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Dovahkiin (Dragonborn)

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Sign of the Dovah

Sign of the Dovah by akahime4

Every mother, Belladonna supposed, believed that their child was something special, something different and unique. Especially when it was their firstborn. But Belladonna wasn’t every mother; she was the eldest of the Old Took’s daughters. She’d traveled alone and unafraid far pass the boundaries of the Shire, had danced and sung and broken bread with Elves, Wizards, Men – and once, even Dwarves. She’d seen enough of the world to recognize magic when she saw it.

And her firstborn, her Bilbo, was marked by it.

He never cried, not even the first night he’d come into the world. He simply watched everyone and everything with eyes that seemed to know far more than a babe should. Brown eyes were not unusual in the Shire, especially not in the Baggins line or even her own – but Bilbo, Bilbo’s eyes were so bright and rich they seemed like polished amber. Unlike other children, her Bilbo seemed content to rest on her hip and chew on his tiny fist, watching the goings on around him with a sort of reserved curiosity.

Her husband, Yavanna love him, did not see it. He was simply pleased that they had such a well behaved fauntling boy. A true Baggins, he would say cheerfully. But Bungo had come from a far smaller family then her own and in the crowded halls of the Great Smial, Belladonna had spent more than her fair share with some cousin or niece or nephew balanced on her hip growing up.

Bilbo wasn’t a well behaved fauntling, he was…wrong.

As he grew closer to his second year, the oddness of his development seemed to grow even more precise. He walked and spoke sooner than his age fellows and learned to read earlier as well. In fact, there was little that Bilbo didn’t do first. But there was no childish glee of discovery, no unbridled intensity that so often was coupled with the curiosity of youth.

The other mothers were jealous, often seeking her advice on how to tame and inspire their own children, but Belladonna was just off put. She tried to ignore it, tried to ignore the fear it put into her. But as the years rolled by, she found she could not and she sent a letter out with one of her eldest brother’s best trained crows, Rokr, in the hopes that it would find Gandalf the Grey, a dear family friend who had guided Belladonna through various parts of her life.

And when he finally did arrive, two days before Bilbo’s fourth birthday, standing at her garden gate with wide smiles and an armful of gifts, Belladonna was so relieved she burst into tears.

4 Lótessë, 2941 SDR (Steward's Reckoning)

Bilbo Baggins had walked this earth a total of eight times in his past. And of those eight times, only once did he even remotely make it to what could be considered ‘middle age.’ He had died in many different ways, though most could be traced back to the evil hands of Melkor or his lieutenant Sauron (for it was almost always a dragon or orc or some other horror he created that seemed to end Bilbo’s lives) and there was one horrible time he’d drown days before his sixth birthday.

Perhaps it was because he’d only spent a handful of days as that cheerful, happy Gondorian girl that he remembered her life and death better than most. He did remember them all, in some form or another, though he could rarely recall names or faces, or very much detail about their lives at all.

He always remembered their deaths, though.

And he always remembered how it was someone – a well-meaning Wizard, for instance – that had shown up and enticed or blackmailed him away from his home and family to go off and die for the good of the world.

Much like what was happening now.

Gandalf the Grey stood before him, much unchanged as he had been throughout Bilbo’s lives, and leaned heavily on his staff as he gave the young Hobbit his fiercest frown of disapproval. It was matched by his own expression, face dark and closed off as he stared the Istari down from behind his rickety garden gate.

“Best be off to Bree or Buckland if you like, Tharkûn, for you won’t be finding any adventurers here.”

“It is your responsibility-”

Bilbo’s eyes flashed, darkening until it was the color of molten gold. “Seven, seven. And a terrible end to them all. I believe I have paid my dues. Good day, Master Gandalf.”

He turned on his heel, shoulders a straight line in his fury and stalked to his front door – but the Wizard would not be silenced. “You cannot hide from this, Bilbo Baggins.”

He felt his lips pull back in an ugly sneer that would have absolutely titillated his neighbors had they seen it, spat out an ugly "watch me,” and then slammed the door.

Bilbo sighed wearily, running a hand through his hair as leaned on his fireplace, and tried to calm the frantic fear that had gripped his heart and belly like a vice. He is right, a voice whispered in his mind with the slow, gentle pattern of Sindarin, the pact must be fulfilled. The Debt must be paid. Bilbo winced. The Pact. The Debt. How he ever dreaded those words since Gandalf had first used them. He had no memories of the time before he was born into mortal bodies, of the time when he had been Ulugwin the Grey, Ulugwin the Beast of Gondolin, the raging daughter-dragon of Ancalagon.

All he knew was that had some point she had grown tired of the violence of wars, of the cruelty of servitude to Melkor. Her madness had shifted from coveting gold to craving the freedom she observed in the free races. Somehow she had entered into a pack with Manwë, King of the Valar, and shed her dragon body forever. She would be reincarnated; have a chance to be free of the evil hold of her master and father and live and love as a mortal being. But she would always be a dragon at heart, nothing could change that. No matter what form she took, Ulugwin would have the soul and blood of a dragon.

And in return for this chance to live as one of Ilúvatar's children, she would always have to serve, strive to make up for the destruction and death she'd wrought. No matter what was asked of her, if it was demanded she must take up arms and defend Middle-Earth. Often this involved killing dragons; more than once had Bilbo died under the claws of the ones he had once called kin. Sometimes it meant going to war, of endless battles and death so similar to what she'd tried to escape. But no matter what happened - if she was called upon, her current form must answer. The Debt had to be payed.


Seven. Seven lives lost before he'd ever had a chance to live them.

Had he not just changed one life of servitude for another? And the ways that he died; Bilbo shuddered. He was starting to believe he would forever be in the red. After everything - after Gondolin - would he ever be allowed to be left in peace? The Hobbit eyed the locked – always, always locked – trunk that rested tucked away in the corner of his sitting room. It had once belonged to Isengrim III, one of his last lives and the Old Took’s brother. His own grandfather’s brother. This was why Bilbo did not allow himself to dwell on the madness that was reincarnation.

The Hobbit scoffed, pushing the thought of Isengrim and his horrid, slow death from his mind as he went into the kitchen. He did not think of the days of starvation down in the dark caverns of the Barrow-downs, nor of the ancient evil he’d faced and sealed away there at Gandalf’s bidding. Instead he ate his sandwich slowly, savoring each bite and sealing his resolution that nothing – come hell or high water – was going to pry him from the comfort of his home this time.

Of course, the Baggins Heir should have known that wasn’t the end of it. But for a few hours, when Gandalf did not break down the door to Bag End or force his point, Bilbo had thought he had. After all, seven lives – and deaths – was more than enough. But just when he’d begun to settle in for the night, making a snack of fish and bread, there was a knock on his door.

Chapter Text

Gandalf spent almost three hours quietly talking with her boy. He wore a pleasant smile on his face throughout it all, but Belladonna could see the lines around his eyes and mouth that spoke otherwise. She watched from her kitchen window, washing and re-washing dishes, as the two spoke.

Finally, after an eternity of waiting the Wizard left him with his toys – which were currently set up in a military formation of opposing armies that was far more advanced and succinct then a three year old fauntling had any right to know. Bilbo did that often. Just as he named his toys Dwarvish and Elvish names; his favorite teddy after a long dead Númenórean King.

“There is something wrong, then,” Belladonna had whispered tearfully as she watched Gandalf approach her, twisting the dish rag until it was a ruined mess.

“There is nothing wrong with him,” Gandalf assured, “he is exactly how he was born to be.”

“And how…how is that?” She whispered, almost afraid of the answer. Her friend placed both of his hands on her shoulders, palms so large they cupped her forearms too.

“Did your father ever tell you of his brother, Isengrim?”

“Nothing that I believed.”

His grim smile was all the answer Belladonna needed.

The dish rag fell limp from her fingers.  

The Dwarf was tall – almost stupidly so for a Dwarf – and tattooed heavily with the patterns and runes that spoke of long and violent campaigns. He was past his youth, into his middle age, but still strong and hale. A Longbeard, a thick voice whispered into his ear, Durin-kin, royal blood – look at his eyes!

His armor was well used but properly wrought, skill in every rivet and clasp despite the less than desirable material and marked passage of time on it. For a moment the two stared at each other, the Dwarf’s glare matched by Bilbo’s own.

“Dwalin,” he finally announced, voice a low, pleasing rumble that sent a wave of shivers down his spine at the familiarity of it. It had been so long since he’d been amongst Dwarves, not since poor Hfal who had perished in the darkness of Moria, attempting to find what evil had driven her kith from it. The Dwarf dipped low, “at yer service.”

“Bilbo Baggins,” the Hobbit answered after a long moment, “at yours and your family.” The greeting seemed to give the giant Dwarf pause, so much so that Bilbo was almost afraid he’d slipped into Khuzdul, but then he seemed to recover and attempted to step into his entryway.

Honestly, the nerve.

Bilbo stepped into his path, ignoring the blunt pain of hobnailed boots smacking into the tips of his toes and crossed his arms over his chest in irritation. “Are you lost, Master Dwarf?”

Dwalin paused, glancing back at the door, before staring down at him with furrowed eyebrows. “No.”

Frowning, Bilbo forced the Dwarf back – or rather, he attempted to. It was more like he put his hand on Dwalin’s chest and pushed; it was like trying to move a brick wall. He glared sourly at the Dwarf, before leaning down to stare at the glowing rune on his door.

“Son ay a hoor - I'll wrin' is neck!” Bilbo snarled, slipping into the Hobbitish of his youth (so much more rewarding to curse in, his favorite way to curse besides Khuzdul) as he threw his hands up in frustration, nearly smacking Dwalin in the face. He pointed an accusatory finger at the Dwarf, “you’re here because of Gandalf aren’t you?”

“Of course I am,” Dwalin said, looking at him like he was mad, “we’re all here because of Gandalf.”

Bilbo’s tone was downright frosty, “we? Plural?”

“Yer an odd lad, aren’t you?” Dwalin mused before bodily moving the small Hobbit out of his way and stepping into his home. “Which way is it, laddie? I’m starving. He said there would be food and lots of it.”

The Baggins' heir stared at him, stunned into silence somewhere between fury and horror. He could feel his left eyebrow begin to tick – a tell that seemed to follow him from one lifetime to the next. His first instinct was to kick the Dwarf out (expecting dinner! Just like that, with no forewarning!) but he was a Hobbit, a Baggins at that, and Bilbo found himself grumbling furiously under his breath as he shoved his own plate at the giant before fishing out a few blocks of cheese and butter, as well as the fresh loaves he bought this morning.

“And just how many am I going to be expecting?” He asked dryly, hands on his hips in disbelief as he watched Dwalin utterly annihilate his food. Good to see Dwavern manners haven’t improved after so many years.

“Thirteen, counting m’self.”

The tick grew more violent.

“Oy, lad, where you going?”

“To get dressed, if that’s quite alright with you.” Bilbo snapped, “if my home is going to be invaded by Dwarves I’m at least going to have trousers on!”

He returned a handful of moments later, buttoning up his waist coat as he watched Dwalin pull another armful of food from his pantry. Bilbo forced himself to take a deep breath; this was only temporary. As soon as Gandalf showed up he would kick him and his pet Dwarves to the curb. There was another heavy knock on the door.

Dwalin looked up from a greasy handful of fish, “that’ll be the door.”

Hit him, a deep, masculine voice whispered in his head, right in the face. I know these Longbeards, only thing they respect is a good smack.

Instead he went to open the door; it was never a good idea to listen to Skúli. Perhaps it was because the Firebeard Dwarf had been his first incarnation, but he tended to be more vocal than the other voices in his head. Usually they were silent, more like his conscious then anything else, only becoming truly active when something of measure happened.

The door opened to reveal an aging Dwarf, shorter even then Bilbo. He was well dressed, though it was clear like Dwalin he’d lived a rough life, or at the very least a life on the road. His dark eyes were quite intelligent, sweeping over Bilbo all at once in a methodical manner. The resemblance between him and Dwalin was startling – brothers no doubt.

“Balin, at your service.”

“Of course you are,” Bilbo said with a sigh, leaning against the door edge. “Go on then, your brother is busy destroying my kitchen.”  

Balin started, eyes widening slightly before giving the Hobbit a small smile and moving into the smial. Bilbo dragged a hand over his face in irritation. Where was Gandalf? He better show up soon, because if he had to entertain Dwarves all night long his neighbors (and Lobelia) would ensure he never heard the end of it.

He barely put the kettle on when there was another ring at the door. He opened it to find children, if they were more than thirty years past their majority, Bilbo would have eaten his pipe. They were around the same height, though their coloring was as different as night and day, but the stitching on their garments all bore the same heredity. Brothers or cousins, most likely.


“-and Kíli,”

“-at your service.”

The dark haired one, Kíli, sent him a sharkish grin. “You must be Mister Boggins.”

“Baggins,” Bilbo corrected coolly, eyebrows shooting up in appalled shock as they elbowed their way in without so much of a ‘if you please,’ and all but threw a bundle of sheathes, a quiver, and a bow into his hands.

They’d completely discounted him, Bilbo knew, all of the Dwarves. They’d dismissed him as a non-threat, a push over, an oddity, and though it grated on his pride he refused to rise to their bait. Let them think what they wanted, Bilbo wouldn’t be knowing them long enough for it to matter. Besides, why should he waste his time getting all worked up? It was completely pointless and –

The Hobbit froze, mouth open, as Kíli began using his mother’s hand carved glory box as a boot scraper.

- and he was not going to be disrespected by children in his own damn house!

“That is enough!” Bilbo snapped, throwing down the weapons with enough force that it echoed through the entryway, unconcerned that they might dent or scratch the floor, and barely kept the scathing Khuzdul from flying from his tongue. Kíli froze mid-scrape. “You are a guest in my house, about to eat my food, and enjoy my hospitality. You are here on my good will, little dwarrowlings, and you will act like your mother taught you manners or I will do it myself! Go into the kitchen, use the green rag in the water and clean that off. That box has been in my mother’s family for two hundred years. And you, pick up your swords and place them – nicely! – against the wall.”

When neither dwarrow moved, the Hobbit snarled and snapped his finger loudly before pointing towards the kitchen hallway.


…and perhaps that had been far too much of Hfal leaking in, as the Dwarrowdam had been responsible for three younger brothers and two cousins in her youth. But both boys were suddenly moving, Kíli almost scrambling into the kitchen as Fíli quickly and quietly picked up the swords and leaned them against the wall in order from longest to shortest.

Huffing angrily, Bilbo stormed into his living room finding an amused – if slightly startled – Dwalin and Balin watching him.

“Boys, you giving our host problems?” Balin asked, voice light. “Perhaps you should apologize.”

“Terribly sorry about that,” Fíli said quickly, Kíli appearing by his side with the now mud stained rag.

“Really sorry, Mister Boggins – ouch! I mean, Mister Baggins!”

“Honestly,” Bilbo muttered, bringing a hand up to rub at his brow, “children. I’m having tea. Next time the door rings, one of you get it, and leave me out of it.” He paused at the stove, turning to shout of his shoulder. “Unless it's Gandalf!” He huffed in frustration, “bloody Wizard.”

The door did ring again revealing an absolute mass of Dwarves. They were all of the Longbeards, Durin’s folk, and two of them – an Óin and Glóin – where clearly of the same heritage of the four who had arrived earlier. The others, another two sets of siblings and a cousin, brought the total number of uninvited Dwarves in his house up to twelve.

And with them was Gandalf.

Bilbo stared the Wizard down until he turned to look at him before jerking towards the back bedroom with his thumb. He didn’t wait to see if the Istari was going to follow him, Bilbo knew that he would. He waited in his bedroom, arms crossed and face cold, and was met with an equally stern expression.

“What a part of ‘no’ was not very clear to you?”

The Wizard put a hand up on the doorway he was looming in, controlling the space bodily as he watched Bilbo, grey eyes intense underneath his busy eyebrows. “I would count you a friend, Bilbo Baggins-”

“I’d rather you not.”

“-and I counted your mother as one of my very dearest. Which is why I cannot standby an allow you to sabotage yourself. You made an oath long ago, mithren rafn,” Bilbo visibly startled at the moniker, jerking back as if Gandalf had struck him “one whose Master will not abide it being broken. You will do this, Bilbo, or the consequences will be grave. This is no mortal King you have entered into an agreement with."

A heavy silence filled the air between them.

"Bilbo, please. Be reasonable. Do not make me call upon your true name to have you fulfill your Debt.”

The Hobbit looked away, mouth filled with an awful bitter taste, hands fisting at his side. “Is it so much to ask? To be left alone for just one?”

When he glanced back, the Wizard was watching him with kind, pity-filled eyes. “We are all tools, in some way or another. Now come, we have much to do and the night grows late.”

Bilbo waited until Gandalf had disappeared from his door to sink down into the plush of his feather mattress, bringing a shaky hand up to his mouth. He knew – he had always known – that his time in the Shire would come to an end. Just as he had known, despite his best posturing, the moment that Gandalf the Grey had darkened his garden path that at the age of fifty-one his time had run out.

Once more, Bilbo was going to be led to his death.

But he had hoped…that perhaps…maybe not children, but a wife? A lover, at least.

Something sparked in his chest, something hard and dark and ugly, a stubborn fire that had followed him through every lifetime and Bilbo stood, straightening his waist coat and ensuring the fold of his handkerchief was still pristine before running a hand through his curls, boxing them into something more proper.

Well, if he was going to die, so be it.

He would die the same way he always did, with honor and dignity, striving to finish – if not complete – the job given to him. He was a Baggins of Bag End, (and Dwarf of the Blue Mountains, Silvan Elf of the Greatwood, Warrior of Gondor, Thain-in-Waiting of the Shire) and he would do what was asked of him.

A debt was to be paid – and Bilbo would be damned if he was ever accused of failing to pay his dues. And who knew, perhaps if he performed well enough, he would finally have his respite.

Next time, next time, the voices in his mind whispered bitterly, it must be next time.

Chapter Text

Bungo Baggins had known what he was getting into by marrying a Took, much less Belladonna Took, and he’d thought himself prepared. He was more than ready to wait, safe and warm, in their smial while his wife explored to her heart’s desire, confident in the knowledge that once their first fauntling came his wild flower would settle down.

He’d dealt with the rumors and the raised eyebrows when he’d shown up at functions alone, always with an excuse and apology for his wife’s absence. And after Bilbo was born, Bungo even allowed her to encourage their boy to be adventurous (much to his mother’s great horror), allowing Belladonna to take his fauntling to the very reaches of the Shire to meet her various friends. It was only once it became clear that Bilbo took after his own line – that he was more comfortable next to a warm fire as someone read him a good book – did he start to put his foot down.

Belladonna was very worried about Bilbo, though Bungo had no idea why. Any other Hobbit lass would be thrilled at how well behaved and intelligent his Bilbo was. As the years passed and his wife’s insistence that there was something wrong (wrong? How could there be anything wrong with his brilliant lad?) increased, so did the tension between the two. After all, Bungo hardly saw it as a fault that Bilbo was less of a Took and more of a Baggins at heart. And was, as he’d argued more than once, that such a fault? So what if Bilbo would rather stay safe next to his parents, learning his numbers and words, instead of running off and becoming a muddy, bruised mess?

But Bungo loved his wife and so he’d tried his best to assure and comfort Belladonna, to listen to her worries. But this – this was too much. And he blamed that no good, trouble rousing Gandalf the Grey for all of it.

A Dragon!

His son!

His Bilbo!

Bungo scoffed around his pipe, eyeing his son as Bilbo carefully built a block castle. It was a mighty thing, with several round walls that lead to different levels and a large tower at the very top. His Bilbo looked like any other fauntling his age; all rosy cheeks and baby fat, his locks woven in tight curls against his head. Sure his eyes were…unique…but there was a Buckland girl with eyes the color of fresh bloomed violets; these things were not unheard of.

The resulting row between the two Baggins could be heard from nearly down the Hill.

“There is something wrong!”

“There is nothing wrong! And I’ll be a complete dolt if I let you convince me of that the way that blasted Wizard has you!”

“If you paid a little less attention to your precious book orders and more to your son you would see what I am speaking of!”

“Do not accuse me of negligence with my own child!”

“I am accusing you of being a fool, Bungo Baggins!”

And then Belladonna had stormed off, tears in her eyes and clad in her heaviest cloak with her favorite walking stick. Bungo would not be seeing her for a few days at least. But still. What madness.

A Dragonborn.

His baby.

As if his precious son could be that sort of monster. In front of him, Bilbo was humming softly, a wide smile on his face as he place block after block with a look of concentrated pleasure. Perhaps he’d be an architect, his Bilbo. He did seem to –

Bungo froze mid-puff, the pipe smoke curling unused from his nose and around his open lips as his son began to sing.

But it was not in Hobbitish, or even the Sindarin he’d begun teaching him. The sounds were sweet and high pitched in his babe-voice, but the words were odd; long and drawn out. The syllables Bungo had only ever heard once before, from a troop of Elves that Belladonna had introduced him too, who had kept him awake for weeks after with their dark tales of even darker times long past.

“Faal Dovah enlaang naru fin vroz reyth,

aan-hindiis ahrk aan-hahnu:

Graag lost rek, ahrk fin veyr sot,

Ahrk fin sur krein viintaas.

rek meyz nol din himdah se Vokun Strunmah,

kolos Dov lahney, ahrk fin moon hidzekiis

naru kriss sot lom.


The song was interrupted as Bilbo let out a shriek, the blocks falling from his hands as Bungo spun him around and yanked him to his feet to face him, the normally composed gentle-Hobbit’s face and eyes wild.

“You mustn’t ever sing like that again!” He said harshly, and it was a tone he’d never used with his son before, the toddler’s eyes growing wet and wide. “Promise me, Bilbo!”


He shook him, “promise me! Promise me you’ll never speak like that again!”

Bilbo nodded, the side of his fist in his mouth as he sucked on it nervously, fat tears trailing down his cheeks. Bungo pulled his only child to his chest, burrowing into soft locks and inhaled. Bilbo smelled as he always had, of the sweet lemon and lavender they made their soap with. 

Oh, his boy. Oh, his poor precious baby boy.

Bilbo rounded the corner to find one of the Dwarves – Bifur, if Bilbo’s memory served right – had seemed to have cornered Gandalf as soon as he’d left his room. Bifur was a queer looking little fellow with a large portion of an axe blade dug deep into the crown of his head. Such a blow should have killed him and it was surely Mahal’s grace that kept him living and functioning as well as he did. He seemed to either not know Westron or chose not to speak it, communicating in an odd mix of Iglishmêk and Khuzdul.

“-um payâna. Aimâl ut kari ba,” the Dwarf grunted, before slamming his hand down on his bracer. The words Bilbo recognized easily enough, though he did not know the name sign Bifur had used at the end. It seemed that the leader of this group was their mysterious thirteenth and running late. 

The explanation for his apparent tardiness was given by Dwalin – who, surprise, surprise – was making fast work of what Bilbo rather suspected was his third tankard of ale. The Hobbit sighed, leaning against the curve of his doorway, watching in disgusted fascination at the raucous cacophony that was taking place in his dining room.

The Dwarves did what Dwarves did best – they owned everything in their space. Bilbo’s smial was completely destroyed, mud dug into the carpet, cloaks and weapons scattered about, and his pantry absolutely empty. A part of him was impressed with their ability to carry on so many group and individual conversations at the same time, particularly since their hands rarely left their mouths. The greater part – and what Bilbo rather suspected contained every lifetime that was not a Dwarf – was completely appalled.

As one the twelve Dwarves upended their tankards, the sudden silence in his smial almost shocking, and then slammed them down, letting out a truly impressive strain of burps while laughing uproariously.

Dwarves, a voice snorted in disdain in Sindarin.

Poor lads have had a time of it, another, softer voice whispered, that kind of suffering leaves a mark. Let them have their fun while they can.

Bilbo snorted, running a hand over his face in disbelief, before turning away from the scene and gathering his pipe and tinder. A smoke was most definitely called for if he was arguing with himself. He gave a small nod to Gandalf, gesturing with his pipe before slipping out. The heavy night air seemed to silence (perhaps only muted, in truth) the sound of his vivacious guests, and he found it brought him some better measure of peace.

The Hobbit packed his pipe more out of muscle memory than any real attention, eyes locked on the star-lit sky, as he made his way up the small incline that lead to his favorite viewing spot. He switched his pipe upside down – a habit he’d developed as a Dúnedain warrior of Gondor and never lost – and lit it. Bilbo took a deep inhale, enjoying the sweet and smoky taste of Old Toby  

Elbereth Gilthoniel never turns a deaf ear to those who truly need her.

The smile that stole his lips was bittersweet at best. He doubted that was ever true, even when he had been graced with the body of the Eldar. Bilbo had no idea if he had any right to pray to the stars. Would Varda even hear a Dovahkiin’s call? Even the Dwarves, who had been crafted and awakened by the Great Smith Mahal, had the honor of becoming Ilúvatar’s adopted children. But Bilbo…Bilbo was a creature of Melkor; the off pitch note in the Creator’s music. No great halls full of ancestors waited for him, no great gift of a final rest.

He was, in the truest sense of the word, an orphan.

Yet the Dragonborn had hope that if he served truly, there would be something for him. There just…there just had to be. All of this, all of his sacrifices (of lives and loves and once – even a child) could not have been in vain. Perhaps it would take a hundred lives filled with such oblations, but there must be something.

But just the thought of his future made Bilbo feel old, positively ancient, and so very, very tired.

The Hobbit sighed, blinking suspiciously stinging eyes, and let out a long exhale, his smile turning slightly kinder at the sight of his smoke rings drifting lazily away. There was the sound of shifting leather, the whish of fabric, and Bilbo was suddenly quite aware that he was no longer alone. A Dwarf was watching him, staring up at him from the path, with the bluest pair of eyes he’d ever seen.

In this life.

The memory hit him so hard it was like a punch to his chest, his heart stuttering painfully as his lungs seized and his gut twisted.

Hfal was silent as she made her ways through the halls of Gabilgathol. The great Dwarven city was once the jewel of the Blue Mountains, but that had been years ago,  before the War of the Wrath came to its violent end. She had memories of it then, when it had been its greatest glory and she’d still been Skúli, son of Skíði. He’d only been a Dwarrowling then, riding on her father’s shoulders as he watched the hustle and bustle of the great city.

It was a hollow, haunted place compared to the brightness of that memory, and though she’d spent the entirety of her life here, Hfal had never stopped feeling a deep, binding sadness at the sight of its ruin.

A handful of Dwarvish families still resided here and though their numbers were less than three hundred, that was a sizable population compared to the some hundred and eleven that lived in its sister-city, Tumunzahar.

The ages had not been kind to the Dwarvish race

Especially now that Khazad-dûm had fallen. The news had traveled like wildfire to the Dwarvish communities, brought by the ever reliable trade caravans that connected their far flung settlements. Something dark and evil – something that even Tharkûn dared not name – had driven them from their ancient city.

She suspected that he knew what it was, or at least more than what he was telling her, but it mattered very little. She had been called upon to pay the Debt and by the honor of her ancestors, Hfal, daughter of Láfi, would see it done. Tharkûn was waiting at the foot of the south pass and would accompany her a measure of the way but he was an Istari, he had much to do. And so Hfal had settled herself, with no small amount of resignation, to going deep into the depths of Khazad-dûm alone to find what madness her kin had awoken there.

There was little that could stop a Dwarrowdam once she’d made her mind up – and few who would waste their time trying – and yet Hfal still found herself sneaking from her home and the city of her birth in the dead of night. Because at forty, she was still ten years shy of adulthood, and while she had always been mature for her age, there was no way her family would let her step from the mountain stronghold alone.

She made it all the way down to the southern gate before she was caug ht and by the one she wished to see the least of them all.

“Hfal?” A deep voice called, halting her sure steps. A cloaked figured stepped out of the guard hut, blue eyes bright even in the half-light – eyes that had made Dwarf and Dwarrowdam alike smitten with a mere glance – that watched her with utter concern. He struck a striking figure, even in the worn but well-tended armor of his forefathers, his beard carefully braided as what bestowed his station, the raven of his hair even darker with the night.

He was Ávaldi, son of Ávaldr, son of Ávangr and the last of King Azaghâl’s line – the Prince of her city. He was also completely convinced Hfal was his One. Oh, he tried to hide it well enough, but she’d naught lived so many years to not be able to read a Dwarf only a few years into manhood. The forlorn and at times baffled looks he threw her spoke enough of his feelings and if they hadn’t, the gentle, proud way he watched her practice her spear work would have.

“'re leaving.”

It was not a question and she did not try to deny it.

“I am.”

Ávaldi’s face was the picture of incredulity, “Alone? Are you mad? Does your father know of this? Where are your brothers?”

Hfal sighed, tugging at the locks of her beard in frustration. “I do not have time to explain this to you, Ávaldi-”

“Then you will make time.” He snapped. She shook her head and pushed past him with ease to the narrow, hewed opening that served as the south gate. There had once been a little door carved from the rock face that guarded it, but it had long since been lost to the ravages of time and invasion and now there was only a gate of weathered wood.

“This is none of your business.” The Dwarrowdam said with a sigh. Truly, she had no time for this, Tharkûn was waiting and – Hfal let out a gasp as she was grabbed and pinned roughly against the rock face, Ávaldi looming over her, eyes furious.

“The business of my One is always my business!” Hfal gaped at him; she’d never thought he’d ever have the nerve to actually say it to her face. “Can’t you…don’t you…” The Dwarf’s words faded off, his expression lost, and the Dovahkiin felt her entire being soften.

If she could…if there was any way that…surely, she would have chosen him. But Hfal would never have a One, would never feel that love or unwavering dedication, for her soul was not that of a Dwarf’s. She had come to terms with that a long time ago and had mourned it, buried it. Or she thought she had, but as she stared up at the handsome face of Ávaldi, something old and desperate burned in her chest – something she’d thought she’d lost.

She surged forward, hands gripping the front of Ávaldi’s gambeson and yanked. The feeling in her chest exploded at the first press of their lips, like starbursts of heat against her skin that only spread when the kiss deepened, grew more passionate.

“Love,” Ávaldi groaned, breaking the kiss when they'd begun to go too far, bodies an entangled knot that left not even an inch of space between them, and pressed his forehead against her own. “We have to stop. Your father will kill me – for the love of the stone!” Hfal had gripped him through his trousers, the leather raised and heated with the strength of his arousal, as she pressed open mouth kisses against his jaw.

“Please,” she whispered against his lips, “I need you. I need you, my One.”

It was cruel. It was so cruel, but as hands (so large and broad that Hfal felt for one inane moment that they could always hold her and keep her safe) bracketed her hips, lifting her up so she could curl her legs around Ávaldi, the Dragonborn couldn’t bring herself to care.

One night.

Surely one night couldn’t hurt anything.

A few hours at the most, truly.

Tharkûn would wait, Tharkûn would understand.

Just one night.

The cool night breeze against his neck brought Bilbo back first, tickling across the sweat that had blossomed there, and the Hobbit slowly took his pipe from his mouth. It was rare that he was struck so – even rarer for it to be in front of another person – and he felt quite unsure of himself, unsure even of the ground he stood on. It was as if Bilbo had stepped into the past. He was seeing an impossibility and for one crazed moment Bilbo even believed himself to be looking at a ghost. Because this Dwarf - with eyes so blue and piercingly bright with a fierce intelligence - could have been Ávaldi's twin. 

“You must be our thirteenth,” and Bilbo marveled at the smooth roll of his own words, so free of the shaken turmoil that was rattling around in his chest and mind, “that is if the Dwarves currently raiding my larder belong to you.”

There was the smallest twitch of the Dwarf’s lips, the barest of up lifts of one corner. “That I am.”

A strange silence settle between the two of them, not heavy with tension or awkwardness, just a queer moment when neither tried to hide their observances of the other.

“Thorin Oakenshield,” the Dwarf finally said, when the moment had grown too long, head dipping only ever so slightly, “at your service."

“Bilbo Baggins. Rather at yours, I suppose.”

Chapter Text

When Bilbo was first born, the first family member he met beyond his mother and father and his aunt, who had served as midwife, was Belladonna’s father. The Old Took had taken the tiny babe in his arms, eyes crinkling a soft smile, and taken him out to show Bilbo the stars. Bungo had followed the best he could without leaving Bag End, cracking open a window in the living room so he could keep eye on his father-in-law and new fauntling without insulting him. Bungo hadn’t understood what he’d heard then, all those years ago.

He did now.         

“I have thought of you often,” Gerontus had said, voice tender and loving and somehow full of a deep sadness, “and I feared that I would not live to see you again. Yet here you are, my dearest one, and I find I love you even more. I hope you do not think me selfish.”

Bungo had not known what to think of that, but it seemed like no harm and the Thain had been through much in his life, he had assumed it was some sort of metaphor or some other poetic gesture. After a while, Gerontus come back inside after introducing Bilbo to the crowd of well-wishers and family that had gathered about, and gently placed the baby faunt on his daughter’s chest.

“When the time comes, bring him to me.”

And then he had left.

Bungo swallowed hard, Bilbo a warm lump in his arms, as the Old Took met him at the Great Smial’s gate, Belladonna was a tearful, sad shadow at his elbow.

“It’s time, I think.” Bungo managed, his voice small.

Gerontus nodded and swung the low hanging gate open. "Come then. We will need tea - and something a bit stronger, I suppose - but regardless, this is not a tale for bright skies and cheerful afternoons."

And in the dim light of his study, Gerontus told Bungo of his brother's eyes, and a great deal of many other things the Baggins would come to wish he'd never learned.

A Dragon.

Bilbo sighed from where he leaned against his kitchen stove. Smaug was from a few hatchings after his own - but was close enough to be called family. He had known the old bastard was still kicking about somewhere, but he hadn’t ever been interested (blind, hopeful naiveté on his part) enough to look up where he was.

Or any Dragon, for that point.

He knew now why Gandalf had sought him out, knew even more that this revelation eliminated any chances he had of escaping this decree. He glanced at the contract in his hand, aware of the many eyes trained on his back, before with one last great heave he pressed it flat against the heated stone and signed it.

Bilbo handed it back with to Balin with a small smile.

“Good show, my dear boy.” Gandalf said softly, his expression a strange mix of approval and pity.

“If it is to be done,” Bilbo said just as quietly, “then I will see it so. As you said.”

The Debt.

The Hobbit gave the group a once over, lips tugged in a frown. “You’ll find a series of bedrooms down the hallway. They should accommodate all but a few of you but the sofas in the drawing room and the chairs in the sitting room are comfortable, Yavanna knows I’ve drifted off on them enough. I have no man-sized rooms, Gandalf, so I’m afraid you must find your own bed tonight.” Bilbo turned to Thorin, “the master bedroom is at the end of the hall, you may use it if you like.”

“Where will you sleep?” Kíli asked, eyes wide and face innocent in the way only young men could ever managed.

“Unlike the rest of you, Master Dwarf, I’ve only known of this quest for a few hours. There is much I must do before I leave.”

“And what do you mean by that?” The low rumble of Thorin startled him - though he knew not why - and Bilbo turned to find those blue eyes staring at him rather intensely.

He swallowed, uncomfortable, before shrugging and nodding towards Gandalf, “I was not entirely aware of it at all until just a few moments ago, truth be told.”

Those blue eyes snapped over to glare at Gandalf - and Bilbo felt quite cheered by the fact that his were not the only ones to do so - but the Wizard simply grumbled sheepishly around his pipe.

“I must go to the post office, for one, and speak with the Sheriff. Probably ought to stop at the Gamgee’s as well.” Bilbo explained as he ticked off things on his fingers, “and then I must ride to Tookborough - I can't possibly leave without alerting my cousin! He’d follow me into the wilds just to skin me alive.” The Hobbit sighed. “I’ll be gone most of the night and the morning as well, I fear, so I will leave the keys with you, if you could be so kind as to lock up for me in the morning.”

Once he’d gotten their assurances (and made his own that he would meet them on the road before noon the next day) Bilbo had quickly written up a note and nailed it under the protected eves of his door, that stated quite explicitly that Bag End was only to be opened by the Gaffer Gamgee and his wife, and that the Sheriff (and he rather expected his cousin, the Thain as well) would be stopping by to check on it.

Hopefully that would keep Lobelia’s nasty little paws off his things.

Then, quietly, while the Dwarves were distracted, he went to Isengrim’s chest. He paused for only a moment, the key to it a heavy weight in his hand, before sighing and opening it. He pulled out its contents, still in the white funeral linen bag that it had been wrapped in all those years ago, and went to pack his bag.

A quick stop at the Gamgees (and didn’t the Gaffer think him quite mad) had him setting up and advancing enough salary to keep Bag End properly maintained during his absence. The Gaffer was nice enough to let him his work pony, Apple, to ride into Tookborough with.

And so, with a heavy heart and one last, longing look in the direction of his home, Bilbo set off.

The Great Smial stood out against the profile of Tookborough like a mountain, looming over the smaller smial hills below. He was meet cheerfully at the door by his cousin Adagrim, an age mate, and despite the late hour was hustled into the giant kitchen for snacks and a cup of tea to warm him.

Bilbo smiled at his overactive cousin’s antics, watching with great amusement as Adagrim fluttered around the kitchen before finally settling across from him, chattering endlessly. As much as he would have loved to sit there and listen, Bilbo unfortunately had much to do and little time to do it in and so he gently interrupted Adagrim. He gave him the packet that contained his Will and set him out to wake up their older cousin, Fortinbras.

Despite the hour, Fortinbras looked as put together as he always did when he appeared in the kitchen doorway less than ten minutes later. Bilbo offered him a small smile, but before he could speak, Fortinbras nodded.

“It time?” At the younger Hobbit’s nod, he jerked his head over his shoulder, “well come on then, bath waters not going to draw itself."

The bath he took was short; Bilbo barely scrubbed himself, focusing on thoroughly washing and working a thick, oily mix of tee oil, aniseed, lavender, neem, clove, peppermint, and nutmeg into his locks. It was a natural deterrent for lice and other creatures that may like to take up residence in his hair during his trek and the oil had the aided benefit of weighting down his curls and keeping them straight. Well, straighter. This made them far more manageable for Fortinbras to work with. At the moment, Bilbo’s head was cocked to the side as his cousin braided. The hairstyle was an old one; once very common amongst his kind in the Wandering Days, but now rarely seen.

The first braid was on the left side of his hair, about two finger widths, in a simple three strand braid, that was carefully woven in just above his ear. Six would eventually join it across his scalp. The end was knotted with his own hair, then tied off in a thin leather tie before being sealed with wax. The next went in a pinky’s breadth from the other.

“You know,” Fortinbras said, voice low as he carefully braided Bilbo’s curls, “when my grandfather taught me how to do this, I never thought I’d actually use it.”

“I know,” the younger Hobbit said softly, leaning back against his cousin’s legs. Fortinbras was older by him by many years and had always seemed to have a soft spot for Bilbo, taking careful care of him when he was a fauntling. If he was ever to have an older brother, Bilbo would hope he would have been like Fortinbras.

“He said you would come someday, though.”

“I know.”

They spent the rest of the time in silence, Fortinbras’ fingers consistent and unwavering in their work. Finally all that was left was the free mass atop his head and Bilbo let his eyes flutter shut in pleasure as his cousin hand combed the slick hair, leaning even further against his legs. Through shuttered lashes he could see the small, fond smile on Fortinbras’ lips, and the finger combing went on slightly longer than necessary. The length of hair that had remained free was gathered up, the tugs growing more instant as the loose strands of his bangs were carefully secured in the last three plaits.

When it was done, Bilbo approached the nearest mirror and felt himself transported to another time. He ran a hand up to touch the drying plaits, eyes remote and distant.

He hadn’t worn braids like this since he’d been Baldaric Underhill, a Stoor Hobbit who lived during the upheaval of the Wandering Days, when having loose hair for enemies to grab onto had been a true folly. It had been a terrible time for Baldaric’s family, who had fled from Arnor during the Witch King’s invasion. He’d been a Chief then, leading his tribe deeper into western Eriador where it was rumored Hobbits lived in safety and peace. He’d died in the Battle of Fornost, leading a company of Hobbit archers under the command of the great Elven Lords Círdan and Glorfindel, and Eärnur, the ill-fated last King of Gondor, only a Prince then.

Fortinbras appeared at his side, an open jar of the thick oil in his hand, and Bilbo dipped his fingers in, working the concoction into the groves between the braids until the skin there had been tinted a dull ochre not dissimilar in color from his own hair.

"Ada tells me you left paperwork with him.” His cousin was watching him with a hard expression.

“My Will.”

Fortinbras was silent for a long moment, “you don't think you will return from this.”

“No,” Bilbo answered with a sigh, “I rather think I won’t. I must go, nonetheless.”

“I won't ask,” the Thain said, words slow with his displeasure, “because I doubt I would understand your reasoning even if you told me. I am just a simple Hobbit-”

Bilbo snorted. “There is nothing simple about you, cousin.”

“- and I won't pretend that I could understand the will of a Dragonborn.”

The younger Hobbit went utterly still, staring at his cousin in shock. He hadn’t thought – but of course the Thain of the Shire would know. A terrible panic gripped him with the knowledge that Fortinbras knew what he was, as the Took had always been his favorite cousin and he couldn't bear it if he looked at him with disgust or fear, and it must have shown on his face because suddenly Bilbo was pulled into a fierce hug.

Fortinbras was a tall Hobbit, and quite broad, and Bilbo felt dwarfed by his frame. “You are my cousin, Bilbo Baggins, and my dearest friend. I have always known what you are – and I have always loved you regardless of it.” Fortinbras stepped back, a hand coming up to run against the braid over his left ear and Bilbo followed his pointed glance to the mirror to find a strand of bright blond woven in amongst his brunet locks; the same honey-hued color of his cousin’s hair. “For luck and to remind you that you have something to come home to. We, your family – especially Ada and Rory…and myself – will be utterly devastated if you don’t return to us.”

“Foritn,” Bilbo said quietly, swallowing against the emotion that seemed to have clogged his throat, and when Fortinbras pulled him in once more he clung back just as tightly.

I wish I could save you from this, he wanted to say but stayed silent. They both had known of the fate that had befallen Isengrim; the Hobbit had managed to crawl out of the mess of winding paths of the Barrow-downs, to die with the long missed warmth of the sun of his face, his body to be found by his begrieved father and brothers.

Putting on his old armor (well, what passed for Hobbit armor) was like putting on a long forgotten skin, as if he'd regained a missing limb. It was nothing impressive, simple and unadorned except for a tiny carved Took family crest - quartered silver and green with a trio of oak leaves, a key, and two badgers rampart - centered on the back collar. It had belonged to Isengrim and the last time Bilbo had worn it, he had be been dying.

 Took Family Crest

It consisted of dark brown leather trousers, cut in the loose, high ankle Hobbit fashion but drawn tight at the ends by leather lacing to keep the weather out of it. It was accompanied by a green padded jack, quilted in long strips and tightly packed with fabric and animal hair, that buckled across his left shoulder and waist. A loose, water hardened leather gambeson went over it, only a shade lighter in coloration than the trousers, that had three buckles across the chest.

A bandolier and connected belt went on next, with an empty frog that laid across the back of the belt and another that hung low on the bandolier, close to his left hip. In the frog on the bandolier he slid the old, yet still quite sharp, sword Isengrim had found in the Downs. It was made in the Easterling fashion, a golok machete with a flat, non-sharpened side that traveled in a straight line with its handle and had a curved, swelling blade that could cut paper on the other. The steel was folded, the blade a mass of grey and red swirls, and had a small eight pointed star carved on it. The handle itself was plain and hiltless, wrapped over several times with coarse, faded blue cotton for added grip.

It would have been a short sword on a man or elf, but it was perfect length for a Hobbit.

The last aspect of his ensemble was a leather hood attached to a shoulder cape that had been meant for the Big Folk so fell clear past Bilbo's shoulders to his mid-chest, the hood large and almost billowy around the Hobbit's smaller head. Underneath it all, Bilbo wore his most comfortable brais and working blouse; he knew it would be far and in between that he would have a chance to take off his ensemble.

Fortinbras had followed him down to the private Took stables, where the Gamgee's pony was resting, and while Bilbo examined the worn out farm pony, quietly and quickly saddled his own pony, Frankie, and refused all of the Dragonborn's attempts to talk him out of the gift.

"Fortin, I don't know what's going happen. The Wilds is a terrible place for a pony, I can't guarantee he'll be returned!"

"I'd rather see you returned, Bilbo," Fortinbras insisted, pushing the reins into his hands, "Frankie is the fastest pony in all four farthings and he's steady and not likely to bolt. Take him." Bilbo finally gave in and nodded, climbing on the tan and white pony, and was surprised to find Fortinbras mounting a grey next to him. “I’ll be traveling with you to the borders,” his cousin explained, “I have business in Buckland.”

Bilbo hardly believed him, but he did not call him out on his lie, settling for giving Fortinbras a fond smile. How could he object to such a thing? He was too busy being touched by it. The sun was already up in the morning sky when they took to the road, so Bilbo knew they would have to make good time to meet up with the Company, and they drove the ponies hard to do so. He kept his hood up for the entirety of it, for while the braids he sported may have fallen out of favor long ago, there were still many alive that remembered what they were usually worn for and he’d rather not be besieged by questions and well-wishers at every turn.

They caught up with them just past Whitfurrows, a mile or so into the Bridgefields. His appearance seemed to cause a few raised eyebrows for which Bilbo was neither surprised nor intimidated by - he doubted that even the Hobbits of the Shire were used to seeing one of their own clad as he was - and rode quickly to the head to join where Gandalf, Thorin, and Balin were riding three abreast on the road.

“Bilbo,” Gandalf greeted cheerfully, “and Master Fortinbras as well.”

“Gandalf,” Fortinbras greeted coolly. “I have business with the Master.”

“Ah, I see,” the Wizard said with a genial smile.

“Did you close up Bag End?” Bilbo prompted, ever the pragmatist.

“Aye,” Balin assured, “locked it up tight. Handed the keys over to a grumpy fellow who identified himself as your gardener.”

An apt enough description of the Gaffer if he ever heard one.

“You have my thanks,” the Baggins said with a small smile, resting back into his saddle. “Ah, where are my manners? Cousin, this is Master Thorin and these are his Dwarves,” he introduced each by name before gesturing to where his very unimpressed cousin rode next to him, “and this is my cousin, Fortinbras Took, the Second, and Thain of the Shire.”

“The title Thain is similar to a chieftain,” Gandalf explained and Bilbo watched in mild amusement as both Thorin and Balin’s eyebrows rose in surprise, making their shared heritage that much more apparent, “though it is mostly a ceremonial title at this point.”

“I still have some power,” Fortinbras corrected, brows furrowed low and voice most definitely containing the low roll of a threat, “and more than just within the borders of Tookland.”

Gandalf agreed good naturedly, seemingly unaffected by the hostility. Bilbo was rather tickled by it all, a small smile on his face as he listened to his cousin snip and snap at the Wizard. Gandalf was rarely welcome around the Shire unless he was setting off fireworks. The rest of the ride was passed in polite banter, Thorin and Balin seemingly slipping into the role of diplomat as they inquired about the Thain’s duties and other such natured questions, with Bilbo interjecting answers here and there when needed.

When they approached the Brandywine Bridge, Bilbo brought the party to a halt, calling out greetings to the Bounders that manned the gate that led into Buckland.

“It’s the Thain!” One shouted back, not so subtly straightening his padded jack, “and Master Baggins! And...and Dwarves.”

More Bounders joined the gate minders, greeting and ogling the Dwarves that came with them openly.

“Oy, then!” A sharp voice shouted, “what’s all this? Back ta yer posts, the lot of ya, the Forest ‘in’t gonna watch itself!”

And that was Herb Boffin, nephew-in-law to Mirabella Took, Bilbo's aunt and wife of his distant cousin and Godfather Gorbadoc Brandybuck, the Master of Buckland, and current holder of the Buckland captaincy. Herb was a short, stocky Hobbit with a no-nonsense attitude that was well known and quite typical of his family, and one of Bilbo’s least favorite people in the Shire. He appeared at the gate, fully clad in his Bounder regalia and sent the Bounders surrounding them scurrying back to their posts.

The Hobbits of Brandybuck were considered quite odd from other Shire-folk, going so far as to even lock their doors at night. Of course they lived closer to the Old Forest, an ancient wood with enough Huorns awake to give the image of being alive, and a place that constantly tried to break down the Hedge that the Bucklanders had grown to keep the forest at bay.

“Master Took, Master Baggins,” Herb eyed the Dwarves wearily, “what brings ya ta Buckland?”

“I was hoping to see Gorba, if he was in the Hut.” The Hut - a guard station set near the gate and where the forest had overtaken much of the burnt and barren strip of land that was the Bonfire Glade and grown closer to the Hedge, was nothing more than a quaint little cottage, outfitted for the Master or Captain's comfort.

“That he ‘s,” Herb said, looking relieved that he wouldn’t have to allow the Dwarves entrance into Buckland proper. He turned to a nearby fauntling in the colors of a Bounder’s page, “go ‘n’ fetch the Master. Quick now, lad, don’ keep the Thain waiting!”

The runner shot off, eyes wide as he took in the sight of Fortinbras, and Bilbo chuckled at the annoyed look on his cousin’s face. As much as Fortinbras had talked up his position, such things bothered him as he considered himself no different from any other Gentle-hobbit.

“Interesting company yer keeping now, Master Baggins.” Interesting here meaning ‘disreputable,’ which in the Shire was just under insulting one's mother, and Herb’s lips were twisted into a sneer of dislike.

Bilbo gave the Captain a sharp smile that was full of teeth, “I rather think so. We’ve been talking of setting up a colony - you know, for smithy and such, over in Bridgefields I suspect, it being so close to the East Road.”

Herb paled rapidly, “I’ll, eh, jus’ be seein’ what’s keeping that lad, won’t I?”

Fortinbras sighed as the Captain disappeared back behind the gate. “I know you two don’t get along, but must you torture the poor Hobbit?”

Bilbo laughed, leaning forward in his saddle. “I despise bigots, dear cousin.”

“That’ll be all over the Shire by morning.”

“Good, give them something to talk about besides my general madness.”

A series of very loud, very giddy, “Mister Bilbo!” “Cousin!” and “Uncle!”  filled the air and he quickly slid down from his pony as a small herd of fauntlings shot from the gateway, ignoring the cries of the Bounders completely. He laughed as small bodies flung themselves at him, the force of it knocking his hood free, and caught the nearest easily and flipped the lass over his shoulder so she hung face down.

As a general rule - given how large and interrelated their families tended to be - relatives fell into age groups when being addressed, regardless of their actual relation. Hobbits of an older generation than himself were ‘grandfather/grandmother’ or ‘uncle/aunt’ while those younger were always 'niece/nephew' or ‘cousin.’

“Are those real Dwarves?”

“Are they your Dwarves, Uncle?”

“Can I touch one?”

“I wanna touch one!”

“Me, too!”

“Me first, it was my idea!”

“Hm, I think I heard something, Fortin,” Bilbo called cheerfully, as fauntlings hung from his limbs and clothing, “it sounded like little Hobbits, but I can’t be sure.”

“Sure you can’t,” Fortinbras said dryly, climbing off his own pony to greet the mass of children that had gathered. “Yes, yes, I have candy. Not all at once and - no, Anise! Bad lass, you chew that, not swallow it!”

Bilbo laughed, free and happy, “do you really have children? She’s not a dog, Cousin.”

“Gang suck an egg, you crease,” Fortinbras growled out, only to blanch when the fauntlings around them erupted into excited squees, “oh, hel - um, don’t repeat that you lot, I don’t need your Mas storming Tookland.”

“They’ve heard worse, I bet.” A voice announced from in front of them. Gorbadoc Brandybuck stood there, in all his greying glory, leaning heavily on his walking stick and his son, Rorimac.

“Godfather, Rory.”


The Master of Buckland’s face was stern, almost sour, as he took in Bilbo’s dress (and braids) and company. “Come to steal another one of my kin off for an 'adventure,' Gandalf?”

“Well,” the Wizard managed, looking slightly put out at his greeting as he adjusted his hat, “I assure you that Bilbo is fully on board if I am and will be handsomely rewarded.”

Gorbadoc only scoffed at that. “You’re not off as well, are you, Fortin?”

“Nah,” the Thain grumbled, “just seeing my favorite cousin off. No offense, Rory.”

“None taken,” Rorimac answered with a grin, eyeing the Dwarves with open curiosity. They saw a fair amount of Dwarves at the bridge, as the East Road that lead through the Shire and into the Blue Mountains ran along it, but Bilbo doubted they'd ever actually stopped and interacted before. “Aramanth and Sara are never gonna believe me when I tell them about this.”

“Hush,” Gorbadoc scolded, “the adults are talking.”

“Hey!” Rorimac objected, “I’m sixity-three thank you very much!”

“Not the height to show for it, I’m afraid.” Fortinbras said with a grin.

“Oh bugger off.” The Brandybuck heir said with a sigh, running a hand through his hair self-consciously. “We can’t all be freakish giants, you know.”

“I have this for you,” Bilbo explained, letting the clinging fauntling down so he could dig out the second copy of his Will, “and I expect you to follow it to the 'T,' now.”

Rorimac took with a frown, weighing the hefty envelope, “what’s this?”

“My Will.” That earned him a double take from Rorimac and his godfather’s fiercest frown.

“Very well,” Gorbadoc said before Rorimac could say anything, “by the power I hold as Master, I will see it done should it be called for. And who, exactly, are these Dwarves you brought to the steps of my land?”

That brought about another round of introduction and more raised eyebrows (“Bilbo’s very well related,” Gandalf explained, “though the Shire’s current Mayor is not one of them, I believe.") and not a fan of Bilbo himself, the Dragonborn added silently. The Baggins name held quite a bit of clout about the Shire and Bilbo’s refusal to vote for the current mayor at the last Fair had caused quite a buzz. But Bilbo would be damned if he voted for a fool and Willy Whitfoot had gotten elected anyway, so it was what it was.

“And when will we be expecting you back?” Gorbadoc asked, interrupting Gandalf mid-sentence, eyes narrow slits.

“Um,” Bilbo stumbled, blanking under the Master’s intense scrutiny, “not for a year or two, I would suspect.” Or perhaps never, the Dovahkiin thought but knew better than to voice.

“That’s my favorite Godson-”

“I’m your only Godson, Gorba!”

“- and I’ll be making the Shire quite uncomfortable for you should he not be returned exactly as he left, Gandalf the Grey.”

“I second that,” Fortinbras said with a glower, glaring at the Istari.

Bilbo smacked him on the arm, “stop that now. This is my choice, thank you very much, and at fifty-one I believe I can make my own decisions. Now, we really must be off.”

“Yes, yes,” Fortinbras grumbled, “no need to be rude.”

“I’m not being-”

“Be safe, Bilbo.” The Thain interrupted, voice serious.

“Yes,” the Master of Buckland agreed, nodding curtly, “you have our thoughts, my dear boy.”

Bilbo mounted his pony with little pomp after that, but had only made it a few feet past the Bridge when he heard his name being shouted. He turned to find Rorimac sprinting after him. Bilbo quickly slid from his saddle, a frown on his face and went to meet his cousin halfway. He’d only made it to last pony in the Company when they met, and he let out a sound of surprise as he was embraced fervently and tightly, Rorimac’s grip almost crushing. He and Rorimac had always been close, the nearest in age of all the Brandybuck children and Bilbo had spent many of his summers running amuck in the Shire with him.

“Come back to us.”

“Rory,” Bilbo started with a sigh, bringing his arms up to hug his distraught cousin back.

“I mean it, Bilbo,” Rorimac continued, voice low but not quiet enough to not be audible to the closest Dwarves, “you daft, suicidal Hobbit. Come back and meet my child.”

Rorimac’s wife, Meneglinda, was heavily pregnant and due any day. It was not a promise he could make and so Bilbo said nothing, just clung tightly to his friend before gently prying his grip off. He held his head high as he re-mounted, ignoring the curious looks of the Dwarves he passed, and nodded at Gandalf to carry on.

When he glanced back, right before they turned and the Shire would have disappeared completely behind woodland, he found all three of them - the Master, the Thain, and Rorimac - standing still as stone at the Bridge mouth.

Bilbo doubted he would see them again.

Chapter Text

Jealousy had always been an issue with Adagrim Took, to the point that his younger sister once - driven to hysterics and tears after he'd claimed her favorite puppy as his own - had called him worse than a Dwarf.

He did not think himself that bad - he'd given the puppy back, after all, even if it was the threat of his father, Hildibrand's, belt to do so - but Adagrim knew himself enough, even at the tender age of fifteen, to know that it was at least partially true.

For he was terribly jealous of Bilbo Baggins. It was not that he did not love him; Bilbo was easily his best friend in the whole of the Shire! It was just...Bilbo did everything better than him. He knew his letters better (and in more than one language), spoke better than him (he always knew just what to say to weasel out of trouble or earn an extra cookie), even the forts he built were more thought out and sturdy than his own!

But above all, Adagrim was jealous of the time he spent with his grandfather. The Thain often had Bilbo over to visit, and three times a month his cousin would spend the night and the two would go on long walks that nearly spanned the entirety of Tookland and went so far as to see the Farthing Stone. His grandfather never let him come along and neither would tell him what they spoke of. So Adagrim did what any sane Hobbit would do.

He began following them, at a great distance of course, during their walks.

As Adagrim did so, he began to notice things he missed before. Like how tired and sad his grandfather seemed after those talks. Gerontus would be grim, his face a mixture of stern and sad. It was the same face the Old Took got when he talked about Adagrim's Uncle Hildigard, who died falling from a tree when he was only seven summers.

And Bilbo…well…those talks usually ended with his cousin rooted to the spot his grandfather had left him, sometimes for hours, with the most peculiar expression. The sight of it filled Adagrim with an emotional he couldn’t quite describe, other then it made his heart ache.

Once, after he’d followed them for a handful of times, Bilbo’s face had crumbled like paper, falling to his knees in the pasture Gerontus had left him in and cried and cried.

Adagrim stopped following after that.

5 Lótessë, 2941 SDR (Steward's Reckoning)

The low swells of the Brandy Hills were in the distance on Bilbo’s left when he woke from his nap. He’d surrendered himself to sleep shortly after leaving the Shire, dropping his reins with the knowledge Frankie would stay with the other ponies, and pulled his hood up until it was hanging low over his face, leaning back into his saddle and falling immediately into sleep.

The ability to sleep anywhere and at any time, with a complete ignorance of sounds around him (which in this case meant the endless chattered of Dwarves), was something the Dovahkiin had developed during his numerous military careers. If something became amiss, Bilbo felt confident that he would awaken immediately, but he allowed himself to sleep deeply, comfortable that Gandalf would allow nothing to happen to him.

He awoke gently, with the barest of twitches before he shifted forward, gripping the saddle lip as he arched his back and popped it, along with his shoulders and neck, in a series of mighty cracks. Bilbo let out a grateful sigh, patting Frankie as he glanced about. He was met with the amused glance of Dwalin, with whom he’d apparently been riding along side of.

“Feel better, lad?”

“Hm,” Bilbo confirmed with a nod, “needed a bit of shut eye, I suppose.”

The Old Forest was a dark and heavy mass on his right, a handful of open meadows separating it from the road, but it was still within sight and the Hobbit watched it for a moment with narrowed eyes.

The sun was low in the evening sky and Bilbo urged his pony forward, taking him off the path until he’d overtaken the Dwarves separating him from Gandalf. The Wizard was deep in conversation with Thorin, glancing up with a smile as he approached them. “Awake again I see, Bilbo. Did you sleep well?”

