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A Nose For Conkers

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Chapter One

"The trick to a good conker-toss is the same as the trick to a good hiding-spot. Knowing where your opponent is, where their conker is, knowing everything surrounding you, means you can use the world around you to aim your conker just right - the same as you can use that knowledge to hide well out of sight. If you’re especially good, you can do both at the same time and so become a Conkers Master, but that takes a long road, a good eye, and a lot of practice."


 

Conkers was a game of skill. What skill, exactly, depended on the actual game being played.

Those Big Folk who were lucky enough (or irritating enough; we’re looking at you, Gandalf) to learn a bit about Hobbit culture usually came to the understanding that Conkers was a game named for the horse chestnuts used in the game (themselves called conkers ) and that the object of the game was to break an opponent’s conker without breaking your own.

This was likely an opinion gained from having watched faunts (young Hobbit children who had reached the age where they begin to run about like wild things) play with their Conker toys. For children, a horse chestnut was tied to the end of a string and the object of the game was to hit a fellow child’s conker and break theirs, while leaving your own intact. It was a great way to train hand-eye coordination and patience, while also keeping children entertained for hours (a difficult task for mothers of any race).

So it was that all Hobbit children learned to play Conkers this way, but as a faunt grew into a tweenager and as their aim better, their skill in controlling their tempers more refined, the strings were removed and the Hobbits began trying to knock conkers off fence posts, out of tree limbs, out of an opponent’s hand, and even out of the air mid-throw. Indeed, Conkers was a game of many skills - patience, aim, precision, speed. Some games involved finding the conkers before you might have a go at knocking them, and so slyness and stealth were traits well-trained in those who learned to hide the conkers well. In other forms of the game, silence was key. And in still others, the ability to distract.

Really, Conkers was a magnificent game, fascinating in that it could be altered for numerous uses. Outsiders tended to think the game was named for the horse chestnut, and of course the Hobbits let them believe it. But Conkers had far more uses than simply as a game. When a Hobbit needed to air a grievance that could not be properly explained with a soured lemon pie or a soup that had too much salt being gifted to the one who caused the problem, the aggrieved would turn to Conkers. One good whack with a horse chestnut to the nose (or the conk ) and everyone who witnessed the event (and such grievances were always aired in public) would know that the conk-wielder was mightily irritated. The reason, like any good bit of gossip in the Shire, would make its way to waiting Hobbit ears soon after and the conked (or the one who got whacked in the conk) would have to deal with public reaction to their transgression. This doubled as a way to air grievances as well as a means of keeping Hobbits in line with the general opinions of the Shire - no one liked being conked on the nose and then treated like a pariah by the general public for doing something socially unacceptable. There was a reason some Hobbits chose to leave on “an adventure” and simply not return, rare though they might have been. Better to be absently viewed as an odd duck for running off than staying and being conkered on the nose and generally treated like something that shamed your home.

Conkers trained a Hobbit well from when they are a faunt to an adult, and constant competitions in which the whole of the Shire participated kept everyone sharp. This seemed whimsical to outsiders, of course, and to many Hobbits who did not recognize that “to conk” meant “to faint or sleep,” as well as “to die.”

Truly, hiding a means of protecting oneself in a game that otherwise charmed children and seemed harmless fit in rather perfectly with a race of innocuous creatures who seemed too fat on seven meals a day and lazy to be of any concern to anyone. If the history of Bandobras Took and his golf-creating, goblin-king-whacking days were to be believed, however, this view of Hobbits as harmless was far from the truth.

Of course, it was no trouble for Hobbits to appear innocent to outsiders, since Hobbits truly did enjoy the peace and quiet of their gardens, their seven meals a day, and the safety of their homes in the Shire. The Brandybucks and the Tooks were wilder than most, to be sure, but their thirst for action was usually spent in defending against the Old Forest and working with the Rangers (whether the Rangers were aware of their small shadows or not).

For the most part, the Brandybucks and the Tooks were accepted as a necessary part of the Shire. After all, the first Thain had been an Oldbuck, and their line only gave it up when they chose to settle across the Brandywine River and change their name to Brandybuck, creating the title of Master at the same time that they named their new home Buckland. After that, it was the Tooks who took up the mantle of Thain and still they kept it, so perhaps it was necessary for the Thain of the Shire and their family to be a little wild. Maybe it was that wild part of their heart that kept the Shire so safe, so no one would say anything about them.

Still, Buckland and Tukborough were different lands from Hobbiton. Hobbiton was a nice, proper part of the Shire and they didn’t take kindly to odd Hobbits and those who were wild well past their tweenager years.

Bilbo Baggins didn’t think even Gandalf (meddler that he was) knew that he was called Mad Baggins by the rest of Hobbiton, seen as odd and unHobbitish and not overly liked by any but his Took and Brandybuck cousins. His mother had been tolerated, of course, because Bungo Baggins had been a highly respectable Hobbit, even if Belladonna did manage to drag him off to visit Rivendell once and twice, and even if they did occasionally have visits from elves or had Rangers stay with them in their Smial when the nights were especially dark or cold. Belladonna was tolerated because it was well-known that eventually, Bungo Baggins would tame the wildness out of that Took girl and make her a proper Baggins, settle down in Bag End and start a respectably large family.

That wasn’t what happened.

Bilbo lost his parents within the same year, one to wounds of the body and the other wounds of the soul, and he was left alone. He had been tempted to put on the mask of respectability, to hide behind proper manners and good Baggins sense so he wouldn’t feel so alone in his suddenly-large smial, but the idea of it was choking. It made him think of smoke and spending years hiding in dark tunnels away from the sun, and it had made him think of his mother. Made him think of Belladonna as she was when he was little, and as she was later, perhaps only in a dream, whispering to him to hold on tight to his Tookishness, come what may. So no matter the temptation to conform to his neighbor’s designs for him, Bilbo couldn’t bring himself to put on a mask that he sensed would later become a misery.

He kept his proper Baggins sense, as his father had taught him, but he balanced it with his mother’s natural Tookishness, and if the neighbors called him Mad Baggins, he laughed at the name, and he was elated to find that the Tooks and the Brandybucks laughed with him, and though they also called him Mad Baggins, for them it was always in love and jest.

Perhaps if Gandalf had known about Mad Baggins and Hobbiton’s gossiping problem, and perhaps if he had visited at all within the last decade, he might have known that Bilbo had been the reigning Conkers champion for three years running. Being the irritating wizard that he was, he might have put it together that the reason the other residents of Hobbiton didn’t give Mad Baggins a good old whack on the nose with a conker was because of his reigning championship. After all, if he was as good as the championship proclaimed, then Bilbo would likely avoid any shots aimed at him and then retaliate most severely . Ending up with a publicly conkered nose because you attempted to conker someone else was not something any self-respecting member of Hobbiton wanted to suffer through.

Besides, Bilbo Baggins hardly seemed concerned with public opinion of him already. Dragging public opinion on a Conker to further this point would be like pouring a bucket of water in a river to make it wet.

But it remained true that Bilbo Baggins, mad or not, was a master at Conkers - whichever type of the game you played. He could be silent or sly, sneaky or speedy, patient or pandering or perhaps even puzzling. He could appear aloof or determined or distracted or coy. He was a master of many types and with a conker in hand (and perhaps two in pocket), he was a force to be reckoned with.

Of course, besides Gandalf, some of the Rivendell elves, and a few Rangers, no one knew that Conkers was more than a faunt-game, if they even knew that much. To be sure, few of any other race were aware that Hobbits had skill with anything beyond eating and hiding themselves. Most didn’t even know Hobbits existed . Certainly none knew that Bilbo Baggins of the Shire was the reigning Conkers champion, and especially not a group of dwarves and a wizard who hadn’t visited for over a decade.

So when a pinecone cracked Thorin Oakenshield squat on the nose, the great uncrowned King Under the Mountain glared at the trees around him and didn't spare a look at the resident Hobbit.

This was fine with Bilbo. He sat astride Myrtle with an air of resignation on his shoulders, his face twisted into something between a scowl and a pout, and tried not to crack a rib holding in his laughter.

It would be interesting to see if Thorin’s bad sense of direction included pinecones and where they were coming from.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

 

 

Making camp with dwarves was an interesting affair.

Bilbo had done a fair bit of traveling in his days. Oh, he rarely went further than Rivendell, but at the best of times, the path to the hidden elven city could be dangerous, and Bilbo often traveled alone except for his pony. It was much different setting up camp with a large group of people to maneuver around.

Normally, Bilbo would dig himself a fire pit and start a fire before the dark settled over the camp, perhaps throwing some food on a pan to fry. He’d never been much of a hunter himself, so roasting meat over the flames hadn’t been a possibility when he was traveling alone unless he ran across a hunter he could purchase game from. Not squirrels, though. Never again.

Having Bombur set up his large kettle and mix up a stew was far different from Bilbo’s meals of nuts, berries, and scrounged vegetables. The dwarves seemed to have a preference for meat, although they clearly enjoyed things of great flavor and much variety (obviously, from the state of his pantry when they left). Not exceptionally different from hobbits, then, except for the disdain for leafy vegetables.

Bilbo was no fool and he knew the path to Rivendell well. He probably knew Gandalf even better than that path and he had no doubts the wizard intended to drag the dwarves, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the city of Imladris. That would certainly prove… educational.

Bilbo spooned some of Bombur’s delicious stew into his mouth as he thought. It was made with thick chunks of potatoes, beef, mushrooms, and a variety of nuts and spices.

He was gratified to realize that the dwarf was quite the talented cook. Perhaps later, once they were more familiar with each other, the two of them could discuss recipes. For now, even the Company's cook was wary of the resident hobbit, although Bilbo suspected he had made the whole lot of them somewhat nervous once the true reason of their barging into Bag End had come to light. He had agreed to their quest readily enough once he knew the reason for it, but only after tearing into Gandalf like a rabid fauntling. He actually suspected he had slipped at some point during his rant into Hobbitish, cursing the wizard out in his native tongue, but he wasn’t certain and that wasn’t something he felt comfortable with asking someone. Bilbo wasn’t entirely certain Gandalf was fluent in the language of the Shirelings, although he surely knew at least some words. Still, he didn’t plan on giving the wizard the satisfaction of Bilbo’ uncertainty. Bilbo was still mad at him. Quite a bit more than mad, in fact. Miffed.

Ir-ri-ta-ted. Very much so.

He tried not to let his irritation show overmuch, though. As wary as the dwarves were surely of him, he was also uncertain of them. Bilbo had met dwarves before, of course, in Bree during the summer months when many came down from the Blue Mountains to do trade with both Hobbits and Men. But Dwalin had been the first dwarf Bilbo had encountered outside of haggling for goods and Bree itself, and it was no proper greeting to have a massive, armed dwarf grunt at you and barge into your smial.

Bilbo idly thought about the daggers tucked into his boots and wondered what the dwarf would have done had Bilbo reacted defensively rather than in confusion. Granted, he hadn’t been armed at the time but his mother’s glory box was not far from the door, and Hobbits were quick. Bilbo especially.

He imagined Gandalf would have been put off had Dwalin turned him into a pancake with that massive warhammer of his.

For a moment, Bilbo let the possibility roam about his head and considered bringing it up with Gandalf later to make a point, if he ever decided to speak to the wizard again.

Bilbo breathed out a sigh.

Oh, blast his foolish Took heart, of course he wouldn’t write the wizard off completely. Bilbo had missed Gandalf. That was the problem. He had missed the meddling wizard, been missing him, wishing he would visit and then he does turn up, only to talk over Bilbo as though his opinion on the matter didn’t matter at all, whisk away, and return with thirteen dwarves. Disappears for over a decade and returns only to manipulate him. Bilbo wouldn’t have been so bloody irritated with the fool magician if he had just been straight with him. It would have been nice, he thought, to discuss dwarves and adventures and greedy dragons over tea and biscuits with an old and dear friend. Bilbo could have done with a visit, just the two of them.

