, they told us, quite hard enough for the Iron Hills. They had sacrificed and lost enough in our name. I could hardly blame them for that assertion, not after the carnage at Azanulbizar. If they still had their original head of the family, chances were his heir was dead in his place. It was a bloody nightmare. Either way, when Grandfather tried to force the issue, they tried to force his hand in turn.’

‘How?’ Thorin asked, almost reluctantly. Dáin’s expression was as bleak as he’d ever seen it. As bleak as the desolation Smaug had left behind, and Thorin had a sudden premonition that he did not want to know.

‘They told us that if we could not control the Guilds ourselves, perhaps Thorin Oakenshield would have more luck. He was without a true kingdom to rule now, and they would be perfectly willing to ask him. To have the chief descendants of Durin’s line on the throne of the Iron Hills instead.’

Bilbo let out the gasp that got stuck in Thorin’s throat. Thorin’s mouth opened and closed but no sound came out. Not for long minutes, until finally he felt Bilbo’s hand on his back and his muscles seemed to unlock and air circulated properly once more.

‘I would not,’ Thorin told Dáin in shock. ‘Surely you knew I would not?’

‘Wouldn’t you?’ Dáin asked, haunted again for a moment. ‘Even with your people starving, Thorin? Even with nowhere else to go?’

‘That’s why,’ Thorin murmured to himself, the final piece of the puzzle clicking into place. ‘As soon as I told you why we had come, everything changed.’

‘Aye,’ Dáin agreed, ‘because I knew damn well what every nobleman in that room was thinking, just as I know what they’d think if they heard the story of Azog’s final demise. Here’s one who could rule us. Here’s one who could put the Guilds in their place. You’re the biggest threat my rule has faced in a hundred years, Thorin. And you’re my own cousin. What do I do with that?’

‘Get rid of him,’ Bilbo interjected. Thorin thought they had both almost forgotten he was there, despite his hand on Thorin’s back keeping Thorin steady, and they each turned abruptly to face him. ‘Not like that,’ Bilbo objected, seeing the shocked looks. ‘Honestly, Thorin, anyone would think I hadn’t spent the last several months trying to keep you and yours alive!’

‘Well, you did threaten to abandon us if he turned out to be a bloodthirsty tyrant,’ Thorin said, so quietly Dáin would not hear, letting Bilbo’s familiar grumpy teasing ease him out of his appalled shock. Bilbo pinched him in revenge, and Thorin pretended it hurt to keep up appearances.

‘Can someone please explain in what way I am meant to be rid of him, then?’ Dáin queried, then saw the look of wry amusement on Thorin’s face. ‘Oh, you know what I mean,’ he groaned.

‘If you give the help that Ered Luin needs,’ Bilbo pointed out, ‘then Thorin will have no reason to stay and your nobles will have to quiet down again.’

Dáin’s momentary optimism disappeared immediately.

‘The money is out of my control,’ he reminded them, and it might as well have been a death knell for the way it dropped into the room, ‘and the Guilds will never let a penny of it go to anything but the Iron Hills’ gain. Their money for their kingdom. I have heard it often enough. It would almost be admirable, if it weren’t so clear that they consider it their kingdom rather than mine.’

Thorin could only suspect that the look on his own face must mirror Dáin’s, except that his own hopelessness must be twice as clear to see.

It was done.

There was no way to get what they had come for.

The sons of Dáin I had been cursed indeed; doomed themselves and dooming their descendants just as completely in their turn.

‘I am sorry, Thorin,’ Dáin said, and it was so sincere that any bitterness Thorin might have felt towards his cousin drained away. ‘Were it mine, you might have had it for the asking. I simply have nothing to give you, until Raig,’ Thorin recognised the name of Dáin’s chief advisor, ‘and I can find a way out of this hole.’

Thorin nodded, unable to think of anything to say that might help the situation, or even that wouldn’t make it worse. Finally, he simply rose to his feet, careful to avoid stepping on Bilbo as he did so. His hobbit had not moved from his place by Thorin’s side for the latter part of the conversation.

Dáin, never comfortable with silence, looked nervous and was twisting his chain again. His distress was apparent enough that Thorin forced himself to speak rather than simply walking out.

Besides, that would only lead Bilbo to accuse him of being melodramatic, and he would come to think it a family trait.

‘I will need to make other plans,’ he informed Dáin, as gently as he could. His voice was probably still harsher than most people would like, but Dáin was of the Line of Durin. He would understand. ‘May we continue to rest here while I do?’

‘Of course,’ Dáin said quickly. ‘You are welcome here, Thorin.’ Thorin nodded, reaching out to clasp forearms with his cousin as a final reassurance. Dáin took it gratefully, and Thorin was glad he had managed to avoid completely burning this bridge. Perhaps Balin was right, and there was much to be said for listening to people after all.

And also for hobbit companions in times of great stress.

Still, as Thorin walked away from Dáin’s study and back to his own rooms, all he could hear in his mind was an echo from several months ago.

Dís’ voice.

What will we do, Thorin?

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Five: Who Sees Much

The words continued to ring in his head all the way through the corridors of the Iron Hills.

What will we do?

What will we do?

I don’t know, Thorin thought at that persistent, maddening voice. I don’t KNOW.

But was that truly the problem?

Didn’t he know?

What else could he possibly do at this point?

How many options did they have left?

‘Bilbo, would you… tell Balin for me?’ he asked quietly, as they approached the suites of rooms that Dáin had laid aside for the Company’s use. It made him feel weak even to ask – Thorin had never shied from his own duty before, never relied on another to speak to Balin on his behalf about matters of state – but he needed… peace.

A moment to think.

Just a moment.

‘Of course,’ Bilbo murmured in response, and his eyes held an ocean of sympathy that nearly broke Thorin apart there and then. ‘I’ll bring him to the dining room once we’re done. We’ll need to gather the others as well.’

They would. Of course they would. Thorin would need to make sure they all knew the way of things here, that none of them accidentally put their foot in it and made things worse for either themselves or Dáin while they continued to stay.

Always something else to do.

Something else to think of.

He had been a fool to think any of it would ever be easy.

Still, Bilbo would take care of it for a few minutes at least.

Thorin was going to… sit somewhere.

And think.

Just for a moment.

***

Ori enjoyed being in the dining room when everyone else scattered for the day. It was a big open room, well-lit despite the predictable lack of windows, warmed by a large fire, and he always felt as if it held the echoes of their meals together even if no one else was with him.

He could have peace and company all at the same time, which made it just about perfect for writing his chronicle.

Every so often one of the others would wander in - Dori to see that he was okay, Bombur to grab something else to eat, Fíli checking that everyone was where he thought they should be (Ori was never going to mention to anyone that Fíli should actually have been born a sheepdog, but he really should have been!) – and Ori would have a few minutes of conversation, and then they would leave again and he would carry on.

So when he heard the door open, he expected it to be Dori. They’d all been nervous today, after the news that Thorin was off speaking to Dáin had done the rounds, and Dori had been in more often than normal as a consequence.

He didn’t look up until he heard someone sink heavily into a chair at the other end of the table.

Then he did, and promptly squeaked in a most embarrassing way whilst wishing he was anywhere else but here.

That was Thorin.

Oh Mahal, that was Thorin.

Then Ori nearly banged his head off the table. Obviously it was Thorin. Ori had been able to recognise his King by sight since he was 20. How likely was it that he would suddenly misidentify him now after several months of travelling together?

It was just that Ori had not expected to see Thorin here when he was supposed to be in that meeting.

Surely if the meeting was over then he should be with Balin and Dwalin and Bilbo, planning?

Unless it hadn’t gone well.

Ori sneaked a quick look across the table.

It didn’t look as if the meeting had gone well.

Thorin looked the way he had after the Council meeting.

So very tired.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

The words seemed to fall out of his mouth entirely without Ori’s permission, and it was all he could do not to bite his tongue as if that would call them back.

Thorin’s head, which had been tilted against the back of the chair, his eyes closed as if he were about to doze off, straightened. He looked over in Ori’s direction with a clear query in his gaze, and Ori wanted to sink through the floor.

Why, oh why, had he been the one here when Thorin arrived? Why had it not been someone older, who did not say stupid things when they were nervous?

Even Bofur would have had the sense to offer Thorin ale instead of tea, of all things!

‘I don’t know why I said that,’ Ori babbled nervously, unable to stop himself, though he was aware that he was only making the hole bigger. ‘It’s just… well, Dori likes tea so much, you see, and it always calms him down when he’s having a bad day. He’s needed a lot of calming down on this trip,’ he gestured nervously to the kettle hanging near the chamber’s fire. ‘He and Nori don’t normally spend this much time together. They find it a bit… stressful.’

‘And you end up serving a lot of cups of tea?’ Thorin asked, a wry query seeping through the flat tone that made Ori’s stomach turn with worry. Thorin crossed his arms on the table in front of him, leaning forward and focusing completely on Ori.

That wasn’t really an improvement.

‘Something like that,’ Ori mumbled, wishing fervently that he’d learned to just keep his mouth shut when in the presence of his betters.

He’d been spending too much time with Balin and Dwalin, and with the Princes. The lads back home had been right; it had given him ideas above his station.

‘Poor Ori,’ Thorin said gently, and some of the flatness had disappeared, though Ori still felt slightly sick with nerves. ‘What a journey you must have had.’

‘It wasn’t so bad,’ Ori hurried to assure him. ‘Aside from the spiders and Fíli and all that. Nori got distracted by Dwalin fairly early on, and Dori and Bombur get on well. Having someone to sympathise with him when he’s in a bad mood helps Dori a lot. Nori always laughs at him and that just makes him worse. He likes seeing me with Balin, too.’

‘Oh?’ Thorin queried. Now Ori knew he really should stop talking - Thorin couldn’t possibly be interested in all of this, after all – but with Thorin’s eyes on him seeming to mildly demand answers, Ori didn’t know how to put an end to the conversation, or even to turn it to another topic.

‘Yes,’ he said instead, ‘because if I’m Balin’s apprentice then no one will try to “take advantage” of me like they used to try and do with Dori and Nori when they were younger; that’s what Dori says. I don’t know what that means, really,’ he confessed, embarrassed at his own naivete, because the way Dori said it made it clear that what could happen would be terrible.

As did the way that Thorin suddenly appeared even more interested in what he had to say. People weren’t that interested in Ori unless he’d said something he shouldn’t have, normally.

‘Did that happen to Dori and Nori often, Ori?’ Thorin asked interestedly.

‘I don’t know,’ Ori answered honestly. Neither of his brothers would ever talk about it at all, ‘but I think it must have happened quite a lot, because they never let me go out on my own at all when we were at home. Not once I got older. Someone always had to be with me.’

‘Yes,’ Thorin said quietly, ‘I imagine they did. Your brothers did a very good job of protecting you, Ori. It is to their credit.’

‘Like you did a good job of protecting Fíli and Kíli,’ Ori agreed. ‘They know more than I do, because they’re older and because people say more in front of them, but they trust that you’ll take care of everything because you always have. That’s how you can tell.’

Thorin’s eyes sharpened, and the piercing look he sent Ori was so discomfiting that Ori looked away and began fiddling with his parchment and quills instead.

‘No, Ori, don’t do that,’ Thorin told him, and his voice was gentle again. ‘I was only interested. You spend a lot of time watching the rest of us, don’t you?’

Ori glanced up, nodded shortly, then glanced away again.

‘It’s interesting,’ he managed to say after several breaths, when the lump in his throat had disappeared. ‘People are interesting. Like everyone here, with all their games to look polite and dignified while they’re actually trying to scramble over each other’s backs to get to the top. There are lots of nice people, too, but they’re letting the unpleasant people run everything and it’s awful.’

‘Yes,’ Thorin concurred, ‘it is. When those in charge want nothing but more and more power, it is always awful eventually Ori.’

Ori nodded. He was beginning to realise that from Balin’s lessons, and from all the other chronicles he’d read, even if they were a lot drier than his was going to be.

Emboldened by the idea that he’d managed almost an entire conversation with his King without putting his foot firmly down his throat, Ori looked up again and eyed Thorin more closely. He still looked tired, weighed down, the lines on his face and hands clear because he was drawn with worry and stress. Both of his hands were clenching and unclenching, as Ori had noticed they did when Thorin was anxious, though he did not seem to realise he was doing it.

‘Lord Dáin can’t help us, can he?’ Ori asked softly, as if saying it quietly could somehow make the question less momentous.

Thorin didn’t respond at first, and Ori wondered if perhaps he would not. Ori was being very presumptuous, after all. He was only the youngest member of the Company, and he was fairly sure they’d brought him along on the theory that ‘an extra body is never a bad thing, just in case’.

‘No,’ Thorin said, just as Ori had come to the conclusion that he would also pretend he hadn’t said anything, because that would make everything less awkward. ‘He can’t. We are on our own.’

Ori nodded again, unable to think of anything to say. He had expected that answer – what else could make Thorin look so devastated? – but it still felt a little like being kicked in the stomach.

‘What would you do?’ Thorin asked suddenly, and when Ori met his gaze with obvious surprise, Thorin smiled sadly. ‘I think you know a lot more than you realise, Ori-who-sees-much. Balin thinks so too, or he would not have taken you as his apprentice.’

Ori had never really thought about it like that. He’d half-thought that Balin took him as his apprentice because having Nori’s younger brother as a criminal as well might have given Dwalin an aneurysm. At least if Ori was gainfully employed then Nori probably wouldn’t be tempted to train him up as an accomplice.

Ori had always fancied he’d make quite a good criminal, really. No one would ever suspect him, anyway, and that was half the battle. Part of Nori’s problem was that he always looked so shifty, even when he was behaving himself.

And all of this was just a way of distracting Ori from the fact that Thorin seemed to want an answer to his question, and Ori couldn’t decide whether to give the honest answer or not.

Not when the honest answer meant admitting to something he probably shouldn’t know.

There comes a moment, Nori had always told him, when your instincts will give you the strongest hint they can: trust or don’t trust. When that happens, you ignore your brain, little brother, no matter how clever it is. Nothing knows better than your gut. Nothing.

Nori’s gut had apparently got him Dwalin, despite the fact they were usually at daggers drawn from morning ’til night, so Ori was willing to admit he might know what he was talking about.

Did he trust that Thorin would forgive him his effrontery? That he would understand Ori had not been spying?

Of course he did. His King had been nothing but kind and gentle with him all along, no matter what anyone else might say about him. The idiots in Ered Luin just didn’t look, that was their problem.

‘I’d use that map and key,’ Ori told his King earnestly. He waited to see the meaning sink in, watched Thorin’s eyes widen, his hands grip the table, his whole body tense. Then, moments later, relax again as he looked Ori up and down.

‘That’s just me, though,’ Ori hurried to assure him. ‘You’ll have the others to give you much better advice. The most important thing I can tell you is… whatever you do, Thorin, whatever path you take from here, we will all take it with you. Every one of us.’

He hadn’t really been sure if the words would matter or not, but Thorin closed his eyes for a moment and then, when he opened them again, they said a great deal he did not utter aloud.

Ori nodded and didn’t speak either. Honestly, he thought he’d used up his word allotment for a month after today.

It was probably a good thing anyway. Only seconds later, the door opened and members of the Company began to spill into the room. Dwalin first, with Bilbo and the Princes not far behind him. Balin was presumably off rousting the others, but those four surrounded their King in seconds, quiet but very much there.

Ori turned back to his chronicle, preparing to keep himself occupied until the others arrived and he needed to pay attention again.

It turned out, however, that Thorin wasn’t quite done with him.

‘Ori,’ he called, drawing Ori back up from his parchment once more. When Ori gave his attention, Thorin smiled ever so slightly. ‘Perhaps that tea?’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Six: Fixed

‘Your grandfather had a real talent for buggering stuff up, didn’t he?’ Bifur said thoughtfully in Khuzdul, once Uncle had finished summarising his conversation with Dáin for them. ‘He didn’t even have to rule a kingdom to ruin it.’

A moment of shocked silence changed to a burst of shocked, nervous laughter as members of the Company took in what Bifur had just said and tried to decide whether they were allowed to be entertained by it or not.

Fíli was fairly sure that they were all amused by it, because Bifur really had hit the nail upon the head there, despite the inappropriateness of his timing.

All but one, of course.

‘Do I want to know what Bifur just said?’ Bilbo asked Bofur quietly, viewing them all with a jaundiced eye. ‘Something about Thorin’s grandfather, that much I did get.’

‘These two,’ Bofur responded, jerking his head in the direction of his brother and cousin, ‘have been telling me for years that there are some things that should remain unsaid, or in this case untranslated. That was probably one of them. What in Mahal’s name did you say it for?’ he muttered lowly to Bifur. Then, when Bifur muttered something in response to the question, he exploded indignantly. ‘What do you mean you were pretending to be me?’

Luckily, Uncle stepped in before a brawl could break out and, rather than appearing ready to explode with anger, he simply seemed mildly entertained. Bifur received a raised eyebrow instead of the tongue-lashing Fíli had been half-expecting him to get.

When the miner winked at Uncle cheekily, Fíli realised he had been testing the waters, checking to see what Uncle’s mood was like.

Making himself the target of any potential temper because Bifur, much like his cousin, was utterly immune to Uncle’s fury and always had been.

It was an unexpected reminder of how often, and how easily, they all managed each other now. How much they knew of each other after all these months together.

It did not shatter the lump of rock which had taken up residence in Fíli’s stomach as he’d heard Uncle describe how completely alone they were in their troubles, but it chipped a few of the nastier sharp edges off.

Fíli would take what he could get.

