Bilba kept her promise.
Paladin’s recovery was slow, but steady. It soon became clear that whatever spell or magic laid upon him that kept his mind bound would not be wearing off but, as time passed, he healed in other ways. He put on weight, his bones vanishing under layers of muscle, natural to a dwarf even without exercise. His open wounds closed and vanished and his hair and beard grew back out, thick and healthy. Bilba kept his hair at just below his shoulders, the average length for a dwarf as far as she knew, and put in two braids on either side of his face to keep it out of his eyes. His beard she allowed to grow out until it was a true beard but kept it trimmed up to his chin, unsure of how to care for it when it got longer.
Her parents ordered better clothing and shoes for him and, once he was feeling better, Bilba began taking him with her on her explorations. His leg and back were still injured so he couldn’t move fast but Bilba didn’t mind. She would dance and swirl around him and chatter to him endlessly about her day. It soon became commonplace in the Shire to see the two together and, eventually, no one thought anything of it.
Bilba’s friends welcomed Paladin into their midst and would take him along on fishing trips where they would set him up under a tree or on picnics where Bilba helping him eat was so common that no one, not even she, took notice of it any longer.
In the evenings Paladin would have dinner with them and sit in the living room as Bella, Bungo and Bilba played board games or talked. Sometimes they would read. When this happened Bilba would curl up next to Paladin on the couch and read out loud to him, telling him great tales of heroes and heroines and their epic quests.
No one in the family ever treated him as anything less than a person perfectly capable of hearing and understanding every word they said.
Bilba, to her surprise, found she no longer had any of her disappearances. She still danced almost constantly, day and night, but she didn’t vanish even once, not even for a few hours.
Paladin needed her to stay, and so she did.
Eleven years passed.
Bilba, at thirty-three, looked no different than she had at twenty-one. Her parents appeared no older either and even Paladin, hurt as he was, seemed not a day older than when he’d arrived.
Belladonna felt a sense of impending doom settle over her as she watched her tiny daughter dart about the Shire, Paladin her constant companion.
Eventually, and sooner now than later she felt, people would stop dismissing Bilba’s oddities as simply being eccentric. They would realize the girl wasn’t aging and that those around her also seemed locked in time. Soon they would start remembering all the many, many unusual things over the years and realize it wasn’t all overreaction, exaggeration or tall tales.
Once they did, and word started to spread once more, would her daughter be safe? Would the protection of the Rangers continue to keep strangers out or, would more rumors, now backed by proof, cause them to come in spite of the warnings to stay away?
She knew she needed to start pressuring Bilba, gently, about Rivendell once more. The stories Elrond had told her of what had happened to fairies in the past repeated endlessly in her head, always just below the surface. She couldn’t tolerate the thought of such things happening to her daughter who remained as gentle, kind and friendly as she’d ever been. The girl treated all like her friend and if a stranger bent of doing ill arrived in the Shire, Bella had no doubt her daughter would be the first to welcome them. They had tried to teach her to be wary, warned her of the dangers without going into such depth that it would scare or traumatize her but it never seemed to stick. Bilba’s nature simply did not allow her to see things with a paranoid or suspicious eye.
She would talk to her, Bella decided, soon. Bilba would be safer in Rivendell. She and Bungo and Paladin could go with her. The thought of leaving the Shire, and Bag End, which her husband had so lovingly built for her, was painful but it was nothing compared to what she would feel if anything happened to Bilba. Once they were safe in Rivendell, Bilba would have acres and acres of wilderness to run through, and would be safe from any who might wish her harm.
Bilba’s welfare would always come first and if that meant giving up her home and land to ensure her daughter’s safety, so be it. She wanted Bilba to be safe and that was all there was to it.
In the end, Belladonna never had the chance to raise the issue with Bilba.
Shortly after she came to the decision to start working on convincing Bilba to leave, a sickness passed through the Shire. No one knew where it had come from or exactly how it got started. One day everything was fine and the next individuals from nearly every household were coming down with an illness.
Coming down with it, and dying.
Fear spread. The streets and the marketplace grew deserted, doors and windows shut tight as those who were healthy tried desperately to prevent the sickness from entering their homes.
Several of Bilba’s friends came by, wanting her to heal their families. With the first one, Bilba snuck out and went, hoping to help her friend.
The illness was strong, however, and brought its victims close to death within a very short time. Bilba’s attempt to heal her friend’s sister, who had only just come down with it, succeeded but Bilba fell into an almost deathlike sleep, barely breathing, her body like ice to the touch, for over a week.