Ah, but Bilbo was a sentimental old fool even at fifty and Gandalf a wizard who didn’t have time to pander to silly hobbits. He had visited often when his mother was alive, but for all his Tookishness, Bilbo would never be Belladonna, he knew that. He had a bit too much Baggins in him. That was all right with him, but not enough to draw a wizard to his door once a year as it had been.

Still. It would have been nice.


Gandalf sat against a cliff wall away from the majority of the dwarves, puffing on his pipe as he watched Bilbo return his empty bowl to Bombur. The two didn’t talk, as Gandalf had hoped they might. Instead, Bilbo slipped away, making his way to where the ponies were gathered together, grazing on straggly weeds.

He thought about the hobbit tweenager he had known who would have badgered any dwarves that permitted him speech about their culture, their travels, their family lineage. The tweenager Gandalf remembered had been insatiable when it came to his curiosity, and nothing would stop him filling the holes in his knowledge. He remembered well question after question being tossed at him about wizards and elves and the whole of Arda.

Gandalf had to concede that it had been many years since he had last seen Bilbo Baggins. Too many, in fact.

He thought about Belladonna Took and a promise he had made to her as she lay dying of her wounds. A promise he had only managed to keep for a few years before he had allowed perceived duties to drag him away from keeping it.

Bilbo didn’t know about the promise, but that hardly mattered. Belladonna had begged him to make it, knowing that not doing so would break her son’s heart.

Gandalf wondered idly what else of Bilbo’s he might have broken by staying away so long, and if any of it could ever hope to be prepared.


Bilbo ran a hand over the necks of the ponies that reached for him, their lips pulling back as they snuffled at him, looking for treats. He chuckled and apologized for having pocketfuls of pinecones instead of apples, and scratched their noses as he promised to find some soon.  

After his second thrown pinecone had bounced off a tree trunk and smacked Thorin in the head, Bilbo had amused himself by trying to guess what Thorin’s muttered words might have meant. From the glower on his face, he’d expected they were far from proper. Bilbo had never had the chance to hear Khudzul spoken before, which was no surprise since it was such a closely-guarded secret. But if he had to deal with Thorin’s poor attitude and his name-calling, he would consider the chance to hear bits of pieces of the sacred language a consolation for his suffering.

You would think the dwarf would take into account Bilbo’s pointed elf-like ears. Hobbits had exceptional hearing. Then again, Thorin was probably spending every bit of his attention during their trek trying not to get the party lost. They’d finally stopped for camp the third time they’d passed the same place.

Bilbo had laid out his bedroll at the edge of camp, nearer to the ponies, and watched the rest of the company quietly. He didn’t bring anything with him to read or to write, was left to watch them as they ate or wrote in their journal or cleaned up the cook pot. As he scratched at the ponies necks, Bilbo returned his gaze to the dwarves, watching. Fili and Kili, the two brothers, were bickering good-naturedly, and Balin was smoking a pipe and talking idly with Dwalin. Bofur was whittling away at a piece of wood and humming under his breath, and some of the others had already tucked in for bed.

Bilbo was tired, yes, but to be honest, it was so interesting to be traveling with other people, he didn’t want to go to sleep and miss anything that might happen.

“Halfling,” Thorin growled as he tramped past, and Bilbo felt the smile slide off his face like butter. At his back, Myrtle snorted loudly. “You’ve got first watch. Don’t fall asleep and let us get eaten.”

“Of course not,” Bilbo said. He plastered a cheerful smile on his face when the angry dwarf looked at him and made his way back to his bedroll, turning his back on the king. “I’m far more likely to stay awake and let you get eaten, aren’t I?”

Thorin narrowed his eyes at him but apparently deemed Bilbo less than threatening, and by him with a growl. Bilbo blew out a breath, rolled his eyes, and flicked the pinecone that had been in his pocket over the dwarf’s head.

It hit low-hanging branch and bounced, smacking Thorin on the nose.

The dwarf stopped, sniffing irritably, and gave the pinecone a stern look where it lay on the ground. He glanced back at Bilbo, who was very busy rooting through his knapsack and certainly not watching the dwarf from beneath his lashes. He apparently decided that Bilbo wasn’t the culprit (dwarves were as bad as Big Folk in that they didn’t notice anything smaller than they were) and stomped on the pinecone with his large, heavy-looking boot.

Bilbo lamented he wouldn’t be able to recollect that pinecone later use. Oh well. He’d collected about ten of them so far, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand but heavy enough to be easily aimed and thrown. He’d get more, too, as their travels wore on.

It was good to be prepared.

Bilbo was just settling down on top of his bedroll, prepared to get comfortable for his watch, when a low howling echoed in the dark around him. Distantly, he felt his entire body tense to stillness, but then his awareness slid away.

The sound of wolves crying on the wind is a haunting sound to hear in the dark of an unsheltered night for anyone, but for someone who suffered through the Fell Winter during their tweenager years, the sound is terrifying.

Bilbo Baggins lost his mother to the Fell Winter. In truth, he lost his father to it, as well. It had been a good crop year, but the cold winds of winter blew on too quickly and carried snow and ice with them. Whole fields of crops were lost to the freeze and normally well-stocked larders were short when the winter started.

It didn’t matter that the hobbits could cut down to two or three meals a day. Their reserves wouldn’t last for even that long.


“Bilbo. Bilbo, are you well?”

Bofur hesitated, weighing the wisdom of touching someone whose attention was so obviously elsewhere and had been for longer than Bofur felt comfortable with. The way Bilbo was standing, he faced out over the cliff edge that left them a view above the forest, but his brown eyes were dull and vacant. Bofur had seen that look in dwarves before, often those that had come back from Azanzulbizar, and he had seen it before in Bifur. He decided that he could handle an attacking hobbit if it came to that and placed his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder.

The hobbit jumped beneath him, awareness coming back to his eyes all at once, his muscles tensing up in preparation for fight or flight. Bofur tightened his grip on the hobbit’s shoulder just a tad, enough to draw Bilbo’s attention outward, and called his name again. He'd rather the hobbit attack him than run. Better he get those huge feet in his stomach than they carry Bilbo over the cliffs.

But Bilbo didn't run or attack. The hobbit’s brown eyes flicked to meet his and after a moment, recognition flooded them.

“You went away for a while," he said, keeping his voice low and gentle. He was fairly certain his concern spoke for itself.

“I’m all right,” Bilbo said, but his voice was quiet and trembled slightly, his face unnaturally pale. Bofur could feel him shivering under his hand and the way his eyes were darting from one side of the camp to the other made Bofur nervous. He didn’t think Bilbo was likely to attack them, not now, but if the hobbit took off into the night, even if he didn't go over the cliffs, they’d never catch him. Not if they could be as silent as Tharkûn professed.

“You sure?” Bofur kept his hand on the hobbit’s shoulder, a grounding point, and hoped it wasn’t seen as a nuisance. He liked Bilbo and, in truth, the hobbit had surprised him. He would have expected one of the Shire folk to faint once a dragon was brought up, and stealing from a dragon besides, but Bilbo Baggins was clearly made of sterner stuff than that. Apparently there was far more to the hobbit than any of them had expected. 

“Yes.” Bilbo gave him a grateful smile and Bofur couldn’t help but to return it. He didn’t quite understand why Tharkûn thought a hobbit would be the best to sneak up on Smaug and he knew the other dwarves were uncertain, too, but Bofur was glad that Bilbo was here just the same.

Bofur turned and started leading Bilbo away from his bedroll, ignoring Bilbo's attempts to pull away and get situated for his watch. “Of course, of course,” he said, grinning. “How did you like my brother’s stew?” It was an easy question and Bombur’s recipes were always a great topic. Bofur could eat anything the situation called for (he had a stomach of iron), but he had to admit (and did so proudly) that Bombur’s skill in cooking made eating a favored pastime. Bofur knew enough about hobbits to know they loved their food, and if he hadn’t before, Bilbo’s well-stocked pantry would have sold him on the knowledge.

“It was magnificent, of course,” Bilbo said.

Magnificent? Well, that was no small compliment.

“High praise from a hobbit.” Bofur grinned when Bilbo chuckled.

“True, we do enjoy our meals. All seven of them.”

Bofur thought a moment before asking, “Will eating less hurt you?” That was something he hadn't thought of when he learned their fourteenth member would be a hobbit, but if Bilbo was going to be straving himself...

Bilbo didn’t seem surprised at the question, just sort of… sad. “No. Truthfully, I’ve been in the habit of eating only three meals a day for a number of years. I’m afraid I make a rather poor hobbit, to be honest. If my poor diet has scandalized my neighbors, however, and they’ve yet to drive me from my home, I daresay a party with a bunch of dwarves shall hardly make them bat an eye.”

Bofur snorted.

“Now, really, I must protest your man-handling--”

“Hobbit-handling,” Bofur interrupted with a grin.

“Hobbit-handling of me.” Bilbo dug an elbow in his side but Bofur only laughed. “Honestly, I truly do need to sit down and begin my watch or Thorin is liable to come over here and take us both to task.”

“He’ll let Balin do it,” Bofur reassured him. “Thorin’s not so great with the talking bit. He can get the words out, but they don’t usually mean what he wants them to.”

“He’s not a diplomat, then. Noted. Now really, Bofur.”

“I only thought you’d want to be kipping on your bedroll tonight, unless you’d rather nap with the ponies.”

“The ponies--” Bilbo happened to look down at that exact moment and see his bedroll, spread out as it was between Bombur’s and Bofur’s own. Bifur was stretched out crossways at the head of them, feigning sleep after having moved the hobbit’s bedroll while Bilbo was successfully distracted. “Huh.”

“See, it doesn’t make sense for you to be sitting over there when you can kip over here with us.” Bofur flopped down onto his own bedroll, grinning at Bilbo. His grin slid into a soft smile at the hobbit’s confused look.

Bilbo looked like he wanted to say something for a moment, but he looked at the (not)sleeping Bifur and over at Bombur’s empty bedroll, and promptly sat down, looking bemused and a little startled.

Bofur watched him for a moment. “Are you all right, Bilbo?”

Bilbo gave him a smile, perhaps the biggest Bofur had seen yet. “Yes, Bofur. Thank you.”


 Bofur ended up sitting up with Bilbo during his watch, even though he hadn’t been scheduled for one until the following night. When Bilbo asked him why, he said, “I won’t be getting any sleep with those wolves roaming around. Might as well make myself useful.”

Bilbo could only nod at that, his mind roaming back to the last time he had seen wolves in person, white-coated and snarling, and he shivered. Bofur didn’t say anything, but Bilbo could feel him watching.

“They’re no fun to run across unexpectedly.” Bilbo grimaced, not having planned to say anything about it.

“I don’t care for it even when I expect it.” Bilbo was grateful he didn’t ask. “But don’t you worry, Bilbo. Dwalin’s got the third shift, so for the first two shifts of the night, his snores’ll keep the pesky wolves away.”

Bilbo’s eyes caught on movement from across the camp as Dwalin’s hand shot up in a rude gesture. Bofur laughed loudly, along with the dwarves that were still awake and paying attention.

He grinned at Bilbo. “And if not the snores, the smell.”

Even Bilbo couldn’t help chuckling at that one. He'd planned to sit outside the circle of dwarves and spend his watch facing the quiet of the night. Bilbo was used to being alone. He hadn't expected friendship to be so openly offered to him and it had startled him, but he was grateful to have it. Bofur was a good dwarf. Bilbo looked forward to getting to know all of them better, and the prospect of being so openly welcomed amongst others lightened his heart. When his shift at watch was over, Bilbo lay down on his sleeproll and stared up at the stars, the smell of Bofur's pipeweed in his nostrils and Dwalin's ferocious snores in his ears. At some time during the night, he slid into sleep.


In the end, the only wolves that attacked them were the ones that haunted Bilbo’s dreams, and he was used to those. It didn’t happen every night, not anymore, but now and then and especially when winter was rolling in, the dreams of the Fell Winter returned. He had accepted them as something that would constantly haunt him and he could expect nothing less from so traumatic a time in his life. At least his being used to this particular dream kept him from waking up screaming. That would have been embarrassing.