‘To answer Bifur’s question,’ Uncle said, voice almost as arid as Harad’s deserts, ‘yes, Thrór does appear to have done severe damage to the stability of the Iron Hills, though I do not believe we can entirely acquit Grór of his role, either. Regardless, the result is that Dáin has not the power to help us save Ered Luin. He’s more in need of saving himself.’

‘I’ve a mind to go and give him some advice before we leave,’ Glóin said impatiently. ‘Strikes me he’s making a great deal out of nothing!’

Fíli was fairly sure that he was not the only one practically boggling at his cousin.

‘He owes the guilds more money than he could ever repay,’ he pointed out slowly, trying to work out which part of the whole scenario Glóin was failing to comprehend.

‘They have more seats on his Council than any other group in Ered Luin,’ Kíli added helpfully, also eyeing Glóin with great confusion.

‘And the nobles won’t help him fight them off because they’ve half-decided they’d do better getting Thorin to be Lord of the Hills instead,’ Balin said regretfully, patting Uncle gently on the arm as he did so, as if trying to ease the blow that that discovery must have been.

‘Load of bollocks,’ Glóin dismissed quickly. ‘The important thing is whether the Guilds have any of it down on paper or not, and I’ll bet they don’t. Not from back then. It’ll have been verbal agreements, that’s all Grór would have allowed, a promise to put so many Guild members on to the Council in return for however-much money. If they haven’t got it in writing then Dáin’s got every option in the world open to him. A restructuring of the Council, a re-haul of the treasury system, a review of taxation practices; any or all of the above will let him do exactly what he needs to do. I don’t know what he’s making such a fuss about!’

‘Glóin, those are debts of honour!’ Uncle objected strenuously, appearing entirely stunned at the idea that such things could simply be shrugged aside.

‘And what honour are the Guilds showing when the power-grubbing bastards attempt to steal Dáin’s kingdom out from under him for their own purposes?’ Glóin asked emphatically.

‘Dáin can hardly be expected to sink to their level,’ Uncle spluttered, looking at Glóin as if he had suddenly grown a second head. Fíli was partially in agreement with him. A debt of honour was sacrosanct, after all; one did not simply throw it away when it became inconvenient.

On the other hand, however, there was a certain beautiful justice in Glóin’s manner of dealing with things.

‘Even when the welfare of his kingdom is at stake?’ Glóin challenged Uncle, refusing to back down. ‘Thorin, sometimes a dwarf has to be prepared to get his hands dirty when the other side is determined not to fight fair! How many times did we put that tactic to use in battle?’

‘That was different,’ Uncle argued. ‘Damnit, Glóin, sometimes you’re such a…’

‘Such a what?’ Glóin demanded, when Uncle appeared either unable or unwilling to finish the sentence.

Merchant!’ Uncle exploded, throwing his hands in the air, then irritably yanking a piece of hair out of his face when it had the temerity to fall into his eyes at the sudden movement.

Glóin snorted angrily, folding his arms across his broad chest and glaring at Uncle in a manner which never boded well.

‘Never minded that merchant when he was funding your hopeless bloody expedition without the slightest expectation of a return on his investment, did you?’ he uttered, the words a blatant challenge.

Fíli was fairly sure he heard Kíli give a little gasp of horror, even as Uncle opened his mouth to retort.

‘I think that conversation has descended quite far enough, thank you,’ Bilbo interjected tartly, before another word could fall out of anyone’s mouth. ‘There’s enough infighting in the Iron Hills without us adding to it.’

‘Yes,’ Balin added hastily, frowning mightily at Glóin and Uncle both. ‘Stop it, both of you. Thorin, there’s no need to be nasty when Glóin’s simply offering advice. Glóin, please stop going for the jugular and saying things you don’t really mean every time someone offends you. It will make everyone’s life easier.’

The two culprits looked as sheepish as either of them ever did, and exchanged curt nods of apology. Fíli suspected that Dori’s mutter of ‘idiots’ summed up the feelings of most of the Company.

‘Dáin could always just get rid of the troublemakers,’ Nori mused airily, returning to the original point as if the disagreement between Glóin and Uncle had never happened. ‘Change the leadership of the Guilds to those who are willing to work with him and the problem will go away soon enough.’

‘Nori!’ several voices exclaimed all at once, Fíli’s own among them. He could not possibly be suggesting… could he?

No.

Surely not…

No. He couldn’t be.

Nori had never been accused of murder, no matter what other charges had been brought.

Besides, Dwalin would never allow…

‘Sounds sensible enough to me,’ Dwalin said equably, seemingly speaking directly to Balin in response to his brother’s look of, Well? Do something! ‘Cut the head off the snake and it won’t be causing you trouble any time soon.’

Fíli nearly choked on nothing (he really had to stop doing that, it was becoming a very embarrassing habit). Balin didn’t appear to be very far behind him. Uncle looked like he’d been clouted over the head with a club, and several other members of the Company were gaping unattractively.

‘Nori will not,’ Ori said from his position seated at the table, speaking with a calm firmness that Fíli had never heard him use before and apparently addressing the room at large, ‘be getting rid of anyone in a manner that might get him, or any of us, in trouble with the Guard. Whether he has Dwalin’s approval or not.’

‘Of course not, little brother,’ Nori agreed, smiling brightly and slyly, ‘but if the blackmail is choice enough then the Guildmasters are hardly likely to go to the Guard, are they? And I can’t possibly get in trouble for something I’m not reported for. Particularly if it works in the favour of the Lord of the Iron Hills.’

Ori appeared to contemplate this for some moments - whilst various members of the Company picked their jaws up off the floor and tried to pretend they’d known Nori was talking about blackmail all along - then he nodded decisively.

‘That you can discuss with Dáin,’ he told his brother magnanimously, ‘as long as you have Thorin’s approval, after we have taken care of Ered Luin.’

Several heads swung round to look at Uncle, who merely shrugged.

‘Far be it from me to dare question Ori’s judgement,’ Uncle told them all. ‘Or to deny Dáin the sort of good advice that I am given so freely by my own people. Once we have seen to the safety of our own kingdom, you may all offer him any help that you see fit.’

It was possible that Uncle muttered, ‘Mahal help his soul,’ after that last bit but, as no one heard the words clearly enough to swear to it, even Kíli felt obliged to offer a caveat when recording the conversation for posterity in his chronicle.

***

Thorin was not the only one feeling rather sorry for Dáin at this point. Bilbo could also see how the combined expertise of the Company could be a little overwhelming when turned your way (the enthusiastic discussion they were currently having about the best method of resolving Ered Luin’s problems was perfect proof of that), and he suspected the ruler of the Iron Hills was in for something of a shock when his day of reckoning finally arrived.

However, Bilbo was rather more focused on what came before that.

He imagined Thorin was too.

They still had not decided what they were going to do about Ered Luin.

Or had they?

Thorin seemed… calm, almost.

Settled.

As if perhaps he had come to a decision in those moments of quiet he had asked Bilbo to buy him and, despite the flare-up with Glóin a few minutes before, having some certainty at last was steadying him.

Bilbo could understand that.

It was half of the reason he had taken up the sword after his mother’s death. The other half, admittedly, had been a burning desire to be able to kill any orc that ever again threatened his homeland, but the reason he had clung to the idea so strongly had been the quiet he had felt in those initial moments after making the decision, and during every lesson the twins had given him.

He could only hope Thorin’s decision worked out so well for him.

He caught Thorin’s eye now and gave him a questioning look, wondering if their leader was ready to bring the Company back in line so they could discuss their next move. Thorin took a deep breath, then nodded, and Bilbo whistled shrilly to draw attention back to him.

‘Ori is right,’ he told the Company firmly. ‘We tidy our own house first, then we look to our neighbour’s.’

‘Aye,’ Dwalin agreed almost immediately, giving Thorin a look of apology, ‘we’ve been getting carried away. Dáin’s problems seemed a little easier to fix so….’

‘Yes, I’ll admit I would still rather have his troubles than our own,’ Thorin agreed, smiling wryly, ‘but the Valar tend not to negotiate on that front, alas. We get what we are given. And what we have been given is very little choice and, as far as I and one of my closest advisors can see,’ Bilbo saw Thorin shoot Ori a quick smile and Ori’s face flush bright red in response. It was utterly adorable and he made a mental note to ask Thorin about it later, ‘only one option still open to us.’

Thorin reached inside the pocket of his coat and produced two items, placing them on the table before him. The whole Company pressed closer to see, and Bilbo ducked under a stray elbow so that he could do the same.

What he found when he got close enough was an old piece of parchment, clearly some sort of map, and a huge dwarven-style key.

‘Gandalf gave these to me at Rivendell,’ Thorin explained quietly. ‘The map was Thrór’s, passed to Gandalf by Thráin. Here,’ he traced his finger over one area, ‘were moon runes which I managed to read some months ago. They tell of a secret way into the Mountain, opened by this,’ and now his finger ran over the key.

‘Thorin,’ Balin gasped. He said no more, but Thorin nodded as if he had spoken a full sentence.

‘I have a suspicion this is what Azog wanted me for,’ he informed them. ‘Perhaps our enemy’s aim was the opposite of Gandalf’s, for I know the wizard wished me to reclaim Erebor, to destroy the dragon,’ he informed them. ‘I told Gandalf I would be no one’s pawn. That I was interested only in seeing my people fed and safe, and a dragon-infested kingdom could offer us neither.’ He shook his head tiredly. ‘I might have known a wizard would always get his way in the end.’

‘We’re going to try and kill the dragon?’ Kíli asked disbelievingly, reaching for and grasping Fíli’s forearm convulsively.

‘No!’ Thorin exclaimed, meeting his nephew’s eyes dead-on and shaking his head emphatically. ‘I am driven to desperation, Kíli, not to insanity. We’re going to try and steal from Smaug, not kill him. Legend has it that he sleeps now, has slept for years. Much as I despise trusting anything to legend… if it is true, we may yet have some chance. Even the smallest part of Thror’s treasury would help fund Ered Luin’s recovery for a few years, if we can manage to retrieve it.’

‘Steal a Silmaril from the Iron Crown?’ Nori commented ironically, everything from his tone to his stance betraying his scepticism at the idea. Bilbo could not wholly blame him. He was ready to follow Thorin on this quest, of course, he would not dream of turning back now, but even he could admit that the chance of success seemed as remote as Beren and Lúthien’s.

Admittedly, they had succeeded, but he did not think any member of this Company resembled a hero of the First Age.

Not even the dwarf who seemed to consume so much of his attention these days.

‘Perhaps,’ Thorin responded to Nori, and his own voice was a challenge. ‘Have we the thief who could do it, Nori?’

Part of Bilbo knew that he ought to be intervening somehow, reminding Thorin that adults used reasoned argument to achieve their ends, not the equivalent of a childhood dare.

The other part was fascinated by the light in Thorin’s eyes as he all-but taunted their companion, and the way that Nori himself responded. Dori’s gaze was flickering between the two as if he wanted to intervene, but then he settled on Nori and took an unconscious step back, removing himself from the encounter.

Bilbo caught Dwalin’s gaze, wondering if he would intercede, but Dwalin shook his head in response to the silent question. Clearly this was between thief and King.

Nori said nothing for a long moment, and after a few seconds of silence, Thorin spoke again.

‘For years you have stolen from my people,’ he told Nori, ‘and we knew it was you, even if we could not catch you. There are kingdoms, Nori, that would have taken Dori and Ori and used them to draw you out. Or simply punished them in your stead. There are certainly very few kings who would have offered you their protection when you found yourself in too deep with your fellow criminals, but that is exactly what I did when I accepted you on to this quest. I am not a naïve dwarf - I do not expect you will suddenly repent of your old ways - but I do believe you have a debt to pay to Ered Luin. What I am asking is, will you pay it now?’

Nori’s face was practically blank, only the movement of his eyes betraying how fast his mind must be working below the surface. They glanced from Ori, to Dwalin, to Dori, and even to the Princes, all without a word said. Then, suddenly, he went utterly still.

‘I’ll need help,’ he told Thorin, and the room appeared to let out a collective breath. ‘Quiet help. Two will need fewer trips in than one, and I’m not doing this any more times than I have to.’

Realisation hit Bilbo like an orc boot to the face, as he thought back to the day he’d confessed his darkest memories to Thorin.

He actually would rather take advice from Gandalf than face a dragon from the old tales, even if he wasn’t doing it single-handed.

Although he’d still rather face the dragon than have Lobelia live at Bag End.

That was something, and made it easier to say what he had to next.

‘You won’t go in alone,’ he told Nori, managing a pretence of calm. ‘We’ll do it together.’

Nori offered him a short, sharp nod, and Dwalin a clasp of his shoulder in gratitude. Bilbo tried not to betray the fact that he felt sick. He imagined Nori did too, and if he could hold it together then so could Bilbo.

Oh Valar, what had the two of them just done?

‘There’s one other thing,’ Thorin said into the silence that had fallen. They all looked at him nervously, waiting for the next axe to fall. ‘We must be there by Durin’s Day.’

Balin cursed furiously.

‘Thorin, we’re running out of time!’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Heroism

Balin was (as always, curse him) completely correct.

They were running out of time.

So, with the decision made and none of the Company sane enough to try and talk Thorin out of it, the next day became a frantic rush to gather everything they might need for the next stage of their journey.

Luckily for them, it was at this point that Dáin proved he hadn’t spent nearly 140 years on the throne of the Iron Hills learning nothing about rulership.

‘With all due respect, my Lord Dáin,’ the Dean of the Miners' Guild began. Thorin resisted the urge to groan. No sentence which started with that phrase ever ended well, ‘surely your Council should have been consulted before you began gifting all these resources to your visitors. Those chains are mithril,’ now that did make Thorin look twice – which of the Company had requested mithril chain, and what on earth were they intending to use it for? – ‘and such things are hardly inexpensive.’

‘Master Grein,’ Dáin answered with the most unruffled expression Thorin had ever seen on him, ‘do you wish to convince the world that the Iron Hills is a poor kingdom which begrudges every copper that might be gifted to family and friends? Our circumstances are hardly dire! You will notice that I took my Council’s advice about the aid that Ered Luin should be offered with their recovery. Now Thorin is on his way and I offer him parting gifts from my kingdom’s resources. I hardly think that is a concern of the realm.’

‘I agree with Lord Dáin,’ a voice interjected, before Master Grein could finish opening his mouth. Thorin glanced over to see the Mistress of the Tailors' Guild, an elderly dwarrowdam who had otherwise said little during the course of their visit, eyeing Master Grein with disapprobation. ‘You overstep yourself, Grein. This Council’s job is not to guard every aspect of our Lord’s life, it is to offer advice on the ruling of our kingdom.’

‘Indeed,’ offered one of Dáin’s senior noblemen. ‘I see nothing that should concern the Council here and I fear we simply look petty to debate such a thing in front of King Thorin.’

Those members of the Council assembled, particularly the other nobles, immediately whipped round to look at Thorin, most giving the impression that they had forgotten his existence up to that point.

Thorin did not laugh, because Dáin was having a moment of victory and he did not wish to spoil it for him.

‘My cousin has explained the Iron Hills’ position to me perfectly,’ he informed all those gathered, ‘and I greatly appreciate his generosity in meeting the needs of my Company now, even though offering further aid to Ered Luin has not been possible. I could never think him, or any Council he leads, petty in such circumstances.’

And chew on that, he thought in the direction of those who would undermine Dáin. My loyalty is with my cousin and him alone, and now you know it.

Just because he could not laugh at Dáin’s councillors, didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy watching the most unpleasant and useless among them look as if they were chewing on wasps.

***

‘I am sorry it came to this,’ Dáin told Dwalin, as they stood watching the final items being loaded onto the ponies he had provided for their journey. They weren’t looking at one another, but Dwalin could hear his sincerity, and it reassured him.

It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Thorin, but he had wondered if the Dáin he remembered from his youth had slipped away while he was busy elsewhere, and if he could have stopped it had he only paid more attention.

Not that travelling to the Iron Hills was exactly an easy task. Or a quick one.

‘As are we,’ he responded, with equal sincerity. ‘No one blames you for what happened here, Dáin,’ he reassured quietly, ‘especially not Thorin. He, of all people, knows how it feels to be left with a mess that is not of your own making.’

‘Yes,’ Dáin agreed. ‘Some days the temptation to just… let the tide come in is very strong. I have envied him you, and particularly Balin. This is not the sort of battle I was meant to fight.’

‘Aye, well, you’ll not fight it alone now, if we can help it,’ Dwalin replied, unable to help chuckling a little at the thought. ‘Some of our Company have decided opinions about how the situation here could be resolved, and they’re champing at the bit to share them. Young Ori’s decree that we clean our own house first is the only thing standing in their way. Let us only survive this next madness and you’ll have help. You might wish you didn’t, but you’ll have it.’

Now Dáin did look at him, not with the alarm Dwalin had expected but with a faint tinge of hope.

‘Perhaps that’s what we need,’ he murmured thoughtfully. ‘When the tunnel’s blocked and you can’t see another way through, sometimes you just blast it open.’

‘I’m not sure a miner would agree with that sentiment,’ Dwalin warned, but he was still chuckling. Oh, Dáin was definitely still here. That was exactly the sort of viewpoint that had got the two of them into trouble on every previous occasion they’d been together.

‘No doubt you’ll be glad to see the back of this place,’ Dáin said after a few moments, looking over at Thorin, who was surrounded by Dáin’s nobles with Dori, Bilbo and Balin keeping a weather eye. ‘Situations like this must make your skin crawl when you’re trying to protect him.’

‘It hasn’t been all bad,’ Dwalin replied, looking in another direction entirely. Nori was standing in front of a red-faced young guard, an exasperated Ori by his side, as he patiently explained something to the lad whilst gesturing with what appeared to be a full purse.