When she woke up, it was to discover her father was sick.
“You can’t do it,” Belladonna said. “You already know what will happen.”
Bilba was crouched next to her mother’s bed. Belladonna had started feeling poorly that morning and had retired to one of the unused rooms in Bag End. Her father was in the room next door, his breathing labored and harsh.
“So you want me to just watch you both suffer?” Bilba asked. She had her legs curled up under her and was staring at her hands in her lap, her head down. “When I could help?”
“Your powers aren’t infinite,” Belladonna said, her voice hoarse. “You can’t fix everything and you can’t save everyone.”
“Then what good is it?” Bilba looked up, revealing tears tracking down her cheeks. “What good is it to have the power to heal if I can’t help the ones I love?”
Belladonna curled on her side and gently touched Bilba’s cheek, wiping her tears away. “You’ve healed so many over the years. Would you really discount all the good you’ve done?”
“No,” Bilba whispered, her shoulders slumping. “But I want to save you and dad! Why won’t you let me try?”
“You know why.” Bella said simply. She pulled her hand away and curled up weakly. “It’ll be okay. We may both pull through this yet.”
Bilba sat in the center of the living room.
Bag End was silent.
Down the hall the beds her parents had slept in were empty, the bedding replaced with clean linens waiting for occupants that would never return.
The fire in the fireplace had burned down to embers, the room cast in near darkness. Outside the window the moon beckoned but Bilba felt no desire to go dance in its light.
She had no desire to do anything. She’d cried, so hard she’d made herself sick, so hard her stomach hurt and her eyes felt dry and raw.
Now she just felt empty.
The embers crackled, one last gasp before they gave up, and her eyes flickered toward it. As they did she caught sight of booted feet in the armchair next to the fire. She lifted her eyes and saw Paladin sitting in the chair, his eyes fixed, as always, on nothing.
Paladin, she thought numbly. How long since she’d put him there?
Carefully she got to her feet, her movements stiff. She felt old, ancient even, her body refusing to obey her like it once had. She shuffled to Paladin and got him out of the chair, leading him into the kitchen and sitting him at the table.
By rote she put together a meal for him and then sat and carefully helped him eat it. She made none for herself, she doubted she could keep it down.
Once he was done she helped him into his bedroom and got him ready for bed. It was something her father had used to do, citing it was inappropriate for her to help him change. The memory brought a fresh wave of grief and proved she had tears left after all. For a second she rested her head against the side of Paladin’s arms, then, through blurred vision, she got him settled. She then went and collapsed in a rocking chair she’d placed in the room years earlier.
The desk was across the room from a full length mirror and she studied her reflection absently.
She barely recognized herself.
Her skin was pale with an almost gray cast to it and her hair seemed washed out, the colors less intense and dull. Even her eyes had changed, going from their normal, brilliant violet to a pale lavender.
Maybe she was fading. Perhaps she’d drift away until there was nothing left of her but a ghost, then a memory, an echo…and finally nothing.
She settled her head back against the headrest, one foot moving the chair lightly back and forth.
Fading might not be so bad, she thought…except…
Her eyes opened again.
Except, if she faded, what would happen to Paladin?
He had no one aside from her, no one who would take him in if she were gone. What would happen to him?
She got up and went to sit on the edge of the bed next to him. He was flat on his back, eyes closed and chest rising and falling easily.
Her parents had never let her try to heal him. They claimed he was infected with dark magic even though she’d never felt so much as a flicker of it from him. What if he wasn’t under a spell at all? What if he’d simply been injured in some way that had left him as he currently was? Not a spell, no evil coursing through him that might or might not reject any attempt to heal it, just a natural, normal injury.
Could she heal such a thing?
Her parents and Elladan and Elrohir and Aragorn hadn’t let her try.
Her parents hadn’t let her try to heal them either.
But she’d healed her friend’s sister and, surely, she’d been far worse off than Paladin was, right? He wasn’t ill after all, aside from his leg, back, hands, and feet and then, possibly, whatever had left him in the strange state where he followed commands but didn’t respond to anything else. He had healed head injuries, one in particular that her father insisted must have been severe. Could that have done it? She’d never heard of a head injury resulting in someone being left in Paladin’s state but who was to say that, simply because she’d never heard of it, that it hadn’t happened? All these years everyone had been so convinced Paladin had been the victim of a Sorcerer, a real one and not the one everyone claimed she was, and was permanently affected by it.