“Well enough,” Bilbo answered, before nodding towards the night sky, “I’d like to take us a bit North before we settle tonight. The road narrows and takes us too close to the Forest for my likes and I’d rather not tempt fate.”

“You are in the company of Dwarves, Mister Baggins,” Thorin said dismissively, still studying the map he had apparently been discussing with Balin and the Wizard, “the animals of the wild are nothing for you to fear.”

“It’s not animals I fear,” Bilbo answered dryly, thinking of the hostile Huorns. The trees had long harbored a distinctive dislike for the Dragonborn and went out their way to make the various journeys he’d made into the Old Forest as Isengrim and Bilbo as hellish as possible. In fact, it seemed as if the attacks on his person had increased in violence throughout his lives, the Hurons seemingly offended at his continued existence.

Thorin glanced up at him curiously, but before he could ask his questions, Gandalf spoke. “You have a point, my dear Hobbit, best not to invite trouble. I suppose you have a suitable camp ground in mind?”

Bilbo assured them he had and when the sky above them began to become streaked with oranges, reds, and deep violets, he led the party off the well worn path of the East Road. They followed the remnants of a cobblestone path, the majority of it eaten away by nature so that it could not be seen, but the Baggins had visited this place often in his travels between the Shire and Bree.

It took them less than a half-hour to reach the abandoned settlement. There was three long, low hills that were the south-most edges of the Brandy Hills. The hills were shallow in comparison to the heights of the rest of the grouping, but they were still deep enough to once house several strands of smials. A brook ran through it, separating the smials from the grassy meadow that hid it from the sight of the East Road, and only the stone supports of the wooden bridge that once connected it remained.

There were was a handful of stone foundations left, the free standing shops and buildings that had once been the forgotten town's center, and the remains of a stable. It was without a roof, but with enough of its walls left that only a few modifications needed to be made to properly box in the ponies, and there was more than enough tall grass for them to eat their fill.

Bilbo dismounted, leading Frankie towards the brook to drink, and watched as the Dwarves quickly constructed a camp, their movements like a synced, well-oiled machine despite the fact he was positive most of them had rarely - if not never - traveled together before.

He led Frankie into the now enclosed stable area, making short work of his tact and saddle and giving him a thorough grooming. The two Dwarf lads, Fíli and Kíli, seemed to have been tasked to do the same with the rest of the Company’s ponies and he ignored the way the two stared at him. Bilbo didn’t know what he’d done to earn their not-so-subtle glances, but he figured it was mostly the novelty of something new more than anything else.

“What is place, anyway?” The dark haired one, Kíli, asked after a moment.

“This was a Hobbit village once,” he explained, “founded by Stoors, I think, long before the Shire was even a glimmer of an idea.”

“You are correct,” Gandalf said, “it was called Brookhill. Most of its people died in the Great Plague and those who did not relocated to other villages in Bree-land.” The Wizard’s smile was wistful as he leaned on his staff, and Bilbo was sure that he must have been there once, when the village had been alive and bustling. “I had quite forgotten it was here. However did you find it, Bilbo?”

He knew the real question was ‘when’ he had found it, much more than ‘how,’ but this discovery was all Bilbo’s.

“I found it on one of my trips to Bree. The weather had turned for the worst and I was hard pressed to find a place with some shelter away from the Old Forest.” He nodded across the brook, “there is a smial – a Hobbit hole,” he clarified, “that is still inhabitable further up the hill – the owner lined it with river rock in the Stoorish manner, and so it has faired the weathering of time better."

“A Stoor practice, indeed.” Gandalf agreed, eyes sparkling with amusement.

Bilbo rolled his eyes; he'd been a Stoor Hobbit more often than not in his past lives. What tribe you were from was once a matter of pride and contention and both Baldaric and Isengrim had been of Stoor blood, though it mattered little in Isengrim's time and even less now in Bilbo's. As a Baggins and a Took, he had a healthy mix of Fallohide and Stoor, but old habits die hard and Bilbo found himself still leaning towards the old patterns and practices that had once been known as 'Stoorish.'

Most of what he wore - including the braids - was made in the Stoorish style.

“I thought Shire-folk didn’t get out the Shire much,” Fíli said as he lifted a pony’s leg up, hoof pick in hand, “at least that’s what they say up in Bree.”

“Most of us don’t,” Bilbo said as he climbed over the low wall, slipping his pack off his shoulders, “no reason to. But there are quite a few that go to Bree and Straddle for business, especially for selling pipe weed. Old Toby’s very popular with the Bree-land Hobbits, but it doesn’t grow as well out here – the soil’s all wrong. Makes the taste bitter.”

“Is that what you do, Mister Baggins,” Dori asked from where she was carefully setting up a three pronged cooking grill over the campfire, “sell pipe weed?”

Bilbo nodded as he unpacked his roll, “among other things. My great-great-grandfather on my father’s side made a few good investments down in Longbottom; the South Farthing is the warmest part of the Shire and pipe weed grows fairly easily down there.”

“A few good investments?” Gandalf added dryly, “I do believe that’s putting it mildly. Bildo Baggin’s sponsorship of Tobold Hornblower made him the richest Hobbit in the entire Shire.”

Bilbo shrugged, “like I said, a few good investments. Not many of my folk like to travel, so I go to Bree about three times a year to work out contract details and deliver the weed harvest. I have some distant cousins there as well.”

That was a bit of a lie, though the Longholes and Underhills in Straddle certainly didn’t know that. They'd been more than happy to acknowledge their long lost, very rich cousin. It was more that they were all that remained of the tribe that Baldaric had been leading from Arthedain shortly after the Witch-King’s invasion, and Bilbo had caved to the overwhelming need to have some sort of connection with them. 

"I mostly spend my time writing for other Hobbits; letters, family histories, memorials." Bilbo leaned back on his heels from where he was straightening his blanket, "I suppose I'm a bit of a historian."

"A bit," Gandalf agreed and the Hobbit threw him a glare. They both knew that 'a bit' was a slight understatement. There were few Hobbits who had the free time and money that Bilbo did and it allowed him to start chronicling everything that happened in the Shire, including things that they had forgotten but that the Dragonborn, with his long memory, had not. "Bilbo has one of the most extensive libraries in the Shire."

"I noticed that," Ori said softly from where she was sitting next to her older sister, "I like books, though I could not read the ones in Elvish."

Bilbo hesitated - he was not sure if he was supposed to know if the 'Ri sisters were female, as they had not been introduced formally to him and Dwarves were fiercely protective of their Dwarrowdams. When they did leave the sanctuary of their settlements, they dressed and were often addressed as males for their own protection. The three certainly looked the part of male Dwarves; their dress and beards were done in the male fashion, but it was complexities of their braids that gave them away.

Well. That and the fact that Bilbo had lived as a Dwarf twice over.

He decided after a moment to just avoid using any type of pronoun until he'd heard one of the other Company address them. "I have books in many languages, I inherited most of them. I am fluent in both Sindarin and Quenya, as well as a few dialects of Westron. Did you find the books in Khuzdul? I'm not quite sure how my father got his hands on those, but I always wondered what they said."

Lies, a voice called out with mirth in his mind.

"I saw them, yes," Ori said, voice excited and face alight, "they were histories of our people and the one bound in purple goat skin is a book of poems. I've seen copies of them in the libraries back in the Blue Mountains."

The conversation between the two of them revolved around that topic for the night and the rest of their party, save for Dori who remained always close to her youngest sibling's side, seemed to tune them out. It seemed that the youngest 'Ri had a love for the written word that rivaled Bilbo's own and they spoke at length, exchanging information freely about their cultures. Bilbo was incredibly relieved when Bombur brought them their dinner, with an extra portion for Ori, as "the little lass needed to get more meat on her bones." It would have been incredibly awkward (and quite annoying) had the Dragonborn had to spend the entirety of the trip pretending not to know their genders.

Eventually the conversation tampered off, more due to Dori ushering the ever curious Ori to her bedroll, and Bilbo stretched out on his own. There was enough in the Company that the night watches had been spread out over three days, and Bilbo didn't know if he was insulted or pleased that he hadn't been given one right off the bat. He assumed it had something to do with the lack of trust in his person, but night watches were tedious and boring as a rule, and so the Hobbit wasn't too upset by it all. Despite the fact that Bilbo had slept so much earlier, he was pleasantly surprised to find himself drifting off once more.

When Bilbo awoke the moon was low in the western sky. At first he was unsure of what had awoken him, but something had regardless, and so the Hobbit sat up. Most of the Dwarves were in their bedrolls, though Gandalf was suspiciously absent. He sat quietly, ears straining for whatever it was that woke him up and eventually he heard it. Bilbo stood, moving silently through the camp as he made himself towards the ruined watch hut that stood on the very edge of the Brookhill settlement. As he approached it, he heard the low sound again.

It was a very distinct sound; a low, deep-pitched moaning that traveled on the night air. The Hobbit's hand slid to the hilt of his sword, resting it there as his keen eyes stared into the darkness.

"Gandalf went to investigate it," a voice from behind him said and Bilbo jumped slightly, head snapping to the side to find Thorin leaning against the hut wall, a whetstone in one hand and a rag in another, his sword resting across his knees, "he advised none of us to go wandering tonight, though he mentioned you in particular by name."

"I bet he did," Bilbo murmured with a frown, eyes turning back to stare out into the night. He doubted that the Hurons would leave the borders of the Old Forest, at least not without the Old Willow himself, and the Hobbit knew that the mad Ent had become too wild - partially routed in his hollow - to ever leave. The sounds were loud, carried on the strong southerly that blew, and gave the illusion that they were much closer than they were. Gandalf would have known this, which lead Bilbo to wonder just what exactly the Istari was doing out there.

"You know what that is."

"Huorns," Bilbo answered with a nod, eyes still locked on the night.

"Awake trees?" Thorin scoffed, "those are just a myth."

"I'm afraid they're quite real," the Hobbit corrected with a wan smile, "though only a handful live in the Old Forest now. They're very unpleasant."

"Are they dangerous?"

"No," he said as he shook his head, "it's the wind, they're miles away. They wouldn't dare travel so far from the Old Forest."

"I have traveled through the Bree-lands many times and I've never heard them before." Thorin joined him at his side, eyes hard as he stared off into the distance, and Bilbo felt overly aware of his presence next to him. The Dwarf seemed to loom over him and he stood close enough that the Hobbit could just catch a deep, earthy scent. "They are why you did not wish to camp so close to the Forest." 

Bilbo did not deny it, eyeing him discretely. It was utterly unnerving how similar he looked to Ávaldi, and it made him both disconcerted and uncomfortable, his heart quickening at the sight of him. The Hobbit sighed, bringing a hand up to rub at the back of his neck, both irritated at himself for his reactions and (quite unreasonably) Thorin for looking so much like his dead lover. 

"They are not...overly fond of me." Those blue eyes turned to him, intense as always. "The Hurons of the Old Forest have long memories and little forgiveness for those who trespass into their land."

"And were you a trespasser?"

"Several times, unfortunately. Not willingly, mind you, as only a fool goes into the Old Forest on a whim and not even the Buckland Bounders cross the Hedge unless they must. But I was called upon several times to go into its depths and despite the forest's best efforts I succeeded in all of my goals. That I was so successful - that I left its boundaries at all I suspect - is something the trees will never forgive."

"You do not speak like a historian." 

"I have not always been one."

Thorin's eyes were sharp as he watched him, head cocked ever so slightly, as if Bilbo was some sort of puzzle or knot that he was trying to unravel and Bilbo felt himself shiver under it. The Dwarf king seemed to notice the action, his gaze raking over the whole of Bilbo's smaller frame in one slow, sold sweep. 

"Goodnight, Master Dwarf." Bilbo murmured, when he felt he could not stand there a moment longer under Thorin's stare, and pulled his hood up once more as he turned to make his way back to camp.

It seemed as though Bilbo had made a tentative friend in Ori, as the Dwarrowdam chose to ride with him the next day, the ever faithful Dori by her side. They talked more of history and other various things in that vein, and when the conversation fell to a lull (which was usually when Ori had gotten lost in transcribing the information into her journal, ink stained hands writing quickly but precisely) – Dori picked it up.

The older Dwarrowdam tended to ask more sensible questions, less routed in the past and more focused on the daily life in Hobbiton and the Shire. Bilbo did his best to answer as he could and the Hobbit found himself rather enjoying the ride. Both Dwarrowdams were intelligent enough and fine company.

It was in one of such lulls that Dori asked about Bilbo’s braids. He was not surprised about the question as Dwarves more than any other race had a fascination for all sorts of braids, from the most simple to the most complex, and the Hobbit knew it was more than just Dori who was listening to his answer.

“Male Hobbits don't grow our hair much more than what you saw of my own,” he explained, “and even our Hobbit-lasses tend not to allow their hair too long less the curls run rampant and knot, and you'd be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t put it in a bun or a snood to keep it out of the way. But we have a number of braids that can be done on short hair, though very few indulge it anymore. It was much more common in the Wandering Days, when such things were necessary.”

And that had brought Ori back into the conversation, “the Wandering Days?”

“Before the Shire was gifted to the Hobbits by the Kings of Arnor, the Hobbits dwelled far to the East in the valley of Anduin. Eventually, when the lands fell under the Shadow, they fled across the Misty Mountains and into west.”

Ori stared at him, eyes wide, before decisively turning to a clean piece of paper and smoothing it flat, quill at the ready. “And when was this?”

Bilbo chuckled, settling more comfortably in his saddle, and began to talk of things he hadn’t thought of consciously in years.

“- and a few of the Stoor blood went back to the Gladdon Fields, though I do not know what became of them, but most left Arnor to…to settle…”

Bilbo’s words faded off, his attention caught as they rounded a gentle curve to find the western slopes of the Barrow-downs. He had always chosen to talk the long way to Bree – trekking up and around the Bree-fields before eventually intersecting the Green Way and continuing on. The Dragonborn had never had any urge to return to that place or to ever be so close to it again. And yet, here he was.

“Mister Bilbo?” Dori asked, voice concerned, “are you alright? You’ve grown pale.”

The Hobbit swallowed, nodding slowly before forcing him to look away. He could just see the western most part of the Downs and on the very edge of the horizon one of the giant megaliths that marked the carin graves there.

“The Downs.” He managed, voice low.

Dori frowned, leaning over in his saddle to stare at the Hobbit. “What’s that?”

“He is speaking of the Barrow-downs,” Gandalf broke in, saving Bilbo from having to repeat himself. “It was once the capital of Cardolan, one of the three Kingdoms of Arnor, and one of the last bastion of the Dúnedain of the South during the war with Angmar. Most died off during the Great Plague and those who survived fled when the Witch-King sent foul creatures to drive them from the city.”

“Barrow-wights,” Bilbo said, voice dark with hatred, “obscene spirits, twisted and made fouler by the Witch-King. Horrible creatures that denied the dead their peace and stole their bones to haunt the Downs with. They seek out any who dare to enter the carins and the tunnels that connect them to feed on their light until nothing is left. You hear them before you see them, for they dress the bones in whatever jewelry they can find and it rattles. They smell like dirt and death and their voices are hollow and cold; their words echo in your breast like thunder with none of the noise.”

“You speak as though you have seen one,” Fíli said from where he’d turned in his saddle, both he and his brother – and most of the Company, Bilbo realized with no small level of discomfort – were staring at him.

“That is because I have.”  

“Why ever did you go there for?” Ori asked, looking slightly green around her beard as she stared over Bilbo’s head to the outline of the Downs. Why, the Hobbit felt like snarling, are you invading a Dragon’s den? Instead he bit back the comment, grinding his teeth as he locked his eyes on the patterns in Frankie’s mane.

“I was young. And stupid.”

“I think it sounds like a hell of an adventure,” Kíli volunteered, studying the megalith outlines with great interest.

“That is because you are young,” Bilbo answered flatly, “and stupid.” The Hobbit yanked his hood up until the leather blocked the view. “I suggest we ride late tonight, it's best to put the Barrow-downs behind us.”

“I take it your visit did not end well?” Nori asked from where she rode behind them.

The Hobbit glowered. “To put it lightly."

The red head Dwarrowdam nodded, leaning forward as she spoke. It was most likely meant to be reassuring, but it was anything but that to Bilbo. “Can’t tell you how many times I ended up some place I shouldn’t have been-”

“Understatement,” Dori mumbled under her breath, bringing a hand up to squeeze at the bridge of her nose, her face pained.

“- but that’s life, isn’t it? If nothing else, you’ve got stories to tell. At least you lived.”

At the head of the line, Gandalf flinched.

Chapter Text

Rorimac Brandybuck – as many who would claim the surname of Brandybuck – was overly full of curiosity. It wasn’t a simple thing by any manner; Rorimac’s curiosity was not something that could be easily ignored or brushed off, particularly when an idea had taken route. It was like an unquenchable thirst, an itch that could not be scratched, and it would drive him mad until he’d figured out what he wanted to know.

Which was how the fauntling found himself alone and lost in the Old Forest, huddled low in a thicket that had scratched his arms and face something terrible, and had actually torn a chunk of his hair from his feet. But the little Hobbit figured since it had cost him to get into the thicket, maybe it would discourage any that may want to eat him from following.

Not for the first time, Rorimac cursed his Brandybuck nature. The Bounders of his father’s lands at times went beyond the Great Hay and into the Old Forest for some reason or another and they had always come back with such amazing stories of the things they had seen there. The last time an expedition into the Forest had taken place was only a handful of days ago and it had been their stories that had inspired the Brandybuck heir to go exploring. The fauntling had been lost within the first half-hour, though it had taken him far longer to realize it.

His father, Rorimac thought not unreasonably, was going to tan his hide.

The trees around him groaned and moaned – as if talking to each other – and not even the bright light of the afternoon could break through the dense canopy, shedding everything in a queer twilight. Rorimac had always known the Old Forest to be a place of magic but he truly knew it now, now that he was in it, for the fauntling had never felt so unwanted before.

The Old Forest was not a place for any Hobbit and most definitely not a place for fauntlings.

He’d tried for hours to find a way out before finally giving up and hiding. Though he could not see the sun’s path across the sky, Rorimac knew the hour must be growing late, and he feared that he would spend the night here. He knew, instinctively, that the night would not fare well for him.

He debating about settling down and trying to get some sleep when he heard the soft patter of feet on debris. He peaked out his hidy-hole to see a figure making their way through the vegetation, tall and proud and seemingly unaware – or perhaps, quite unthinkably – unafraid of the forest around them. The sounds around him seemed to increase as the figure grew closer, the groans and moans and the splitting sound of wood stretching, filling the air.

Finally, when the screams had grown so loud that Rorimac had thought he’d shake apart at the sound of it – the figure stepped into the clearing. It was Bilbo Baggins, his elder cousin by a handful of months, and Rorimac’s closest friend in his family.

“That’s enough of that, I think,” Bilbo muttered and Rorimac swore for a moment his strange eyes seemed to flash in the dim light like a cat's, “Stilld.”

The word seemed to rumble from his cousin’s chest like thunder, growing seemingly louder as it echoed through the woods, and oddly silence followed it.  Bilbo’s eyes turned to Rorimac’s thicket. “Come, cousin, it far past time we left this place.”

“Is father very angry?” The Brandybuck heir asked as he wiggled his way free, eyeing the woods around them nervously.

“Angry, yes, but more worried than anything else,” he said gently as he helped pry Rorimac from the thorny grasp, “though your mother is another story. I don’t think anyone has ever seen Mirabella so angry before.”

Rorimac groaned as Bilbo brushed his clothing off. “I won’t survive it, Bilbo, Ma is a thousand times worse than Da ever is. Tell Amaranth and Sarados they can’t have any of my things,” he eyed his rescuer, “well. You can have my cards, I guess.”

Bilbo laughed and Rorimac couldn’t help but marvel at his apparent lack of fear for the place, “very generous of you, cousin. Now, come,” he said as he offered his hand and despite their concurrent ages Rorimac had never felt so young as he took it, “let us leave this foul place.”

That night, Bilbo dreamed of dark carins and the cloying, musty smell of death all around him. He woke with a nearly silent gasp, too many years at war having him instinctively bite back on the scream in his throat, and was rewarded to find that his abrupt entry into consciousness had not woken anyone else in the camp.

The Dovakiin swallowed against the sting of bile in his throat, bringing both hands up to yank his sweat soaked blouse away. It took a moment to pull the fabric from where it had all but cemented itself onto his skin and then to settle it on his frame in something more comfortable. He stood, stumbling over to the edges of the camp before leaning against the thick trunk of an oak, closing his eyes and took deep, heaving breathes to try and calm his frantic heartbeat.

He was alive.

The year was 2941 of the Third Age of this world, his name was Bilbo Baggins, Hobbit of the Shire, and he was alive.

“Bilbo?” A voice called out gently and the Hobbit turned to find Gandalf peering at him worriedly from where he sat on watch, grey eyes concerned. “Are you alright?”

“Bad dream,” he explained, moving closer to the Wizard so they would not wake anyone.

Gandalf nodded, as it seemed that Bilbo’s words had been what had been expecting, a hand coming up to stroke his beard. “It does you ill, being so close to the Downs.”

“It is not my favorite place, no.” Bilbo agreed, eyes drifting into the distance, to the south-west where the Downs were.

“We will pass them soon enough.” The Wizard said before pausing, “Bilbo, I know that-”

“I don’t want your pity,” the Dragonborn interrupted, voice harsh, “and I most definitely don’t want your grief.”

For a moment Bilbo almost wished he could take his words back, or perhaps apologize, because the grief and regret that took Gandalf’s face was thick and very real, and he knew that the Istari most likely had as little choice as Bilbo did in these manners.

But he did neither of those things and a long, heavy silence fell between them, before Gandalf eventually cleared his throat. “As you say, Bilbo, as you say.”

The Hobbit sighed, the tension bleeding from his frame as he sat next to the Wizard, glancing up at the night sky. “They shine as brilliantly as ever, don’t they? The only true constant through these years.”

"Inerrable." Gandalf agreed. The two fell into silence - one that was more companionable than before, perhaps a kinship born from their long years - each lost in their thoughts and neither aware of the third party to their conversation, blue eyes bright and curious in the firelight.

The morning found them passing the southern Bree-fields, the tall stalks of the Old Sweetgrass Farm swaying proudly on their left. Living in the wilds of Bree-land was always a danger and the farmers who did so reflected that fact; they were quick to end things with violence if needed and ever quicker to do so with barter or gold. They were good people, despite this, some of the more honest Big Folk Bilbo had ever met.

He knew most of the farm steaders well, as they often came up to Bree during Bilbo’s visits to talk business. While pipe weed had originated in the Bree-lands, no one had perfected it as the Hobbits of the Shire had, and they were more than willing to trade a few good parcels of crop or heads of animal for advice.

Ori had joined him once more, with Nori on Bilbo's other side as Dori seemed completely ensnared in a conversation with Bifur, their dialogue formed of stunted words and flashing hand signals. It was in a strange parallel that Bilbo spent most of his day.

Ori was a delightful girl, of noble blood and distantly related to Thorin, and she was educated enough to show it. She was a remarkable wealth of information on many things that far outranged the realms of academia. She knew much on such diverse and wide ranging conversations as farming techniques and herbology (which they’d indulged in for an hour or so when they’d past the thickest part of Sweetgrass) to the local customs of Men and even a handful of Elvish ones.

“Not all of them are terrible,” Ori explained, “though I don’t get along with Elves much – they’re far too condescending, but they’re a fair lot. They always pay on time and won’t try to cheat you like Men will.”

It seemed that while most of Thorin’s line had relocated to the Blue Mountains with the majority of Erebor, Ori’s family had taken much longer to make their way there, often setting up smiths or gem cutting and working booths in villages they passed for years at time. Both Nori and Ori had been born in such hamlets and she had very little memory of being in Dwarven settlements.

“It was us with our Ma’s family, mostly,” Nori added, “as Da passed shortly after leaving Erebor.”

Nori was very much the opposite of her sisters, particularly Ori. Bilbo had little doubt that underneath Dori’s pomp – she had been the only one of the three born and schooled in the noble academies of Erebor – that there was a spine of mithril and he would not want to be on the opposite end of her rage or wrath. But while Dori may be best represented by something smooth and sharp - a foil or parring dagger, perhaps - Nori was more of a blunt instrument. Of a much rougher personality, a development that seemed to have been fostered and encouraged shortly after their mother Yori died in childbirth with Ori and the middle ‘Ri had taken up much of the responsibilities and duties a brother would have.

It made Bilbo wonder what had happened with their uncles and cousins, as they should have been more than willing to take up the role in place of a direct male relative, but he did not ask. But it seemed his questions would be answered regardless, for all of the ‘Ri sisters were fairly open and willing to speak (something, the Hobbit guessed, that came from living so long outside of the cloistered secretiveness of Dwarf settlements) and offered the information without prompting.

“We started heading west seriously – let’s see, Ori you were what, twenty-two summers? Twenty-three? A round of the sweating sickness came to the town we were living in, nasty stuff, damn near took everyone – took all the Men. We lost everyone but our Auntie, Fori, and the only other Dwarves that made it through were the ‘Fa brothers.”

Next to them, Ori shivered, hugging her journal to her chest. “We didn’t like them.”

“I should say not,” Dori snapped from behind them, apparently having been paying attention to their conversation despite her own, “Dúfa and Dufan were boars, took far too much interest in Ori.”

Bilbo eyed the way Fíli and Kíli, who were riding directly ahead of them, went ridged in their saddles, and noted the way talking across the party seemed to have died off before glancing at the youngest ‘Ri in concern. He'd not missed the way she'd flinched at the names and hunkered down into herself. “Are you alright, dear?”

“I’m fine,” Ori said with an awkward smile, “I’m just being silly, nothing ever came of it.”

Nori cackled, “not after Dori left him with such a pretty present. Damn near took Dufan’s eye, cut up his face something nasty.”

Behind them, the eldest ‘Ri sniffed delicately, seemingly ignorant of the way Bifur was staring at her in awe. “Well, maybe he’ll think twice next time he tries to take advantage of some poor Dwarrowdam.”

There was a series of sharp “what!” “he dared!” paired with some rather creative curses in Khuzdul that had Ori sinking even further into her saddle, red faced, as both Princes turned on their mounts to stare back at them, enraged.

“Oh, they were real pieces of work. Ma’s line was blessed, you know, always lots of Dams, and they,” the sneer on Nori’s face was truly something to behold, “thought ‘cause we’d no-”

“Any,” Dori corrected, seemingly without thought.

“-males we’d just roll over. Dufan waited until Ori’s naming day-”

“I’d never had wine before,” the blonde murmured, sounding absolutely wretched.

“- and had her cornered in the back stables before Dori noticed she was missing.” The Dwarrowdam looked as pleased as a cat that'd gotten into the cream, pride marked on every inch of her features. “I could hear him screaming all the way from our cottage, poor bastard.”

“Nori,” Bilbo admonished gently, “perhaps there are better subjects.”

The red head frowned in confusion before doing a double take at the sight of her sister’s completely mortified expression. “Er, right. Um…”

Rolling his eyes, Bilbo swept in. “Ori, have I ever told you of the two Fallohide brothers who founded the Shire?”

Ori grasped at the line he was offering as if she was truly drowning, “you mention that a lot, ‘Fallohide’ and ‘Stoor,’ are they different families of Hobbits?”

“Different tribes, rather, Harfoots as well. Once it was a matter of pride which you came from, but now the lines have interbred so much that no one really pays attention to it. You see Fallohides, that was the tribe Marco and Blanco hailed from, were long known for being more impetuous than most Hobbit-folk, and-”

They camped that night by the Greenway Crossing, a trail marker that was placed at the meeting of the Greenway and the East Road, and the night was thankfully quiet; no nightmares. The sun was just setting when the Bree-hill came into sight and it hung low in the evening sky when they finally approached the west-gate. The great dike and hedge – both put in place so long ago that none in Bree remembered who had done so – dipped and grew over and under it like strange adornments.

Colby Goatleaf met them, pressing his good eye through the peep hole and glancing at them all suspiciously. “Gandalf...and Master Baggins!” The gate swung open, Colby hobbling out to greet them, his face much friendlier. “We weren’t expecting ya fer another few months.”

“Here on business of a different type, Colby.” Bilbo answered, quickly dismounting and making his way over to the elderly Man before he’d had to cross too much distance, offering a hand in greeting and an arm for support. “The gout acting up again?”

“It’s the damned damp,” the Man grumbled, “always sinks inta me bones. Do ya need me ta send my boy up ta the Mayor?”

“No, no.” Bilbo assured, smiling as the young Gidie Goatleaf appeared from the gate-keepers cottage, his little face lighting up at the sight of the Hobbit.

“Mister Baggins!” He called out cheerfully as he came to stand at his grandfather’s side, letting the old man lean heavily on his shoulder.

“You’ve grown taller again, Gidie, my boy!” Bilbo said with faux excitement, grinning in truth at the way the boy puffed up with pride, “you’ll be taller than myself soon enough.”

“I’m ten now, ya know.”

“Ten already! Well, I suppose you’re far too old for sweets then.” The Hobbit said with a sigh, pulling the bag he’d brought for just this reason from his saddlebag.

“Yer’re never too old fer sweets,” Gidie exclaimed, staring at him as if he was mad. Bilbo laughed and tossed the bag to him.

“Share that with your sisters now.”

Gidie grumbled, but the sour attitude was lost the moment he popped one of the hard toffees into his mouth. “Thanks so much, Mister Baggins. Hobbits sure have the best treats.”

“If there is one thing we know, its good food.” Bilbo agreed as he ruffled the lad’s hair. “How fairs the city, Colby?”

“Not much ta speak of, though there’s been some trouble with a group Thom Ferny let in a few weeks back. Man’s a damn fool.” Bilbo was inclined to agree, as Thom Ferny was truly the worst type of Man. “I suppose ya’ll be taking yer business up ta the Pony, then?”

“That had been the plan.” The Hobbit said as he began to lead Frankie into Bree proper, “though I suppose the Grey Goose will do if Agatha’s full.”

“Even if she was she’d take yer coin, I bet,” Colby said cheekily, “never seen a woman so smitten with one of ya little folk before.”

“Colby,” Bilbo admonished with a laugh, “she’s married.”

“And Oswin Butterbar's mores a fool fer it. I don’t think that man’s had a moment ta himself since the wedding day.”

They left the gateway in good spirits, Colby calling such humorous nonsense to them until they were out of ear shot. There was a wide swath of land between the gate and Bree itself, spotted here and there with groupings of cottages and a handful of ranches. The East Road ran through it and they followed it into the city, Bilbo calling out greetings here and there, always with the assurance that he’d not come early (though that was mostly the concern of a handful of Bree-folk who owed him loan payments) and it was growing dark by the time they made it to the steps of the Prancing Pony.

The windows were lit brightly, the sound of a fiddle and laughter ringing cheerfully from inside. A quick change of coin had their ponies being cared for by the Hobbit family Banks, who had served as stable hands to the Butterbers for as long as Bilbo had been visiting. Another handful of gold got him a runner willing to go up to Straddle and tell Audo Underhill he was in town, and Bilbo hoped to see them when they passed the Hobbit settlement the next day.

The Prancing Pony was a lively place; the largest inn in Bree also made it the closest thing to city hall and it was always crowded and stuffed to the brim. Oswin Butterbar was behind the bar, humming along with the music as he cleaned glasses, and his face erupted into a wide smile at the sight of Bilbo and Gandalf. “Masters Bilbo and Gandalf! Now this is a surprise. Will ya be seeking-”

“Oswin!” A voice called from the back and the man flinched as his wife, Agatha, appeared from the kitchen, wooden spoon held threateningly in her hand. “Want ta tell meh why my kitchens empty? An hour ta sup and no ham in sight! Ya forgot ta pay the butcher again di’n’t ya? What am I saying, of course ya di,’ ya daft fool! I swear – Bilbo Baggins!”

The woman bodily shoved Oswin out of the way, her glare venomous, before giving the Hobbit a genial smile.

“Hello, Aggie. You’re looking radiant as ever.”

Agatha giggled, shoving the spoon into her apron, as brought a hand up to run over her ruffled hair. “I look a right mess and I kno’ it. Ya’ve got a golden tongue, Mister Bilbo.” She glared at where her husband was standing behind her, “what ya waiting fer, ya louse! Go and find the butcher!”

A short conversation later – and some blatant, unashamed flirting on Bilbo’s part – got them seven Hobbit sized rooms and one Big-folk one at a deeply discounted price. The Baggins made sure the Dwarves were settled in comfortably (which was not much of a strain, as many of them had been to Bree over the years themselves) before excusing himself.

A bath sounded absolutely wonderful and given that he knew not the next time he’d have one, Bilbo was determined that he was going to enjoy it.

Ori bit the bottom of her lip as she made her way downstairs and through the inn crowd, glancing behind her nervously. She was glad they were leaving the next day as Ori was eager to leave the human settlement behind, she’d never had good experiences with Men, and she loathed to venture out among them by herself. But the scribe had found as she had unpacked her travel bag that she was missing her journal and with both her sisters so busy snapping at each other as they prepared for their baths that Ori found herself loathed to interrupt it and have that irritation pointed in her direction.

The journal was a thick, leather bound thing with her name inscribed on the front of it, and it was one of the only things Ori had of her father. The old Dwarf had died when her mother had been pregnant with her and it was one of the Dwarrowdam’s favorite things. She’d never intended to use it, to always keep its pages as clean and fresh as they had been when her father had bound them, but Ori was also an avid writer and sketcher. When a handful of Dori’s business ventures had gone south, her paper budget had gone with it as well and desperate times called for desperate measures. The journal was now over two-thirds full of her personal thoughts and sketches.

It had grown even fuller after meeting Bilbo Baggins. There was something special about him, something truly different, and he seemed to know so much about anything and everything. What's more, he seemed to always have time for her and her questions, which was a novelty to be sure. Perhaps that was why, or maybe it was something else about him, but Ori liked the strange Hobbit and she knew that her sisters were warming up to him as well – even Dori.

The Dwarrowdam chuckled. Poor Mister Bilbo, he had no idea what it was like once Dori took a shine to someone.

Ori had never been to Bree and they’d gone to one of the town’s only inn, the Prancing Pony, to stay the night. The human crowd had not been kind to their presence – though they hadn’t really noticed the atmosphere shift until after Bilbo had gone upstairs – and the three Dwarrowdams had opted to eat their meager meal out on the wide benches that lined its side, providing an interesting (if not very attractive) overlook of Bree and the Bree-hill. Ori had started to draw the scene but she’d gotten into an argument with Nori (she was still very unforgiving about the way her sister had embarrassed her earlier) and when Dori was herding the still bickering sisters inside, Ori had left her precious journal to fend for itself on the bench.

The Dam could only hope it was still there and her heart ached at the thought she could lose something so precious to her own foolishness. Tawny eyes lit up in happy surprise as she rounded the inn and found that the journal was somehow – impossibly – lying right where she’d left it.

What luck!

The scribe felt her lips twitch with a relieved smile, fingering the familiar binding with a wide, calloused thumb. She turned, determined to make her way back before Nori – or worse, Dori – noticed she was no longer in the inn, and the victorious grin slipped from her face. A duo of Men were staring at her, eyes narrowed in suspicion, and blocked the path back around the inn.

Ori swallowed before pressing her journal against her chest, jutting her chin out and placing a hand on the slingshot at her hip and generally attempted her best Nori impression. “Excuse me.”

She made to go by them but a fat male with a very poorly maintained beard shifted to block her path. “What ya got there, Dwarf?”

“It’s mine.” Ori exclaimed sharply, alarm growing at both the thought of someone taking what was hers and by the fact that three more Men had arrived.

“Nu’uh,” the Man said with a foul snigger, “that there’s Bill’s, isn’t?”

“Sure is,” the second one said loudly, “daft little bastard just walked right up and stole it off me seat when I went fer a piss.”

“W-What?” She sputtered, clutching her journal closer. “You lie! This is my journal; I left it here not even an hour ago!”

“Ya Dwarves are all the same. Dirty little thieves,” the fat Man sneered, taking an advancing step

Ori swallowed, taking a step back, trying to figure out if she could get her slingshot or one of the sharp, fierce looking daggers Nori insisted she carry out before the Men could reach her. Fearing some kind of retribution by the other Bree-folk if she actually did attack, the hooded Dwarrowdam turned instead, making towards the steep steps that were cut into the hillside. “See? Look at ‘im trying ta run away! Damn Dwarf!”

A large hand grabbed her by the back of her hood, yanking it off and sending her tumbling into one of the benches. Ori managed to keep her balance and spun around, eyes wide and let out a cry of panic as a meaty fist rocketed towards her, instinctively flinching and throwing her arms up to protect her face.

The blow never landed. Instead Ori found herself jerked backwards by her coat sleeve, stumbling to her knees in shock as a Fíli materialized out of nowhere, catching the incoming strike with ease and funneling the force away, sending the offending Man tripping forward. There was a sickening crunch as an exquisitely crafted leather gauntlet made contact with a jawbone. The fat Man collapsed backwards, dazed, and there was the tell-tale shink of a sword being drawn.  Kíli was already charging up the narrow stairway that cut into the Bree-hill, face twisted in a fierce snarl and the Men scattered, seemingly unwilling to face off against two fully armed Dwarves.

“Kíli, wait!” But the younger Prince had already disappeared around the corner. Fíli let out a sigh, shaking his head as he sheathed his weapon. Ori blinked up at him owlishly as he crouched down before her. “Are you hurt, Miss Ori?”

“I’m fine,” The scribe said, dropping her eyes in embarrassment, rubbing her shaking hands together fretfully. “…I don’t think I like Bree at all.”

That last part was more for herself than anyone else but it seemed he had heard it anyway, letting out a low chuckle. Ori let out a surprised squeak as strong hands gripped her arms gently, lifting her to her feet with ease, as if she weighed nothing.

“Thank you, your Grace.”

“Fíli,” the Dwarf corrected, still staring off to where his brother had disappeared, “just Fíli.”

Ori nodded, reaching around to grasp her hood lip and readjust it properly only to find her hands bumping into something warm and solid. Fíli apparently had yet to release his grip on her and Ori glanced up at him in question. He was very handsome, she realized all at once, with golden hair, aristocratic features, and kind eyes. Aesthetic value was not something she normally noticed with any race, being far too busy with her various pursuits, and her sudden interest caught her by surprise. Ori felt her cheeks flush as she realized how blatantly she was staring, dropping her gaze down once more. 

A gloved thumb under her chin tilted her face back up. When…had they always been standing so close together? The scribe felt her pulse quicken as the thumb pressed into the twists of her beard, blue eyes roaming unashamedly across the plains of Ori’s face. Fíli’s grip tightened, making her breath hitch as his weight shifted towards her, stance widening ever so slightly. Something hot and heavy and confusing swelled up in the Dwarrowdam at the implied possessiveness of those movements.


The Dwarf Prince blinked, eyes widening as he took in their positions, and released Ori with such force that she actually stumbled slightly. “You need to be more careful,” Fíli snapped, face red and Ori stiffened, thrown, “there’s gonna be worse things than drunks on this quest and we can't always be looking after you.”

The Dwarrowdam moved swifter when not caught by surprise, emboldened by her anger and humiliation, and she had the dagger freed from her belt and pressed against the soft fabric above Fíli’s in one fluid movement.

“Not all of us grew up in the sheltered eves of the Blue Mountains,” Ori snapped and felt much rewarded as Fíli’s eyes nearly doubled in size. The Dwarrowdam spun on her heel, stalking past a startled Kíli as she made her way back inside.  This was all Nori's fault! Her and her stupid stories, making Ori look like a weakling!

It wasn’t until she was tucked safely besides her sisters that Ori realized she’s left her journal – the very thing that had started this mess – behind.

Chapter Text

Fortinbras Took was thirteen when he first met the squalling babe that would become Bilbo Baggins. He had known, somehow, as he held the tiny form of his cousin that he was something different. Something truly unique. He wasn’t sure how he knew this – perhaps it was the intuitiveness that all children had picking up on the long, distressed looks of his grandfather and father. Perhaps it was true that he was just that perceptive and he knew something was off long before the Old Took took him aside on his twentieth birthday and spoke of rebirth and Dragon blood.

Either way, Fortinbras knew that Bilbo’s life was to be a harsh one and that his cousin would face many things he could never imagine much less be able to comprehend. It was that fact, such a thing that he felt so deep that it echoed in his bones, that made him so protective of the lad.

It bordered on overprotectiveness, but Bilbo seemed to eat up his attention like none other and his own siblings had enough family that they cared little if he spoiled another.

Though you would not know it at first, as Fortinbras was a stalwart and composed Hobbit from his earliest days, the Took heir was an intensely emotional creature and he felt much for and from those around him. He knew from an early age that Bilbo was hurting, hurting somewhere so deep and so profound that it marked everything he did. But he only truly saw it on the eve of Bilbo’s ninth birthday.

Fortinbras had been twenty-two, an age where most half-grown fauntlings were gearing up for their thirty-third year (when they would enter their majority) but the Took had never been like most Hobbits and while his age mates were courting and planning careers and futures, he was more than content to spend his time walking with his baby cousin.

They had traveled far into the South Farthing, prepared to camp out underneath the sky before heading back to Hobbiton for the extensive birthday party that had been planned by Bilbo’s parents, and the sun was just beginning to dip into the horizon.

Bilbo had stood just a few paces ahead of him but he could not have been further from Fortinbras.

The little fauntling’s face was distant and forlorn, the contours thrown into shadow with an ache so acute that Fortinbras thought in that moment that he had never seen anything so terribly, horribly true.

When he could stand it no longer, he called and Bilbo turned to him with eyes that were ancient.

“I am tired.” Bilbo said softly, his bottom lip wobbling, and Fortinbras knew he was not speaking of their hike. “I feel so tired.”

The Took heir’s heart lurched, filled with a sadness so complete he felt his own tears well at it, and swept him into a fierce embrace, pressing his lips in an impassioned kiss to Bilbo’s curly crown.

“Will I always feel this way, Foritn?” His cousin asked, voice choked, as he clung back just as tightly.

Fortinbras had no answer to give him.

9 Lótessë, 2941 SDR (Steward's Reckoning)

Morning came earlier than Bilbo would have liked, though he doubted he’d have his lazy nine o’clock wake up that he was used to again, and he was yawning openly and unashamedly as he followed the Company down the steps of the Pony.

As he was checking Frankie’s tact, the Hobbit had a moment to observe something rather curious. Fíli approached Ori, glancing to the left every few seconds were Kíli was very obviously ease dropping under a poor pretense of checking their ponies, the Dwarrowdam’s journal in his hands.

“Miss Ori,” Fíli said politely, waiting until the blonde had turned before offering the leather book to her as if was made of the finest metals, “you left this yesterday.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Ori accepted the journal, running her hands over its cover, before tucking it into her saddlebag, “it’s very kind of you to return it.”  

“Yes, well. I couldn’t just leave it there, it obviously means a lot to you and all and…” Fíli glanced over at his brother, “and I wanted to apologize for last night.”

“Oh?” The Dwarrowdam asked, her voice wrapped in a casualness that spoke of anything but. “Whatever are you referring to?”

Fíli glanced once more at Kíli, who was gesturing with his hands for the flustered Prince to continue, “for the things that I, uh, implied last night. My words, they, uh…”

Kíli was flashing Iglishmêk behind the pair as he pretended to stretch, hands flapping above his head, and Bilbo had to bite back a laugh, ducking so his face was hidden by Frankie and exchanging an amused glance with Dwalin.

“…came out wrong! Truly, I meant no offense.” The lines of Ori’s face lightened slightly, head cocking to the side, and you could almost see the relief on the Prince’s face. “I was just concerned because, well, you’re a Dam, and well, you’re a Dam and -”

Kíli was signing rapidly, mostly bad/stop/stupid!

“ – not that there’s anything wrong with that! Nothing wrong with that at all, it’s know.”

Behind them, Kíli had abandoning signing completely to smack his hands against his face.

“No, your Grace,” Ori snapped, “I’m sure that I don’t know.”

Fíli gaped for a moment, mouth opening soundlessly before pointing a finger at the Dwarrowdam, brows furrowed in frustration. “Wait just a moment, I’m trying to apologize here! Why are you mad?”  

Kíli let out a groan, hands sliding down his face as he stared at his brother in disbelief. Ori huffed, leading her pony past the golden hair Prince so close that Fíli had to dance out the way or be trampled.

“Hey!” He glanced at his brother before looking to Dwalin and Bilbo. “I apologized.”

“Was that an apology?” Bilbo tisked, “dear me, you’d never have known.”

“Mahal’s hammer, Fíli.” Kíli moaned.

“What?” Fíli asked again, looking utterly lost, “what did I do wrong?”

“What did you do wrong?” The dark haired Prince asked, aghast, “you should write a book, how to alienate a Dwarrowdam in five sentences or less.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Oh, laddie,” Dwalin said with a sigh, slapping him on the shoulder, “yer gonna need a shovel and a mighty tall ladder to dig yerself out of this one.”

Bilbo couldn’t help it – he laughed, and to the young Prince’s horror he wasn’t the only one, as it seemed the interaction hadn’t been lost on anyone in the Company. He was still chuckling as he mounted Frankie. He glanced at where Thorin was already on his pony, watching his nephews with a small, fond smile on his face.

It was almost stunning, how well the Dwarf looked with something other than a frown.

“They grow up fast, don’t they?” Bilbo remarked softly, chuckling to himself again at the sight of Kíli berating Fíli animatedly. It seemed that the younger Prince considered himself a bit of a lady’s man and was completely stunned that his brother had not inherited any of it.

“That they do,” Thorin drawled and suddenly those eyes and that smile was directed at him and Bilbo felt his heart leap somewhere up in his throat. Then he was turning away and the Hobbit found he could breathe again.

Bilbo swallowed harshly, trying to calm his rapid heartbeat (it isn't him, it isn't him) and tugged his hood up.

They left Bree shortly after that, Ori a dark storm cloud where she rode sandwiched in between her sisters – both wearing rather furious expressions –  and a confused and contrite Fíli was flinching every time he caught one of their eyes. They traveled across the East Road until they reached the South Gate. Thom Ferny was less than pleased to see them, his face an ugly mar on the morning’s start. The Man crossed his arms, face tight.

“Morn’in, Dwarves.” He spit out, eyeing Thorin with distaste. From where he stood in the doorway of his cottage, he could see neither Bilbo nor Gandalf and did not seem keen on looking anywhere except those who lead the Company; Thorin and Balin.

“We are leaving Bree.” Thorin announced. “Open the gate.”

“Well,” Thom said slowly as he sucked his front teeth, eyeing them none to discreetly, “ya see there’s a bit of’ve a toll.” His smile grew crooked, “a Dwarf toll.”

“A Dwarf toll.” Thorin repeated flatly, face thunderous.

“Been so may of ya of late – and ya break ever’thin’ ya touch. Has ta be done, I’m afraid. Let’s see. Ten coin a’head.”

Bilbo had heard enough, glancing at Gandalf only to find the Wizard completely enthralled by a robin that had landed on his saddle, cooing at it with a grubby finger.

Fine, he thought with a huff, fine.

He had no idea what Gandalf was trying to prove with all this, but if he wanted Bilbo to handle it so be it. He would handle it. The Hobbit felt his eyebrow twitch before urging Frankie forward until he was physically separating the angry Dwarves from the idiot in an attempt to keep this from ending in violence and paperwork.

Paperwork. Gods of the West, how Bilbo hated paperwork. How a city as disorganized as Bree managed to require so much of it he’d never understand.

“A toll, Thom Ferny?” He repeated, voice dark and face even darker. Ferny jerked as if he’d been slapped, head peeking from his doorway to take in for the first time the Wizard and Hobbit. “How strange. I’ve heard of no such toll.”

“Ah…Mister Bilbo. Yer here.”

“Astute,” the Hobbit snapped, leaning forward in his saddle until he was nearly nose to nose with the Man, “as always, Thom. Now. This toll?”

“It’s – eh – new. Jus’ came about with it.”

“Oh, really?” Bilbo said slowly, eyes narrowing, “and if I went up to Alfred Maggin he’d know all about this.”

Thom visibly blanched, “jus’ a little fun, is all, Mister Baggins. Jus’ a little fun, I meant no harm ta ya friends, no reason ta be involvin’ the Mayor now.”

“I’m sure it was.” He said coolly as he straightened, “unlock the gate, Thom.”

The Man nearly stumbled as he went, shoving his key into the lock and pushing the wooden bar free. Bilbo waited until the Company had begun to exit, Thorin an unmoving statue next to his side, blue eyes still hard with anger, and stared at Thom.


“Yes, Mister Baggins?”

“No more tolls or I’ll personally ensure you have a visit from Alfred’s busters, yes?”

“Er, yes. No tolls.”

They passed the furthest flung cottages of the Straddle – where the poorer Hobbits who couldn’t afford a proper smial lived – around noon and Bilbo was much cheered to find to a group of Hobbits indulging in second breakfast in the morning sun. Bilbo called out happy greetings as a cry went up at the sight of their pony line.

He guided Frankie over, sliding down as Audo Underhill swept him up in an embrace and swung him around with ease despite his shorter stature. “Cousin Bilbo, how lovely to see you!”

Bilbo laughed, slapping him on his shoulders. “Put me down, you ass!”

“Language.” Tansy Underhill corrected, one babe on her hip while her hand rested on her swollen stomach. “Bit more time before this horde is ready for those kinds of words.”

“Of course, of course.” Bilbo said with a smile of apology, “I won’t do it again.”

“Gandalf,” Audo said, offering his hand eagerly as the Wizard joined him at Bilbo’s side, “didn’t expect to see you either.”

“Fine to see you, Mr. Underhill. You and your children look well.”

Bilbo held his hands out for the fauntling that was reaching up to him, “hello, love. How is my sweet Majoram?” The toddler cooed, curling her fingers into the older Hobbit’s cape. Another fauntling had latched onto his thigh, drooling slightly on the leather as he stared up at him. “Hello, Follo, you look more like your Da every time I see you.”

“We were surprised by your letter. We weren’t expecting you for a while.” Audo said, glancing over his shoulder to take in the Dwarves. Straddle-hobbits were more used to the world than their Shire brethren, but they were no less suspicious of outsiders. “And who are your…friends?”

“Um, this is-” and Bilbo started slightly to find that Thorin had dismounted, glancing at him with slight annoyance before he introduced himself to them both.

“Thorin Oakenshield, Bilbo’s employer, at the moment.”

Audo and Tansy exchanged a look. “This isn’t one of your normal visits, is it?”

“No,” Bilbo agreed and he had more to say – a whole speech in fact – but he had no chance to say it as Tansy sighed.

“Well, come on then. This foods not gonna eat itself.”

“Oh no,” The Baggins said quickly, “we must be-”

But the Hobbit-woman was already shoving the fauntling in her arms, Calla, into Thorin’s. The Dwarf started in confusion, but it was clear he’d held children before as he slid into the proper hold with practiced ease. For a long moment the two simply stared at each other – Dwarf King and Hobbit fauntling – and then Calla gave a gummy smile, a sticky hand gripping onto Thorin’s hair and shoving a handful into her mouth.

“Now, now,” the Dwarf said, voice gentle in a way that Bilbo had never heard it before, and pried the locks from her mouth, “that can’t possibly taste good.”

Bilbo may have felt himself melt a tiny bit at the sight of it.

“Are we eating, Uncle?” Kíli asked hopefully from where he and Fíli had appeared at Thorin’s side, grinning and making silly faces at the little Hobbit much to her delight. 

It was Gandalf who decided, crossing to the tables without so much of a backwards glance, and Bilbo glared at him before sending Thorin an apologetic smile.

“Look, my faunts,” Tansy called out, “Dwarves! Say hullo.”

There was a series of excited squees and suddenly nearly the entirety of the Underhill’s children (which were quite large in number and gained a new addition almost yearly) crowded the Dwarves, speaking all at once and far too fast. Several of the braver ones even latched onto them, tugging and pulling at various things before their hands were gently directed away from the various sharp things on their bodies. The meal was not unwelcomed, certainly not for a Hobbit who as a rule tried not to miss any of them, but it was an unexpected delay in their journey.

Still, if any of the Company had felt irritation at the stop it was quickly forgotten in the face of Tansy's remarkable cooking abilities and the smiling face of her brood. Dwarves as a rule were exceedingly fond and kind of all children, regardless of race, and even an Elfling would have only faced gentle words or actions amongst them. It had to do, of course, with how very few dwarrowlings there were.

They were not rare per say, as Dwarves were slowly but steadily increasing their numbers. They were simply not as commonly found as they were in the race of Men. But unlike the Elves (and to see an Elfling was a rare treat indeed, as the Eldar steadfastly refused to breed in times of Darkness) who tended to space their children out across their long lives and often fell with child on their first few attempts, for Dwarves it was much harder to conceive. 

They stayed for only an hour, their provisions increased greatly by all the bagged left overs Tansy insisted they take, and Bilbo took a moment as they were reorganizing the packs to pull Audo aside.

"This is a copy of my Will and some money - no take it," Bilbo commanded sharply as he pressed the packet into Audo's hand. "I know the last winter was rough on you and this will help."

"We don't want you coin, Bilbo." Audo said, voice tight. "Tell me you know we care for more than that."

"Of course I know that," Bilbo said fondly, pulling the other Hobbit in for a hug. "I may not return from this trip I am on and I can't go with a clean conscious if I don't think your family is safe and cared for. Your friendship as meant much to me over the years."

More than you can ever know, last of my kinsmen.

Baldaric was stirring inside him, like a long stretch across his consciousness, and the two Hobbits embraced for a moment longer before he finally pulled away.

"Be careful, Mr. Bilbo." Tansy said, looking wet eyed, before pushing a parcel at him. "Its those little cinnamon bites you like. I made extra and...and its a new recipe so I'll be waiting for you to tell me how I did."

"I'm sure they're lovely." Bilbo assured her, accepting another hug before rejoining the Company. 

"Any more picnics we should know about? Any more family to visit? Or can we be on our way?" Thorin asked dryly.

Bilbo sighed. "No, no others. Thank you for indulging me."

The Hobbit steered Frankie back onto the path and they started off once more.

Dori had developed a bit of a nose for personalities. She’d had to, traveling west with only an aging aunt and two younger sisters, all who were considered beyond beautiful by her kind’s standards. Oh, Dori wasn’t trying to brag, but had Nori and Ori been born in Erebor and raised in the proper fashion – why, the three of them would have had their choice in husbands! And Fori! Her aunt may have chosen to focus on her craft instead of ever marrying but that certainly hadn’t stopped Dwarves from trying to lure her away.

The eldest ‘Ri had learned very early on that kind words and kind actions meant very little. So when Bilbo began to ride with Ori, spending long hours in conversation with her and at times Nori, Dori had watched him like a hawk. She knew not how the Hobbit's tastes ran - the Hobbit-women where completely clean shaven, poor things - but it became apparent soon enough that he had little interest in anything obscene. It seemed he was content to talk the hours away, giving his attention to Ori and Nori and at times, even Dori, unwilling to waste them on those in the party who had spared none for him.

It would be a lonely quest without any companionship, and the Dwarven kind where not known for their ease of friendship or quickness that they grew less mistrustful. That paired with the covet (and they were very subtle indeed, but not subtle enough to escape Dori's all observant eye) glances the Hobbit sent Thorin when he thought no one was looking, the Dwarrowdam decided he was harmless enough. Not that anything would come of it, poor lad, as Thorin had very little attention to spare on anything but Erebor even if his tastes did run towards the male form. So, she allowed Bilbo's attempts at friendship.

After all, there were very few that were not off-put by Ori's non-stop questions or quests for academic debates, nor those who were not alienated by Nori's more...eclectic personality traits. So it was the Dwarrowdam's opinon that while odd, Bilbo Baggins was a kind soul, and quite considerate. And Dori's assessments were never wrong.

But while Bilbo may be inoffensive, he was in no way benign. Despite what the others thought of him, Dori could see the strength in the Hobbit, as her own (not immeasurable) abilities had been discounted often enough. Yet that was not what caught her attention the most. There was a certain air around him, if you knew how to look, that spoke of a deep weariness and sadness. It reminded Dori of the months after Fori had contracted the coughing sickness and her dear aunt had known her time on this earth was short.

It became all the more apparent to the Dam when they'd stopped for the night at the Forsaken Inn, the last such establishment before they entered the wilds of the Lone-lands. It had started with a simple question by Ori (what are those ruins we keep passing?) that received a long, drawn out answer about long dead Mannish kingdoms that spurred another question, this time from Bofur (have ya traveled a lot, Mr. Bilbo? Ya seem ta know much about these lands.) that had launched the Wizard into a story that would have entertained just fine in the Great Halls of Erebor. It was a story about Bilbo, who in his twenties - some five years before his majority - had show the curiosity that Hobbits were apparently well known for and the courage to follow through that they were not.

He'd explored at long length the Lone-lands before making his way west once more, finding himself traveling through the Barrow-downs and eventually deciding to explore the great carins there; the graveyard of the kings of lost Cardolan. Bilbo had become trapped in the Downs by the Barrow-wights, who tried fervently to kill him, before the Hobbit had stumbled upon the carin of one of the first kings of that land.

There he met (and here Gandalf said a name that Dori would not repeat, even in her own mind, as it was in a foul language that should not be spoken in good company), the captain of the Barrow-wights and the fiercest, strongest spirit in the Downs. Through bravery and cunning - and a fight that sounded dreadful indeed - the Hobbit had trapped him in that tomb, rendering him harmless and greatly reducing the power and cleverness of the Wights that lived there. It had, Gandalf assured, made the Bree-lands a much safer place to live afterwards.

Through it all, Dori had watched the furious, haunted expression on Bilbo's face, had seen the twitches and heated glare he sent the table they sat at and was not surprised when he stormed off before the tale had even finished. She thought it a bit discourteous that Gandalf had told the story, as he had known Bilbo for years and must have known it would upset him, and there are somethings that simply should not be told secondhand without direct permission.

What Bilbo had seen in that terrible place had left a harsh mark on him, and it must be a challenge to bear for someone who came from such a gentle race. She could understand that feeling well, as Dori had lived through many things herself, and had many memories that she would give all the gold and precious gems in the world to have taken from her. She most certainly had no wishes to speak of it, indeed even to think of them at all. There had been nights early on where Dori had wondered how she would ever get up in the morning and carry on. But she had her family to feed her will and the Dwarrowdam could not help but think of the very empty Hobbit hole of Bilbo. A broken spirit with no well to draw from could be a very dangerous thing.

So it was there, as Dori watched the tense lines of Bilbo's shoulders and back as he'd left, that the Dwarrowdam decided perhaps one more name could be added to her list.

Bilbo Baggins was young by Hobbit standards and very much so by Dwarven and was hurting and in need of a firm hand to help guide him. Dori doubted looking after him would prove to be anymore more strenuous than her daily attempts to keep Nori on the right path could be.

She could not have known in that moment just how difficult it would become.

An hour passed and the Dragonborn felt no calmer, glaring into the fire in his room, feeling as if it mirrored the emotion in his chest. How dare he? How dare he! That story was Bilbo’s – Bilbo’s! – and no one else’s. If anyone was to decide it should be told, it should be himself. There was knock on the door and Bilbo whirled around, infuriated, before crossing the room in a handful of steps and yanking the door open. But it was not Gandalf, but rather Thorin, a bowl of soup and a wrapped loaf of bread in each hand.

“You missed dinner.”

The Hobbit deflated, running a hand over his hair in frustration, the action lacking sorely due to his braids. “Yes, thank you.”

He stepped back, allowing Thorin entrance. The Dwarf placed the food on the small table, surprising Bilbo yet again as he sat, and after a moment he joined him. The soup was thin, but well stocked with vegetables and chunks of ham, and Bilbo broke his bread, dipping the rye into the liquid.