Dwalin had a feeling he knew exactly what had happened there. Which meant he and his beloved would be having words later, because the request not to steal anything had not expired yet and stealing from the Guard was just plain stupid.

No wonder Ori looked like he wanted to hit something.

‘Is that one really yours?’ Dáin asked curiously, a slight tone of disbelief colouring the words.

‘If you wish for that help we were speaking of earlier,’ Dwalin answered distractedly, ‘I wouldn’t ever phrase it like that in front of him.’

He was distracted because he had now caught Nori’s eye and was engaged in a quick conversation of the ‘Really? Do I look stupid?’ variety with him. Nori smirked, but ended the encounter with the guard amicably enough and wandered off with his brother in tow.

Dáin, meanwhile, had become distracted by a new thought.

‘Tell me, Dwalin,’ he asked now, fingers drumming against the wall they were leaning against, ‘do you think your people will accept a hobbit consort for their King?’

Dwalin, mind abruptly yanked away from its attempt to track Nori, started visibly and turned to face his cousin.

‘I’m not blind, Dwalin,’ Dáin informed him impatiently. ‘I can see the way the wind is blowing.’

‘Of course you can,’ Dwalin grumbled. ‘The only way it could be more obvious is if Mahal decided to announce it with horns blaring.’

‘So?’ Dáin demanded, turning his attention to Thorin and Bilbo across the way.

‘I don’t know,’ Dwalin sighed. ‘They’d be fools not to. Bilbo’s the best thing to happen to Ered Luin since Kíli was born, and their marriage would have the support of Thorin’s entire family, his Steward, his Guard Captain, the Dean of his main Guild… Bilbo wouldn’t enter Ered Luin friendless. Trouble is, there are quite a few fools in our kingdom, just as there are quite a few in yours. Not as many now that Wikan’s been taken care of; several of them realised it was time to wind their necks in if they didn’t want to end with those necks removed, but this would be something entirely new. They don’t like new.’

‘They don’t like new when we do it,’ Dáin grumbled. ‘They’re happy enough with new when it means not obeying the divine right of their monarch.’ Dwalin patted his shoulder in sympathy. Thorin occasionally muttered something similar. Mahal knew he did not wish to be a tyrant, but there were days when he could see the attraction of it.

Dwalin and Balin allowed those days only because they never lasted long.

‘Anyway,’ Dwalin continued, ‘I sent Dís a note with our messengers, suggesting that she make it clear to our people that we’d been given a very good deal on the food. I also suggested that she drop Bilbo’s name a little, all in complete confidence of course, to some of the key pillars of the community, so that they’d know just how pivotal he’d been to the negotiations and the final deal. I wasn’t actually thinking consort at the time. I suspected the boys might drag him home with us at some point, and thought it would be more comfortable for him if he was a local hero rather than an oddity. Maybe some of that will help. Dís knows how to play this lot better than anyone.’

Dáin gave him a look that Dwalin couldn’t quite interpret, though he thought there might have been both surprise and respect mixed into it.

‘You’re not as stupid as we used to be, are you?’ he asked, and Dwalin grunted a laugh and punched him hard in the arm, prompting a grunt of Dáin’s own.

‘Stupidity is a privilege of the young,’ he informed Dáin with exasperation, ‘much as some people would try to convince us otherwise. I had to grow out of it. Besides,’ he continued, catching sight of auburn hair where it ought not to be again, ‘I’ve spent a good chunk of the last half-century chasing after cleverness that was always two steps ahead of me. I had to improve quickly. Excuse me.’

And the chase began again.

***

The Chronicle of Kíli:

A few days ago we left the Iron Hills with all of the appropriate pomp, ceremony and all of that.

I won’t bother writing about that. I’m sure Ori will have covered it and if you’re interested in that sort of thing then you’ll be reading his Chronicle instead of mine anyway.

Instead, our main lessons for Day Whatever-we’re-on:

  • It takes a really brave person to agree to steal from a dragon.
  • The really brave people don’t always look like you think they will.
  • Really brave people can still be scared.

Nori, for example. If you looked at the Company and tried to identify who would risk their lives, Nori probably wouldn’t be the first one you’d pick.

Why would you? Nori really doesn’t like the idea of going in to the dragon’s lair to try and steal some of his hoard, and I think that’s entirely fair. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it, and in theory a good chunk of it belongs to me and so I probably should be the one doing it, especially as it benefits my kingdom and people. Still, I can’t think of anything worse than getting in there and suddenly being faced with a dragon that’s actually… awake.

Trying to eat you.

Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it?

Nori certainly seems to think so, because he’s doing absolutely everything possible to avoid thinking about it, even though he’s going to do it anyway.

That mostly means everything possible to drive Dwalin completely mad.

If we didn’t have to travel, I suspect Dwalin would just be sitting on him.

I don’t think the ponies would appreciate carrying two of them though.

So far, they’ve had some sort of dispute about pears (I did ask, but neither of them would explain and Dwalin started threatening my jambags, whatever those are); Nori’s somehow stolen Grasper and decorated it with ribbon (I don’t know why we have the ribbon); and…

Apparently I’m not allowed to write about the last one in a chronicle. I told Ori that was censorship, but he says he doesn’t care.

We’ve only been travelling a few days. This could get very exciting by the time we reach Erebor.

Still, even better than that is watching Uncle and Bilbo. They’re not as funny, true, but they’re just so…

Sweet.

The Line of Durin was always a line of heroes, back into the dawn of our history, and Uncle has been among the greatest of them. He’s led us in our exile, finally ended the War with the Orcs when we were almost on our knees, and has guarded us in all the harsh years that have followed, rebuilding a nation that was at breaking point.

Now, though, I think he would be the first to tell you that he is no longer enough to save us.

When Ered Luin was failing, when one of our own people turned against us and we found ourselves teetering on the edge of disaster, I think Mahal realised we needed a new hero. One who would see things differently, do things differently than we would.

So he sent us Bilbo.

Bilbo who got us food.

Bilbo who stops us from blazing an offensive trail across most of Middle Earth.

Bilbo who, along with Nori, will brave the dragon for us.

Who will be our hero.

I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed anything as much as I’ve enjoyed watching two heroes fall in love.

Uncle can’t quite let Bilbo out of his sight now. They ride next to each other all day, speaking of the Shire and Ered Luin, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s needed and what should be changed. Bilbo tells the best stories of anyone, even Balin, and I think the poor ponies wish he didn’t because they all end up on top of each other when we try to pull close so that we can listen.

Uncle’s working on Bilbo’s fighting form, now that Bilbo’s a little less sensitive about it all. He says the elves did very well with Bilbo, but a dwarf can teach a hobbit things that overgrown elves would never think about.

Bilbo had a good laugh about that. You can tell he’s storing it up for Elladan and Elrohir when we go back through Rivendell.

If we go back through Rivendell.

That’s the part I’ve been trying not think about. That we’re all trying not to think about.

What if it doesn’t work? What if we don’t go back?

I keep trying to think if there’s somewhere safe I can leave this so that people will find it, read it, even if we don’t survive the burglary attempt.

Somewhere it would survive the winter.

It seems a shame that history should never see these heroes the way they really are.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Slipping

‘Well,’ Glóin said slowly, staring up, and up, and up. ‘Here it is.’

There it was indeed, Bilbo thought with a certain amount of awe. It was not as if he hadn’t seen enough of Erebor to appreciate its scale before. They had caught sight of it from a distance as they travelled to the Iron Hills, and they had been approaching it for days now.

Yavanna knew the cursed mountain stood out amongst the great sea of nothing surrounding it.

Still, that was rather different to standing at the bottom and realising that everything above you as far as your eye could see and beyond was, rightfully, the kingdom of the dwarf standing next to you.

That was rather a breath-taking thought, really.

Or possibly the sort that made you want to sit down and put your head between your legs for a moment.

And that was before you remembered about the dragon inside.

Oh bother.

‘Bilbo? Bilbo, what’s wrong?’ Thorin’s worried tone broke through Bilbo’s momentary panic and shortness of breath, and he forced himself to steady. He appeared to have bent in half at some point during his brief hysteria and Thorin had caught hold of his hand to keep him upright. Now that grip, sure and tight as it was, recalled him to his surroundings.

‘Nothing,’ he lied, probably not very convincingly. ‘I’m perfectly fine.’

‘That makes one of us then,’ Nori said shakily, and Bilbo looked up to see the thief viewing Erebor as if it was an axe about to fall upon his neck. One of Dwalin’s arms settled around Nori’s shoulders, and Ori stepped up to his other side, resting against him.

‘Nothing to be done about anything until we find the door,’ Óin pointed out, far more gently than was his wont. ‘We’ve a way to go yet.’

Nori nodded sharply. When Oín’s eyes turned to Bilbo, he did the same. The healer was right. Until they had a way in, he and Nori were just worrying themselves for nothing. It wasn’t as if the outside of the mountain could do much to them.

So they hoped, anyway.

The sight of the Front Gate still steaming with dragon smoke filled no one with any great comfort, even if Balin counselled them not to jump to conclusions about what it meant.

Thorin took one look at it and guided them along quickly, saying nothing at all but keeping Fíli and Kíli close by. Bilbo did not think he imagined the dwarf’s eyes lingering on him all the rest of that day as they pushed on at the quickest pace the ponies could manage over the rocky ground.

Then again, perhaps Thorin was simply avoiding having to look at Dale, crumbled and shattered on the horizon. The reminder of all that had been lost when Smaug came, of how easily, how pettily, the dragon could destroy all in his path, was something none of them needed at that moment.

Bilbo kept catching himself in such thoughts and tearing his mind away from them.

Dead was dead, he reminded himself. Dragon or orc, it made no difference, the end result would be the same. If he would have joined battle with orcs this day without a moment’s hesitation, and the Valar knew he would, then why should the knowledge that he might face a dragon come Durin’s Day cause such terror?

Besides, they still needed to find the blasted door.

‘Thorin, I need to see that map,’ Bilbo told his friend when they paused to rest the ponies and eat a quick midday meal. As it sometimes did now, it occurred to him that he would be ruined for hobbit mealtimes when he returned to the Shire. He’d always eaten sparingly when travelling, but now he had adopted dwarven habits so entirely that he’d probably get a stomach-ache if he tried to go back to his old ways.

‘Here,’ Thorin replied absentmindedly, retrieving the map from his pocket and passing it over his shoulder as he tried simultaneously to take a bite of hardtack and look at the shoe of Fíli’s pony, while Fíli struggled to hold its hoof still. Glóin moved to take over with the pony, while Balin joined Bilbo in looking at the map, and Bilbo couldn’t help a chuckle as Thorin suddenly found himself free from duties, shrugged and dropped down on a nearby rock to ‘enjoy’ his meal.

‘It’s clearly on the west side,’ Bilbo told Balin thoughtfully, turning the map so that it lined up with his mental impression of the area and where they were. ‘Between those two big spurs there,’ he traced them on the drawing and then looked up into the distance. ‘Is that…?’

‘No,’ Balin replied immediately. ‘In front of us is Ravenhill,’ he pointed to the correct area on the map, ‘those two are beyond it. We’ll need to circle Ravenhill and this one here before we’re in the right place to start looking, but then comes the biggest problem.’

‘What on earth are we looking for?’ Bilbo sighed.

‘Quite.’

‘Wouldn’t be a secret door if it had a hundred-foot high sign above it, lads,’ Bofur teased them, tugging lightly at Bilbo’s hair.

‘You laugh now,’ Bilbo told him warningly. ‘When we get to the right area I’m going to work you harder than any of these ponies until we find what we’re looking for!’

‘Might not be that easy,’ Bofur warned in return. ‘If it’s well enough hidden, all I’ll register is rock amongst more rock. It will depend how paranoid our Kings were feeling.’

‘Knowing my Grandfather and Father?’ Thorin interjected wryly. ‘Assume very, gentlemen. Very was always a safe bet. They didn’t even tell me where the damned thing was, after all.’

‘Bugger,’ Bilbo muttered under his breath. ‘Why can it never just be easy?’

‘Secret door, Bilbo-love,’ Bofur laughed. ‘Secret door.’

‘Oh, go away, you!’ Bilbo returned, also laughing, giving Bofur a light shove backwards so that he toppled into Dori and the grey-haired dwarf had to do some speedy juggling to keep them both on their feet.

Bilbo glanced over to see Thorin shaking his head at all of them and couldn’t help grinning in return. Without these brief moments of levity he’d be going mad right now.

***

Fíli loved ponies.

He’d love his slightly more if it wasn’t threatening to throw a shoe every other day, but even so.

Anything that meant they were moving quicker, and that he wasn’t the one scrambling up and down these rocks all day and part of the night too? Definitely a good thing.

Just because they were at the foot of the Mountain, it didn’t mean the terrain was easy going.

Not on the feet.

Not on the heart, either.

Fíli had never expected to come here.

They weren’t meant to be going to Erebor, they were supposed to be making the journey to the Iron Hills and then going home. He hadn’t expected to have to face the realisation that had come to him now.

In another life, another world, he would have been king of this mountain. Of all of this.

Mahal, what a horrifying thought.

It was bad enough thinking that he would one day be King of Ered Luin. He occasionally contemplated making a run for it and leaving Kíli behind as a sacrifice. Not seriously, of course, but the temptation occurred momentarily when he watched Uncle deal with the worst parts of kingship.

Treachery. Famine.

Paperwork.

Joking aside, however, there was something about this place. Fíli knew it held such bitter memories for Uncle, and for Balin too. He could see it in their eyes as they travelled, in the way they avoided looking at the Mountain as much as they could, even when it was so conspicuous.

Fíli would never tell Uncle that somehow it… called to him. Just a little. Not in any way that would make him want to stay. He was not a fool. He knew why Uncle had decided to abandon Erebor. He agreed with all the reasons why they should never come back.

It was simply a familiarity. Something small inside him that saw Erebor and thought ‘home’.

He didn’t dare ask anyone, even Kíli, if they felt it too.

But he thought perhaps Uncle did, and maybe Balin, and perhaps that was why they were so determined not to look.

There would be nothing worse than forming an attachment to this place again when they could not stay.

They were never meant to be here.

It was a thought that continued to prey on Fíli’s mind as they camped that night in the lee of Ravenhill. It had been buzzing through his mind so persistently that it was on the verge of driving him mad, especially because he had no idea why it was so bloody persistent.

No, they weren’t meant to come here originally, but what did it matter? They were here now. Needs must, and all that. None of their plans had worked out, not from the moment they’d caught sight of Azog outside Mirkwood, but dwelling on that would do no good. They’d managed well enough. Fíli hadn’t even died, thanks to Thranduil…

Thranduil.

That was it.

That was what was nagging at him.

Had Uncle even thought about it? About what might happen when the Elven King found out where they’d been?

It would seem like a promise broken.

No, not broken. A promise made in bad faith, with no intention of being kept.

Poor return for a Prince’s life. For a King’s freedom.

‘Uncle!’ Fíli called, and gestured furiously once he had Thorin’s attention.

‘What is it?’ Thorin asked, hurrying over, frown appearing even deeper in the shadows of the campfire. The sun had begun to set as Fíli pondered and it would soon be hard to see each other’s faces. ‘Are you well?’

Fíli hoped the darkness meant Uncle couldn’t see his flush of embarrassment. The whole Company had fretted, though quietly, over his health ever since Mirkwood. He ought to have realised that a sudden, urgent bid for attention would be taken as a sign of illness.

‘I’m fine, Uncle, sorry,’ he reassured quickly, dropping his voice in the hope the others wouldn’t hear. Much as he loved his companions, he didn’t actually want this to become a group discussion. Those tended to become long, and complicated… and frequently tangential.

‘Then what is it?’ Uncle asked, tone still worried. ‘One moment you were thinking fairly quietly, the next you were practically issuing a royal summons!’

‘I just had a thought,’ Fíli said, fairly sure he was still blushing. Uncle snorted.

‘While I realise that is, indeed, a monumental occasion, Fíli,’ he began. Fíli did not feel at all unjustified in poking him in the stomach just where he was ticklish.

‘Shut up,’ he grumbled. ‘It could be important. Do you realise that if Thranduil finds out we’ve come here then he’ll consider that we broke faith with him? He only let us go because you swore to him that we were doing no such thing. What if we do wake the dragon, Uncle? What if we wake him and Smaug decides that a repeat of 2770 feels like a fabulous idea? What do we do then?’

‘Ah,’ Uncle breathed heavily, and Fíli felt awful as soon as he saw how Uncle’s shoulders slumped further, as if Fíli had just dumped couple of large boulders on each side. ‘Yes, the thought had occurred to me. Although it was never phrased as a promise, Fíli.’

‘Would you tell me he did not consider it such?’ Fíli questioned pointedly.

‘No,’ Thorin sighed. ‘Of course not. That is exactly what it was intended to be, no matter how it was worded. A promise I must now break if Ered Luin is to survive. I can see no way around it.’

‘Then what do we do?’ Fíli pushed, knowing it was irrational but still hoping that Uncle would provide some miraculous solution to the problem.

‘Pray that Smaug sleeps,’ Uncle answered, so quietly that Fíli strained to hear him. ‘Pray that Nori and Bilbo can enter and leave without waking him. And, in the meantime, pray that the ravens still live on Ravenhill.’

‘Pardon?’ Fíli asked, the word startled out of him by the unexpectedness of that last statement.