But what if it was much simpler than that?
Her parents were gone and she hadn’t seen Elladan, Elrohir or Aragorn. They were always telling her not to help and look where it had led. Her parents were gone and they hadn’t let her help and now it was just her and if she were gone too then Paladin would have no one.
Tears threatened again but this time they were angry, a wave of defiance flooding her.
Everyone was always telling her what she should and should not do, what she could and could not do.
They were always trying to tell her what her limits were without letting her test them to find out for sure.
And she’d always listened, always been the good daughter, obedient, doing as she was told.
And look where it had gotten her.
She reached out and lightly picked up Paladin’s mangled hands, holding them gently.
If she could heal him…he’d probably leave. If it was a physical injury and not a magical one then he was undoubtedly not aware of what was going on around him. He wouldn’t know her, would have no reason to stay with her. He’d undoubtedly want to go find his people…and…that would be okay.
Because she wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore.
She wouldn’t have to worry about anything anymore.
She could just…fade away.
She took a deep breath, swallowing past the lump in her throat, and called up her magic.
White light shone from her hands, swirling around his arms and along his body.
It started with his bones. She felt it as his fingers and toes straightened out, as his leg and back, fractured once upon a time and allowed to heal wrong, were fixed, strong bone replacing weak. The bumps along his skull smoothed out and vanished. Other injuries she hadn’t known about, to his ribs, arms and right knee, also corrected themselves, her magic leaving them stronger than they probably had been before he’d been hurt.
Once done her magic moved on, repairing weakened muscle, reforming stretched or damaged tendons and ligaments, strengthening a weakened heart.
Her magic shifted, gathering itself, and she felt an odd prickling in her gut, a warning from somewhere to pull back.
She couldn’t stop. It was the inherent downside in her magic. She had no control over what she healed or not once the process was started. She had no idea if this was something due to her being a hobbit with fairy blood or if the fairies long ago had the same problem. All she knew was once she started healing her magic would not stop until everything was healed, or until it exhausted itself and gave out entirely.
Her magic moved suddenly, darting into his veins, rushing through his blood…and encountering darkness.
Nausea roiled up her throat and she gagged.
Her parents and Elladan and Elrohir and Aragorn…they had all been right. It was dark magic. Dark, cloying, disgusting magic. It felt so impossibly wrong, like something beautiful corrupted into something terrible. It infected his entire body, locked deep within his blood. Why she had never felt it before she didn’t know but she certainly felt it now.
It lashed out at her, tendrils digging into her magic and attempting to subsume it, twisting and polluting it. More magic flowed out of her, growing in potency until it was a brilliant, white light.
The darkness seemed to crest, gathering itself for a final onslaught. Dimly Bilba thought she heard someone yelling, a voice she’d never heard before shouting as if from the end of an impossibly long tunnel.
Her magic burst, enveloping the room, her and Paladin in pure light. Bilba screamed in surprise and then the darkness was crumbling, disintegrating and vanishing. Her magic washed over it, flowing freely through his body and rooting out every last hint of it from his veins.
Her magic stopped, its work done.
Bilba twisted away from him and half fell, half slid off the bed. She landed with a thunk, pain sparking through her hands and knees, and barely managed to grab the wastebasket before throwing up. She hadn’t eaten in a long time so it was mostly dry heaves but the violence of it made her stomach clench in pain.
It passed eventually and she tried to stand up only to have her legs buckle under her. She crashed to the floor hard, a short cry of pain escaping her.
She curled in on herself, struggling to breathe. Her entire body hurt and she was shivering uncontrollably. Darkness encroached in the corners of her vision and she began to relax, her eyes growing heavy.
Unconsciousness pulled on her, dragging her down a deep hole that she thought she might not have the strength to crawl back out of.
She’d freed Paladin though, she was sure of it. Even if she didn’t wake up he’d be okay, he could take care of himself.
She let herself go, drifting away into a dreamless sleep.
Her last conscious thought was a vague sensation of regret that, if this were indeed the end, it meant she would never learn what Paladin’s name actually was.
Then she was gone and it no longer mattered.
Her first emotion upon awakening was surprise.
She hadn’t expected to.
Vaguely she became aware of arms holding her, one around her back and the other under her legs. Her head was resting against a broad shoulder and she could feel the steady thud of a heartbeat under her ear.