“You are angry with the Wizard.”

“Yes,”  Bilbo said darkly, “I am angry with the Wizard.”

“Why?” Thorin asked, leaning back in the seat as he crossed him arms, “did he lie?”

Yes! Bilbo wanted to shout, yes! About the name, the year, the outcome!

What came out instead was, “no.”

“Do you not think we should be aware of your abilities?”

“No,” Bilbo bit out, hands squeezing until the bread threatened to cave in half and disappear into the soup, "that's not it."

“Then what?” Thorin pressed.

Bilbo abandoned all pretense of eating, settling for glaring at the Dwarf across from him. “It was not his story to tell.”

He blinked in obvious surprise, brows furrowing. “That’s it? You’re upset that he was bragging about you?”


“Gandalf has known you since a child, has he not?” Thorin interrupted, “he is proud; if his words are true, it is no small feat what you accomplished in the Downs. There is no shame in victory and even less when one who is not you boasts of it, certainly nothing to cause such a scene about.”

A scene? Bilbo seethed, but managed to swallow the sharp comments on his tongue. He took a deep breath, then another, before exhaling slowly.

“Have you never won a battle that cost you more than was ever gained?” Thorin’s eyes grew sharp and Bilbo had the impression that this was the first time the other was truly looking at him through the entirety of their conversation. "Something's are meant to die with the days they were in, Thorin."

“Aye, historian," and the Dovahkiin was sure he wasn’t imagining the mocking edge to the words, “you've made your point. Now eat.”

Bilbo eyed him wearily for a moment before turning back to his food.

He was far too old for this foolishness.   

Chapter Text

Audo Underhill had known from the moment that Bilbo Baggins had shown up at his door that they were not related. One’s genealogy was not something they took lightly amongst Hobbit kind, and he knew his backwards and forwards and even sideways if it came to that. So when a one ‘Bilbo Baggins’ came knocking claiming they were long-lost kin, he had been bewildered.

But the Baggins name was well known, even outside of the Shire, and he had been more than willing to accept his coin if nothing else.

He kept expecting – Audo didn’t know – something to explain why the Baggins was keeping up this charade. But nothing ever came. The other shoe never dropped. He never asked anything of them, only sought their attention. When Audo had missed his payment to a loan shark in Bree (the only option, as there were no banks in the town) and his busters had come calling, Bilbo had appeared out nowhere and paid them off. When their first child had been born, Bilbo had shown up with enough goats and kids for him to start a decent enough flock - something Audo had always longed for but never dared to hope on a dream would come true. A single goat would provide enough real sale to support his ever growing family, much less six. And when their third had been turned wrong – had come early and nearly taken Tansy and the babe with it – Bilbo had come, with the most expensive midwife in all of Bree and both had lived.

And still he asked for nothing.

Audo could not understand it. Simply could not comprehend how one being could be so kind, so giving. Until he’d finally asked Tansy about it. His wife, in the way all females had a tendency to do with matters of the heart, put it simple terms.

“He’s lonely, you fool,” she’d said from where she was nursing Follo, staring at him as if she was wondering why she’d ever married him, “he has no family, his ma’s dead and so is his pa. No wife to make sure he’s eating right, no fauntlings to spoil. I don’t know what those family members of his is doing in the Shire, but they’re not caring for him right, I’ll tell you that much. So what if you doubt the relation, you can’t prove he’s not by any means, no matter what you suspect. He’s a good man, Audo Underhill, and he needs us as much as we’ve needed him. Let it go.”

And Audo had.

He let it go.

He did not know what kind of joy Bilbo found amongst him and his own, but it was clear he found it. And his life was for the better for knowing Bilbo Baggins and so, the Underhill had let it go.

Bilbo was kin.

Blood didn’t matter.

They rode on early the next morning and Bilbo was still angry though it had cooled to something far less virulent than before. They went at a lazy, easy pace, unwilling to push the ponies before the time called for it. It was when the morning sun was high – perhaps close to eleven – when Bilbo was surprised to find Bofur navigating his pony back to ride next to him.

“Mister Bilbo,” the Dwarf said quietly, looking abashed, “I’m sorry if my question caused ya any…problems.” Bofur tugged at the ears of hat in what seemed a practice twitch of embarrassment. “It’s my mouth, ya know? I’m not…the smartest and Bombur is always telling me I need ta think before I speak. I always just say the wrong thing, ya know? Sometimes I can be a right ass.”

“Oh, Bofur,” Bilbo said with a sigh, giving the Dwarf a fond smile, “I promise it was nothing you did that earned my ire last night.” Bofur only shook his head, looking sad. “You remind me of my cousin Rory – Arien above, that fauntling speaks his mind! And that is not a bad analogy by any means. I promise, Bofur, I am not – nor ever was – angry with you.”

“Still,” Bofur said slowly, eyes downcast, “I’m sorry if I brought something-”

“Bofur,” Bilbo interrupted gently, “I promise you did not. Don’t make say it again. In fact, you can ask me anything. Do you have any questions? I have no kin on this journey and am lacking friends. I would love for us to be friends, if you don’t object.”

The look Bofur sent him could almost be described as shy. “I’ve no objections to that, Mister Bilbo. Ya can ne’er have too many friends.”

“Excellent,” the Hobbit exclaimed, feeling quite proud of himself. “We can start with you just calling me ‘Bilbo,’ you as well Ori. And your sisters too.”

“Well than!” Bofur said happily, looking much cheered, “than ya must call me ‘Bofur.’ Never stood on all that pomp, meself. Me and my brothers are simple folk; lower class ya know. Not like yerself and the Masters we travel with.” He said, nodding at where the royal family were riding.

“Myself? Whatever do you mean?”

“Well, yer related to the royalty of the Shire, ya? The Thain and the Master of…Master of…”

“Buckland,” Bilbo corrected with a laugh, “and I would hardly count myself royalty. A blue blood, yes, but I still work.”

Bofur did not look convinced.

They talked as the day rolled on, exchanging entertaining stories where they could and generally tried to get to know each other. Bofur even flirted with Ori – and Dori, much to the Dwarrowdam’s apparent surprise – and overall it was quite a good time. Bofur may have come from a lower class, but Bilbo found that all the more impressive that he was willing to come on this quest. Unlike the ‘Lin and ‘Óin siblings, they were not directly related to the crown, and of course Fíli and Kíli’s presence went without explanation.

They ended up camping just east of the rocky outcropping that was Weathertop, in the protective, jagged eaves of the Weather hills. Night marched on, but Bilbo found he could not sleep, sitting with the Princes instead. They seemed to have warmed up to him after Gandalf’s story, though if this was because they were impressed or they thought so little of him before, Bilbo was not sure.

But they sat in comfortable enough silence until the night air was pierced by the sound of Wargs. The noises had rightfully alarmed the Dragonborn – what the hell were Wargs, and by their very nature Orcs, doing so far into the Lone-lands? It was nigh on unheard of! And any progress he’d felt he’d made with the Dwarrowlings was lost as they latched onto his moment of weakness and teased him mercilessly.

Thorin had called them on their attempts immediately. Honestly, the Hobbit didn’t know if he was touched or (and this was most likely the truth) irritated that Thorin thought him so easily frightened that he needed to scold them for their shallow ploy to scare him. And Balin – as it was becoming more and more clear to Bilbo was Balin’s job – smoothed it over with a tale of the brutality of Orcs and the insane attempt to retake Moria in the year 2799.

It was clear to the Hobbit, as he watched the Dwarf tell the tale, that Balin both loved and adored Thorin, and he felt something (admiration? It was so hard to tell anymore) beat in his jaded heart. Thorin was a child then, barely a Dwarf proper, and Bilbo did not have to hear the end of the story to know how his once kin faired there. In truth – and by all that was holy, did it not make him bitter to think this – they had made off lightly, despite all the grief he could see in Balin’s face as he told the story and numbered the fallen. For if the Balrog, the horrid beast that had been Hfal’s end and dwelled deep in the earth there, had joined the battle all would have died.

Because, the Dovahkiin knew with intimate knowledge, it was beyond the reach of the mortal to slay those things. Only a handful – and all of them the blessed Eldar – had managed such a feat. If there was one thing that was true about Dwarves it was that they more than any race (save perhaps Hobbits) knew how to tell a good tale, and at the end of it the entirety of the Company was completely enthralled, enraptured, awed.

And Bilbo – Bilbo remembered his words, spoken unthinkingly the night before.

“Have you never won a battle that cost you more than was ever gained?” 

Thorin turned to them, seemingly utterly undeterred by the eyes of the entire camp on him in the way that only nobility ever managed, and bore a face Bilbo was all too familiar with, as he had seen it on his own often enough. The Hobbit sighed, reaching out to stir the campfire to a greater fervor.

“And the pale Orc – their Chieftain – Azog?" He asked, voice low, and Thorin scoffed.

“He slunk back into the hole whence he came from,” Thorin answered, voice low and arms clasped behind his back, eyes fierce, “that filth died of his wounds long ago.”

But the Hobbit turned his eyes to the Wizard and did not miss the way his expression darkened. So, the Dragonborn thought ominously, he still lives. And in that moment could not tell if he was Skúli or Hfal or any of the others who bounced about in his skull and soul. All he knew was that if he ever met Azog, killer of Thror, breaker of the line of Durin, Bilbo would end him.

Because, the Dovahkiin thought with not a particularly nice smile, that was what he did best, was it not?

When he glanced up from the fire, Bilbo found that Kíli was staring at him, eyes wide and mouth slack. He immediately softened the edges of his face, giving the brunet a soft smile, before retiring to his bed roll.

It was late and suddenly he felt all of his years – those he’d lived and those that had come before.

He could not help but wonder, as he stretched out on his poor excuse for a bed, if perhaps he and the Dwarves did not share a common theme. The years were not kind to their race, maybe because they were creations outside of the One God’s vision, or maybe they were simply that unlucky. But he could not help but see parallels with his own lives.

Sighing, Bilbo nuzzled into his rolled up jacket. It mattered little. What would come, would come.

And a truer fact could not have been thought.

Afternoon found them passing Nain Enidh, well on their way towards the Last Bridge. They made good time, camping just south of Ost Guruth and Bilbo entertained the Company with bittersweet stories of its once inhabitants, who had fought tooth and nail to keep it from Angmar. Dwarves could always be counted on to enjoy a good story and they loved ones of true valor (and of sweet romance, though Bilbo was not supposed to know this) above all else.

The only surprise of the night came when Dori settled her bed roll next to his own with Ori on the other side. Most of the Dwarves slept in groups; Óin and Glóin, Balin and Dwalin, Fíli and Kíli aside Thorin, the Bo’ brothers and cousin together, but Bilbo had always slept slightly apart.

Dori caught his bewildered glance with a stern frown. “You’ve not been sleeping, Bilbo,” the Dam admonished sternly, “don’t think I haven’t noticed. Last to sleep, first to wake, pacing the camp site all night! You’ll lay in that bedding till dawn, even if you don’t sleep.”

Perhaps the Dwarrowdam had been expecting some sort of objection – her face was set as if ready to face a tempertarum, but the Hobbit only gave her a rueful smile. “As you wish, my dear Lady.”

He’d not object to the extra heat, regardless.

They settled in, the whole of the group, tucking in despite the early hour but no one was really ready to sleep. They talked quietly amongst themselves; Bilbo with the ‘Ri sisters and the Bo’ cousins (who translated quite willing for Bifur, whom the Hobbit had to annoyingly pretend not to understand, keeping his face carefully blank) who were stretched across from them.

It was there, when their conversations wandered about, that Bilbo had a rather startling realization. The Dwarves had separated themselves based on class. Oh, perhaps they weren’t aware of it – and technically the ‘Ri sisters were nobility but given how long they’d lived outside Dwarven settlements, Bilbo had no idea if they were still considered so. They certainly didn’t behave as nobles. And Bofur, Bifur, and Bombur were from a common line. The seven of them were set up like a series of ‘Ms,’ facing head to head, and talked as the night grew darker and deeper.

On the other side of the fire pit Thorin, Balin, Dwalin and Glóin had settled in a rough grouping, with Fíli and Kíli not so discretely cloistered in the middle with Óin guarding on watch. They’d been doing this all along, Bilbo realized with a discrete snigger. Even on a quest that will probably lead them all to their deaths, the Dwarves still couldn’t bring themselves to break the class-line. By the Western Gods, they were worse than Men.

“So, Bilbo,” Bombur said cheerfully, head craned back to stare at him from he was resting on his back, “I noticed that ya've a very large family. Are such big brood’s the usual fer Hobbits?”

“For the most part.” Bilbo answered, resting his chin on his clasped hands, elbows digging into the thin fabric of his bed roll. “Most Hobbits tend to have at least three or four, though some families – like the Brandybucks and Tooks – tend to have much more. My mother was a Took and she was one of thirteen.”

This statement (unsurprisingly) caught the attention of his little group. Bofur was staring, mouth completely ajar.“Yer mother had twelve siblings?”

Bilbo chuckled, eyes distant as he recalled his mother’s warm face, a fingertip tracing nonsensical swirls in the dirt. “We tend to catch and carry easily enough, with little complications all around.”

On either side of him, the three Dwarrowdams looked both intrigued and slightly horrified.

“Do you have many siblings then, Mr. Bilbo?” Ori asked after taking a deep drink of her water pouch.  

The finger hitched for a moment before continuing on its path. From what the Dragonborn understood, his mother had always wanted a big family but had changed her mind after having Bilbo, telling everyone that one was just enough for her. Small families weren’t uncommon in the Shire, nor was having no children at all, and not many people paid it any mind. The truth of it all was that neither one his parents ever forgave themselves for bringing him into the world, so troubled were they by the Dovahkiin’s probable fate.

“Just me.” Bilbo refused to admit that there may have been a hitch in his voice, but he did not miss the way Dori’s dark eyes turned to watch him. “But I was very close to my cousins and I summered with them in Took-land and Buckland.”

“We were at the gates of Buckland when we crossed out of the Shire, were we not, Mr. Bilbo?” Dori asked politely from where she was straightening an irritated looking Nori’s braids.

The Hobbit nodded. “Both are a part of the Shire proper, but they’re semi-independent. Took-land has the Thain, Buckland, the Master, and the rest of the Shire has the Mayor.” The Hobbit could not quite keep the disgust off the last word.

“Our dear Bilbo does not get along with the Mayor.” Gandalf clarified from where he sat, the deep timber of his voice curling around his chuckles as much as the smoke from his pipe did.

“Willy Whitfoot’s a damn fool.” The Dovahkiin snapped. “One should not be elected into public office because they’ve bribed half the Shire with promises of better ale!”

“I hardly think that counts as bribing-”

“Oh stay out of it, you meddling git!” He snapped, throwing a pebble at the Wizard. Gandalf caught it easily, eyebrows raised in surprise before he smiled widely as Bilbo stuck his tongue out at him.

 “Your cousin the Thain was a Took, yes?” Dori asked, still eyeing Bilbo.

“Yes, Fortinbras. He only recently took the Thainship. It’s an old title, the very first the Shire had in fact, handed to the original settlers by the King of Arnor. It was held for years by the Oldbuck family, my ancestors-” in more ways than one, “and the foremost Stoor clan family, when such things mattered. Eventually for reasons I know not, they decided to settle closer to the Brandywine River. They adopted a new name and their lands became Buckland, ruled over by the Master, and the Thainship passed on to the Tooks, who at the time were the most influential Fallohide family.”

“What of the Baggins family?” Bombur asked, curious, and Ori glanced over at him with just as eager eyes.

“The Baggins, like much of the Shire, were mostly Harfoots. Unlike the stubborn Stoors who preferred the flat banks of rivers or the indomitable Fallohides who originally settled by forests, they always chose the rolling mountain foothills.” Bilbo explained, finger sketching out a much outdated map of the original Shire settlements.

“Sensible.” Dori said, frowning as she tugged harshly at Nori’s hair to keep her still. “We Dwarves well understand the safety that can be found deep within the Earth.”

Bilbo smiled. “You may be right, as smials are preferred and those who can afford even the most modest are viewed as better off than one who owns a far larger cottage. Out of all the clans, it was said that when we Hobbits had a more wild nature, it was the Harfoots who developed a friendship with Dwarves, while the Fallohides and Stoors became friendlier with Elves and Men respectively.”

Nori snorted around the lock pick that was serving as an impromptu toothpick. “I have a hard time believing ‘wild’ could ever be applied to you Halflings.”

“Hobbits, if you please.” Bilbo corrected sharply, eyes flashing over to glare at the Dwarrowdam. “I assure you that we do not consider ourselves ‘half’ of anything. You may be able to get away with only a few dirty stares in the Shire, but if a Bree or Straddle-hobbit heard you refer to them as such, things would progress far further. They’ve lived long with Men and on the edges of the Wild and have forgotten far less than their Shire kin.”

“Er, yeah. Sorry ‘bout that, Bilbo.” Nori said quickly, shifting uncomfortably, cheeks tinted pink with something other than firelight. “Won’t happen again.”

“An honest mistake and not one you are alone in.” The Hobbit was quick to assure, eyes drifting back down to the map he was making. It was growing more and more detail as he spoke, the abstract lines beginning to form more defined features. “We may have grown settled in the Shire, but I assure you that was not always so. When we lived in the Valley of Anduin our kind was no stranger to strife or violence.”

His fingers skated through the dirt, drawing the winding path of the River Anduin.

“Our kind lived close to Mirkwood, though it was called Greenwood the Great then, and it was truly a sight to behold. The Fallohides lived closest to it and as such they were the first to fall prey to the Shadow that grew there.” Bilbo drew exaggerated trees of the forest line before dotting it with small circles carved from his fingers, naming them silently in his head. Breywood had been the largest, than Long Stone to the far south, far enough that it could see the wide curve of the Anduin. “They fled south, into the Stoor settlements of the Gladdon Fields that had grown along the spindly length of the Gladden tributary and the Anduin itself, and left the dangers of the woods to the Elves.”

His fingers sketched the many settlements of Gladden that grew along the wide marshes and river banks, eyes distant with memory.

“But eventually it reached even there. The Harfoots left first. They were not as brave – or perhaps less foolhardy – but the Stoors were stubborn as the Fallohide and neither clan wanted to flee their homeland.” The Dragonborn was aware that conversation had died off on the other side of the camp, but he ignored it as he spoke, his map expanding to show the Misty Mountains. “It was the birthplace of Hobbits, you see, though none of us quite know how we came to be. We know that were not hewed from rock like your kind, but it seemed as if we had always been in the valley of Anduin. We were hardier creatures then; like our Mannish cousins our lives were longer and cruder.”

If Bilbo closed his eyes and concentrated, he swore he could still feel and taste the salty wind that crossed the Gladdon Fields and was tainted by the thick fens there. Felt he could still feel the tall grass and cattails of the marsh against his skin.

“But eventually the darkness reached even the sandy shores of the Great River, the heart of Hobbit settlement, bringing with it foul beasts that no fences could keep out and in such number that there was not enough axes or sword hands to bring them down. And so the Fallohide and most of the Stoors took to the wilds to follow their long gone kin. Some Stoors stayed and I shudder to think what fate they came to.”

The Hobbit smoothed the map over with the palm of his hand until the land of his forefathers was gone from his sight.

“We traveled in groups, some so large you could only see Hobbits for miles upon miles, others so small they could slip by a village like thieves in the night. We sought the western lands, as both Men and Elves had said that we may find safer lands there. For creatures born to the rolling, gentle hills and open fields of the Anduin Valley, the Misty Mountains were a frightening, foreign place. Many found horrible fates there before they ever left its rocky outcroppings; death by the ever present cold or a quick tumble, or perhaps to sate the hunger of the foul beasts that lived there.”

Bilbo shuddered, remembering even after all these years the terrible times of Baldaric’s youth, when he’d been but a fauntling clinging to his father’s broad frame as they seemed to climb up and up and still somehow up. The biting cold that had frozen him to the bone and had stolen his younger sister from them, the horror of the howling winds and screams of the Goblins and Orcs that breed freely amongst its towering spires.

“The earliest Wanderers made it to the Lone-lands, into Eriador and the Kingdom of Arnor, were they settled in Bree and Straddle, the very edges of the land’s borders. Most were Harfoots, though a few Fallohide clans had made it there as well. The rest were not as lucky.” 

Bilbo balled his hands, staring at his nearly scar-less skin as if they were not his own, the smooth and unworked flesh unrecognizable. He was unaware of the fierce, almost fiendish angles his face took in the fire light, nor of the harsher accent that had come to haunt his words.

“We scattered over time, dividing into smaller and smaller groups until only a handful of families were traveling together. Always with the direction of the westerly’s; always forward, always westward. We followed it down the towering mountains and through the wooded valleys of the High Moors, across the rolling fields and deep forests of Elvish Eregion, where even the gracious Noldor held no welcome. On still, through the lands of Enedwaith, half barren at the greedy hands of the Númenóreans, and by the time we arrived to suffer the wills of the Dunlendings in Dunland we were nearly a quarter of our original numbers.

The settlements of Men were crueler and far less welcoming to us. Why would they? Bands of Hobbits arriving from the wild lands like herds of lost cattle. What town would take our burden on? Far too odd in our culture and language, we strange, small things. Surely too tiny to hold any worth to a settlement, we Halflings.”

And in that moment, Bilbo felt as if he was fully Baldaric once more, watching with a burning hatred as village after village drove them from their lands. The Hobbit glanced up, eyes fierce with the rage still coursing in his veins at the memory of starvation and murder and theft and all the evils that fell upon vulnerable people – to find that every set of eyes in the camp was staring at him.

Gandalf was watching him as if he was about to break, body deceptively fluid from where he sat, and the Hobbit knew that had he gone on – had he lost himself – the Istari would have stepped in. His eyes found Thorin next and was fairly alarmed at what he saw. The exiled King was sitting stone still, back straight as if braced by iron, blue eyes sharp enough to cut glass, and Bilbo was suddenly aware that he had completely and utterly caught the Dwarf’s attention.

“You know your history well.” Thorin said, his face and voice void of any markers that gave way what he was thinking, and Bilbo fought the urge to fidget under his stare.

“The loss of a homeland and the days that follow them are always dearly felt, regardless of the years that separate it.” Gandalf reprimanded sharply, “as you well know Thorin Oakenshield. Despite their gentle nature Hobbits are no different in this. And Bilbo is not known as the foremost scholar in the Shire lands for no reason.”

And he was grateful for the Wizard’s aid, but it was Ori – dear, dear Ori – that saved him.

“Is that why you’re willing to help us?” The scribe asked, voice hesitant, “our path takes us right through the Valley Anduin.”  

“A part. I will not deny that I long to step on the ground that once fostered my kind’s progenitors. But,” The Dovahkiin mouth tilted in a teasing smile, “everyone deserves a home, Miss Ori, even Dwarves.”

The Dwarrowdam chewed her bottom lip, before settling heavily on her forearms. “Could you repeat that part about going through Enedwaith? I couldn’t quite write fast enough.”

Bilbo could have kissed her then, smiling as he dismissed the curious stares of the Company to help her fill the pages of her journal.

The night was late and the fire had burned down to only embers, the camp silent saved for the sounds of sleep, when Thorin noiselessly slid from between the bodies of his nephews and made his way to the watch post. Dwalin looked up, grunting a greeting from where he was sharping his axe, his cousin nodding jerkily over his shoulder.

“What’d ya take of all that?”

Thorin frowned, crossing his arms as he stared out over the ruins of the Lone-lands, before letting his eyes settle once more on his sleeping company. On the still form of Bilbo Baggins in particular.

“He’s hiding something.”

Dwalin’s let out an inelegant snort at the obviousness of that, making a crude gesture with his hand. “Give me ten minutes without the Wizard and I’ll get it out of him.”

Thorin felt his lips twitch into a grin. “No, do nothing yet.”

His cousin sighed, leaning on his knees as he brought a hand up to wipe at his nose. “I don’t like him being so close to the Dams.”

The young King couldn’t help but agree, taking in the lines of the ‘Ri sisters, who even in sleep seemed to have settled closer to the bizarre creature. Thorin did not like how much time they spent with him either, but the ‘Ris were even more spirited and forceful than most Dwarrowdams and he knew that any attempt to advise them to do otherwise would only draw them closer.

“Watch him.”

“Aye, I will.” Dwalin agreed with a nod, “like a hawk.”

Chapter Text

Primula Brandybuck had always had a fascination with the male kind. It wasn’t that she was a flirt, per say, it was just that she'd always enjoyed the attention she’d received from men. Even as a fauntling the second eldest Brandybuck daughter had always been precocious and adventurous, with nerves of steel and a fierce intelligence that was only matched in impressiveness and uniqueness as the bright flaxen color of her hair.

Primula was the type of Hobbit-lass that saw what she wanted and went out and took it.

She was encouraged to do so by both her elder siblings and her Took mother, who thought it a very fine trait to have indeed, even if she was viewed as odd by the Shire proper. But Primula could hardly give a care about what the Shire had to say about her. How could she take anyone who was too afraid to leave their front garden seriously?

Primula had traveled to the far reaches of the Shire, explored nearly every foot hill and gully their borders had, and loved every moment of it. She was welcomed nearly everywhere, especially by the lads, and given enough time could make even the most disapproving Hobbit crone speak of her like rainbows and daisies grew from her rear. She always left a strong impression, always left everyone talking about her once she left a room.

Everyone, that was, except her cousin Bilbo.

Bilbo only watched her with barely concealed amusement, seeing through all of her manipulations and attempts with ease, matching and – at times – completely overpowering her. Unlike everyone else in her life, Bilbo did not fall for her charms, never allowed Primula to talk her way out of her wrong doings around him, and shut down her complaints and debates with a few well planned words.

It was like out everyone in the Shire, Bilbo was the only one who could really see her.

And that? That was why Primula was going to make him her husband.

Except he’d left the Shire.

Without telling her.

4 Nárië, 2941 (Steward’s Reckoning)

Nearly a month into their journey found them finally at the Last Bridge - the very edges of the Lone-lands - and they’d camped there for the night. They'd made better time than Bilbo was expecting, as the bridge was place almost exactly a hundred miles from Weathertop, and he'd thought they'd taken longer with their meandering pace. It was an ancient stone construct, built over the river Hoarwell and the only place to cross it safely south of the Ettenmores. Bilbo did not know who had built it originally, but the Númenóreans had improved upon and managed its upkeep for years. It was in rougher shape now, with no real established government to care for it, and the Hobbit eyed it nervously in the morning light from atop his pony.

That does not look safe at all.

“Somethin’ wrong, Hobbit?” A gruff voice asked and Bilbo felt his eyebrow tick. He had no idea what he had done to earn Dwalin’s interest but the Dwarf would not leave his side. He was everywhere Bilbo was. He’d ridden behind him – next to a very put off Nori who’d seemingly been as confused with the development as Bilbo had been – and had even bridged the class divisions to sleep smack in the middle of the two groups last night. He would have been next to Bilbo had Dori not stretched out between them, eyeing Dwalin as if he’d grown a second head. And all he did was stare at Bilbo, grunt at Bilbo, and mock Bilbo. He'd hoped that whatever caught the beefy Dwarf's attention would have faded overnight but the morning was looking even less promising than the day before.

“The bridge doesn’t look safe.”

“O’course it’s not,” Dwalin said, glancing at Bilbo like he was daft, “anyone with eyes can see that the arches are weak-"

"Well excuse me for not being a Dwarf."

"- yer excused. That’s why we’ll be going round.” The bald Dwarf nodded to where Gandalf was indeed leading their Company towards the river banks; it seemed they were going to attempt to ford the Hoarwell. His incredible dislike of the idea must have shown on his face because Dwalin snickered. “Can’t ya swim, Hobbit?”

“My name,” the Dragonborn ground out around grit teeth as he urged Frankie towards the group, “is Bilbo.” He shot Dwalin a dark glare, “and no. I cannot. Most of my kind can’t.”

Dragons did not like water.

Bilbo did not like water.

Bilbo hadn’t even liked water as a Man or an Elf or a Dwarf, he certainly didn’t as a Hobbit.

Because they had a tendency to drown. Still, Bilbo urged the pony forward, trying his hardest not to grip the reigns too tight as Frankie slowly made his way into the rushing water. The river was fast paced here, even if this was one of the calmest areas of the Hoarwell, and very deep and the Hobbit forced himself to take deep breaths as the water climbed up the animal and onto his legs at a frightening pace.

He’d almost made to the opposite shallows when the worst happened. Ori’s pony, Daisy, froze and then startled, letting out a terrified whinny before turning and – quite nonsensically – tried to make it back to their original bank, despite it being further away. The current must have thrown off her turn and the pony came too close to Frankie too quickly and he nickered in alarm, shaking his head so forcefully it tore the reigns from Bilbo’s hands and they flew over the pony’s head. They tangled around his snout, further scaring Frankie and the pony reared and immediately he lost his balance and began to tip.

Bilbo let out a shot that turned into a strangled gurgle as he was thrown into the water, the current flipping him head over heels. He struggled to gain orientation, desperately trying to find a way to still his movements and he smashed roughly into the river bottom, a burst of pain rocketing through his skull so strong that Bilbo saw stars and then –

she’s sinking. Sinking, sinking, sinking! The current of the river is pulling her down even further and all she can see is green weeds and dirt. She wants to struggle, but her limbs won’t move, she can’t move!

She wants her daddy, wants to be safe in his arms because she always feels safe in his arms and she doesn’t understand why he isn’t there!

Gwaeneth feels her mouth open against her own will, her scream muffled in the water and her vision goes dim as the green water fills her lungs like icy hands and -

- the ground lets out a thud-squelching sound, the mud giving way under the weight instantly.

“You owe me for that,” a voice says and Gwaeneth doesn’t understand, bringing a hand up to wipe at her eyes as she stares up at the tall figure above her, “take a week fer my boots to dry out.”


The figure above her went completely still and was suddenly in perfect focus, crouched next to her, brown eyes worried and brows drawn low. She blinked hard – and was Bilbo again. The Hobbit let his eyes slide shut in tired relief even as his own chest rattled with wet breaths. He let out a whine of protest as he was pulled up, hanging laxly from large hands.

“None of that, laddie.” A hand moved to support his neck, holding his entire weight easily at that single point, while another pressed hard against the back of his head and Bilbo cursed as pain shot across his jaw and bloomed behind his eyes. “You’ve got a nasty knock there, best to stay awake until Óin can have a look at you.”

“Dwalin.” He breathed and drooped completely into the support of the hand, limp and plaint, and brought his own up to grip weakly at the Dwarf’s sleeve.

“Aye, lad. Thought you were joking,” he said with a snort, “never seen someone sink so fast.”

The Hobbit pressed his fingers into the bare forearm, his grip strong despite his stunned state, and kept the pressure until Dwalin looked down at him. Amber locked with russet. Bilbo slid his hand up, until it was on Dwalin’s wrist and squeezed it, trying to put all of his gratitude into the one move.

“Thank you.” He managed, voice hoarse and weak, and the Dovahkiin meant it with every inch of his stained soul because out of all the ways of dying, he feared drowning more than any other. “I almost drowned,” Bilbo lied, but at the same time didn’t, “when I was six. Never went back in the water.”

“Well, you didn’t today.” He said gruffly and something shifted in Dwalin’s eyes, the color darkening and it’s so clear that even addled, Bilbo caught it.

“Dwalin, Bilbo!” A voice shouted and both turned, startled, to find Thorin coming to a skidding stop beside them, his face shifting through concern to naked relief to something else – something dark that flashed only momentarily as he took in their entangled forms before disappearing behind his same, conflicting mask of grim indifference.

The others were drawing closer, all shouting different forms of “Bilbo!” and “Dwalin!” and Dwalin set him gently – far more gently than he would have given the Dwarf credit for – so that he was sitting up, a hand still locked on his shoulder. Ori came into view next, her eyes wide and worried before Dori all but shoved her out of the way, the older Dam coming to a stop next to Bilbo, her hand supporting his other shoulder.

Dori was speaking a mile a minute, asking questions that the Hobbit was in no frame of mind to answer until Óin gently removed her, the healer’s face serious as he bent Bilbo’s head forward. Óin supported his forehead with his shoulder, letting it take his weight, while both hands carefully examine the gash on the back of his head.

Again, the Dovahkiin was surprised by the care he was being handled with and found himself ashamed by the feeling.

“Will I live?” He asked softly, already knowing the answer.

“Yes,” Óin said with a sigh, digging one-handedly into his pack. “You’ve got a cut, but it’s shallow. Head wounds look worse than they are as they do tend to bleed more.” He pressed a thick linen pad to the wound before rolling a thin line of bandages around his head. “I’m more worried about the clothing. It’s still early enough to be cold at night, a chill would be ill-timed.”

“I’ve got something I can spare.” Kíli offered from where he’s standing.

“Me, too.” Bofur added and Bilbo gives them both a grateful smile.

“Thank you, but the leather will dry on its own soon enough. I’ve a spare blouse in my pack, so I’ll just change into that and let the other and my gambeson dry – where’s Frankie!” Bilbo asked with a gasp, jolting so much that he nearly undid all of Óin’s fine work.

“He’s fine. Ori grabbed his reigns and calmed him before he could bolt.” Fíli assured, giving a grin to the Dwarrowdam.

Ori blushed, ducking her head, and gave Bilbo a small smile. “I think he was more worried about you than we were, Bilbo. He’s a good pony.”

The Hobbit let out a sigh of relief, slouching down once more before straightening with a yip when Óin pinched him. He sat straighter, letting the healer do his job before glancing over at Gandalf as the Wizard stepped into his line of sight.

“You gave us quite a scare there, my dear boy.” Gandalf said gently, leaning on his staff. “You never were fond of water.”

“Never.” The Hobbit agreed, “let’s not do that again, yes?”

Gandalf’s grinned and it was a sharp, merry thing as he pointed back over the water. “I’m afraid we’re on the wrong side of the river.”


They did eventually make it across the Hoarwell.

Thorin and Óin wanted him with Gandalf on his horse, in front preferably, and no amount of threats or objections on Bilbo’s part would change their mind.

The Wizard was greatly amused.

Bilbo was most certainly not.

In the end it really hadn’t matter that he’d changed his clothing, because nearly an hour after they’d crossed into the wooded foothills of the Trollshaws, the heavens burst.

And it rained.

And rained.

And rained.

Bilbo rode in front of the Wizard, Frankie tied up behind them, and tried to forget how miserable he felt being utterly soaked and uncomfortable and emasculated. The leather of his hood and shoulder cape, as well as his trousers, helped as much as they were able, but the wind was an angry force, casting the rain about in different directions.

And his head hurt, damn’t.

They rode in single file so the ponies would have more room to pick their way through the muddy path and had less of a chance to trip and stumble, with Bilbo and Gandalf at the head and Frankie tied off behind them. For the majority of the ride no one had spoken. A quiet miserableness had fallen about the group, brought by the cold rain and the never ending quality of it. The only real spot of color came when Dori had not so subtly suggested Gandalf make it stop raining.

As if magic worked in such a manner!

The exchange brought a bit of humor to the group and the Hobbit could not help but pick at the Wizard.

“You’ve quite forgotten their names?” Bilbo quoted and his grin grew wider as Gandalf eyed him. “Come now,” mindful of the Dwarves, he switched easily into Sindarin, ::you would sooner forget your own before your fellows. What has become of Alatar and Pallando, then?::

There was a pause, then, ::we are not sure. They went into the East and never returned. They have either fallen into shadow or died.::

::Forgive me.:: Bilbo said as his teasing smile faded, ::I did not mean to bring up such troubles.::

Gandalf said nothing and the Hobbit felt positively wretched as they fell into silence once more. The rain finally came to an end in the early afternoon, or rather they had finally rode out from underneath it, and the sky grew bright and warm. Eventually they climbed up the rocky slopes of a low hill, where the burnt out shells of a barn and cottage stood like the saddest of paintings; the passage of time marked by the plant growth over the exposed beams.

“There was a farm here once,” Gandalf muttered as he helped Bilbo dismount, eyes distant and worried.

“Do you remember the last time you were here?” The Hobbit asked, honestly trying to be helpful because the years could just get away from you when you lived long enough, and earned a glare for his troubles. “Sorry. Goodness.”

The Wizard stalked away, standing in the rubble of the house, face concerned. Bilbo shook his head, sighing in defeat when Óin suddenly appeared out nowhere, tilting his head to the side without so much of a 'by your leave' and examined his bandages.

“Those’ll have to be changed.” The healer said with some annoyance, “sit now.”

The Hobbit did as he was told, attention caught by the obvious argument going on between Thorin and Gandalf. “What you suppose that’s about, I wonder?”

“The Wizard wants us to go to the Elves.” Óin explained as he rewrapped Bilbo’s head and the Dragonborn was told another chapter of the line of Durin’s terrible fate – though far more abridged as it seemed Óin had less of the flare for dramatics than Balin – and let out a bone weary sigh.

Thranduil, you overcautious idiot, a voice railed angrily in Sindarin, did you learn nothing from Gondolin? Or perhaps is that he learned too much from Doraith.

“Oy!” Bilbo called out, shaken from his thoughts as Gandalf stormed passed them, “just where are you going?”

“To seek council with the only one around here that has any sense!”

“And I suppose that would be only you, than.” The Dovahkiin snarked and groaned at the replied, “Too true, Mr. Baggins!” and watched the Istari disappear amongst the wooded rocks. “Well,” he said dryly, “it seems we’ve lost our Wizard.” He craned his head to the side to stare at Thorin, “well done, Master Dwarf.”

With which he was rewarded with a nasty sneer and a stinging rebuke from Óin to stay still.

Naturally, as was the way with Wizards, when one needed them the most they weren’t there.

It was late in the night when Bombur had finally finished dinner, as Thorin had made most of them scout the area. It seemed that dispite his disbute with Gandalf, the exiled King had paid attentioned to the warnings and destroyed state of the farm. When Bilbo was sent out to deliver stew to the young Princes, it was already almost a new day. The Hobbit took one look at their faces and groaned. “Dear me, what’ve you done?”

“We’re supposed to be watching the ponies.” Kíli explained, voice nervous as he stared out into the night.

“Only we’ve encountered a slight problem,” Fíli elaborated, giving the Hobbit a mournful look. “We had sixteen.”

“And now there are fourteen,” Bilbo finished with a sigh, shoving the bowls into the princes’ hands as he went to stand amongst the ponies, hoping against all hope that the two missing had just wandered off nearby. “They’ve taken Balin’s Minty. And you’ve lost Daisy.” Bilbo gave Fíli an unimpressed look. “Ori is going to kill you. She loves her pony.” The golden haired prince literally wilted before his eyes. “How are you so hapless at this? She’s still not forgiven you for telling her the knitting kit was a waste of space.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying!” Kíli cried. “He’s so terrible!”

“I’m not that bad.” Fíli grumbled, bringing a hand up to rub at his neck.

“You make Gimli looked like a poet, brother.” The younger Dwarf said with a snicker, "how is it that everything that comes out of your mouth is offensive?" 

“I don’t mean to. It’s just…” Fíli let out a groan, “I don’t know! Every time I see her, I mean to say something nice, like tell her how pretty her braids are or how nice her beard is or how much I like her drawings but what comes out is…well you’ve seen it!”

“How pretty her braids are?” Kíli repeated flatly as he crouched to look for tracks, “Mahal above, I’ve got my worked cut out for me if I’m ever going to be an uncle.”

“You think she’d marry me?”

Kíli froze mid-motion, turning to stare at his brother. “Are you that serious about this?” Then lower, in Khazdul, »Fíli, did you…is she your-«

“Boys,” Bilbo interrupted, feeling guilty about the direction the conversation was taking with him an unknowing eavesdropper, “focus please.” He pointed to an overturned tree. “Are you going to sit here and tell me that you truly didn’t hear whatever did that?”

The Dwarrowlings looked more sheepish than any of his fauntling cousins could ever manage.

“What were you two even doing out here?” Kíli help up a pack of cards, embarrassed. Bilbo brought a hand up to rub at the bridge of his nose and tried his best for patience. “I see. Let’s go back to camp and-”

“No!” They both shouted, wide eyed and desperate.

“Uncle with have our heads, Bilbo!” Fíli said quickly, glancing over his shoulder to see if they’d drawn any attention.

“And he’s already in a foul mood thanks to Gandalf,” Kíli added, “as our official Bulgar, you ought to take a look into it.”

He gave them an unimpressed look.

“Please, Mister Bilbo?” Kíli begged, “I’ll take your watch for two days.”

“Three days.” Fíli corrected.

Kíli nodded fervently, “a week even!”

The Hobbit sighed. “Fine. Fine, but I’m going on record that this is a terrible idea and if anyone asks me, I’m telling them you forced me. And I want both your breakfasts tomorrow. I’m going to be a twig by the time this little adventure draws to end.” He muttered, unhappily. “Well come on than, there’s a light over here.”

They advanced through the brush, both boys being far more quiet than Bilbo thought them possible, and they drew up on the fringes of a camp rather quickly. The sound of deep laughter and broken, beaten Westron could easily be heard.

“Trolls.” Kíli spit out and Bilbo stiffened in alarm.

“That’s it, we’re getting – get back here!” His hand shot out, barely catching the edge of Fíli’s coat and yanking him back down harshly. “Kíli! Kíli, damn it all!” He pointed a finger at the surprised Dwarrowling, “go back and get Thorin. Trolls are nothing to mess with, we’ll need more than just us three. I’ll go and get Kíli.”

And then he was ducking under the log, form bent low as he made his way towards the camp. He barely managed to scramble into hiding next to Kíli as a large form lumbered past him, two more ponies underneath his arm.

“He’s got Frankie and Myrtle.” Bilbo hissed out, distressed, because of course one of them was Frankie. He told Fortinbras the poor old boy was going to die out here! And as Bilbo tended to be rather possessive of things he considered his own because – well, no amount of pretty wrapping changed the fact that his soul was still that of a Dragon’s – he did something rather rash for his Hobbit nature, even with his Took blood. “You, stay here. Fíli’s getting the others.”

“What?” Kíli gaped, mouth ajar, but Bilbo was already sneaking past him. “Bilbo wait a moment, what are you – Bilbo.”

“He’s not eating my pony,” the Dragonborn snapped back, “it’s mine,” and disappeared into the brush.

There were three of them, big and dumb and smelly, just like how Bilbo remember Stone-trolls, and the Dovahkiin spared a moment of wonder at what they could possibly be doing so far west. Despite its name, it was beyond rare to see Trolls in the Trollshaws. But then again, he’d heard Wargs just a few nights ago. He'd think about how foreboding all that was once his pony wasn't in danger of being eaten.

Bilbo made it to the pony pen easily enough, pulling his sword free from its frog as he crawled closer. The Trolls were arguing about cooking, as if they could possibly know what they were talking about, the foul things, and the part of him that was pure Hobbit winced as the tall one – Bert, the cook apparently – listed off his ingredients.

He moved to cut the ponies free, watching the arguing beasts wearily as he sawed, but Bilbo would have benefited from keeping his eyes on his work because when he finally broke through the knot, a good portion of the haphazardly constructed pen fell and the wood clattered loudly as they knocked against each other. Before he’d even had a chance to curse, Bilbo found himself being snatched up, his breath leaving him one long, gasping rush as a meaty hand locked around him.

“Wot we 'ave 'ere, then, guv?” The Troll asked, head cocked to the side like an oversized dog and the Hobbit cried out as he was shaken, the ache in his head escalating immensely. “'Ave a look 'ow wee it is! Blimey!”

“Oo,” one of them laughed, “right, shake it again, Tom!”

“Shut it, the bloomin' boff of yer. I wonder if there's more of wotever it is.” Bert wondered and Bilbo fought a roll of nausea as he found all three giant, bloated faces hovered inches from his own. The smell was simply overpowering, a stench that he had never encountered in his current form. Perhaps ever.

“Loosen up, Tom. I fink it's tryin' ter speak.”

Bilbo inhaled sharply as the vice around his chest loosened and then snarled, eyes bright as he bared his blunt teeth up at them, the Dovahzul rolling from his lips in an low hiss. "Ris zey tum, Ufiik."

"G-Ghâshgûl!" Tom choked out, eyes nearly doubling in size, and at the same moment that Kíli leapt – alone, bless him – from the tree line.

“Let him go!” The Prince bellowed, looking very young and very magnificent all at once, and Bilbo had only a moment to think 'don't you dare!' before he found himself being forcefully thrown away like a child's ball. The Hobbit cursed loudly, eyes squeezing shut as he braced for an uncomfortable meeting. But instead of the hard ground he smashed against something only slightly softer, arms locking around him firmly as he was caught. Bilbo's eyes flew open, hands instinctively clinging to whoever had caught him - one gripping tightly onto fur while the other locked just as strongly onto the cold metal of a bracer, and found himself staring up at a very unimpressed looking Thorin.

The Dwarves were charging from around them with loud bellows, chasing after the Trolls as all three turned and began to lope ungracefully away, crashing through the forest loudly. Bilbo watched them go bemusedly, before letting out a small sound of surprise when his axis of gravity suddenly shifted as Thorin set him back down on his feet. The Hobbit took a step back, straightening his gamebson and frogs, before glancing back at the Dwarf. Or rather up, as Bilbo was only four and a handful and Thorin was easily pushing six feet.

Ávaldi had been tall too, a traitorous part of his mind reminded, the tallest Dwarf in the entire city.

Bilbo turned away abruptly, barking at himself. Be silent, Hfal.

"Thank you," he muttered, watching the backs of the Dwarves through the wood line, "and just where is Gandalf when you need him?" He cried out, exasperated.

“Here,” the Wizard called out from above, where he was standing atop the rock face, “ready to intervene, though I dare say you didn’t need it.”

“Those poor buggers didn’t know what ta do.” Bofur bragged as he ambled back into the Troll camp, all teeth and smile lines. “They’ve run right off a cliff, smashed themselves ta bits.”

“Couldn’t face a bit of Dwarven steel,” Fíli agreed, looking smug, and Bilbo rolled his eyes as the Company erupted into happy agreement.

Yes, the Dovahkiin thought, that was it. Good job.

“I could be home right now,” Bilbo bemoaned as he was set upon by Óin yet again, “warm and well fed and with a nice bit of tea.”

“But where’s the fun in that, laddie?” Bombur asked cheerfully from where he was peering into the disgusting excuse that was the Troll's 'soup.'

“None. That’s the point. You,” the Hobbit spat out accusatorially, pointing an angry finger as Gandalf rejoined them, “you. Don’t leave again.”

“You all seemed to have handled yourselves just fine in my absence.”

“They were going to eat Frankie!” He cried, aghast.

“But they didn’t, did they?” Gandalf insisted with a gleam in his eye that Bilbo did not like at all, “and where there are Trolls, there is a Troll-hoard.”

And just like that – Gandalf had every Dwarf in the camp’s attention. Bilbo sighed and plopped down in front of the fire. “Well, you all have fun with that. I’m going to stay right here, thank you very much.”

The Hobbit spent the next half hour watching as they scrambled about, climbing the rock face like goats - which was as odd as it was impressive - looking for the Troll cave. They found it eventually and Bilbo gave in enough to wait outside in the twilight, eyes locked on the stars.

“Don’t ya wanna take a look-see, Bilbo?” Bofur asked, only his head visible from the entrance.

“Hm? Oh no, thank you. I’m fine out here, the fresh air helps with my head.”

The miner frowned, “does it hurt?”

“A bit,” the Hobbit admitted and then quickly amended his words, “but not by much! Don’t you dare tell Óin.”

Bofur gave him a cheeky grin before disappearing back inside. Bilbo stared at the cave mouth, feeling the stirrings of curiosity, before deliberately looking away. He’d had more than his fill of treasure. After an hour or so – during which Nori appeared and then disappeared with a handful of shovels, looking quite pleased with herself – they reemerged, Gandalf at the front.

“Bilbo, what do you take of these?” The Wizard asked, pushing a cobwebbed covered sword into his hand. Bilbo took on instinct, nose wrinkling at the sticky mess before bending over and dragging it through the grass to clean some of it off. “I can’t seem to make out the Cirth.”

"That’s because it's not Cirth,” Bilbo said hollowly, staring a the longsword in his hands, “they're Gondolinic runes."


The city Ulugwin had helped destroy to its foundations. The greatest city of Elves in the First Age, perhaps in the history of their time in Middle-Earth. Gondolin, where Turgon and Ecthelion and Glorfindel and countless others died by the claws and jaws of Bilbo and his kin. Gondolin, which had blackened his soul so darkly that nothing he could ever do would possibly redeem it.

He pushed the sword back at the Wizard, but Gandalf shook his head. "Can you read them?"

The Dovahkiin paused. He forgot, sometimes, that Gandalf had only been sent here in the early Third Age, long after the fall of Morgoth. He nodded, slowly bringing the sword closer once more.

"This here,” he pointed at the rune on its hilt,Glamdring , “is its name; Glamdring." And here Bilbo shivered, his mouth mind translating almost without conscious thought and all he wanted was the sword away. “Turgon aran Gondolin tortha gar a matha, i vegil Glamdrin gûd daeloth, dam a Glamhoth. Turgon, King of Gondolin wields, eternally, the sword of Galmdring; Foe of Morgoth's realm, hammer to the Din-horde."

He offered Glamdring again and this time Gandalf took it, only to pass it onto Thorin.

“It is a fine blade,” he told the Dwarf King around a dry mouth, “Turgon was one of the greatest Kings of his kind and a mighty warrior. That sword brought such terror during the Goblin Wars they still speak of it in their myths.”

Thorin nodded, staring down at Glamdring before using the sleeve of his coat to further clean it. Bilbo let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. The death of Turgon and his people haunted him in all of his forms and the Hobbit honestly didn’t know what he would have done or said if Thorin had treated that mighty blade like trash because of its Elven make.

“And this one?” Gandalf prompted, but he did not hand the cleaver falchion over, only held it in his long reach for Bilbo to read. The Hobbit cocked his head to the side, brows furrowing slightly as he read the swirling runic pattern.

"Orkhrist. Nagol e-lŷg orkhrist. Orcrist, Orcrist. The Serpent's Tooth. Orc-Cleaver. Hyrn o gorf Ithluig; ui ni madweg a suig. Born from the Maws of Dragons; I am always hungry and thirsty."

A fang, Bilbo realized abruptly, eyes locking on the bone handle, its grip was made from the fang of a Dragon.

“This one, I think, should go to you.” Gandalf mused and Bilbo had to force himself to look away from the aged ivory. The Wizard was staring at him, eyes old and powerful and every inch the Maia he truly was.

“What?” Fíli asked suddenly from he was standing. “Why does he get it?”

“Aye,” Glóin said with a frown, “he won’t be able to lift it.”

“It’s Bilbo’s,” Gandalf said sternly and Bilbo felt like his heart was going to beat right out of his chest. Did he mean…but he did, the Dovahkiin realized, feeling lightheaded. That fang was one of Ulugwin’s, though he knew not how or when it was lost and reshaped.

It’s mine, the Hobbit thought almost frantically, my fang.


“Leave it.” Balin said sharply, face thunderous, and the Company fell silent. The older Dwarf gave Bilbo a kind smile. “My brother and I both have training in two-handers – and I bet that’s the best way for you to use that, with your height – and we’d both be welcome to give you some pointers if you like, laddie.”

“I know how to use it,” Bilbo said slowly, ignoring the looks of disbelief that flew around him, eyes still locked on the blade before him, and gently reached out and took it. He was careful to keep his hand free from the bone, from his fang, because he had no idea what would happen once he touched it and the Dragonbron certainly didn’t want whatever it was happening in front of thirteen curious Dwarves. It took him only a moment to switch the frog on his chest so that it hung on his back and he slid Orcrist in easily and there were only a few adjustments to be made with the machete that so neither would block any quick draws.

When it was finished, he gave Gandalf a questioning look. Why? He wanted to ask. Was this meant as a gift or a cruel reminder?

The Wizard shrugged, looking quite content with himself. “I thought you might like to have a fang to go with your talon.”

Bilbo started, as he had completely forgotten that Isengrim had named his Easterling machete ‘Jusk,’ Dovahzul for talon, and then he laughed - for the first time in for what felt like forever - deep and full and for a moment, pretended he was whole once more.

Chapter Text

A Gamgee had been a gardener to the Baggins line ever since the family had settled in Hobbiton generations ago and Hamfast had always known that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. Which was truthfully for the best as Hobson would have it no other way. As the eldest of the Gamgee brood, Hamfast had the fewest options, but he never complained. The Gamgee were working Hobbits and he was lucky to be getting not only a trade that was in demand but inheriting a stable job.

He’d spent most of his childhood in Bag End, learning how to fix various things and grow the garden best from his father, and had known Bilbo Baggins from the moment the Hobbit had come into the world.

Hamfast’s job meant that he saw a lot about what was happening in that smial.

Oh, the Baggins most likely didn’t mean for him to know and had they known just how much he heard, they'd be humiliated. It was not that his master and mistress rude or mean, and they certainly treated their staff much better than some of their Hobbiton peers, but both Bungo and Belladonna had come from old money and it was always easy for those upper class types to forget he was in the room or just right outside the window. It was as if they somehow just stopped seeing Hobson or Hamfast after a while, as if the two of them just blended away.

Not that they made that a difficult thing to do; both Gamgee knew their place. They were there to work, to provide a service, not socialize or offer opinions; silent unless spoken to. And so Hamfast knew very much about what was happening in the Baggins smial indeed.

Now, he was just a simple Hobbit, and he never did give much stock to all that Dragon and magic nonsense. All Hamfast knew was that Bilbo Baggins was a lonely little fauntling who crawled into his lap and hid his curly head underneath the older Hobbit’s jaw when his parents fought so loud the windows shook, (which far too often, to his mind) golden eyes bigger than the sunflowers the gardener grew.

Sometimes he just held the fauntling, sometimes he hummed or told stories, sometimes he showed Bilbo how to work the earth; how to coax the soil to bring new life and how to use the sun for every inch of warmth it could provide. But mostly he listened, listened as the fauntling rambled about everything under the wide sky to try to silence the angry voices.

That was how Hamfast knew that Bilbo’s favorite color was green, his favorite foods all contained some kind of cinnamon, he was deathly afraid of water (sensible faunt) and that he was smart as a whip – and more delicate than the most sensitive of Hamfast’s roses.

He figured that he didn’t need to know much more than that.

Sneaking away from camp alone was probably a stupid thing to do, except that Bilbo hadn’t really snuck so much as was allowed to leave by the current watch, Gandalf. The Wizard had only given him a long look when the Hobbit had approached him, Just and Orcrist strapped to his back, before telling him of a pond where he could wash the mud from his body and clothes that Bilbo had been carrying since the Hoarwell.

Bilbo had thanked him as he did still have mud caked to the back of his head and neck, but they both knew that his leaving had little to do with the state of his hygiene. It hadn’t taken him long to find the small pond, following the shallow stream that had once fed the derelict farm’s fields to the shallow body of water. Bilbo drew Just, stabbing the short machete into the ground where he could reach it with ease if needed, and carefully took Orcrist from his back.

The falchion felt strange in his Hobbit hand, long and unwieldy, and yet somehow very familiar. Earlier in camp, when most of the Company was stretching out to make up on some much needed sleep, Bilbo had sacrificed the bottom of his still dirty and wet blouse, cutting off a long swatch of cotton that he carefully wrapped around the handle until none of the bone could be seen. Confident now that he would not touch his fang unless he was ready, Bilbo swung the weapon around a few times, cursing at how his body stumbled and tripped.

The Dovahkiin had not spent his time in the Shire idle; he had trained his body, pushing it to the very edges of Hobbit endurance with weights and long runs. He had known, as Bilbo had always known, that at some point his strength would be called on and had done everything in his power to ensure it would be there when needed. But it had been thousands of years since he’d wielded a two-hander, and it had not been since Skúli that he had done so in such a small frame, and Bilbo found himself clumsy and stupid as he moved the sword about.

Yet he did not allow himself to grow discouraged, because even as he grew hot and sticky with sweat the Dragonborn could feel himself adjusting to Orcrcist’s size, his movements growing less and less uncultured with each swing and thrust as his body remembered.

Keep the pommel up by the gut, Skúli whispered, left hand past the eye when you raise the blade. Right hand leads the blow – keep that elbow straight but loose! – left gives the force. Left foot behind right – slide it back when ya strike – yes, like that.

Bilbo wasn’t sure how long he spent by the pond bank, moving through half remembered forms and drills, and when he’d finished Orcrist no longer felt like a stranger in his hand. The Hobbit grinned as he stared at the elegant blade, the smile a tilted, self-pleased thing before finally letting his gaze drift to the fabric covered hilt.

He stared at the fabric wearily, the smile sliding from his face, before glancing around the small clearing. Once he was reassured that no one had come looking for him and that he was still alone, Bilbo carefully pulled the fabric back. He stared at the aged and battered ivory, amber eyes observing every scratch and dent, before pulling the fabric off completely and letting it fall to the ground.  Bilbo took a deep breath to brace himself and wrapped his hand around the naked bone.

I Am Always Hungry and Thirsty

I am Always Hungry and Thirsty by akahime4

The Dovahkiin gasped, entire frame shuddering as every muscle in his small frame tightened, his body rocking up on tiptoes as his eyes fluttered shut. The hilt held a trace amount of his power – not even a fraction of a fraction of what it had once been as Ulugwin – but enough that he felt his body surge with it, his soul humming at the familiar touch. Bilbo felt tears prickle at his eyes as he shook from it, a wave of awareness cresting across him that left him breathless.

The fang recognized him.

Bilbo let out a choking cry, dropping Orcrist and bringing both hands up to press against his mouth as he stared down at it with horrified reverence. The Hobbit shook his head, pressing shaking fingers against his eye lids, and it was almost too much - the reminder of what he once was. Even now Bilbo could feel the fang reaching for him, the remnants of the Dovah power there searching for its owner and he fell to his knees, breath ragged, before brushing his palm across the bone once more. 

The power surge was less overwhelming now that he was expecting it and Bilbo pulled at it, tugging it up through his hand and arm like a thread, groaning at the feel of it crawling through his skin and bones. He directed the power upwards, collapsing forward and barely catching himself with his free hand as he felt it probe and then surround the aching gash on the back of his head.

Bilbo let out a low, throaty sound as he felt it push and prod the rent skin together, and he only let it continue for a moment before forcing himself to let go. A gentle probe of the wound found it almost completely healed and the Dragonborn leaned back, eyes content as he stared at his fang.

He had many magics as Ulugwin, more than just the power to breath fire and once he had been able to heal and rend flesh, entangle beasts of all kinds into service and blind with illusion with mere words, and bind a soul so tightly to himself through its name that it could never leave.

What was left in his fang was but the smallest echo of that and it was not endless; Bilbo would have to be choosy in using it, for once the reserve within Orcrist was dry it could not be recharged. The Hobbit rewrapped the hilt with shaking hands, swallowing against the call of it, and carefully placed Orcrist away from him.

His entire body was wrecked from the contact, every muscle drawn and tense, and Bilbo let out a sigh of frustration as he glanced down at his lap, eyeing the very prominent bulge there. It was utterly obscene, the Hobbit thought wretchedly, that his body had reacted so to the feel of something that used to be of itself.

Bilbo stood, trying to ignore the aching lust in his groin as he stripped, careful to keep any touches from lingering, and all but stormed into the cold pond. He hissed, his body coming to a dead stop of its own accord at the shocking feel of it, before forcing himself deeper until the water rose to his hips and ducked below. He did not want to feel this way as the Dovahkiin knew that the power in his fang was a cruel, evil thing but he could not deny the way his cock bobbed in the water, erect and swollen.