‘When Lord Elrond and I discussed Erebor,’ Uncle told him gravely, ‘I told him that no other had a claim to the Mountain. My argument was then, and still is now, that no other has a right to tell us what we can or cannot do with our kingdom. Not Gandalf, not Lord Elrond, and not Thranduil of Mirkwood. In any other circumstances, Thranduil might think whatever he liked about our plans and I would tell him to choke on it; but when he saved your life he earned more than that from us. When Legolas came to our aid, he earned more than that from us. I cannot change our plans, Fíli, but I can give Thranduil honesty where Thrór gave him lies, and respect where Thrór gave nothing but contempt. If the ravens are here, then Thranduil will have the news of what we are about to do from my own hand, before it is done. With it, he will have my apology for faith broken and my explanation of the reasons. That is all I can offer him.’

Fíli met Uncle’s eyes, and the gaze they exchanged acknowledged how little that would be in the grand scheme of things, and how little it mattered in the face of what their people stood to lose.

This was the price of kingship, Fíli thought, and wondered whether his pony could beat Kíli’s if they raced to abdicate the position of Crown Prince.

Probably not. Kíli was lighter than he was.

‘Ah well,’ Uncle sighed. ‘I suppose if I manage to start a war with the Elves, I will at least have made Thrór proud at last.’

‘I think Bilbo’s making us worse, you know,’ Fíli told him conversationally. ‘We never used to joke like this about serious things.’

‘Is that truly a bad thing, Fíli?’ Uncle asked, and now he seemed serious, as if he really wished to know Fíli’s answer. Startled, Fíli blurted out an answer straight from his heart.

‘No, it’s wonderful,’ he assured Uncle immediately. ‘He’s making us better, Uncle. If we can laugh with people, we can talk to them, and if we can talk to them then maybe we won’t start those wars Great-Grandfather was always one step away from.’

‘It would be nice, wouldn’t it?’ Uncle mused. ‘We’ll see. Anyway, in the morning I’ll see if any of the ravens remain, and if they will still serve our line. For now, sleep.’

When Fíli looked about he saw that, sure enough, the camp had gone quiet around them as the Company settled for the night. Filled with a strange mix of emotions – that odd familiarity, unsettled tension, familial warmth and the sense that something was slipping out of reach – he grabbed his blankets and prepared to do the same.

***

The morning after they camped at Ravenhill, Bofur was awoken much earlier than he normally appreciated by the sharp edge of someone’s boot in his ribs.

‘Geroff,’ he muttered irritably, shoving the foot away in the assumption it was Bifur trying to rouse him for some chore. ‘’Stimeyet.’

‘Is that any way to speak to your King, Bofur?’ an amused voice queried. After a brief pause, Bofur cracked one eyelid, wincing at the brightness of the sun that assaulted him.

‘When he’s disturbing a well-earned sleep it is,’ he grumbled in response. ‘Why are you up so early? More to the point, why am I up so early?’

‘Consider it atonement for flirting with our hobbit,’ Thorin replied dryly, and Bofur repressed a snort. Aye, he hadn’t thought Thorin would miss that! ‘Come on, up you get. I need your stone-sense.’

‘I can use that lying down,’ Bofur ventured hopefully, considering the possibility of a short nap after his rude awakening.

Bofur,’ came the warning response, and Bofur decided to take pity on the rest of the Company and not push his luck this early in the morning. He wouldn’t mind the tantrum that might result, but it would make poor Ori uncomfortable and set Dwalin’s teeth on edge. The two of them had enough to be dealing with at the moment with Nori so unsettled.

‘Alright, I’m up,’ he answered, heaving himself to his feet. ‘What am I hunting for?’

‘Anything living that might be present around here except us,’ Thorin replied easily.

Bofur stopped dead and stared at him for a moment.

It didn’t look like Thorin had lost his marbles, but then how did you tell?

Thrór had been dead long before Bofur was born, so it wasn’t as if he had Thorin’s Grandfather as an example.

‘You mean something apart from the bloody great dragon in the middle of the Mountain?’ Bofur asked disbelievingly, gesturing mountain-wards for emphasis.

‘Well, yes, of course,’ Thorin said, as if that should be obvious, before stopping abruptly and turning a similarly disbelieving look on Bofur. ‘Can you sense the dragon?’

‘No. Not really. Sort of,’ Bofur replied. Thorin looked unimpressed. ‘It’s complicated, alright!’ he added. ‘You try interpreting impressions from inanimate objects and see how far you get. It’s like having a conversation with a toddler speaking elvish sometimes.’

‘You know there’s something there, though?’ Thorin asked curiously.

‘I know there was something there,’ Bofur clarified, realising this was going to be vitally important if they were going to avoid some sort of disaster later on. ‘From this far away that’s it, Thorin. The dragon was a trauma for the Mountain. I think all I’m getting is memories, but they’re dragon-sized memories so they last a long while. They’re fading the further we get from the Front Gate.’

Thorin nodded, apparently appeased by this explanation but still mulling it over.

‘Anyway, if you didn’t want me to look for the dragon, what am I supposed to be looking for?’ Bofur asked suddenly, remembering why he’d been woken up.

‘Oh, ravens,’ Thorin replied, as if that should have been obvious. ‘We are on Ravenhill, after all. I need to speak with them if they’re still here.’

‘Oh, of course, ravens!’ Bofur muttered. ‘Why didn’t I think of that? Apart from the fact that I never lived here, I’ve never been here, and where I come from the ravens don’t bloody talk!’

‘You’re a grumpy sod when you first wake up, aren’t you?’ Thorin chuckled, propping himself against a rock as Bofur began to search for a good place to start work. Bofur felt perfectly justified in the rude gesture he gave his King.

It was good for Thorin to be treated normally, or so Bofur had always maintained. It provided him with perspective, and humility.

And if it encouraged him not to wake Bofur up at the crack of dawn next time, all the better.

***

As it turned out, even a grumpy, half-awake Bofur had better stone-sense than most dwarves in their prime. He located the raven flock quickly enough that Thorin was able to visit them and convince their leader, Roäc, to send one of the flock with his message by mid-morning. After that, they were on the move again.

Time seemed ever against them on this journey, Thorin thought. Since the moment the tunnels had collapsed in Ered Luin there had been an hourglass turning over and over in his mind, and now the days seemed to slip away faster and faster.

The feeling only worsened when they reached the valley below the western slopes and set up camp there, beginning the search of the area where Bilbo and Balin had determined the path to the secret door must lie. At first they were optimistic, but hours passed, then days, searching in pairs without success.

They searched, and searched, and searched, and found not a thing, only dead ends everywhere they looked.

More than once a member of the Company took a tumble when scree gave way under foot, and Oín’s supply of ointment was never far from his hand. Precious water had to be used to clean the scrapes, and Balin began to worry that the supply would run out. Ori and Bifur were, reluctantly, diverted from the search for the path to begin looking for water supplies closer than the River Running.

The lack of success wore on them all, but Thorin…

Thorin could see that hourglass in his mind, and instead of sand it was filled with people. His people.

Slipping away.

When he slept, he dreamt of them.

As the days passed, as time grew short, his temper did too.

‘Mahal damn him to rot,’ Thorin snarled to Bilbo one afternoon, as they searched another stretch of rock in vain. ‘Year upon year he had to tell me where this damned door was, whole lifetimes of Men, and did he say a word, even when asked? Of course he did not! He gave the map and key to GANDALF, of all bloody people, and left me scrabbling about in the dust. I was his son, curse him! I was the Crown Prince of Erebor. Would it have killed him to tell me where the sodding door was?’

He grabbed a rock, turned and threw it as hard as he could away from Bilbo, where it couldn’t possibly hit him. Then he sank to the ground, pulled his knees up to his chest, rested his forehead on top and ran his hands roughly through his hair.

He felt Bilbo sit next to him, laying his temple against Thorin’s left knee and humming soothingly in a way that would probably have been infuriating from anyone else, but actually worked when Bilbo did it.

‘Perhaps he didn’t want you to know, because he didn’t want you to have to use that knowledge,’ Bilbo offered, and Thorin felt his entire body go still as the thought hit. He raised his head and stared at Bilbo in shock.

‘I don’t…’ he uttered, not even sure what he had planned to say next.

‘It was just a thought,’ Bilbo said calmly, ‘and I realise I didn’t know him at all; but Thorin, I would not have wanted you to use it. Knowing the dragon was here, I would have wanted my son anywhere but here, as you wanted Fíli and Kíli anywhere but here. Perhaps Thráin hoped you would never have to come, that you’d never need the knowledge. At the very least, I imagine he hoped that when he passed the map and key to you he would do it in person. He wouldn’t have expected to do so when he was trapped somewhere he was never going to escape, through a messenger. I imagine he might have given you some landmarks had he done this in person. Dwarves probably have better landmarks than ‘that grey stone over there’, I suppose?’

Somehow, just like that, Thorin found himself laughing.

Bilbo Baggins might not have realised it, but he had just signed his own kidnapping order.

He wasn’t going back to the Shire. Not if Thorin had anything to with it.

Ever.

‘Yes, Bilbo, we have better landmarks than that, even for somewhere like this,’ he replied as his chuckles died down. ‘Mahal, you’re going to kill me one day.’

‘Only if you really upset me,’ Bilbo reassured him, patting his chest gently with one hand before using it to push himself to his feet. ‘Come along now, we’ll not find the path sitting on our rear ends.’

‘No,’ Kíli announced from behind them, and something in his proud as punch tone made Thorin’s heart jerk out of rhythm for a second, ‘you won’t. Especially as you’re in the completely wrong place. Come on, idlers. Youth and Fíli’s lack of coordination have beaten you to it. He tripped over and fell headfirst into a gap, and we’ve found the steps to get up the Mountain. Oof!’

‘I did not,’ Fíli shouted from below, a second stone in his hand, ready to follow the one he’d just thrown at his brother, ‘trip and fall headfirst!’

‘Did so!’

‘Did not!’

‘Mahal have mercy,’ Thorin muttered. ‘No wonder Father did not wish me to come back here. He’d probably had a vision of one of these two on a throne.’ Then, louder, ‘Boys, enough. Neither Bilbo nor Nori will thank you for waking the dragon with your arguing!’

Like magic, two mouths snapped shut.

Then, once Kíli, Bilbo and Thorin had carefully descended to join Fíli on the floor of the valley, the three of them made their way to the path’s entrance.

There, the Company waited for their King to lead the way.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Sight

Legolas knew the moment he entered his father’s study that today’s interview would be no ordinary one. His father had been different since their encounter with the dwarves; less forbidding, though no less strict, and between them things had been easier than they had ever been.

Father had even been relatively forgiving about Legolas charging off to take part in a fight against a pack of orcs far outside their borders, with only the most cursory of notice of his intentions.

He really had been expecting a bigger argument about that, but Father had simply looked him up and down in that way he had which made Legolas feel all of a foot tall, queried mildly whether the dangerous enemy of the Woodland Realm was now dead and, upon receiving reassurance that he was, uttered an icy, ‘Then I trust you will have no further cause to exit our borders in the coming year, Captain.’

If one ignored the fact that Legolas had essentially been grounded like an elfling, that was practically a commendation.

There was no sign of potential commendations to be handed out today.

Thranduil’s face was as closed off as it had been in the darkest days of their kingdom, in the months that had followed the dragon’s coming.

This was not good at all.

Particularly as Legolas could think of nothing that he, personally, might have done to earn this level of displeasure.

He was the only one likely to survive it, and he wasn’t at all certain how he was going to shield whoever else had earned it.

Please let it not be Tauriel. If she had failed to guard her tongue on certain topics, and on the wrong sort of day, it was entirely possible she could have brought on this sort of reaction.

Valar, please.

‘Father,’ he asked quietly, stepping forward into the room with great caution.

Thranduil looked away from the bookshelf he had been attempting to re-carve through the power of thought, turned to face his son, and immediately sighed.

‘Sit, Legolas,’ he commanded wearily. ‘Whatever terrible possibility is making you hover in that nervous fashion, I assure you it is very unlikely to come to pass.’

Legolas did not blush, despite the heat he could feel rushing to his cheeks, but he did sit down rather quickly.

‘Read this,’ Father ordered, handing over a rolled up letter. ‘It arrived by raven earlier today.’

‘By raven…?’ Legolas exclaimed, forgetting himself for a moment and almost snatching the letter out of his father’s hand in shock. ‘The Woodland Realm has not received a letter by raven since…’

‘Since Thrór sat on the throne of Erebor in truth, still making pompous demands about who should do what in exchange for being in his shining presence and not being crushed by the might of his kingdom,’ Father concluded. That was rather more bitter than what Legolas had been planning to say, but essentially what he had meant, yes.

‘Read,’ Father repeated, saying nothing else, so Legolas unfolded the letter and considered its contents.

If he forgot to breathe partway through, he did not think anyone could blame him.

To Thranduil, son of Oropher, King of the Woodland Realm, from Thorin, son of Thráin, King of Ered Luin, greetings.

This is not a letter I ever expected to have to write. It is not a letter I ever wished to have to write. When we spoke in the Woodland Realm and I told you I had no intention of going near Erebor, I meant it. I truly thought my cousin would help us. I meant to travel to the Iron Hills, negotiate a deal, and then go straight home to Ered Luin.

How the Valar must enjoy laughing as they destroy our best intentions.

Dáin cannot help my people. I cannot tell you why, for that is a confidence I have sworn to keep, only that it is the sort of politics I have no doubt every king has suffered from at one point or another, even an elven one.

I am out of options.

I had never thought to be so blunt with an elf. Even when I sat down to write this letter, I had intended to try and craft some clever words which would disguise the desperation of our situation; but then I realised that if I did so I would do neither of us any favours. As I told Fíli, you have more than earned from us the one thing Thrór was so reluctant to give to another: our respect. One does not lie, even sidelong, to those they respect.

Our supplies of food in Ered Luin do not only run short. If I cannot find a new source of income to support the colony, there will be none at all. I used the last funds we had to negotiate with the Hobbits of the Shire. Our usual trade will no longer support us as it once did. Pride pushes me to tell you that it was no mismanagement that led us to this pass, but the actions of a traitor. Either way, the results are the same.

Without Dáin’s aid, I have no other choice. I must go to Erebor, and try to steal from a dragon.

I fully expect you to be angry. I have broken a promise, and forfeited my honour in doing so. I can only hope you will believe two things.

First, that the promise truly was made in good faith. While I might have reason to hold my own life cheap, Fíli’s life is infinitely precious. I never intended to return the gift of his health with false coin, though that has been the result.

Second, that I would never have done this if I had been able to see any other choice. I, too, would rather the dragon left the peoples of Middle Earth untroubled and eventually died of his greed in that mountain.

I do not know how we will next meet, or if we will, but I hope it will not be as enemies.

Thorin

I hope so too. Living is a privilege I have a renewed appreciation for and I hope we all get to keep doing it for a long time. I’d really rather not end up at war with you because we were all trying to do what was best for our people. Fíli.

‘They go to confront the dragon,’ Legolas murmured in shock, once he could find breath again. Then he shook his head. ‘No,’ he corrected, ‘they go to steal from the dragon.’

‘So he says,’ Thranduil agreed, so completely expressionless that Legolas had no idea what he was thinking or feeling. ‘Your thoughts?’

‘On?’ Legolas asked in return, unsure what his father wanted from him.

‘Do they tell the truth?’ Thranduil asked tiredly. ‘Have we been fooled, Legolas? The dwarf sat here in this room and told me he would not do the very thing he now writes to tell me he will do. Have I become so blind to another’s character than I can no longer see what is before my eyes?’

That was not what Legolas had been expecting. He had assumed his father wished for his view on their next tactical steps, because when there was a potential dragon outbreak on the horizon, tactical steps were the sort of thing one needed in place sooner rather than later.

It had never occurred to him that the King might be having a crisis of confidence.

And yet, looking at him again with newly-opened eyes, Legolas could see that Father did not just look angry and tired.

He looked betrayed.

Conscious of a sense of responsibility that he had never felt before, despite all the long years that his kingdom’s safety had rested in his hands, Legolas reviewed the letter again. Reaching the end, he let his fingers trail over Fíli’s addition.

‘No, Father,’ he said gently. ‘I do not think you have become blind. I think they told us the truth as it was in that moment. Then I think that truth changed, and became this one. It is the way of all things to change, is it not? Only we change least of all, and so perhaps do not handle it as well as the other races and creatures of Middle Earth.’

‘What makes you so sure?’ Father asked, and while the words sounded challenging, Legolas did not think they were a rejection. Combined with the small hint of hope in his eyes, they seemed more like a very subtle plea to be proven wrong.

Legolas was astonished to realised that his father truly did wish to believe in the dwarves, baffling though the very concept seemed in light of all he knew.

‘First, that they wrote at all,’ Legolas replied, trying to lay his thoughts out as he would have a thesis for his tutors long ago. ‘They need not have, if they simply told lies to escape our… hospitality. What would it matter, then, what we thought of them? Second, the tone of the letter. King Thorin was not a flowery sort of person, and nor is this missive. It is to the point, bluntly so, as he was, and I simply get no sense of dissembling from it. It sounds like him. If he wished to lie to us, it would sound like one of his Company who was good at lying.’

‘The best types of liars never sound as if they are lying at all,’ Father pointed out. Legolas raised a hand to acknowledge the point, but countered with one of his own.

‘They are usually better at not putting their foot in it and losing their temper at inconvenient moments.’

Father’s lips quirked, just the slightest amount, and he nodded for Legolas to continue.

‘Third, it reveals much that there was no need to reveal unless King Thorin really did wish to convince us, convince you, of his sincerity,’ Legolas summarised. ‘Finally, Prince Fíli.’

‘Ah, yes,’ Father murmured. ‘Prince Fíli. That was, I will confess, the reason it did not immediately end up in the fire. The lad has an… interesting way with words.’