A brisk wind whipped around her, letting her know she was no longer inside, and her feet were cold and…wet? Her feet were in water?
She blinked, struggling to get her eyes to open and stay that way. She was still exhausted, more than she’d ever been. She didn’t have the strength to so much as lift her head, much less do anything else.
She was outside, she noted. Outside and in the lake behind Bag End for some reason.
“What?” she managed to breathe out, her voice so soft it barely lifted about the lapping of the waves on the shore a dozen feet away. “What--” She trailed off, too tired to finish her sentence.
“The moon has always made you stronger,” an unfamiliar voice said from over her head. It was lilting and cultured, with the slightest hint of an accent she couldn’t place. “I didn’t know what else to do. It was a full moon and I thought if I could get you outside it might help.”
For the first time, Bilba realized they were standing in a reflection the moon was casting on the water, dimmed light spreading in a circle around them.
She struggled to try and move and finally managed to get her head back, just enough to look up at the person holding her.
Her heart jumped in her chest.
It was Paladin.
Paladin, who was looking at her, at her for the first time, an expression of concern on his face. The moon cast him in a silver glow, making him seem more otherworldly than she was and, for a moment, she almost thought she was dreaming.
He grinned, his teeth bright white in the darkness. “Frerin, actually, though, as long as you’re the one saying it I’m open to being called just about anything you want.”
She was losing the battle with fatigue. His words permeated and she frowned.
“You know me?”
“Of course,” Pal – Frerin said. “I’ve been with you nearly every second for the last eleven years, and I have watched your every moment.”
“Oh,” Bilba said lamely, her mind not processing it entirely. Yes, she’d always treated him as if he could hear and see her but, to be perfectly honest, she hadn’t completely believed it. Given some of her antics over the years…well…
“I think I’ll pass out again now,” she decided to say instead, choosing not to try and remember some of her more… embarrassing moments that she now realized he had witnessed and, just her luck, probably remembered.
“As you wish,” he answered. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Bilba murmured something and let herself drift back into sleep.
If asked, it would be difficult for Frerin to say what his worst memory was.
There were just so many to choose from.
The loss of Erebor for one, and then the debacle at Moria after that. Waking up to realize the line had been driven to retreat, leaving the dead and dying, himself included, behind.
The Man wandering by, forcing a strange powder down the throat of the survivors, being unable to resist as the same was done to him. The horror of when the warriors returned and he realized they thought him and the others dead.
Being left behind, locked in his own body inside a cave with the dead.
The moment the entrance had been unblocked not to reveal his family come back to save him but the Man who’d caused him to be put in the situation in the first place.
He’d been a Necromancer, a human who’d given himself over to the practice of dark magic. He’d been in the area when the battle had broken out and had come by hoping to harvest survivors to use as his personal servants, as well as test subjects for his various rituals and spells.
Frerin preferred not to dwell too much on those.
The Man had returned with a cart and had loaded him and the others he’d given the powder to onto it. They’d left after, Frerin’s despair mounting with every passing minute.
He’d kept giving them that same damn powder, all the way back to the cave he lived in. There he’d preformed another ritual Frerin preferred not to think about and Frerin had found his mind locked within him while his will had been bound to that of the Necromancer.
He’d nearly gone insane over the years, several times, was sure several of his fellow dwarves had. In the end it had been sheer stubbornness that had kept him going, the refusal to give the bastard the satisfaction of breaking him even if never knew it.
The others taken from Moria had eventually died, one by one, replaced by others, humans, dwarves and even elves, scavenged from various battlefields and the backdoors of unethical healers.
The Necromancer had taken him to Bree following vague rumors of the elves protecting something in that area. He hadn’t known what it was but the fact it was something the elves found worth guarding was enough to pique his interest.
So he’d gone, taking Frerin with him as a servant. That had been another bad moment, being able to see the other dwarves in the Inn, knowing they could see him, understanding and agreeing with their decision not to take on a Necromancer. The shame of being seen in such a state, the despair of having freedom so close and knowing it would be denied him…well.
It had been a bad moment indeed.
One more in what, by that point, had become a long litany of horrible moments, one after another after another.
And, so, if asked, he would be hard pressed to choose one.
If, however, he were asked what his best moment had been, the one that had made him happiest, that had brought the greatest joy to his heart…well, that one was simple.
It was the moment when he’d first laid eyes on Bilba Baggins.