He’d brought a cloth and soap to bathe with and Bilbo set it upon his oversensitive flesh, rubbing it raw and red as he tried to forget his arousal.

Thorin had not known what to expect when he had set off in search of the Hobbit. He had risen to take his watch only to find their Bulgur absent from the camp and Gandalf giving him some excuse about bathing of all things. He’d let the Wizard know just how foolish of an idea he’d thought that – bathing alone in the night, feet away from where Trolls had ambushed them!

The Dwarf had stormed off, leaving orders with Gandalf to stay on watch until he returned, hell bent on giving Bilbo an earful about his stupidity. He may not like the Hobbit, but Bilbo was a member of his Company and thus Thorin’s responsibility, and he'd be damned if he ran off and got himself killed before he'd been of any proper use! He half expected to find Bilbo in mortal danger or at the very least dozing off in the night air unprotected or something equally foolish, but this…

From where he stood hidden in the wood line, Thorin stood stock still as he took in the naked frame. Bilbo was indeed bathing, back to Thorin and completely bare as the day he was born, made modest only by the water that lapped at his waist. The Hobbit was surprising fit, despite his small frame. It was not the stacked muscle that one found amongst Thorin’s own kind, where it looked as if they had been sculpted from rock, but rather just a firmness that spoke of healthy activity. The skin of Bilbo’s back was tight, the dip of his spine a well-defined valley that led to where the taut swells of the Hobbit’s rump was only just hinted at.

Bilbo turned, his face irritated and the Dwarf could tell he was talking to himself, though from this distance he could hear not what, and scrubbed ferociously at his skin with a washcloth. The moonlight had smoothed the Hobbit’s skin, making it seem free of any blemish, and Thorin’s eyes swept over his form almost on their own accord, taking in the cold-peaked dusty pink of his nipples, the tight stomach and lower still to where only the barest of curls could be seen.

Thorin swallowed around a suddenly very dry mouth, feeling the familiar slithering of arousal, and dropped his eyes to the ground, hands fisting by his side. For as long as he could remember Thorin’s preference had always ran for the male form and with a younger sister and brother, that had never been a problem and he’d been allowed to indulge at will. Yet he had never found himself aroused by any species other than his own, and especially not Hobbits with their clean shaven faces and round, fatty bodies. But…Thorin let his gaze drift back up to the Hobbit. He could not deny that Bilbo certainly did not take after the common of his folk.  

Bilbo let out a sigh that Thorin could hear even from where he stood, his face vexed as he stared down his body, before reaching beneath the water and grasping himself. Thorin felt his breath leave him suddenly, eyes locked on the fisted hand and the swollen, pink head he could just make out within its grip, and felt his mouth gape as he understood (far slower than it should have taken, truthfully) what he was witnessing.

Instinct had the Dwarf looking away, cheeks red. The nerve of this Hobbit! What in Durin’s name was Bilbo thinking? Touching himself so blatantly exposed, in the wilds no less? He was debating about leaving him there (let the fool be eaten! What did Thorin care? He certainly was asking for it!) when a muffled moan had his attention snapping back before he could think better of it.

Bilbo's chest was beginning to rise more fervently as his hips thrust up into his own grip and the clearing was filled with the sound of sloshing water and the soft whimpers of pleasure. Thorin’s own cock was filling out, pulsing painfully in the confines of his trousers, but the Dwarf King refused to acknowledge it, even just to loosen his lacings.

He should leave.

Yet Thorin did not move, eyes intense and focused on the Hobbit, and he did not know how long he stood there and watched. Thorin let out a shaky breath as Bilbo slid a hand behind him. The water and angle that he stood in concealed the Hobbit’s doings, but Thorin was left with little doubt to his actions when he watched Bilbo jerk forward, his mouth dropping open as the hand on his cock flew out and sought the support of a nearby rock.  

Thorin swallowed harshly, his hands curled so tightly that he felt his nails dig into the flesh of his palms, as Bilbo sank against the rock, little hips bucking back wantonly onto his own fingers. Thorin felt his length throb, gritting his teeth to bite back a ragged groan as Bilbo whined, a hand reaching out to grip himself again. The Hobbit’s head thrashed from side to side, seemingly utterly lost to his own pleasure, before he threw it back with a gasp, body arching. The action revealed just the tip of his ruddy and swollen cock – just enough for Thorin to see his completion.

The Dwarf tore himself away, pressing his back against the tree he’d been hiding against and yanked his own turgid length free. It took only a few quick pumps to reach his own peak, hissing from between pressed lips as his hips jerked and twitched, painting the nearby bushes with his seed. Thorin nearly went limp, the trunk baring almost all his weight as he let his head fall forward loosely, breath coming in quick pants. After a moment he opened his eyes, glaring down at the milky sheen to the plant life and stuffed himself roughly away, furious and disgusted.

Bilbo was staring to think he’d done something to earn Thorin’s ire. The Dwarf King had been cold to him when he returned to camp, berating him with quiet hissing whispers from where he stood on watch, and he’d spent the entirety of the morning being so belligerent it bordered on hostile. Well, more than normal. 

True, leaving the camp in the dead of night was not something that Thorin – or any caravan leader – would approve of, but this? This all seemed a bit like over kill. The Dragonborn mused over what could have caused the rather abrupt shift from the casual ignorance that Thorin usually treated him with to this new, more vehement attitude as he slowly ate his breakfast. He could tell from the bewildered looks that Ori kept throwing him and the ones that Thorin’s cousins and nephews kept throwing Thorin that this was not normal behavior for the Dwarf. So what could have possibly happened? What could he have possibly –

“Something is coming!” Glóin shouted from the watch, sending everyone leaping from their seats. And sure enough, the Hobbit could hear the sound of something coming towards them rapidly, the forest alight with the sounds of breaking twigs and groaning bark.

The Company was on their feet immediately, shouting for them to arm themselves and Bilbo reached behind him, loosening Orcrist and Jusk in their scabbards. Whatever was coming was large – very large, Man sized at the very least – and Bilbo kept his hand on Orcrist’s handle, feeling the reassuring, swirling pull of his bone despite the cloth barrier.

“Thieves!” A voice screamed, “fire! Murder!”

And the Dragonborn almost choked on his own spit when Radagast the Brown burst from the wood, eyes roving and wild.

“It’s Radagast,” Gandalf breathed in relief and Bilbo let his hands drop, shaking his head in disbelief. What a good way to get himself killed! The Istari was lucky Kíli hadn’t made him a pincushion from how jumpy the lad looked. “Radagast the Brown, one of my order. What on earth are you doing here?”

Bilbo was wondering the same, as it was rare to see the Brown Wizard free from the wilds.

“I was looking for you, Gandalf.” Radagast said, voice quaking, “something’s wrong. Something’s terribly wrong and…oh.” Befuddled grey eyes blinked at Bilbo in surprise. “Oh. Hello, Baralin, you’ve grown shorter.”

The Dovahkiin felt his lips twitch, eyes crinkling in fond amusement. Radagast had always been slightly touched in the head and it seemed that his long years of self-isolation had done little to help it. It had been an Age since they’d last met, and Bilbo had been a Gondorin soldier of Númenórean blood then, so he could understand the Wizard’s confusion; he had been much taller.

“I’ve not gone by the name for many years, friend.” The Hobbit corrected kindly, bringing a hand out to meet the one reaching towards them. Out of all the Istari, Radagast tended to be more handsy than any of the others he’d met, almost like a child. “It has been Bilbo since my adulthood,” which was not really a lie, as he had many different nicknames as a fauntling. “Now, what has brought you to us?”

Radagast blinked. “Oh. Oh! Yes. Just give me a minute…I had a thought and I lost it.” He said crossly and Bilbo shot a questioning look at Gandalf. The Grey Wizard just shook his head with the face that he’d seen on more than one tried, irritated sibling’s face before.

“Perhaps if we step away for a moment,” Gandalf suggested, leading his fellow away by the elbow, Radagast still muttering to himself.

Bilbo followed a step behind them, as whatever it was that had brought the reclusive Maia out of hiding could only be a bad thing. Removed from the prying and judging eyes of the Dwarves and firmly surrounded by the strength of the trees, Radagast did seem to do better, placing a roughed and dirty hand against a tree trunk as he thought.

“The Greenwood is sick, Gandalf.” At this the Dragonborn found his concern increasing exponentially, as Mirkwood had not born that name for nearly a thousand years, and he wondered just how long Radagast had been in seclusion. “A darkness has fallen over it, nothing grows anymore, at least nothing good,” the Wizard said forlornly, “and the air is foul with decay. But the worst are the webs.”

From where he was packing his pipe, Gandalf froze. “Webs?”

“Spiders, Gandalf, big ones. Some kind of spawn of Ungoliant or I am not a Wizard!”

“In foulness or size?” Bilbo asked sharply, alarmed.

“Yes! Yes! Both!” Radagast said, nodding so quickly he almost displaced his cap.

“Shelob’s brood?” He questioned aloud, voice low, as such news was very ill indeed as their road took them through the wood.

“Perhaps.” Gandalf mused.

“I followed their trail.” The Brown said, voice low, “…they came from Dol Guldur.”

That brought both Bilbo and Gandalf to a standstill, the Hobbit’s hand in mid-reach for the offered pipe. “Impossible,” Bilbo croaked, “it has been abandoned since Oropher took his people to Emyn Duir.”

“No, Baralin. ‘Tis not.” They listened to his tale, and he knew that something of it most have shown in his face or body as he saw Thorin – who had been watching them like a hawk – grow tense. Radagast was shaking bodily when he finished his story, face pale, and Bilbo felt an unnamable horror growing in the pit of his stomach as Gandalf calmed him.

“A necromancer or…” The Hobbit lowered his voice even further, eyes locked on the grass around his toes, “the Necromancer?”

“I do not know,” the Wizard admitted, before pulling out a wrapped parcel from his robes, “but that? That is not from the world of the living.”

The packaged contained a blade. But not just any sword, a Morgul blade, carved and created from the dark sickness of the other realms, and it stunk of his once Masters. Bilbo felt his lips curl up in disgust, nostrils flaring as he pushed himself back against the tree trunk he’d been leaning against, toes digging into the dirt as his body tried desperately to push itself as far away from the thing as possible.

“Put it away, Gandalf!” He snapped, far too loudly, but he had little care for anything until the Grey had slid it from sight.

“Bilbo, it is only-”

“Oh dear, Baralin-”

Both Istari stopped mid-sentence as a howl cut the morning air.

“Wargs!” Bilbo cried out in alarm, hand flying to the comfort of Orcrist and letting out a shout at the same moment a Warg descended on them from above. It landed on Dori, the Dwarrowdam letting out a shriek before lifting it – as if it did not most likely weigh more than eight hundred pounds – straight into the downward swing of Thorin’s blade. Kíli dispatched another, his arrow catching it cleanly through the neck as Dwalin and Balin crushed its head.

Gandalf swirled, a mass of grey and coarse linen, towering over Thorin as he glared down at the Dwarf. “Who did you tell of your quest beyond your kin?”

“No one!”

“Who did you tell?”

“There’s no time!” Bilbo snapped, “the pack’s almost upon us, we have to get out of here!”

“We can’t!” Ori cried out in dismay, “we have no ponies, they bolted!”

For a moment he felt a flair of alarm at loosing Frankie, but it quickly turned into rage and the Hobbit cursed angrily in Hobbitish, glaring at the clearing’s edges. How dare they cause him to loose what was his!

“I’ll draw them off.” Radagast suggested, hand tightening on his staff.

“Don’t be foolish,” Bilbo snapped, “they’ll run you down.”

“Bilbo’s right, these are Gundabad Wargs-”

“And these are Rhosgobel rabbits.” A fiendish light entered the Brown Wizard’s eyes, the grey of them suddenly unnatural, “I’d like to see them try.”

“Rhosgobel rabbits are fast…” The Hobbit paused, exchanging a look with Gandalf, and the Grey Wizard nodded, displeasure heavy on his face.

 “Right!” Radagast crowed gleefully, “I’ll just lead them on a merry little chase, shan’t I?”

::I should go with him.:: Bilbo said, much to his own displeasure, but he knew that with his presence on the sleigh the Company’s chances of escaped increased drastically. The bounty on the Dovahkiin’s head was high and despite the nature of his soul Bilbo was still a Hobbit - easily killed. His betrayal had not been forgotten by the dark forces of Morgoth and certainly not by those of his lieutenant Sauron, of whom Bilbo had been a most precocious enemy.

::Absolutely not!::

::There are at least twenty Wargs out there. You brought me here to help keep your Dwarves alive.:: Bilbo argued, ::let me do my job.::

::I brought you here to handle Smaug-::

::A fat lot of good that will do if we all die before we get there, I’m going.:: When Gandalf moved to object again, he sent him a fierce glare. ::You know I am right about this. I’ll meet you at Rivendell.::

“On if you’re coming,” Radagast called out and Bilbo secured himself in the front basket of the sled.

Ori cried out in alarm at the movement and Thorin’s head snapped to stare at him. “Hobbit! What are you doing?”

“Its fine,” he said as he drew Orcrist free, “I’ll meet up with you later. Stay with Gandalf!” He shouted as Radagast snapped the reigns.

The Dovahkiin let out a grunt as the sleigh rocketed forward, feeling his meager breakfast rebel angrily, and the moment they burst from the thicket the Warg pack was upon them. At least twenty Wargs, and half that in Orc Riders, and he sneered at the sight of them. Bilbo clung to the sides of the rickety sled, Hobbit-keen eyes locked on the following pack. So far they seemed to be taking the bait, following after them in force. They led them in tight and merry circles across the Low Moors, the both of them shouting insults and mocking cat calls behind them, but then the death call of a Warg echoed through the air.

“We’re losing them!” Radagast cried and Bilbo grit his teeth in frustration. Despite his brave words earlier, he’d rather hoped to avoid revealing himself, but there was no denying the attention of the pack had changed, turning like a school of fish or a flock of birds as they focused on the fleeing Company.

“Bloody hell,” he cursed and fought to get a deep breath. It was more of a challenge to do so than Bilbo would have thought, as the wind was rushing past them at such speed it he seemed incapable of getting enough air, “slow down!”

He twisted himself in the bucket, hand locked onto the edge with a deathly tight grip as he pushed the fabric off Orcrist’s handle. He locked his hand against the bone, the rush of power no less intense than before, and forced the trapped air in lungs out. The bellow that escaped him was an unnatural sound, one that ripped at his throat and made his mouth taste of blood, and it sounded more beast than man – and more reptilian than anything else – echoed across the moor.

“Well that got their attention!” The Istari shouted, calling out for his rabbits to run faster still as the pack turned on them once more.

“Show me how your rabbits fly, Aiwendil!”

Radagast's laughter – hysterical and unhinged – filled the air as he did just that.

Despite his rabbits’ mighty speed, the brunt of the pack soon caught up, single minded and mad with their focus locked upon the sleigh. They were incapable of turning away from the thought of killing the Dovahkiin, as it had been breed into their very blood. It mattered not that Morgoth had been driven beyond the far reaches of Arda, or that Sauron had been scattered, for they had assured that the driving urge to annihilate Ulugwin the Blood Traitor was too much for their creations to ever resist.

The sled turned sharply and Bilbo cried out as he lost his grip, tumbling from the basket, Radagast’s worried shout following him. The Dragonborn rolled, body banging painfully across the scattered rocks before catching himself, feet digging into the ground as he slid to a stop. He snarled, using the sudden change in his momentum to launch himself forward, Orcrist clasped in both hands, and gutted the Warg that leapt at him.

He screamed furiously as he cut down its Rider, swinging immediately to rend limb from body as another Warg was upon him.

Bilbo threw himself to the side, barely avoiding an Orc’s grasp as it came careening towards him and he lashed out, Orcrist striking true and sending its head flying. Radagast was turning back, he realized with horror, and the Hobbit ignored the pain of his throat as he shouted for him to flee as he cut down a Rider-less Warg, legs and lungs burning as he sprinted towards a large boulder. If he could get to higher ground he may just have a chance.

But claws clipped his shoulder, sending him tumbling and Bilbo righted himself immediately, swinging Orcrist wildly as his enemies converged on him, the long reach of its blade creating a wide circle around him.

[Traitor! Turncoat!] The Orcs screamed as they circled him, their Black Speech twisted and ugly yet as familiar as any native tongue could ever be to Bilbo’s ears. [Dragonborn the Foul, Dragonborn the Weak!]

The Hobbit sneered at them, bloody teeth bared, his fang pulsing like a second heartbeat in his grip. [Come then, if you think you can.]

The Lead Warg Rider – distinguishable only by the ornate bone and leather crest of his armor – laughed, the sound high pitched and horrible, and drove his Warg down. Its claws never even brushed him, a green fletched arrow piercing it clear through one eye to the other, and the great beast slumped, trapping its Rider’s leg.

Bilbo leapt forward, Orcrist’s blade growing an angry blue as he pierced the Rider’s throat and ended its wretched life. A horn blast sounded through the air, the sound great and terrible, and the Riders – leaderless now – broke under its sound. The pack fled, but the huge Elvish-bred horses kept pace with them easily enough, and the Dragonborn watched in relieved satisfaction as they were cut them down one by one.

Bilbo let himself take a shaky breath – he always forgot how quick and chaos-filled battle was until he’d wet his blade once more – and the adrenaline was still pumping throughout his system, his lungs heaving and his breath hitching as he fought to calm himself. He drew his handkerchief, cleaning the black blood from his fang the best he could before re-sheathing Orcrist, arms crossing in displeasure as a snowy white mount and its rider approached him, a guard on either side.

::You are a Hobbit again.:: The Elf Lord observed, his voice free of any inflection.

::Yes,:: Bilbo said hoarsely, his voice rough and ragged from his earlier display, and stared into the eyes of one he had once killed. ::I am a Hobbit again.::

Chapter Text

Drogo Baggins had lived for as long as he could remember in the shadow of his cousin. It wasn't that Bilbo was cruel or unkind about it, but there was little doubt that when the two Baggins of their generation were compared side by side, Drogo fell short. And the worst part of it all was that Bilbo was so kind and nice and loving he couldn't even hate him for it.

Drogo was a perfectly ordinary Hobbit-lad. He'd hit all his development milestones right when he was supposed to, learning to walk and read and write with his peers. He collected bugs and leaves and rocks like so many of the other fauntlings did in Hobbiton, loved hearing adventure stories more than actually acting them out like most Hobbits, and he had the steady hand and peculiar eye that would serve him well as he followed in his father's footsteps to be a scribe and a book binder.

Yes, Drogo was proud to say the he was about as ordinary a Hobbit as one could get. And that was a good thing, as Drogo could say honestly that he had Hobbit-lasses and lads alike lined up to court him. Because he was educated and funny, good looking and wealthy, and came from good stock. Everyone knew - including Drogo - the direction his life was going. He would grow like the predictable pattern of an oak; tall and straight and with little surprises.

And that was a good thing.

...except when it wasn't.

Because while Drogo was ordinary, Bilbo was extraordinary. While Drogo was educated, Bilbo was a genius. While Drogo was funny, Bilbo was clever enough to keep an entire room fascinated and occupied. While Drogo was good looking, Bilbo was handsome, with his exotic eyes and aristocratic features. While Drogo was wealthy, Bilbo was staggeringly rich. And while Drogo may have a line for his attention, Bilbo had his pick of them all.

And he had Primula Brandybuck,  the love of Drogo's life, so enthralled she hardly noticed him next to his cousin.

But then Bilbo left and Drogo thought maybe, maybe...

16 Nárië, 2941 (Steward’s Reckoning)

“We have to go back.” Ori announced, standing stubbornly still, refusing to begin the descent down towards the Elf city. “Mister Bilbo is out there all alone!”

“Ori,” Gandalf said calmly, “I assure you, Bilbo is quite alright. Radagast would allow nothing to happen to him. He will met us in Rivendell, now come.”

“But-!” The warning look Thorin sent her silenced her objections and the Dwarrowdam wilted, biting her bottom lip worriedly as she stared back at the crevice they had arrived through. It seemed wrong, to just leave him there at the mercy of the Orcs and Mahal knows what else. Bilbo was so kind and gentle and no matter what he claimed about proficiency with swords, the Dam hardly believed it. Her mind was alight with images of him torn and bloody, dying at the hands of the Orcs while they left him merrily behind. Bilbo was her friend, and Ori didn’t have a lot of those. A gentle hand tugged at her elbow, Nori looking at her kindly.

»Come on, lovie,« her sister said softly, »come along now.«

Ori let herself be guided down for only a moment before ripping her arm away with a huff. She wanted to argue her point, but the scribe knew better. She held little hope in convincing Thorin and she knew that despite their best intentions, her sisters wouldn’t support her either.

“Bilbo will be alright,” Kíli said encouragingly from where he’d taken up rear guard, though Ori did not fail to notice how he glanced back as well, face troubled.

“He may even already be waiting for us with the Elves.” Fíli added from where he’d fallen instep in front of her. The Prince hopped down a short but steep incline, turning to her with a hand outstretched. “And he’s got that Wizard with him, like Gandalf said." Ori pressed her lips together, nodding mutely as she took the offered hand out of politeness more than anything else, barely using it as she jumped down. “You’re really worried about him.” Fíli said, surprised, staring at her with brows furrowed.

“Yes, of course I am!” Ori snapped, annoyed, and snatched her hand from where it was still in the golden Prince’s hand. She would hardly have said anything if she wasn’t! Honestly. What a stupid question. “I would feel terrible if anything happened to him, knowing we left him behind like that.”

“You are…fond of him?”

“Fond? Yes, of course, goodness.” The Dwarrowdam huffed.


And had Ori been less frazzled about her errant friend, she may have noticed the odd tone in the Prince’s voice, as it was, she only shook her head and nearly threw her hands up in frustration. She truly loved her kind, but she didn’t understand them sometimes.

“Because, your Grace,” Ori said sharply, turning anger-hot eyes to glare at him, “not all of us are handsome or smart or funny. Some of us have the misfortune of only being born clever! But Bilbo doesn't mind that I like to know things, he listens to me. He cares about what I have to say and never treats me like I’m an annoyance.”

“I don’t-”

But Ori was not yet done. “He treats me like a sane, competent adult – not some Dwarrowling babe that will break with the slightest handling, which is more than I can say for most of you Dwarves. And what’s more, I see no reason why I have to stand here and defend my friendship with Bilbo. Mahal forbid he had the bad luck to be born a Hobbit!”

And then she stormed off, jumping roughly down the last few inclines to join her sisters.

“Ori-” Dori started.

“What?” The youngest ‘Ri asked sharply, feeling worried and greatly put upon and not in the mood for a lecture on the abysmal manners that had been that little outburst.

Her sisters exchanged a look before Dori reached out and carefully smoothed her bangs. “Nothing, dear.”

Elves always brought strange meetings for him, as the unchangeable nature of their race often threw the Dragonborn and this one was no different. Glorfindel looked much like he had the last few times the Dovahkiin had seen him. Staring down at him from atop his destrier, with hair the color of spun gold and eyes so grey they seemed utterly unnatural even for an Elf, Glorfindel looked resplendent in his armor and dark velvet cloak, like a High King of old.

And Bilbo felt the stirrings of the others who had dealt with him just under his skin – and all felt small under those piercing eyes.

The Dragonborn’s relationship with the Elf was complicated, to say the least. He had been responsible for the death of many of Glorfindel’s kin and friends at Gondolin, and though the Elf had never acted on any sort of revenge, he had never hidden how he’d felt from the Dovahkiin.

::My Lord.:: Bilbo said neutrally, head tipping as his eyes flickered from him to his two guards. 

::You are not fit to wield that blade, Dragonborn.::

Bilbo knew he wasn’t. Orcrist had been forged by the great Elven smith Rog for Ecthelion, Lord of the House of Fountains, and it still bore his heraldic symbol on its hilt. Ecthelion had been a mighty elf who, like Glorfindel, had met his death by proxy at the claws of one of the Balrogs Ulugwin had delivered to Gondolin. He was also Glorfindel’s closest friend and brother in arms and according to some - lover. But no amount of guilt would be strong enough to inspire the Dovahkiin to part with his fang, even if that meant keeping the Elf Lord from his dead lover's blade.

He straightened his shoulders - stood taller – and refused to be cowed as he stared up at the Elf Lord. ::Most likely not, no. But it is mine now.::

The cold press of metal slid across the curve of his jaw, settling just under it and Bilbo did his best not to flinch, but he could not contain the way he tensed nervously.

::I could kill you,:: Glorfindel murmured softly and he appeared almost bored, head cocked to the side and grey eyes uninterested, as if killing Bilbo would truly mean so little to him. The Dragonborn knew better, though. ::I could strike you down where you stand, see if your blood bleeds as black as I remember.::

::Glorfindel!:: A voice shouted sharply, irate and instantly the blade was removed from his neck.

There was an soft ‘tch.’ ::Perhaps not.::

Bilbo turned to the new comer, a small, genuine smile taking his face at the sight of Elrond and his sons approaching. He did not bothering in giving Glorfindel another glance, simply sidestepping his mount as he moved to greet them.

::My Lord Elrond, your arrival was keenly timed.:: He thanked with a grin. ::Well met, my Lords Elrohir, Elladan.::

The twin hunters leaned forward as one, wide smiles on their face, and in that moment their easy grins made them looked so much like their uncle Elros it was actually startling.

::Look, Elrohir,:: Elladan said cheerfully, ::our cute little Dwarrowdam has returned to us!::

::Aye, brother, but are you blind? What stands before us is a Hobbit! How you have changed, Mistress Hfal. A sight indeed.::

::It seems you are correct,:: Elladan nodded, ::yet somehow she has grown shorter still!::

::My children,:: Elrond hushed, looking amused. ::I believe you are called Bilbo Baggins now, are you not, Dragonborn? Son of Belladonna Took, a finer Hobbit-woman I’ve never met.::

::That she was.:: Bilbo mused, face wistful. ::She always spoke very highly of your hospitality, though I believe she may have referred to your brood as ‘ruffians.’::

Elrond chuckled at the shocked faces of his sons, before frowning as he swept over Bilbo’s form. ::Come friend,:: he said, leaning over and offering his forearm to the Hobbit, ::let us return to Rivendell and I will see to your wounds.::

::They are not grievous.:: Bilbo said as he accepted the arm and was easily pulled up to ride behind the Elf Lord, ::but I would be honored by your services nonetheless. Our Company’s healer, Óin, is very wise but his bedside manner puts your own to shame, my Lord.::

::Ah, yes, your Dwarves. They are being lead to my house as we speak, I believe.:: Elrond’s voice was amused as he kicked his palfrey into movement, ::Tell me, Bilbo, do you know why Mithrandir is leading the heir of lost Erebor through my lands?::

::No idea, my Lord. I’m simply along to stretch my legs.::

Elrond snorted in disbelief – the action so un-Elvish that the Hobbit had to hide his grin in the soft swells of the Peredhil’s cloak.

Bilbo was quite ashamed to that he’d drifted off on the ride to Rivendell. It spoke volumes, he supposed, of the trust he held in Elrond to do so, but he had known the Elf for a long time and had only found kindness and empathy (something that was not always uncommon among his kind) and on more than one occasion a willing ear to speak his troubles to, for hours at time if needed. So he wasn’t terribly surprised by it. Honestly, Bilbo was more impressed by his own ability to stay on the horse.

The Hobbit was startled awake by rough hands pulling him off the saddle and Dwalin nearly took an elbow to the mouth in his surprise. He blinked up at the tall Dwarf, feeling very much like a child as he dangled in the air, a large hand under each armpit, and was whisked to where the Company was huddled so quickly his feet flung about stupidly.

"Dwalin? What the-" Bilbo sputtered, kicking at the air uselessly, before he was set back down before two almost comically distressed looking Dwarrowdams. "Ah, hello, Dori, Ori.” 

“You’re hurt!” Dori cried, glaring up at the Elves as if they’d been the ones to set the Orc pack upon Bilbo.

“Oh no. Óin!” Ori breathed, eyes wide as saucers and Bilbo nearly started in alarm, both hands rising up to wave in a negative motion.

“No, no, tis only a scratch and-”

“I’ll be the judge of that, laddie.” Óin said sternly, fingers probing at his torn gambeson and his shallow (and it was shallow, the thick fabric had taken the worst of it) wounds. “These are from a Warg,” the healer announced sternly and Bilbo gaped as he received several disapproving stares.

“I thought you said Radagast was going to keep him safe.” Kíli said angrily, completely surprising Bilbo with the heat of his tone as he glared at Gandalf. Gandalf, true to his character, was standing next to a stately Elf Bilbo did not know, looked incredibly amused as he observed them.

“It’s only a scratch.” The Dragonborn repeated and then said probably the worst thing he could have, “and Lord Elrond promised he’d look after it when we arrived.”

No one looked pleased. Óin huffed and crossed his arms, muttering to himself in Khuzdul about the ‘shite Elves call healing’ and Bilbo had to fight a giggle at the subtle, almost nonexistent eye twitch upon Elrond’s composed face. He doubted that they remembered that the Elf Lord was also a master linguist (despite that this was the fact Gandalf had lead them here) and it was probably best they didn’t.

“You can bind it for me after I bathe,” Bilbo soothed, aware that his unthinking words had insulted not only Óin but Glóin, “you’ve done such a good job with my head, I barely even feel it.”

::If you insist on housing this abomination,:: Bilbo’s head snapped to the side at the word, staring as Glorfindel handed his sword off to a page and dismounted, ::you will put him far from my quarters.::

::And you will remember that this my house.:: Elrond warned sternly, eyes narrowing so slightly that only one who knew him well could read the irritation there. ::And that Bilbo is here on a greater authority then your own.::

Glorfindel shrugged, moving with the long, deadly strides that gave away the fierce quality of his nature towards the front steps. His eyes were locked on Bilbo as he passed the Company, their grey darkened and stormy, and the Hobbit felt himself stiffen, leaning back ever so slightly – and subsequently closer to where Dwalin stood behind him. A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and he jumped, glancing up to find the Dwarven warrior glaring at the Elf Lord.

Glorfindel snorted, clearly amused and carried on, his guards ever faithful shadows behind him.

Despite his nap, Bilbo suddenly felt exhausted, the strength of the Elf’s hatred draining whatever little of his reserves he’d been able to refill and he slumped, curling ever so slightly into himself.

“Bilbo?” Ori asked worried from next to him and the Hobbit gave her a wan smile.

“I am just tried,” he assured and his voice sounded pitiful to even his own ears.

“Then come,” Elrond said as he approached them, his eyes sharp and deep with severity of his reassurance, “let your weary bones rest, for you are safe here.”

Bilbo nodded though he did not feel safe, he felt old and tired and dirty. So very dirty. But the Dovahkiin knew that no matter how hot his bath was, he would still feel so.

In the way that it was so often with Elvish settlements, Rivendell had changed very little in the years that Bilbo had been gone. It was grander in some ways; the gardens fuller, the architecture weathered to a gentle perfection even as its inhabitants remained untouched by the passage of time. The Company would be staying for a full two weeks to give their wounds time to heal and their weary spirits a chance to recharge.

Despite the accommodating nature of the Homely House, Bilbo would have preferred that they had left much sooner. It was not that the Elves were unkind to him. No, the underhanded jokes and pranks, hidden by their genteel nature and noble manner, was saved for the Dwarves. The teasing – and truly, despite what the Company may mutter to themselves, that was all it was – was done in good faith and was far kinder than the open hostility the Dwarves showed their rivals.

But for the Dovahkiin – nothing.

The Elves for the most part ignored him. They spoke to him only when they absolutely had to and even then it was with flowing gestures and communicative expressions. Bilbo was the last served at dinner and found his cup and plate empty more than once as the valets tended busily to others. It was not a direct rudeness, more of a gentle aversion, and for that the Dragonborn could not blame them and he tried to accept in stride as he believed that their actions were not mean to harm.

He made them nervous.

Bilbo knew it was harder for the Elves, as unlike any other race they were capable of seeing his true form. Long ago in the Second Age when he had been Lachien, a proud Silvan Elf of Greenwood, her father had told her that her aura was one of malice and fire. That if one stared at her long enough – or had great power – you could almost make out the shadow of her wings. It had devastated Lachien, driving her to fight harder and longer than any other guard in an attempt to prove herself.

It had hurt then and it still hurt now, despite Bilbo’s best attempts to ignore the whispers of ‘lhûgonnen’ and ‘agarwaen’ that followed his through the halls. It had been barely five days and he was already sick of this place.

The questions of his adventures on the Low Moor had been easily enough to deflect with a few lies (Gandalf did tell you I traveled when I was young, I met Lord Elrond and his sons when I rested a summer here) and spun a story of a Warg coming to close to (‘I’ve known Radagast since I was a child, he’s quite mad. Poor thing, gets confused very easily. I went with him half to ensure his own safety, I certainly didn’t think the Wargs would catch us!) the basket and landing an off-chance blow to explain his wounds. His lies had been quickly accepted, not only because he had Gandalf to back his claims but because none of the Company could imagine him fighting.

Yet, the Hobbit was neither foolish nor overly optimistic enough to believe that Thorin considered the subject closed. So far Bilbo had been successful in avoiding not only the suspicious Dwarf but Glorfindel, sticking close to the Dwarrowdams or Elrond and his twins, knowing that neither Lord would approach him unless he was alone.

The moon was high in the sky by the time Bilbo had abandoned any pretense of sleep for the night. As much as he would have preferred to walk around in the casual comfort of his night clothes, Rivendell never slept and he was not willing to be seen improper. He threw on a pair of grey linen trousers (much to his confusion, his wardrobe had already been filled with Hobbit sized clothing made in the Elvish fashion of pastels and high collars and buttons that seemed to go on for days) that had been spun so soft, Bilbo could have easily mistaken them for silk. A silvery-blue tunic had gone over his bed-shirt, an exaggerated sheath of gossamer fabric falling loosely around the leaf-shaped sleeves, with a dove grey sash that his hands still remembered how to tie in the proper Noldorin way. He paused in front of the mirror, running a hand through his freed curls before stepping out into the night.

Despite the late hour, the halls were still somewhat filled and the Dragonborn kept his eyes down as he made his way through the familiar pathways, his feet instinctively seeking the one place he knew would be abandoned; the Mezzanine of Narsil, where the shards of the holy blade slept. Bilbo stepped into the quiet space, eyes tracking across the murals as he made his way to the broad balcony. He leaned on the marble, eyes seeking the brilliant stars above him and he did not know how long he perched there, lost in thoughts, before a tall body joined him.

Elrond looked devastating handsome and wise, clad in the teal and gold of his house, his eyes locked upwards as well. ::I find this place soothes me, with its view of the valley.:: The Elf Lord mused, ::though I fear I am simply growing sentimental in my old age. It was one of the first rooms completed when I built this place.::

::There is nothing wrong with sentiment,:: Bilbo mused thoughtfully, ::and this place is very beautiful.::

::And are you soothed?:: Elrond asked and the Hobbit turned to find astute eyes watching him, ::or does the kindness of my house only offer disquiet?::

The Dovahkiin dropped his eyes. ::They do not mean to be cruel.::

::No, they do not.:: The Elf Lord agreed. ::Though that does not change that they are. I can speak to them, if you wish it.::

::No, don’t do that.:: Bilbo said softly, sighing, before resting his arms and chin upon the railing, eyes watching the angry roar of the Bruinen. ::It's not necessary.::

::My sons would beg to differ.::

The Hobbit laughed, straightening from his lean, and the sound was strained but not free of fondness. ::Your sons’ continued friendship honors me. As does your own, my Lord.::

::Long have you been counted friend of my House and long will you continue to be, for you are deserving of it.::

His laughter was much cooler this time. ::I do not think many would agree with you on that.::

::One day they shall,:: the Elven Lord assured. ::One day they will see what I do.::

His swallow was loud in the quiet room. ::And what is it you see?::

A gentle hand cupped his chin, tilting it up and Bilbo was met with the face of a deeply concerned Elf. Elrond’s cool eyes observed him, a soft frown on his face. ::A brave and precious creature, who dared to rebel against the greatest of evils in our world and gave up everything on the most fragile of hopes, the most desperate of gambles; for the unassured chance to experience love and life and freedom and the warmth of Ilúvatar's great song. And despite that your return has only been violence and death here you are, offering your aid.:: A smooth thumb ran gently across his slightly parted lips in a gentle caress, ::how can such a creature not be deserving of my friendship?::

Bilbo blinked hard against the tears in his eyes, failing miserably as the action only sent them cascading down his cheeks in fat lines, and let himself be drawn into a tight embrace. He clung to the Elf Lord, small frame shaking, and buried his face into the smooth velvet of the Peredehil's chest.

And there, hidden from the world by the folds of Elrond’s body and warmed by the fierce warmth of his embrace, the Dragonborn allowed himself to hope.

He did not know how long they stood like that, wrapped tightly around each other, but eventually Bilbo pulled back, laughing ruefully as he brushed the tears from his face. ::Look at me,:: he said with another self-deprecating laugh, “bawling like a fauntling, I’ve made your front all wet.”

“Do not be bothered.” Elrond dismissed, guiding the red-faced Hobbit with a wide hand against the flat of his back, “though I do believe that you must try to get some sleep. It is quite late for Hobbits.”

Bilbo laughed again, feeling wretched but better in the way one only could after a good cry. His voice was healing, left with only the shadow of a uneven cadence it had before, but the emotions and the strength of his sobs had left it feeling raw and distressed. His nose felt stick and stuffy, his eyes dry and swollen, and he knew both must be red and angry.

“Yes, I think I can sleep now.” He gave the Elf Lord a smile, ::thank you, my friend. Your words…they mean…::

::Hush now,:: Elrond gentled, ::to bed with you. And are always welcomed here, should you wish to stay.::

They said their goodnights, Bilbo feeling raw and exposed, but as if a weight had been lifted from his chest. He had needed Elrond’s kindness more than he had known. It meant everything to have someone who knew what he was; what he had once been and of the lives that had followed it and still found him worthy enough to call ‘friend.’

Perhaps, the Hobbit mused as he made his way back to the wing the Company was staying in, perhaps if not a paramour, I can still have love.

Bilbo smiled as he turned the corner, feeling much cheered, and nearly ran head first into Fíli and Kíli. He blinked in surprise at the Dwarrowlings, his expression mirrored on their own around their loads. Fíli’s arms were full of food of various kinds, while Kíli had somehow managed to get a hold of entire keg of ale and had it awkwardly cradled against his chest.

“Sorry, Bilbo,” Kíli said cheerfully, “didn’t see you there and…” the smile fell from the Prince’s lips. “Are you alright?”

“Hm?” He asked stupidly before remembering the wrecked state of his face. “Oh!” He brought a hand up to press against his still heated cheek. “Oh yes, I’m fine. Just…did you steal those?”

“'Borrowed' would be the word that Nori would use.” Fíli corrected, frowning as well. “Are you sure you are fine? It’s just that, uh, you look like you’ve-”

“Tired!” Bilbo interrupted, skirting around the two Dwarrowlings in his embarrassment. “Quite tired, yes, I must look a mess. In fact I’m going to bed right now. See you in the morning, boys!”

He nearly sprinted away, not daring back to look at the two bemused Princes and locked himself in his room before he could humiliate himself any further.

»Well that was odd.« Kíli murmured as they both stared at the closed door before exchanging a thoughtful stare. Fíli’s eyes narrowed, before jerking his head towards where a group of Elves were mulling about outside in the gardens, the tinkering of their voices drifting through the night air like stupid little bells. Kíli thought for a moment before nodding. Whatever had happened, it was probably the Elves fault. His brother let out a sigh, glancing at him but Kíli only shrugged, not sure what - or even if they should - do anything about it. He let out a huff of displeasure and Fíli echoed it with one of his own. It seemed his brother was just as frustrated with the Elves as he was. Their nonverbal conversation kept on until Kíli finally broke it as they kicked the door to Thorin’s quarters open.

»-just that I think they’re be right arses to Bilbo and he hasn’t done a damn thing.« He complained as he set down the keg before Glóin.

»What are you lads talking about now?« Balin asked from where he was pouring over their great-grandfather’s map with Thorin and Dwalin. Why, Kíli had no idea, as they were no closer to figuring out what it meant than a few hours earlier. As the youngest (and, if Kíli was really honest with himself, the most hungry) of the Dwarves gathered in Thorin’s chambers, they had been sent out to retrieve food, daring the not inconsiderable wraith of the Elvish cooks that guarded their ladder fiercer than a mother wolf did her den. Most of the Company was in the room, save for the Dams and the Bo’ brothers and Bifur, and they were all staring at them curiously.

Fíli hesitated, and he knew his brother's pause came as that the thought of how embarrassed Bilbo had been, but Kíli held no such qualms about sharing the Hobbit's distress.

»The Elves are bullying, Bilbo.« He announced crossly.

»Why do you think this?« Thorin asked, brows furrowed, »he seems to get along with them just fine.«

»Just because he speaks their language does not mean they share a friendship,« Balin admonished from where he’d sat, »and don’t tell me that you’ve not noticed that outside of Elrond and his kin, few here treat our Burglar with much warmness; they keep distant.«

»Aye, I saw one of the refusing to bring him his breakfast this morning.« Glóin added, looking annoyed on Bilbo’s behalf, »just stood outside his chambers, draft lass, until I just took the tray from her and delivered it myself. I think she would have taken it back to kitchen if I hadn’t.«

»They made him cry,« Kíli said sharply, popping the cork from the keg perhaps a tad bit more violently than necessary, because he rather liked Bilbo with his wonderful stories and funny jokes. »We just met him the hall, looks like someone told him that pony of his had died or something.«

Thorin frown turned darker and the dark haired Prince could have snorted at how quickly his brother snapped to attention as his uncle’s stern gaze turned to him. »Is this true, nephew?«

»Yes, Uncle.« Fíli confirmed with a shrug, »he looked very upset.«

As if Kíli was exaggerating. That kind of thing always happened; Thorin looking towards Fíli for clarification. It drove him absolutely bonkers, but he’d come to accept that Fíli’s word would always be taken more seriously than his own. He didn’t know if it was because he was the younger or just because he wasn’t the crown prince, but Kíli had learned to ignore it. After all, he had no wish to be King, so he supposed he could tolerate a little bit of favoring in exchange for his freedom.

»I bet it was that Glorfindel fellow.« Óin offered as he accepted a fife of ale – a fife! These Elves were so backwards they didn’t even have proper ale tankards for them to use! »He seems like an unpleasant type.«

»I didn’ care fer how he looks at Bilbo,« Dwalin agreed darkly, arms crossing as he glowered, and there was general murmurs of agreement to that and even Thorin, with his seemingly perpetual distrust and dislike of the Hobbit nodded.

»I think we should have someone with him,« Kíli announced as he began making himself a sandwich from their massive loot of food. »I don’t trust these Elves a bit and I think that blond one’s got it out for Bilbo.« He looked up to find his kinsmen looking at him in surprise. »What? I like him, is that so wrong? He’s done nothing to us and certainly nothing to the Elves. I mean he's a Hobbit; he probably just sits there and smiles politely while those tree-shaggers do whatever it is they're doing to him.«

»He's suspicious.« His uncle said, his frown increasing, »he’s hiding something and not just about his activities on the Low Moor.«

Kíli shrugged. »You're probably right, but we need him, yeah? So I think it’s best if we keep someone with him, just to make sure blondy doesn’t try to push him off a balcony of something when we’re not looking.«

»I'm with Kíli,« Fíli said with a decisive nod.

»If you boys are so keen on this,” Glóin said with a grin, why don’t you two do it then?«

»What? No!« Fíli shouted and Kíli nodded fervently in agreement, because while it was his idea (and he still thought it was a good one) Bilbo spent much of his time with the Elvish Lord of this place and his sons, »why do we have to do it?«

»Ori does spend a lot of time with Bilbo.« Óin mused to his brother, a hand coming up to rub at his beard.

»Aye, that she does. I suppose we could ask her to do it if you lads aren't up to it.« Glóin agreed.

Fíli paused, and Kíli could literally see the wheels in his brother’s head turning, but whether it was jealousy over the two spending so much time together or a hope to win over the Dam that had Fíli agreeing moments later, he was unsure. »Well, I suppose it was our idea.«

Kíli groaned. »Could you be any more obvious? So pathetic.«

Chapter Text

Tansy Underhill nee Hardbottle, had never had a very good life. She came from the poorest of the poor; her family had originated from Combe, the most ill-respected of all villages for a Hobbit to come from. She was lucky that she had caught Audo’s eye in the market in Bree or she would most likely still be in that rat hole, living amongst Men and on the very edges of the Wilds, exposed to any type of attack and fat with some arse-hole's child.

If the Shire made Bree and Straddle look backwater and uncivilized, it made Combe look like the pinnacle of poverty. It was a rough place and there was always danger, often more from the Men that lived there and the strangers that traveled through it than the actual evils of the Wilds. Tansy had been a barmaid at the Comb and Wattle, one of the only Inns in Combe, and the only one that catered to Big folk.

She’d had her share of foul Men and their entitled attitudes, and more than enough experience around ruffians and cut-throats. She could smell a dishonest soul from a mile away, tell their con with a mere glance.

This was why Tansy had never worried about Bilbo Baggins. A liar he may be, but he meant no harm. Because along with her share of thugs Tansy had met many bereft souls, Men and Hobbit alike, that were so broken, so desperate they hurt to look at because you knew – just knew – that things weren’t going to improve. They were those that life had taken and strung along until they wished for the mercy found in the nothingness of death more than anything else.

And Bilbo Baggins?

He was quite possibly the saddest creature Tansy Underhill had ever had the misfortune to meet. He reminded her of the Sheriff's dog which had been hardly more than a pup when she'd left Combe and already so beaten and defeated. So she welcomed him with open arms and a warm hearth and good food because, as her ma always said, the day Tansy couldn’t find it in herself to pity one with so much less than her, was the day she truly become the Combe-trash everyone thought she was.

Bilbo found that he appeared to have gained a pair of followers. Fíli and Kíli had not left his side over the past few days and without fail, wherever (and he truly meant wherever) the Hobbit ended up in the Homely House, the youngest Durin’s appeared not a handful of moments later.

At first he thought it was Ori, as Fíli seemed to have become determined to make up for past mistakes, trying at all times to dominate and engage the Dwarrowdam in conversation. Poor Ori, the dear didn’t have a clue as to what was happening and the honest bemusement on her face at the extra attention had been a sight to see. Kíli tried to help where he could, though it seemed that the youngest Prince spent the majority of his time flirting with the Elvish ladies. Or rather he was trying to. They indulged him to an extent, but most of the Elves here were many times the Dwarrowling’s age and the mainly seemed to just find it very amusing.

But by the time they’d reached the last week of their stay, Bilbo was beginning to understand that it had nothing to do with Ori at all. Because when he did manage to lose the boys, Dwalin or Glóin – even Óin! – would appear as if out of thin air. And that was not counting the fact that Ori and Dori were a near constant presence at his side. Thorin and Balin spent most of their time in deep conversation, while Bombur had struck up a tentative companionship with the Elven cooks, and his brother and cousin spent most of their time openly and freely roaming the whole of Rivendell. Bilbo had no idea what Nori was up to, only that the Dam looked far too pleased with herself.

It seemed, much to his utter confusion, that Bilbo was never alone. Always a Dwarf was present and this seemed doubly so when an Elf was nearby, even Lord Elrond and his sons. In truth, Bilbo did not see much of Elrond. Every night his friend made time to sit and have tea with him, which was something the Dovahkiin appreciated greatly, but it was Elladan and Elrohir that the Hobbit saw the most.

He had come to the revelation that he was, disturbingly enough, being babysat. Though whatever for, the Hobbit had little idea. Was his watch born out of distrust or something else? They were all good natured about it, so perhaps at the very least not out of total suspicion. So than why?

In a way it was a relief that he was never alone, as it kept both Thorin and Glorfindel at an arm’s reach and Bilbo found himself avoiding them easily. With that in mind, as they reached their eighth day in the Last Homely House he tried to take the constant Dwarven presences in good stride. At the moment Bilbo was reading the garden, watching as Fíli tried his best to impress Ori with his stories. To his credit the new angle was much better than whatever disastrous thing he’d been trying before, even if the blonde Dwarrowdam did not care so much for the detail the Prince put in about killing and dismemberment, she seemed very captivated by his words.

They were sitting together on a bench, Dori not even an stone’s toss away, working on some mending and acting as a chaperon, though Bilbo didn't think Ori had realized what was happening. The two were leaning towards each other, the Dam’s head cocked to side as she listened to whatever tale Fíli spun and the golden Prince was over the moon at her interest.

Kíli sat at the table with him, looking utterly bored, watching him read with annoying intensity in the same manner that he had been for the past half hour. The Hobbit was beginning to believe something was wrong with him, as he hasn't blinked in nearly as long. It was an honest relief when Elladan and Elrohir arrived, drawing his attention away from the Hobbit. The Dwarrowling glanced at them before frowning, arms crossing. “Don’t you two have – I don’t know – Elfy things to be doing rather than just bothering Bilbo all the time?”

“Kíli!” Bilbo admonished, swatting at his knee with his book. “Be polite.”

Neither one of the twins looked even vaguely offended, though.

“It hurts us to know Bilbo’ll soon be gone from here and we simply wish to visit as much as possible.” Elrohir assured the Dwarf.

“Yes, we treasure our time with our Hobbit.” Elladan agreed with an earnest nod.

“Your Hobbit?” Kíli sputtered.

“If Bilbo’s anyone’s Hobbit, he’s ours. We got him first." Fíli announced as he strolled up, frowning, and Bilbo nearly rolled his eyes at the predictable hoggishness of Dwarvish nature.

“I have known him for years,” Elrohir pointed out, “so by your own logic he belongs to us.”

“We have a contract!” Kíli said haughtily, “he’s our Bulgar and – ow!”

Fíli had silenced his brother with a kick, though Bilbo really doubted that they were hiding any of their intentions from the Elves. Not to mention that whatever it was they were managing to hide would disappear completely once Elrond read the map. They still had a handful of days before the moon phase matched what they needed to read the moon runes and the Hobbit found himself not looking forward to the event and the conversation that would undoubtedly follow it.

Elrond had not repeated his offer to allow Bilbo to remain behind, though he knew it was still standing. He doubted the Elf Lord would approve of their quest no matter how Gandalf spun it, and the danger of Smaug reawakening and the provable outcome of the Dovahkiin’s death would most likely have no small part to play in Elrond's final objections. It was often unpredictable how and where he was reborn, and the uses of the Dragonborn was regarded as something to be carefully counted and devised.

“Lads,” Bilbo interrupted sternly, “I am no one’s Hobbit, thank you very much. Elladan, Elrohir, why don’t you take Fíli and Kíli down to the practice fields? Kíli is remarkable with his bow and I daresay Fíli could cut the wings off a bumblebee with his throwing knives.”

“What? No-”

“We couldn’t possibly leave you, Bilbo!”

“Oh, come now,” the Hobbit said, “what do you think will possibly happen to me sitting here? The worst I’ll get is a bit of sunburn. Go on, it can’t be good for you two sitting for so long.” The Princes exchanged a look before glancing over at the ‘Ris. “Yes, yes. Dori and Ori will be here with me, won’t you? See? All’s fine.”

“I don’t know,” Fíli said slowly, though he was obliviously considering it, “we better not.”

“Heavens!” Bilbo cried out, exasperated.

“Well, if you don’t think you can.” Elrohir said thoughtfully, “I wouldn’t want to embarrass the sons of Durin.”

“Of course not,” Elladan agreed gently, “you are our guests. Please, think nothing of it.”

Very slowly, Kíli set down his cup and stood, adjusting his tunic primly. “I’ll show you embarrassing. Fíli – come on, we’re gonna show up these leaf-eaters on their own grounds. Mister Bilbo, you better be here when we get back.”

“Yes,” he promised, amused, “I promise. Right in this spot. Go and have some fun.”

He had no idea, in that moment, what unholy alliance he was creating by allowing those four to associate with each other. The various competitions between the pair of siblings over everything – from the best way to block using various weaponry, to the right way to loosen a grip, even to how to properly braid or to skin an apple - would become the bane of anyone forced to observe it.

It was almost (dared Bilbo even think it) verging onto friendly by the time the week had come to a close and everyone – from Bilbo to the Company, to the already very flummoxed Elves (there had been a few incidents with singing and dancing on tables and a public fountain that was very much not a public bath, which was repeatedly used no matter how many times the Dragonborn tried to correct the behavior) – was tired of being forced to participate, observe, and pass judgments. Of course, nearly all were done in the benefit of one race or another and even when it wasn’t, someone would claim the outcome tainted do to favoritism and the whole thing began all over again.

And since Fíli and Kíli insisted on being near Bilbo at all times, this meant the Hobbit had to partake and witness all of them. It was more exhausting then watching his fauntling family members; never had his Brandybuck or even Took cousins ever remotely been so time consuming and constant, and by weeks end all the Dovahkiin wanted was five minutes to himself. If only to use the restroom or bathe himself in peace.

The library was quiet and deserted when Bilbo slipped into it and the Hobbit let out a deep breath when he did not hear the heavy boot falls of Dwarves following him. It seemed he had finally managed to give Fíli and Kíli the slip; but by Manwë those Dwarrowlings were insistent when they wished to be! The damnable lads had even been waiting for him when he returned from the Moon Viewing pavilion. He wasn’t even sure how they knew where that was!

While he had no qualms about their company, their constant presence had made the Dovahkiin crave solitude. Tonight was their tenth night at Rivendell and Bilbo’s mind was troubled with thoughts of the coming journey and its un-doubtable end; Bilbo’s end. Elrond had just read them the map and to say that the Elf Lord was unamused by their quest would be an understatement. Bilbo had tried to stay out of it as much as possible, but it was hard with Elrond and Gandalf arguing at every corner.

So…now they had not only an entry place, but a date and time.

Durin’s Day.

The Hobbit moved through the tall shelves, fingers ghosting across the book spines, eyes distant and forlorn and tried terribly to not feel as if his days had officially become numbered. He was loathed to leave the safety of Rivendell – or rather to leave his friendship with Elrond and his sons – and he knew they must leave soon if they had any hope of arriving to the Lonely Mountain on time. But…who knew the next time they would meet? Or rather, what lifetime? How many more years did they have together before the Elves left for the West?

Then he would truly be alone, for who would ever live long enough to recognize his ever changing face?

“Ah,” Bilbo said to the empty library, “so it was your eyes I felt on me all day. Tell me, Haldir o’ Lothlórien, when did the Galadrhim come to Rivendell? For surely I could not have missed such a thing.”

“But you did,” a voice answered cheerfully and the elegant Elf stepped out of the shadows, ::as we are here, and though you did not notice me, I watched you long today.::

The Dragonborn grinned, truly happy to see him, for when he had spent nearly a decade in Lothlórien as Lachien, he had grown quite close with Haldir and his younger brothers, Rúmil and Orophin. It mostly like did not bode well – to either their quest or the state of the world at large – that he was here, as Haldir was the Captain of the Marchwardens and one of Galadriel’s most trusted guards. If Haldir was here, chances the Lady was as well.

::What ill tiding brings you here, I wonder?:: Bilbo mused but the Elf simply shrugged.

::It is not for you to worry about, I assure.:: Haldir said as he drew closer and his height was odd as none of Bilbo's memories of the Elf required him to look so far up. ::Though I hear you have been called to a quest.::

::You hear? Why do I believe you are fishing for information, Warden?::

The Galadrhim laughed, the sound full and musical in the quiet library. ::Are we to play ‘tell me yours, and I shall tell you mine?’ So be it. I have accompanied the Lady to Rivendell, so she may participate in the White Council.::

Bilbo felt his mirth nearly completely disappear, as a White Council was a fell thing indeed, and it boded very poorly.  And with Trolls down from the Ettenmore and Orcs wandering freely through the Lone-lands and within the borders of Rivendell - it faired very poorly, indeed.

He voiced his concerns and watched as they were echoed on his friend’s face. They spoke together quietly, Bilbo telling of his quest and Haldir of what he had seen on the borders of his land, and their conversation fell into the same teasing rhythm it had when he had stayed in the golden wood. Bilbo found that he had missed his friend much more than he had thought, and was filled with a deep gratefulness for the chance to have seen him again, especially with the concerns of his previous thoughts. Eventually the hour grew late and Haldir ended their conversation with a wave of his hand.

::Come now, let us not talk of such dark things. We could retire to my chambers,:: the Elf said casually, his long fingers tracing the spines and somehow managed to make the move seem utterly indecent. ::I think we would both find our new scales most…interesting.”

::Haldir…:: Bilbo said wearily. ::You know that I am not her, not any longer.::

::Do you think such things matter to me?:: The Galadrhim asked, voice a low purr, ::you are my dearest friend, whether you are Lachien of the Greenwood or Bilbo Baggins of the Shire.:: The Dragonborn felt his eyes flutter shut at the light touch of soft fingers across his jaw. ::I know how you crave touch and I would be bereft if I did not offer you a chance at comfort before you depart with your pets.::

::You,:: Bilbo chuckled as he pushed Haldir’s hand away, ::are still a terrible flirt. I am not surprised in the least that you remain unwed.:: They had never laid together (though not for lack of trying on the Marchwarden’s part) and it was as rewarding to see that his friend had not changed his roguish behavior, as it was to know that the tie of friendship between them was still strong enough that such harmless teasing could continue with ease and comfort. ::Dwarves are hardly ‘pets,’ my friend, nor are they my own.::

Bilbo gasped as he was suddenly pulled forward by the waist, the large body curving around his own like a missing puzzle piece as a hand carded through his curls gently and angled his face upwards. Haldir was inches away and the Hobbit felt his eyes widen in shock. Had he somehow misread the situation? Was the Elf's feeling deeper than just playfulness? Bilbo was suddenly struck by the fear of what his rejection would do to his friend. If Haldir was to ever fade because of him…the Dovahkiin did not think he could live with himself.

He felt his body stiffen in the Galadrhim’s hold, eyes wide and panicked as his mind raced tried to find a way to defuse the situation, and Haldir leaned closer, his locks draping over them like a waterfall of white gold.

::Not yours?:: The Elf mused, his breath tiny little flutters against the Hobbit’s mouth. ::I beg to differ, my friend.::

“Bilbo!” A voice snapped and the harsh grate of it seemed to break whatever spell had been cast and Bilbo pushed Haldir away roughly. Thorin was standing at the entrance to the library, eyes furious and hands fisted at his side.

::Haldir, what on earth-:: Bilbo started, but the Galadrhim only gave him the tiniest of smiles, which on Haldir was as good as a full blown smirk. ::You did that one purpose! Whatever for?::

::I have no idea what you speak of,:: Haldir lied easily, drooping an arm across his shoulders before giving them a mighty squeeze, his eyes flirting from Thorin to Bilbo. ::Be safe, my friend, and come visit me when you can. Rúmil and Orophin will beyond grief if you do not.::

The Hobbit gaped at him, too stunned to come up with an appropriate rebuke, and watched as he glided away, exiting through one of the library’s side entryways.

“Well,” the Dragonborn murmured to himself, “that was odd.”

He glanced back at Thorin – only to find the Dwarf steps away from him. “Do all Hobbits have tastes so perverse?” The King snapped, voice and eyes alight.

Bilbo stiffened, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t lie to me!” Thorin snarled. “I know what I saw. Tell me, have you bedded that blond Lord as well? Is that why he shadows your every step?”

“I have not slept with Glorfindel,” the Dovahkiin said coolly, his own eyes flashing, “nor Haldir.”