‘He does,’ Legolas agreed. ‘He and his brother both, in fact. That postscript was not necessary. It was probably political, yes, but I think it was also…’

He searched for the words, and failed to find them.

He was surprised when Father was the one who found them instead.

‘A young lad, saying sorry for a hurt caused, and hoping to be forgiven in the end,’ Father concluded.

‘Yes,’ Legolas agreed, ‘exactly.’

Father let out a deep breath, and some of the starch in his spine went with it.

‘Father,’ Legolas took the opportunity to enquire, hoping it would not break this fragile understanding between them, ‘why does it matter so much?’

His father was quiet for so long that Legolas began to think he would not get an answer, and he reminded himself that that was still a better option than a return of the icy contempt the King could wield when he felt his authority had been encroached upon. Yet, Father had not stiffened or drawn his dignity about him as he usually did when he was about to end their audiences.

‘It has been so long since there was hope in these lands, Legolas,’ Father’s voice broke the silence so abruptly that a lesser being might have done something graceless like fall off their chair.

Legolas, of course, was not a lesser being.

‘Darkness bleeds into everything, Mordor’s shadow is long, and I have been able to find little of true beauty or goodness in the East for many a weary year. Yet, for a few moments, when you brought me to understand what I owed to common decency and King Thorin responded in kind, when I found myself having, for the first time in hundreds of years, a perfectly polite conversation with a dwarf, when my own son then offered more aid to their kind and was offered aid willingly in turn, I could see hope. Perhaps not soon, but in the future. A time when peace was not watchful,’ he almost spit the word out in contempt, ‘but true!’

Father paused for a moment, gazing at something no one but he could perceive, but Legolas was sure he was not done. Moments later, Father proved him correct.

‘It would pain me to see that hope slide away. However, I am old, and set in my ways, and have seen too much that I cannot unsee, or forget, or truly turn my gaze from.’ In a show of irony that Legolas suspected Father was not quite aware of, it was at that moment that he truly focused on Legolas once more. ‘I will need you to see the new possibilities for me, ionneg. I think that must be the role of the Prince of the Woodland Realm now. Yours are the eyes of youth, and they must look to the future, and keep the old from becoming stuck in the mistakes and griefs of the past.’

For one moment of mild hysteria, Legolas wondered if other people ever got these sorts of terrifying responsibilities added to their jobs with a moment’s notice and the fate of an entire nation resting upon them.

Then he reminded himself that he was a Prince, and an elf, and that he loved his Father far more than he was scared of this new duty.

Father was asking Legolas to help him change. To help the Woodland Realm change. To have a role in their kingdom that wasn’t ‘guard the borders and wait to see if you are ever actually required to be king.’

He could not turn that down because he was having a moment of panic.

Moving to kneel before his father once again, thinking that perhaps they had unknowingly begun a tradition, he took Father’s hand and kissed it.

‘I would be honoured, Father,’ he promised.

‘Thank you, ionneg,’ Father replied, and Legolas did not think he imagined the fondness in both the tone and the hand that rested upon his head to stroke his hair.

When they parted a few moments later, Legolas retook his seat.

‘Of course, that still leaves the question of what we do about their plan to steal from the dragon?’ he posed, contemplating the disaster that could potentially become.

‘I do not think there is very much we can do immediately,’ Father informed him. ‘Even if we could reach them in time, and I do not know how long that message took to get to us here, there was a reason I did not try the might of our army against the dragon that day. Once it was in that mountain, no mere army was prying it out again. We can hope that they are successful, and that the dragon continues to sleep. In the meantime, all of our people are to be moved within these Halls, and the army is to be prepared to move at a moment’s notice. If they are not successful, we will need to be ready to defend ourselves, however pointless that defence may prove against Smaug.’

‘Eärendil slew Ancalagon,’ Legolas said softly, holding his father’s gaze. ‘Perhaps there are no Eärendils here, Father, but I do not think Smaug is Ancalagon the Black either. Everything can be killed.’

‘And thus you begin your new role, and introduce the optimism of youth,’ Father said, actually laughing. Legolas tried to remember the last time he had heard Father laugh, and could not. ‘Very well, see them prepared, Legolas. Should he come, we will do our very best to kill the dragon, and then I will do my very best not to kill Thorin Oakenshield for making me face a dragon again.’

Taking that for the dismissal it was, Legolas moved towards the door and began plotting the rest of his day. He got the shock of his life when his father, in the slyest tone Legolas had ever heard him use, called after him, ‘I would still like to think elves handle change better than a dragon, Legolas!’

Legolas turned back, astonished, to see his father practically smirking at him, apparently enjoying whatever shocked look must be on his face.

Perhaps it was that which prompted him to a little mischief of his own.

‘We will have to see, won’t we, Father?’ he challenged. ‘My decision will depend entirely on how well you continue to deal with my youthful optimism.’

Then he fled out the door before he could push his luck any further.

Did it make him abnormal, to be so happy when there was a dragon threatening his kingdom?

Probably.

Legolas wasn’t sure he cared.

***

‘Report!’ Bolg orders, as soon as the orc is dragged before him by two of his more trusted warriors. This one is a scout, previously a useful one, but now the little worm stinks of cowardice and fear. Bolg will kill it as soon as it gives its report.

Of course, it knows that. That is why it is so fearful. Foolish creature. If they were strong, if they had spine, he would not kill them.

If they bought good news, he would not kill them.

When this one found news it did not return promptly, as it should. Instead it hid on the edges of the camp, scavenging food when it was hungry, until it was finally caught.

Bolg knows what that means, but he will hear it said aloud anyway.

He will hear this truth, so he can avenge it.

‘REPORT!’ he roars, when the pathetic scout merely whimpers some more. Bolg’s warrior kicks it, and it whimpers again.

If it had true spine, it would not have come back, but it was too scared to really disobey him either. It’s brain is a knot. A more intelligent being might find that knot interesting to untangle, but Bolg was not bred for intelligence. He was bred for strength.

He is not interested in the knot.

Grabbing his sword, he puts it to the throat of the whining scout and holds it there.

‘Report,’ he orders, gazing into its eyes.

Then he moves the sword to its soft, soft belly.

‘Don’t report,’ he suggests, as mildly as he is able to.

The scout understands that. It is not stupid. Merely weak.

‘Azog is dead,’ it blurts out. ‘All of his party is dead. Murdered by dwarves and elves together. Elves went home. Dwarves went east.’

‘East?’ Bolg demands. ‘Not north?’

‘East,’ the scout insists, perhaps one last moment of pride. It had been clever, and a good scout. It had never brought false reports.

Bolg slits its throat now that he has what he wants.

Then he calls orders to several orcs around him, before summoning one or two special ones to him.

‘Ride east,’ he commands. ‘Find the dwarves. Find them for me.’

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty: Appearances

Of course, because this was Thorin’s quest and the Valar had decided to punish him for the multitude of sins he could remember committing, and also several hundred he had apparently committed unknowingly, finding the path and climbing the path proved to be equally complicated.

Or, to put it simply, the path was a bugger to get up.

It was narrow. It was sharp. It had a hundred and fifty foot drop onto jagged rocks if you slipped off the edge.

It terrified poor Bombur so much he went into a cold sweat and almost fainted partway up, and Thorin had to order him back down to the camp. The sweet, stubborn fool would have pushed on to the top for the sake of ‘doing his duty’ and remaining with his companions regardless, but neither Thorin nor Bofur was going to let that happen when he might waver at the wrong moment and end up falling.

Besides, such was the danger of the damn thing that they couldn’t carry any of their supplies up and the ponies didn’t stand a chance, so Thorin told Bombur firmly that he and Bofur were to remain below to guard their belongings.

When they got three quarters of the way up the path and Bilbo had a similarly panicky moment, at a point when they clearly couldn’t turn back, Thorin kept him going by the simple expedient of having Bilbo grab onto his coat (which essentially meant bury his face in Thorin’s coat) and concentrate on nothing except moving his feet when Thorin moved his own.

They were both thoroughly relieved to reach the grassy-floored bay that lay at the path’s end, which was walled on either side and so offered no risk of falling for anyone, even if it was a little cramped once almost all of the Company pushed their way in.

‘You didn’t have any trouble in the Misty Mountains,’ Thorin murmured to Bilbo worriedly, gently helping Bilbo to release his white-knuckled grip on Thorin’s coat. He kept hold of the hand he had just unclenched and massaged each finger lightly, trying to restore the blood flow and, hopefully, reduce the ache that must have set in over the last hour.

‘I hadn’t nearly fallen until the Misty Mountains,’ Bilbo responded, voice almost snapping. If Thorin hadn’t understood that it was mostly embarrassment causing the brusque, accusatory tone, he might have taken offence at the way Bilbo wrenched away from him. Even understanding that Bilbo’s pride was stung and he was trying to reclaim it, Thorin found himself a little hurt. He was only trying to help.

‘Come on, now, lad,’ Dwalin scolded, joining them just as Bilbo snatched his hand back from Thorin. ‘There’s no need to be getting in a flap because you’re a bit leery of heights after what happened. I am as well, it turns out. Or rather, I’m a bit leery of the rest of you climbing heights. Poor Ori threatened to kick me if I didn’t back up and give him room to breathe by the time we were halfway up. Still, no doubt it’ll fade as time passes. It’s just a bit fresh at the moment.’

Bilbo stared at Dwalin for a moment, although it seemed to Thorin that he was actually looking through the other dwarf and seeing something far distant, then shook himself and said, ‘Yes. Yes, of course. Silly of me. Excuse me.’

Then he wandered away and ended up talking to Balin, clearly trying to pretend that nothing had happened, though he was rubbing his hands just as Thorin had been only minutes before.

‘Mahal, and I thought Nori and I had a strange courtship,’ Dwalin rumbled quietly, so that only Thorin and he would hear. ‘The two of you give me a headache, Thorin. What was all that about?’

Thorin was tempted for a moment to deny all knowledge, then realised how ridiculous that would actually be. Hadn’t he been the one convinced that Dwalin and Balin knew exactly how much trouble he was in with Bilbo, as far back as the Iron Hills? How likely was it that Dwalin would believe his denials now?

His friend wasn’t stupid.

‘I wish I knew,’ Thorin replied instead, equally quietly. ‘I really do.’

***

Oh Yavanna.

They’d found the door.

They’d…

Oh.

That…

Almost as soon as they’d stepped into the little bay and Bilbo had opened his eyes, everything he had so carefully not been thinking about for the last few weeks had come back in a blinding rush of panicshamedesperationterror that had stolen his breath with its ferocity.

They were here.

There was a dragon on the other side of that wall. A dragon Bilbo had agreed to brave.

A treasure he had agreed to steal.

The nausea induced by the trip along the path had suddenly seemed like nothing.

And then Thorin had been speaking to him and touching him so gently, his face so full of concern, and all Bilbo had been able to think was, Don’t.

Please, don’t.

How will I ever go in there if I know I could have this instead?

If I know going in might mean losing this forever?

He knew it was not the most logical reaction. After all, what better reason to enter Erebor could there be than the King who so desperately needed the treasure that Bilbo was supposed to be stealing?

But when did emotion ever rely on logic?

Terrified that he might lose his nerve, Bilbo had snapped at Thorin and yanked himself away from temptation, only finding some semblance of calm when Dwalin came over to interrupt them.

Firmly setting his mind in order, Bilbo had reminded himself that it was perfectly reasonable to value Thorin’s friendship highly, to fear losing that friendship, but to cling to it so pathetically in the face of a promise made to this entire Company of friends would never do.

He claimed to be a warrior, and it was time to prove himself one in truth.

And to hope that Nori gave very good lessons in burglary.

***

Rushed as they had been by the time they realised they needed to reach Erebor, they did not have long to wait for Durin’s Day. They had made one or two preliminary efforts to open the door – searching for secret catches and muttering old fragments of unlocking spells that Balin and Thorin remembered from their days in Erebor – but when these did not work, Thorin decreed they would try nothing more.

The map said Durin’s Day, and Durin’s Day it would be. It was highly unlikely that his Grandfather had chosen to set a lie down in moon runes on a secret map, after all.

Besides, their next move would inevitably have involved some use of force on the blank rock face that must hold the door, and Thorin refused to do anything that might risk waking the dragon.

Not when they were sending two of their own in to his lair.

What little sleep he was managing was plagued with memories of Smaug’s attack upon Erebor; the gate torn asunder, that great maw gushing flame, clawed feet trampling the dwarves of his Guard mercilessly as the dragon charged unerringly towards its destination.

The dragon had no pity. No compassion. No remorse.

Most horrifying of all, when Thorin looked back, he was not sure it even registered the deaths of those it trampled.

They were so completely unimportant that they might as well not have existed in the first place.

Thorin wished Bilbo was not drawing back from him, now of all times.

He thought he would sleep better if he at least had his hobbit within reach.

He envied Dwalin the right to tuck Nori in against him at night, and during the day, and simply hold on as they waited, even if he did have to share that right with Dori and Ori.

Even if Nori’s complete lack of complaint was making them all rather nervous about their thief’s state of mind.

Yet, what could Thorin do? Clearly he had offended Bilbo in some way, for his hobbit was keeping a distance between them at all times. He had tried to apologise for being presumptuous and taking liberties with Bilbo’s person, for that was what he had been doing immediately before Bilbo had gone cold with him, but Bilbo had looked so confused that Thorin had broken off in bafflement himself and they had got nowhere.

At a loss, Thorin had instead busied himself with setting up the pulley system that they were using to get supplies up and down the Mountain, and to keep in touch with Bofur and Bombur below.

Meanwhile, Nori and Bilbo spent their time conferring on methods of passing unseen and unheard (in which they had almost equal levels of expertise), and of filching other people’s belongings without being caught (in which Bilbo did not hesitate to acknowledge Nori’s mastery).

‘Have you ever stolen anything?’ the thief asked of their hobbit, an expression of rather forlorn hope on his face.

‘Does an apple pie off Mrs Gamgee’s windowsill count?’ Bilbo asked innocently, allowing a chuckle to escape when Nori groaned and let his head fall backwards onto one of the rock walls surrounding them.

Then their hobbit produced something out of one pocket and dangled it in front of Nori’s face.

‘What about this?’ he asked Nori cheekily. ‘Does this count?’

Nori’s head snapped back upright, and whatever he saw in Bilbo’s hand must have relieved him immensely, for he began to chuckle and breathed a deep sigh.

‘Yes,’ he told Bilbo happily. ‘That I can work with!’

‘You’re not pickpocketing the dragon, love,’ Dwalin pointed out, tugging on the tallest point of Nori’s hair as he passed by, a look of amusement on his face.

Thorin did not hate him for having what Thorin could not. He didn’t.

He was neither that petty, nor that selfish.

Truly.

‘Of course we’re not,’ Nori agreed huffily, ‘but if Bilbo’s hands are as quick and quiet as his feet, then our chances of living have just improved. At this point, I’ll take whatever I can get.’

So would Thorin.

It didn’t stop a dwarf from wishing, though.

***

‘The map said the last light of Durin’s Day, Uncle,’ Kíli said nervously, staring at the rockface as if he could make a door appear by sheer force of will. ‘Shouldn’t something be happening?’

Above them, the light of day was fading to dusk, the sun dipping towards the horizon, and Thorin could feel the hopes of his Company dipping with it. They had all gathered, even Bombur had allowed himself to be hauled up by the ropes, but it seemed that it had been for naught.

This could not be happening. Surely it could not.

He was certain he had read those runes correctly.

Oh shit, should he have got Balin to read them too?

Damnit, he’d never intended to use the Mahal-damned map, that was the problem. He’d only read it for sentimental reasons, he hadn’t thought it would matter if the translation was slightly off! He hadn’t thought he would need Balin to check his interpretation of it.

He stared at the rock, which remained obstinately blank and… rock-like, and passed the runes through his mind again.

‘Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the keyhole.’

He realised he was hearing the phrase out loud, as well as in his head, and that it was Balin reciting the words to the others again.

‘It’s more like a bloody prophecy than a set of instructions,’ Dwalin muttered, ‘and Thrór was no one’s idea of a seer. I hate to say it, Thorin, but we are sure…’

‘That he drew the map before he completely lost his mind?’ Thorin filled in dryly. ‘Yes, Dwalin, fairly sure.’

‘Then we must simply trust that we are missing something,’ Balin said long-sufferingly, ‘and wait patiently. Not a talent we all possess in great measure, I realise,’ he added, with a stern look at several members of the Company, the boys included, ‘but not something that is likely to result in imminent death either.’

There were a few shamefaced looks as the Company settled once more and then, as if to reward them for their good behaviour, suddenly a huge black thrush sailed over the top of the outermost wall of the bay. It seemed to hover for a moment - as if surprised to find its haven full of a motley collection of unwashed dwarves – then it dived and landed on the grey stone in the middle of the grass and began to pound the snail in its grip on the stone with great determination.

At the same time, the moon rose in the sky.

The very last rays of the setting sun reappeared through the clouds.

Some of those rays fell on the door.

The thrush chirped and flew away.

And the keyhole appeared as chips of stone flaked away from the rest of the door.

Thorin was not ashamed to admit that he nearly tripped over his own feet in his rush to get the key into the keyhole before it disappeared again.

Sometimes a dwarf just had to be brave enough to admit to his desperation. As long as he was amongst his own kin, anyway.

They all heard the click as the door unlocked and saw the seam appear around the edge, as if that was the cue for the ancient illusion to fall away and admit that, oh, yes, there was a door here after all, would you look at that?

Thorin let his forehead rest against the stone for just a moment as he sagged forward in relief.

One step closer to a solution.