As it was, Bilbo was rolling up his sleeproll when Thorin stormed by with a snapped “Hurry up, halfling.”

Bilbo nearly threw his knapsack at the dwarf but instead finishing tying the knotted string around his sleeproll and carried his pack over to where Myrtle stood waiting for him. Less than half of the dwarves were already packed, but Bilbo threw his bag over the saddle and climbed up anyway, prepared to sit and wait for the others for as long as needed.

In the meantime, he gazed around at the others and, with no one watching, flicked a couple pinecones at Thorin’s backside as the dwarf was settling into the saddle.

He didn’t understand the words the dwarf snarled as he swiped his hand under his arse, tossing pinecones to the ground, but Bilbo took immense pleasure from them anyway.

Nothing tasted quite as good as catharsis in the morning.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

Brandybucks were the only hobbit family to spend any significant amount of time in or around the water. When Gorhendad Oldbuck took his family and moved them across the Brandywine to settle between the river and the Old Forest, he set his family and all of their descendents the unofficial role of guardians of the river.

The Brandybucks make their trade in the Shire from fishing the river and from manning the Buckleberry Ferry, which moves across the Brandywine River some miles north of the Brandywine Bridge. So long as the sun is in the sky, a Brandybuck stands at the post of the ferry to carry any across who have need.

Constantly being in or around the water has led to a lot of strange developments in the Brandybuck family. Most of them, for instance, own boats. Fishing poles and nets were passed down through the family as heirlooms. Brandybucks were well-known for their ability to tie knots and to craft an expert net. They also had created a kind of protective cloak they called an oilskin - a hooded cloak made from flax and treated with linseed oil so water would run off it rather than soak through. Of all the things the Brandybucks did, between fishing and manning the ferry and any businesses run or owned by their family, their greatest asset was the oilskin. Not only were they able to sell it to hobbits, but also to men in Bree, who appreciated the ability to stay dry.

Bilbo knew that the Rangers who guarded the Shire used the oilskins, as well as the Bounders. Bilbo had never taken the time to have one made for himself once he was an adult and the child-sized one in Bag End was far too small for him now. Instead, he had packed up the one that had belonged to Bungo after he stumbled across it in a closet.

He had been searching for a traveling cloak, as opposed to simply wearing his day clothes, as he had originally considered when the truth of the dwarves’ quest came to light. He was glad he had taken a few moments to really think about what he needed on the journey. He didn’t like to consider what would have happened if he had just run out his door with the clothes on his back and nothing else. Thank Yavanna for his parents and especially for his mother’s penchant for travel.

Bilbo braved the water that pattered across his face as he glanced up at the sky. The clouds were dark and full and it didn’t look like the weather would be making any changes for the better. He felt a moment of pity for the dwarves, none of whom had been prepared for the rain and whose clothing was thoroughly soaked through. His feelings for Gandalf were of a slightly more vindictive manner, and he watched in amusement as rain ran off the rim of the wizard’s pointed hat. He hoped they could find somewhere dry to spend the night.

“I’m tired of being wet,” Kili said sourly from where his pony was trotting next to Bilbo. He and Fili had been attempting a prank on Ori that hit Thorin instead and the two had been banished to the back of the line. Bilbo was now sandwiched between the two contrite brothers, feeling a little sorry for the both of them. They had remained the most chipper of all the dwarves despite the weather (excepting Bofur, who was somehow still chipper), singing and laughing and generally trying to make merry. Only Thorin’s yelling at them and sending them away had made them lose their smiles. Now they looked as bedraggled and miserable as everyone else.

“How much farther until we reach that town, Fili? Where we got the ponies?”

Bilbo hid a smile as Fili said, “It took us days to get through this place.”

“This place is called The Shire,” Bilbo said, unable to hide his smile. “And the town you’re referring to is called Bree. Right now…” He glanced around to assure himself of their location. “We are nearly out of Frogmorton. We’ll pass through Whitfurrows, then, and cross the Brandywine Bridge into Buckland. Then it’ll be at least another day and a half until we get to Bree. So, in all likelihood, we have two to three days until we reach that town where you got the ponies.” He gave Kili an amused smile.

“How many towns are there in the Shire?” Ori asked. He had slowed his pony down to better hear Bilbo as he spoke and sounded genuinely curious. Kili and Fili also looked fairly interested.

“The Shire is split into four farthings, North, South, East, and West. West Farthing is where my home is located, in the town of Hobbiton. It also contains Michel Delving, which is further to the west, and Tuckborough, to the south. Tuckborough is where the Thain lives.”

“What’s a Thain?” Kili asked, before Bilbo could continue to explain the geography of the Shire.

“He’s the leader of the Shire.”

“I didn’t know hobbits had a king.”

“We don’t,” Bilbo said. “Not anymore. Hobbits used to be subjects to the King of Arthedain, but after Arnor fell, we named a Thain. It used to be in the Oldbuck family, but they moved out of the Shire and now the Thainship is in the Took family.”

“But if you don’t serve this… Arnor kingdom anymore, then isn’t your Thain your King?” Kili asked.

Bilbo shook his head. “Arthedain, and no, he’s the Thain.” At the confused looks he was getting, he frowned. “Oh, what’s the word for it in Westron…” He glanced up at the sky, thinking. “Steward,” he said finally. “He’s the steward who leads the Shire until the king comes back.”

“Is Thain a word in your language, then?” Ori asked, looking wide-eyed in fascination. “You started yelling at Gandalf in some strange tongue. It almost sounded elvish.”

“I suppose every language sounds Elvish to someone who hasn’t heard it before.” He decided not to take offense at that, since Ori didn’t look like he was using Elvish as an insult, unlike the way that Thorin and Dwalin used the term. “Yes, I was speaking Hobbitish.” And that answered the question of whether or not he had been cursing Gandalf out in his native tongue. He still didn’t know if the wizard was fluent or not, though. “And I suppose Steward is a decent enough translation for the term Thain. The roles are basically the same, in any case.”

“So who is the Thain now?” Ori had pulled out his travel journal and was dutifully writing everything down he could while he did his best to shield the parchment from the weather.

“Fortinbras Took II,” Bilbo said, and then spelled it out for Ori. “He is the twenty-ninth Thain of the Shire.”

“After your grandfather’s reign as Thain, they’re expecting great things from Fortinbras,” Gandalf said from the front of the party, proving that his ears were irritatingly functional. Bilbo felt like hitting him.

“Your grandfather?” Fili asked. He sounded particularly gleeful.

“Gerontius,” Gandalf answered, not giving Bilbo any time to even think about changing the subject. “They called him the Old Took on account of him having so very many younger relatives. He had twelve children, after all.”

Twelve ?” one of the dwarves demanded in shock.

“He was a good friend of mine, just as Bilbo’s mother was.”

Bilbo felt the anger drain out of him abruptly and he released a sigh. Oh, it would be easy to stay mad at Gandalf, but exhausting and ultimately pointless. “Old Took used to tell me stories about traveling with Gandalf. Apparently, he had a completely improper thirst for adventure for a hobbit.”

Gandalf laughed. “Something, it appears, that you’ve inherited.” The wizard glanced back at Bilbo, who did his best to ignore how obvious all the dwarves were being about listening to the conversation. “You appear to have inherited quite a lot from Gerontius and Belladonna both.”

“Still have that Baggins sense,” Bilbo retorted. “Not that it did much good to keep me out of trouble, if this is any indication. On the road, with dwarves.”

Gandalf huffed and puffed as he usually did when he was feigning one insult or another and turned back around to continue leading the party while pretending that it was Thorin leading. Bilbo was distracted by Ori asking “Who will be the Thain after Fortinbras?” and in answering “Ferumbras III,” forgot that he had been considering flicking a pinecone at Gandalf to express his irritation.  

And so time passed, for the most part uneventfully, and the rain continued on.

 


When they stopped, it was just outside of Whitfurrows and there wasn’t a scrap of cover to be found. The dwarves were all soaked and miserable (except for the eternally chipper Bofur, and Ori, who was riding on the high of learning so much about another culture and pleased his journal didn’t get overly soaked in the rain) and the ponies were dripping with rainwater, their manes and tails tangled. With no cover and no ability to make a fire, the dwarves ate dried meat and wrapped themselves up in blankets to try and pretend they weren’t being soaked while they attempted to get a few hours of sleep.

Bilbo wasn’t sleeping. Sitting on the grass, his hood pulled up and the rain running off him, he was staring into the distance, thinking. This was apparently of interest to Gandalf, since the wizard came trotting over eagerly.

Bilbo breathed out a sigh and reminded himself that he couldn’t stay angry with Gandalf forever, no matter how tempting.

“You have the look on your face of someone planning something, Bilbo Baggins.”

“I suspect that’s a look you’re intimately familiar with.” After a moment, Bilbo finally looked at him. Gandalf was watching him sedately and Bilbo didn’t think he was imagining the sadness in those blue eyes. “I was wondering if Gorbadoc might have enough oilskins that I could purchase thirteen. Dwarves aren’t much larger than hobbits, after all, and I’m sure they have some that would suit.”

“A wise idea,” Gandalf said, and he did that thing where he gripped his staff just so to indicate that he was about to go into a spiel of genius proportions. Rather than allow him to try and manipulate Bilbo further (okay, so he was still a little angry), he interrupted.

“Yes, it seems like it would be a good investment. After all, we can’t have anyone getting sick from the constant rain and it might make the journey more pleasant overall. It’s a pity I can’t take Myrtle and go speak to Gorbadoc now, but I’d be gone too long, I think, and I can’t imagine what Thorin would think of my absence.” Gandalf was giving him an amused look. “You’re not fooled by this a bit, are you?”

“It’s a fair attempt, but I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you.”

“You know, I’m not sure admitting to being an expert at manipulation is the way to go.”

Gandalf chuckled. “You may be right, but you have a point about the oilskins. This is hardly likely to be the only rain that you’ll encounter during your journey, and the dwarves well may miss you if you left them, so it does indeed make sense that I should go and speak with them.” He pulled out his pipe and, despite the bludgeoning rain, still managed to light it. “I think, however, that I shall wait until daylight so that I may speak with Thorin before I disappear.”

“Why? You don’t enjoy making him irritated at you?”

Gandalf huffed. “For your information, having any member of the Durin family irritated at one’s person is generally unpleasant. They are well-known for their tempers, Thorin especially.” He puffed on his pipe a bit. “You’re obviously already aware of that, though I suppose the same can be said of Tooks.”

“Oh, we’re fairly good-tempered, us Tooks. We’re friendly, clever, adventurous--”

“And good at Conkers,” Gandalf interrupted.

“Noticed that, did you?” Bilbo might have puffed up just a bit in pride.

“It’s expected, by this point, to have dwarves glaring at trees, but Thorin’s were grabbing my attention with their sheer ferocity. Once one is watching for it, it’s not impossible to see a hobbit’s conker in action, though not easy. You were good as a child, as I recall. No bird or squirrel would linger if you bent for a stone. You’re even better now.”

“I’ve kept in practice.”

Gandalf hummed in agreement and handed over his pipe, which Bilbo pulled a few grateful puffs from. “They’ll catch on eventually, you know.”

“Oh, I suspect so, but hopefully by that point he will be willing to listen to me when I tell him not to call me a halfling.”

“Ah, I had wondered what it was all about.”

“He’s being very rude, so I am expressing my irritation.”

Gandalf chuckled. “Far be it for me to interfere, then.” He glanced up at the sky. “We’re in for a wet night and a similar day tomorrow. You best get what sleep you can.”

Bilbo sighed. “We’ll need all this rain to wash off this mud.” But he dutifully bedded down for the night, camping near to Gandalf, rather than close to the ponies as he had previously. He wasn’t sure if it was something of a peace offering on his own part or perhaps he was worried that Gandalf said he would be leaving in the morning. Obviously, he would be back with the oilskins, but Gandalf had said before that he would be back and then was gone for over a decade.