It was etched in his mind, in crystal clarity any time he wished to look for it. He still remembered watching the Necromancer get ready to leave, despair tearing at him as he faced going back to that dank cave, his life reduced to the same misery he’d endured for more years than he cared to remember.
And then the elf and human had shown up, speaking to the Necromancer in a voice too low for him to hear. Frerin had no idea what the Man had said to them but it had result in the elf and human drawing their swords.
The Necromancer hadn’t stood a chance. Though he enjoyed practicing his dark arts and taking advantage of the sick and nearly dying, his powers had never been strong and his strength had lain in his ability to surprise those he sought to enslave.
The elf and human had killed him and, had it ended there, Frerin would have said it was his greatest joy, watching the object of his torment finally destroyed, meaning, for better or for worse, he was free once more.
But it hadn’t ended there. The end of his chain had been picked up and they’d led him into the woods. He’d remembered feeling nervous but calm, firmly convinced nothing they had planned for him could be any worse than what he’d already gone through.
He’d been led into a small clearing and there…there he’d laid eyes on her for the first time.
The first time, but certainly not the last.
For she’d done more than simply save him. She’d taken him home with her and, together with her parents, had healed him, clothed and fed him and watched over him.
And, more than that, they’d treated him like a living being for the first time in so long a time he’d almost forgotten what it felt like.
She talked to him constantly and it was from what she said that he came to understand what she was…as well as the threats facing her. She was what the elves protected and therefore she was what the Necromancer had been searching for. Seeing her, her body so small and delicate, her spirit so generous…it had sickened him to think of what would have happened to her had the Necromancer found her. He would have destroyed her, breaking her into pieces and tossing her aside without thought or care.
He resolved to watch over her, to the extent that he could. He couldn’t stand up for her when she was harassed by those who were foolishly superstitious or those who were just plain cruel but he could be there at her side at least, and he could watch.
And watch he did.
He was there for the times when she danced in the moonlight and the times she cried over another’s pain, the times when she smiled and laughed with her friends, and the moments when loneliness over being the only one of her kind overcame her.
He was there for them all and it was through them all that he slowly came to the understanding that, somewhere along the way, he had fallen in love with her. She was all things kind and beautiful and pure and if he lived a thousand years he would never find another like her.
He loved her and with that realization came the despair that he would never, ever, be able to tell her. That she would always, and ever, be simultaneously right next to him and impossibly out of reach.
He’d come to terms with it as best he could. He had no choice after all. He’d tried to accept what he had, grateful it was more than what his life had been prior to it. If all he could do was spend the rest of his life by her side then he would consider it a blessed life indeed.
And then, just when he’d settled into a quiet acceptance of what the rest of his life would most likely be…her parents had died.
And she’d fallen apart.
He had loved Belladonna and Bungo and had mourned their deaths in the prison of his own mind, but it had been nothing compared to the fear he’d felt at watching Bilba’s reaction.
Not fear over what might happen to him if she were lost as well, but fear for what was happening to her.
Stopped eating, stopped sleeping or laughing or smiling.
Eventually she’d stopped crying and somehow that had been worse than the hours he’d spent watching her suffer, unable to so much as lift a finger to help her.
Her friends hadn’t been able to come to visit, most of them were sick or in quarantine trying to stop the illness from spreading. It had only increased her isolation, given her permission to stop living.
He didn’t know what it was that had finally gotten her going again, if only to take care of him and put him to bed.
He’d felt her sit on the bed next to him, known exactly what she planned when she picked up his hands and had mentally screamed at her not to do it.
And then white light had flooded him and, when it had passed, he’d been able to move.
Just like that.
He’d been able to move and the first thing he’d done was sit up and look to see Bilba unmoving on the floor, her skin gray and her chest almost completely still.
The fear he’d felt had nearly stopped his heart, a fear made worse by the fact he had no idea how to help her. In the end he’d simply taken her out to the moonlight, remembering in the past how much energy she seemed to have at night, often sitting him on the bench at Bag End’s gate and dancing in the moonbeams that lay across the road.
It had seemed to do something at least. Her skin had regained a little of its color and her breathing had sounded stronger. He’d held her for over two hours, following the moon as it tracked across the sky, before she’d briefly woken up.
It hadn’t lasted. She’d gone back under and he’d taken her inside, settling her in bed and sitting beside it to watch her.
“Don’t you worry,” he said, picking up her ice cold hand, repeating words she’d once said to him, so many years ago. “I’m going to take care of you. I promise.”