This might… it just might work. He might be able to save his people after all.

All he had to do…

All he had to be willing to do was send Dwalin’s heart, and his own, into the dragon’s lair to accomplish it.

Mahal but he hated his life sometimes.

***

Right, so, door was open.

Treasure-stealing time and all that.

How much trouble could you get into for telling your King to go fuck himself?

Get a grip, Nori, something inside him insisted firmly. You’ll all starve if you don’t do this and you know it. Don’t be such a coward.

I can provide for Ori and Dori, he thought stubbornly, if we leave Ered Luin and travel somewhere else. I could make a new life for us somewhere, anywhere, else.

Dori would never go for it, the little voice that must be his conscience argued. It sounded rusty from lack of use. Besides, Dwalin will never leave Thorin, you know that.

Then we’ll leave Dwalin, Nori insisted.

His conscience didn’t even deign to reply. Nori thought he could perhaps hear a trill of disdainful laughter deep in the recesses of his mind.

Mahal’s balls, I’m actually losing it, he realised. I’m staring at a wall, arguing with myself. I’m officially insane.

Why not just walk into the Mountain, in that case? Madmen did stranger things all the time.

Well, perhaps not stranger than this, but certainly they did very odd things! No one would be surprised at his actions once they learned that he had done it because his mind had cracked.

‘Nori?’ Dwalin said quietly.

‘What?’ he barked, taken by surprise, whirling to face his… whatever Dwalin was. Not-quite-betrothed.

‘You’re muttering to yourself, love.’

Nori felt a moment of panic.

‘You couldn’t hear it, could you?’ he asked quickly.

‘No…’ Dwalin drawled, eyebrow raising, ‘but now I really wish I had.’

‘Shut up,’ was Nori’s oh-so-witty retort. While all of this had been going on, Thorin had managed to shove the door open almost silently – congratulations to the dwarven crafters of old, the bastards – and the rest of the Company were now gathered around it, staring into the dark.

Bilbo was stood in the entrance, moonlight making him glow eerily as if it was determined to keep the door lit now that it had finally revealed the damned thing to them.

Nori took a deep breath, and a step forward.

Then he turned back, and flung his arms around Dwalin’s neck in the most uncharacteristic moment of his life.

Dwalin, because he was no one’s fool no matter what the rest of the world seemed to think, just wrapped him up in those ridiculously oversized arms of his and held him tight.

He didn’t say a word, which saved Nori the trouble of having to stab him.

Dwalin could be a most considerate not-quite-betrothed, when he wanted to be.

Eventually, Nori forced himself to loosen his grip just enough that Dwalin would feel it, and Dwalin did the rest. He pressed a kiss to the top of Nori’s head, then untangled the pair of them and stepped back. He turned Nori about and gave him a gentle shove in the small of his back.

‘Off you go,’ he said softly. ‘Sooner you leave, sooner you’ll be back.’

It was such a ridiculous statement that Nori couldn’t help but laugh, just as Dwalin had intended, and it gave him the impetus to get moving. His own courage, lacking though he often felt it was, was bolstered by Ori’s trusting look as the Company parted before him and let him join Bilbo at the doorway.

Bilbo looked up at him, and Nori saw so much of what he was feeling echoed in Bilbo’s eyes that he felt unaccountably better and braver. He couldn’t let Bilbo do this alone, but the hobbit would, if Nori backed out, because it was obvious to a blind dwarf that Bilbo adored their King and would do anything for Thorin.

‘Come on then,’ thief muttered to hobbit. ‘Let’s get this over with.’

Off they went.

***

The passage they entered was long, the air hot and dry. Bilbo had expected it to be moist, really, after seeing all that steam at the front entrance, but it was almost as if the very atmosphere was baked dry by Smaug’s presence and the heat he must give off.

Luckily, the passage itself gave them no trouble. It was straight and uniform, no sudden dips or bumps to surprise them, just a shallow, constant gradient leading down into the Mountain.

If it felt like it was also leading to their doom… well, it wasn’t the passage’s fault that Bilbo had an overactive imagination, after all.

Not that he needed his imagination after a while. The further on they got, the lighter and hotter their way became, lit with a red glow that made it very clear to two intelligent people what awaited them at the end. They pressed on and on regardless, until they reached a point where they could suddenly hear the rumbling snores of a very-much-alive dragon and, all of a sudden, Nori grabbed for Bilbo’s hand and whimpered helplessly just as Bilbo’s legs gave out on him and he slid to the floor.

For a long moment, neither of them did anything but breathe; or at least attempt to. Nori’s breaths had a slight whine to them, as if his airway had closed up and he was having to force the air through.

It was that sound which eventually prompted Bilbo to get a hold of himself and shove back to his feet. Nori was clearly in quite a bit of distress and it would not do for Bilbo, the warrior of the two of them, to be cowering on the floor while the poor dwarf asphyxiated.

He was just looking up, reaching out with his free hand towards Nori, when he noticed that Nori was now looking much calmer and was eyeing Bilbo with a determined look that was probably a fair match for Bilbo’s own.

Their eyes met for a long moment, they each assessed the other…

And then they burst into soundless laughter.

It was laughter with an edge of hysteria, admittedly, and it would probably have done nothing to dispel any rumours regarding their sanity, but by the time they had straightened themselves out and settled upright again, they both felt considerably better.

Quite apart from anything else, if they could manage some sort of nervous collapse without making any noise, then Bilbo felt much better about their chances of a soundless theft.

Nori apparently concurred, for he signalled that they should move ahead, adding a lift of his eyebrow to make it a question, and Bilbo nodded briskly in agreement.

They set off again, calmer this time, though Bilbo could still feel his heartbeat tripping along at three times its usual rate, and approached the red glow as cautiously as possible.

When they finally reached the entrance to the treasure hall and looked inside, Bilbo could sense that Nori was torn between wonder at the sight of so much gold all in one place (piles and piles of it, and jewels, and great artworks wrought of gold, and all sorts of other nonsense that Bilbo could admit was very pretty and impressive) and a thief’s natural desire to know where the guardian of the goods was.

Bilbo would very much have liked the answer to that question too.

How in the name of Yavanna does one hide a dragon of legend?

A snoring dragon of legend, in the name of all that is holy?

He had to be here somewhere. Bilbo would really like to know where before they went off trying to rob what the dragon considered to be his.

Bilbo and Nori scanned the place obsessively for several minutes, but Bilbo knew that Nori was going to have to do the majority of the work here. The treasure hall was not very well lit and Bilbo did not have dwarven eyesight. He could see the gold piles nearest to him, but further away it was difficult to make out much detail.

Not that you would expect to need to make out detail in order to find a dragon, of all things, but why should anything be simple at this point?

Then, suddenly, Nori tensed. He grabbed Bilbo’s hand, tugged to get his attention, then moved to stand behind the hobbit and raised their arms together so that they were pointing in exactly the same direction. Bilbo sighted down his arm, as if he were Elrohir about to fire a bow, and after a long minute he finally saw what Nori had seen.

A patch of gold that was not gold at all, but reddish-gold scale.

Smaug was hidden beneath his stolen hoard.

Yavanna, the dwarves weren’t joking when they spoke of the dragonish obsession with their treasure.

Smaug had literally buried himself in it.

Pity he hadn’t had the decency to die first.

The one piece of good news was that the ‘burial’ spot was some distance from where Nori and Bilbo stood, and they had plenty of treasure to choose from right where they were.

Sharing a quick glance and a nod, the two of them unslung the empty packs they had brought along, edged forward towards the nearest pile, undid the top flap, and quickly and quietly scooped as much of the treasure into the packs as they could.

They paid little to no attention to what they were taking. Thorin had made that instruction very clear earlier in their journey to Erebor.

‘It doesn’t matter what you retrieve,’ he’d insisted earnestly. ‘Thrór was obsessive about quality, as much as he was about quantity, and I doubt Smaug will have added any rubbish. Just fill the packs and get out. We’ll worry about what you’ve got afterwards.’

Bilbo was perfectly happy to comply with that instruction, and Nori appeared to be too. It took them a minute and a half maybe, Nori clamping down on Bilbo’s hand when he would have kept going and shaking his head. Nori’s pack was far bigger, of course, the stronger dwarf able to carry more as they escaped, and he was clearly warning Bilbo against taking more than he might be able to comfortably carry.

Nodding, Bilbo sealed the pack, rose to his feet, slung it over his shoulder and moved soundlessly to the doorway, Nori right on his heels. Then they fled back up the corridor as quickly as they could without making any noise.

Smaug, it appeared, had not noticed a thing…

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty-One: Golddust and Ash

Nori burst out of the end of the tunnel like he’d been fired out of his brother’s slingshot, immediately caught Ori’s wrist in one hand and Dwalin’s shirt with the other, and kept right on going.

Of course, even with Nori’s impressive strength, trying to pull Dwalin anywhere was very much a case of great force meeting an immovable object.

Nori hit the end of his arm-span, bounced slightly as he tried to go further, then came to an undignified halt.

Then he swore creatively and looked over at Ori.

‘If we both put our backs into it, we could take him,’ he informed his younger brother through gritted teeth.

‘No doubt,’ Dwalin replied in Ori’s stead, so patient that Nori really would have liked to hit him, ‘but my pack is over there, with all my provisions in it. Do you really want to deal with me in two days’ time, when I’m grumpy from lack of food and blame you for the fact I don’t have any?’

‘We need to GO!’ Nori insisted urgently, looking back over his shoulder and eyeing the Mountain with the sort of wariness he had previously reserved for… well, Dwalin, actually, and other members of the Guard.

‘We need to give Bilbo time to catch his breath first,’ Thorin announced, startling Nori completely. Bilbo had been rock solid since they’d got over their never-to-be-mentioned mutual meltdown in the tunnel. ‘The boys got him,’ Thorin explained, when Nori shot him a querying look, and Nori could see that Fíli and Kíli were, in fact, looking very sheepish while poor Bilbo looked like he was struggling to fill his lungs with oxygen.

‘Idiots,’ Nori muttered. ‘We don’t have time for this. None of you would have lasted five seconds as real thieves. You don’t sit around at the scene of the crime waiting to be caught, for Mahal’s sake. We need to go!’

Then Bifur, whose absence Nori had noted only in the way that he always noted where the members of the Company were at any given time without really thinking about it, suddenly dropped down into the bay from above and growled in Khuzdul fierce enough to make Ori flinch.

‘What do you mean we have bigger problems than Smaug?’ Bofur replied immediately. ‘How can we possibly have a bigger problem than Smaug?’  

***

Bifur had never been enamoured of waiting around for things to happen.

He could do it, of course. He’d been a soldier during the War, and any decent soldier learns how to sit around and wait for their Captains to be ready to fight, or for the enemy to get off their arses and arrive at the battlefield. He just didn’t like doing it.

He thought he might have been better at it once, before an axe to the head and all that came with it… but then he’d been a different dwarf in those days. It had bothered him more, years ago, the loss of that dwarf. He’d fretted over all the changes his injuries had brought – the small ones as well as the big – wondering if they’d been for the better or for the worse.

Then Bofur, with his usual forthright approach, had asked him whether it mattered. The old Bifur, he’d pointed out, was never coming back, and he and Bombur would love the new Bifur just as much even if he turned into a tree-loving, wine-drinking elf. So what was Bifur worrying about?

Who could argue with that really?

So when Nori and Bilbo disappeared into the mountain tunnel and Bifur began to feel a familiar itch under his skin – one that told him to move, do something, go somewhere, now; that made his legs jitter with the need to get up and go – he did not bother wondering if he should be feeling that way or not. He just went over to Thorin and quietly told him that he’d be back in a little while.

Thorin, as familiar with Bifur’s moods as he was with Bofur’s after all their years working together to keep the mines going, just nodded.

‘Don’t go too far,’ he murmured softly. ‘We don’t know how long this will take them.’

Bifur grunted his agreement, then slipped past the rest of the Company and found the section of wall he was looking for, where there were handholds which would take him upwards, above the bay and onto the slopes overhead. The Company had paid these little attention since their arrival, as focused as they’d been on the door into the Mountain, but Bifur had been up once or twice.

The view from the heights was amazing, and he enjoyed the peace and quiet.

Peace and quiet was, perhaps, a strange thing to enjoy when Bofur was one of the two centres of your world, but Bifur had found that the rare moments just became more precious in contrast to the hubbub that was usually his life.

Having reached the sturdier part of the slope he’d been aiming for, Bifur pushed ahead to find a vantage point he’d identified the day before. It sat on the crest of one of the Mountain’s ridges and so gave a wonderful view of the world below them.

Poor Bombur would have hated it, but Bifur was not so worried about being balanced on the knife’s edge and the sights one could see in such places made the danger worth it.

Usually.

This time, as he crested the hill, the sight he was confronted with jarred him so thoroughly that he jerked to a stop. Then, as his mind began to comprehend some of what he was seeing, his stomach began to roll over in disgust.

Sweet Mahal, how had this happened?

The quiet, open space Bifur had been expecting had disappeared. The barrenness that he had been able to find some beauty, if a strange kind of beauty, in was barren no longer.

Oh, Thorin was not going to like this at all.

Nor did Bifur.

The wound on his head was already beginning to throb.

***

‘Rakhâs,’ Bifur growled, and even Bilbo knew what that meant. ‘Rakhâs…,’ and he didn’t catch the rest of the sentence, but the horrified looks on the faces of the Company meant he did not need to.

Orcs.

How had orcs found them here?

How many orcs had found them here?

Oh bother, however were they going to escape this one?

‘He says they’re down on the plains below us,’ Glóin whispered suddenly in Bilbo’s ear, apparently having caught sight of his slightly baffled expression. ‘A massive army of them, and they’ve brought siege equipment. They also seem to have at least some idea where we are. A good chunk of their army is marching around from the front and setting up directly below us. They’re blocking our way out.’

‘That doesn’t make sense,’ Bilbo replied, loud enough that the rest of the Company could hear him. The conversation that had been taking place elsewhere died away. ‘No one knows the location of this door except us. Not many more people even know it exists! It simply isn’t possible that the orcs know where we are. If they were besieging the front gate, then that might be logical. Any sensible person would expect you to go in that way…’

‘No sensible person would have expected us to go in at all,’ Balin remarked dryly, and Bilbo flipped a hand in a combination of acknowledgement and dismissal. Of course that was true, but it was also beside the point as things stood.

‘Bilbo’s argument stands,’ Thorin agreed after a moment’s thought. ‘The sort of luck it would take to guess exactly where we are when the orcs have the entire Mountain to choose from is beyond imagining.’

‘Unless we were betrayed,’ Nori pointed out helpfully. Several breaths hissed in at once, but Thorin did not, surprisingly, go for Nori’s throat at the suggestion.

‘By Dáin?’ he asked Nori calmly. ‘He knew no more of the door’s location than Lord Elrond, and I can see neither of them consorting with orcs, Nori, can you?’

A flutter of wings distracted them all before Nori could reply, and Bilbo looked up to see the ancient raven whom Thorin had dealt with before, Roäc, landing in the bay.

‘Treachery is not only the province of dwarves and elves, Thorin Oakenshield,’ he croaked hoarsely. ‘The orcs have winged servants, and my people have spotted them over the Mountain in recent days. We have hunted those we could, for we have often suffered spies near our home and care little for them, but it would not surprise me if one or two slipped past us. As soundlessly as they fly, you would likely not have noticed them.’

‘What servants?’ Bilbo asked Thorin nervously. ‘What’s been spying on us, Thorin?’

‘Bats,’ Thorin surmised, looking to Roäc and snarling when he received a nod of agreement. ‘Blasted things. They would, of course, make perfect spies at night and Roäc is right. We would never have spotted them unless they were right on top of us.’

‘What do we do now?’ Dori asked worriedly, eyeing the far wall of the bay as if he could see through it to the problem below. ‘If they know we are here and they are blocking the way out, what options do we have?’

‘Could we stay here?’ Fíli asked Thorin uncertainly. ‘Smaug doesn’t seem to be waking, and goodness knows no army of orcs is getting up that path quickly enough to do us any damage. We could just put Kíli and Ori at the top and let them enjoy target practice.’

‘Until our food ran out, yes,’ Bombur pointed out, before Thorin could even reply. Fíli grimaced and smacked himself on the forehead.

‘I’d also be nervous of that sodding siege equipment,’ Dwalin rumbled, frowning unhappily. ‘You don’t bring that along for the sake of it, it’s too bloody unwieldy. They’ve got plans for that, and we’ve only got a relatively thin wall of rock between us and them.’

‘We need to scout for escape routes,’ Thorin said firmly. ‘We cannot stay here indefinitely, but there’s no point charging on ahead when we no longer know the lay of the land below us. Bifur’s warning is helpful, but he could see no details from so high up. A small scouting party will be able to tell us much more.’

There was the briefest moment of silence, broken only by an exclamation from Nori.

‘If you think for one second that you are going to ask me to…!’

No, Nori,’ Thorin countered immediately, voice rising easily above Nori’s. ‘I am asking you for nothing. You have done your part for today, and you have my eternal gratitude for it. Peace, now.’

‘Oh,’ Nori said, all the starch going out of him. ‘That takes all of the fun out of it. I was going to try and drag it out a bit before I agreed to go.’

‘You shouldn’t be so contrary, then, should you?’ Dori said primly. Nori’s mouth twisted, as if he was sure there was something wrong with that argument but couldn’t quite say what it was. Bilbo resisted the urge to laugh, despite his very real worry about their latest crisis.

‘Nori and I do seem to be the logical choices,’ he said calmly, considerably less bothered by the army of orcs than he had been by the potential encounter with a dragon. Bilbo could handle orcs, he had been training to do since he was barely out of his tweens. This situation, at least, he felt entirely equipped to handle.