Bilbo suspected that part of him still missed the wizard, even though he was here, but before he could think further on it, he was pulled away into sleep. If his dreams were filled with pleasant memories of the past and a wizard’s fireworks, he wouldn’t offer a complaint.


Gandalf did leave in the morning, letting his horse carry him beyond their sight swiftly eastward. Thorin grumbled and groaned and generally made it clear he was irritated, but he dutifully led their company eastward after the wizard, and they continued on through the Shire.

They were just crossing the Brandywine Bridge late afternoon when Gandalf met them on the far side. His horse’s pale legs were coated with mud and the stallion looked like he could use a good rub down and a comb, but still a fair sight better than the ponies and all of the dwarves.

“I have some good news. One of Bilbo’s cousins in Buckland has offered to let you all sleep in their barn tonight. It’ll be warm enough for the night and you’ll be able to have a fire and dry off.”

There were a lot of relieved sighs at this pronouncement and even Thorin, who looked like he might be considering grouching about being placed in a barn , looked relieved at the chance to get out of the rain. Bilbo was excited for the chance to get the ponies a bit cleaned up and hoped he might be able to get them some decent feed. He was not expecting to be met at the barn by another hobbit.

“Rorimac?” he asked, nudging Myrtle so she trotted up to the front of the party. He dismounted quickly and Rory met him with a strong hug.

“Evening, Cousin Bilbo. I see you’re off on an adventure finally.” He grinned good-naturedly. Trust a Brandybuck to never be bothered by something so unhobbitish. He didn’t even look twice at the dwarves. “Mother wanted me to tell you that it’s about time, and Father sends his apologies that he couldn’t be here himself, but this weather isn’t doing well for him.” Gorbadoc Brandybuck had led a defense against the attacking goblins during the Fell Winter, slaying four himself before taking a grievous wound to the leg. He had survived the attack and healed well, but when the rain was heavy or the weather cold, his leg ached so badly he sometimes had trouble walking.

“I hope the rain clears up for him soon.”

Rorimac nodded in gratitude and then turned his attention to Thorin. “Come along, then, sir dwarves, and we’ll get you situated for the night.” He turned and pushed open the doors to the barn.

Bilbo followed him in, leading Myrtle, and felt his shoulders sag in relief as he took in the trough of hay, a straw-covered floor, and the heavy bag that was steaming from where it sat in a wheelbarrow. “Rory…”

Rorimac laughed. “Come on, then, Cousin Bilbo. Let’s get your ponies taken care of.”

The dwarves dismounted and Bilbo and Rorimac led the ponies away to the corner of the barn set up for them. Having caught sight or smell of the waiting meal, they were eager to follow, but were patient enough as the two hobbits removed their tack and wiped them down. It took a little bit, but between the two of them, they managed faster than Bilbo had ever done on his own.

“Do they have any idea?” Rorimac asked, switching to Hobbitish to continue the conversation.

Bilbo glanced up at him and then continued filling another bucket with the bag of warm hash. “No,” he said, following the switch to Hobbitish. “As far as their leader is concerned, I look more like a grocer than a burglar , much less anything else of note.”

Rorimac snorted. “He’s in for a surprise, then. I suppose that explains why he hasn’t kenned on to your conkering his conk.” Bilbo gave him a curious look. “Come now, Cousin. You didn’t think we’d let a baker’s dozen of dwarves just march into the Shire and march out with one of our own without investigating. Adalgrim and his Watchers have been shadowing them since they crossed the Brandy.”

Bilbo sighed. “I suppose I should have expected that.” Adalgrim Took was one of the Bounders on the Watch, and had been for some years. While the number of Bounders fluctuated based on need, Adalgrim was one of the number who remained a constant member, and he didn’t work alone. He had a team that worked with him who he called his Watchers - scouts meant to move silently wherever they needed to and gather information or deliver news.

The Watch had been fairly lax in the past, only having a few out at any given time, but after the Fell Winter, people started taking greater precautions. It was still mostly the Brandybucks and the Tooks, but the Bounders roamed the borders constantly, often following the Rangers without their knowledge. Like all hobbits, if Adalgrim and his Watchers didn’t want to be seen, they weren’t, and if they had been shadowing the dwarves since they crossed the Brandywine Bridge, then Bilbo suspected Adalgrim, at least, knew about as much as he himself did.

“Father wanted me to give you something, but I didn’t want to do it in front of the dwarves.”

Bilbo put the bucket down for Myrtle, who shoved her nose into the hash with a happy snort. He stepped over to where Rorimac had moved behind the trough, gathering up a package wrapped in cloth. He handed it over. “I have the oilskins Gandalf said you needed here as well, but this is just for you.”

Bilbo glanced at his cousin, then undid the string that bound the package, pulling back the folds of what wasn’t just cloth, but a thick cloak with the slick sheen on the outside that said it had been treated with linseed oil, and warm, soft wool on the inside. He ran his hands over the golden-brown wool and found pockets, carefully hidden around the inside of the breast and hip areas.

“Mother made it,” Rorimac said, smiling softly. “She knew you had a travel cloak but she kept saying it would be getting quite cold as the year progressed. I’ve had to listen to that all day, I hope you know. It’s going to be quite cold the further east he goes, and with the season’s turning,” he imitated his mother and winked at Bilbo. “She’s been looking for a reason to give you this for years. I think she was relieved to see Gandalf finally show up.”

Bilbo pulled aside the cloak to find that it had, indeed, been wrapped around something else. Dark brown leather with metal studs keeping the overlapping folds intact on a breastplate. Bilbo almost dropped it.

“Rory, this is…”

The leather was well-worn, scuffed in some areas, but clearly well taken care of. It also had a design on the front of a long stick off which a thin piece of wood hung by an equally-long cord. Bilbo stared down at the design, for it was the image of an instrument of both music and warning for which Bandobras “Bullroarer” Took had been nicknamed after he cut off the goblin king’s head in the Battle of Greenfields, and had been taken up as the symbol of the Took Family years ago, and apt. Music for the fun the Took were determined to have regardless of what life threw at them, and warning for their determination to protect their kin, come what may.

This wasn’t Bandobras’ armor, of course. Bullroarer had been over five feet tall and this armor was made for someone of Bilbo’s size and build, but far too well-worn to be new. In fact, Bilbo could think of only one person who he knew had worn leather armor with the Took symbol on it. He lifted his eyes to meet Rorimac’s.

“Adalgrim brought it over when he came to talk to me last night. He spoke with his parents and they were in agreement that you should have it.”

“This is… Rorimac, this was the Old Took’s.” Bilbo switched back to Hobbitish.

Rorimac nodded. “Yes. He wore it during his own adventure with Gandalf, and then during his days as a Bounder, before he took over as Thain. After Isengrim and Isumbras passed, it went to Hildigrim and he would have passed it on to either Adalgrim, but everyone was in agreement that armor such as that is meant to be used, not squandered.” He leaned in. “And if we’re being honest here, Bilbo, then I think you’re going to need it, going up against a dragon as you’re planning.”

Bilbo swallowed, then nodded. He lifted the breastplate into his arms, finding it lighter than he had anticipated, and then realized there were more pieces beneath it - pauldrons for across the shoulders and leather arm braces, as well as a belt. He stared at the ensemble.

“He really went all out, didn’t he?”

“Grandfather had every intention of coming back from his adventure. We expect the same from you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Rory.”

“Good. Now let me help you put it on so you know how to do the straps.”


The armor fit perfectly. Too perfectly. Perfectly perfectly. If not for its obvious past use and knowing that Old Took had worn such armor, Bilbo would have thought it had been made for him. The breastplate shielded both his front and back but was crafted in such a way to allow ease of movement, which was perfect for a hobbit, since they relied more on their ability to move unseen than attacking a foe face to face. The pauldrons attached to the breastplate and covered his shoulders, and the arm braces tied on the underside of his arms and shielded them from the wrist to the elbow. It felt odd wearing something that shielded the majority of his upper body and Bilbo knew it would take some getting used to, but it was also a relief. He was traveling with a group of dwarves who were armed and armored to the teeth, a wizard who could protect himself well enough with his magic, and then he, a hobbit, with no protection beyond his wits and a couple daggers.

Rorimac swung the thick cloak around Bilbo’s shoulders, tying the brooch at Bilbo’s chest and stepped back. “You look ready to face an army, Cousin.”

“An army of what, though? Squirrels?”

“They are the fiercest at throwing their nuts around.”

Bilbo choked. “Rorimac!” But his cousin only laughed.

He heard what sounded like Bofur ask “What’s taking Bilbo so long?” before Thorin shouted a loud, “Hurry up, halfling! It doesn’t take that long to tie up a pony.”

“He does realize there’s fourteen of them, doesn’t he?”

“Perhaps his ability to count is as good as his sense of direction,” Bilbo murmured, and Rory laughed, but the two made their way back to where the dwarves were situated. They had built a fire near the doors so the smoke would carry outside and Bombur had filled his stew pot with something that smelled delicious.

Bilbo found his bedroll already rolled out next to Bofur’s and removed the cloak, spreading it out to use as a blanket when he turned it. He heard Kili call out “Mister Boggins, you’ve got armor on!” but someone told the dwarf to hush and sit down. Bilbo suspected it might have been Dori, who was sitting near to the princes.

Before Bilbo could turn and continue talking to Rorimac, Bofur trotted over with a bowl of stew in his hands. “Here you go, Bilbo. Does your cousin want anything?”

Rorimac smiled at the dwarf easily. “My thanks, Master Dwarf, but I’ll need to be off or my father will start to worry I’ve taken up with your lot and gone adventuring.”

“We can’t have the next Master of Buckland disappearing with a group of dwarves,” Gandalf said, coming over to stand next to Bilbo.

“I don’t know why you’re saying anything. You came in and stole Old Took away while he was Thain for a whole week. You should know that half of the Shire still thinks you’re a disturber of the peace for that incident, and the other half either has earlier reasons or is planning on using this one.” He pointed at Bilbo and then the dwarves.

“A disturber of the peace? My dear hobbit…”

“Nuh-uh. Nope. Thank you kindly, Gandalf the Grey Wizard, but I’ve been warned about you.” For all of Rorimac’s lecturing tone, he was grinning widely. “Story after story about this great wizard--”

Great wizard, well.”

“--coming in and stealing away members of my family, then bringing them back different than when they left. Letting them see bits and pieces of themselves they didn’t know existed.” He poked the wizard in the chest, which made the dwarves stare in disbelief. “I’m not going to be conned, oh no.”

“My dear Rorimac.”

“I fully expect you to wait until I’m Master of Buckland and then sweep me away for a week of my own adventuring. We’ll have to keep up the tradition, you see. After me, you’ll need to get to the Mayor of Michel Delving.”

The dwarves were looking confused, Gandalf was looking flustered, and Bilbo was trying very hard not to laugh in the face of both. Instead, he spooned stew into his mouth while he watched the show.

“It’ll be quite interesting to see how long it takes the Tooks to start putting up defenses against your meddling.”

“Defenses?” Gandalf asked. And then, “Meddling? Me ?” He leaned on his staff as though he were an old man who required it to keep himself upright. Rorimac just smirked at him. Gandalf harrumphed and after a moment walked off muttering about Brandybucks who mixed with Tooks and gave birth to dangerous combinations.

Rorimac sighed happily. Bilbo finally laughed. “You never tire of winding him up.”

“It’s the highlight of my life.” He turned to Bilbo fully. “Take care of yourself, Cousin.”

“I will, Cousin.” The two hugged tightly. “And thank you, Adalgrim.”

“You’re quite welcome, Cousin.”

Bofur said something loudly in Khuzdul and Bilbo turned to find Adalgrim giving the dwarf an amused look from where he stood beside him. Some of the other dwarves were staring, perplexed. Bilbo briefly wondered if any of them had noticed Adalgrim had been standing there for the past few minutes.