He moved to step past him - head held high - because he’d be damned if he explained himself to some pompous, racist Dwarf. Especially not when he didn’t have anything to explain! From his first few meeting with Haldir as Lachien, the two Elves had always flirted and teased, but both had known that it was little else than the comfort a soldier finds amongst their peers. Neither Haldir nor the Dragonborn viewed each other in such a light, despite whatever may be said between them. A hard grip caught Bilbo by the forearm, stalling his motions and he glared up at the exiled King.

“I will not have a member of my Company consorting with Elves!”

“I have not consorted with anyone,” Bilbo snapped, “and even if I had, Thorin Oakenshield, it would be of no business of yours.”

The Hobbit gasped as he was suddenly shoved up against a bookcase, the wooden frame shaking with the impact, the books starting in their places. The sound of his back hitting it was very loud – overly so in the quiet place – and it seemed to echo ominously along with the angry sounds of their breaths. “You will obey me, Hobbit!”

“I will do no such thing,” Bilbo snarled, “I am here on my own volition, o’King, not yours. I am no more your subject than Haldir’s, and I will do as I see fit. Perhaps I’ll even take Lord Elrond on his offer to stay.”

They were very close, the Dragonborn realized, almost toe to toe and Thorin’s muscled front was like living stone inches from his own frame, so close he could feel his body heat.

The grip on his forearms was bruising, “you wouldn’t dare.”

“Watch me.” Bilbo grit out, his teeth bared in a dirty smile.

“The contract-”

“Bugger the contract.”


“My name is Bilbo.” The Dragonborn corrected sharply, “not Hobbit, nor Halfing. Bilbo Baggins, and you will use it Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór.”

Thorin inhaled sharply through his nose, blue eyes practically electric, and he had made the Dwarf very angry but Bilbo could also see something else – something elusive – in the piercing stare.

“Fine.” The Dwarf King spit out, releasing Bilbo abruptly, “do as you wish, historian. I care not anyway.”

And then quite suddenly Bilbo was alone – and terribly confused – in the library once more. He slumped against the abused bookshelf, bringing a hand up to his mouth. What in the name of the four farthings had that been about?

The boys had managed to lose the Hobbit. How, Dwalin wasn’t sure, as he certainly was not an actual Bulgar, but he’d bet his axe it was because they’d gotten caught up in some silly measuring contest with the Elf twins. Last time he’d seen Fíli and Kíli they’d been arguing with them, all four holding nearly identical knots of leather. Dwalin couldn’t say he approved of the time they seemed to be spending together, even it was with the best intentions (which was, of course, proving the superiority of the Dwarven race), and he knew that Thorin most definitely did not.

But the lads were still just Dwarrowlings, only ten and fifteen years into their majority and they deserved a bit of fun. Which was why he’d agreed to help them find Bilbo, but if the tall Dwarf didn’t locate him in the next few minutes he was going to let them roast before Thorin’s fury and get some sleep. Thorin...that was a whole other item for consideration in itself. His King had been in an absolute foul mood lately.

Dwalin wasn’t sure what was going on with his cousin, but he’d known Thorin since they were both the smallest of Dwarrowlings. They’d shared a bassinet for Mahal's sake, there was little that his King could hide from him. He may not know what it was, but Dwalin knew that something was happening with his cousin and that it had to do with Bilbo. Thorin was completely enthralled by the Hobbit. It did not escape Dwalin nor Balin's notice that he was constantly watching him. But just what the nature of it was – for with Dwarves obsession could be many different things indeed and not all of them pleasant – Dwalin did not know. Which again was why it was best that the Hobbit was located without Thorin being made aware he'd managed to slip his watchers.

Bilbo tended to spend a lot of time in a small, enclosed garden that had a trickling fountain and a breath taking view of the Bruinen falls, so Dwalin started his search there. Yet the garden was free of Hobbits much to his annoyance. It was not, however, free of Dwarves. Dwalin frowned at the sight of Nori bent over a sack, a wily grin on her face, and he’d been a guardsman for far too long to walk away from such a scene. He’d be damned if they got kicked out of Rivendell before they were good and ready because of one Dwarrowdam and her sticky fingers, even if they did plan on departing in the next day or so.

“Nori,” he called out, smirking in pleasure as the thief jumped in surprise, whirling around to face him with wide eyes. “What’s that there?”

“…this?” Nori’s honey smile could have drawn flies, “nothing, nothing. Just my laundry.”

“Oh, so you don’t mind if I take a look.” He took a step forward and was rewarded with the Dam taking an immediate step back. A second step resulted in the same.

“Now, now!” She sputtered, swinging the bag behind her. “You wouldn’t want to impose on a Dwarrowdam like that, would you Master Dwalin? Not a good, fine Noble-dwarf like yourself. I’ve got my unmentionables in here, after all.”

“Nothing I haven’t seen before.”

“Mister Dwalin!” Nori gasped, shocked, and it was so over-acted he almost laughed aloud. He did let his grin grow as he advanced even further until they were almost within a step of each other.

“Come on, lass, let’s take a look.”

“I am offended! Dismayed! Insulted!” The red-headed Dam exclaimed, hand flying to her breast. “I am hardly that type of Dam.”

“Nori,” Dwalin warned, pointing his finger directly into her face, “put it back – all of it – and I won’t tell Dori.” Nori gaped at him and he saw the Dwarrowdam’s movement seconds before she tried to dart past him. He caught her easily around the middle. “Now, lass, behave and stop – this!”

The warrior grunted as he was suddenly flipped, Nori shifting her weight all at once and rolling Dwalin over her hip so he landed harshly on his back. The thief moved to run but his hand shot out, grabbing her ankle and pulling out from underneath her. The squeal he was rewarded when she landed face first with was most gratifying.

That earned him an attempted kick to the face, the off angle having it land onto his shoulder bone instead, and Dwalin let out a loud ‘oph’ as the Dam struggled to free herself. He caught the second kick, yanking Nori down by her ankle. She fought like a brawler, all claws and limbs and utterly untrained and the two rolled across the garden, smashing flowers and bushes at will.

It took a long moment to pin her down (surprisingly long, much to Dwalin’s approval) but he did eventually manage to do so; with the full of his weight on her shoulders, legs bracketed along her thighs. They were both grinning, chests heaving, and then all at once Nori was laughing and Dwalin couldn’t help but join in.

“Alright, Master Dwalin,” Nori voice slightly wispy from her laughter, “I’ll put my laundry back.”

He smirked, amused, down at her. “See that you do.”

Dwalin felt his grin mute as he watched her giggle, her cheeks almost the same rosy hue as her hair, hazel eyes bright with mirth, and suddenly became overly aware of how lithe yet strong her body was underneath his own. Of the way her shorter body fit so easily against his own. The joyful sounds faded off, Nori’s smile gentling as she stared up at him and Dwalin felt his chest grow tight. 

“You’re very heavy, Master Dwalin.” Nori said, her tone deep and like liquid gold, slithering through and over him. Dwalin let her go, drawing slowly onto his knees, eyes still locked on the Dwarrowdam’s form as she slid onto her rump before standing. The Dwarf stood as well, watching as she brushed herself off before throwing him a grin and a wink and gathered her bag, disappearing back into the halls of Rivendell. Dwalin stared after her, mind oddly blank save for the ghost of Nori’s form against his own. The Dwarf shook himself, reprimanding himself harshly for acting like a Dwarrowling (sure, it'd been a few years since he'd been that close to a Dwarrowdam, but still he was middle-aged, far past the time when he could be acting so foolishly over a Dam) and started off to find their errant Hobbit once more.

Once more in the odd, overly exposed open aired hallways, Dwalin turned the corner, still scowling, and felt his expression grow darker still at the sight before him. Bilbo was practically pressed against a pillar while the blond Elf Lord – Glorfindel – stood before him. The Hobbit’s head was bowed, his expression hidden for the most part by his wealth of curls, but Dwalin could still see the pitiful twist of the lad’s mouth. Glorfindel was standing at his full height, back plank-straight and all but towering over the smaller form. He could not hear what he was saying, though it wouldn’t have matter as like most Dwarves, Dwalin had never learned to speak that flowy pig’s squabble.

But he didn’t need to speak Elvish to understand what happen in front of him, the edge of the Elf’s voice spoke enough of the tone of their conversation. Bilbo seemed to shrink even further into himself, hands curling into the ridiculous long hem of his tunic and something hot and angry and protective flared inside the Dwarf; to see such a small thing cowed so!

And when the leaf-eater reached out towards their Hobbit, it burst from him in an angry growl. “Put yer hand on him and I’ll rip it off.”

Both started, Glorfindel swinging around to face him so gracefully it only infuriated the Dwarf more. The blond’s lips twisted into the slightest of sneers before he moved away without a word. Dwalin watched his leave with a fierce frown. Bugger it all, he’d like to help get that stick out the Elf’s arse – preferably by shoving it all the way up through his mouth.

“You alright, lad?” Dwalin asked as he turned back to the Hobbit and found his violent thoughts grounding to a halt. Bilbo was peering up at him, his strangely colored eyes wide and suddenly he seemed young – and he was very young despite the fact that the Hobbit rarely looked it, hardly an adult. The look in those eyes were the very same that had been there when Dwalin had pulled him from the water of the Hoarwell, when he’d mistaken him for his Da, and it made something in the Dwarf twist possessively.

“Thank you.” Bilbo murmured, voice soft, "that was very kind of you."

Dwalin cleared his throat, reaching forward and guiding the Hobbit towards their rooms by his elbow. “Yer too trusting, laddie, best to stick near one of us. Stop wandering off and causing trouble.”

Bilbo ducked his head with a nod, but not quick enough to hide the pleased grin on his face though, and Dwalin was suddenly grateful for his height as it hid the slight spattering of red on his own cheeks.

Chapter Text

Gorbadoc Brandybuck – Gorba to his friends and family, Broadbelt or the Master to everyone else – was an old Hobbit even by Hobbit standards. He had seen many strange things in his life, doubly so by Hobbits standards, having been born and raised so close to the Old Forest.

The Forest was in a mood tonight, the trees shifting and shaking despite the still air, their howls echoing across the burnt glade and across the Hedge. His Bounders shifted nervously at their posts, unsettled by the unusual activity and prepared for any mischief with stacked and soaked wood for bonfires every twenty feet and fuel soaked arrows and torches at the ready. They had good reason to be nervous. The last time the Old Forest had made such sounds the trees had attempted to destroy the High Hay and invade Buckland, resulting in a night nearly as bright as day as the bounders lit the woods at will and brought about the barren, burnt land of the Bonfire Glade. From where he stood at the top of the Hedge, Gorbadoc watched with detached fascination as certain leafy crowns moved – slowly but surely – across the forest.

But as bizarre as this was (and most of the Shire did not believe their stories of walking trees) nothing could ever have compared to Bilbo.

Oh, Gorbadoc had recognized what he was right away. It was hard to forget eyes like that after all, and old Broadbelt had been alive long enough to remember another Hobbit who’d born them before Bilbo was even a glimmer of an idea in his parents eyes. Yet despite everything he’d been told about the Dragonborn, Gorbadoc couldn’t bring himself to hold it against the poor lad.

Bilbo had just been so small and gentle, those peculiar eyes ancient and tired, as if he’d seen so much more than any creature should have. And so Bilbo had always been welcomed in Buckland and at the table of the Master, and Gorbadoc had always encouraged his children to treat the Baggins like he was their own.

This did not mean that he ever forgot what he was, however, and Gorbadoc had kept a firm eye on the fauntling throughout his development. There was a lot of power inside that lad and should the Master had ever suspected for even a moment that Bilbo was falling back into his ‘old ways,’ he would have been the first to put him down.

And he was not alone in this.

As much as they all loved the boy, there was a certain understanding between the Thain and himself. The Mayor was kept out of it, of course, unless he was blood, because such matters were always best left within the family. Even if it would have broken their hearts, had Bilbo shown even an inkling for cruelty or foul temper, they would have given him to the Rangers to deal with.

The Shire was far too simple of a place to handle something like a Dragonborn.

But Bilbo had grown up to be a good, loving lad. And though Gorbadoc had known from the moment he had been born, Bilbo’s time in the Shire was numbered, knowing that he was gone – truly gone – was disturbing as it was disheartening. The Master thought of this, thought of the kind little lad his godson had grown into, of whatever many numbered horrible fates that awaited him, and feared for Bilbo. There was a loud creak, followed by an even louder snap, and Gorbadoc’s stiffened, his aged but still strong figure straightening.

The Forest was advancing.

Dwalin let out a sigh as he stepped into his room, closing the door with a click and instinctively latching the lock. Bilbo had been half asleep as he’d guided him to his rooms, the Hobbit’s steps slow and sluggish. The poor lad had been through too much here. The sooner they left, the better.

The Dwarf kicked off his boots, frowning as he thought of the blond Elf and his intentions towards Bilbo, as he undid his belt and tossed it onto a nearby chair. He worked off his gambeson, rolling his shoulders and wincing slightly as the left one creaked something nasty, before yawning. He had peeled off his tunic (probably ought to try and give it another thorough wash before they left) and began to undo the laces of his trousers when the distinctive sound of someone dropping to the floor had him pivoting around on one foot and instinct had his dagger flying loose – only to choke in horror as it flew at an equally started looking Nori.

He would thank Mahal till the day he died for the thief’s quick instincts as Dwalin’s dagger caught only the excess fabric of her tunic, pinning her to the wooden frame, just shy of the flesh of her shoulder. For a moment they both just stood frozen and Dwalin was sure that his eyes must be as wide and shocked as the hazel pair that stared at him. Nori hung awkwardly from the pin point, left foot tip-toe on the ground while the other hovered, her entire right side higher than the left, her body frozen in its decent from the open window.

»Are you out of yer Mahal thieving mind?« Dwalin snarled, the horror at what could have happened making his tone sharp, and the Dwarf swore his heart was about to beat right out of his chest it was beating so quickly.

»Should have used the door, I guess.« The Dam offered, voice sheepish but not without a shake to it, and that made Dwalin’s stomach only twist more.

»You guess?« He snapped as he crossed the space, reaching out and freeing the blade with no small amount of force. Nori landed with a soft ‘oph,’ face red with embarrassment, and squirmed uncomfortably. Dwalin ignored the small Dwarrowdam’s discomfort, a wide hand stilling her fidgeting as the other gently pulled at the torn fabric. When it became clear that (somehow) Nori had managed to avoid injury, he left out a breath of relief that Dwalin hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. »Tha’s a good way to get yerself killed, lass.«

»I’ll just have to remember not to surprise you.« Nori said, voice somehow cheerful, eyes glinting with mischief as she stared up at him. »But I can’t say it wasn’t worth the view.«

Dwalin felt his own cheeks heat, suddenly very aware that not only was he almost completely dressed down – shirtless and with his trouser laces totally undone – but that only a scant few inches separated himself from the Dam. Nori’s eyes dropped down, unashamedly dragging across his exposed flesh and Dwalin felt his mouth go dry as the very hint of a pink tongue darted across a full bottom lip.

Dwalin swallowed, trying to ignore the pulse of lust and answering swell in his groin. There were no words to describe how inappropriate this was; Balin would have his balls if he knew he’d met with an unwed Dam of such noble lineage alone and half dressed, in his bedchamber of all things. That was if Dori didn’t get to him first. Even if it seemed that Nori wasn’t entirely opposed to – Dwalin cut that thought short, releasing his grip on the Dwarrowdam before moving back to the fire, tugging on his tunic, and tried to will away his interest.

Nori followed him, her face heavy with a frown as she leaned against the warm stone of the fireplace. »I had a good reason for being here, you know.«

Dwalin allowed himself a moment to take in her form, his fingers slowing to a crawl as he redid his lacings, eyes taking in the sight before him. The firelight played off Nori's hair, making it seem like strands of spun gold were hidden amongst the red, and brought out the green of her eyes, making them appear almost like fine, clear emeralds. Nori’s arms were crossed, pulling the thin tunic closer to her body and outlining the full set of her breasts – something that was never visible through her gambeson and tabard – and the backlighting cut through the fabric, only just hinting at a shadowed form and the subtle curves that shaped the stocky body of a Dam.

Dwalin tore his gaze away, clearing his throat as his tied his lacings just a smidge too tightly. »Get to the point, Nori. We both have to be up early tomorrow.«

She shifted, turning to press her back against the fireplace, frown growing fiercer. »I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others but…just what is going on between Thorin and our Burglar?«

Well. That did a fairly good job of redirecting Dwalin’s attention. He regarded the Dwarrowdam guardedly. »Why do you ask?«

»I saw something…disturbing…in the library just now.«

The sun was only just starting to rise when Dwalin and Thorin circled each other slowly, each foot step carefully measured, eye’s locked on each and every of the other’s move. Their weapons were drawn; Thorin’s Glamdring and Dwalin’s Keeper and Grasper. Morning spars were hardly anything new for the cousin pair, though neither had indulged it since entering Rivendell, both too weary of watching eyes. But Dwalin had dragged them out here all the same, because Dwalin was confused. And concerned.

If there was anything that a stout, simple warrior-Dwarf decidedly did not like, it was being confused. If there was one thing he hated even more than being confused, it was being concerned. And what Nori had told him had made Dwalin very concerned.

There was the barest twists of muscle – something that could hardly truly be called movement – and then the pair were rocketing towards each other. Dwalin put every inch of strength behind his blows and each strike he laid upon his cousin would be crippling to a lesser Dwarf and for most of the company. He could see the moment that Thorin began to take the spar seriously, a flash of confusion before blue eyes hardened with determination and his King struck back just as cruelly.

The ferociousness that Dwalin fought with was uncalled for a friendly spar, but it was deliberately done. Physical exhaustion and the resulting frustration was one of the few ways the older Dwarf had discovered to break down the impenetrable walls around Thorin’s heart and mind. And so Dwalin gave his King no quarter in their spar, attacking mercilessly, forcing his cousin to be on the defensive, using his superior size and strength to force him back. But what Thorin may have lacked in brute strength, he made up in raw skill, and there was no mistake that his cousin gave as good as he received. They swirled around each other, grunting and cursing, sweat soaking their bodies despite the shortness of the spar. What the mock fight lacked in length it was making up for in intensity and only a handful of minutes – less than a quarter hour, in truth – had passed, the two broke apart, chests heaving.

“Dwalin,” Thorin growled out, brows drawn low, “have I done something to offend you?”

“I dun' know,” he answered, flicking Grabber violently, “have you?”

Now Thorin looked completely bewildered. “What’s gotten into you?

“What’s gotten into me?” Dwalin repeated with a bark of a laugh. “What’s gotten into you? Attacking the Hobbit?”

And just like that, the younger Dwarf’s entire countenance darkened. “Who told you that?”

Nori’s face flashed into Dwalin’s mind, drawn tight and pale as she peered up at him, eyes nervous as she recounted her tale. “From what I understand you were loud enough that I don’t need ta name a source.”

Thorin scoffed, rolling Glamdring in his hand as he paced a few steps to the left and then back again, clearly frustrated and irritated. This type of behavior was something that Dwalin hadn’t seen in years – not since they’d first years of their journey from the Mountain, when Thorin had been driven nearly to madness at the disrespect and advantages taken against his people. It was a Thorin of a different age, a much younger and unstable one, and to see it again after so long was disconcerting to say the least.

“He threatened to leave the Company.”

“Just like tha,' nigh a’ prompting.”

“He is laying with the Elves, who knows what he has told them.”

Dwalin snorted, hefting Grabber up to rest on his shoulder as he leaned on Keeper, eyes narrowing. “You don’t believe that.”

“And why wouldn’t I?”

“Because I don’t even believe that,” Dwalin said evenly, “and out of the two of us I’ve always been the more suspicious one. And even if he was, kissing an Elf is jus’ poor taste – not treason.”

“There was no kissing.” Thorin all but snarled, face so furious his eyes seemed to glow murderously.

Dwalin cocked his head to the side, eyes narrowing. “Interestin' tha’s what you focus on.”

Thorin’s eyes grew so wide it was almost comical, “that’s not the point!”

“Than what is the point, Thorin? We need the Hobbit by yer own words.”

“I need to know who I can trust.” The King seethed, hand tightening on Glamdring until his knuckles were white and Dwalin swore he could heard the poor thing’s leather grip squeak.

“This isn’t distrust.” Dwalin pointed out, lips pulling back into a snarl of his own. For as long as his younger cousin had been around, Dwalin and Balin had always been there to level Thorin when he got too big for his britches. They gave him much needed perspective, forced him to stop and look hard at what was happening around him, and something that his bull headed cousin needed desperately at times. What's more, the strict caste system of their society meant that only the smallest handful of Dwarves could speak so openly with him; only closely related blood kin could question a king without shame. And if there was any time Thorin needed perspective it was now. “This is jealousy.”

Thorin let out a harsh laugh, lips pulling back in a mirthless grin. “Jealousy? That would imply some measure of investment. Bilbo Baggins is barely worth the supplies he carries. What do I care what happens to some worthless Hobbit?”

There was a startled gasp.

Across from him, Thorin went pale underneath his tan.

Bilbo and Bombur stood at the entryway to the pavilion, both with a tray of tea and morning porridge in hand. Bombur looked utterly shocked and horrified, his cheery face drawn and mouth slack, and the Hobbit…Bilbo was frozen. His lips were slightly parted still from the gasp, oddly hued eyes wide and hurt, and his entire frame seemed almost to glow, illuminated by the shaft of morning sunlight he and Bombur stood in. But only for a moment. It was like a shutter being closed, or perhaps a wet cloth wiped across a chalkboard, and within a blink the emotions were gone.

Dwalin winced, eyes closing disbelief. Mahal below, what had he done to earn such horrid timing? There the soft sound of wood on marble as Bilbo set the tray down on a dining set tucked away in the corner.

“Forgive the interruption,” the Hobbit said, voice as level and remote as the expression on his face, and turned to leave, a worried Bombur hot on his heels. The sound of their footsteps hadn’t even faded when Thorin let out a loud curse, tossing Glamdring away from him in a display of callous regard for weaponry that Dwalin had never seen from his conscientious cousin.

Dwalin shook his head, stowing his axes as he made his way over to the sword, picking it up and examining it for any injuries before pressing it back into his King’s hands. “Fix this.” He instructed, tone far more casual then what he felt, “tonight, before leave. Don’t bring this on the road.”

He left before Thorin could respond.

Bilbo kept his head high, shoulders straight, and face guarded for the rest of the morning, refusing to show that Thorin's words had given him any pause. But it was clear that he wasn't doing as well as a job as he had hope, as Fíli and Kíli both watched him closely, clearly worried and unnerved by the Hobbit’s silent unusual behavior. It was clear in how they talked quietly together some distance from him, pretending to be interested in a map of the Misty Mountain’s Kíli had ‘borrowed’ from the libraries even as their eyes rarely left his still form. Bilbo knew he was worrying them, but the Dragonborn could hardly bring himself to care.

The garden the Hobbit had taken refuge in was beautiful, perfectly planned and manicured to give off an aura of calm serenity, but it hardly touched the maelstrom in Bilbo’s heart. He let out a sigh, closing his eyes as he took a deep breath. Why was he still hurt by Thorin’s words? He had thought with some time, the sharp feeling that bit at him would fade, and yet…This shouldn’t hurt him so. Bilbo had heard far worse – in this life time even - so why did those words seem to haunt him?

“He doesn’t mean it,” Bombur had soothed, his big hand a comforting weight on Bilbo’s shoulder as they’d made their way back to their quarters, “Thorin is a great man, but he often says and does things in anger that he does not mean. Try not to think so hard on it.” The Hobbit had tried to follow the kind Dwarf's advice, but he could not dismiss Thorin's words and little seemed to shake the melancholy in his heart.

Bilbo felt his lips turn in a small smile as stared up at the bright sky, the cheery blue color and fluffy white clouds a sharp departure for the dark emotions he felt. He knew why Thorin's words were proving to be so difficult to shake. It was because the Dragonborn knew that he was far from worthless. If anything, he was perhaps far more valued and prized than any treasure Thorin knew. Oh, but only if that worth was something Bilbo could be proud of! The value of his abilities - from his constant rebirth and hardy nature, to the biting hatred and fear he made the Enemy and his creatures feel - made him the most coveted of weapons. But there would be no songs sung in Bilbo's honor, no stories concocted to praise the actions of the Dovahkiin, and his deeds would fade with the memories of those who witnessed it. And even then, most would never truly understand what they had seen.

Bilbo was the frayed and rough cotton amongst the silken threads of Vairë's great tapestry, added to the weave awkwardly and late - the odd man out. He was destined to never fit the story proper, to never belong in with any race he was born to, but far too valuable to ever be allowed to be put to rest. There was movement in front of him and the Hobbit looked up in surprise to find a youth standing in front of him, a cup of steaming what smelled like hot chocolate in his hand. Bilbo blinked as he stared at the boy – for he was a boy, a human boy, with dark hair and eyes so grey and clear that Hobbit could see his own reflection in it.

::Here.:: The lad said, offering the cup. ::My mother made it, its hot chocolate. Its good and, uh, it may cheer you.::

::Do I look as if I need cheering?:: Bilbo asked as he took the cup, voice subdued but calm, and leaned to the side slightly so he could see the elegant woman who was watching the exchange over her needlepoint, eyes fond and face proud as she watched her son. An entire drink and snack spread was set up next to her. When had they arrived? Had Bilbo been so caught up in his own self-loathing that he had not even noticed their arrival? From the other corner of the gardens, Fíli and Kíli had completely given up the pretext of looking at the map, watching the exchange with great interest even though they could not understand it.

::I - me and my mother, I mean – thought so.:: The boy said, shifting slightly as his face pinked. ::You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want it.::

::No, no.:: The Hobbit said quickly, touched by the kindness, and took a drink. Bilbo felt his eyes widen at the smooth, heavenly flavor that burst across his tongue. ::This is very good, thank you.:: He gave the boy a kind smile. ::I feel better already.::

::Why were you so sad?:: The boy asked, only to wince at the disapproving ‘Estel!’ that drifted over from his mother. A delicate arm slid around still childishly slim shoulders, a hand coming up to smooth at unruly locks as the lad's mother joined them. The woman that stood before him was beautiful, with light hair pulled back into a simple braid that fell clear down to her waist and bright, kind blue eyes.

::Forgive him, he forgets himself sometimes. I am Gilraen and this is my son, Estel.::

Gilraen? As in the wife of Arathorn? Could the world truly be so small?

But it could only be so, for as Bilbo took the lad with fresh eyes he easily saw the patrician features and Numernorian coloring that he had missed before. The Dragonborn had heard of Arathorn’s early death nearly a decade ago, and it only made sense that Gilraen would have retreated here with her child after her husband’s death. For as long as the line had existed, both the children of Isildur and Anárion had been fostered with great safety and care in their distant Uncle’s home when needed. This was especially true after the splintering and fall of the great kingdom of Arnor. The Dúnedain of the North were organized, but they were scattered and few, a slim remembrance of the formidable force they had once been and hardly even a third in numbers compared to their cousins in the South. 

::It is a pleasure to meet you,:: Bilbo said softly, setting the cup down on the bench as he stood. He dipped his head, hand pressing to his chest in a fisted salute that would have made Baralin proud, ::and an honor, my Lady.::

Gilraen’s smile ebbed slightly, her head tilted in acknowledgement. ::As it is to meet you, Master Hobbit. Perhaps you and your companions would like to join us for some refreshments?::

::We would love to.:: Bilbo said, unable to reject the need to be close to the Queen Consort of his once-people. Or to his little King. “Fíli, Kíli, come and meet this wonderful lady and her son.”

As they snacked under the wide branches of the garden, surrounded by the sound of waterfalls and fountains, Bilbo felt his mood begin to lighten considerably. Doubly so once the shyness between the boys had worn off and the trio began to play around in earnest. Fíli and Kíli seemed to have taken an instant liking to Estel, especially when the lad seemed so fascinated with their weaponry and stories of their travels and great accomplishments at various fairs and tournaments. Estel barely had to beg at all before they agreed to help him better his aim and they set up targets made of various garden items for the little boy to try and hit with pebbles, and they readjusting his stance and grip when needed with a gentle kindness. The adults – and while the two young Princes were technically of age, it was hard to view them so as they laughed and cajoled with a ten year old manchild – took tea and watched the going ons with varying levels of fondness and amusement.

::I hope we were not too forward in interrupting your thoughts, Master Baggins.:: Gilraen said softly as she watched Kíli correct Estel's wrist movements. ::They did look quite grave.::

And here the Hobbit had to laugh at himself slightly, because the added company and treats had done a wonder on his mood. ::Grave? No, it was nothing so serious. A case of hurt feelings is all, my Lady, brought on from the stress of travel I would think.::

::But those are the most serious cases of all,:: Gilraen insisted gently, ::for there are no greater wounds than those of the heart.:: The woman set her cup down with a muted ‘clink.’ ::Nonetheless, while I apologize for the interruption, I hope that we have cheered you some, as I know you have quite the journey in front of you and I fear that this will not be the last moment of dark thoughts for you.::

::Ah,:: Bilbo said with a sigh, ::you know of our quest, then.::

He had hoped that she would not, for the Hobbit had been enjoying their conversation greatly and for a moment could have almost imagined himself back at his smial, taking tea with a neighbor, and hated to think that it was about to move into the realm of politics. Because as much as Bilbo had taken a liking to the young woman, she was still an unknown and rumors – even those that were spilled long after the Company's departure - had a way of catching up to you and proving dangerous.

::No,:: Gilraen corrected, voice still light, ::but I know of your eyes and I know what they entail.:: The Dragonborn stiffened, hiding the shocked twist of his lips behind a deep sip of tea. ::I have surprised you, forgive me.::

::It is nothing.:: Bilbo lied, voice tight.

::I have known what you are from the moment I sent my son over with hot chocolate, Master Baggins. Do not let this shared knowledge change our conversation any more than we have allowed the fact that my son is a King to influence it so far.:: The woman’s face was fierce, determined, ::I, more than any other, know that character is not derived of blood. Nor by the strengths or the weaknesses found in it.::

::No,:: the Hobbit agreed softly, thinking of Isildur and the great weakness of Man, and felt the tension drain from his shoulders, ::no, I suppose you wouldn’t.::

They sat in companionable silence a while longer after that before Gilraen announced it was time for Estel to attend to his studies. The boy clearly loathed to go, complaining loudly from where he was nearly glued to Fíli’s side - going so far as to actually cling to his arm like a far younger child, much to the blond Dwarf's amusement - but his mother would not be swayed.

Estel said his goodbyes (but not without a heavy pout and tarrying as long as possible by Fíli and Kíli, making them promise to write - and oh please, maybe visit? - once they were settled) before all but stomping off towards the open eves of Rivendell’s halls. Bilbo watched him go with an undisguised fondness. Old loyalties were the hardest ones to loose, and his own burned brightly in his heart at the sight of the tiny King. Bilbo wished Estel all the luck and good will in the world, the Dovahkiin feared the boy would need more than his own allotted amount to survive the trials that laid before him.

::You watch him with a great kindness.:: Gilraen remarked casually as she gathered up her sowing.

::He has Elendil’s bearing, especially in the eyes and mouth.::

Long ago, far removed from the age and time they were in, he been Baralin, son of Boralin, a brave, idealistic noble of Gondor. Baralin's father had been the favorite boyhood companion of the King Elendil and the two utterly inseparable for many years. And while Baralin had never been very fond or close to the considerably older Isildur or Anárion, he had spent most of his life in the royal estate, and viewed the royal family with a level of devotion and fidelity that - paired with his familial connections - had allowed him to rise rapidly within the military ranks.

The woman glanced up sharply at him, eyes widening slightly in understanding before her features gentled once more. ::I have been told as much before.:: She stood, her basket resting on her hip, and gave him a long stare. ::Remember what I have said to you, Master Baggins. Blood – of any kind – does not define us. Only the actions of this life. I will keep you in my prayers.::

She gave a short curtsy to Fíli and Kíli, exchanging well wishes and words of safe journey before joining her still pouting son.

“They seemed nice enough.” Fíli remarked, head cocked to the side as he watched them  go.

“The boy’s got a hell of an eye,” Kíli added with a shrug. “It was sad, actually, I got the impression he doesn’t get to play much.”

“I felt that, too.” Fíli agreed, "I haven’t seen another child here. At least we could offer a playmate, for however short.”

“He is a king.” Bilbo said quietly, eyes still locked on the arches where he’d seen the royal family leave from. Both Dwarrowlings started, Fíli’s head jerking to face him so fast he actually hit himself in the face with his own beads. “The Heir of Isildur, proper lord and liege of Gondor and all Free Men of Middle-earth.”

He did not need to say more. Even amongst the Dwarves, the lost line of Isildur was known well enough. Bilbo knew that there was much debate (and heated ones at that, in Gondor) about whether any of Elendil's line remained. Anárion's had been wiped out long ago and the shared heritage of Elros and Elrond kept the identity of Isildur's Heir fiercely protected by the Elves. While necessary for the weakened bloodline's protection, it had created quite the mythos, and the shock of who they had just met was painted clearly across the Dwarrowlings' faces. It was a gamble, and perhaps one that was not Bilbo's to take, but royalty had a tendency to look after royalty and the kingdoms of Men and Dwarves had very little of the feuding found with the Elves.

But still...

"I hope I do not need to press upon the two of you the importance of secrecy in what I have just told you. There are many who don't wish to see the throne of Gondor restored and they would think nothing of killing a child if it meant keeping what they have stolen." never hurt to put things into a Dwarvish perspective.

Both Princes nodded, jaws set and eyes hard with understanding. 

“He’s so small.” Kíli muttered after a long moment.

“Yes, he is.” Bilbo agreed, voice and eyes distant, Baralin rolling just under his skin. He turned to look at them – to look at Fíli – and the golden Prince stiffened, stood taller, under the weight of the Dovahkiin’s gaze. “Remember that, when one day he calls for aid. Kingship is a heavy burden and we were all small once."

They ate dinner a part from the Elves and under a strange blanket of anticipation. Gandalf had left instructions for them to leave in the night, only a handful of hours after dinner had finished, and in secret. The Dwarves took the news with varying states of relief and suspicion and it was clear they did not quite know what to take of the fact that they were sneaking out. Bilbo had a terrible suspicion that he was the only one who knew the real reason they were leaving in such a manner - more so even then Gandalf. For while the Wizard clearly felt that Elrond may try to stop them, it seemed he was unaware of the Council’s arrival. Bilbo had thought of warning him but...there were some things that not even the Dragonborn was willing to interfere with. A White Council - an impromptu White Council at that - was one of those things.

Bilbo had little doubt that the Wizard would be facing some very pressing questions if he was not already, as the Hobbit was under no illusions that their quest was not a popular one. It was clear that Elrond did not approve of the use of the Dragonborn on such a quest, nor of the necessity of the quest at all.

But the Company knew none of this, and despite the nature of their soon to be escape, they seemed to be in good enough spirits, talking and joking merrily as they ate and drank their full, enjoying one last heavy meal and unhidden fire before they struck out once more into the wilds. It seemed that the class lines had finally been broken, though the Hobbit doubted they noticed it anymore then they had noticed that it was happening in the first place. Bofur and Bifur were eating next to Glóin and Óin, while Bombur was perched on a table, head bopping along with the beat of the song Bofur was bleating out.

Fíli was sitting quite close to Ori and kept giving her the best cuts of meat even when the poor lass had no more room on her plate and looked utterly bewildered, unsure and unwilling to turn away the Prince's good favor out of fear of rudeness. Kíli was being a true brother, trying to keep a rather confused and irritated Dori distracted from the wooing taking place next to them. And to Bilbo’s surprise, Nori had perched rather close to Dwalin, leaning over and into the Dwarf’s personal space frequently (quite unnecessarily often, in the Hobbit’s opinion) to get something or another. Only Balin sat apart, just close enough to be considered a part of the mayhem but far enough away to have his own space.

Thorin was nowhere to be found.

But Bilbo could hardly blame their surly leader for his absence during the meal, as the Hobbit himself had every intent of sneaking away. It was not that he did not wish to partake in their revelry or that he felt his companionship would be turned away, but the Dragonborn could not help but face their leaving with dread. He did not look forward to the dangers the Misty Mountains held, nor of what laid behind it. Truly, the worst of their trek was just beginning, and Bilbo had faced the cold mountain's influence more than once in his many lifetimes and never faired well in any of his journeys through them. The Dwarves hardly noticed his exit, thanks to the naturally light footfalls of a Hobbit, and Bilbo slipped away with little fanfare. The moonlight cast Rivendell in a stunning shades of silvers and whites, and the Dragonborn drank his fill as walked out onto the terrace, aware that he had no idea when or if he’d ever have a chance to do so again.

Bilbo had barely settled, leaning on a balcony and watching the bright light of the stars, before the low – but very clear tones – of an argument was carried up to him by the wind. Sharp eyes easily found Elrond and Gandalf as they walked several levels below Bilbo, the conversation heated as it slipped in and out of Sindarin and Westron.

"That was not your choice alone to make." Elrond’s voice was cold. Orderly, polite, but cold.

Gandalf scoffed. "I think you can trust that I know what I am doing."

"Do you? That Dragon has slept for sixty years. What should happen if your plan should fail? If you wake the Beast?"

"What if we succeed? What if the Dwarves take back the Mountain and Bilbo is successful?" The Wizard pressed as he leaned on his staff. "Our defenses in the east will be strengthened."

"What if he dies? He is a Hobbit, hardly a warrior needed for such a role.” The Elf lord asked unhappily, ::we know so little how the cycle functions, it could be countless years before it begins again. It is far too great a risk. Regardless of what Bilbo is, he is Dovahkiin.:: Another heavy sigh. “It's a dangerous move, Gandalf."

“It is also a dangerous to do nothing,” the Istari responded with no small amount of exasperation, ::and what possible use could be better for the Dovahkiin than to kill a Dragon?::

What use indeed, Bilbo thought sourly, but could hardly blame them for their words when they knew not of his presence. Is this what they did, the Hobbit could not help but wonder, when it came time to chose his fate? Was he discussed so openly and heatedly by the powers of the time? He had always known that there few choices in his life, but for Bilbo to see it so bluntly was stunning.

“We know not yet what this age has to offer-”

“We cannot base our actions off of what may come! Surely you see the trap in that thinking, my friend.” Gandalf all but snapped, stopping to turn and look at the Elf. Even from the distance, Bilbo could see the frustration on the aged features. "Bilbo has already chosen his path and I think you discount Hobbits far too greatly. That race has more depth to it then you know."

Something caught Bilbo's attention, perhaps the scuffling of boots on stone, and Bilbo turned to find Thorin emerging from the darkness. The Dwarf’s hair was freshly washed and plated, his clothes cleaned and mended, and his armor – old and used, but so lovingly tended to – already donned. He looked ruggedly handsome, every inch of the warrior King he was and so much like Ávaldi it was almost cruel. Bilbo felt his heart gave a painful lurch. It was truly unfair, that a being that despised him so much would carry the face of someone who had once called Hfal his One.

Despite the earlier heat of his words, Thorin's features held none of the violence or anger of the morning or the last evening. If anything, the aristocratic features seemed subdued, and the Hobbit was stunned to see the Dwarf King offer him a small, almost contrite looking smile. Bilbo cocked his head to the side, eyebrows furrowing slightly in confusion as Thorin drew closer, hands open in a disarming motion. It was clear that he was building to something - Bilbo could almost see the wheels of thought turning behind those blue eyes - but before Thorin could say anything, Elrond's voice cut through once more.

“- madness runs deep in that family. His grandfather lost his mind. His father succumbed to the same sickness. Can you swear that Thorin Oakenshield will not also fall?"

Bilbo winced, heart sinking as Thorin’s features hardened, completely loosing the soft edges that had gentled the aristocratic features. Thorin's lips pulled in a sneer, glaring angrily at Bilbo of all people, as if it was somehow the Hobbit's fault that Elrond had chosen to speak of Gold Sickness in the very open, very public, air of the courtyard. Bilbo stepped further into the shadows as the pair continued past near them, still arguing, and the silence that followed them was almost physically painful. It was clear that the words had angered Thorin deeply, even if they were true enough, and despite that he felt the Dwarf undeserving of it, Bilbo could not help but feel pity at the sight of shame and self-loathing on Thorin's face.

Even though he did not believe his comfort would be well received, the Hobbit still found himself offering it. “Do not let his words give you any source of discourage-”

“I do not need to be coddled," Thorin bit out, turning to glare at him, “I care nothing for the words of an Elf.”

Bilbo bristled. “Yes, you have made it quite clear how little you care.”

The tension suddenly ramped between them and the Dragonborn wished instantly he could take back his words. Thorin jaw muscles flexed, his hands curling into fists by his side. "I do not have to explain myself to you, Baggins."

Well, Bilbo thought sourly, at least its better than Hobbit or Halfling. "I was not implying that you do, nor do I care for your explanations."

Thorin's eyes narrowed, brows digging low as he scowled. "You are an infuriating thing."

"Right," Bilbo snapped, moving to step past the Dwarf, "I've think I've had my fill of hearing what you think about me today, thank you very much." A hand snagged his elbow before he could pass, halting his movement, and the Dragonborn glared up at the stupidly tall Dwarf, mouth set in a harsh line. "Release me at once."

"I was trying to apologize."

Bilbo's eyebrows shot up to his hairline, trying and failing to yanking his elbow free of the iron-like hold. "You and your nephew seem to be laboring under a rather major misconception about what an apology is. They usually contain an absence of insults, not an influx. Tell me, is that a common occurrence in your line?"

"Do not speak of my line," Thorin hissed, grip tightening on Bilbo's elbow until the Hobbit felt spikes of pain jolting up to his shoulder.

"Why? You speak so poorly of mine often enough." He snapped back as he brought his free hand to his face, fingers gripping tightly at the bridge of his nose as he closed his eyes and fought a wave of frustration; he was far too old for this dramatic nonsense. "I do not know what malfeasance I have done to earn your fury, Master Dwarf, but I would have this nonsense end. The road ahead is difficult and it is only going to grow harder still, and I care not to have this…thing, heavy between us.

I don't care about the actions of your bloodline, or your forebearers or race; of their illness or failures or feuds, or what Elrond Peredehil or any other thinks of them. They do not define you, only your own deeds can trap you so. I have given my word I will accompany you and so I shall. I will do my job and I will do it well, and when this is all done, I swear I will leave and darken your days no longer. Think of me as you wish, Thorin Oakenshield, but I have no want to be your enemy, no matter how intent you seem to be trying to make me so. Now," Bilbo let his hand drop, leveling the Dwarf with his fiercest glare, "for the Valar's sake, please let go. You're hurting me."

Thorin was staring down at him, wearing an expression that despite all of Bilbo's years, he could not completely name. The slight part of his lips spoke of surprise, the furrow between his brows showed confusion, yet it was the look in his eyes that brought the Hobbit up short. The tension around them had shifted, morphed into something different and somehow more delicate. The grip on his elbow lightened before disappeared completely, yet Bilbo did not move move. He felt routed to the spot, caught - like a rabbit who had only just realized that it was fixed in the gaze of a wolf. Bilbo swallowed around a suddenly dry mouth, ducking his head and breaking the stare, fingers rubbing at the sore joint of his elbow.

"Goodnight, Thorin." The Hobbit said quietly, taking the stairs two at time as he retreated back down towards the Company, only to almost misstep as Thorin's reply reached him.

"Goodnight, Bilbo."

Chapter Text

Mirabella Brandybuck eyes narrowed as she took in the sight of Bounders sprinting across the meadow from the Hedge. The smell of ash and burning wood littered the air and the night was lit a deep, angry yellow-orange.

Far to the south – at least a mile or so – the aging Hobbit could see where the High Hay had been lit in a last ditched effort to keep the Forest out. In front of her, Bounders were perched on the Hedge edge, and despite how far away she stood, Mirabella could hear the muffled curses as lit arrow and balls of compacted thatch and oil were shot over the edge.

“Got th' dobber!” Herb Boffin crowed.

“Ah need mair!” A Bounder cried out and Mirabella placed him as one Giffo’s boys, “what th' - they jist keep comin'!”

“Donae gonnae-no, wee jimmies!” Herb shouted, tossing a bushel of arrows at the Bounder, “keep them at bay!

The Mistress rolled her shoulders as she re-tied her skirt up to the side, the weights of the hatchet she’d secured to her apron and the horn that hung from her neck both an uncomfortable and comforting presence. The horn was an old, battered thing, but beautifully maintained. It was carved from an oxen’s horn, plain and unadorned save for a few carving in Hobbitish. It was one of six Horns of Buckland, spread out throughout the farthing among its most important members.

The Master and the Mistress always had one, as did the Captain of the Buckland Bounders, the Head Gate-keeper and Bridge Minder at the North Gate, the post operator of the Bucklebury Ferry, and the Bailiffs of Haysend, the southernmost village in Buckland, and Briar Hill, a tiny hamlet that laid on the banks of the Brandywine and the Withywindle, practically within the eves of the Old Forest.

It was only ever sounded in times of grievous emergency, when the boundaries of the Shire had been breached, and only one other time in living memory had it ever been heard. By her side, her eldest son, Rorimac stood poised and ready, a sickle nearly equaling her in height tucked in the crook of her arm. Most of the women-folk had been sent further back from the Hay with the children and elderly, and Mirabella had sent her own children that were underage back towards Brandy Hall, the rest - sons and daughters alike - took up posts on the Hedge.

They had been resting at Cricket Hollow, a tiny farm house that the Brandybuck family used as a chance to escape the chaos of Brandy Hall, as the stress of the busy smial had been stressing Meneglida far too much so close to the end of her pregnancy. While Cricket Hollow was a wonderful little hide away, it was only a few miles from the Hedge. She'd sent Meneglida back with a cart full of children before heading to the Hedge herself. The fauntlings were from assorted families, mixed from local farmers and the Bounding families, and Mirabella wouldn’t be either a Took or a Brandybuck if she only secured her own children’s security.

The Mistress stood with her eldest child in front of a hastily set up command center that consisted of an a few overturned barrels and several maps of Buckland and the High Hay spread out upon them. A handful of haypennies had been laid out on various spots along the Hedge, showing the areas that seemed to be under attack by the Trees. Gorbadoc had ridden south, where the Hedge was the thinnest and several villages and hamlets existed foolishly close – and at times even over – it.

“It doesn’t may any sense,” Rorimac announced with a frustrated sigh, “you’d think the Huorns would go first for the Forest Gate or the Tunnel. There’s no sense in it. And I don’t understand why it’s acting up now.” Her son added with a heavy frown. “Years of quiet and now, this? Uprooting the Hay? Tearing down the observation platforms? It just seems odd for it to respond so, we’ve done nothing to upset it.”

“Old Man Willow and his Hourn’s rational are wholly outside our realm of understanding, my dear,” Mirabella stated shrewdly, “as are their motives.”

“The last time the Old Forest made any real movements was that day,” Rorimac said, voice so casual and out of place in the burning air that it bordered on absurdity, “when Bilbo brought me out.”

Mirabella made a noncommittal noise, though she remembered that day well. How could she not? Not only had the Mistress thought she’d lost her firstborn, but her nephew as well. How she had dread the idea of going to Belladona to tell her how her foolish Rorimac’s actions had led them to losing both their sons. But as always was the case with Bilbo Baggins, Mirabella had been wrong. She had been pacing the ends of the tunnel, teary eyed and furious, when her nephew had reappeared, Rorimac in toe.

What a picture Bilbo had cast!

Mirabella had been one of the few people privy to the Baggins’ heir’s true identity and though she would have been told regardless as the Mistress, she had heard it from the lips of her own baby sister. And while she hadn’t known Belladona to lie in the past (and was certain she never start on something as important as her child) she had struggled with the information. But damn it all if she hadn’t believed it until that moment!

Emerging from the dark, muddled green of the forest, Bilbo had walked the steady confident steps of a grown Hobbit, not the lanky pace of a fauntling no older than ten summers. His curls had caught in the breeze escaping from the tunnel (because inside the Old Forest itself there was little to no air movement and the atmosphere hung heavy and still) and had floated hauntingly around his face. Bilbo’s eyes – a much talked about subject in the Shire, not only for their color but for their cat-like quality – had seemed to glow in the fading night.

“Bilbo?” Mirabella had gasped, a hand flying to her mouth at the sight of him, and her nephew had rewarded her with an eerie, serpentine smile. He had brought Rorimac with him, trailing behind him like a lost little sheep, and Mirabella had embraced her son fiercely after boxing his ears, and sent him through the tunnel to the wrath of his waiting father. “How?”

The wood around them hummed and bustled, the trunks creaking in such a manner they sounded like angry screams. “Later, Aunt. This place will not tolerate my presence for much longer and I have already pushed its patience too far.”

Bilbo had explained to her later that night, as they had sat and smoked out under the night sky, that the Old Forest both feared and hated him. That it had once belonged to a massive wood that extended far into east before it had been culled.

“It was during the War of the Wrath,” her nephew had remarked casually, his voice taking the strangest of accents, “yet before Beleriand sank – it did sink, you know. There was a stretch of land – a great many kingdoms and peoples – that extended far west of Linden and the Blue Mountains. The Dragons swept across the great forests and burnt as many and as much they could.” Those eyes had turned to stare at her, haunted with regret and the smile on his lips were small and bitter. “Though above all, they loved to bring ruin to the awake Trees, to the Ents and the Huorns.”

Mirabella had drawn the little boy into her arms, pulling him until he was completely in her lap, and soothed and comforted him until his tears were gone. Because despite the dark evil of his words, all the Mistress had seen in that moment was a terrified, guilty little fauntling. And she had made sure that Bilbo had never entered the Forest again.

“I remember that day,” Rorimac continued, “and I know what I saw. The Forest hated Bilbo, but it listened to him. It feared him, hated him, but it listened. And I cannot help but think that Bilbo’s companions would insist upon the most direct path to Bree. The one that would…take him past the Old Forest…that it would know, somehow, that he was leaving.”

“What are you trying to say, son?” Mirabella asked, though she already knew the answer. The Trees were not particularly forgiving creatures, nor did they forget easily.

Rorimac looked took at a deep breath before leveling her with a grim stare. “What are you not telling me?”

4 Cermië, 2941 (Steward’s Reckoning)

The heights of the Misty Mountains towered around them, reaching up to the sky like jagged teeth or claws, rending the sky apart. They’d been traveling hard for the last three days, eager to put Rivendell and chance of pursuit behind them. Bilbo could understand why the Dwarves wanted this, but he saw little need it in. He knew that the Elves would not follow them. They had their own concerns.

They moved consistently north-easterly, slowly climbing higher and higher as they made their way towards the High Pass. The Misty Mountains were far safer than it had been, thanks to the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs in which had decimated the Orcish populated (but greatly wounded the Dwarvish one, as well) and cleared out most of the range. Still, the Company was quiet and attentive.

Despite the possible danger, the Dovahkiin could not help but notice that the Dwarves seemed incredibly at ease, comforted by the feel of hard stone under their feet and the crisp smell of mountain snow on the air. There were no denying that these were creatures made for this environment, and though Bilbo could no longer feel it in his current incarnation, he could still remember the all-encompassing pull of the earth that every Dwarf felt deep in their very bones.

What more, the Hithaeglir were sacred mountains to these folk. It was in Gundabad, the northern most peak of the range before the Misty Mountains parted into the Grey Mountains and the Mountains of Angmar, that Durin the Deathless had first woken. And it was here, underneath the mighty Redhorne and his smaller – but no less formidable twin brothers, Silvertine and Cloudyhead – that the great city of Khazad-dûm had been settled, than lost to the Lordship of Durin’s Bane.

The Dovahkiin, however, felt no relief or love for these peaks. This place had only ever held death and sorrow for him. He had first past through their icy maws as Barlin in the Second Age, marching with a mighty host that had formed the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Outside of the biting cold and the extra strain of being in command of a few hundred men, Barlin had mainly found the experience dull. He had been itching to get to Mordor and fight. The seven year long siege had quickly made him miss the peace and quiet of the mountain pass.

The second time he’d made the crossing was a Baldric Underhill and he’d been just a fauntling. Many of his tribe had fallen during their trek and Bilbo still sometimes dreamed of the gripping cold and ever present hunger. The third and final time the Dovahkiin had tarried here (for as Lachien, he had chosen to go far south and cross at the Gap of Rohan under the pretense of exploration) had been as Hfal, who had met her doom in the fiery grip of the Balrog.

No, this place held little love for him.

The fourth day of near solid travel found them finally slowing and they made camp when the sun set instead of traveling into the night, much to the weary Hobbit's delight. They chose to camp out in a large mountain meadow, a lake the color of sapphires nestled in the middle of it, even though it meant forgoing a fire for the night. It was cold, but tolerable, and patches of snow only just littered the tall grass. Glory-of-the-snow grew abundantly and its star shaped flowers dotted the meadow with splashes of blue.

Bilbo gathered them with Dori and Ori, showing them (and Kíli, though the young Prince pretended not to be interested) how to make a proper flower crown. Hobbits were fond of all types of plants, he explained, but they loved flowers above all else, and flower crowns were an essential part to any proper holiday, and those that could afford even the smallest pane of glass built a greenhouse to keep them in season all year.

Dori in particular had adored the craft, and within a few tries she had somehow even surpassed Bilbo’s experienced hands; and the Dragonborn had made many flower crowns in his existence. The crown she made for Ori would have made even the most reserved Hobbit-lass swoon and the Dwarrowdam had even gone as far as braiding it into her younger sister’s hair. Bilbo had to admit that blue of the flower looked striking against the strawberry-blonde and he was not alone in that assessment.

The look on Fíli’s (and even Kíli’s, though the younger Prince was quick to school his features blank when his brother's possessive eyes snapped to look at him) made Bilbo and Dori exchange a particularly knowing look. Nori outright refused to allow such a thing to be done for her, escaping her sister’s clinging hands with a disgruntled look. She ended up clear on the other side of the camp, settling in next to Dwalin, much to the big Dwarf’s surprise, and the little thief took advantage to steal the whetstone right from his hand to sharpen her knives.

It was a moonless night, but they hardly suffered from the lack of its light, as the stars here were so bright and close that Bilbo felt almost like he could reach up and pluck them from the sky. He stretched out on his back, the Dams on one side (Nori had slunk back over once she was sure flowers were no longer involved), Bofur and Bifur on the other, and both Princelings sitting about their clustered heads, and admired the view.

“They look so much clearer here, though I know that little has changed since I viewed them in Rivendell or the Shire.” The Dovahkiin said, voice awed. The stars filled the horizon, as if the velvet sky had been scattered with freckles, like the fairest skinned fauntling left too long out in the sun. He immediately found Foril, the North Star, and used it as his guide to find the constellations.

The Night Sky as Seen by The Company

He found first his favorite constellation, the Wilarin – or Butterfly, in Westron, the late season spinning the ‘W’ shape upside down. And then the Sickle of the Valar, the Valacara, easily the brightest stars in the sky. He pointed them out to the group and smiled when Ori immediately showed him where Durin’s Crown was. They talked softly together, showing each other constellations and named stars, and before Bilbo was even conscious of it, Ori had managed to get him story-telling again, relating each myth surrounding their creation and naming’s.

It was a peaceful night, and Bilbo relished it, saw it as the precious thing it was, as he knew that there would be few like it to come. As he sat there, watching fondly as the little group about him practically hung on his every word – despite the fact he was certain they must know these stories already – Bilbo had a rather startling realization.

He was growing attached to these Dwarves.

And how could he not? How could the Hobbit not grow fond of Ori’s soft but insightful questions? Or Dori’s worry? Of Nori’s constant delight out of both telling lies and being caught in them. Or Bofur’s wonderful sense of humor and the wicked gleam in Bifur’s eyes? And of Fíli and Kíli’s boisterous courage and youth?

Bilbo was swept with an incredibly melancholy, the Dragon in him already mourning the loss of these precious creatures that somehow Bilbo had begun to consider his, and his voice hitched with it. He pushed past it, but it had not been missed by his companions if the curious looks and slight stiffening of Bofur by his side spoke of anything.

“- the great Queen Varda put Menelmacar – who we cannot see in the Summer months – to warn of the Dagor Dagorath, and Valacirca, to challenge the Great Shadow and all his followers.”

Bilbo carried on, his tone even and calm as he continued, speaking until the attention slowly peeled from him and back to the starry sky once more.

The camp was silent save for the wind in the grass and the soft pattern of Bilbo’s words. The Hobbit’s voice tended to carry and he had a gift for words, but still, Balin doubted the Hobbit knew how easily he captured the attention of the camp, night after night, with the stories and histories that Ori so easily pulled from him.

Their burglar had been quiet and withdrawn since their entrance into the Misty Mountains, and while Balin knew that the Hobbit thought little attention was paid to him by most of the Company, he was very wrong. In fact, there was hardly anyone who was watched as much as Bilbo was. The amusing spectacle that was Fíli and Ori was a close second, the old Dwarf admitted with a small grin, watching his Prince. While almost everyone in Bilbo’s little group was watching the stars, Fíli’s eyes had rarely left Ori, though the lass hardly noticed it, poor lad.

Bilbo Baggins was a strange creature – a puzzle – and while that had first alarmed Balin, as he was not a Dwarf who enjoyed unknowns, he was also old and had seen much this world had to offer. A mystery Bilbo may be, but he meant no harm to the Company. If any of them – Thorin included – thought so, they would not have allowed the Dwarrowdams nor the Princes to grow so attached to him.

Balin supposed it was fairly natural how the younger ones had been drawn to Bilbo. Bilbo was a young Hobbit after all, though comparatively closer to their own age when the Dwarf life span was adjusted correctly, and he seemed to have a natural affinity with children. And though Fíli and Kíli, as well as Ori, were passed their coming of age, they were still very much pups in the scheme of thing.

And Dori, as well as Nori, were very caring Dams at their hearts, and both seemed to have grown incredibly protective over the Hobbit. Dori was constantly fussing about when the last time Bilbo had eaten or how long he’d slept, and Nori seemed convinced that Bilbo was going to find his death on the mountain paths after he’d spent the first few days tripping over every rock – and sometimes even air – and bringing himself far too close to path edges and long drops, and stayed close to the small creature’s side, ready to catch or pick him out a safer path.

The attention seemed to utterly bemuse the Hobbit, much to Balin’s amusement and sadness, as he recognized the look of one not used to being looked after. Aye, Bilbo was a good lad. A complicated one, and certainly with more stories then he was willing to tell, but a good lad. Balin’s work in the Blue Mountains had brought him contact with the Shire and Bree-folk, as well as the Stradle and Combe-hobbits, more often than any other in the Company and he had a stronger grasp on what it was to be a Hobbit.

And Bilbo Baggins was the oddest one he’d ever met.

Though, Balin mused as stirred his stew and watched Dwalin glare at Thorin, he supposed Bilbo would have to be a strange Hobbit to agree to go on this quest. The old Dwarf had his fair share of concerns when Gandalf had first announced his intentions to find a Hobbit to fill the last slot and they were all based on the solid truths he’d learned about the race. Hobbits were a simple, happy folk, that rarely – if ever – agrreed to travel. Some had never even left the towns or land they’d been born on. They seemed content to stand still and let the world pass them by.

But Bilbo…

“I thought I told ya to fix this before we left.” Dwalin growled lowly and Thorin stiffened so quickly that Balin was surprised he didn't hear his spine crack.

“I did.”

“Really?” His brother asked, drawling the word out before nodding to towards the Hobbit. “The lad’s hardly said two words outside of those stories.”

“I apologized.” Thorin bit out, face thunderous, “I cannot help it if that did not mend all. I can do little else.”