‘Not alone,’ Thorin insisted. ‘A small group may be necessary for secrecy, but the two of you against an entire army is just asking for trouble. Kíli and Dwalin will go with you. And no one is going anywhere until I’ve had a chance to look at the situation. Bifur, show me this vantage point.’

***

It was just as bad as Bifur had said it was.

Thorin had expected as much. Bifur was hardly given to exaggeration and he still had a soldier’s eye for reporting even after all these years. Still, Thorin had hoped.

Watching the plain below crawl with orcs, Thorin did wonder why he persisted in doing anything so foolishly futile as hoping.

This expedition was clearly doomed. He would suffer far fewer disappointments if he simply accepted that.

Yet… he knew he could not. He had to get his Company through this. He had to.

Other than Dís, all those he loved most were gathered here. He could not simply give up and let them die.

Taking one last look at the plain below, roiling with orcs so thickly that he could barely see the ground, Thorin took a deep breath and forcefully shoved despair to the back of his mind.

Not today.

He had no time for such weaknesses today.

Instead, he walked back to Bifur and they made their way down to the Company, slipping back into the midst of the expectant gathering as silently as possible.

‘Well?’ Dwalin asked almost immediately.

‘They certainly know we’re here,’ Thorin confirmed. ‘The thickest wedge of the army is camped directly below us and they have siege engines aimed as close to this point as they can without being able to see it. I don’t believe they know where the path lets out, however. That may be our only advantage. You’ll need to get down there and test the edge of their forces. See if there are any gaps around the edges we could sneak past. Or if we can try going over the top of the ridge and get past them that way. It would be harder, but still a great deal easier than going through them. It’s hard to tell from up here just how far out they’ve spread themselves.’

Dwalin nodded sharply, and Thorin felt himself settle. It was instinctual by now. Pass the task to Dwalin, then relax in the knowledge that he would see it done somehow or other.

No one ever said instinct had to make sense.

‘Right, off we go, then,’ Dwalin ordered his little group, tapping Kíli on the head gently to prompt him into separating from Fíli. Thorin was so busy watching Kíli untangle himself from Fíli’s grip, he didn’t notice Bilbo moving.

The kiss on his cheek took him completely by surprise.

From the look on Bilbo’s face, which was flushing cherry red with startling speed, it had taken his hobbit rather by surprise as well.

‘I… uh…,’ Bilbo stuttered awkwardly, before blurting, ‘goodbye, Thorin,’ and turning abruptly to leave, obviously planning to flee the scene of his embarrassment without delay.

Sod that.

Reaching out, Thorin caught hold of Bilbo’s arm and gently tugged him back.

‘Nothing so final, if you please,’ he scolded Bilbo with equal gentleness. ‘I fully expect all of you to return in one piece.’

‘Oh,’ Bilbo replied, clearly startled and unable to think of much else to say. ‘Of course. I didn’t mean…’

‘Good,’ Thorin told him. ‘I am glad to hear it. We will say “fare well” instead, then.’ Then he leaned down and brushed his own kiss across Bilbo’s cheek, squeezed his hobbit’s arm, turned him about and gave him a little push toward Dwalin, who was valiantly restraining the laugh that clearly wanted to erupt from his mouth.

Thorin laid a finger across his mouth in warning, and Dwalin held up both hands in surrender.

As he should. Dwalin’s own courtship had been about as smooth as troll hide. He really did not want to get into that argument with Thorin any time soon.

The scouting party departed and for a brief moment there was silence in the bay.

Then, of course, it was broken by Fíli’s voice.

Uncle!’ he exclaimed gleefully. ‘That was almost a romantic overture. With Bilbo. And no one’s dying yet. Kíli owes me money!’

‘Someone could be dying, nephew. Particularly if it would prevent Kíli from losing my hard-earned gold in ridiculous wagers. Do you wish to continue speaking?’

Silence.

‘No, I rather thought not.’

***

Deep within Erebor, Smaug the Golden grumbled irritably in his sleep.

He had been having the most wonderful nap, he was sure of that. Surrounded by his gold, safe in his unassailable stronghold, disruptions to his slumber were rare indeed. He had left his hoard only once since acquiring it, when the pangs of hunger had grown too much for him some years ago. Occasionally, he would amuse himself by poring over his collection of wonders, or adjusting to a better wallowing position.

Mostly, though, he slept.

He was, after all, getting on in years.

Comfortable.

Little interested in anything beyond his kingdom now that he had amassed the greatest fortune in the known world.

It was not as if he had to worry about another firedrake coming to steal his treasure. He was the only one left.

To be involuntarily woken, then. To have a… niggle, at the edge of his mind, insisting that he ought to be awake, that there were matters which required his attention.

That was simply annoying.

Smaug did not deal well with annoyances.

Heaving himself awake with a sigh that would have scorched anything in his path (nothing was actually stupid enough to be so, luckily), Smaug looked about him with cynical eyes.

Pile of gold.

Pile of gold.

Pile of particularly shiny and expensive ornaments made of jewels and gold.

Pile of items which he’d meant to get around to organising by jewel type and quality.

Pile of… wait.

Pile which had been…

Disturbed.

There.

At the back.

That… should not have been possible.

There was nothing here to disturb his beautifully organised piles. Even if he had been moving in his sleep (preposterous, he would do nothing so unseemly or graceless), the movement would not have reached so far back.

And what was that back there?

In the shadows there?

He had never noticed anything there before, but was that – an arch?

Snarling, Smaug uncurled himself fully and began to slither forward, his tail whipping back and forth and doing more damage to his hoard than any one thief could have in a decade. He stalked up to the area in question and quickly realised three things.

  1. Yes, he had, in fact, been robbed.
  2. Yes, there was an archway there he had never seen before, leading to a tunnel he had never realised existed.
  3. One of the thieves had been a dwarf.

Dwarves. In his Mountain.

Smaug’s roar of fury resounded through Erebor like the war-horn which had once summoned its armies to fight.

No longer at all sleepy, he turned so sharply that he appeared to curve back upon himself and sped towards the door of the treasury, his chest burning red even as he did so. Flame so bright a red it was almost gold billowed from his throat as he reached the broken doors, though what Smaug was torching he could not have said. The doors themselves, of course, were long destroyed and lay crumbled on the floor roundabout the entrance.

Still, it looked impressive, and it made Smaug feel better.

It was always satisfying to imagine the fate of one’s enemies in advance, and Smaug had no greater enemy than one who had stolen from him.

***

This was not good.

This was not good at all.

In fact, on Kíli’s ‘scale of good’, the current situation sat even below the day that Fíli had been dying, the day Kíli and Uncle had silently agreed to grant him the mercy of death in the face of his suffering.

He hadn’t thought anything could ever be worse than that, but this time it seemed he was going to lose everyone all at once.

The orcs were everywhere.

Thousands of them.

With clusters of sieges engines placed at intervals, just as Bifur had described, because orcs on their own weren’t bad enough.

Kíli could see no way out.

From the look on Dwalin, Bilbo and Nori’s faces, nor could they.

They were stuck.

Kíli hated this cursed quest. The only good thing it had brought them was Bilbo, and now it was going to kill their hobbit alongside everyone else because fate was apparently an absolute bastard and didn’t care that the dwarves of Ered Luin had suffered enough and needed their King and his consort and the Heir to the throne, and that the spare wouldn’t mind living a few more years either.

Kíli really wanted to kick something right now.

Which was ironic, really, considering the sheer number of kickable things around and the fact that he couldn’t afford to alert any of those things to their presence by actually kicking them.

Life was so unfair.

Another group of orcs approached, far too disorganised and undisciplined to be called a patrol, and Dwalin pulled them all back against the nearest rockface to hide them from view. They held their breath, every muscle tensed to stillness, for long seconds. Kíli already had his bow in one hand and an arrow clenched in the other, just in case. Any orc that got to close was going to die by his hand or Nori’s, that much Kíli was sure of. They were both wound too tight for anything else.

‘It’s useless,’ Nori whispered, when Bilbo finally signalled the all clear two long minutes later. ‘We’ve found nothing. We’re trapped.’

‘Useless to go as a group,’ Dwalin countered, sounding as if the very words pained him. ‘I’ll have to tell Thorin to split us up. One or twos, three in a group at most. If we do it that way, we might just make it. Or some of us might.’

Dwalin,’ Nori hissed, catching on to the implication a second or two before Kíli and Bilbo did. ‘If you DARE….’ He managed an impressive amount of venom in the words for someone who never raised his voice above the barest murmur.

‘I’m good at being visible,’ Dwalin answered, so calmly that his tone verged on bland. ‘Thorin and I have counted on it any number of times over the years. I imagine Bifur and Óin would help me if I asked. We could make a fair amount of noise if we needed to, once a few of you were already on your way unnoticed.’

‘That is not a plan!’ Nori objected furiously. His face was set, but Kíli thought he could see tears gathering at the corners of Nori’s eyes. He looked away quickly, knowing Nori would hate to feel on display.

‘This is not the place or time to discuss it,’ Bilbo pointed out lowly, though when Kíli risked a glance back he could see that Bilbo’s hand was on Nori’s arm, rubbing soothingly. ‘Let’s get back to the others. I imagine Thorin and Balin will both have something to say to any plan we come up with.’

‘Aye,’ Dwalin agreed, ‘and you can bet your arse that anything Balin says will be viciously practical. It’s just the jobs we do, love,’ he told Nori, clearly trying to explain. Nori refused to look at him, or to answer. Dwalin sighed.

They all pushed away from their bit of rockface, preparing to move on, and the conversation might have continued all the way back to the rest of the Company, except that the world chose that moment to shake wildly and they had to turn their attention to keeping their feet.

***

Smaug the Impenetrable, Doom of the Dwarves, slammed his way through Erebor with as much regard for its architecture and stability as he’d ever had.

Which was to say, none.

Had there been justice in the world, something would have collapsed and flattened him before he ever got outside.

Unfortunately, such justice rarely came about.

Instead, Smaug thundered through, shaking the Mountain to its foundations, and thoroughly enjoying his tantrum until he finally reached the outside world for the first time in many years.

Then he took off at a run, barely noticing the small earthquake he caused around him, before launching himself into the sky and roaring another challenge to the thieves he knew must be around somewhere.

Dwarves. How hard could it be to find dwarves in an empty pla…

Plain.

Empty.

Where had all these things come from?

Why were there things cluttering up his front doorstep?

More thieves. It had to be. The dwarves were an advance guard, testing to see if he was awake, or still alive. Now that they had succeeded, more vultures had come to try and pick his hoard clean, to pick his bones clean.

Well, they would rue the day they had tried!

He was Smaug the Golden, last firedrake of the North. He would not be stolen from by ants.

Gathering a chestful of flame, Smaug adjusted his path so that he was soaring above the encampments below. He waited long moments, until he was sure it was hot enough.

Then he unleashed the flames of his wrath upon those assembled.

And laughed at their panic and their attempts to escape.

None would escape.

None.

Smaug would see to it.

Rob him, would they?

Not they.

Never.

***

Above the orc camps, Thorin saw dragonfire in the sky once more and felt a surge of utter horror.

They had unleashed Smaug upon the world, the one thing he had sworn never to do, and nothing short of an act of the Valar was likely to put him back to sleep now.

Even worse, perhaps.

Dragonfire burned everything in its path.

Indiscriminately.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty-Two: Unleashed

The day the dragon came was rarely spoken of in Ered Luin.

Or perhaps it was, and their people were simply wary of speaking about such things in front of the Princes.

Either way, nothing had prepared Fíli for just the glimpses he was getting of dragonfire in the air, the heat he could feel even from so far away, the screams of hundreds of orcs all dying at the same time.

It ought to have been dark save for the moon at this time of night, yet the Mountain was lit up as if it was dawn.

Fíli had no prayers to spare for orcs, not with all they had done to his family and his people, but he found himself murmuring prayers for the Dwarves of Erebor and the Men of Dale. For those who had suffered Smaug’s wrath all those years ago and had not lived to tell the tale.

The fear, the sheer scale of such fear, was something he had never truly been able to comprehend until now, with Smaug flying above them and occasionally blotting out the moon itself with his sheer bulk.

With Kíli, and Dwalin, and Bilbo, and Nori all down there. All directly in the path of Smaug’s fury and not a thing Fíli could do to stop it.

Beside him there were more prayers being said. Ori had tears streaming down his cheeks as he gripped Dori’s hand so tightly that Fíli heard the bones crack.

Dori didn’t even flinch.

Uncle…

Uncle was wearing the set expression of one who was not thinking about such things. Who could not think about such things because he was King, always the King, and there was so much more at stake here than four lives, no matter how important those lives were to the ten of them standing here.

Fíli allowed himself one more moment of horrified wondering, then forcibly shoved everything that could be going wrong to one side of his mind and refused to focus on it any more.

It seemed he was fated to learn this skill the way Uncle had learned it.

Practice.

‘Balin, we have to distract him,’ Uncle was saying now, and there was no question of who ‘he’ was. ‘Not right this second - if he’s killing orcs out there then… then I think we have no option but to be thankful we may have one less enemy come morning - but if he thinks of turning his attention elsewhere…’

‘Then both Laketown and Mirkwood would be doomed in minutes,’ Balin finished for him, without hesitation. ‘Aye, the thought had occurred. I’ve a plan to get his attention, but someone needs to get up on the slopes so we can keep an eye on him. We don’t know how long it will take for him to get bored of this game.’

Without saying a word, Bifur turned and headed towards the back wall, making for an apparently-familiar spot and hauling himself upward. He disappeared from view almost immediately, but they soon heard his voice shouting back to them and Bofur hurried to grab his boar spear and throw it up. Bifur must have caught it just under the blade, because most of the handle remained in view. The cousins exchanged a few sentences in Khuzdul so rapid that Fíli had trouble keeping up, no matter how fluent he thought he was (he did wonder sometimes if Bifur’s family had adapted the language over the years, words of their creator bedamned) then Bofur hurried back to the rest of them.

‘Nice and simple,’ Bofur assured them. ‘If it looks like Smaug’s up to something we really wouldn’t like, Bifur will make a bloody great racket with the spear.’

‘Did he say how it was looking?’ Thorin asked, voice tense and unhappy. Bofur gave him an equally unhappy look in response, face more serious than Fíli had ever seen it and his hand coming up to tug at the edge of his hat, though Fíli wasn’t sure he realised he was doing so.

‘Messy,’ he replied tightly. ‘Very messy. He’s… er… well, Bifur said “playing with them” and I think we can all guess what that means.’

Balin closed his eyes, and Fíli knew it was against memories he didn’t ever want to have.

‘They’re orcs,’ Glóin said firmly, as pointed a reminder as any Fíli had ever heard.

‘Yes, Glóin,’ Balin said quietly, painfully, ‘and that’s a dragon. Have you ever seen a cat with a mouse it had no intention of eating?’

‘Glóin’s still right,’ Thorin said softly. ‘Perhaps save our sympathy for things that wouldn’t have gutted us and displayed our heads, given the chance.’ Balin shook himself sharply, nodding and gripping Glóin’s arm briefly. Glóin just patted his shoulder in response. None of them breathed a word about who else might be caught up in Smaug’s game. If they didn’t say it, they didn’t have to face it just yet. ‘For now, this plan you’d come up with, Balin?’

‘We’ll need Dori, and the hammer Dwalin left with us, and some of the supplies I asked for from Dáin,’ Balin said quickly.

‘All of which are readily available,’ Thorin replied with relief. ‘Let’s prepare ourselves then.’

***

Bifur was really very much in agreement with Glóin on the subject of orcs and what they deserved. He spared little pity for their woes as he watched Smaug take pass after pass above their camps, each time letting loose another gout of flame and incinerating another swathe of their armies. There were a lot of things burning on the plain now, enough that Bifur could see the general gist of what was going on, though sometimes only in silhouette.

Most of the orcs had scattered at this point, which was making Smaug’s work slightly harder, but Bifur didn’t think it was a deliberate choice on their part. The only concerted resistance was coming from two groups that were using catapults to try and take the dragon down, but they weren’t accomplishing much against dragonhide.

Bifur winced, and revised that statement.

They were pissing Smaug off, apparently, enough that he’d just changed tactics and swooped low.

That was one catapult gone, if Bifur was any judge, and those operating it too. Smaug didn’t seem the type to miss when he swiped his claws like that. He swiped again on his next pass through the orcish ranks, sailing up into the air until he was lit by moonlight and then dropping several somethings back towards the ground.

The second catapult he simply burned.

Perhaps burning things was more fun.

To Bifur’s relief, if his slight horror, this went on for hours. The orcs had given up on resistance long since, but Smaug was angry and determined and not, it seemed, in favour of letting enemies escape unscathed. By the time he was done, the whole plain was alight and Bifur did not see that many of the orcs could have survived such wrath. Some of those on the edges of the camps, perhaps, if they had been clever and run at the first sign of trouble, but the others…

Sitting ducks against a dragon’s might, when he could cover the same distance with one flap of his wings that their legs covered in full minutes of running.

They’d never stood a chance.

Bifur, with an axe still lodged in his brain, thought that it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch.

Were it not Smaug, he’d have given him a round of applause for such a thorough cleansing of vermin.

Were it not for who else was down there…

Bifur gripped his spear tighter and bit back the grief.

They had grieved for Fíli, and been given a miracle.

Once, his family had grieved for Bifur, only to have him awaken changed, and broken, but alive nonetheless.

There was always hope.