The Bounder swept his feathered cap off his head and gave Bofur a quick bow of greeting. “Adalgrim Took, Shire Bounder, at your service.” He turned to Bilbo once Bofur had introduced himself (“Bofur at yours and your families.”). “Just came to check up on you before you left, Cousin. You’ll be making it to Bree tomorrow, I assume.”

“If we make good time, I suspect so,” Bilbo said, ignoring the look on the approaching Thorin’s face that suggested the dwarf was irritated someone else was being consulted about their route asides from him.

“Where we go is none of your concern, halfling,” Thorin growled as he prowled closer.

Adalgrim pulled a horsechestnut from his pocket and threw it upward. Naturally, Thorin glanced up after it, so when it bounced off the rafters and struck him on his great nose, he had no one but himself to blame, really.

“Don’t call me a halfling, dwarf. I am half of nothing. And where you travel is my concern so long as your feet carry you past the borders of the Shire. Never mind that my cousin is in your company and you’re taking him away to face a dragon .” He ignored Thorin’s furious look and turned back to Bilbo. “We’ll be tracking you to the borders of Buckland, Cousin. May your feet bear you well on your journey there and back again.

“And may you and yours be here to greet my return as you have seen me off,” Bilbo returned the farewell in Hobbitish.

Adalgrim did not hug him as Rorimac had. Instead, he pressed his fist to his heart, gave a short bow, and then turned and walked away. They watched him go until he had disappeared beyond sight and then Rorimac turned back to Bilbo.

“Don’t let those Sackville-Bagginses in my smial,” Bilbo said suddenly, planting his hands on his hips. “If I come back and they’ve… they’ve... declared me dead or some such nonsense and sold everything I own, I shall be most put out.”

Rorimac laughed. “I’ll keep your smial intact, Cousin, and I’ll make sure the Sackville-Bagginses know their place. He pulled something from his pocket and slapped it into Bilbo’s hand, then gave it a shake. “Adalgrim will be taking up the Conkers championship while you’re gone, so make sure you come back so you can knock him back to second. Otherwise, he’ll be impossible to be around.”

“I’ll do my very best.”

For just a moment, Rorimac’s smile faded and Bilbo could see the worry in his eyes. “Be safe, Cousin.” Then, before Bilbo could say anything that might turn out to be a lie, he turned and followed Adalgrim out of the barn.

Bilbo watched him go, and then went back to his bedroll and sat down. The dwarves were still being rather quiet, perhaps watching him or avoiding Thorin’s ire, but he ignored them. Instead, he opened up the small bag that Rorimac had handed him. Inside, he found ten horse chestnuts and a smaller bag containing Old Toby.

As far as going away presents went, he couldn't have asked for anything more fitting. 

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

The rain continued on the following day, but Bilbo had passed out the oilskins to each of the dwarves and Gandalf had picked up one for himself. With a good night’s rest and a warm meal behind them, dry clothes and protective rain gear, everyone was in better spirits the following morning despite the continuing downpour. Bilbo had taken his new leather armor off for the night but replaced it in the morning, though he had needed help to fix the straps at his back. Bofur had been only too happy to assist and had spoken well of the armor’s craftsmanship. Bilbo had only wished he’d known more about the crafter so he could have answered some of Bofur’s questions.

Balin shooed the lot of them out of the Prancing Pony after a warm breakfast where Bilbo and Bombur unofficially attempted to out-eat one another. Bombur won by a biscuit and a single link of sausage.

He makes a better Hobbit than I do, Bilbo thought, slipping outside as Balin spoke with the innkeeper, no doubt to settle the bill. He was glad he had taken the time to read the whole of the contract so he wasn't left with the embarrassing predicament of arguing that he should pay for himself. Apparently, it was part of his service wage as a burglar that any costs accumulated at inns or other establishments en route to Erebor would be paid for by the Company’s leader.

Thorin’s lucky I make a poor Hobbit. No wonder Gandalf picked me. He giggled at the thought of Thorin’s face if Rorimac had decided to tag along. They'd be beggared before they made it out of Bree feeding a hobbit’s appetite, and Rorimac could out-eat most Hobbits.

“Where’s the halfling?” Bilbo heard Thorin grumble and he rolled his eyes before turning around. A hobbit had frozen near him with a scandalized gasp, her skirts held up from dragging the ground in pale-knuckled hands.

Bilbo gave her an apologetic smile and spoke in Hobbitish. “Apologies, miss. I'm afraid the dwarf's a bit simple.” He gave a quick bow. “Bilbo Baggins, at your service.”

“I know who you are, Baggins,” the woman replied tartly, and he was momentarily shocked at the venom in her voice. “To think you’re running off on an adventure like some hooligan with a band of… of dwarves .” She sniffed in clear disgust. “If these are the sort of swine your mother traveled with, it's a wonder--”

The word she used wasn’t Westron, thank Yavanna, and it didn't translate to swine , either, but the approximation was close enough. Whatever she had been intending to say, though, it was interrupted by a conker - a horse chestnut, not a soft pinecone - to the nose. She shut up instantly and what Hobbits were nearby froze, turning to look at the public disgracing.

Bilbo stepped closer until there was barely an inch between them and spoke quietly, glad that the dwarves were in the stables and therefore not witness to this confrontation. His cheeks were flushed with anger and he knew he was glaring rather fiercely.

“I would advise you to refrain from finishing that sentence, miss. My mother was many things and all to the good, as far as anyone who knew her is concerned. As for the people I choose to travel with, they are my companions and will be held to the same regard as any Hobbit that I would walk with. I don't expect your tongue to be acquainted with the means of apologizing, but you'll be decent enough to remove yourself for our company. It's only good manners, you understand, to not let your guests see the undesirable parts of your home.”

The woman had gone very pale and her eyes were wide, but her lips were pressed together in a thin line and she looked prepared to go at it right there in the middle of the marketplace. Bilbo might just have let her say her piece so he could tear her back down once she had. He’d get his point across to Thorin bloody Oakenshield about the term halfling eventually, but he wasn’t going to let anyone else start saying nasty things about his companions, and he certainly wasn’t going to stand for words about his mother.

It was the high-pitched shout of “Master Bilbo! Master Bilbo!” that broke the tension between the two of them. Bilbo heard someone growl “Bracegirdle,” and felt more than saw the hobbit lass pulled away, but his attention was on the three young hobbits racing up, wide grins splitting their faces.

“Bilba!” the oldest - a tweenager - shouted, sliding in the dirt as he stopped himself from plowing straight into Bilbo. “You conkered her conk, Bilbo, right on her conk! We saw!” He turned and pointed at his friends and they affirmed, loudly, that they had indeed seen Bilbo conker Miss Bracegirdle on the nose. “My papa says you're the Conkers Master Champion, Master Bilbo. Could you teach us, Bilbo?”

“Please?” the young girl begged, her blonde curls bouncing as she hopped up and down. Just a faunt and not a tweenager yet. She and the younger boy might have been the elder’s siblings, or perhaps cousins. “Please, Bilba?”

Bilbo glanced behind him but the dwarves were still out of sight and he hadn't seen Balin come out yet. He crouched down in front of them, a soft smile on his face. “I have to be really quick,” he whispered conspiratorially, “or my dwarves will leave without me, but I can show you a couple tricks I picked up, all right?”

He was met by a round of cheers and three bouncing hobbitlings.

“All right, now where are your conkers?” he asked. When the three shuffled their feet and looked down, he put his hands on his hips. “You don't have any?”

They shook their heads, muttering “No” and “Sorry, Bilba.”

“All right, rule one of being a Conkers Champion is never go anywhere without a conker. But these will work for now.” He pulled four pinecones from his pocket and handed each of them one, then held the other. He thought he heard someone snicker behind him but assumed it was one of the hobbits that had been watching him deal with the Bracegirdle woman. He ignored them. He had knowledge to pass on to adorable little hobbits.

“First trick, my lads. And lady,” he added, with a smile that made the little girl giggle into her hands, “is to hold your conker with your thumb and your first two fingers. This way you have better control. Yes.”

The children were as attentive as any were during one of his stories. He taught them a couple tricks they could practice and let them have a go at trying to knock his conker out of his hand. In the end he promised them he'd check up on their progress when he returned from his adventure, and if he told them to bother Adalgrim if they had any questions, his cousin could surely use the practice. It had absolutely nothing to do with paying his cousin back for stealing the championship from him. Not. At. All. Nope.

He was just about to teach them his ricochet trick when Thorin stormed around the corner with a snarled “Halfling!”

The youngest of the trio gasped loudly at the word and ducked behind the other boy, but the sound made Thorin hesitate, startled. For a moment, he simply stood there, wide blue eyes taking in the three tiny hobbits, Bilbo crouched next to them, pinecone carefully hidden in the sleeve of his coat.

Thorin finally turned to him, speaking more sedately. “We’re waiting on you, burglar.”

“Burglar?” the little girl whispered in confusion, sounding out the word, still too young to be fluent in Westron. Most of their conversation had been in Hobbitish, with a few stilted words in the common tongue interspersed as the children tried to incorporate it into their speech.

“Conker Master Sneaker,” Bilbo said, not wanting to give them the proper translation to what he thought was a rather unflattering title for a hobbit, especially if this children ran home and told their parents. He smoothed his hand over the curly hair of the littlest one and the boy peered up at him through thick lashes, his face still half-hidden in his brother’s (cousin’s?) shirt.

“He said a bad word.”

“He did, but I'm trying to teach him right. Dwarves are just a bit too stubborn for a quick lesson. Not like you three.” That got him a shy smile and the boy relaxed. Bilbo patted his head. “One last trick and then you three run home, yes?”

“Yes, Bilba.”

Promise , Bilba.”

Bilbo stood and turned to Thorin. “I didn't see Balin come out.  I'm ready to go.” He moved to follow and Thorin turned around without acknowledging his words beyond scowling. So he had no way of seeing Bilbo send the three children a wink before he tossed the Pinecone in his hand. It hit the gutter on the stable roof and ricocheted off, smacking Thorin in the nose.  

The three hobbit children squealed loudly and ran off, laughing, and Bilbo hid his smile. He supposed he deserved whatever ire their mothers had for him upon his return, since they learned both a Conkers trick and a dwarven swear word.

He’d say it was worth it.


Apparently, Gloin had met Balin at the door to the inn and the two had dragged Ori along behind them while they gathered any supplies they needed before they passed beyond this last sure human settlement before Lake Town. That was why Bilbo hadn't seen Balin pass by him when he was finished with the innkeeper.

Thorin was back at the front of the party, leading them out of Bree and off any certain path. Bilbo suspected Gandalf was surreptitiously leading them to Imladris, but he wasn't about to be the one to break that to the dwarves. He wasn't looking forward to hearing more dwarven slurs for elves and wondered how the meeting with Elrond would go when it became apparent that Bilbo was more familiar with the lord of Imladris than he was with any of the dwarves.

Although, to be fair, Ori was trying his hand at learning everything about Hobbits that Bilbo knew. By the time they reached the elven city, that journal of his might well rival the whole library in Imladris for Hobbit knowledge.

Erestor would be beside himself with envy. Bilbo considered telling Ori a Hobbit secret or two, just to see Glorfindel cackle with glee.

He caught sight of Fili and Kili conspiring behind an oblivious Thorin and felt a moment of dread at the thought of them meeting Elladan and Elrohir.

Perhaps this enmity between dwarves and elves was a good thing, after all.


The hobbit was fascinating.

Nori found lots of things fascinating. When he was little, he liked to pull things apart and put them back together. This might have developed into a skill that Dori could appreciate if he hadn't stumbled upon the complexity of locks and found a challenge in opening them. Instead of becoming a tinker, Nori became a thief, and while he enjoyed his trade, some of the other dwarves had a problem with it.

It wasn't Nori’s fault he just found their stuff lying around. They should secure it better.

Nori made a living nicking important stuff from unimportant people and unimportant stuff from important people. No matter what he took, he made sure someone wanted it, and so it kept him in gold and his family fed, and that was what mattered.