Dwalin got a look – a look that Balin was far too familar with – and the older Dwarf stepped in quickly before this could escalate to a full blown argument. His younger brother had a tendency of adopting people and while Balin wasn’t sure just when Bilbo Baggins had gained his brother’s particular brand of protection (or even if the Hobbit understood how precious a gift it was) though he suspected it began when Dwalin had pulled the lad from the waters of the Hoarwell.

“The Hobbit lands are wide open places, with low swells. Perhaps he is simply unnerved by the mountains.” Balin said as he set his now empty bowl down. “They’re a gentle people; they’re not used to traveling.”

“Bilbo traveled when he was young.” Dwalin pointed out, the line between his eyebrows growing even more pronounced.

“Yes, but at his own pace and comfort. Hobbits eat seven meals a day,” and here Bombur stopped looked up from the meat he was salting and both Dwalin and Thorin blanched slightly at the news, “and we hardly break for two. Our Burglar may not have said much, but any fool with eyes can see the weight he’s lost – and he was a thin Hobbit to begin with.”

A silence fell after that and Balin felt his lips twitch slightly at the considering look that Thorin shot in the direction of the star-gazers. He had long agreed with his brother about his King’s interest in the Hobbit, though unlike Dwalin, Balin could see it for what it was. Perhaps it was because he was the first of their generation, that it had been he that had helped care and raise Thorin and Dwalin, but there was little his cousin or brother could do that Balin could not see through.

Thorin was interested, very interested, in Bilbo.

What he did not know was if his cousin would ever act on it. Thorin was a proud beast, every inch of him tempered with the social mores and code of their culture, and while they had known his male preferences since he was but a Dwarrowling, his King had never shown interest in any not of their race.

Yet, if there was a race that a Dwarf would fancy, Balin mused, it would be a Hobbit. Despite how it may appear at first sight, their people were not so very different. Both sought the safety of the earth, the Dwarves with their cavernous cities and Hobbits with their smials. Both were a stubborn lot, stuck firmly in their ways and unwilling to tolerate any foolishness or threat to the patterns of their lives. And both sought the act of creation, of cultivating the bounty the ground gave them. After all, what was farming and mining if not reshaping the very face of Arda?

“Still,” Dwalin grumbled after a moment, “apologize again.”

Thorin sputtered. “What?”

“Know’n you, ya probably messed it up.”

“Excuse me?”

Balin sighed and leaned back, watching the sparkling sky as he tuned out the snarking fight brewing besides him.

As their first week in the range grew to a close, Bilbo had begun to grow foul-tempered. He was tired of this place already. He abhorred the cold and hated the biting wind, loathed the howls and groans of the snow shifting on the peaks, and longed for the warmth and comfort of his Bag End. The others in the Company seemed to have picked up on his mood, giving him a wide berth whenever possible and even Nori – who had become like a shadow to Bilbo – had taken to walking a few steps behind him.

Many of the Dwarves tried to comfort him in their own ways, bless them, but little could pick the Hobbit’s sprits up. In truth, between Thorin and Glorfindel, Bilbo had found little actual rest in Rivendell, and he felt exhausted and maudlin, body and spirit weary, as they climbed higher and higher. The Dragonborn spent most of his days cursing Gandalf and his own bloody honor, well aware with every step how uncomfortable he was.

He was silent about his woes of course, and did his level best to keep it from effecting anyone else. Every night when Ori came to him – or sometimes Fíli or Kíli or even Bofur – he rallied enough to be able to tell them the tales they seemed to enjoy so. There was some good, Bilbo supposed, as being seen as a historian. His wealth of knowledge made him a popular story-teller.

When night fell upon them for the ninth time since they’d entered the Misty Mountains, Bilbo was stunned to find he recognized the small dip of a valley they’d chosen to camp in. The Dragonborn stood stock still, eyes narrowed as amber eyes flickered over the rock face. The weathering had left a very peculiar pattern here; three long waterfalls fell down the mountainside, forming a small pool and carving the crude image of a face with one eye. Bilbo searched his memories of where – and who – he’d seen it last with.

Was this a stop for Baralin? Or Hfal? Had he seen this as Baldaric?

It wasn’t until Balin, who was serving as their guide as he apparently knew the path to the High Pass better than any other Dwarf in the Company, said the place name that the memory flared brightly in his mind’s eye.

The Fall’s of the One-Eyed Man.

Bilbo had been here before. Not as Baralin or Hfal or Baldaric, but as all three.

There was place near here, a cave, that had once served as a desperate shelter when Baldaric’s tribe was navigating the mountains. They had lived there for months, picking a meager living off the land, as they waited for the worst of the winter to pass into spring, and the Dovahkiin had visited it every time he’d passed through here.

Bilbo would be damned if he broke that tradition now.

His eyes flickered over to where the Dwarves were making camp in thought, before glancing to a narrow path that lead south out of the clearing and towards the cave. The night shift was broken into threes and Bilbo had been given the midshift for the night. A quick conversation with Nori had the Dam taking his shift for the night under the agreement to take his the next time his name came up (“I can’t ever fall back asleep, you see, and – just between you and I now, Nori, I’ve not been feeling the best.”) and the Dragonborn felt a flash of guilt at how easily the Dwarrrowdam agreed even though she’d been on watch just a few nights before.

But no amount of Nori’s worry could dissuade him from leaving. Bilbo hardly kept himself under control, his mind was humming with want so strongly. It was so rare that these kinds of things happened. With how quickly people came and went, the Dovahkiin had a tendency to grow very attached to places, especially if he thought they may be around for him the next time he was born.

He could barely recall it, only knew that it had been a central part of Baldaric’s survival and Bilbo badly wanted to reunite with the cave. It seemed to take forever for the Company to settle and fall into sleep, and the moment he was sure they were, Bilbo crept from the camp, using every inch of his Hobbit stealth to sneak by the nightwatch, Dwalin.

The Dragonborn’s feet found the path as if he’d walked it only yesterday, picking around the sharp rocks and jutting mountain edges with a grace he’d naught shown the entirety of the trip so far. It took him less than ten minutes to reach the mouth edge and Bilbo hesitated as he stared into the darkness, listening for sounds. Caves were rarely uninhabited in the mountain but when the silence grew, Bilbo drove himself forward into the darkness and his hands shook as he fished out a candle and struck the flint. The cave was suddenly, hauntingly, brought into sharp relief, and every memory the Dovahkiin had of this place struck and he saw it through many eyes all at once.

The Hobbit’s breath left him in an ungraceful whoosh, hands still shaking as he held the light up higher, and stared. The cave and walls still held the paintings that his people had put up long ago, to try and cheer them as they struggled in the desolate place, and for a moment Bilbo almost felt as if he was four years old again, shivering as the snow piled around them.

It seemed like an eternity before he was able to tear his eyes away from them and move further into the cave. His feet seemed to move on their own accord, bringing him deeper into the cave. Baldaric’s father had been Chieftain of their tribe, which meant that the Underhill family had been given space in the very back of the cave, furthest from the open mouth.

Bilbo blinked hard, trying to banish the shadows of memory that clung to his vision like ghosts. He could almost see Hobbits mulling about, gaunt and pale, going about their lives the best they could in the fells of the mountains. As he reached the end of the cave, Bilbo felt the strength in his legs give out, falling roughly to his knees. The burst of pain from his kneecaps hitting the hard floor hardly registered as he stared at the sight before him.

A tiny hand print in fading burgundy, the handprint of child, was pressed against the back of the wall. And there, underneath it, in the slightly smeared Cirth, a name. His name – written by his father, all those years ago.

Baldaric Underhill.

And to the side of it, two more prints. One, the large hand print of Man, in a dusty red, the loopy script of Tengwar was scrawled underneath it. The other was the smaller print of a Dwarrowdam in a dark black, with the proud, stern lines of Dwarvish Cirth.

Baralin of Gondor.

Hfal of Gabilgathol.

The candle fell from his hand, somehow staying lit as it landed carelessly on its side and Bilbo pressed a hand to Baldaric and Hfal’s (and even the hand of a Hobbit easily covered that of a fauntling and a Dwarrowdam) before pressing his forehead against the large print of Baralin. A strange feeling filled him, a desperation that robbed him of sane thought just as it did his breath.

Whole! I want what to be whole! His mind screamed suddenly, and Bilbo pressed himself harder against the wall, irrationally hard, as if he could somehow pull his past lives from the rock. His fingers dug into the cave rock until they bled white. He wanted them. All of them! He wanted them here with him, all of them, all of them! The Dovahkiin felt wild with it, crazed by a want he didn’t even understand, and he let out a desperate sobs in the darkness. It was an impossibility. Even if they had somehow all been born in the same time – they’d shared but one soul between them, they could never coexist. But it didn’t seem to matter to his Dragon heart, which wailed and thrashed in his chest.

And then as suddenly as it had come, the feeling was gone from him, and Bilbo took deep, shuddering breathes, aware all at once that he’d been hyperventilating. He pressed his hands to his rapidly rising chest, feeling the stutter of his heart, and tried to count his breathes and even them out. Bilbo did this until he no longer felt light headed, his breath coming in steady if not hiccuping breathes. Even once his breathing had righted itself, the Hobbit kept his hands pressed to his chest, his eyes closed, and tried to gather himself. After a long while, Bilbo finally opened his eyes and stared once more at the three prints.

Golden eyes narrowed with determination and he drew Jusk and carefully cut a long – but shallow – line across his left forearm. Bilbo smeared his right hand across the wound, coating it with blood until it dripped from his fingers and palm, before pressing his hand against the wall. He was careful to keep his hand perfectly still, less the print smear, and kept it there a long while before finally pulling it away. He swirled his fingertip in the cut, ignoring the sting that flared with each return visit, and wrote in the pronounced, sharp letters of Hobbitish Westron, his name.

Bilbo Baggins.

The Dovahkiin leaned back on his heels, eyes dark and pupils blown, and stared.



“Thorin! Thorin, wake – ow!”

From where he was gripping Nori’s wrist tight enough to almost break it, the Dwarf King blinked in confusion before registering the Dam’s wince and his own hold all at once. He released her, eyes darting around the camp – first to Fíli and Kíli, then to Balin and Dwalin – and searched for any signs of a threat. He found none, just the sounds of ten Dwarves in heavy sleep. Only Nori, who had the midwatch, and Dwalin, who’d taken first watch were awake. And both looked worried.

“What is it?”

Nori bit her lip, clearly unsure about something before bringing a hand up to smooth her beard. “It’s Bilbo, he’s…”

“Gone.” Dwalin all but growled out in irritation.

Thorin was on his feet in an instant, securing his belt and Glamdring in one fluid movement. “What do you mean gone?” A quick glance at the stars’ ascent across the sky told him that it wasn’t even time for the shift change. “What are you doing awake? It’s not time for you to take your watch.”

Nori actually blushed, something Thorin hadn’t been sure was possible as there was a fair chance the Dam had never learned shame, glancing quickly over at Dwalin then just as quickly away. And Dwalin's – Mahal preserve them – cheeks pinked as well. Thorin groaned, running a hand through his hair.

“I saw him leave, though.” Nori rushed, shifting her weight from foot to foot, “down the south path from here. At first I thought he was just taking a piss, but he didn’t come back and it’s been far too long.”

Thorin’s eyes narrowed, frowning deeply as he made his way picked his way across the sleeping bodies of his fellows and to the camp edges. He could make out the path easily enough; Dwarves were born from darkness, their night vision surpassed all other race’s. There was no sight of the Hobbit. The King cursed in his mother tongue.

“I’ll go an’ get’m.” Dwalin announced with a scowl.

“You should, since it was your watch and you somehow let a Hobbit sneak by you.” Thorin admonished sharply, but stalled Dwalin's movements with a shake of his head. “I’ll go, you’re still on duty for a few hours. And Nori,” the tall Dwarf paused, blue eyes resting on the squirming Dwarrowdam for a moment, “go to bed.”

Her cheeks burned brighter before nodding and all but darting to her pallet. He turned to Dwalin next, but found a threatening glare awaiting him. “Not a word, cousin.”

“Not on watch, cousin.” Thorin snapped back and stepped into the darkness.

It didn’t take him long to find Bilbo’s path; the Hobbit had left clear tracks in the snow and he had barely walked a half mile before he began to see a faint glow. The Dwarf swore under his breath. The fool; that light could be seen for miles in this dark, even as low as it was. It was emitting from a cave with a deeply hanging lip, one that hung so low that Thorin had to duck almost to his knees to slip inside it. The light was still barely a caress – but to Thorin’s Dwarven eyes it was like a torch and he only took a handful of steps into the cave’s depth before stilling, eyes widened in surprise as he took in the interior.

It was clear that the cave hadn’t been inhabited by anything other than mountain creatures in years, but that had not always been the case. The walls of the cave was covered with paintings of high grass and hills in various shades of red, brown, and black. There may have been other colors once, but they had faded long ago. The stalagmites had been striped and marked to appear as if they were trees and the low hanging stalactites were dotted with various star patterns.

Every few feet on the wall were clusters of hand prints, a form of Cirth written carefully underneath each one. Thorin could not tell if it was in a Mannish or Elvish dialect, but he doubted it mattered. Whoever had lived here had done it so long ago that even it had been in Ereborian Cirth, he doubted he could have read it. Languages had a way of shifting over the ages. It was old and primitive but impressive nonetheless and Thorin found himself stepping closer to examine the walls. He brought a hand up, tracing across the painted lines, murmuring quietly to himself. “What is this place?”

“A scared place,” a voice said from behind him and Thorin pivoted sharply to find Bilbo emerging from further in the cave, the candle in his hand illuminating his features eerily. “Or least it would be, if any of my people remembered it was here.”

Thorin’s brows furrowed. “Hobbits lived here?”

“Hm.” The Hobbit confirmed, eyes drifting from him to glance once more at the painted walls. “They tried to make it seem more like home. The paintings I mean. Wide open fields and rolling hills, a Hobbit’s dream.”

“I have not heard of Hobbits habituating the Misty Mountains before.”

“Ah,” Bilbo said with a laugh as he drew closer, his smile a small, odd thing as he stared up at him, “but you have, Master Dwarf.”

“The Wandering Days?”

A slow nod. “They did not understand the mountains as your kind did, but even they knew better then to travel in the dead of winter through these passes.”

He pointed at a grouping of hand prints. “Can you read that?”

Bilbo came to stand next to him, staring at the Cirth as he brought the candle closer. “It was a family marking; the Longholes. Hido, Bluebell, Hudo, Hindo, and Garnett. The cave is covered with them. I suppose it marked what areas belonged to what families.”

There was something strange, something hollow in the Hobbit’s voice and Thorin watched him from the corner of his eye in confusion. The expression on Bilbo’s face was almost lost, those peculiar eyes soft and glossy, the pink of his lips dark against his pallor.

“I feel almost as if I could reach out and touch them,” Bilbo mused, head tilting to the side, and Thorin felt a queer jolt of regret that he’d re-braided his hair, as if he somehow missed the play of Bilbo’s crown of curls. No Dwarves had curls - at least not like the ones found in Hobbits. “I wonder how many of them made it from this horrid place alive?”

Small, slender fingers reached out, brushing over the largest print and Thorin could not help but notice that shake to them. Or the blood that coated them.

“You’re bleeding!” The Dwarf started in alarm, hands snapping out to snatch the stained limb, forcibly turning the smaller male so he could examine it. The move was meant to be gentle – Thorin had barely put any force in his grip at all, but to his surprise Bilbo cried out, wrenching his hand away and pressing it to his chest.

“I-I cut my arm, not my hand.” Bilbo stuttered, hand spread protectively over the area where Thorin had grabbed it, and Thorin winced. It seemed he was always the source of that hurting expression, even when he wished not to be.

The dark haired Dwarf took a deep breath, pushing away the frustration that frayed at his nerves, “forgive me. May I see?”

The Hobbit blinked up at him, golden eyes owlish in their surprise and Thorin bit down against the sharp words that tipped his tongue. Was it so very hard to believe that he could be civil? Or that he would be concerned about a member of his Company? That, at the very least. They were his responsibility and Thorin never took his responsibilities lightly. Before he could lose his patience completely Bilbo nodded and showed where the padded jack and undershirt had already been rolled up.

Thorin took the offered forearm, careful to keep his touch light and his hold gentle as he examined the cut. “It's shallow, I believe as long as we keep it clean we will be able to avoid infection. How did you do this to yourself?”

“I dropped the candle,” Bilbo said quietly, “and the light went out. When I was trying to relight it, I must have cut myself on something in the cave. It doesn’t hurt.”

Thorin nodded, eyes still locked on the shallow cut. For a long moment the Dwarf King took the sight in, struggling to find a way to phrase his words that would not be harsh or striking, and couldn’t help but note how thin and small the Hobbit’s limb looked clasped between his hands, and saw Balin’s words of missed meals in a new light. He thought of Bilbo’s cozy little home, of its warmth and deep pantry, thought of the comfort and ease, and of that first moment – that moment in the lane, when the moonlight had washed Bilbo’s skin smooth and white until it seemed as if made of ivory. How it had cast those curls bronze, and those eyes, bright and golden and yet as unreachable as the heart of a forge.

Thorin hadn’t realized how long he’d been staring – or that he’d been brushing the pads of his thumbs of the soft skin – until Bilbo’s hesitant voice jolted him out of his thoughts. “Thorin?”

The Dwarf blinked hard, his fingers stilling their movements. “I do not begrudge your need to come here, Bilbo, but it was unwise.” He glanced to the Hobbit’s face. “These roads are dangerous, never more so at night. Why did you come alone? Why did you tell no one?”

Do you not understand what could happen to you? Do you not understand how foolish you were? How easily the creatures of this place would rip you to shreds? You stupid, stupid boy.

The Hobbit’s dropped his eyes, looking away before nodding. “I know. I…I know it was foolish. It’s just…some things…some things are not meant to be shared. This place,” Bilbo glanced back at him beseechingly, “this place is not meant for sharing. Do you…can you understand that?”

He could. Thorin could understand that. There were things – things that went beyond secrets – things that belonged to a race, to that singular group of people. Heart-memories, his grandfather had called it. Histories, legacies, scared places. Things that were meant to be treasured and past down from generation to generation, so that those that came before could be remembered if not in name, then in what they left behind. So that as their names were lost to time, their soul could still live on in something. Dwarves were a race of secrets, even among themselves. They bore layers and layers of hidden knowledge and mystique, only gifted – and it was a gift – to each other under the most correct and right conditions.

But that still did not change the validity of his point.

“I understand. And I am…sorry…if I intruded upon this place,” Thorin said slowly, “but do not do this again. I – we – will wait outside if that is necessary.” Surprise flittered across Bilbo’s face, followed by a flash of pleased pleasure so brief that Thorin almost thought he’d imagined it. He let his hands fall to his side. “Come, the others will be worried.”

A small hand caught his own and Thorin stilled as it squeezed tightly. Bilbo eyes were soft – the same look that he gave so many in the Company – but never before to him.

“Thank you, Thorin.”

Chapter Text

Hobson Gamgee – or the ‘Ol’Captain,’ or simply ‘Cap,’ as he was affectionately referred to – had been a Bounder of the Watch for thirty years and with all five farthing armbands a series of colorful stripes on his left arm, was the Head Bounder of the Shire. He’d seen much in his tenure and was unusually jaded for a Hobbit, and Hobson was greatly respected amongst the Shire-folk and was well known for suffering no-nonsense. Uncommonly tall and broad, even the Sheriffs and Mayor took pause when Hobson spoke.

He’d also killed more than his fair share of wolves (and once, even a bear) during his years of Beating the Bounds, and had the scars to prove it. He’d joined the Bounders at twenty-six – years before his majority – during the Fell Winter when the Watch numbers dwindled almost to nothing and the white wolves had found the weakened Hobbits easy prey.

There weren’t many Bounders from that time still alive, but those that were – Marmados Brandybuck as well as the four Took boys (Fortinbras, Adalgrim, Sigismund, and Flambard), as well as Bowman Cotton and the Maggots – had all come out of retirement to join the fight. They spread the veterans out amongst the younger, more inexperienced Bounders.

A Bounders job was not very popular despite its decent pay, as it required a certain sacrifices of a Hobbit that few were willing to give. This lack of willing applicants meant they were predominately understaffed, which had been quite the issue now that the Forest had lost its mind. The Buckland Bounders were the most numerous of the five branches and even with the remaining four converging on Buckland, their numbers had still not been enough.

The Powers-that-Be (the Mayor, the Master, and the Thain) had sent out the Shire Muster, summoning the Hobbitry-in-arms, but the Shire’s militia had dwindled to a tiny number of volunteers after decades of peace, and a second call went out urging all able body Hobbits to join the militia. A runner – Saradas Brandybuck, a brave lad who was no stranger to the Bree-lands – had been sent out east to try and locate the Rangers. Another runner -  Poppy Pott, the granddaughter of the last mayor, Old Potts, and one of the few Hobbits fluent in Sindarin - had left Michel Delving for the Grey Havens to beg the aid of the Elvish settlement there.

Hobson hoped they made it through, as they were rapidly losing ground to the Forest.

The Hedge had been destroyed – either by the reaching limbs of the Hurons or burnt in the last ditch effort to keep the Forest at bay – and the awake trees were slowly but surely making their way across Buckland. A few of the most precocious trees had somehow found a way across the Brandywine and into the South Farthing, and had spread into the Overbourn Marshes, creeping ever closer to Willowbottom. Farmers had been sent out in massive numbers with orders to dig wide trenches and burn as much land possible in hopes of slowing the monsters’ progression, but they’d eventually been called back to the safety of the towns.

Their actions had barely helped and the farmers had been threatened by more than just Hurons; terrible wolves – a ruddy brown in color and far larger than the normal grey they sometimes saw lurking around their borders – and spiders the size of sheep had crossed the Hay as well. The evening sky was stained with thick plumes of smoke and the air smelled heavily of ash. Hobson stood tall and proud, cutting a distinctive silhouette with his thick padded jack and liripipe hood, all which had been stained an ugly brown with blood of various nasties, the cheery robin egg’s blue coloring of the uniform long since lost.

Hobson’s unit had been placed outside of Bucklebury to man the hastily built wall of barrels, chests, boxes, hay bales, and overturned carts that had been constructed around the very edges of the town, so close that the nearest house was barely a few feet away. The townsfolk had long been since moved over the Brandywine and even the great Brandy Hall was abandoned.

The Bounder felt his eyes narrow as he stared out over the distance, his grip tightening on his Watch Pole before glancing to the group of young Hobbits with him. They were a mix of Bounders and gentlefolk (with more of the latter, unfortunately) and they’d all look as if they’d seen better days. There was not a one that was not covered in soot or blood, and more than a few sported browning bandages over hastily patched bites.

The wolves were terrible, but hardly their greatest threat. They’d already lost sixteen Hobbits in the defense Newburry and Standelf, and a further eighteen (including six villagers and the Master himself) when Haysend was overtaken. That brought the number of dead to thirty-six – a staggering amount for the Shire – and almost all to the burning death of spider venom.

Though the tree line was still far off in the distance (and how could they have possibly known so many Huron still lay awake?) but they had lost nearly all of Buckland. They had grown complacent in the years following the Fell Winter, content and safe under the guard of the Rangers, which had proven a terrible mistake as something else had caught their stalwart friends’ attention and the Big Folk had pulled back from their borders.

Hobson knew that this meant the Men were undoubtedly caught up in foul business of their own, quite possibly even eviler than the struggles the Shire now faced. Hobson had spent a fair bit of his time among Outsiders. He had frequently met Dwarves, Elves, and Men alike as they made their way down the East Road and had heard their whispered warnings that the world was growing darker and fouler once again.

The gossip wasn't helping morale either, with speculation for why the Forest had chosen this time to act up rampant. Almost all of it centered on Bilbo Baggins, as much of the gossip of the Shire did normally, as the queer youth had managed to defy generations of stereotyping and managed to have his oddness be classified as 'exotic' by much of the Shire. Hobson himself knew the lad well, his son serving as a Gardner for the Baggins just as Hobson's older brother had, and even the old Bounder could admit that there was something special about the boy. The fact that he had left the Shire on some sort of adventure - with Dwarves now less! - only a scant few days before the Hurons had attacked the Hedge had not escaped anyone's notice. 

And with nothing else to blame, with no other explanation why years of long peace...well, perhaps not peace, more like a toleration, had come to an end other than Bilbo Baggins had left. It helped little that the Baggins heir was renowned for walking amongst the trees, always returning unharmed and leaving the Old Forest festering angrily in his wake.

Hobson didn't hold much with the idea himself.

There was no way one Hobbit could cause this.

“Captain?” Hobson turned, frowning at the ragged form of Otho Sackville-Baggins. The lad had come under his command a week ago all bluster and brass, carrying the same haughty arrogance that made his family so unpopular, though he’d been humbled quick enough. Now Otho was silent and withdrawn, face constantly pale and brown eyes full of fear. “There are…well, some Dwarves here to see you, Cap.”

Hobson felt his eyebrows rise in surprise, pulling the pipe from his mouth as he turned. Nine Dwarves stood before him, each armored to the teeth, and two more stood slightly in back, nearest to the settlement, with hoods drawn so low you could not make out any of their features. The eldest looking one, a short Dwarf with a magnificent grey beard, stepped forward.

“How may I help ya fair folk?” Hobson asked, as he offered his arm in greeting. “I’m afraid ya’ve picked ah bad time ta pay yer visits, things here are in a bad way. I wouldn’t be recommend try’n ta pass the Stonebow at tha’ moment.”

The Dwarf nodded, a grim expression on his face as he clasped the Bounder’s arm. “We were told of your trials upon entering the Shire. I am Álof, of the Blue Mountains Broadbeams. These are my sons;” he gestured to three very stern looking Dwarves, each with black beards littered with complicated looking beards, “Ávarr, Audvidr, and Augnarr. And my grandchildren  Áviðr, son of Ávarr, Auðólfr and Alví, children of Augnarr. And the hooded two are Jutta and Ragnvé. We have come to aid you.”

Hobson hummed noncommittally as his Bounders gapped at the Dwarves, eyeing the new comers with calculated eyes. A Dwarf warrior was easily worth ten or even twenty Hobbits and they were hardly unwelcomed. Still, “an’ why would ya be doin’ tha’ I wonder?”

“The Blue Mountains offer a hard life, Master Hobbit, especially for those with no house or standing. We have entered an agreement with your leaders – Mayor Whitfoot, the Mistress Brandybuck, and Thain Fortinbras – any Dwarf family that offers aid will be repaid with land in the South Farthing.”

“What!” Odo Proudfoot exclaimed and by the looks of the others, he was only speaking aloud their own thoughts, “they can’t do that! They can’t just give it to Outsiders. That’s our land, for our people!”

Hobson turned his head slowly, leveling the young Hobbit with a steady glare that had Odo nearly choking on any further words, paling. “An’ I suppose ya will be havin’ me turn away good steel, pup? Or perhaps ya liked ta be joining yer cousin in the grave?”

“I…uh…no.” Odo managed to croak out, suddenly very interested in the woodsman axe in his hand.

“Then don’ be speakin’ bout things like ya’ve got no mind ta.” Hobson snapped. “Ya’ll lived yer lives safe and warm, content ta be getting’ drunk and laying about every night. An’ look how tha’s turned out! Thirty-six dead an’ ya all can bet yer creases there be double tha’ by morning.”

He turned to stare out at the wood line.

“None of ya were alive fer the Fell Winter, so ya’ve no idea what’s coming! But I do! A hundred an’ eight Hobbits died in the Winter – entire families gone – an' the wolves took nearly all of tha,' picking off the weak. Triple that for the Days of Death. Past the Brandywine is the Shire proper; farmers, tailors, brewers, gentlehobbits. If we don’ stop it here, the wolves an’ spiders will tear them apart. There are no Rangers ta protect us, laddies. It’s jus’ us – and out of the twelve of ya, only three of ya have ever Beat the Bounds! The Horn of Buckland has called out, our borders are destroyed. We’ll take all the help we can get, boys, an’ we’ll be grateful about it.”

Hobson turned back to the Dwarves and felt his lips twitch into a small smile at the spark of grim amusement that had not been in the Dwarves’ eyes moments before.

“Yer welcomed here, Master Dwarf. You and yer axes.”

By Ori’s count it had been raining for four days. The entire Company was soaked to the bone, long given up on the hope that anything but the most deeply buried items in their packs would stay dry. Ori was in quite the foul temper himself, exhausted with screaming calfs and thighs, but she was kept her own discomfort silent. Especially because she was ever mindful of the utterly miserable looking Hobbit that was picking his way up the path in front of her.

Bilbo was characteristically quiet, though Ori did not doubt his discomfort, as she could see the weary lines to his form as the small creature traveled. Behind her, Nori seemed just as unhappy if the nonstop flow of curse words was any indication. Her sister was lucky Dori was travelling too far ahead to hear them or she would have stopped the entire group to wash out Nori’s mouth.

The Company as a whole was tired of the bad weather, but the storms seemed unwilling to let up. They tried to combat it by traveling as much as possible in the early morning, when the rains abated and gave them a startlingly crystal clear view of the towering snow caps around them. But the further the day progressed the darker the skies grew and by the afternoon hours they would be underneath a deluge once again. 

Perhaps the rain itself would not be so grave if it wasn’t so icy. As it was, even Ori was feeling the strain. The hardiness of the Dwarves only went so far when faced with weather like this and she felt like her muscles had been transformed into cold blocks. It was late in the afternoon, nearly evening Ori suspected even though she had no sun to go by, and the rain showed no sign of slowing.

Thorin seemed unaffected by it all. Their King pressed on, sure-footed and confident despite the fact that he was walking with one hand raised to block the stinging wind from his eyes, and showed no signs of bring them to a halt. They were about to turn one of the many curving bends of the mountain – which, the Dam knew, would only reveal even more mountain – and suddenly she felt utterly spent. Sighing, Ori brought her hands up to her pack straps, holding them in place as she rolled her shoulders and tried to get it to settle at a more comfortable angle against her back and rally her strength.

When she glanced up from her task, she nearly ran smack into the back of Bilbo. The Hobbit had come to a complete stop, hand moving over the mountain to his left. A narrow cave mouth – barely enough room for Bombur to make it through – yawned just inches from his hand. Bilbo had taken to moving with a hand pressed against the rock face at all times, seemingly less sure with the skinny path then his Dwarven companions, and the wind was vicious and a constant threat to unbalance and toss one over the side of the narrow path uncaringly.

Ori blinked in surprise as Bilbo suddenly leaned so close to the rock that his nose was nearly scrapping against it before pulling back, a wild grin on his face. The Hobbit flattened himself against the mountain side, gesturing for Ori and Nori to step past him, which the two did with no small amount of confusion, and neither Dam moved more than a pace away from their friend.

Dwalin (who – rather tellingly, Ori thought – had seemingly become her sister’s shadow and brought up the very rear of the Company) gave them a strange look. “What’s all this?”

“Look!” The Hobbit cried excitedly, pointing to the rock, and now that Ori was looking for it she could see it. “We should stop here.”

They were old symbols, used since the First Age. Their creators had long fallen from memory, but their use as trail markers had certainly not. They were carved so deeply into the stone that neither time nor nature had been able to remove them, though they were quite faded from sight and Ori marveled that Bilbo had been able to spot them at all.

“No, lad.” Dwalin shouted back, brows furrowing, “we press on – we mean ta make the top ridge by tonight.”

Bilbo scowled and Ori felt an answering sigh of displeasure leave her. The top ridge was miles away and she wanted to check on her journal. She had packed it deep into her bag, surrounding it with as much as she could in the hopes of keeping it dry, but she was unsure. 

The Hobbit pointed to the marks again. “Surely you know what these mean? The squared U – camp here, and the eyed, broken hourglass – a safe camp. And this last one means good water. We may find no better camp before night fall.”

Dwalin frowned, “caves are rarely empty. No, we move on.”

But Bilbo was insistent and the two instantly broke into a quarrel.

“Miss Ori?” A voice called, almost completely stolen by the rough wind, and she turned to find Fíli had rounded the mountain bend, face concerned. “What’s happening?”

She turned to greet him at the same moment an angry westerly whipped around them, and both reached for each other at the same moment in an attempt to steady her wobbling form. An iron-like grip locked on her elbow as Ori’s fingers curled around the Prince’s furred collar and she leaned into the solid form to be heard easier.

“Bilbo’s found trail markers at the cave mouth indicating safe camp, he wishes to stop!” Ori shouted, but the words seemingly had gone unheeded if they’d been heard at all.

Instead of responding the Prince stepped closer, angling his body oddly and almost boxing her against the mountain side. With a strange jolt of pleased-surprise, Ori realized that he was trying to shelter her from the worse of the wind. Fíli leaned into her, speaking almost to her ear to be better heard. “Are you alright? You are shivering so hard I can’t believe you haven’t shaken right off the mountain.”

“Yes,” Ori managed, suddenly breathless, and had to repeat the word louder, “yes. As well as I can be.” And here she felt as if she was shouting into her lord’s face yet still Fíli leaned in closer, struggling to hear her over the thunder and whistling wind. “Almost all that I wear I have sown.”

As was most of what her sisters wore, they could hardly afford good leather after all, but Ori was good at the art and had made their travel clothes layered and thick. Yet despite this, her clothes were heavy and water logged. Fíli’s eyes were troubled as he stared down at her before his expression took a decisive set that Ori had only ever seen mirrored on those who called themselves 'Durin's son.' To her complete horror, the Prince moved as if to slip out of his coat.

“No!” She cried out, hands darting forward with a mind of their own to stop the motion. The warmth of Fíli’s hands felt shocking against her cold palms as she stilled them. “You musn’t! Please, I’m fine.”

“But…” Fíli’s expression crumpled slightly and somehow Ori felt guilty. She hardly had anything to feel guilty about. After all, what kind of Dwarrowdam was she if she stood by and allowed the heir-apparent to her people strip himself in this kind of weather?

“My sisters and I have lived many months outdoors in the dead of winter, I will be fine.” She reassured and gave him her kindest smile, squeezing his hands. “Thank you though, Fíli, but I’m hardly worth you dying of exposure.”

Something strange (and perhaps even sad?) flittered over the Prince’s face and suddenly the Dwarrowdam found her hands being gripped tightly, pressed against Fíli’s chest. The Dwarf gave her a rueful smile. “Ori…you are worth that and so much more to me.”

Ori felt her expression blanch, eyes wide at the admission. Fíli couldn’t mean…the Crown Prince was interested in her? But...but Ori was nothing, only a scribe from a forgotten noble line with naught a coin to their name. And yet...the look he was giving her…His smile gentled, cornflower blue eyes warm as a hand reached out to fix her hood, though the move seemed more an opportunity to drag the back of his fingers across her cheek than anything else. “Surely…you've seen how I feel by now?”

Ori heart beat wildly in her chest and despite the chill, the Dam felt a brilliant blush burn at her cheeks. They were standing so close to each other – their faces near enough to share breath. “Fíli...I-”

A loud shout of “Damn it aw Dwalin! Ye mule-headed crease!” and the two broke away almost guilty and Ori felt her blush intensify at the amused look Nori was giving them. Dwalin’s cry of Bilbo’s name caught her attention quick enough and Ori echoed it with one of her own as the Hobbit slipped into the cave mouth.

Caves were rarely empty in the high mountains, filled with bears, wolves or worse - Goblins - and the chance of the untried Hobbit meeting something violent inside was high and the Dwarrowdam was hardly surprised when a cursing Dwalin disappeared in afterwards, shouting at Nori to call halt the rest of the Company. Her sister was quick to do as commanded for once, darting with ease across the narrow path and disappearing around the corner.

Ori made for the cave mouth before she could even register she was moving, but a harsh yank pulled her back. Fíli gave her a stern look, gesturing for her to wait before following Dwalin into the darkness. Ori bit her lip; she wanted desperately to follow or even to reach out and pull the golden Prince back.

There were shouts on the wind though and so the Dam stepped back from the mouth and pressed herself against the rock face, leaving the path open for the hardier warriors even as she undid the lip of her dagger and slingshot pouches.

Bilbo tried his best not to gloat as he stretched out in the warmth of the cave, especially as he knew that Dwalin’s concerns had been very valid. It had been simple, dumb luck that the cave had in not been occupied by some foul creature, allowing them to spend their night in a relative amount of comfort. Those that had dry clothing had changed into it and their wet things were laid flat across the heated stone to dry. The cave had clearly been used by travelers somewhat recently, which made sense as Bilbo could see how the space could be quite popular.

It was a little known fact of the world that the heart of mountains still beat a heart of molten fire and there must have been an active spot miles below them to heat the stone floor to such a comfortable temperature. As it was, the Company as a whole was quite enjoying it. With the exception of a handful almost all lay like Bilbo, strewn across the warm ground like lay cats.

The cave was quite a deep ‘Γ’ shape, which gave them the rather rare opportunity of settling far from the mouth and starting an actual fire. Warm food had done wonders for the Company’s attitudes and Bilbo himself was the closest to a cheerful mood than he’d been for weeks. Oh, he’d gotten quite a dressing down from not only Dwalin, but Thorin and Dori as well, but it had certainly been worth it.

He couldn’t quite fault the Dwarves’ frustrations with him – the Dovahkiin had been rather careless, charging into the dark cave as he had, and much of it had been concern rather than any real anger. Bilbo was more than aware that they thought him only slightly less helpless than a child and honestly wasn’t sure if he should be amused or annoyed by the continued assumption.

The Hobbit opened his eyes, lazily taking in the rugged ceiling for a few moments before yawning widely and craning his head back to look about. No one had come to him for a story which was rather odd, but Bilbo quickly saw why. He felt his brows furrow in concern as he took in the once more present class lines. Yet as he watched, Bilbo began to realize that the division had little to do with class.

Thorin had watch at the front of the cave and as usual, Dwalin had joined him. The two Dwarves were rarely more than a few feet away from each other in camp and the Dragonborn would wonder what it was they talked so heavily about, except that he already knew his answer. The ‘Ri sisters had placed their bed rolls in the very back of the cave, something that Bilbo knew from his times as Hfal was often done with the Dams, and they were huddled together in deep conversation.

Every now and then, Dori or Nori’s eyes would drift to glance at over where Balin and the Princes speaking together, while Ori kept her attention locked on her gloves, hardly ever looking up. Likewise, the three Dwarves sent their own covert glances to the Dwarrowdams throughout their conversation. Deciding that whatever was happening their most likely had to do with the Fíli-Ori situation, the Hobbit politely averted his eyes and sought out Bombur, Bifur and Bofur.

He felt his lips quirk at the sight of Bombur flat on his back, utterly asleep and snoring. Bofur slept as well, his hat pulled low over his face as his head was cradled on his brother’s large gut. Bifur (as Bilbo had learned the hard way) had a tendency of sleeping with his eyes open – something to do with the nerve damage from the axe blow – but after so long the Hobbit had finally learned to tell when he slept.

Clicking his tongue in annoyance, Bilbo turned on his side, wanting to sleep but finding himself unable to do so. After a few more minutes of laying on the warm stone, he finally gave up and stood. Both conversations halted as he did, but Bilbo ignored them as he made his way towards the cave mouth and as soon as he was out of the sight, they began anew.

Chuckling to himself, Bilbo shook his head fondly. Dwarves. His intention had been to go to the cave mouth – perhaps watching the nonstop rain would tire him – but the Dovahkiin found his steps coming to a still long before he’d reached the end of the long, narrow section that lead to the entryway. Hobbit’s were incredibly keen-eyed in the darkness – not as good as a Dwarf, of course, but better than most races on Arda – and Bilbo had always been an attentive creature in all of his forms, which was why he managed to pick out the carved symbols hidden.

Nimble fingers picked out the sticky cave moss, revealing two more traveler warnings. Two rectangles over lapping, followed by a circle bisected by an arrow pointing to the right.


                                                                                     Afraid.     Don’t go this way.

Any pretense of exhaustion was gone as the Dovahkiin stiffened, eyes flicking back the way he’d come, mindful that it was he would had brought his party here. Just a foot from the carving was a narrow crevice, a strange overbite of the cave wall that hid the opening from direct sight. Shifting Orcrist and Jusk so that the swords would not clang against the rock wall and alert the others to his actions, Bilbo shuffled sideways through the opening.

Had Bilbo actually have been a Hobbit the tight squeeze probably would installed a deep anxiety, but he had been a Dwarf twice and the knowledge and acceptance of small, dark places that those experiences had left in him kept the feelings at bay. He shuffled for nearly twenty paces before the passage widened out enough for him to stand abreast and only a few more footsteps lead him to a wide, open cavern.

For a long moment Bilbo stood in the dark, listening. When it became clear that there nothing living in the room, he cautious brought out his candle, gripping it between his teeth as he struck the flint to life.

How someone reacted to being startled said quite a bit about a person’s character. Bilbo noticed that the races of Middle-earth tended to cry out when shocked or frightened, scramble away when standing or drawing their feet up to their trunk when sitting. It was a simple prey action – not unlike of how white tailed deer would bound away from a threat, flagged tails raised high to alert the rest of the herd to danger.

But Bilbo – Bilbo was a predator, despite whatever skin he might wear – and when startled, he went deathly still and quiet. And as the yellow light lit the truly cavernous space, the Dovahkiin went very still. It took him a heartbeat longer than it should have to realize that the Dragon in front of him was dead.

Some of the leather hide still clung to its behemoth head, giving the illusion in those first few moments that it may still hold life, but the skin was stretched and sunken, barely clinging to the skeleton. Its eyes sockets were empty, the jaw muscles long since decomposed to leave its gaping maw wide open.

She – and it was a she, Bilbo noted – was a wingless, a cold-drake most likely. She was also small; young, less than three hundred, if the Dovahkiin had to place a number. Barely a teenager in Dragon years. Bilbo’s head cocked to the side as he took in the sight, the move oddly slowly and distinctly reptilian, golden eyes roaming over the curved bones.

The left side of her rib cage was completely crushed, the bones jagged and painful looking. A suspicion began to grow in the Hobbit’s mind as he made his way around the curved ‘c’ frame and shook his head in disbelief as his hunch was confirmed. Her large right shoulder bone, as well as the shredded hide that still stretched over it, bore the distinctive bite marks of a male Dragon.

A mating gone wrong then, Bilbo thought and he shuddered, remember all too well the violence of Ulugwin’s race. It was quite common for Dragons to turn on each other mid-mating and the fact that this juvenile had managed to make it away from what appeared to be a much larger, older male (if the bite mark was anything to go by) was nothing short of a miracle. It seemed that the Dragon had managed to free herself from her mating, crawl back here and died curled around a very hastily looking built nest. There were even a clutch of three eggs – lifeless and long since fossilized.

She must have known her brood would not survive without her to keep their temperature warm, but even as Bilbo crouched to examine the eggs, head shaking from the sheer insanity of it, he had to admire the female’s determination, for it most have robbed her of the very last of her strength to lay the eggs.

Bilbo felt something strange and yet terribly familiar flutter in his chest as he ran a finger over a egg, disgust shivering across his form at how cold the stone shell felt. It should have been impossible but somehow the Dragonborn felt a spark of pity at the thought of the frozen little ones inside. The emotions were wholly his own, Bilbo knew, as Dragons did not feel such things and had Ulugwin come upon this clutch, she would have mocked the dead mother for her inability to provide. It was a matter of nature, really. Only the strong survived.

And yet…

The barest of memories…of a nest so similar but with eggs that would have scorched his finger as they were now flashed across his mind.

Still shaking his head, Bilbo stood and stepped carefully over the dead eggs. He stroked the hide, finger tips tingling at the familiar/new feeling of dragon skin, before pulling Orcrist free from his it’s frog. He cut a large swath of hide free from where it stretched over a yawning rib cage. The hide was tough with age, but hardly gave any complaint as he folded it in a thick but small square. Dragonhide stayed supple long after death, malleable and flexible still, and shoved it into his undershirt.

He glanced over his shoulder only once – to take in the magnificent form of the dead female one last time – before returning to shimmy his way back to the cave proper. He’d only just cleared the crevice before he met Dwalin, the two exchanging a brief nod before passing each other. Bilbo found Thorin sitting on guard at the cave entrance and he gave the Dwarf King a small smile as he leaned against the rock face, staring out at the grey. “The storm doesn’t seem to be abating.”

“No,” Thorin said gruffly, “it does not. We will be on the move with the morning light regardless.”

Bilbo sighed, but knew that Thorin would not be moved from his decision. What's more he was correct not to; they needed to be free of these dratted mountains and Bilbo did not deny that his heart longed to be away from this foul place.

“Do you mind if I stay and sit with you for a while?” The Dovahkiin asked.

An easy “of course,” was offered and Bilbo sat down easily on the raised set of stone Thorin had settled against. It was a tall and crooked thing, but it protected them from the worst of the rain while still producing an easy view of the outside. “Did you feel the call for fresh air?”

“Well yes. That and the ‘Ri sisters seemed rather deep impassionate conversation, as was Balin and your sister-sons. And I felt – well, to be honest – a bit like I was intruding. Neither group seemed to keen to speak with me in their presence.”

“Do not be offended by their actions, Bilbo-”

“Oh no, Thorin. I’m not, I promise I’m not.” The Hobbit was quick to reassure, “I understand, truly. Traveling such as we are – always in a group, never really alone – privacy is a near impossibility. And no amount of friendship I share with the Company changes the fact that some things are only meant for the ears of family.”

Thorin let out a weary sigh. “…Fíli confessed to Ori earlier today. Outside, on the mountain.”

“I see.”

“He could of have chosen a better time and place.”

Dwarvish courtships were not necessarily long things but they were complicated beasts, with many different rituals and steps, and it was doubly so for a royal like Fíli. Bilbo knew that Thorin would have wanted his heir to have been more traditional in announcing his intentions.

“Perhaps, but what is done is done, and Ori may say yes.” Bilbo rather thought she would, as he’d caught the strawberry-blond watching the young Prince just as much as he’d been watching her. “Honestly Thorin, it was hardly the worst confession I’ve ever encountered.”

“Indeed?” There was an odd gleam in Thorin’s eyes, but Bilbo simply took it as good humor, “do you speak from experience, Master Bilbo?”

He turned to watch the storm once more, nodding with a smirk. Bilbo knew that he was attractive for a Hobbit (and if he spoke completely without modestly, one of the fairer of his kind) and he’d had a continuous line of admirers throughout the years.

“Oh, I’ve had my fair share of them,” Bilbo said smugly as he settled in more comfortably against the rock, “though they probably came more for the weight of my family name and title than for my charm and not inconsiderable good looks.”

“Such a modest creature you are.” Thorin mused, though the words were clearly without weight, and Bilbo couldn’t help but laugh. “And they were poorly done?”

“Most, yes.” Bilbo admitted, “there seemed to be the assumption - one the that I cannot prove but am positive my cousin Rory started - that I wasn’t saying yes because of a lack of flash and guile on my suitors’ part, so they started getting a little out of hand.”

“We’re they all so very terrible?”

Bilbo’s lips pulled into a small, secretive smile. “No, not all.”

Respite - akahime4

Respite by akahime4

The rain had not let up an inch, still pounding angrily, and the morning found them traveling in the same damp twilight as they day before it. The Company carried on nonetheless, unerring in their tenacity and Bilbo had little choice but to follow. The group’s mood was a reflection of the stormy outside, though Bilbo knew it had less to do with the weather and more with Fíli’s unexpected confession. They had divided themselves once again into familial lines, with Thorin and his kin in the front, the ‘Ri sisters taking of the rear and the ‘Fur brothers and cousin a buffer between the two.

Ori was studying each step before she stepped upon it, seemingly determined to ignore everything and everyone, and Bilbo felt his heart ache for the poor lass. It had to be hard for such a shy creature to know that she was the center of so much attention. Fíli looked back every now and then, though the number of stolen glances had lessened under the weight of Dori’s glare. The Hobbit watched the proceedings with a strange sort of guilty amusement. Ah, to be so young!

“Stop it, Nori.” Dori’s voice could only just be heard over the pounding rain.

“Stop what?”

“You know what. Just stop it.”

“I’m tryin',” the red-headed Dwarrowdam moaned, “but how can I not look? They’re like two perfect pairs of pressed ham and-”

Bilbo let out a choke of a laugh as Dori’s hand shot out and smacked her sister hard enough that she stumbled, realizing all at once that the spot ahead Nori had been so studiously observing was Dwalin’s rear end.

“Have some sympathy for your sister,” Dori snarled but any other reprimands were lost amongst the sudden bellow from the very Dwarf in question.


The Dragonborn’s head snapped up, alarmed and confused in equal measures. There was nothing the High Fells that was capable of creating siege arms; the Goblins that infested these peaks idea of engineering usually resulted in structures that would barely carry the weight of a hound. But just as Dwalin’s had said a heavy stone appeared from the grey, slamming into a mountain peak just a few feet away.

What in the name of –

Another bolder screamed by them, exploding close enough to shower the startled company with shards easily the size of Bag End. The air around them crackled with what Bilbo had foolishly thought earlier was ozone, but now recognized it for what it was. Magic; pure, unaligned elemental magic.

There was another shout, from Balin this time. “This is no thunderstorm, it’s a Thunder Battle!” The Dwarf pointed to the valley where a large stone figure was untangling itself from the rock face. “Look!

Bilbo felt the bottom of his stomach drop out, understanding striking him all at one. Balin was right, they had wandered into valley of Stone-giants, but what he did not understand was this was no battle. This was play – a game – and one that would lead them all to their deaths easily enough. Giants – like Ents – were creatures left over from the birth of the world, created with the first blooms of life upon Arda, and they would no more think of the Dwarves in their mists than one would think of the insects beneath their boots.

Now that he knew to look, Bilbo could feel them all around him. The fëa of such creatures were immense, so wide and large that they were hard to distinguish from the mountains themselves. The rock spirits flittered from stone to stone, sculpting hröa at will from them when in need and abandoning the bodies to inanimately just as quickly. There was two in front of them and one only feet behind. Horror struck the Dragonborn as he realized that he could feel yet another forming beneath their very feet – that they were standing on a manifesting Giant. One that was seconds from answering his kin’s calls to amusement.

Bofur let out a crow of excitement but the Dovahkiin barely heard his words as he shot forward, navigating the ledge with a skill that did not belong to any part of his current race. He grabbed Bofur by the back of his gibson, yanking the toymaker back to the safety of the rock face.

“Get back you fool!” He shouted with a snarl, his voice sharp and harsh, ignoring the thoroughly startled looks Bifur and Bombur sent him. His hand flew to his fang, eyes flashing a brilliant gold as power surged through him.

He must quiet them, alert the primordial beings of the mortals in their midst. His mind cleared of everything but that one wish, forcing every inch of his will into a physical force and the Dovah burned and wriggled in his throat as if they had a life of their own.

“Gol – Hah – Dov!” The Thu’um surged from him like a blow, his mouth filled with the expected tangy metal of his own blood, and echoed throughout the valley like a thunderclap. The Giants went still, their large heads turning towards them.

There was rumbling howl as the ground beneath them began to shift and the Company let out shouts of shock and terror as a large torso and head disengaged from the mountainside. It hovered over them, the Company standing in its very lap.

Large hands settled on its knees – effectively boxing the group between them – and the Dwarves scrambled for purchase as the rock shifted and rocked beneath them as the Giant leaned forward. Its head was huge and bulbous, misshaped and utterly free of anything that could possibly be construed as facial features. And yet as its mammoth head bent down closer to the them, Bilbo could feel its gaze upon them (upon him), fraught with curiosity. 

The Giant shifted again and the ground below Bilbo creaked ominously. The Dragonborn had only enough time to glance down at in alarm – to witness the rock crack and shatter – and then he was falling. For a wild moment Bilbo thought that Thorin would follow him. The Dwarf had launched himself after him with wildly grasping hands, eyes so wide Bilbo could see the whites of them, a hoarse shout escaping him. But just before he sank beneath the sea of fog hands pulled Thorin back – and then…

He fell.

Ori swallowed around a thick throat as she tried to focus on her knitting. The entire Company was somber and quiet, shaken not only by the loss of Bilbo but by his actions. She could still hear that shout, so alien and deep from the mouth of their Hobbit, ringing in her ears. Ori knew that should remember forever. No one seemed to know what magic the Hobbit had cast, but it had driven the Stone-giants away. 

No, that was wrong. The Giants had not fled, they had simply ceased to be, falling apart where they stood. Even the one that had stared down at them (and had that not been terrifying! Standing so close to something so large and brutal!) had simply fallen back against the mountainside, reabsorbed amongst the rock as if it had never been any different. But Bilbo – oh, poor Bilbo! Ori shuddered; Bilbo’s death had struck them all deeply ad her fellows seemed to mourn him each in their own ways.

Her eyes sought her King first and Ori felt her heart ache at the sight of his stern figure, outlined by flashes of lightening. He stood at the mouth of the cave, staring out into the abyss. She did not know what it was Thorin was thinking or if he thought of nothing at all and stood some strange, grief driven vigil over the valley that claimed their friend, but he had not moved for hours. It was seemed as if Bilbo's death had struck him harshest of all, the cry of denial that had escaped Thorin upon Bilbo’s fall had been…been…wrenching, wrenching in every way.

That sound too, the scholar would recall till the end of her days.

Next to the fire, Bofur was carving a miniature that looked suspiciously Hobbitish in nature, while Bombur and Bifur spoke in rapid Iglishmêk, their faces drawn tight and harsh. Just to their left, Dori was braiding Nori’s hair and beard, and it spoke volumes of upset both her sisters were that Nori allowed it with no fuss. Across from the fire, Balin and Dwalin sat close together, the elder Dwarf Lord scribbling furiously away in his private journal while Dwalin sharpened and re-sharpened his axes, face thunderous. Kíli was a shadow by their side, his mischievous face ashen and still. And Fíli –

 – Fíli was heading towards her.

Ori had settled herself at the very back of the cave, as far from the others as she could get. She had always been a very private Dam, much preferring to weather her emotions (regardless of their nature) away from prying eyes. Her sisters knew this well enough and had not tried to call her to their side, giving her the space she very much needed.

Fíli, however, approached her with determined steps. The Prince settled next to her, close enough that she could feel the heat of his thigh against her own. Her fingers hitched, losing a stich, before skilled fingers caught the fold with ease and wove it back. They sat in silence, the only sound the clink of her knitting needles, Fíli seemingly content to simply be by her side.

The scarf was starting to shape up; it was a long thing of only one color – a pale taupe – but it was thick and warm and would provide much needed protection to its wearer. Ori had been making it since before Rivendell, she would be done with it soon. But who would she give it too? She’d been making it for Bilbo.

Ori let out a sob, only just managing to muffle it in the soft knit of her glove.

The Dwarrowdam tried desperately to quiet her grief, not wanting to add to any other’s struggle, but it was so hard. Yet somehow she managed it; though she wept openly, the only sound that escaped her was a hitching uptake at the end of each breath. A warm arm suddenly settled around her shoulders, tugging lightly and Ori turned into it willing, pressing her face into the strong curve of Fíli’s shoulder.

»Forgive me,« she breathed, but the golden Prince was already shushing her.

»There is nothing to apologize for.« Fíli said quietly, his arm tightening around her. Blunt, calloused finger brushed across her cheek, wiping at her tears.

»I knew that any of us could die at any moment.« Ori said, voice ragged, »of course I knew! And yet, now that it has happened…it is beyond comprehension.« She turned her face away, ashamed. »You must think me very naïve.«

Those thick fingers turned it back and Fíli’s blue eyes serious but kind. »I think no such thing. Do you believe I am experienced with death, Ori? I do not remember my father, nor my grandfather. Bilbo is my first real friend to die as well.«

Ori flinched at the harsh truth of the wording, closing her eyes against the rejection and disbelief that raged in her breast. She glanced up at the Prince under the heavy hood of her lashes, lips trembling. Fíli watched her as if he could not believe that she was real, as if she was something delicate, something precious to be treasured. He watched Ori as if he could not bear not to, as if to look away would be painful, and she never knew how terribly she needed someone to look at her like that until that moment.

The Dwarrowdam leaned into the touch against her cheek, bringing her own hand up cover Fíli’s. »I know I have no right to ask, but please be careful.« Ori begged in a low whisper, »I do not think I can bear to lose another that I care for.« 

»I would like to kiss you.«  Fíli admitted, sounding almost breathless. »But I fear your sisters' wrath would end me.« 

None of the Company seemed to be paying them any attention, though that was most likely more out of respect than any actual real ignorance. Certainly so on her sisters’ parts. Even if they did not hear what the two of them spoke of, their bodies gave the nature of their conversation away regardless.

»I…«  Her cheeks burned hotly, but Ori felt a daring quite unlike anything she’d felt before. »I would like that very much.«

Fíli let out a wounded sounding chuckle, pulling her closer as he rested his lips against her forehead. »You will be the death of me. When this is over, will you allow me to court you?«

Ori tangled her fingers in the soaked fur of Fíli’s coat and thought of Bilbo, thought of how quickly he had left them; of how violent and unexpected it had been. Of how easily that it could have been any  member of the Company - of how it could have been Fíli - and quietly gave her consent.

Chapter Text

Willy Whitfoot sipped his honey tea, face pleasant but blank as he watched the proceedings in front of him, and tried to look important. It was hard thing to do, considering that every other important Shire figure was currently huddled over in a tent on the other side of the clearing, talking in hushed tones over a map.

The Dwarf, Álof, and his eldest son were giving advice on wall building as both the Mistress and the Thain listened with rapt attention. Hobson Gamgee stood at the table as well, his burly figure large even next to the thick forms of the Dwarves. As if sensing his gaze, the Bounder Captain look up, his face something fierce when he saw Willy watching.

The Mayor gave him a glare of his own, feeling quite put off when the other Hobbit didn’t so much as blink under it, and turned away, arms folded. What did he care if he wasn’t allowed to sit in on the meetings anymore? It wasn’t as if Willy really wanted to be there. Besides, what did Dwarves know about Hobbit business anyway?

Honestly, you make one off-color joke about Dwarven noses and suddenly you’re banished from the adults table.

Willy tried not to let it get to him. So what if neither the Thain nor the Master or Mistress had ever treated him with the respect he deserved? And Willy did deserve that respect. Unlike them, he’d been elected into office; chosen from amongst the whole of the Shire. So what if Willy had never bounded the Bounds like Fortinbras? Or stood the Hedge like Mistress Mirabella?

It was, Willy was quite certain, entirely Bilbo Baggins’ fault.

The Hobbit had been Willy’s only real dissenter, and while he’d never really companioned against him, Bilbo had gone out of his way to make his feelings about Willy’s candidacy known. Undoubtedly, he would have spewed his foul logic at his cousins and aunt.

As it stood, the Mayor wasn’t completely unsure that the Old Forest attacking them wasn’t Bilbo’s fault either. Now, he couldn’t prove anything. No one could prove anything. But the coincidence was just a bit too much wasn’t it? Bilbo Baggins riding through the Shire in braids (braids! As if he was some Hobbit-champion of old!) and armed, running off with Dwarves and leaving them to deal with the Old Forest.

Willy huffed, irritated, as he watched the Dwarves – what one earth were their names? They all started with ‘As’ and they all looked the same. How was anyone supposed to tell them apart! – drill the militia.

Within a few day of arriving, the Dwarves had confiscated three different blacksmiths (kicked the smiths right out of their own smithies, if you could believe the nerve!) and begun to produce weapons at a frightening rate, complaining the whole time about the sub-par smithing equipment.  Within two they had made enough spears, poleaxes, short swords, and shields to completely outfit their small force.

Now one of them – another one of Álof’s sons – was drilling them. They’d made far more poleaxes and spears then any other weapon, arguing that an defensive weapon like a long arm would serve untried Hobbits far better than any other, providing considerable offense while keeping their enemies away at an arms length, and the line in front of him was clumsily going through drill after drill. The Dwarf didn’t look happy, if his expression was anything to go by, and neither did the two younger, hooded Dwarves that were attempting to aid in him training. They walked through the lines like a storm, batting at loosely held poles and adjusting improper grips at every turn.