Instead, Bifur tensed up, ready to give the signal at any moment. It would take only the slightest whim for the dragon to turn his attention elsewhere now that his first objective was accomplished. The rest of the Company would need to know as early as possible when Smaug…

Settled down for a rest?

Really?

On top of Ravenhill?

Mahal’s balls, if the bastard was going to do that, could he not have gone back inside the Mountain?

The ravens were not going to be happy, and Bifur knew exactly who was going to be hearing all about it.

If they survived, of course.

***

The things really had screamed quite well.

Smaug had forgotten how satisfying such screaming could be.

And the burning. That was entertaining too. He hadn’t burnt anything living in quite a long time.

He’d even enjoyed tossing the tiny squealing things into the air and breaking their petty little throwing devices. One of the devices had been controlled by a larger thing, white-skinned and yelling orders to those around it, and Smaug had taken particular delight in picking it up and snapping it in half.

He did so love teaching the puny mortals, the ones who thought they were so important and might actually be able to defeat him, to know their place in the seconds before they died.

Perhaps he should have left his Mountain more often than he had over the years? Ah well, that would be easily remedied.

For now, however, he had just been more energetic than he had been in many a year, when he hadn’t eaten for quite a while, and he was beginning to feel a bit sluggish. A short breather – just to consider his options, mind – would be no bad thing.

Besides, there was another of those niggling thoughts preying at the back of his mind. Something that had slipped away from him during the night’s entertainments. A break would give him time to remember it.

He had time now.

He had dealt with the…

THIEVES!

***

Smaug’s sudden surge back to awareness startled Bifur quite as badly as it did Smaug. So occupied had he been in muttering imprecations about the race of dragons in general, and this dragon in particular, that he’d let his guard down very slightly. The burst of movement made him jump, and he nearly slid back down into the bay again.

Thankfully for his dignity, he managed to catch himself just in time.

He did, however, briefly wonder if that was the best possible outcome when Smaug’s neck began to writhe back and forth sinuously, his eyes fixed and intense as if he was searching the Mountain for something.

Just how well could dragons see in this sort of dim light?

Bifur could see Smaug, but then Smaug was massive and covered in shining gold, and parts of him tended to glow like a furnace.

Would Smaug be able to see Bifur if he looked hard enough?

Oh Mahal, he hoped not.

***

Thieves.

There had been dwarven thieves, Smaug had smelt them. He had been distracted by all the things below, but those things had not been dwarves.

Smaug knew dwarves. He had certainly eaten enough of them over the years.

When you got something stuck in your teeth that often, it tended to leave a lasting impression.

They would be on the Mountain somewhere, Smaug thought, beginning to search through the dim light. The passage he had found, the one that led in to the treasury, it would be somewhere in the mountainside most likely. The dwarves had built their gold-room in the middle of the Mountain, as any being with a treasure to guard did. They would not want their secret entrance to be found easily from the ground.

Where are you, thieves? Smaug hissed to himself. Where do you hide?

Realising that he would find nothing from his current position, unless it was polite enough to throw itself into his maw (few things ever were), Smaug launched himself into the sky once again. Without a good runup, he found himself much too close to the ground and, for one awful moment, thought he might crash. Hastily, he turned away from the Mountain and towards open ground, where he would be able to build some momentum and then gain height.

***

All poor Bifur saw, of course, was the dragon turning away from Erebor and towards Mirkwood.

Without hesitation, he began to bang his spear on the rock below him.

***

‘Shit,’ Dori said vehemently as the signal came from Bifur. Thorin was actually shocked to stillness for a moment at the sound of Dori swearing, before he realised this was hardly the time.

Now, Dori!’ he commanded instead, and Dori nodded grimly, lifting the war-hammer from over his shoulder and striking hard at the rock wall before them. Bofur had identified the weakest point for them hours ago, then spent the last several hours doing whatever he could to make it weaker. With Dori’s brute force behind it, it took only a few slams of the hammer before the wall shattered. Bofur and Bombur immediately set about widening the gap from either side, while Ori and Balin took care of the second phase of the plan.

Flash-flames flew through the hole and exploded on the rock beneath, their brightness shocking and eerie in the night. Between the light and the noise, they soon had Smaug’s attention and he turned back towards them with a thunderous roar.

‘Right, we’ve got his attention, lads,’ Balin called with deceptive calmness. ‘Get ready.’

This was where their plan got a little hazy, as one would expect when you were dealing with a dragon you had no idea how to kill, which you hadn’t intended to wake in the first place. Grabbing everything they owned, weapons in hand, each of the Company backed towards the end of the bay as Smaug approached still booming his displeasure.

‘I am Smaug, King Under the Mountain…’ Thorin caught, when he spared half a second to listen, and at that his temper did fracture.

‘I think you’ll find that’s my title, you overgrown slug,’ he growled, taking a step in the wrong direction, towards the dragon rather than away.

‘Uncle!’ Fíli protested. ‘Don’t be an idiot. Bilbo will never speak to you again.’

That certainly brought Thorin up short and he took three hasty steps back, pretending not to hear Fíli’s sigh of relief.

‘In, now,’ Glóin ordered, as Thorin and Fíli reached the door, the last to do so, and Thorin backed in just as Smaug’s shadow fell over the bay. He and Glóin shoved the door forward and let it block the stream of fire Smaug aimed towards them, but they could not get it fully closed before the heat became too much. In fact, Glóin had to yank Thorin in front of him to get his cousin away from the edges of the flames and Thorin still felt the heat searing past his face. When the fire died away a minute later, Óin immediately began to beat at the edges of Thorin’s coat.

‘We’ve got a few minutes before he can do that again,’ Bifur informed them, now their expert on dragons after the night spent on watch. ‘It takes time to build the fire up.’

Any reply was forestalled by Smaug, one great clawed foot appearing at the edge of the door, reaching in like a cat’s paw at the edge of the doorway, swiping for a lost toy.

Or lost prey.

‘Back. Back!’ Thorin shouted, and the Company all tumbled several hasty steps further down the tunnel, hopefully out of Smaug’s reach.

Smaug continued to claw at the air behind the door for several moments, snarling and yanking the stone to pieces when it impeded his efforts to find them.

It was only then, of course, that Thorin realised what a terrible plan this had been in the absence of a door they could shut.

Smaug’s mouth appeared at the doorway, parts of his neck just visible behind it, already beginning to light up red with flames.

And Thorin and his Company were trapped in a long corridor which would provide a perfect funnel for those flames whenever Smaug saw fit to unleash them.

Oh Mahal.

They were going to be roasted alive.

Thorin was not the only one to have spotted the problem. Several voices rang out at once, all shouting that they must run for the treasury, but Thorin knew they would never make it. The evil grin that was somehow spreading on Smaug’s utterly inhuman mouth said that he knew it too.

Thorin stood, pushing Fíli behind him, and faced the doom of his kingdom.

He thought that at least the last thing he had said to Bilbo had been kind, and based on love.

At least he had kissed Bilbo once, if only on his cheek.

There were others who had never had even that with their Ones.

Some of them stood with him this night.

Then, without warning, Smaug bellowed and his head disappeared from the opening. Thorin stared for a split second, feeling a little bit like he’d been smacked over the head with the flat of Grasper’s blade – a feeling he was depressingly familiar with – when he heard Smaug shriek in outrage.

‘More thieves. Thieves everywhere! I will burn you ALL!’

Without conscious thought, Thorin began to run towards the bay. Whatever was happening here, they could not afford to let Smaug turn his attention away from the Mountain. Thorin had to keep the dragon’s mind fixed on him.

He shot through the doorway and was greeted first of all by the sight of utter destruction. What the Company had begun with the wall, Smaug had finished easily. The whole thing had utterly collapsed, as had some of the rock underneath it when Smaug landed, giving Thorin a fine view of the world below.

Below, where Smaug was perched on the side of the Mountain, staring at the plain and rumbling like an earthquake with fury.

Below, where distant figures were manning one of the few surviving ballistae, aimed at the nose of a snarling Smaug, and hurling another sharp bolt in his direction. It bounced off dragonhide as everything else did, of course, but it had certainly got his attention. Smaug’s tail lashed out behind him, forcing Thorin to duck sharply to avoid being knocked flying, and then Smaug took to the air, heaving mightily to force himself aloft.

Thorin screamed in terror as the flame Smaug had prepared for him was unleashed down below.

******

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty-Three: Rise Up

Were he watching the carnage from another vantage point – pretty much any vantage point except this one – Dwalin would have enjoyed it immensely.

That Dwalin hated orcs was one of the accepted facts of life. Dwarves mined. Elves arsed around doing bugger all. Balin kept the world running. Dís scared the living daylights out of everyone. Dwalin hated orcs.

Thorin hated dragons even more, but that was a problem Dwalin was putting to the side for a moment.

One catastrophe at a time.

Anyway, the point was, Dwalin loathed orcs and watching the destruction of those that had come for the sole purpose of killing his King and his Company was not exactly a hardship. Or would not have been, had it not put himself, his friends and his beloved rather inconveniently in the path of the fire-breathing terror wreaking the destruction.

Shit, shit, shit.

‘Move,’ he demanded of Kíli and Bilbo, hand already clamped around Nori’s wrist to make sure he didn’t lose hold of him in the chaos that was beginning to erupt. ‘Move, NOW! Back to the tunnel, go!’

The spell that Smaug’s appearance had seemingly cast was broken by the simple instructions, thankfully, even if Kíli was looking rather white around the edges and Nori’s nails had to be digging into his palms with the fist he was making. Dwalin could feel his own panic closer to the surface than he usually allowed it, but he paid it no attention. Over a hundred years of experience would ensure that nothing broke his concentration until the situation was over.

Thorin did not give out senior positions in his household based on birth, no matter what the bitter malcontents liked to claim. Dwalin had not obtained the Captaincy by failing at his job when the world went mad.

And so often, around his bloody troublesome King, it did.

They pushed onward, following Kíli’s unerring sense for where they needed to go. Most of the orcs didn’t even see them, blinded by a fear so instinctual that it blocked all reason. They were the hunters become the hunted; targets, now, of an enemy that outmatched them so completely that most of them had lost any impulse to fight at all. They fled, which was sensible enough in Dwalin’s mind, but without any thought to where they were going. Did they not know of any hiding places or had it simply not occurred to them to find any?

Not that Dwalin cared, really, but it was the sort of idea that might come in handy in future battles against orcs.

If he was ever in another one.

‘Down!’ he shouted to Kíli and Bilbo, dropping to the ground himself as Smaug swooped low above them, massive claws swiping far closer to them than Dwalin was comfortable with. Thankfully, Smaug was more interested in grabbing what was within easy reach than trying to scoop extra entertainment out of the dirt. They were buffeted by a gust of wind as Smaug launched himself back up into the sky, then had to dodge a rain of orcs when the dragon released his prizes, but they themselves were still in one piece.

Thank you, Mahal, Dwalin whispered in his mind, surging back to his feet as the others did the same and beginning to run once again. Please, just watch over us a little longer. I just need a little longer.

It was a mad rush onwards, dodging orcs left and right, nearly losing Bilbo once when he got engulfed in a pack of frantic escapees who didn’t even realise they’d caught him up in their headlong dash. They learnt of their error soon enough. Bilbo took about as kindly to accidental theft as you’d expect, and his shoving attempts to get back where he wanted to be soon turned into a small melee that Kíli dashed off to help him with. Dwalin could only be thankful that none of the other orcs seemed inclined to help their fellows. The two of them reappeared none the worse for the wear only a minute or so later.

‘Bilbo, for the sake of my nerves, hold on to Kíli, would you?’ Nori muttered edgily, and Bilbo didn’t even argue, grasping the lad’s sleeve as Kíli gave him a tight grin before returning to their original objective.

They arrived at the tunnelled entrance to the cliff path not long after and Dwalin was relieved to find that the roof was still there. It was not much cover, but it would keep them out of the dragon’s sight, and that was all he was interested in right now.

It remained all he was interested in right up until the dragon grew bored of the orcs, and turned its attention to the mountain above.

The mountain where Dwalin knew very well his brother and his best friend, his all-but child and his law-brothers, were waiting out the storm.

‘Oh no,’ he snarled. ‘No you don’t.’

Bilbo’s agreement was clear from the way he shot to his feet with a curse on his lips, already scanning the plains before them intently.

‘There, Dwalin,’ he gasped, pointing. ‘The crossbow, can you use it?’

‘They don’t work on…’ Nori began to say, but Dwalin spoke across him without compunction, leaning out to eye the ballista and the distance they’d have to cover to reach it.

‘I can fire it, but aiming it’s a different matter,’ Dwalin told Bilbo, damning his own lack of experience. Where was Balin now, this was Balin’s area of expertise in battle, sod him.

‘Don’t worry about aiming it, for Mahal’s sake,’ Kíli exploded, already on his knees, one hand outstretched to push Dwalin to his feet. ‘I can aim anything, just go!’

And that was that. Once again they were on their feet and running for their lives. This time, more importantly, running for the lives of those they loved.

They went faster this time, covered the ground in half the time, and it was only partly because there were hardly any orcs around to avoid tripping over.

‘Why are we firing a useless weapon that won’t hurt it at the dragon?’ Nori demanded once they’d reached their goal, even as he helped Dwalin yank one of the, thankfully intact, bolts into place and begin winding the mechanism that would allow them to fire. Dwalin wondered if Nori even realised that he had become the sort of person who, while still asking the difficult questions, no longer let those questions prevent him from following his companions into mortal danger.

He'd probably work it out fairly soon, if not.

‘Because it’s better than nothing,’ Bilbo exclaimed, exasperated. ‘Any distraction is better than nothing. They need time, and space. Something. We’ve got to get them something!’

‘Alright,’ Nori said breathlessly, forcing the winch into one final rotation, ‘I’ll take that.’

He and Dwalin stepped back, having done all they could, and Kíli took his place, face drawn with concentration. Mere seconds later he fired, and they were off running again, putting as much distance between themselves and the ballista as possible.

As expected, the bolt did very little actual damage to Smaug, but they all heard his shriek of outrage behind them and knew where he would be coming next. They were relying on his instinct and sheer luck to keep them from being burned alive, based on his reaction to being shot last time, and Dwalin hated trusting his survival to anything so unreliable.

He was right to hate it.

The heat of the dragon fire was so intense it scorched his lungs when he took in a gasping breath of surprise. It scorched his back through his clothes, probably melted the heels of his boots, and only sheer determination and a desperation to live kept him on his feet.

He’d never live through a second pass.

***

‘OH, COME ON, YOU SCALY OLD WORM, DON’T YOU WANT YOUR GOLD BACK?’

If Bombur lived to be 300, he didn’t think he’d ever forget those words.

Nor the sight of his brother – his bright, brilliant, lunatic brother – perched on a crumbling pile of rock that had just enough height to make him easily visible, both arms raised into the air, an open sack of gold waving from one fist with a few loose coins on the open palm of the other hand.

As was often the case when dealing with Bofur, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

No doubt, in Bofur’s head, it all made perfect sense.

They needed to keep the dragon distracted.

The easiest way to distract any dragon was supposed to be gold. Or insults.

The gold was up here.

And everyone knew Bofur could be heard for miles if he wanted to be, especially somewhere as open as this.

So, show the dragon the gold and insult him while you’re at it, all at full volume.

All perfectly, completely sensible.

Except that his exploits were finally going to make Bombur expire from fright and leave all Bombur’s poor babies fatherless, the utter maniac, and then who would make sure they didn’t starve?

Oh Mahal, preserve them all.

Especially as they had the dragon’s attention again now.

‘THAT’S IT,’ Bofur roared. ‘NOW YOU SEE IT. EVEN A BLIND RELIC LIKE YOU CAN WORK THIS OUT, CAN’T YOU? COME GET IT IF YOU WANT IT.’

Bofur,’ Bombur couldn’t help moaning, though he knew it was useless. What’s done was done.

‘He’s not trying to burn them anymore,’ Bofur said steadily. Did his little brother fear anything? Anything at all?

Of course he didn’t. He never had. Hadn’t Bombur always been relieved that they’d been born with stone-sense, that Bofur’s was so strong, because it meant the mines were their natural habitat? Because the thought of Bofur as a warrior was terrifying when he knew absolutely no fear?

This was why. This was so very much why.

Plan. They needed a plan now.

In the interim…

‘Oof. Alright, love, alright, I’m down,’ Bofur complained as Bombur dragged him from his rocky stage.

‘Don’t worry, Bombur, we’re taking care of it,’ Dori called across the bay, and Bombur sighed and let Bofur go.

Fine. But if anyone died then he was going to be having words.

***

‘When you say “taking care of it”,’ Ori asked hurriedly, watching the manic light in his normally placid brother’s eyes with some concern, ‘you mean…?’

‘Chain, dearest,’ Dori replied firmly, declining to answer the question in any more detail than that. ‘Just help me find the chain, please.’

Was it not typical that, after Dori had gone to all the trouble of procuring mithril chain from Dáin’s people in the Iron Hills, some idiot in the Company had buried it in a pile of rubbish when they hauled everything up the mountainside.

Of course, it was his own fault for not checking the supplies properly when they got them here, but he’d been slightly distracted by Nori’s potential imminent demise.

He wouldn’t be making that mistake again. Mostly because Nori was never, EVER, doing anything that might lead to his potential demise again, but also because now Nori was down there without any cover at all and Dori needed the blasted chain and…

‘Here,’ Thorin’s hand appeared in his vision, mithril wrapped around his fist. Thank the Valar. ‘Dori, what in Arda are we doing?’

‘Fíli needs to take the other end,’ Dori said sharply. He wasn’t taking any arguments now. This was not, in fact, in any way what he’d been planning for when he’d decided he needed this equipment (he’d rat