Even if Dori did occasionally scream at him and tell him he was a horrible brother, it was worth it that Ori was well taken care of. Nori would take on anything so long as Ori was safe. Mahal’s diamond-studded balls, he was on this fool quest to make sure Ori didn't get himself killed. Dori either. If that meant taking on Smaug by himself, well fuck, the dragon better be prepared. Nori wasn't playing at heroes. Not when it came to his brothers.

He couldn't afford to be distracted, either, but reconnaissance, now that was important. So if Nori snuck about and shadowed their new hobbit burglar, he was just making sure that his brothers wouldn't be in danger from the strange creature.

And if he found Bilbo Baggins completely fascinating, all the more reason to keep watching him. After all, it was becoming apparent that behind that cheerful innocence lay something… more.

Nori was determined to find out what, and he knew the perfect experiment to start with.


Bilbo was tired of the rain. Six days of rain was beginning to test even Bofur’s cheerfulness and the dwarf had started wringing water out of his braids with grumbling irritation and a few choice words in Khuzdul.

Bilbo ignored the words, too tired to even be cheerful about learning a new language. He wanted elven beds and a hot bath and warm food. Not cranky dwarves, irate ponies, and a grumpy wizard.

They had left Bree two days ago and Bilbo knew the journey would not be a walk in the Shire, but honestly. If this rain continued, he feared for the banks of the Brandywine.

Rorimac would end up sleeping in his boat.

The worst part was the smell . Bilbo thought dogs smelled bad when they were wet but they had nothing on dwarves . Sweaty, with mud on every piece of clothing they had and soaked completely through, the dwarves were straggly-braided condensed bundles of barely-repressed anger. At this point, Bilbo was just waiting for the inevitable blow-up, so it really came as no surprise, after they stopped at a burned-out farmhouse that made Bilbo nervous to look at, that Thorin and Gandalf got into a loud argument that had the wizard storming off.

Bilbo didn’t even bother asking where the wizard was running off to. They were close enough to Imladris at this point that Gandalf could get there and back before daybreak without too much trouble, never mind whatever wizardry he decided to use.

Instead of worrying about the wizard or making himself the next target of Thorin’s anger, Bilbo moved closer to the farmhouse. It was still standing (barely), but the walls were charred black and the roof had caved in. He was careful to watch his steps, knowing it wouldn’t go over very well at all if he put a nail through his foot for carelessness, but he wanted to get a better look at the building’s remains. There was a feeling in the back of his mind, like a tickle too deep in his ears to be reached with a prodded finger, or a whisper murmuring from somewhere low at his back - indistinguishable, and yet… the feeling was there, a kind of knowledge that something was… something… there was something…

“That’s not the safest place to be wandering, Burglar.”

Bilbo forgot the worrying whisper as he turned to find Balin standing there, regarding him with a patient easiness that he was learning was the dwarf’s default expression.

“No, I suppose not,” he said, glancing back at the house. He almost said something about his worries, nameless, formless worries, but Balin spoke before he could. “Bombur’s just finished with the stew and you’ll want to put down your bedroll for the night.” He didn’t say that Bilbo would want to set it up with Bofur’s, but Bilbo rather expected it had been implied and that Balin had no qualms about it.

It was the thought of cheerful Bofur, hopefully over his irritation now that they had stopped for the night under a copse of trees that (mostly) kept the rain out, that had him turning from the dilapidated structure and following Balin back to the camp. Thorin had moved from where he had been leaning against a fall tree over to where Dwalin was sitting and the two were conversing quietly.

Bilbo’s eyes scanned the dwarves quickly, finding three missing. Nori was expected, to be honest - the red-headed dwarf tended to linger out of sight, slipping in beside a person (often Dwalin) unexpectedly and doing his best to scare them into yelping. Bilbo wasn’t sure if he was attempting to mimic Adalgrim’s sneaking arrival next to Bofur or if it was something the dwarf had always done, and he wasn’t quite comfortable enough to ask, not even of Bofur.

The other two he couldn’t find were Fili and Kili and Bilbo had to wonder if the two of them had gotten themselves in trouble pulling another prank. It was perhaps a good thing they hadn’t stayed longer in the Shire. If those two boys had ended up spending any significant time with some of Bilbo’s Took cousins, he might have feared for the Shire. Or at least for the sanity of his less-adventurous neighbors.

“Bilbo!” Bofur called, and Bilbo caught sight of the dwarf’s wide smile with some relief. “Where’d you get off to?”

Balin moved away from Bilbo and off toward his brother with a small smile and Bilbo made his way over to where Bofur sat next to Bifur, who was whittling away at a piece of wood that didn’t get look like anything.

“Just wandering about,” Bilbo said, and gave Bombur a smile when the large dwarf handed him a bowl of stew. Taters, mushrooms, some indefinable meat that smelled decent enough, and more nuts and spices. Bilbo settled down to enjoy yet another culinary masterpiece.

“Where does this meat keep coming from?” Bilbo asked, settling down next to Bofur, who was eating his own bowl of stew with happy fervor. They couldn’t have been carrying the meat around with them, as it would have well gone bad by now, and it was a good way to attract predators.  

“Kili shot a couple birds right after we stopped,” Bofur explained with a smile. “He was crowing so much about the shot that Thorin sent him and his brother off to watch the ponies.”

Bilbo snorted. “Like that’s going to keep those two rascals out of trouble.”

Bofur laughed, but Bilbo was distracted by something like a murmur behind him. He turned his head, looking, but the only person behind him was Gloin, who was too far away to be making the noise that Bilbo heard. Except it wasn’t exactly a noise. It was almost a feeling - a hand on his shoulder, the breath from a silent murmur on his ear, a poke in the side.

Look , it seemed to say, but without speaking the words where he could hear them.

Listen.

There is something…

Something is…

Something…

There is something…

“--worry what those two could be planning.”

Bilbo jerked back to attention with a start. He stared at Bofur, who was grinning at him like he expected an answer.

“I’m sorry, Bofur. I was… distracted.”

He wasn’t sure by what, though. He thought there was something…

“I said Fili and Kili have been whispering and grinning at each other all day long. It makes me worry what they’re planning.”

Bilbo nodded distractedly. “They remind me of my Took cousins.”

“Really?” Bofur grinned the wide smile of the gossiping. “That must mean you’ll know how to handle those two, then.”

Bilbo laughed. “The one sure thing about a Took is that you only try to handle them if you want to lose your hand. I’ll leave those two to Thorin and save myself.”

Bifur snorted a rough laugh and muttered something in Khuzdul. Bofur shot his cousin a grin. “Yer right, Bifur. I don’t think Thorin’s willing to face them, either. Better a dragon than a Durin, never mind two.”

“Do you know them well, then?” Bilbo asked, feeling comfortable enough to try and wheedle a little information from Bofur. “I didn’t ask before and no one ever said, but did Thorin just take volunteers or do you all know each other from before?”

“Me, Bifur, Bombur grew up in the Blue Mountains. Thorin and Dwalin and Balin were at Erebor when it fell, of course, and they journeyed with the rest of the refugees and came to the Blue Mountains looking for a place to heal. Thorin’s sister, Dis - that’s Fili and Kili’s mother - met her husband there. He was a friend of ours. We mined together for years, so we met Dis, then, and then Dwalin and Balin and Thorin. I don’t suppose we were close,” he admitted, and Bifur grunted and shook his head, “but we knew each other through Vili. Mine’s in the mountains are mostly dry, though, so there’s not much work for us anymore. We can sell toys, ‘course, but taking back Erebor from the dragon is probably safer than staying in the mountains and hoping for the best.”

Bilbo was quiet a moment. “I knew you wanted to take back your home, but I hadn’t realized it was so dire for you to do so.”

Bofur gave him a soft smile. “Not dire… not yet, anyway, but Thorin was right. Other people’ll be watching the signs and looking to get what they can. If we want a chance of getting Erebor back, we need to get there first.”

“I’m glad I’m with you, then,” Bilbo said, nodding softly.

Bofur smile. “Aye. So am I.”


 

Nori moved into Bombur’s sight before he spoke. It was never a good idea to startle a cook. You either got stabbed with a fork or starved to death, and neither sounded particularly pleasant.

“I was wondering where you were,” Bombur said, filling a bowl with stew.

“Watching,” Nori said quietly, and ignored Bombur’s snort.

“Spying on our hobbit?”

Nori met Bombur’s gaze with slightly narrowed eyes. “Is he ours now? I didn’t realize we knew enough about him for that.”

Bombur’s smile was tight. “If I wasn’t your best friend’s brother, you wouldn’t think you knew enough about me to be chatting.”

Nori blinked slowly and took the bowl and offered spoon. “Maybe I don’t.”

Bombur rolled his eyes. “You can take some food to the boys if you want to check on them.”

“Already did.” Nori ate a couple bites of stew. “I can ask the hobbit to do it.”

Bombur raised an eyebrow. “... fiiiine.” He narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

Nori’s smile was very small, but intrigued, and Bombur felt somewhat worried to see it.

“Curiosity.”


 

Bilbo was scraping the last pieces of mushroom out of his bowl with his spoon when Nori stepped up next to Bofur. He was just outside of Bilbo’s sight and his step’s didn’t make a sound - an impressive feat for a creature that wasn’t a hobbit - but he still stank of sweaty, soaked dwarf.

He thought about asking the dwarf what he could do for him, but that murmur was back. Bilbo frowned into his bowl. Something… something… something....

He was starting to get frustrated.

“Halfling.”

Bilbo felt his shoulders tense.

Never mind the starting part. He officially was frustrated.

“Take some food to the princes, would you?”

Bilbo turned to regard the dwarf. Nori was staring at him, his face blank of expression but eyes glittering like a predator’s. “And you’re not doing it because…?”

The dwarf very pointedly spooned a mouthful of stew into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed before speaking. “I am eating.”

“Congratulations. Your talents equal those of a small child.” He got to his feet and dusted off his backside.

Nori was still watching him. Bilbo wondered if he was going to blink at any point.

When the dwarf didn’t say anything more but kept staring, Bilbo sniffed and turned away, walking over to Bombur with his empty bowl. He traded it for two full bowls and headed off toward the ponies, pointedly ignoring the dwarf still staring at him.

Because he was pointedly ignoring him, he didn’t see him move, so when he reached the muddy trodden path left by the pony’s hooves, he nearly dumped the stew all over himself when Nori appeared out of the shadows beside him.

“Stop that!” Bilbo said, more loudly than he had intended, and didn’t miss Nori’s smirk.

“I would think you’d be used to it with your kind slinking in the shadows as they do.”

“Hobbits do not slink ,” Bilbo hissed. “We walk, just like everyone else. It’s not my fault you don’t notice us until we start talking.”

“Does that mean we should expect more of you to show up down the road?”

Bilbo eyed him suspiciously for a moment. “No. My cousin stopped tracking us the moment we crossed the borders of the Shire.”

Nori stared at him for a long, silent moment. The dwarf’s gaze was starting to make Bilbo nervous, like he was a little mouse in a barren cornfield and Nori was a gigantic, hungry bird.

“So it’s true you halflings don’t leave the Shire normally, isn’t it? Stay where it’s safe and no one knows you exist. Sounds… peaceful.” Except the way he said peaceful made it sound disgusting and slimy, like hobbits were a horrible people for enjoying their gardens and food and the peace of home.

Bilbo could feel his temper beginning to fray. Nori made him more nervous than Thorin did, though he wasn’t sure why, and he was trying to be diplomatic, but if the dwarf continued to insult him, Bilbo just might throw decorum out of the window.

“Do not call us halflings. We aren’t half of anything .”

“Aren’t you?” Nori asked, and the smirk that slid onto the dwarf’s mouth made Bilbo’s ears turn red in fury. He could feel his cheeks and the back of his neck heating up. “I thought hobbits were descended from Men. Just… less .”