Willy could relate.

He didn’t think Hobbits made very good warriors either.

15 Cermië, 2941 (Steward’s Reckoning)

Bilbo woke slowly, thoughts heavy and muddled like they’d been wrapped in cotton. Consciousness returned long before the will to move did and for a long moment, the Hobbit simply stayed where he lay, body spread eagle and aching. The relentless touch of cold rain against his cheek was enough to finally force Bilbo into movement though and the Dragonborn let out a pained sound as he pushed himself vertical, leaning heavily on his hands as his head swum.

There was a sluggishly bleeding cut just above his right ear, shallow but vicious enough that it had coated the entirety of Bilbo’s ear, making all sound from seem muffled and shallow. It took far too much effort to convince his sluggish body to sit up on its own, though Bilbo believed that more out of a reaction to the cold that had sunk into his bones than any extended hurt. He brought a hand up to delicately probe at the filled ear, wincing at how hot the flesh felt to touch and the blood that escaped it as he pushed the tragus inward. His hands fumbled to his water flask, drinking nearly the entire thing before nausea forced him to stop.

He dry heaved a few times, hand pressed firmly to his lips as he fought to keep the cold water down. The nausea passed almost as soon as it came, but the way the water sat like an uneasy rock in his stomach promised that Bilbo would be unable to forget about it any time soon. The Hobbit blinked hard against the rain, reaching out to pull his hood up and cursing loudly as a small reservoir of water was released from where it had pooled, rushing down his shirt collar. Bilbo let out a groan as he glanced about, trying to remember how it was he’d gotten here.

There had been a fight – no, no that wasn’t right.

There had been a game.

And Bilbo had stopped it because…of the Stone-giants. Everything came back in a rush and the Hobbit winced as if physically struck. He could still see the horror on his friends’ faces as he fell, that horrible, stunted cry of denial of Thorin’s.

He pushed himself to his feet, swaying slightly as cold-numbed limbs ache and prickled after so long of disuse. Bilbo had no idea how long he’d been out, but from the strain in his legs and knees he knew it must have been a few hours. He was standing on a piece of rock that jutted from the mountainside at a harsh yet even ninety degrees, the rock pale and unscarred from weathering. It was roughly in the shape of a hand and Bilbo realized that it must have been one of the Giants – the one that they had stood on perhaps – who had caught him.

The fëa was long gone, leaving only the body behind to cradle Bilbo. The Dragonborn sent out a silent thank you regardless, face growing thunderous as he leaned carefully over the edge of an oversized thumb. The ground was miles below, so far down that Bilbo could not even see it. Not getting down that way, the Hobbit thought sourly. He glanced up, eyes narrowing as he tried to shelter them from the fierce wind and rain, but could see nothing above him due to the ceiling of fog. Nor up either…

It seemed that his plight hadn’t been utterly un-thought of by the Giant though, as just a few feet away from where the rock limb sprouted from the mountain there was a small, diamond shape hole. It would be a bit of a stretch, but Bilbo was confident he could make it through. With luck (though what kind of luck was open to debate) it would lead him inside the heart of the mountain, to the long and maze-like paths of the Goblins were.

Bilbo loathed the idea of entering it. Not because he feared the dark or the caverns found in the deep earth, but because he knew that there was little chance he would make it free without encountering the inhabitants of said tunnels. Like many of their black brethren, the Goblins of Hithaeglir held little fondness for the Dovahkiin. Still, Bilbo knew that there was little choice in the matter and at the very least he would be out of the elements and so with a grunt he hoisted himself up and inside.

Bilbo cursed as he dropped a good six or seven feet, hitting the tunnel floor with a nearly silent ‘oof’ that still felt like a scream in the silence of the mountain. He stood, glaring up at the twilight that cut the pitch black tunnel from the entryway, angry and angrier at having nothing to direct the emotion at.

The Dragonborn took a few moments to gather his wits and to rescue his pack before turning the face the yawning mouth of darkness that spread out before him. A hand reached back, taking in the comfort of his fang beneath his fingertips as eyes bleed – and stayed – gold. The effect was instant, his path stretching out before him, still dark but no longer impossible to follow. It was nowhere near what Ulugwin’s eyesight had been, nor was it in anyway comparable to the comfortable night vision of the Dwarves, but it was enough and Bilbo set off into the dark, worn feet silent on the stone.

The cave was silent and dark, the air heavy with the day's events. Dori lay as still as the dead next to her, far too still to be in anything but a sleep of pure exhaustion, and the middle 'Ri knew that her tender hearted sister was still caught in the grief of losing one she called hers.

Nori was unsure just when it was that Bilbo had wormed his way into Dori's heart and earned her protection, nor if the Hobbit had understood how precious – how much of an honor – it was to do so. Like the rest of the company Nori mourned the loss of their storyteller, their gentle friend that had filled their long nights with the simple (yet so terribly needed) gift of entertainment.

Bilbo had been a good lad. He deserved so much more than what he had gotten.

Towards the back of the cave Ori and Fill slept curled around each other much to Nori's relief. She'd been worried about how her little sister was going to handle the golden Prince's advances. She'd hoped it would be this, as she saw it not only as profitable economically and socially, but a chance for Ori to have true happiness. Oh, their actions had begun innocently enough. They had stretched out side by side with a respectable distance between the two, but in sleep they’d quickly shifted towards each other, instinctively seeking the heat of another. 

Ori slept on her side, curled tightly in a tight 'c,' her face practically buried in the fur of Fíli's coat. Their prince mirrored her, an arm thrown protectively over her waist, face hidden in Ori's hair. It said much to Dori's mental state that she'd said nothing of it, only watching the event happen with a blank expression. In truth they were both happy that their delicate sister had found some joy in this mess. Ori had never really experienced death like this before, being far too young when the sweating sickness took much of their little hamlet to remember the dreadful time and both worried deeply for her now.

There was a great sigh from Dwalin next to her and from underneath her lashes, Nori could see his troubled face as he stared up at the ceiling. The Dwarrowdam had been surprised but pleased when Dwalin had settled next to them for the night. He’d taken to placing his sleeping pallet close to them since Rivendell, but usually he sat up with Thorin during his watch. But perhaps it wasn’t that surprising, as even a fool could see their King was in little mood for company.

Thorin had been sitting, stock still, at the mouth of the cave for what felt like ages. First watch had come and gone, but neither Bofur nor his replacement Balin had been able to convince the King to relinquish his post. Unlike much of the Company, Thorin’s growing interest in the Hobbit hadn’t been missed by the thief’s close eye, and Nori had watched the growing storm with equal measures of fascination and trepidation. More than once she’d fear for how this strange romance may end, fearing heartbreak on both sides, but never had Nori ever envisioned this end.

She pushed the saddened thought away, focusing instead on the handsome Dwarf by her side. Keeping her eyes closed, her face and breathing perfectly constructed to give the illusion of sleep, Nori let out a soft sound of sleep before purposely rolling into Dwalin. He went stiff (for despite the mouth on him, he was a very proper Dwarf lord) but Nori figured whatever discomfort he felt was his own fault for bedding so close to her.

It wasn’t as if she had been discreet in her interest.

She fought a grin as she snuggled closer, only for it to slip away into an opened mouth gasp when Dwalin matched the move, an arm yanking her closer.

"Yer trouble, ya know that?" The words were so low and quiet they were almost a growl, spoken directly into the shell of her ear, and Nori shivered at the feel of the strong body pressed against her front. Dwalin's face was so close to her own she could feel the wisps of his beard, close enough to see the flecks of green in his brown eyes.

Perhaps it was wrong, doing this so soon after Bilbo, but the Dam was desperate for anything to dull the never ending ache in her breast.

So Nori gave him her best smirk, the one that made the curve of her lips just sharp enough to plump them, and tangled her fingers in his beard – a deeply intimate thing. Dwalin’s reaction was instant, his breath catching in a full bodied jerk. "Trouble's fun,” she drawled, near silent, “don't ya think, guardsman?"

Dwalin sneered as he shifted them again, pinning Nori's body beneath his, and the Dwarrowdam stared up at him with wide eyes, thoroughly startled. "Anyone ever warn you against playing with fire, lass?"

Nori grinned, letting her legs splay wide and the lust that took Dwalin's face when his hips slipped into the cradle of her own was positively animalistic. "I like fire."

The Dwarf's lips were hardly a surprise as they crashed against her own, but the sheer hunger with which Dwalin took her mouth left Nori happily stunned, her insides quivering as arousal bloomed a welcome warmth. She felt Dwalin's answering interest, his erection hard and hot against her core, and the Dam didn't hesitate to arch into it, rocking against it.

She felt rather than heard his groan, the sound seemingly echoing through her mouth into her body. His answering thrust made her feel almost mad, feeling herself grow wet and ready as her eyes shuttered in pleasure. At that moment Nori couldn't have cared less that they were surrounded by her fellows, so taken was she by the perfect way Dwalin's weight felt above her.

It seemed that the Dwarf didn't share her cavalier attitude though and he broke the kiss the moment their rocking grew too frenzied. Nori groaned, hands trying fruitlessly to tug him back down, wanting more of that mouth and the promises it made, but Dwalin was unmovable.

"No," he murmured, voice regretful but firm, "yer worth more than this – more than a tumble in a damp cave."

The lust in Nori's heart swelled into something else, something far more dangerous yet more fulfilling, and she felt her face heat. No one had ever thought Nori worth more of anything before. Some of it must have shown on her face as Dwalin's expression softened, a palm so large that when it came to rest against her cheek it nearly dwarfed her face.


Nori blushed harder, pulling him down for another kiss to hide her fluster. This one was sweeter and she let her arms drift up, wrapping tightly around Dwalin’s thick neck. They broke apart moments later, Nori’s heart giving a pleasant leap when Dwalin tucked his face against her hair, hand a warm weight against her neck. And when the Dwarf rolled them onto their sides, Nori was kept against his broad form.

It was strangely comfortable. Perhaps she would get some sleep after all, the Dam mused, feeling her eyelids grow heavy against. Dwalin so warm and –

The ground beneath them gave way with little warning and Nori screamed, high pitched and terrified, as they plummeted below. The sound cut off into a pained moan as she was slammed against rock and the arms around her tightened in response, Dwalin’s body flipping through the freefall, maneuvering them with the grace of cat until they were facing with their feet down.

It seemed some sort of horrible slide, a strange sloping tunnel carved into the mountain that the Dwarrowdam only caught glimpses of from where she was being cradled against Dwalin’s chest. The Dwarf was taking the brunt of the decent, large body wrapped around hers, shielding her as they were tossed about.

Just about the time that Nori’s mind caught up with what was happening the tunnel came to an abrupt end, dumping the whole of the Company into an oversized basket. Goblins were gathered around her, crowing and caterwauling, the sound something truly terrible and made every hair on her body seemingly stand on end. They scrambled to their feet as one, Nori’s hands frantically patting across her body for a dagger as Dwalin stood in front of her, cursing and shouting as he tried to fight off the surging crowd with his bare hands.

In short order Ori was pressed against her, Dori following moments later, the Dwarves forming a protective bubble around the Dwarrowdams as they tried to fend off the masses. But they were terribly outnumbered and Nori fought a wave of hopeless despair as she darted out from around Dwalin’s broad form, cutting ruthlessly and without focus at any limb that came too close.

There was a blood curdling scream from behind her and Nori swirled, heart leaping to her throat at the sight of Ori being pulled up and over the basket edge. There was a cry of furious denial as Fíli leapt forward but Dori beat him to it, her ferocious strength pulling the offending Goblin’s arm clear off.

It fell shrieking, the spray of blood painting her sister in greyish-black and making the normally prim and proper Dwarrowdam appear the sinister, deadly warrioress she was. The Company fought viciously, desperately, but it seemed only seconds before they were overrun. Nori let out a scream of frustration as boney hands pinned her down roughly, yanking her arms behind her back.

Dwalin bellowed from next to her, kicking and hitting wildly, managing to free himself just long enough to knock the Goblin off her back and even in that horrible moment Nori felt affection pulse hotly through her. But the Goblins were only replaced with others and within moments the fight was lost, the Dwarrowdam spitting curses into the stone as she was bound.

The tunnels were seemingly abandoned, though Bilbo did not know if that bode as well as it may seem at first glance. He could hear sounds of the Goblin horde, echoing through the stone and down the tunnels, and yet he had not seen one.  Of course, Bilbo couldn’t be sure of how long he’d been moving.

As a Hobbit, he lacked the innate Stone-sense that a Dwarf had and much of the dark passages ways were lost to him in never ending turns and spirals. In truth, Bilbo did not even know if he was moving down or up most of the time and could only hope that his wandering would lead him to an exit.

Time was very much a queer thing in the insides of the mountains and Bilbo was unsure if he’d been walking for a very long time or not when he finally found sounds of life. The sound of them struck him first – pitched, whiny, wheezing voices cursing and snarling in the strange pigeon of Westron and Black Speak that the Goblins of the mountains spoke – and he followed their careless words easily to their camp.

The light from their torches and camp fire lit far into the dark of the pathways and so Bilbo settled some feet back from its warm reaches, hand resting first on Orcrist before deciding the lengthy blade would do little good in such cramp quarters and loosening Jusk instead. The machete was a reassuring weight in his hand and Bilbo gathered his courage as he crept closer still.

“– ‘not right, is aw I'm sayin'.” One of the Goblins grumbled, words hitching around the sharp consonant, “'e's treatin' us loike snaga, like dumb Olog-hai instead of Goblin-hai.”

“Yeah, yeah!” A second agreed, “I'm a proud Goblin, I daan't need ter be sittin' 'ere. I wanna be wif the bloody action. Wanna kill me sum Dwarves!”

Bilbo stiffened, hand tightening around Jusk’s handle. The slog they called Westron was difficult to understand, but Bilbo feared it meant that they’d discovered his companions, which didn’t bode well considering the Dragonborn had no idea how to find them nor how they would free themselves from this place. The encampments that Bilbo had found strewed throughout the mountain had been empty – but not abandoned. From what he could see, the Goblins had repopulated the Misty Mountains in strength, retaking the kingdom that had been destroyed during the great War of the Dwarves and Orcs.

“I'm tellin' ya, we should be up there 'elpin' skin those maggot stone-eaters.” And now Bilbo knew that the Company must have been captured and cursed under his breath, tightening the straps of his pack. The only hope he had was to somehow be able to catch them off guards and leave at least one alive to direct him to where his friends were being held.

“Daan't see why we 'ave ter be 'ere anyway,” the voice continued, “they're all dead but that lil' wahn.”

Bilbo paused in his approach, brows furrowing in confusion and carefully peaked around the corner. There was a cavern carved out to be just tall enough for a tall Goblin to stand hunched, and what it lacked in height it made up in width. A small camp fire was burning in the center and three – two tiny things and one large, obese one that was intently eating a leg of meat – sat. Crudely built wooden cages lined the curved wall numbering in nearly a dozen and Bilbo felt confusion at the sight of three or four large black bears lying still with death in them.

“'a abaht we just eat this lil' one?” One of the tiny Goblins said, drawn features perking up as it pranced on its misshapen feat.  

The fat one paused in his eating before shrugging. “Well, I daan’t see why not. Not much meat on it ter start wif. Nah wahn would even notice.”

The small Goblin let out a crow, reaching in between the bars and Bilbo let out an aborted gasp, only managing to silence the sound at the last moment as a toddler – perhaps only two or three years old – was pulled out.

His cries were pitiful, high pitched shrieks of “Ma! Ma!” as it was pulled out by its feet. The child kicked wildly, growing and snarling as it gripping tightly at the fur of the dead black bear it had apparently been sharing a cage with. Before Bilbo’s eyes the naked body begin to shift, black fur spreading across with great speed as limbs contorted. Fingers shrank into claws, hands into blunt paws, a short muzzle elongating from his face, and the sight was as stomach-turning as it was fascinating to witness.

The babe was a Skin-changer and Bilbo realized with a sickening lurch that the dead animals weren’t bears at all. The Goblin held the boy up cruelly by an ankle, grinning maliciously at him as it brought a wicked knife out and the Dovahkiin could stand to see no more.

He leapt into the cavern with a cry, rage giving even the weaken strikes of a Hobbit great strength, and he decapitated one of the Goblins in his first strike. The fat one lunged at him, but Bilbo darted to the side, Jusk flashing out to carve his calves from his legs. The Goblin stumbled forward with a cry and Bilbo shot to the side, barely avoiding the knife from the smaller Goblin. He punched it in the head harshly and it staggered back in confusion. Bilbo used the moment to stab Jusk through the fat one’s neck, cursing when it got stuck in the spinal cord, refusing to budge no matter how desperately he yanked at it.

Dancing to the left to avoid the skinner Goblin’s blows once more, Bilbo managed to knock the knife free with a well-placed kick, sending it scattering off into the darkness. The Goblin caught his leg and Bilbo howled as it twisted it harshly, his knee screaming in distress, something distinctively going pop inside it. Using the hold, the Dragonborn let his weight drop, kneecap grinding against itself, and crashed down. The move hurt but it brought the creature down with him. Bilbo freed his leg, ignoring the distressed limb as he kicked violently at the Goblin’s face. It screeched, spitting out a handful of teeth around a mouthful of blood, darting forward to tackle the Hobbit before he could regain his footing.

The two rolled across the cavern floor, nails digging into tender flesh and teeth biting at anything that came near enough, using elbows and knees to strike whenever possible. Though the Goblin was slim in frame and light, he was packed with muscle and Bilbo snarled, Black Speech tumbling from his mouth in a non-stop stream of threats and promises as he was pinned beneath him.

The Goblin lunged down, trying to tear at Bilbo’s neck but the Hobbit jerked his head back, snarling as teeth latched onto his chin in a violent, bloody bite. He slammed his face down, breaking the Goblin’s nose with a sickening crack and used the precious few seconds that earned him to flip the body pinning him over his head, switching their positions.

He gripped the Goblin’s face in a vice-like grip, thumbs digging into the tender-flesh of his eyes. The Goblin made a truly horrible sound, fingers clawing at Bilbo’s body and face, but the Dragonborn kept the pressure and his thumbs sunk deep with a distinctive slide - an unforgettable feeling of something being punctured, the feeling of holding a bruised fruit too strongly and pressing through to the mushy insides – and the Goblin went still beneath him.

Bilbo’s thumbs broke free, the gelatinous goo of the Goblin’s eyes a macabre coating to each, and quickly snapped the limp thing’s neck. Panting, the Dovahkiin glared down at the dead creature in victory for a moment before sliding off. He whipped his hands off on his gambson, giving the body one last kick for good measure.

Freeing Jusk proved to be no easy task, yet after a few tugs it was managed. Bilbo was busy checking the ancient blade over for any damage when a whimper – breathless and nearly silent – caught his attention.

Remembering the Skin-changer babe, the Hobbit slid Jusk back in its frog and glanced around the cavern desperately, worried that the boy may have been caught in the exchange. The little form was nowhere to be found at first, but another whimper brought the Dragonborn’s attention back to the cage he’d seen the toddler be pulled from.

Approaching it slowly, Bilbo let out a weary sigh at the sight that greeted him. The poor lad was human once more, tucked tightly against the dead bear’s side. The Hobbit cut the bindings off the cage door, pulling it open, and the cub curled even tighter in on itself.

“Hey now,” he soothed, voice gentle, “I’m not going to hurt you. The nasties are all dead and I promise I’m not like them.” The little form trembled as Bilbo gently pried him away from his mother, forcing him to uncurl. After what felt like ages (and here he was very weary, for Bilbo feared that more Goblins may come at any moment and that fight had taken more out of him then he’d like to admit) he eventually managed the feat.

The boy may be even younger than Bilbo had first thought, standing with the awkward, unsure balance of the very young. He was round faced, cheeks and chin full with the fat of childhood, with a head of thick and absolutely wild brown hair. A matching pair of watery brown eyes stared up at him, mixed with fear and hope.

“There, there,” the Hobbit shushed, one hand on the child’s back to steady him “I know, dear, I know. Very scary, all this business, and I’m so terribly sorry about it. Is that your momma?”

Lips wobbled, eyes filling with tears once more as Bilbo received a nod.

“You poor thing.” The Hobbit sighed, thinking of his own dear mother, and reached into his gambeson to pull out his handkerchief. He wiped at the tear stained face, trying to calm the shaking child. He held the fabric up to a button nose, “now blow. There, now you look half-way to presentable and as my Pa always said, that’s half the battle. Take a deep breath, that’s a good lad.” Bilbo tugged his cloak free, wrapping it tightly around the naked frame. “Now, we’ve got to leave this place, my boy. Do you think you can be a big boy for me? Be nice and brave?”

He was rewarded with another nod, a small smile stealing across his lips as the babe brought a grubby fist up to suck on. He pulled the hood over the boy’s face, letting the fabric hang low enough that the boy could see none of the death surrounding them, and lifted him up into his arms. Bilbo’s back complained loudly and the Dovahkiin grit his teeth as he wavered, trying to find a new center of balance between his heavy pack and the equally heavy boy in his arms – but it was only for a second. Within the next breath Bilbo had found it and his stance was steady once more. He fiddled for a few moments, trying to find a sturdy way to tie the lad to him, before finally deciding that the weak hold of his cloak tied around his trunk would have to do for now. It would work as long as he kept a hand on the boy's back, but he doubted that it would hold for any type of strenuous activity. 

“Alright, darling. Let’s find a way out of this foul place. Hang on to me – that's a lad.”

He stared at three identical tunnels that branched out from the cavern, irritated. He still had no idea how he was going to find his way out of this hellhole and now more than ever Bilbo felt he was running on borrowed time. The stakes had somehow – impossibly – been raised even higher.

If the Goblins’ chatter was to believe, his Dwarves had been captured.

And now Bilbo had a baby to look after as well.

Sighing, the Dovahkiin squared his shoulders, adjusted the precious bundle against his chest, and stepped once more into the dark.

Chapter Text

Otho Sackville-Baggins was tired. He leaned heavily on his poleaxe, watching the retreat of the villagers of Samford with a steady eye. His own sweetheart, Lobelia Bracegridle, was among the crowd, along with her brother and father as they helped a pair of maiden great-aunts pack and flee. From his post, Otho watched with a strange sort of detachment as Blanco and Bruno Bricegirdle attempted to load yet another bag of belongings onto the already stuffed cart.

The oxen strapped to the front of it was swaying unhappily, its eyes wide and mouth foaming. Otho imagined that it could sense the approach of the trees – and of the spiders that lived within them – on some instinctual level, and he could quite understand how the beast felt about it.

He’d seen far more of the Awake Trees and the nasties they harbored for a lifetime.

He’d have the scars to show for it too – even now his left arm was bound tightly against his chest. Otho had no doubt he looked quite the sight in his father’s old and faded bluebell colored Bounder padded jack and a pair of tan trousers that had long been dirtied darker, his skin was a pattern of blues and greys, yellows and muddy browns, and the heavy linen sling that bound his left arm tightly to chest had been scavenged from a brightly patterned floral tablecloth.

Otho probably looked like he’d been rolling around in Tolman Puddifoot’s paint stores.

There were scattered mutterings from the crowd as they prepared to be escorted deeper into the South Farthing, as it seemed that not even invasion could still a Hobbit’s wagging tongue. They spoke at great length about the recent battles – the loss the Overborne Marshes and the fierce fighting to keep Willowbottom and Rushey – but mainly they talked about Bilbo Baggins, about his absence, and any and all possible connection it could have with the Old Forest.

To be fair, they talked about all of the Baggins, as to the surprise of everyone the well-mannered cousins had all obtained some measure of notoriety amongst the Bounders or in the Hobbitry-at-Arms. Fosco had apparently managed to save Willy Whitfoot from his own stupidity, taking a grievous blow that had left him still unconscious as his body fought off spider poison. Otho’s dear Posco had died within the first month of the fighting, sacrificing himself to set alight the east fields of Rushey and a large number of the encroaching forest with it.

Dora and Dudo – whose deafness kept him from serving in battle yet refused to sit idly by while the rest of his family was fighting – were members of the hastily assembled Field Hospital, and both were lauded for their bravery as stretcher bearers, charging head first into all types of conflict to bring the injured out.

Even shy and mousy Drogo had proven himself, killing a spider by himself in defense of the wild Primula Brandybuck, who’d broken both legs at Willowbottom.

And Otho – the youngest at thrity-one – had only recently had his first kill. He’d brought down the wolf that had nearly killed him single-handedly, and though Otho knew that many now viewed and talked about him with pride and awe, he felt very little of it himself. The kill had been sloppy, desperate, and he would have been dead if Áviðr had not been there. The surly Dwarf had swept in, protecting the shell-shocked Hobbit from further attacks with a dogged fervor that had shocked and humbled the injured Hobbit.

In the beginning, the admiration of his peers would have been all that Otho could have wanted. It was not so now.

He felt a small surge of relief as the Bracegirdles finally began moving, finding their oxen all too willing to embark and they had to calm him, force the big beast's steps to be slower and more steady out of fear of upsetting the delicately balance cart.

Lobelia had been the reason Otho had joined. At first it had been a petty thing; Otho had simply wanted to impress his wife-to-be. And perhaps if he was very honest with himself, he wanted to prove he was better than Bilbo.

Oh, Otho knew that his older cousin was more skilled than him in almost everything save for conkers (and there was no one in the Shire that could beat Otho Sackville-Baggins at a fair game of conkers) but Bilbo was gone now. Otho had seen this as an opportunity to finally escape the never ending reach of his cousin's shadow.

But that had passed fairly quickly, as most shallow ideas do in the face of the heavy reality of violence, and Otho had found his objectives changing. Otho was changing. No longer did he wish for glory, now he hoped only to survive this mess and protect his loved ones, to gain the respect of his fellows, and if it came to it – to die well.

Otho felt very much as if he’d aged a decade in this last month, an old man parading around in a youth’s skin.

Lobelia approached him quietly, looking quite stern but still beautiful. Despite the fact that neither Hobbit were in their majority yet, there was an understanding between the two of them and they looked to be married within the next few years.

“Otho, dear.” Lobelia said softly, reaching out to stroke gently at his battered face, “you look so very tired. When did you last sleep?”

A day ago, but there was little to be done about it. Even now, with every available Hobbit-lad and lass taking up arms, they were still terribly outnumbered. The Dwarven family did help – and they had been joined by two more such small clans in the last few weeks – but every skirmish was faced with the accepted fact that at any moment they could be overrun.

He gently pulled Lobelia’s hand from her cheek, giving it a squeeze. “This morning,” he lied with ease, a skill that Otho had always been more than proficient at, “don’t worry yourself over it. I’ll be better when you’re safe in Hobbiton.”

The smile that earned him was beautiful.

There was the sound of metal plating shifting, the heavy crunch of grass under hob-nailed boots, and Otho turned to find Áviðr approaching them. In front of him Lobelia’s smile dropped into her usual frown, arms crossing over her apron.

The Dwarf was only a foot taller than Otho, yet his presence seemed to make him feel far larger. Perhaps it was because he was the heir of his house – though none of the Dwarves talked much about themselves, Otho had picked up enough to know that they were a Royal bloodline in exile, their own city long since lost and their presence an unwelcome challenge to the ruling family in the Blue Hills.

Áviðr seemed to ignore Lobelia completely, blue eyes settling immediately on Otho. “You alright, pup?”

The dratted nickname had been picked up by all the Dwarves and most of the Hobbits  in Otho’s Bounding unit, his tender years making him easily the youngest. Áviðr had an uncanny ability to see thorough any and all of Otho’s lies and misdirections without fail, something that had never happened before. But the Dwarves were queer like that and the young Hobbit found most could tell when he was fibbing. What’s more, unlike Otho’s peers they did not seem to care that he did so as frequently and unashamedly as he did.

Otho gave the Dwarf an angled grin, aware that he was practically hanging off his weapon and should the aid be removed, he would most likely fall flat on his face. “Just cheery, thanks. That last lie down really did the trick, I think.”

Áviðr rolled his eyes. “I’ll see if we can’t make you up some tea for the pain then.”

He perked up, grin growing truer. “Some of Álof’s? That brew’s like magic.”

The Dwarf’s lips twitched into an answering smile, head cocking to the side. “I’ll see what I can do.”

In front of them, Lobelia let out a loud huff and Otho shook his head. “Oh, I’m sorry. I think I forgot my manners back in the marsh. Áviðr, this is my fiancé Lobelia Bricegridle, of the Hardbottle Bricegridles. Lobelia, sweetheart, this is Áviðr.”

“Pleasure.” Lobelia said sharply.

Áviðr’s expression shuttered back to blank neutrality, head bowing in greeting. “Miss. I didn’t know you were engaged.

“For three years.” Lobelia tone was still blunt and harsh. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Lobelia!” Otho cried out, shocked, but the admonishment didn’t seem to faze her at all. Áviðr said nothing, only shrugging before turning and making his way over to where Andwise Goodchild was struggling comically to re-wrap his spear’s shaft. Frowning, Otho gave Lobelia his sternest glare. “What on earth was that about? Áviðr didn’t do anything to deserve that.”

“I don’t care.” She said stonily, “I don’t like him – don’t like any of their kind. They’re too queer. The nerve of them! Swooping in here to take our land," she snapped her fingers, "just like that.”

“Do not talk about things that you can’t even begin to comprehend, Lobelia.” Otho snapped and it was so loud and harsh that it actually managed to shock his iron-willed fiancé into silence. “It ’s because of their ‘kind’ that I’m standing here now, as it is the same with a dozen other Hobbits. Áviðr is my friend, Lobelia, and what’s more he’s a good man. You will speak to him with respect or not at all. Your pettiness is appalling.”

Lobelia drew to her full height, eyes blazing and cheeks flushed. “Don’t you dare tell me what to do Otho Sackville-Baggins. You’re not my husband yet. Maybe not at all, if this is how you’re willing to speak to me! Over a Dwarf of all things!”

“Well he’s looking a right better than you at this moment!” Otho snapped back.

“Well! I never!”

She spun on her heel, stomping past Otho to re-join her family. He watched her go with a sigh. Lobelia was a strong-willed Hobbit, that was what had attracted him to her from the start. But she never handled anyone speaking against her well. Normally Otho would just let it go, let her have her way for the sake of ease, but this time was different.

Áviðr had saved Otho’s life. A debt like that wasn’t easily ignored.

And he meant what he’d said; he counted the Dwarf a friend.

Letting himself gaze at Lobelia’s angry form for a moment longer, Otho let his attention wander back over the gathered townsfolk in his charge and his fellow Bounders. He was surprised to find Áviðr standing only a few feet away, staring directly at him, blue eyes intense.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yes I did.” Otho said softly, giving the Dwarf an embarrassed smile and a shrug – only to wince as the moved pulled his injured arm.

Something shifted across Áviðr’s features, something illusive and gone far too quickly for Otho to be able to really name it. “Come, pup. Let’s get you that tea.”

Bilbo was certain now that they had been steadily descending, perhaps for as long as the last half-hour. The toddler was dozing lightly in his arms, his breath a hot and damp staccato against the Hobbit’s neck. The Skin-changer had only grown heavier the longer Bilbo had carried him, but he doubted the boy would be able to walk well enough on his own to keep up if he let him walk. Leaving the small tot behind wasn’t even an idea worth thinking and so the Dragonborn decided he would just have to deal with the additional weight.

The path thinned out before widening, revealing a cavernous area with a large lake. The waters were so still and dark it seemed almost like a yawning hole in the ground more than anything else. Bilbo sighed, shifting the baby as he glanced about, eyes straining as he tried to see if there was another passage he could take or even a way around the massive body.

After a few moments Bilbo set the boy down, kneeling in front of him. “I need to have a look about, I want you to stay right here. Can you do that?”

The Skin-changer nodded, fully awake once more, brown eyes wide and frightened. Bilbo felt his expression soften at the sight of it, reaching out to tie the cloak closer around the small form. He gave the boy a gentle pat and a few words of encouragement, before settling him next to his discarded pack and began to scout around the lake.

It was a truly mammoth thing, with a small island in the middle of it and a towering ceiling that reached so high up that Bilbo could not see the zenith of it. There appeared to be no way across it and no visible way to reach the island and so the Dragonborn dismissed that idea quickly enough. The smoothed rock that served as it shore seemed to be shaped in a ‘U,’ with the end that Bilbo had chosen to follow disappearing into the side of the mountain.

There was a small pathway that branched up off of it though and the elevation of it gave Bilbo hope if for no other reason than it appeared to be going up. He retraced his footsteps, smiling at the sight of the boy crouching down, fingers in his mouth as he stared at something on the ground that had caught his interest, and began to make his way down the other curve of the shore.

He’d only made it half way down the lengthy stretch when there was an explosion of noise behind him. A pained scream cut through the silence like a knife, followed closely by shrieks of “It’s ours! Thief! Thief!” and Bilbo was sprinting back with an energy he didn’t know he still had.

Orcrist was in his hand before the thought had even fully materialized, and a quick snarl of Dovah made the blade blazing hot and bright orange. Some horrid creature was atop of the boy – some strange mutation of a Goblin, no doubt – slamming the tiny frame against the ground again and again.

Orcrist’s hungry blade slid through its side like a hot knife through butter, and the Goblin’s screams increased in pitch and volume. Bilbo shifted his weight, leaning back on his heels as he lifted the squirming creature up. His feet turned in a half circle, using the twist of the move to give him the strength and force needed to send the Goblin flying from Orcrist and into the cold grip of the lake.

It landed with a violent splash and Bilbo felt his skin crawl as he watched and it took him a moment to realize why he was so unsettled. The waters of the lake were wrong. The splash had been large yet had moved oddly, the ripples sluggish and stilted, as if the very water was heavier than it should be. Even the manner in which the creature sank beneath it was strange, the action slower than it should be.

The sound of sobbing and great dry-heaves behind him tore Bilbo from his observation and the Dovahkiin turned quickly. The boy was rolling on the ground, his arm pressed against his chest. It was clearly broken and while the limb was bent in a direction that a forearm was never supposed to go, Bilbo let out a sigh of relief at the sight of curved flesh. The bone had not pierced the skin.

He sat down next to the little boy, voice as soothing as he could make it as he pulled the Skin-changer into his lap. Bilbo gathered the babe up into a tight grip, murmuring whisper-soft reassurances as he rocked the trembling frame.

He would need to secure the arm – Bilbo had a spare shirt that should work well enough as a sling – but there was little else he could do for the poor thing.

The cub tunneled as close to Bilbo as he could get and it felt almost as if he was trying to climb inside the Hobbit’s very skin. He pressed soft kisses to thick hair, trying to comfort the best he could. Eventually the sobs quieted into nothing but hitched breathes, tiny fingers hooked between the ties of his gambeson, clinging tightly.

He ran a hand over the shaking back in a soothing pet, letting the boy take whatever reassurance from him that he could. To be honest, Bilbo himself was in just as much need of the contact as the Skin-changer. His own heart had calmed, but the frantic race around the lake had left him feeling drained. What’s more, his knee ached something terrible.

It had been very frightening, Bilbo admitted to himself silently, and he doubted he could see himself setting the cub down again while still inside this place. There was no denying the strength of his attachment to the tiny boy, as rapid as it had come.

A part of him – one that had once held a child of her own just like this, giving loving comfort – understood that it all had very little to do with the Skin-changer, but Bilbo rarely – if ever – allowed himself to think of those times.

It took Bilbo far longer than it should have to realize that he was still clutching Orcrist in a death grip and he laid the sword down, easing his sore hand from the hilt, flexing the stiff muscles. He pressed his palm flat against the ground, stretching the tried muscles of his palm. Something cold and distinctly metal brushed against his pinky –

- iseeyouiseeyouiseeyouiseeyouiseeyouiseeyouiseeyouiseeyouISEEYOU –

Bilbo was up and a good ten paces away before he’d even registered what was happening, the baby clutched so tightly against his chest that it gave a pained whimper. Swallowing – golden eyes still locked on the small, unsuspecting looking ring – the Hobbit forced his grip to loosen, murmuring an apology to the child.

Inside of him, every soul the Dragonborn had born yet was cringing in blatant horror and one – Baralin – was wailing so loudly in Bilbo’s head that it nearly overwhelmed his own thoughts.

Only once had Bilbo ever seen the One Ring, the greatest accomplishment of Sauron the Deceiver. It had been at Dagorlad, on the bloody fields between the Dead Marshes and Cirith Gorgor. He had only seen it from a far, the glowing band of gold that shown like a sun of Sauron’s forefinger, but Baralin had been able to feel it – feel its power, its malice – from the very moment the Dark Lord had left his castle and stepped onto the battlefield.

No, Baralin cried hysterically, no, that ring was lost!

And yet it seemed that it had been found once more, for the pure maleficence that routed in Bilbo’s mind could never be copied or echoed by anything save for the One Ring. The Dovahkiin swallowed, eyes squeezing shut against the sight of it. Still, he could see it in his mind, a hyper-awareness of the foul thing that would never be gone.

It turned his stomach with disgust, as did all things of power that came from Morgoth or his master’s lieutenant, and vomit rose heavily in his throat. But even as his body drew back in revulsion, something akin to lust was growing inside Bilbo.

The Dragonborn raged against it, pressing it down with a fury that was rarely seen from his jaded soul. He refused it – refused to fall sway to his Dragon-lust once more. Bilbo was unsure how long he stood there, eyes closed and face thunderous as he battled his own whims, his mind ruthlessly repressing the ugly pull.

Golden eyes blazed brighter, lips pulling back from dull Hobbit-teeth in a furious snarl, and Bilbo railed against himself as his feet took unsteady steps back towards the ring. It was still speaking to him, promising things that Bilbo knew it could never provide – promised the feel of wind on his wings once more, the return of power so strong it would make his skin sing – and yet could not halt his approach.

He bent over, the quivering form of the Skin-changer cradled against him utterly forgotten, and Bilbo’s lips pulled back even further as his fingers hovered – but they did not touch.

A desperate want robbed him of all intelligent thought and yet with every surge of need that rose, it was met with an equal one of pride and indignation. It felt as if he lost any sense of time, any sense of anything other than the anger-hot ball that burned in his chest and he stayed like that – frozen, not able to close the last few inches nor back away.

His fingers quivered, an echo of the fierce shakes that were making him tremble, and just when Bilbo was sure that he was damned, that he would lose his mind to this madness and exist forever a statue of resistance, unable to retreat or move forward, a voice boomed across his mind. It was deep and sure, the strength of it such that it made his ears ring despite its incorporeal nature.

I will be no one’s slave ever again.

Finger curled in a tight fist and the spell broken.

Bilbo pulled away from the ring, frame aching with strain and breath a staggered pant, mirrored by the ones the frightened child in his arms made, and Bilbo soothed him with a hand before moving swiftly over to his pack. It took him but a moment to find the Dragonhide and he unrolled it with a flick of his wrist. Careful to keep the skin a barrier between his palm and the ring, Bilbo picked it up.

He wrapped the hide around it as many times as it would go, using one of the leather bindings he normally employed to keep his small travel journal closed, the Dragonborn tied the bundle tightly together.

His lip curled in disgust as he tucked it inside his gambeson and in the pocket of his undershirt, but Bilbo was unwilling to risk losing such an important thing and the One Ring had its own way of ensuring itself misplaced.

It felt impossibly heavy and cold against his breast, and Bilbo carefully shifted the traumatized baby away from it. He would have to bind his arm later, as Bilbo did not trust himself to be able to do so correctly now. He picked up Orcrist, letting his palm shift the fabric down and rest against the comfort of his fang before securing it on his back once more.

The Dovahkiin took a deep breath, eyes slipping shut as he gathered tried to reoriented himself once more. His mind was eerily silent, completely free from any other presences in a way it rarely was, and Bilbo found it strangely disconcerting. After a long moment of simply breathing, Bilbo shifted his pack back in place and set off towards the tunnel he’d found earlier.

Regardless of everything, he still had to find the Company.

In the end it was the other way around.

The Dwarves found him.

Or rather, Bofur rammed directly into the Hobbit’s side, nearly sending him flying off his feet. The Dwarf’s eyes nearly doubled in size, joy etched on every feature. “Bilbo! It’s Bilbo! He’s alive! How the – is that a baby?”

“Run, damn you!” Gandalf interrupted, yanking Bofur harshly by his shoulder and pushing him towards the light streaming from the tunnel exit. Bilbo followed without question – he could hear the screams and bellows of angry Goblin’s, seemingly just around the corner.

Reunited once again, the Company fled from the mountain and into the welcomed sunshine. Bilbo rejoiced at the feel of its warm touch even as he ducked and jumped over tree branches, racing down the mountain side with both hands locked tightly around the Skin-changer. The chances that the Goblin’s would follow were slim as the creatures despised daylight, but even they would brave it if they were angry enough.

They did not stop until the mountain was stretching tall above them, the tunnel entrance so distant it could no longer be seen. Bilbo panted, abused knee throbbing in uncoordinated painful pulses, and leaned heavily on a nearby tree for support. Against his chest the boy was moving about, struggling against the cloak holding him until he could pop his face free, little features lighting up at the sight of the rocky forest about them.

“Óin,” Bilbo managed to gasp out, waving for the healer to come over as he carefully navigated his bum knee as he set the boy down, “I need you to see to his arm, it’s broken.”

The Company gaped, their expression torn between relief at the sight of the very much alive Hobbit and incredulity at the sight of said Hobbit unwrapping a naked toddler from his cloak. The boy glanced shyly at them around fingers that had once again relocated to his mouth.

“He’s so little.” Kíli said, eyes the size of dinner plates, “I forgot they got so small.”

Next to him, both Bombur and Glóin gave him the same look of exasperation. “Of course he is,” Glóin said with a snort, “what do you think you just sprouted from the womb fully grown? The lad’s a babe, probably not even to his second year.”

The burly red head crouched down next to him and the Skin-changer immediately tried to hide, pressing back against Bilbo’s legs. The Hobbit rested his hand reassuring on the boy’s head, but did not let him retreat any further as Óin approached with his bag.

“Now, now, nothing to be frightened of.” Glóin shushed the squirming toddler, big hands gentle as he steadied him, and his tone carried a gentle experience that spoke to his own position as a father. The boy seemed to respond to it, slowly releasing Bilbo’s distressed trousers. “I remember when my Gimli was this small. Don’t you, brother?”

Óin nodded from where he was quickly carving two sticks into a brace, hands deft and skilled as the knife cut them down to an appropriate size and length. “He got big quick enough. So will this little one, I suspect.”

“Would you like to see a picture of my son?” Glóin asked, eyes crinkling as the Skin-changed nodded. He fished out a portrait box from his chest pocket, flicking it open to reveal the image of a Dwarrowdam, her beauty clear even through the ink and paper, and an equally attractive Dwarrowling. “That’s him there, my Gimli. Look at that beard! He’ll be a stunner when he gets older.”

The toddler looked at the portrait in fascination before slowly pulling his fingers from his mouth. Glóin didn’t even react to the salvia slick fingers as they probed and tugged at his beard, expression kind as he let the little boy do as he would. It spoke much – not only of the type of father Glóin was but the type of Dwarf as well - that he allowed such a personal touch with such ease.

“I’ll need to set it,” Óin announced, voice tight and none of the Company seemed pleased with the news. Dwarves were as a rule very kind and protective of all children, and despite the fact that they knew nothing of the child before them none were happy to think of him enduring any sort of pain in their presence.

“Where did you find him?” Dori asked quietly as she dug about her pack and pulled out one of her cleaner knitted tunics.

“There was a whole group of them being held in the mountain. Skin-changers – big black bears – being held for food I think.” Bilbo spoke softly, though he doubted the boy was paying an attention, so taken was he by the beads in Glóin’s beard. “He was the only one left alive when I got there.”

“This may prove fortuitous.” Gandalf said slowly, eyes sharp and Bilbo knew he was thinking of Beorn and their need of him.

No one was quite sure how old Beorn was, he had simply appeared one day in the wood between the Misty Mountains and the Gladden Fields, and claimed the space as his own. No one dared challenge his claim, nor did they have any wish to. The Skin-changer lord was very efficient at keeping his wood clear of Orcs and Goblins, of which he held no love. Beorn held very little love for any race, Bilbo knew, and only suffered their presence when he absolutely must.

The Dragonborn had never met the man, but knew that much, so legendary was the Skin-changer's dislike of strangers.

The child may very well be the answer to that problem, as Beorn would be more inclined to aid them when faced with the safe return of one of his own. Still, that did not mean that Bilbo had to like it. It seemed wrong to use the babe for something like this when he’d already been through so much.

“Don’t be uncouth; a child is not a bargaining tool.” The Hobbit said sharply and Gandalf lips twitched, his head ducking ever so slightly in acknowledgement.

“Poor boy,” Dori cooed as she helped Glóin ease the Skin-changer into the tunic, “he looks like he hasn’t eaten in ages. Ori, Nori, go see if my preserves are still in my pack will you?”

Bilbo felt his temper ease at the quickness that two Dwarrowdam’s began to ruffle through the pack, their movements determined. It was very sweet, honestly, and as he watched both Fíli and Kíli introduced themselves, joining Dori and Glóin in their attempts to distract the battered toddler as Óin prepared.

A shadow fell across him and Bilbo turned to find Thorin standing next to him, his face unreadable but blue eyes alight with emotion. He only a scant few seconds to analyze the expression before he was being pulled into a rough hug.

Bilbo froze, arms rising automatically before stalling, hands grasping at nothing. “…Thorin?”

“I thought you dead.” The words were quiet, barely audible, “I saw you fall.”

Bilbo’s shoulders sank as the surprised tension left him all at once. After a moment more of hesitation, his hands curled around Thorin’s forearms. “There was a ledge, it broke my fall. I tried to find you,” the arms around him tightened and Bilbo sank into the embraced, letting Thorin take much of his weight as his hands fisted in the Dwarf King’s thick coat, “but I could not make any sense of Goblin tunnels. I feared I would be trapped down there forever.”

He let his eyes close, forehead resting against Thorin’s chest, confused (as Thorin was hardly a tactile Dwarf and the Hobbit could honestly say that he had no idea if he was even liked by him) yet not unpleased. He should push away. Bilbo knew that they were most likely being observed by the others in the Company, but he was eager for comfort and could not bring himself to leave the strong hold just yet.

He even feels the same, the Dragonborn’s traitorous mind pointed out and Bilbo shook his head at the thought. It seemed that Ávaldi would forever haunt him, the Dwarf a memory unwilling to release him.

Against his breast, the Ring pulsed and a cold whisper flittering across Bilbo’s mind, a slithering promise of lost love and families restored and the Hobbit shuddered with it. The hands pressed against his back flexed, spreading over his shoulders as if to warm him, though Bilbo knew that nothing could ever drive this chill away.

Bilbo winced as a short, shocked cry filled the wood, Óin having finally set the Skin-changer’s arm and the Hobbit shook his head in pity as the boy keeled over where he stood, unconscious. Glóin caught him, scooping the babe up into his arms with ease, whispering soft platitudes in Khazdul as Óin worked quickly to bind the limb.

The Dovahkiin pushed away, keeping his eyes from Thorin's face, unsure if he could handle the concerned expression there. He stepped back, letting out a groan through grit teeth as the pain in his knee flared, arrowing from the injured joint up along his back. Thorin’s hands immediately steadied him, but Bilbo shook his head at the Dwarf’s questioning sound.

“I’ve injured my knee, but it’ll be find if I can just rest it.” He explained quietly and turned his back on Thorin before he could say anything, features taking a determined set as he faced the Wizard. “Gandalf, I must speak with you in private. It’s of the most import-”

A howl of Warg – one that was quickly joined by at least a dozen more – interrupted him and the entire Company went still at once, head’s snapping towards the direction it came from.

“Up,” Thorin urged, yanking Óin up from his crouch even as he drew Glamdring, the blade glowing a brilliant blue. “They’ll be upon us any moment.” He turned to Bilbo, expression fierce and even that moment, Bilbo could not help but find him terribly handsome. “Will you be able to keep up?”

He gave the Dwarf King a thin smile. “I’ll have to, won’t I?” 

Chapter Text

Dora Baggins exchanged a determined look with her younger brother, Dudo. He looked tired and pale under his tan, though most of that could be the contrast between the skin and dirt that caked his person. She crossed her forefingers over her middle on both hands, gesturing rapidly to the right.


The grin Dudo gave her was almost vicious, confident and determined, and Dora felt her heart sore with pride. She scissored her first two fingers on each hand, stacking her wrists and rolling them in a quick circle before blowing her little brother a kiss.

Be careful. I love you.

Dudo – the cheeky bastard – caught the kiss out of the air, pressing his fist against his lips before letting it blow away. Shaking her head at his attitude, Dora reached down and gathered the poles for the stretcher, resting them on her shoulder. She waited for Dudo to copy the action at the other end, than both charged into the fray.

Samford was an utter mess, buildings in various stages of burning and disarray, the bodies of dead wolves and one very large spider lying strewn about where they’d fallen. The Bounder brigade that had been assigned here was in the deep of it, having been fighting from the very beginning, and their blue jackets stood out sharply amongst all the destruction. The militia were scattered about as well, easily distinguished from the Bounders by their lack of uniform. Given their hastily assembly, it was not surprising that most had been forced to scavenge and create their own armor out anything at hand. Some were dressed in as many layers as they could, hoping the stiff cotton would protect them from the fangs of their enemies. One eccentric Took lad was even wearing a frying pan as an impromptu breast plate.

Dwarves were scattered amongst the fighting force, cutting down any and all that came within their reach. They were ferocious things, and the grace and ease that they fought with only served to highlight the inexperience of the Hobbits around them. Dora only recognized three of the five present; Jutta (a Dwarf that Dora was almost positive was actually a female, despite her impressive beard) and Ávarr, who fought side by side. They were trying to lead the small group of militia they’d been training to victory against a group of spiders which had taken up residence atop Celandine Noake’s bakery, but seemed to be having little luck. With every threatened strike, the spiders simply drew high atop the roof, their flexible bodies contorting and twisting to avoid the blows.

On the other side of town, the fierce two-handed axe of Áviðr was easy to see as he hacked violently at the leg of an attacking spider, cutting the thick limb in half in two strikes. As the beast fell, Dora’s cousin Otho leapt from where he’d been striking out from behind the Dwarf to jam his poleaxe deep into the creature’s exposed abdomen.

“Dora!” A voice cried out and the stretcher bearer’s head snapped to the side. Daisy Brown was waving wildly to her from where the she was standing guard over the unmoving form of Andwise Goodchild, her spear jutting out at a harsh angle.

Dora ducked her head, tucking her elbows closer to her body as she lead them through the village, trying her damnest to avoid the fighting, before coming to a skidding stop in front of pair.

“He’s been bitten,” the Bounder said, voice trembling. “He hasn’t moved in the last few minutes at all.”

Dora exchanged a dark look with her brother and Dudo leaned over, fingers pressing against the still Hobbit’s neck in a practiced move. After a moment he pulled away, shaking his minutely. Daisy gave a wail.

“Oh, how am I going to tell his mother? Or Garnett for that matter? They’d just set a date.” Dora pressed her hand against her arm in support before ducking down to try and maneuver the body onto stretcher. They never left bodies if it could be helped, for while the foul things may have claimed a life, Dora would do damned if they gave them the satisfaction of a meal. 

“Come with us,” Dora begged, worried about what may happen to the lass if she tried to fight while so upset. Andwise was Daisy’s first cousin, born nearly on the same day, and the two had rarely been seen apart through all their years.

Daisy shook her head, face determined as she wiped at her nose with the edge of sleeve. “No, I won’t leave the others. Take him some place safe. Go quick – look out!”

Dora yelped, tossing herself to the side and into her brother, sheltering his form with her own as a pair of great, hairy legs descended from above. Daisy snarled, a sound that only a few months ago Dora Baggins would have sworn that the good-natured Hobbit incapable of making, grey eyes burning with a bright hate as she leapt forward.

Her spear shot out again and again, stabbing at the meaty legs and the spider let out a strange cry – a sound that spiders weren’t even supposed to be able to make. The large form folded itself further over the roof top, black eyes bright and shinning in the daylight, and Dora felt herself bawk at the sheer size of it. In her arms Dudo let out a shocked sound, his hand instinctively finding her own and gripping tightly.

“Go!” Daisy shouted as she kept up her relentless attack, and Dora forced her stunned body into motion. She grabbed the end of the stretcher and heaved with all of her might, pulling both it and Andwise’s body away. Dudo struggled to twist it so he could get to the other end, terrified eyes still locked on the advancing spider. “Leave him!” Daisy shouted, “leave him and run!”

Dora dropped the end, grapping Dudo in a fierce hold as she began to back away, but after only a few paces she stopped, calling herself a coward. How could Dora just leave her? She glanced over her shoulder and the sight that greeted her was surreal. Daisy Brown, all three foot two of her, facing down a spider easily seven times her size

The spider kept advancing but the Bounder seemed unwilling to budge, standing protectively over Andwise’s body as she struck up with her spear. All at once Dora was struck with the horrible realization that she was about to witness the other Hobbit’s end and with a scream of furious denial she began pulling rocks and pebbles of all sizes from the ground, pelting the spider. Dudo joined her, but the actions did little more than irritate the great arachnid and it reared up, front legs pin wheeling as venom dripped from its massive fangs.

It lunged down and Dora lurched forward to try and drag Daisy away, but her brother caught her firmly around the waist, stilling her unwise attempts. The Bounder gave a mighty shout, shoving her spear as far up as it could go even as the spider fell upon her.

There was a shock of air across her face – a brush of fetching across her cheek – and suddenly the spider was riddled with arrows. It let out an unholy scream, retreating rapidly back up and behind the thatched roof. A handful of tall figures shot passed the stunned trio, their moves smooth and graceful as water embodied, leaping easily up the side of the bakery to follow.

The Elves of the Grey Havens had finally come.

15 Cermië, 2941 (Steward’s Reckoning)

Ori scrambled up the tree trunk, Fíli’s hands pushing insistently at her legs as he tried to aid her climb from the ground. Before the Dwarrowdam could even get a hold on a branch, Kíli was pulling her up and past him, to the top boughs of the evergreen.

“Stay close to me, sister-dear.” Ori’s head snapped to the dark haired Prince in shock, but Kíli’s eyes were locked firmly on the approaching Warg pack as he helped pull his brother up to safety. Fíli’s golden visage appeared in front of her moments later, blue eyes worried.

“Are you harmed?”

“No, you?” Ori breathed, a shaking hand coming out to lightly stroke a nasty looking scrape across the apple of her beau’s cheek. Her fingers were caught by Fíli’s larger ones, a kiss pressed against the pads.

“Doesn’t even hurt.” Her hand was squeezed once before a dagger – one of Fíli’s own – was pressed into it. “Promise to stay near me or Kíli, no matter what.”

Ori nodded rapidly, eyes darting over the Dwarf’s shoulder. The pack had yet to reach them, though it could hardly be much longer by the crashes echoing from the forest. She darted forward, pressing a quick kiss against Fíli’s lips and had it been any other moment, the Dam would have giggled at the astonished expression on his face. From his perch next to them, Kíli seemed to have no qualms about the timing and smirked openly at his brother. “I’ll be fine, look after yourself.”

With a mighty roar, the first Warg sprinted into the clearing, followed closely by a half a dozen more. They leapt at the bottoms of the trees, sharp claws peeling bark and wood from the trunks in long curls. All around her the Company shouted, tossing sticks and branches of every size down at the rabid things.

Ori’s head snapped to the side, desperate to find her sisters and Mister Bilbo. Both Nori and Dori were in the tree directly behind her, even higher up than Ori was with Bifur, Bofur, and Dwalin perched below them. The Shape-changer child was in her eldest sister’s arms and Dori’s face was determined, arms wrapped tightly around the little thing, one hand against Bilbo’s hood to keep the boy from seeing anything.

Bilbo was likewise balanced behind her to the right, face stern. Ori pulled out her slingshot, digging into the (thankfully well-stocked) ammunition pouch to pull out pebble after pebble, aiming with great accuracy at vulnerable eyes and ears. The unsaddled Wargs leapt high, their weight causing the trees to wobble and branches to break.

A pale figure slunk into sight, his grin dreadful and wide as he leaned forward atop his white Warg and Ori felt her breath catch in a pathetic squeak of horrorified recognition. It was Azog the Defiler, a creature that had sworn to see the destruction of Ori’s people and had done a fairly efficient job of it so far. King Thrór – and mostly likely King Thráin – had met their demise at his hands. He was terrible to be hold.

Ori gasped, nearly loosing grip of both the evergreen and her slingshot as a Warg smacked into their tree hard enough to send it teetering. Fíli was by her side within seconds, an arm latching around her waist while his fingers dug into the tree trunk until they were white.

“Fíli!” Ori gasped, wrapped both arms around him in a desperate grip as another blow uprooted the tree, sending it careening backwards. They crashed directly into the tree behind them, Fíli’s grip on her iron-tight as he jumped. Ori’s hands flew out, scrambling to find a hold in the new tree, but it too fell backwards, unable to support the extra weight and launching its occupants – both new and old – into yet another evergreen.

Ori moaned as she watched both of the downed trees slip over the edge of the vast cliff that they were perched upon, burrowing her face against Fíli’s collar in fear as the evergreen beneath them physically strained to hold them all aloft.


“I’ve got you.” He promised, though his tone sounded as frightened as Ori felt. There was sizzling sound followed by a flash of light and Ori turned to find Gandalf throwing lit pinecones down, the dry forest floor catching within moments. Some of terror in Ori’s breast eased at the protective barrier of flames that sprouted up around them, driving the Wargs back, and it grew as lit cones were passed about the Company and thrown down at beast and ground alike. The Wargs cried out, the sound high and awful as they reared back from the growing and blaze and the Dwarrowdam felt hope rear inside her again as the Company cheered in delight.

But just as quickly as it had come the feeling fled, falling out with the bottom of her stomach as the tree beneath gave way yet again. Only its stubborn roots saved them from the plummet and though the wood underneath them groaned and shook from the effort. Ori cried out as she caught sight of Dori hanging precariously from a branch, white-knuckles visible even from a distance, fingertips digging into the bark as she desperately tried to keep her grip. Ori tried to pull herself free to aid her, but the Prince’s grip was immovable.

“No, Ori!” Fíli shouted.

“Let me go!”

 “No,” the arms around her tightened impossibly further, “no, you’ll fall.”

“Damn you, Fíli!”

“Forgive me,” Fíli begged, his grip as tight as ever, “forgive me.”

“No! I’ll never forgive you for this – Dori!” The Dam struggled against him fruitlessly, sobbing as the determined Dam used the last of her strength to shove the child up into Nori’s arms, and fell. Ori screamed, tearing herself away from Fíli with more strength than she could have ever imagined she’d had – only to be caught by Kíli, his face grim.

But Dori had only just disappeared from sight before she reappeared once more, precariously perched on the back of the largest bird that Ori had ever seen. They were Eagles, great creatures whose wingspans were truly monstrous, and they let out loud screams of battle as they dove in force, talons and beaks glinting in the moonlight.

“Jump!” Gandalf shouted, “you must jump!”

As Ori watched – gobsmacked – Bilbo obeyed seemingly without question, diving from the evergreen without hesitation. Behind her, Kíli’s muscles bunched and the Dwarrowdam only had a moment to scream out a hearty denial before Kíli threw them from the tilting boughs.