Bilbo was too angry to notice that Nori had used the term hobbit, rather than halfling. He turned, gritting his teeth, and stormed off into the woods, trying to calm his temper so he didn’t shake all of the stew out of Fili and Kili’s bowls before he reached them. If he’d had a free hand… oooh…

Thankfully, his stomping had calmed by the time he reached Fili and Kili and his temper had cooled a little. Still, he handed the bowls of stew off to them and moved over to Myrtle so he could scratch her neck, seeking comfort by offering it. How many times did he have to ask these dwarves to stop calling him a halfling? He loathed that stupid name the Men had given them so long ago. They were hobbits. Hobbits .

Bilbo was so distracted by his anger that it took him a moment to realize that the ponies were agitated, prancing back and forth and snorting loudly. And there was that murmur in the back of his head or behind his ears. A whisper of something…

… something is…

Bilbo’s eyes scanned the ponies, searching the familiar faces.

Where was Minty?

… there’s something…

Where was Apple?

… something…

There was a crashing sound and the ground rocked beneath Bilbo’s feet. Myrtle whinnied loudly.

Something is coming.

Bilbo looked up just as a massive, grey creature stepped into the clearing and peered down at him with squinting eyes and a wide, hungry grin.

“An’ what do we have here?”

Troll.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

Bilbo did not squeak in terror, but it was a close thing.

The troll was so big. And ugly. Seriously ugly. Bilbo suspected the only reason he hadn’t smelled the creature coming was because he’d become quite practiced, these last few days, at blocking out the scent of wet dwarf.

But none of that helped him now, not with the troll reaching for him, curiosity and something truly nasty gleaming in its bulbous eyes.

Disappearing out of sight didn’t work for hobbits if someone’s attention was on you, because if they could track you, then they could keep you in their sights. All hobbits needed to slip away was a moment, though, but getting that moment - that was the difficult part.

Fortunately for Bilbo, Fili and Kili had heard the crashing and came investigating. When they bounded into view (dwarves clearly did not sneak very well at all), the troll naturally turned its attention to them.

Bilbo took the chance for what it was. He ducked down to the ground and disappeared.

Of course, hobbits don’t really disappear. They have no more power than elves do at turning invisible. Hobbits have a connection to the earth, though, and to the roots and the trees and the grass. Everything that grows, a hobbit knows, and so everything that grows knows hobbits. As hobbits care for the growing of the world, the world does what it can to care for them. A hobbit can’t turn invisible, but the grass can be just high enough to hide them, a tree’s branches can twist enough to craft shadows just so , or drop a piece of deadwood to distract, trip a pursuer with a root. Nature protects its own, and hobbits have ever been a part of that.

So Bilbo didn’t disappear , but he did slip out of the troll’s line of sight, sliding through shadows and moving with silent steps, the grasses and roots beneath his seat muffling any sound he might have made. He kept his eyes on the troll and the two dwarves, determined to get them away or, if necessary, step in to distract the troll if it went for them. But all three of them were in danger, because the troll was massive and ugly, but it also had long arms and sharp teeth stained red with blood. All Bilbo had on him were two daggers, some pinecones, and a sack of conkers. He could distract the troll, certainly, but kill it? He might have been a Took, but that didn’t make him a fool.

Bilbo made his way back to the ponies, staying low and letting his body be hidden by grass and shadow and the ponies’ legs. Myrtle, clever as she was, shuffled her way closer and bent her head to him, brushing her nose against his face. Bilbo reached up a hand and patted her soft muzzle.

“Tov mellon Bofur,” he whispered in Sindarin, and Myrtle’s sharp ears flicked as she listened. “Tov, Myrtle.” She snorted and moved away, walking carefully so as not to attract the troll’s attention. Clever Myrtle.

“Drego!” Bilbo hissed at the other ponies, and they snorted in response, tossing their heads anxiously. Bilbo heard the troll’s nasally “whassat?” and said, “Dartha godref! Drego! Drego!”

The ponies whinnied and burst into movement. In the rush of noise and motion, Bilbo slipped back into the shadows, circling around behind the troll as he moved toward the escaping ponies. Bilbo didn’t watch them go, knowing that they would obey his commands - that the herd would remain together in their flight and that Myrtle would seek out Bofur and get them help.

Unwilling to waste a moment of the distraction, Bilbo moved as quickly as he could without calling attention to himself and made his way back to Fili and Kili. He stepped between the two of them and, before his sudden appearance could make them cry out, grabbed the fronts of their shirts and pulled them down. They crouched alongside him, white-faced and watching the troll. Bilbo kept one wary eye on the gargantuan creature, but whispered quickly, “We need to get away from here before he remembers you two. Follow me.”

He turned around and moved off, but he didn’t dare slip into the shadows or the two dwarves would lose sight of him. Instead, he was forced to remain visible, which grated on his nerves, making him twitchy, but Fili and Kili were at least aware that they needed to move swiftly and they didn’t waste time. They moved away from the distracted troll, deeper into the forest.

Unfortunately, none of them considered that the troll might not be alone, so when the three of them stepped into the clearing, they were wholly unprepared to be plucked up by gigantic hands.

Only Bilbo being smaller than the two dwarves, and perhaps just because he was a hobbit and therefore better hidden, kept him from being caught. He ducked down and the trolls ignored his existence, as so many creatures did, too distracted by the yelling dwarves they held tightly.

“Lookee ‘ere, Tom!” one of the dwarves cried, delighted. “Dinner came to us!”

“Wassit? Dwarves?” The second troll groaned. “I hate th’ taste o’ dwarf.”

“Then let us go!” Kili cried, and bless him, but he sounded as hopeful as he did panicked. Bilbo wanted to hug the poor dwarf, even from the edge of the forest able to see the shine of tears on his frightened face.

“Now tha’ ain’t smart,” the dwarf said. “Ain’t givin’ up a free meal, even if it does taste bad.”

“Mm… let’s squish them inta jelly! Bert, gimme the fat one.”

“Fat?” Fili cried, and of all the things to focus on. “Who’re you calling fat, you walking booger!”

“Fee!” Kili cried.

“You look like something I plucked outta my left nostril!” Fili said, ignoring his brother’s startled cry. “Except bigger and… and lumpier!”

“Lumpier?” Bert the troll pinched a bit of flesh on his side and pulled it out from his body, examining it. “I ain’t got no lumps! Yer a filthy li’le liar!”

“You… you can’t see them?” Fili cried, and if his voice came out higher-pitched at the end, he could be forgiven, since the troll had started lifting him toward his mouth, looking like he was going to bite off his head. “They’re all over! How can you not…” The crowned prince faltered as the troll stared down at him in confusion.

Luckily, Fili wasn’t alone and Kili was as quick as his brother. “That’s not good! Do you have any other symptoms?”

“Symptoms?” Bert demanded, looking over at Kili in confusion and perhaps fear. “What d’you mean symptoms?”

“You’ve got lumps and you can’t see them!” Kili cried. “What do you think I mean? You could have... “ His mouth worked for a moment. “Dermalump Skindalitus!”

“Derma-wha?”

“Dermalump Skindalitus!” Kili squeaked when Tom shook him for waiting too long. “It’s a horrible disease!”

“Horrible!” Fili cried.

“You get all these lumps all over your body and you lose the ability to see them. And then your lumps get lumps!”

“Lumpy lumps!” Fili cried, nodding quickly.

“And soon you’re so covered in lumps you can’t move and you hurt all over! And you get really warm…”

“I’ve been warm all night!” Bert cried.

“We’re standing next to a fire, idiot!” Tom cried.

“Were you warm before the fire?” Kili asked. “Do you remember?”

“It’s very important! If you were warm before the fire, you might already be suffering even worse effects!”

“There’s worse effects?!”

“Oh yes,” Fili said, “they’re horrible. Everything is really dark like it’s night all the time.”

Bert gasped.

“And then suddenly everyone starts looking like dwarves!” Kili cried. “Your mother might start looking like a dwarf!”

“My mother!”

“And you know what happens when you start seeing dwarves everywhere,” Fili said.

“You start trying to eat them,” Kili said, not giving anyone a chance to interrupt between.

“And suddenly, you’re trying to eat your own mother!”

“No!” Bert cried. He held Fili up to his face and peered closely at him. “Mummy?”

“Son!” Fili cried.

“Tom, I almost ate Mum!” Bert cried.

“That’s a dwarf, you idiot!”

“No, it’s Mum!”

“Thomas, you have it, too!” Fili cried.

“Oh no!” Bert cried, and he gave Tom such a pitying look that Tom realized he must be sick.

“No!” Tom cried. He looked at Kili in his hands. “Pa?”

“Thomas!” Kili cried.

“Pa, I’m so sorry!”

“It’s all right, son, we can fix this!” Kili cried. “We know the cure!”

“The cure!” Tom cried. He set Kili down on the ground and Bert put down Fili. “What do we do, Pa?”

“You have to…” Kili faltered.

“Pop the lumps!” Fili cried.

“Yeah, pop the lumps!”

“But I can’t see the lumps!” Bert cried. He looked at Tom. “I can’t see your lumps, either!”

“We can see them,” Fili said. “We’ll tell you where to aim.”

“Now get something sharp,” Kili said. Bert and Tom grabbed their knives, twisted, rusty things that they were.

“If you pop the lumps over your eyes first, then you’ll be able to see them!” Fili cried. “Quick, get the lumps on your eyes!”

“Make sure you get the whole lump, or they’ll spread even worse! Then you won’t even be able to… to hear us tell you about the lumps.”

“Your ears will have lumps!”

“Not lumpy ears!” Bert whined. “Quick, Tom, get the lumps off my eyes!”

“But I want my eye lumps gone first!” Tom cried.

“Do it at the same time!” Fili said, at the same time that Kili shouted, “Hurry! They’re spreading!”

Bert and Tom both screamed at the idea of more lumps covering their body, so they both took careful aim… and shoved their knives through each other’s eyes.

There was a second where nothing happened. Then Bert said, “I don’t think there’s such a thing as Dermalump Skinalitus.”

“Bert, you idiot.”

Then both trolls toppled to the ground, dead.

Fili and Kili stood staring at the two trolls. Bilbo, a horse chestnut in each hand, came up to stand between them, looking at the trolls in confusion.

“How did that even work, Fili?”

“I don’t know, Kili.”

“I think I’m embarrassed on behalf of all trolls,” Bilbo said, slipping his conkers back into the pouch that Rorimac had given him. “But you two might be the craziest fools I have ever met.”

“Fools?” Kili demanded, looking hurt.

Bilbo gave him a soft smile. “It’s not an insult, Kili. Just ask Gandalf.” He patted the dwarf’s arm. “You boys did a good job.”

There came a roaring battlecry from somewhere in the woods behind them.

“Of course, we only took out two of the trolls,” Bilbo noted.

“That sounded like Uncle.”


 

Bofur was sitting next to Bifur, enjoying a good smoke, when Myrtle burst into the camp.

He knew it was Myrtle because Bilbo had twisted flowers into her mane that day and some of the petals were visible as she galloped through the camp. He, like many of the others, had jumped to his feet at her high-pitched cry and sudden appearance, but his eyes widened when she avoided the other dwarves and came running straight at him.

He was about to leap out of the way, thinking she’d gone mad, when her hooves dug into the earth. Instead of running him over, she dodged to the side, circled around him, and grabbed the flap of his hat in her teeth.

Bofur shouted but Myrtle ignored him, hat in mouth, and just continued running back the way she had come. She wasn’t galloping now, though, but trotting, and as Bofur moved to follow, he saw her look back at him, eyes wide and half-wild, but still gleaming with the strange intelligence he had noticed when they had purchased the ponies in Bree.

Bofur stopped to grab his mattock and then followed.


 

They were only halfway back to where the other troll had been when they heard Thorin shout “Fili! Kili!”

Bofur’s call of “Bilbo!” came after and the three sped up, arriving in the clearing mere moments later.

“Uncle!” Kili shouted, and Thorin turned. Bilbo caught the look on his face when his eyes settled on his nephews and slipped away into the shadows. He’d let Thorin have his reunion with the two boys without letting his presence interfere. The fear in Thorin’s eyes was a terrible sight to behold and Bilbo understood he would need a moment to not be a leader or a king.

Instead, Bilbo moved around them and popped back into view beside Bofur. He gave a cheeky smile and offered a casual, “You called?”

“Bilbo!” Bofur cried, looking so relieved that Bilbo really should have expected the hug, but it surprised him. “We thought the troll got you!”

“No, we got away from this one easily enough,” Bilbo said, and he turned to look at the… well, at what remained of the troll. It had been turned into a pile of grey and red, the dwarves taking out their anger (and probably no small amount of fear in Thorin’s case) on the creature. “I see that’s been dealt with.”

“Whaddaya mean this one ?” Dwalin growled.

“There were two others not far from here,” Bilbo said, pointing in the direction of the trolls’ camp. “We ran into them while trying to get away from this one.”

“How did you escape?” Oin demanded and Bilbo could see the healer’s eyes scanning him, looking for wounds.

“I didn’t do anything,” Bilbo huffed, but he couldn’t deny the swell of pride in his heart for Fili and Kili’s cleverness. No Took could have done better. “The boys took care of them.”

“What?” Dwalin demanded, his face going red. “Those two took out two trolls?” He squinted at Bilbo. “Do you use some of your hobbitty tricks?”

Bilbo scowled at himself. Clearly he wasn’t hiding his conkers as well as he thought if Dwalin had noticed. Then again, Dwalin was some sort of guard, he thought, or had been, so it made sense he would be so observant. But still, Bilbo would have to be more careful or Thorin would find him out. He didn’t imagine that would be a fun conversation.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, hobbitty tricks,” Bilbo said, and sniffed. “But no. I didn’t do anything with the trolls. Didn’t have time to. Fili and Kili handled it perfectly well before I could interfere.” He flapped a hand at the dwarves. “Go, look if you don’t believe me.”

Dwalin grumbled and stomped off, but he moved past Thorin with a mutter at the king and toward the trolls’ camp, so it was clear he had every intention of checking the story. Thorin followed moments later, dragging Fili and Kili with him. This gave Bilbo a chance to slip up next to Oin and tap him on the arm.

“What is it, lad?”

“You might want to check the boys’ ribs,” Bilbo said, loudly enough that Oin could hear him but not so loud as to attract attention. “The trolls did get a hold of them and might have hurt them at some point.”

Oin growled. “Pity they’re dead, then.” He sighed. “And you, lad? Are you hurt?”

Bilbo shook his head. “No, I’m fine. I managed to stay out of sight.”

“What a surprise,” Nori muttered, and if he saw Bilbo twitch in surprise at the dwarf speaking from directly behind him, he said nothing. “You’ll full of interesting quirks, aren’t you, halfling?”

Bilbo squinted back at the red-haired dwarf. “It seems we all are.”

Nori smirked at him.

“Come on, then, lads,” Oin said, clapping his hands. “I want to see these trolls.”

“Should look for a troll hoard, too,” Gloin grumbled from nearby. “Won’t be one far off.”

“Trolls first,” Oin snapped, “and then I need to check on those fool boys.”

Nori slid into the shadows around the others, heading toward the troll camp, wrapped in darkness to keep him from encountering any of the others. Cloaked as he was in his own brand of silence, it was a complete surprise to have a pinecone smack him suddenly on the nose. He stopped.

“That was what you wanted before, wasn’t it?”

He looked up to find the hobbit standing at the base of a tree, another pinecone in his hand. “I couldn’t figure out why you were being such a… so rude. You wanted to see if it was me.”

Nori loosened his limbs, eyeing the pinecone in Bilbo’s hand and idly noting that the rest of the Company had already passed by them, not realizing that they’d been left behind. “I knew it was you since Bree. You taught those three little ones how to throw conkers.”

“I did. You were watching?” He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Never mind, silly question. You’re always watching.”

Nori tilted his head to the side to the side in casual admittance. He was honestly surprised the hobbit had realized what he was doing. Nori had gone overboard on the insults on purpose, counting on the hobbit to pass him off as cruel or at least racist. It wasn’t horrible that he had figured it out - Nori had already had a plan in place for if he had, of course - just unexpected.

He didn’t say anything of this to the hobbit, but his silence must have seemed like a question to the hobbit, or perhaps he just liked talking. Hobbits were social creatures, after all.

“It took me a bit, but when Fili called the troll a booger, I realized what you had been doing.” Nori blinked. The prince had called the troll a booger? “He was trying to provoke a reaction, same as you.” Nori said nothing but the hobbit tilted his head to the side, eyes curious. “If you knew I was the one tossing conkers, why’d you bother?”

Nori hesitated a moment, considering whether or not to lie, then shrugged internally. “Hobbits know food.”

After a moment of silence, the burglar nodded slowly. “Yeeesss?”

“What spices did Bombur put in the stew tonight?”

He didn’t even hesitate. “Sage, cayenne, and ginger root.”

Nori nodded. “You were carrying two bowls of stew.”

When he didn’t say anything more, the hobbit scowled. “Yes. Your observational skills are astounding. What exactly is your point?”

Nori tilted his head this time. “Your hands were full and you couldn’t go for your pinecones or the horse chestnuts your cousin slipped you. You could have thrown the stew at me.” The hobbit looked horrified at the very idea. “It wouldn’t have been able to scald me, being a dwarf, but cayenne pepper in the eyes would have been incredibly painful. You didn’t look like you even thought about it.”

“Of course I didn’t think about it!” Bilbo cried, and that was true horror in his voice. “Why would… who…” He shook his head, curls flying about. “Who would have thought to do such a thing?”

Nori shrugged. “If I thought I was in danger, I would have.”

The hobbit stared at him for a long time and he seemed to be weighing his words carefully. “I think you are under the impression that I thought you were a danger to me.”

Nori stilled, staring at the hobbit. “You don’t know us.”

“That’s true. We’ve only known each other a few days.” He studied Nori for a moment, then said, “But it was Gandalf that led you to my door.” As if that explained everything.

And then he didn’t add anything more, as if that explained everything .

“You trust a wizard that much?”

“A wizard, no. Gandalf, yes.”

That made no sense .

“You don’t, though,” Bilbo added, and he was staring at Nori like he was seeing beyond the cloak that he wore, and he didn’t like that expression directed at him at all.

“I don’t trust anyone whose motives I don’t understand. You have no reason to help us, yet here you are.”

“A fourteenth of the treasure isn’t reason enough for you?” The hobbit raised his eyebrows.

Nori scoffed. “We’re all perfectly likely to die well before we even reach the mountains. Your house is full of maps and books - you’re not an idiot. Even if we do make it to the Lonely Mountain, we’re fourteen against a dragon. We’re all of us going to die, and then where will the treasure be? Still under a dragon’s backside while he picks us out of his teeth.”

“I suspect he’s large enough to swallow us whole, actually,” and the casual tone the hobbit used grated on Nori’s nerves like nothing he had ever heard before. “And it’s not a house I live it. It’s a smial. As for my reasons for going with you all, they’re mine. Even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me, so I’ll have to prove myself to you some other way.”

“I cannot imagine a single thing you could do that could make me trust you,” Nori said, and his words weren’t sharp or cruel, just honest.

The hobbit nodded slowly and Nori was determined to ignore the look on his face that seemed resigned and sad . “Then I’m very sorry that I will cause you further distress, master dwarf.” And didn’t the hobbit sound perfectly like he meant that. Nori had to wonder if he was being honest or if he was just that good a liar. What was the hobbit getting out of all this? What?

“Now, I think it’s best we get back to the others before Thorin starts yelling and attracts another troll.”

Nori waved a hand in invitation. “After you, burglar .”

The hobbit gave him a smirk and slid into shadow. Nori watched him go. He did watch, and he tracked the hobbit’s movements.

But the pinecone thwacked him on the nose just the same and instinctively, he blinked. When he opened his eyes not a second later, the hobbit was gone.

Nori snarled to himself and bolted for the trolls. For his brothers . He didn’t trust the hobbit one bit, and he certainly wouldn’t trust him with them .


The troll’s had indeed had a cave and a hoard. There were chests of gold, which some of the dwarves had started to bury but Balin had suggested they actually take with them. The journey would be a long one and they never knew what they would face down the roads. They divided it amongst the Company, minus Gandalf, who still had not returned, and searched the rest of the hoard.

They found the remains of what was likely the family who had lived in the burnt farmhouse, some broken furniture and useless trinkets, and a multitude of weapons.

Thorin found an elegantly-crafted sword that would suit himself, and a longer one that would fit best in Gandalf’s hands - far too long for any of the dwarves or the hobbit. There were some smaller daggers of lesser make, though still well-crafted and sharp, a beautifully-wrought shield that gleamed silver, the dragon’s face on the front carved and seeming to gleam white. Ori, who had inspected this as it was brought out, fascinated, was permitted to take it when no one else staked a claim. Dori rather thought he liked the idea of his little brother behind a shield, rather than a blade. Kili found a bow, as beautifully crafted as Thorin’s sword, strung with a string that seemed made of pure white. Fili picked up one of the smaller daggers, the blade a strange white, the hilt carved bone, and a small blade, beautifully crafted but barely worth anything in the eyes of most of the dwarves, who bore weapons so much larger than that.

This blade, Fili gave to Bilbo.

“It’s the perfect size for a sword for you, Bilbo.”

“It is, at that,” Bilbo said, and he strapped the sword’s scabbard to his waist with the belt Fili had found for him.

“Do you know how to handle a blade, burglar?” Dwalin growled and there was some laughter around the group. Bilbo caught sight of Thorin’s scowl.

“I have never held one quite so large before,” he admitted.

Thorin scoffed. “Soft creatures such as you have never had a reason to bear one. Gandalf was a fool to bring you.” He turned away before anyone could say anything, but Bilbo didn’t even try.

“I don’t think Gandalf was a fool,” Kili admitted, and his brown eyes were huge and sad when he regarded Bilbo. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“You saved us from the troll,” Fili said. “We should have moved but we didn’t. Not until you pulled us away.”

Bilbo smiled at them. “Thank you both,” he said softly. “I’m sure you would have handled that first troll as well as you did the other two, but I’m glad you didn’t have to.” He patted Kili’s hand when the prince’s expression stayed sad. “I’m glad I’m here, too.”

Kili smiled.

“And I can teach you how to use a sword, Bilbo,” Fili said, his eyes serious. “You shouldn’t be defenseless.”

“Oh, I’m not.” Bilbo smiled and the three of them moved to follow the company back to their camp. “I’ve used daggers and I’m rather good at Conkers. I’ve just never used a sword before.”

The two boys seemed pleased at this. “So are you going to tell us?”

“Tell you what?” Bilbo asked, looking at Fili.

“Why you keep hitting Uncle with pinecones. He’s getting pretty angry about it,” Kili admitted. “He keeps swearing elves are following us.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have to if he would simply stop calling me a halfling. It’s an incredible insult, you see.” And he went on to explain Conkers to the two princes, who were fascinated at a game that allowed you to show your irritation and hit people with small things. It sounded like great fun!

When they got back to camp, the company found their ponies waiting, calmly grazing, Myrtle standing at the forefront.

“My hat!” Bofur cried, dashing forward and taking it from the pony, who snorted at him in seeming amusement and then went to investigate Bilbo’s pockets. They decided not to wait for Gandalf, wanting to get away from the trolls in case there were more about. They walked through the night, leading their ponies carefully, grateful for the brightness of the moon which made it easier to travel. And when the sun broken over the horizon and bathed in sky in red and gold, they rolled out their bedrolls and settled down to camp, many of them falling into an exhausted sleep after such an eventful night. The bright clear sky suggested it would be a beautiful day - finally, a reprieve from the rain - and the sound of a river nearby promised the chance to bathe and fill their waterskins.

A moment of peace was just what they needed.