Bilbo free-fell for less than a handful of seconds before he was caught, barely muting a startled scream as he was thrown from gripping talons and flipped until he landed harshly on a broad back. The Dovahkiin shook his head roughly, shaking the fear from himself. Perhaps it was left over from his days as Ulugwin, but Bilbo had never really had any fear of heights. If anything he craved their comforts, going so far as to seek out the highest perches around the Shire, much to his parent’s horror. Yet even his ease was tested when thrown about like prey.

The Eagle beneath him let out a distinct chuffing-wobbling sound of amusement.

“Yes, yes. It’s all quite funny.” Bilbo muttered, curling his fingers gently around giant contour feathers in an attempt to find a grip. The Dragonborn’s relationship with the Great Eagles was…complex, to say the least.

As Ulugwin, the Eagles had been one of her greatest enemies. Widely accept as stewards of Manwë’s will in Middle-Earth, the Eagles had fought the Dragons whenever possible. The great birds viewed the Dragon’s very existence as an insult and when the two races met it was always a vicious, bloody affair; one that could often make the battles taking place below them look tame in comparison.

The closest that Ulugwin had ever come to death had been in battle with Thorondor, the greatest King the Eagles had ever known. It was the remembered pain of his talons and beak, the fearful sound of his battle cry and terror of his presence, that had caused Ulugwin to finally cease her insistent attack on Gondolin and flee. The city was long since lost – the Eagle’s aid too late – and Thorondor’s fury had been terrible – magnificent – yet terrible, to behold.

The Great Eagle King had long since passed by the time the Dovahkiin had meet the Eagles again as Lachien. Bilbo could still remember Lachien’s terror, the fear she’d felt when she’d realized she’d wandered into the Eagle’s territory in her travels (they had never settled so far east when she’d known them last) and the Elf had been convinced that they would kill her and reap retribution upon her for the many transgressions her soul had wrought against their kind. More than one Eagle had died underneath her claws and between her mighty jaws, and Lachien couldn’t believe that their meeting could go any other way.

Instead, the Eagles had greeted her with a strange cordialness; not quite friendly, yet nothing near what could be considered hostile. They carried her to their Eyre, had fed and sheltered her from the cold bite of winter as Thorodil – Thorondor’s heir – had insisted she stay still spring. The Dragonborn hadn’t been able to understand their kindness towards her, yet she dare not question it. Almost a month had passed before Lachien had finally gathered enough courage to ask Thorodil about it.

The aging Eagle had paused only a moment from his grooming. “There are some here that wish you dead. It would be a lie if I was to tell you otherwise.”

“Then why, my King?” Lachien had asked eagerly, something inside her deeply unsettled to find kindness where she’d only expected retribution. “Why not allow them to strike me down? It is not that I do not deserve it.”

“So eager to die, wing-sister?”

“No, of course not.”

“We do not question the will of the Elder King.” Thorodil’s head rolled slowly to the side, golden eye focused entirely on Lachien. “You are a creature born of the skies, yet you will never know the thrill of following the will of the wind again, of the push of his mighty breath under your wings. For many that is punishment enough.”   

It was both a kindness and a cruelty, the explanation. Lachien felt soothed, her equilibrium restored with a solid answer, and at the same moment those words had awoken something deep inside the Dragonborn – something that until that moment she had no idea she’d been missing and had never been able to ease back to sleep.

A craving – a deep seeded, all-encompassing desire for flight that was as unreachable and unquenchable as any, one that could never be explained properly to any race she was born amongst. It was as if she had suddenly remembered that once she had been able to cross this world in a few wingbeats and now could only recall it in the same manner a blind man once knew color.

It was haunting and the more time Lachien spent amongst the Eagles, the more she understood their tolerance of her. It was a fair punishment indeed.

The longer she stayed with them, the more they seemed willing to speak with her and by the time spring had lifted winter’s icy fingers from the landscape, Lachien felt almost comfortable. As an Elf, the Dragonborn had been gifted with a natural magic, an affinity with all things living and created by Eru, and through that innate talent she’d been able to understand Eagle-speech as fluently as if they had been speaking Sindarin.

But now Bilbo was a Hobbit and he had no idea what the young Eagle he was perched upon was trying to tell him. He interrupted the chirps regretfully, “forgive me, my friend. But I cannot understand you in this form.”

The Eagle’s head craned back to stare at him, blinking once, before diving abruptly. Bilbo let out a startled sound, plastering him against the Eagle’s back. Just as abruptly he leveled out, enormous wings snapping out and leaving the Hobbit gasping and shuddering on his back.

The Eagle chirped happily, clearly pleased with himself.

“You ruddy bastard.” Bilbo gasped, and tried to ease his fingers from where they’d dug nail deep into the Eagle.

There was another pleased trill before the Eagle descended, landing gracefully on a large free-standing rock with a wide vertical top. To Bilbo’s confusion he realized that he could not see a single other Eagle in the sky, much less the ones carrying his Dwarves, and the Dragonborn shifted worriedly on his perch. The Eagle he was atop made no move to let him down nor take flight once more, contently grooming one of his flight feathers.

“Shouldn’t you be taking me to wherever it is the rest of the Company is going?” Bilbo frowned, bringing a hand up to itch at the back of his neck. “Hello?...Don’t ignore me, I know you can understand me.”

A sharp nip to his thigh was his answer and Bilbo cursed before sliding off the Eagle’s back, dancing out of the way of several more attempted pinches – and right into the solid form of a much, much larger Eagle. Bilbo swallowed, feeling quite like a mouse as a large head bowed down to stare at him, bulbous eye inchs from his face.

“Greetings, Dragonborn.” The voice was a whisper in his ears, as if someone was speaking to him through fabric, in a manner very similar and at the same time nothing like the foul caress of the Ring.

“H-How?” Bilbo sputtered, eyes wide in shock. “I’m a Hobbit, I can’t – I haven’t any ability to hear you.”

“I am Thorohîr, grandson of Thorondor. I have many talents that my flock does not.” Now that he was looking, Bilbo could see similarities between the Eagle and his once-nemesis. The observation was coupled with the realization that he was still very much pressed up against Thorohîr’s chest plumage and the Hobbit quickly jumped away, face burning with embarrassment.

“Forgive me, my Lord, but I – ouch!” The Dragonborn swirled around, batting unceremoniously at the juvenile’s beak that had pinched his thigh gleefully. “You little brat!”

If it was possible for a voice in one’s head to sound amused, Thorohîr’s certainly sounded it. “You will have to forgive my son. Gwaihir has never sensed something like you before. He is curious. I will tell him to leave you be.”

“That would be greatly appreciated,” Bilbo agreed, eyeing the young Eagle dubiously as he went back to grooming himself, apparently completely absorbed in the task. He didn’t by the disinterest for a second. “Forgive my impertinence my Lord,” the Hobbit began, picking up where he’d been before being interrupted, “but I was wondering why it was that I have been brought here while none of my fellows have been?

“They – along with the Skin-shifter child – are being brought to the Eyre to meet with my father, Thorodil.”

“Thorodil still lives!” Bilbo interrupted, both astounded and overjoyed. The Eagle King had been quite old when Lachien had met him and he could hardly imagine his age now. He had been a both very kind and very patient with the she-Elf. Only the second of Ulugwin’s incarnations, the she-elf had been a deeply troubled individual. Poor Lachien had been driven by the conflicting needs to make amends however possible while staying far enough away from civilization to disturb as few people as possible by her existence. “I would like very much to see him again.”

“I am afraid that cannot be so,” Thorohîr said gravely, “as many in the Eyre as nesting, and we will not tolerate the One Ring’s presence so near to our young.”

His hand flew instinctively to the Dragonhide pouch, clutching it through his clothing. They should not have been able to feel it, not with its presence muted by the properties of the hide. “You know I have the Ring? But how?”

“You cannot hide something of that power, not when your very soul sings with it.”

“My soul?” Bilbo echoed, voice a whisper.

“You are a Dragon, no matter what skin you now wear. It stains you.”

Bilbo stumbled back as if he’d been physically struck, light headed, and he had only a moments warning to hurl himself towards the edge of the rock before he vomited the meager contents of his stomach. There was a concerned whistle, Gwaihir’s claws clicking against the rock as he shuffled awkwardly towards the still vomiting Hobbit, a giant head nudging his foot.

“I’m alright,” Bilbo managed to choke out around the foul taste in his mouth, waving the young Eagle off, “I do not do well with reminders of my master’s influence on me.” He leaned back on his heels, wiping at his mouth with his gambeson sleeve. “I must speak with Gandalf as soon as possible.”

“Gwaihir will take you to the Carrock. In the morning Gandalf and the Dwarves will be flown there, you may speak then.” Thorohîr promised, his voice not without a hint of pity. “I am afraid that is the best that I can do. My father has many things he must speak about with Gandalf. I must go. I will lead our warriors tonight and try to drive the pale Orc far back into the mountains.”

The Dovahkiin nodded as he stood, trying to ignore the nauseous twist to his stomach. The Eagle Prince’s wings unfurled – the giant things easily almost a hundred and eighty feet – and the wind from their beats would have knocked the Hobbit clear from the rock if it had not been for Gwaihir’s steadying wing behind him.

“Farewell, wing-sister. May your path be unchallenged.”

Bilbo watched the Eagle Prince leave, his elegant form joined by nearly two dozen more who dropped from the stormy sky, drifting into an easily formation, Thorohîr leading and taking the brunt of the force.  The ‘v’ was massive and something longing and old stirred at the sight of it, before disappearing underneath a wave of despair.

“Happy Hunting.” Bilbo murmured, a hand drifting up to brush against the lump against his breastbone, disgusted.

“You are a Dragon,” 

How long had he been striving to repent? How long had – how many lives had he given just on the off hope that one day he may finally, finally be clean? How many acts had he done – both large and small – on the off chance that it may aid in purifying his aura? And he must have made headway, even as far back as Lachien, because he’d been in the Eyre for a nesting before.

“-no matter what skin you now wear.”

Yet now this….thing, had come to him – tainting him once more. But Bilbo could not let it go, no matter how much he longed to toss it over the side of the rock, to get it as far away from himself as it could possibly go. But the Ring was too powerful, too important, to ever just be ignored. If anything it had been hiding for far too long already. Bilbo remembered the Trolls in the Trollshaws, the Orcs in the Bruinen, and paled.

Far too long.

“It stains you.”

Even now he could feel its bitter presence in his mind, like a patch of swirling liquid ice, routing and spreading about, trying to find an anchor. Its consciousness was like a chill the Dragonborn could not shake, a willful disregard and malice that thrived in the long forgotten shadows of his Dragon-heart and Bilbo could only hope that the lives he had spent would give him enough strength – enough mortal will – to keep it from taking route there.

Bilbo reached deep within himself and felt some of his courage return at the slow twists in his gut and chest, the strange yet welcomed presence of his others, their wills a much needed shoring to his nerves. There was a worried chirp from next to him, a gentle nudge of a large wing against his side.

Bilbo blinked hard, unaware of how long he must have been standing there, staring at nothing, his fist curled to the point of pain around the Ring, before Gwaihir had felt the need to startle him back to the present. The Drovahkiin gave the large bird a small smile as it crouched down, trying him damnest to mount the Eagle with some decorum of grace.

“To the Carrock then, young Prince?” The large head bobbed. “So be it, but no theatrics this time.”

The enthusiastic warble he received in response left Bilbo with very little faith.

The night had been a queer one. The Eagles had been most forthcoming, offering information as well as a warm place to camp for the night, and meat for them to cook. Their leader – a massive, greying bird by the name of Thorodil – had even promised his best to frighten Azog and his pack far enough away to give the Company some sort of an advantage.

Thorin should have been content. His people were all alive and well, no small miracle considering what they had gone through in the last two days. Only the grace of Mahal and the Valar could truly explain their escape and rescue. Yet Thorin could not be content.

Because Bilbo was not with them.

The Hobbit’s absence hadn’t been explained to them, not really. The entire Company had been up in arms about it, their emotions heightened not only by the recent violence but by the fact that they had all believed Bilbo had been dead not hours earlier.

Thorin had demanded the Hobbit be brought to them immediately, uncaring of the disapproving look Gandalf sent him or of any rudeness he may be displaying to a race they were deeply in debt to. Bofur had been just as vocal, which was hardly surprising. The tinkerer had been beside himself when he believed Bilbo dead. Apparently the Hobbit had saved Bofur’s life, pushing him away from the danger that had nearly caused his own death. His brother and cousin were just as fervent and surprisingly it was Bombur who had finally managed to pry an answer from the illusive Eagles, poking the one nearest to him with a fat finger and making low threats about the various game recipes he knew.

The Eagle King had let out a long series of chirps and cuffs, and Gandalf had gone very still and very pale. The Wizard had mumbled something about Bilbo having been dropped off a head of them at another nest and that they’d meet up at him at first light before wandering to the edge of the Eyre, eyes distant and mouth a hard line. Thorin itched to demand answers, to know what it was the bird King could have said to elicit such a reaction, but the severity of Gandalf’s expression was enough to keep him at a bay. Even a Dwarf knew better than to bait a worried Istari.

Thorin hadn’t expected to sleep much that night and so he wasn’t surprised when he did not, choosing instead to take a full night watch. His Company did not share his restlessness and it was with no small amount of guilt and concern that he watched their heavy sleep. The Company slept mixed amongst each other, curled and tucked into each other’s sides for comfort, and Thorin would have to have been blind to miss the lines of stress and worry that haunted them even in sleep.

What he would give to spare all of them from this.

The morning brought another flight and Thorin fought hard to keep his own disconcertion from his face and a spooked Kíli, the lad clinging tightly to his back, fingertips like claws as he held onto the older Dwarf fiercely. Fíli was mounted on an Eagle below them; Ori balanced in front of him, her face hidden in his nephew’s shoulder. Dwarves were no stranger to heights, though the ones they were used to were far different from the kind they faced upon Eagle-back, and Thorin could hardly blame his Company’s unease.

The Eagles settled them upon a stony eyot called the Carrock, which provided them with a truly impressive view of the valley below. There was a set of carved stairs that winded down the side of the eyot and as promised, Bilbo was waiting for them at the bottom. The Hobbit looked more than a little worse for ware, with an ugly bruise spread across his forehead and favoring one leg heavily and a bite imprint on the left curve of his chin. Thorin moved quickly down the last of the steps, intent on assuring himself that no harm had come to their Hobbit, but it seemed as if every member of the Company had the same idea and Thorin nearly cursed as he found himself batted out of the way as Dwarves surrounded Bilbo, each asking a question – even Bifur, his hands flying about even though the Hobbit would not have been able to understand him.

“Hello everyone,” the Hobbit gave them a small smile, looking exhausted, and the pallor of his skin was heavily pronounced against the color of the bruise. “I am very pleased to see you all alive and unharmed. No, I don’t know why the Eagles brought me here. Gwaihir – the Eagle I rode – is apparently very young, maybe he was confused. Dori, I’m fine. Yes, really. Please, everyone. Just…a moment, yes?” He gestured to a warmly lit cave mouth behind him, “I’ve already got a fire going. Why don’t we go warm ourselves and then–”

Gandalf’s tall form suddenly broke through the crowd, his hand shooting out like a snake and grabbing Bilbo by the shoulder. “The rest of you go to the cave. Bilbo, we must speak.”

Without waiting to see if his orders were to be followed, the Wizard was moving back up the Carrock, half-dragging, half-assisting a limping Bilbo. The Company stared after them, shocked by the suddenness of the dismissal, and Thorin frowned, exchanging a look with Balin.

“Well,” his older cousin said slowly, “that can’t be good.”

Thorin grit his teeth in annoyance. “Go, get inside. Warm up and rest. Check each other over again, make sure we didn’t miss anything last night and what you’ve found hasn’t gotten any worse. Dwalin, go and fill up the water pouches, we’ll be wanting them before long.”

His Dwarves were slow to obey and more than one tossed a weary look back up the way they came before disappearing inside. Thorin himself hesitated outside, waiting only until he could no longer see the pair climb before turning to follow.

Balin caught his arm in warning. “Thorin, maybe you should leave well enough alone. If Gandalf wanted us to know, he’d tell us. He is a Wizard.”

“Yes, he is. Not a god.” Thorin snapped as he yanked his arm free. He pointed to the top of the tall Carrock. “Something else is going on here and I’ll be damned if I will be the last to find out.”

“I’m with Thorin.” Dwalin said as he reemerged from the cave, the water pouches hanging over each shoulder. “Something’s been not right about this from the beginning. And as much as I like our burglar, something tells me he’s smack right in the middle of it…better to know, brother.”

Balin let out a weary sigh. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission?” The old Dwarf shook his head. “So be it. But mark my words, Thorin, sometimes ignorance is worth its weight in gold.”

Thorin just avoided rolling his eyes – but only just. His cousin was too much like his mother, far too enamored with cryptic words. “If you have something to say, Balin, say it.”

“Fine.” His cousin’s tone was almost steely, his expression hard as he stared at him. “You are quite clearly smitten with Bilbo Baggins–”

Thorin let out a choked sound of denial, “I’m not, I don’t–”

Balin shot him a withering look. “Don’t even try to deny it – not to me, Thorin Oakenshield. I changed your nappies.”

He looked away, suddenly unable to meet either of his cousins' stares. Smitten? Thorin? With a Hobbit? It was preposterous…and yet how long had that moment in the lake haunted him? How many nights had he lain awake, the image of Bilbo’s completion resting like a warm heat in his groin?

And, oh! Thorin still could not find a way to put words to what he had felt when he had seen Bilbo tumble over the cliff. His expression – golden eyes blown wide with alarm, lips bleached white with terror, hands reaching upwards, fingers stretched desperately out – would haunt the King until his dying day. It had felt as if his heart had ripped itself free from his chest and plummeted with the Hobbit. The feeling was so acute that Thorin could not understand why it still beat in his chest.

And when they found him, alive and well, on the mountainside… it had been relief, sheer and overwhelming, and Thorin had no idea that such a feeling could hurt as it had. And when he had drawn the Hobbit into an embrace…it was as if he was witnessing the act from outside his own body, the move alien and odd to Thorin, as he had never been a Dwarf who craved attention or physicality. But he hadn’t been able to resist, the urge to feel the Hobbit alive and whole under his hands far too great.

“Look, I like the lad, really I do.” Balin continued, “but I would be remiss if I did not point out that we know next to nothing about him. We’ve been traveling together for months, yet can any of you tell me that you believe you know him? Bilbo has a secret, cousin, and it’s not a small one. Now I don’t presume to know its nature, but I don’t want to see you get yourself hurt because for once in your life you just can’t just let things lie.”

“…are you done?”

Balin let out a frustrated sound, hands twisting in a dismissive motion before he turned on his heel and stalked into the cave.

“He means well.” Dwalin said, the rough timbre of his voice low and careful, “he doesn’t want to see you hurt.”

“I am a grown Dwarf.” Thorin said after a moment, letting a long exhale through his nose, “I can take care of myself.”

Dwalin snorted, “Balin isn’t some coddling hen, Thorin. He never says anything that isn’t needed.” He shifted the pouches, lying a hand on the shorter Dwarf’s shoulder in a firm squeeze. “He is right about Bilbo though.” Thorin looked away, silent. Another unamused snort. “Oh yes, you take care of yourself just fine.”

Growling softly, Thorin shook the hand off and began his ascent. He hadn’t even reached the top when he began to hear the sounds of a heated discussion. He paused just before his head would have crested, brows furrowed as he listened.

“-changes everything, Bilbo.”

“It changes nothing.”

“We cannot afford for Smaug to-”

“We can’t afford for anyone to know. You put me on this path, Gandalf. I signed a contract. I cannot step off it until it is finished. You know how the Debt works.”

“Bilbo–” The conversation suddenly stopped and began once more in Sindarin, but only a few brief more words were exchanged before Gandalf appeared at the top of the stairs, expression thunderous. “It is incredibly rude to listen to conversations that don’t involve you, Thorin Oakenshield.”

Thorin shrugged, glaring back at the Istari, refusing to be cowed. Gandalf’s nostrils flared angrily, his staff changing hands with just enough force to express how truly irritated the Wizard was, before he pushed past Thorin without another word.

“You know,” Bilbo said from above him, “most would consider it unwise to anger a Wizard.”

“I am hardly ‘most.’” Thorin drawled out as he joined the Hobbit atop the Carrock, “I am a King.” The Hobbit rolled his eyes, though the slant of his lips portrayed a tired amusement more than any real annoyance. Thorin took in the mismatched way Bilbo stood, brows furrowing. “How do you fair? Your leg?”

“Understandable displeased with me, I did make it run quite a long ways.” Bilbo said with a sigh, reaching down to rub at his knee. “My knee’s quite swollen, but I don’t think anything’s terribly wrong with it. I just twisted it. If I can manage to stay off it for a day or so I think it’ll be alright.”

“And this?” Thorin reached out, gently pushing Bilbo’s curls (his braids were quite ruined at this point and whole puffs of curls escaped them and gathered around his face) back. The bruise looked even uglier up close, the edges of it a brilliant scarlet while the mass was a deepening blue, and it spread out from the left of his forehead, creating a path of raised skin that disappeared up past his hairline.

“Hurts quite a bit,” Bilbo admitted with a sigh, eyes closing as Thorin’s hand slid further back in a mock-pet, allowing the Dwarf to tilt his head back to give a better view of the bruised flesh.

“It’s deep…how did you even manage that?” He murmured, brushing a gentle thumb over the heated flesh.

“Head-butted a Goblin.”

A startled laugh escaped him. “You did not.”

“Oh I assure you I most certainly did.” Bilbo corrected dryly, “who knew their noses were so damn hard?”

The idea that Bilbo had been in the Goblin tunnels was enough to make something hard and fearful roll in Thorin’s stomach, and the Dwarf swallowed against the harsh feeling.

“I feared I would be trapped down there forever.”

“You should have run.”

“Mm.” The sound was neither an agreement or a dissension. “Thorin, how much of that did you hear?”

“…not much,” the Dwarf admitted, “enough. What is it that you don’t want anyone to know? Does it have to do with Smaug? Or the quest?” 

The Hobbit let out a soft sigh. His eyes opened just enough to peer up at him through thick lashes and Thorin felt his mouth go dry under the intense gaze. The Dwarf was taken all at once with the knowledge that his hand was still curled in Bilbo’s hair, that they were standing so close that each other's heat filled the air between them.

“I suppose it’s too much to hope that by pointing out that was a private, personal conversation you’ll drop it out of the shame of being an impolite brute?”

“You would be correct.” Thorin answered flatly, unamused. “Bilbo, what is the Debt?”   

It was as if a flip had been switched. Any emotion on Bilbo’s face disappeared, his expression going completely cold, eyes hardening before they dropped to stare somewhere off to the left. It was a hard look, rigid. Almost chilling, almost intimidating, it was a look that brokered no compromise and was undoubtedly meant to end the conversation.

But Thorin saw the deep vulnerability – a raw wound left to fester – just under the surface, unmistakable so close.

“Bilbo?” Slowly, the movement sluggish as if weighted, the Hobbit turned to look once more at him and the brittle set of his eyes was like a punch to Thorin’s gut. Thorin drew even closer, until their chests nearly touched and each exhale of Bilbo’s breath brushed against his bearded jaw. The hand in Bilbo’s hair tightened, pulling his head back just enough to correct the new angle. “Tell me.”

“I can’t.” The Hobbit breathed, voice smaller than Thorin had ever heard it before.

“I only wish to help.”

“You cannot help me with this.”

The Dwarf’s eyes drifted down to his lips as Bilbo spoke, wetting his own. It took every inch of his reserve to keep himself from wrapping his arm around the brunet to pull him close, or from capturing those chapped lips. Anything to erase that painful sound in Bilbo’s voice.

Smitten, indeed.

The Dwarf gave in, letting his hand rest lightly against Bilbo’s hip, reveling in the stunned way his eyes widened at the move. Perhaps this had been building from the very moment he had first seen Bilbo in Hobbiton, standing over him bathed in the moon-light.


There was an oh-so-pleasant shiver to Bilbo’s tone, voice breathy and startled, and Thorin let a lazy tilt curl his lips minutely. He could have called himself a fool a thousand times over for not recognizing this sooner. Bilbo felt stupidly right against Thorin’s side; it was as if the Hobbit had always meant to be there, like two puzzle pieces slotted together. He'd been waiting all his life for this moment - to feel this way with another person - and Thorin hadn't even known it.

And yet...the Dwarf King frowned, brows furrowing low in confusion, as he was taken with an utterly queer feeling. Something about this - the weight of Bilbo in his arms, the half-frightened, reluctant want in way the Hobbit met his own hungry gaze - it all felt...

 “Why…” Thorin paused, unsure what it was he was even trying to say, “does this feel…so familiar?”

Chapter Text

Saradas Brandybuck drove his pony hard. Appleblossom obliged, driven not only by the rapid strikes of Saradas’ whip but by the snarls of the wolf pack that pursued them. He’d crossed the Brandywine far higher than normal in the hopes that he could disappear into the low, rolling hills of the Brandy Hills, and for the first day Saradas had thought himself successful.  But early this morning the haunting call of a wolf awoke him abruptly and the young Hobbit had sprung from his bedroll and onto Appleblossom’s back, pack and provisions forgotten, and had barely urged the pony into a gallop before they were upon him. His only hope was to reach the farmers of the Southern Bree-fields and seek refuge there.

Saradas doubted he would make it.

The wolves drove Appleblossom – already one of the fastest ponies in the Shire – to her top speed, but the pony couldn’t keep this up for long and Saradas could see that she was tiring. He grit his teeth, fingers wrapping tightly around the saddle horn for purchase as he craned his head back to search for their pursuers. H e let out a cruse at the sight of three wolves following doggedly behind them, before turning forward once more and urging Appleblossom even faster. Their flight could not have lasted for much longer; the pony was exhausted, her sides heaving, and as she banked sharply around a grouping of trees she stumbled and fell.

Saradas screamed, launching himself from the saddle at the last moment, using his roll to spring to his feet. He spared the desperate animal one last, pity filled glance before he began sprinting away as fast as he could, hatchet held so tightly in his grasp that the handle was slick with sweat.  A horrible set of screams filled the air and the Hobbit stumbled, wincing in horror at the sounds of the pony’s death throws, but did not halt his desperate run. He had to survive – the whole of the Shire was depending on him making it to Bree. On him, Saradas Brandybuck, finding someone – a Ranger, Big Folk with blades willing to be bought, other Hobbits who may feel enough for their neighbors to fight – just anyone to help them.

He couldn’t fail.

Saradas grit his teeth as he jumped over logs and darted around bushes and trees, their branches and thorns tearing at his face, but he barely registered the stings. He had to keep moving, he had to make it. Appleblossom was a fit pony, but if the wolves found her lacking they may still come after him.

He had to keep moving.

The Hobbit lad had no idea how long or how far he ran, only that he did not stop until his legs gave out beneath him, and he clutched at the thick grass with both hands, nauseous and with a pounding head. There was a startle of movement to his left and Saradas stumbled to his feet, hatchet held shakenly at the ready – and sobbed in open relief at the familiar, weather-worn figures stepping from the wood.  Once one had seen a Ranger, it was hard to mistake them for anything else ever again, and Saradas fell back to his knees, shaking hands covering his face as five such men quietly surrounded him, weapons tense and at the ready.

“Master Hobbit,” a careful voice called and Saradas’ hands dropped to find one of the Men crouching before him, face concerned, “tell me what bedevils you? We could hear your frenzied flight from our camp.”

The sound of a single wolf’s cry – than another and another and another joined it – and Saradas darted forward, hands fisting in the startled Ranger’s gambeson.

“The Shire’s burning,” he managed to croak out. “Bucklands lost! Wolves – the Trees! – the Spiders!”

The Ranger’s face darkened, his large hands coming to rest against Saradas’ shoulders in gentle comfort. “We feared something was amiss; the Bree-lands have felt ill since we’ve returned to it. I will send a runner to Bree, but do not expect much aid from the town, nor from my kind. We are few – most of our number have been sent to the East – and we ourselves have only just returned from the Elven halls.”

“You must help us!” Saradas repeated, desperate and horrified at the idea that this all may have been in vain. That the Rangers – their long defenders – may abandon them when they needed them the most. “Please! Everyone is dying!”

The Ranger exchanged a look with his fellows before nodding grimly. “We will not leave such gentle people to death and ruin if it can be helped. My name is Halbarad, and me and my men will help you were we can. Come with us now to our camp. We will see first to your wounds before we depart.”

Saradas nodded, sobbing again – this time in cold, hard relief – and did not argue as he was handled like a child, held against the Ranger’s broad chest like a fauntling.

Bilbo tore himself from Thorin’s arms with a force that left the Dwarf stunned, arms still raised in a parody of an embrace.

“This is a mistake.” The Hobbit muttered, sounding angry and wretched all at once, and made to move towards the stairway. Thorin was not one to be denied though, especially not without an answer. He caught a (far too) thin arm, stilling the smaller being’s escape.

“Don’t run from this.” Thorin ground out, suddenly furious. How was it fair that after he’d finally given him, dismissed his prejudices and crumbled his pride, that the Hobbit reject him?

“I’m not running from anything,” Bilbo said evenly, “because there is nothing to run from. You’ve been mistaken in your affections, Thorin. Let me go.”

And even this felt familiar – as if some horrible echo of a dream – and Thorin’s hand tightened at the thought, scowl growing. In a fraction of a moment the Dwarf had yanked the Hobbit around, trapping Bilbo harshly against his chest, arm an iron band around his waist as the other wrapped tightly around Bilbo’s nape. The Hobbit gave a startled gasp and Thorin exploited it ruthlessly, kiss as hard as the ball in his gut, tongue sweeping in, claiming the warm mouth as his own.

Bilbo struggled fruitlessly in his grasp, hands shoving at his chest, but Thorin would not be swayed. Bilbo tasted like the sweet-wine that the Elves had given them, his mouth a wet cavern that Thorin never wanted to leave. The pushes against his chest grew weaker before stilling, the Hobbit gripping his jacket cautiously and Thorin nearly crooned in delight when Bilbo went limp against him.

Mahal’s hammer, this felt right.

It was as if Bilbo was always meant to be in his arms like this, being kissed like this. He pulled away, chest heaving, and felt the pleasant feeling in his chest hollow out at the stony expression on Bilbo’s face, teary eyes bright with emotion. He released the Hobbit as if he’d been burnt, realization sweeping through him that Bilbo’s response hadn’t been sweet acceptance but surrender.

He took a shaky step back, a hand coming up to wipe at his mouth and beard. “Bilbo, I…”

But what could he say? For all of his teachings, Thorin could think of nothing.

“This cannot be, Thorin.” Bilbo said slowly, arms crossing protectively around his middle. “Do not…you cannot pursue this. You will –” Bilbo swallowed so hard it was audible, “you will find another Dwarf that will make you happy. But I – it cannot be me.”

The sympathy was too much and Thorin balled his hands by his side, chest extended to its full extent as his breath refused to leave his lungs. “You are my One. There will never be another.” The words were strangled, as if they’d been stolen from him by force, and Bilbo’s expression crumbled at the sound of them.

“No, Thorin.” The Hobbit said quietly, his voice that same, horrible even, as if he was discussing the weather and not crushing Thorin Oakenshield's, rightful King Under the Mountain’s, heart. “I am not.”

But despite this (and how could he have misread this so badly? How could he have thought Bilbo had wanted this to?) Thorin was unwilling to give up so easily. He would not accept that he would be one of those poor, pitiful Dwarves whose One did not want them back. He took a step forward, refusing to flinch at the way Bilbo took an answering step backwards. “Do males not appeal to you –” which Thorin highly doubted given that display at the lake, “ – or is it simply me?”

“Thorin,” Bilbo said wearily, glancing away, “this is of no reflection upon you.”

“I know I can be bullheaded,” Thorin said harshly, “cruel and short sighted. And my sister says I take after our father in the most unattractive way,” he reached out – moves as gentle as if he was handling the most fragile of glass – and cupped the Hobbit’s cheek, “but I – I…” He trailed off, unsure in a way he’d never been before. “I would do anything to win you.”

“Oh, Thorin.” Bilbo’s voice was choked and his hand rose to cover Thorin’s, calloused palm gentle. “Please, don’t. You – there’s nothing about you that you need to change, least all for me. You’re a fine Dwarf, a King.”

“Is that it?” Thorin asked, daring to step closer. “Such things as class matter little in these matters.”

Even a Dwarf as high up the hierarchy as Thorin would never be judged for taking a One at the bottom, and even having a One of another race wasn’t unheard of. Uncommon, but not unheard of. And Bilbo was his One, Thorin knew it with every inch of himself. Why else would Bilbo feel so right? Would the Hobbit’s eyes haunt his dreams? Why else would Bilbo feel so familiar? Even this rejection felt hauntingly familiar and something deep inside of Thorin was screaming, and the Dwarf was filled with the unreasonable feeling that if he was to let this go – let Bilbo go – he’d never see him again.

Thorin wouldn’t allow it.

He wouldn’t.

Bilbo was his, his One, and Thorin would see him dressed in the colors and emblems of his house, would hear his precious nephews call him ‘uncle.’ Anything else was unthinkable. Unbearable. It was as if some deep well had been breached inside and the realization of what he felt for the small brunet was unescapable. There was no going back from this.

Bilbo’s eyes shuttered close, leaning into Thorin’s touch for one preciously short moment, before taking a deliberate handful of steps away until he was out of reach. He blinked heavily once, and Thorin’s heart lurched at the idea of tears, but then those molten eyes were staring at him, hard and dark and queerly reptilian. Thorin froze, heart leaping in his chest, and he felt bizarrely like a prey animal before a predator, the hair on the back of his neck standing on ends.

“You have my answer, Thorin Oakenshield. Now please leave. And send Gandalf up when you leave.”

The Carrock was a stony eyot, completely surrounded by the river Anduin, and there was a little ford on the eastern side that allowed safe passage over the river as long as one was careful. Dwalin stood on the shore across from the eyot, eyes distant with thought as he watched the firelight reflected from the cave mouth. It was a relief that the Company was all together again, and that the Eagles had taken them to such a safe place after their harrowing adventures within the Goblintown was an unlooked for boon. The atmosphere inside the small cave reflected this – for the most part. The cheerful mood had damped considerably when Thorin had returned to the cave, face bone-white, and no amount of probing could get their King to confess what was wrong.

Dwalin suspected he knew – if for no other reason than the fact that Bilbo had not returned with him. Even now the Dwarf could just see the outline of their King from where he stood on the western bank, staring at the rapidly moving Anduin. He was unsure of what had taken place atop the Carrock, but it could be nothing good.

When it was decided that a handful of the Company would be sent into the woods to hunt, Dwalin had quickly volunteered – for no other reason than to escape his brother’s ‘I-told-you-so’ expression. The other two volunteers, Bifur and Bofur, had passed him earlier, each laden with a rabbit, and Nori was fishing a few feet away from him. Dwalin had a string of fish himself – fishing with nothing more than an improvised line was something the Dwarf had always been quite skilled at – and though the six fish were small juveniles, they were still better than nothing.

Dwalin was debating about placing another line when a bundle of fish landed at his feet, nearly fifteen strong and all fat adults. He glanced up at a grinning Nori in exasperation. »Pleased with yourself, are ya?«

Nori’s grin grew even more self-satisfied. »Now, now, Dwalin, jealously is quite unbecoming on you. I’m sure you have your good points, even if fishing isn’t one of them.«

»Do I now?«

»Well, you have at least one I know of.« The Dam took a step closer, than another until she was nearly toe-to-toe with him. She reached out, her touch light as she rested her hand against his chest. Emerald green flickered up to glance up at him shyly from beneath russet lashes. »You’re very easy on the eyes «

»Nori,« Dwalin warned, voice low as the hand slid up until the tips of her fingers brushed the edges of his beard.

»Very protective, too.« Nori continued unfazed, her tongue darting out to wet her lips. Dwalin followed the action, riveted.


»What? Can’t I show you how grateful I am?« Thick fingers brushed over a shallow scrape against the side of his shaved head, the Dam all but standing on her tiptoes to do so. »You tried so hard to protect me and my sisters.”

»Nori.« Dwalin tried again, feeling oddly helpless as the fingers slid down, following the trail of his sideburns down to tangle in his beard once more and a sharp tug made Dwalin’s cock swell in his breeches. With a groan he wrapped his hands around the Dam’s waist, lust flaring at how his large hands nearly met around it.

Nori’s lips quirked, »you sound like a broken toy, is my name so nice to say?”«

Dwalin shook his head, eyes darting over to the camp and he half expected Dori or Balin to be standing on the edges of the other bank, glaring death at him. Clever fingers tilted his face back and Dwalin swallowed hard at the dark, lusty eyes the Dam was sending him. The Dwarf let out a token sound of protest, but made no move to stop Nori as she pulled his head down to meet her eager lips. Dwalin pulled her close, a hand stroking up her back before tangling in her hair, guiding her head back to a better angle. Nori let out a sigh at the move, lips opening obediently to Dwalin’s as her hands gripped his leathers tightly.

They broke apart a few endless minutes later, both breathing hard and dazed from the intensity of it. Nori licked her lips, hands tugging him after her as she stepped backwards and into the thick brush of the forest line. Dwalin almost hesitated, but their brush with death had eased his reservations, and he let her pull them down to their knees, hidden from sight by the foliage. Their next kiss was quite unlike the last, hot and heavy and full of promise and Dwalin’s hips gave an involuntary hitch forward when Nori pulled his hand up to cup her breast through her gambeson. The Dwarf groaned, squeezing the fleshy mound and grinning as Nori all but mewed, arching into the touch. He locked onto her neck, worrying the skin with his lips and beard as he eased her onto her back, too-big fingers fumbling with the ties of her thick gambeson.

»I’m gonna court ya, you know that right?« Dwalin asked, voice muffled as he mouthed a nipple through the fabric of Nori’s tunic and breast bindings.

Nori shivered under his touch. »You wanna marry a thief, guardsman?«

»I want to court you,« Dwalin grumbled, eyes growing darker as he rucked up the tunic, taking in the firm, defined abs and wrapped swells of Nori’s breasts, fingers tracing over countless scars and battle wounds. »And if at the end of it ya want me…yeah, I’d marry ya.«

The Dam’s green eyes were bright as she stared up at him, propping herself up on her elbows as she took his mouth in an impassioned kiss. He tried to free her breasts, but ended up buggering it so badly that Nori slapped his hands away, yanking the bindings up on her own. The Dwarf licked his lips, cock rock hard before he ducked down and took a pert nipple in his mouth, suckling hungrily. Nori let out a shaky moan, both hands clasping the back of his head tightly.

»Oh, Mahal,« she breathed, hips rising to grind against his own, »yes, bite it a little – oh, that’s nice.«

Dwalin’s lips smirked around the nipple in his mouth, because of course Nori would be a talker, he didn’t think there was a situation where Nori would willingly be quiet. Dwalin was unsure of just when he’d decided that he was going to marry this Dam. In fact, he’d been rather annoyed by her at first, but he wasn’t terribly troubled by it. That was often the way of Dwarf attraction. But he was going to marry her. Once they took back Erebor, his courting bid would be unlike any the mountain had seen. Well…perhaps not better than Fíli’s, but the lad needed all the help he could get and he rather thought Nori would understand, the blond being the prince and all.

He moved to the other breast only once he’d worried the nipple a bright red, the skin around just as bright from his beard, and Nori was squirming underneath him. Dwalin slid his knee beneath her legs to give her something to work off, and the Dwarrowdam locked onto it at once, legs squeezing tight as she rode his thigh. Dwalin cursed into her skin, face buried between her breasts, and hips jolting with each eager grind.

»Yer sisters will have meh dick on a pike,« he groaned out, hands sliding down her naked stomach to her hips and Nori laughed breathlessly. »Tha’s if Balin doesn’t do it first.«

Dwalin began to reluctantly pull away, a lifetime of morals loud in his head despite the nearly blinding lust that accompanied it, but Nori latched onto him, holding him with a surprising amount of strength.

»Don’t,« the Dam warned, expression fierce, »you’re hardly my first Dwalin, but I’ve naught wanted any like I want you. We could have died down in that shit-filled hole, and Iah’ won’t be dying without knowing what you feel like inside me.«

By the stone, Dwalin thought helplessly, how was his morals supposed to contend with that?

He nearly fell back down, kissing with a vengeance as his hands yanked at his belt, actions hasty with the knowledge that at any moment someone (Dori) could stumble upon them. Nori moved just as quickly below him, freeing one leg from her bottoms and Dwalin’s frantic movements stilled, caught by the sight below him. Nori’s cunt was covered with a thick hair, just as red as the hair on her head, and a jeweled piercing crested out from the soft curls. The sound that escaped him was almost a growl as Dwalin hunched over, hands roughly yanking the Dam’s legs apart as he dove in, lapping at slick folds before sucking the piercing into his mouth, worrying the clit until Nori was tugging harshly at his beard.

He let her pull him into a wet kiss, both pairs of hands working to undue his belt before shoving his trousers down just enough to free his cock. Dwalin rested his cockhead just at her entrance, thighs quivering from the strength it took to avoid just shoving it into that wet heat. »Nori, luv, are ya sure–«

The redhead snarled at him, lips pulling back into an angry grimace before she sank down on her own, fingers digging into his forearms. Dwalin moaned, hips snapping forward on instinct and just couldn’t stop. Nori wrapped around him like a spider, legs and arms tight as she gasped and mewed, hips matching each one of his forceful thrusts. It was short and desperate, but neither had intended it to last and Dwalin’s thumb found Nori’s clit, rocking the piercing until the Dwarrowdam was coming apart around him, her cries silenced by his greedy mouth. She wound so tightly around him that Dwalin only lasted a handful of thrusts before stilling, hands tearing knuckle deep into the grass on either side of them as his entire body tensed, and the force of his orgasm was so long and intense after so many privacy-less nights that it stole him of any coherent thought.

When he came back to himself he was lying limply atop Nori, face hidden in her hair as the Dam’s hand stroked comfortably down his back, helping anchor him after such a forceful completion. With some effort he pulled himself up onto his elbows, cupping her face as he kissed her. The arms around him tightened at the touch, Nori’s eyes fluttering close, pretty face gentle and sweet at the soft contact and Dwalin had never before been so sure in his choices.

»Live up ta yer expectations, luv?« Dwalin teased as he pulled himself free, wincing at the slick-pop that followed it, before tucking himself back into his trousers. He watched, completely captured, as Nori stretched, putting the lean lines of her body on display.

»Mm-hm.« Nori hummed with a yawn, before grinning up at him with a wink. »I’ll have ya know I’ll be expectin’ repeat performances on the regular now. Preferably of a longer variety.«

Dwalin chuckled before shaking his head, leaning down on one hand to kiss those plump lips again, chest heavy with an unmistakable fondness. »Hurry up and get dressed before yer sisters come lookin’ or ya won't be getting any repeats of any length.«

Nori rolled her eyes but obeyed, pulling her tunic and breasts bindings down in one move. »Oh Dori, blocking my fun even when you’re not here.«

Dwalin stepped from the bushes, eyes searching the eyot and was pleased to see no one else outside save for Thorin, who still stood on the far shore. The Dwarf felt a twinge of pain for his friend, but it was hard to feel anything but content at the moment. The whole Company was alive and well and Nori was a warmth against his back as she latched her arms around his middle, standing on her tiptoes again to press a kiss to the back of his neck.

Dwalin turned, wrapping an arm tightly around her middle as he met her eager kiss. Keeping his hands off her was going to be a challenge now that he’d had a taste and so he took what he could, pressing Nori as close as he could as his tongue swept greedily inside.

They pulled away with a sigh, foreheads resting together in a rather intimate Dwarvish gesture of affection. »Once we get to the mountain…«

»Yes, yes, I know. Ya’ll court me off me feet and I’ll give ya lots of Dwarrowlings to spoil.« Nori said with a sunny grin.

»You…want lil’ ones?« Dwalin asked, stunned by his good fortune. It showed how much more he had to learn about his intended; Dwalin had been sure that Nori was the type of Dwarrowdam that wouldn’t want Dwarrowlings.

»As many as Mahal will give me,« Nori said cheerfully, pinching Dwalin’s bottom sharply before sweeping her fishing line up. She threw him a devious smile from over her shoulder, »you know my ma’s line is known for Dams, right?«

Then she was off, practically prancing across the stone ford and towards the cave. Dwalin watched her go, eyes locked on the not-so-subtle say of her hips and mind filled with the image of himself with an armful of little redhead Dams.

»Well don’t you just look like the cat that got the canary,« Ori mumbled from where she sat in the safe cradle of Fíli’s arms, the blond a comfortable heat at her back and was nearly asleep before Nori’s noisy entrance had awoken her. A part of her was surprised that Dori had allowed such closeness, but she supposed that her eldest sister was just as shaken as the rest of them had been and had decided to ignore it.

It could also have something to do with the fact that Fíli was a prince. Honestly, Ori could not have done more to fulfill her sister’s wishes. It wasn’t that Dori was greedy, or some sort of social climber, but her sister had been born and partially raised in Erebor, and she was the only one of them that still remembered what it was like to be nobility. Though she never spoke of it – because above all else, Dori was a practical type of Dwarrowdam and never dawdled in the past – Ori knew that her sister ached for the life they used to have.

Nori simply shrugged, grinning as she displayed her laden fishing line. »I’ve brought breakfast. Well, so did Dwalin, but I doubt his are more than a few mouthfuls.«

»Kind of ya,« the tall Dwarf said dryly from where he stepped into the cave and Ori felt her eyes widen in realization, gaze darting between where Dori was concentrated on darning one of Bifur’s gloves, the babe by her side and asleep underneath a pile of the Company's cloaks, to where Nori was smirking at her. She flashed her hands quickly in Iglishmêk, the motions hidden by how she hunched over to hide them.

/You didn’t!/ Nori’s smirk only grew wider and Ori gaped, open mouth, hands flashing the sign for /whore/ and Nori’s hand curved lazily in response.


Across from them Bifur was watching the entire exchange with a raised eyebrow, and the realization sent Ori over the edge, muffling her almost hysterical giggles in Fíli’s arm. The Dwarf Prince’s grip tightened slightly, pulling her closer against him as he glanced at her worriedly. She shook her head, waving his concern away, and fought to control herself as she felt tears prick at her eyes, face red.

It honestly wasn’t even that funny, but after the stress of everything it felt so good to laugh.

Mahal, Dori was going to destroy Nori when she found out. Or Dwalin, Ori wasn’t sure which one her eldest sister would go for first. She’d probably get Balin involved too, the old Dwarf seemed like he was not one who took customs lightly. It wasn’t like the fact that Nori wasn’t a virgin was a secret (neither was Dori for that matter) but it had always been with random Dwarves, no one of any real substance, which Dwalin son of Fundin, son of Farin, and cousin of the King definitely was.

She’d probably make them have a wedding on the spot.

A wedding could be fun, Ori thought after a moment, resting her head against Fíli’s shoulder as she watched Nori hand the fish off to Bombur to gut. Even out here they could do it – at its most base, a Dwarvish wedding wasn’t very much. It only really needed an official (Thorin would surely do, or even Fíli or Kíli) and an exchange of vows, all the pageantry was really only added as a way to show off social class. She and Fíli could marry out here. Dori could make her one of those flower crowns, it was hardly the middle of Cermië, plenty would be in bloom. Ori would clean herself up the best she could and here she felt a surprising little tug, because as a Dam she’d never really seen herself as the traditional type, but Ori did wish she had a nice dress – it could be as simple as plain cotton – to wear.

Of course if they held it at Erebor Ori would be eating those words, clad head to toe in heavy ceremonial garb and trapped under the eyes of hundreds. Maybe she’d like to have one out here after all, in the wilds, with the Company. They were her dearest friends after all…

»What are you thinking of, dear heart?« Fíli whispered into her ear, the sound of Khuzdul making Ori shiver. They so rarely spoke their home-tongue, not with Bilbo always so nearby. It wasn’t that they did not trust their burglar, it was just a matter of principle. »It’s made your face so red.«

»Nothing,« Ori muttered, blushing even harder. There was no way she was going to admit that she fantasying about their wedding, even if Fíli had been quite clear in his intentions. »Wake me when the food is ready?«

The arms around her tightened once more, a brush of lips were pressed against the shell of her ear. »Of course.«

Sighing happily, Ori let herself drift off into a much needed nap.

The Carrock was eerily silent, as it had been for the better part of an hour. Gandalf did not seek to break it, the Istari a quiet but steadying presence by his side. To Bilbo’s great surprise, the Wizard did not seek immediately to return to discussion of the Ring, seemingly sensing the tense air and heavy turmoil inside of him.

The Dragonborn sat on the very edges of the Carrock, legs dangling off a sheer rock face as the wind tore at his loosened curls, but even the cold eastern do nothing to sooth Bilbo’s battered nerves. How could this happen again? How could another Dwarf had come to him, called him Bilbo his One? It had been Ávaldi all over again, Thorin’s desperate pleas an echo of the stalwart Prince’s.

Ávaldi had found her just south Chetwood, appearing from the night with an expression as thunderous as any the storms of the Blue Mountains could have drummed up. He’s pointed a gauntleted finger at Gandalf, raging heatedly that he’d stolen his wife from him. Hfal had intervened, well-known anger flaring not only at his sudden, loud arrival but the implication of ownership. She was a Dwarrowdam, she’d do whatever the damn well she’d chose to, and had charged hotly that the two were not married, thank you very much. Ávaldi had simply sneered at her, informing her that as Regent Prince he could declare anyone married he pleased and as they’d already shared their marriage bed, considered himself very well within his rights. He’d thrown her kicking and screaming over his shoulder and the resulting brawl took Gandalf nearly a half-hour to break up.

Bilbo grinned weakly at the memory, but the emotion was fleeting and it tumbled from his face. Hfal had dissuaded Ávaldi of the validity of his claim, rejecting him in the harshest manner their culture had, and had torn her own heart out along with his own. It wasn’t until Ávaldi walked from their camp, shoulders slumped and entire frame dejected, that Hfal had realized the truth of her own emotions.

It had been to late then though, not to mention impossible. Hfal was on her death march, there was no way she could have…and what had followed had only been worse. Ávaldi would never have left her if he’d known – but then in itself had been a blessing, as Bilbo doubted Hfal would been strong enough to deny him if she’d known about the life growing inside of her.

She’d given birth to her child under the eaves of the Last Lonely House, given birth to the first youngling she’d had since she’d begun her endless cycle, and had only allowed herself a scant few moments with the healthy Dwarrowling, holding the babe against her chest in fleeting comfort until he’d stopped crying, so like his father in his face and coloring, before sending Gandalf to deliver him back to the Blue Mountains with a troupe of Elves – Elrond’s precious sons, no less - and went unwavering into the dark alone.

“Gandalf,” Bilbo breathed, wincing at how ragged his voice sounded against the thick silence, “I am a cruel creature still.”

Chapter Text

From where he sat quietly in a quite out of place armchair (it was, after all, sitting in the middle of an outdoor field hospital) Falco Chubb-Baggins watched his older cousins with no small amount of curiosity. Perhaps it was the fate of all younger cousins to be so absorbed in what their older cousins did, but Falco could hardly look away from what was taking place before him.

Drogo sat still and unmoving, still slightly grey and the absence of his left arm painfully obvious with the pinned shirt sleeve, as Primula (who would normally never have given his shy cousin a second glance) did her best to fuss over him despite having both legs broken. Normally such attention from the lass of his dreams would make Drogo turn an amusing shade of mauve, but like Falco his attention was firmly held by the display taking place.

Otho was sitting on the packed ground, leaning heavily against the Dwarf Áviðr’s legs (not that he showed any notice of it, Gods of the West it was like these Dwarves were made of stone!), complaining a mile a minute as between bites of Pansy Widebottom’s honey-bread.  “I just don’t see why you have to be such an arse to them,” the young Hobbit said, clearly annoyed, “the Elves are nice enough chaps.”

“I’m perfectly nice to the tree-shaggers.” Áviðr stated casually from where he carefully cleaning his fingernails with a wicked looking knife.

“You see,” Otho said around a mouthful, jutting the loaf up at the Dwarf accusatory, “there! That! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And don’t think I haven’t noticed the fauntlings rather extensive new vocabulary, mister.” It was hilarious, like watching a puppy try and shame a wolf, and Falco could not look away. “Not natural, faunts saying things like that.”

And while Falco was in total agreement, he couldn’t deny how funny it’d been when little Utho Hardbottle had called a particularly stately looking Elf captain a ‘leaf-ear.’ The lad had looked like he’d won the Free Fair itself, while the Elf had looked utterly bewildered.  

“The Elves have been nothing but cordial you know,” Otho continued on, waving his bread about and Falco followed it with eyes, “nothing but polite to you folks and yet you’re all ruder than my great-aunt – and trust me, it takes quite a bit to put up with Daffodil Sackville.” 

“Fine,” Áviðr grumbled, clearly amused, a wide hand coming down to rest in a move that can only be called possessive on Otho’s nape, and to Falco’s shock his cousin leaned willing into the touch, “my mother always told me nice to women.”

Otho blinked up at him blankly before his face suddenly soured. “You’re not funny.” Áviðr laughed, his normally stern expression lightening immensely, “you’re really not.”

“Come on, pup,” Áviðr said, voice gentle, “I’ll redo your braids.”

Most of the Hobbit lads had taken to the old ways, wearing their hair in tightly bound braids that almost completely eliminated the chance of their thick curls being caught by unfriendly claws or fangs. Otho nodded and stood, yawning as he threw the bread at Falco, who caught it on instinct.

He held the still warm bread, uncaring for the delicious treat, as he watched his cousin yawn again. “I think I’m gonna sleep first; think you can guilt Álof into making me some of that tea?” Otho eyed a blatantly staring Drogo with a critical stare. “Maybe some for Drogo, too. Come on, let’s give it a try.”

Then he was leaving, dragging an unresisting Áviðr behind him by the hand, the Dwarf following with a fond expression, and Falco exchanged a bewildered glance with Drogo because Otho was engaged.

Wasn’t he?

17 Cermië, 2941 (Steward’s Reckoning)

Morning found the Company moving from the safe eaves of the Carrock. There was a queer tension in the group that there had not been before and even the most emotionally stunted Dwarf in the Company knew that the reason of it laid in whatever had transpired between their King and Bilbo.

Bilbo walked quietly at the head of the line, Gandalf an equally silent figure by his side, and though the air was just beginning to show the soft bite of the coming fall, Bilbo seemed unbothered by it as he walked, the babe’s weight held easily in his arms. Ori wished she could feel just as comfortable; as it was she shivered even under the heavy weight of Fíli’s coat. They had all bathed thoroughly at the river at Gandalf’s behest, going so far as to even wash their clothing as the Wizard had been insistent that they be free of any scent of Orc or Goblin.

Ori bunched Fíli’s coat closer, watching the wet bounce of Bilbo’s curls from her spot in line, brow furrowed. Without conscious thought, her eyes flickered the broad and proud form of Thorin, and found unsurprisingly that he too was staring intently at the Hobbit’s back. Ori sighed, shaking her head. She was unsure of just what had taken place between the two, but she…well, she had an idea. Perhaps the rest of the Company had missed the longing and interested looks – which had grown in both frequency and number – between the two of the length of their journey, but Ori had not. Nor had her sisters for that matter.

She wondered…but no, it was not her place to wonder or speculate on the love life of others, particularly that of her King. And yet…she could not help but worry…they both seemed so unhappy. A warm hand slid into her own and Ori looked up, eyes brightening at the sight of Fíli watching her, a small smile on his face.

»Alright, lovely?«

Ori returned the warm smile, tightening her grasp around the Prince’ hand. Her Prince’s hand, as Ori was fairly sure she’d been given the right to consider him such. »Yes, yes. Just…Just thinking.«

»About what?« Her eyes flickered foolishly to the stiff form of Bilbo, giving away her thoughts instantly. Fíli let out a low sound of understanding, his hand squeezing tighter. »Ah, that. Kíli and I are concerned, too. But Thorin is a wise dwarf, he’ll figure it out.«

It was said with such surety, such understanding, that Ori found herself glancing from the golden Prince to his dark-haired uncle, brows furrowing then lessening in sudden shocked understanding.

»Fíli,” she said quietly, the name barely a whisper, “you don’t mean – you can’t be saying-«

But Ori’s revelation was never voiced, because a loud, thunderous roar interrupted them. It was immersive, so loud and vicious that the Dwarrowdam swore she could feel it in rattle the fillings in her teeth. The Company instantly began closing ranks, the dams (with Ori, annoyingly, at the centermost of all) pressed towards the middle. All but Gandalf and Bilbo stood apart, seemingly uncaring of the monstrous sound.

“Mister Bilbo!” Dori cried out, a gloved hand reaching towards the unmoving figure desperately, “Master Gandalf, quickly, come to us! In numbers!”

Dori’s words always grew disgruntled when she was concerned, and the fact that her cry had brought neither figure closer despite the sound of snapping wood and breaking tree trunks that filled the air made her sputter uselessly. The sound was of something heavy and angry, moving through the dense trees, growing even closer and as it broke through the thick boughs the closest, Thorin leapt out, axe at the ready, his stalwart cousins and even brave Bifur by his side.

Gandalf’s hand stilled them, just moments before a Man – if it could even be considered a Man – leapt through to face them. He was easily as tall as Gandalf, if not taller, all lean and wiry muscle, covered in a thick and downy layer of hair, lips pulled back in a snarl that revealed a set of canines far too sharp to ever be considered that of a Man or Dwarf or Elf’s.

His presence was something primal; something old and somehow solid and Ori found herself whimpering, pressing closer to Kíli’s side as Fíli shifted not-so-subtly further in front of them both. The Man grew to his full height – which was very great indeed – and his will filled the space around them with a malice so intense that Ori felt her knees go weak with it.

“You dare,” the Man seethed, “to bring such foulness to my very doorstep, Grey!”

“Well met, Beorn.” Gandalf greeted dryly, “I see the ages have done little to sooth your quick-temper.”

“You have not begun to see the depths of my anger.” The Man – Beorn, and by the stone, surely this was not the being they were meant to stay with! “Every time your shadow graces my land it is with foul news and fouler creatures. Dwarves,” Beorn spit out, the name a curse, dark eyes flickering of their huddled forms, “and worse.”

“Now, Beorn,” Gandalf began, leaning heavily on his staff, “I believe you are being quite unfair. Though I admit my visits have been a bit…scare of late…I believe I have come more than once simply to enjoy your honey cakes.”

“Well you will have none of them now,” Beorn snarled, “nor will you ever should you return with a such a malformation.”

“You may speak to me,” Bilbo interrupted, his voice deadly cold and hard and Ori blinked at the sound of it, stunned, “if you are to speak of me, for I am standing right here.”

A strained silence filled the small clearing and suddenly Beorn was launching himself forward, large hands nearly dwarfing the Hobbit’s entire frame as they closed cruelly around his shoulders. The Company cried out as one, Thorin launching himself forward with a snarl of his own, only for his charge to be halted ungraciously by a sharp tug on his cloak, Gandalf frowning furiously.

The large frame nearly doubled over, as a furred face loomed inches from Bilbo’s own. A low, angry growl seemed to emanate from the big Man, casting his features into an even more animalistic, fiendish light. But Bilbo seemed unafraid, head held high and back ramrod straight, and in the strange dim-light of the wooded lands between the Carrock and the Gladden plains, the amber of his eyes seemed to glow.

All at once Ori desperately wished for her sketch book, for time to freeze for just a moment, just long enough for her to preserve this queer sight for all eternity. She wished to capture the beastly curves of Beorn’s face, the righteous fury in his eyes and lips, the resolute, unbending neutrality of Bilbo’s own face – disturbed only by the burning, impossible glow the morning light cast his eyes in. It felt as if she was watching something primal, like the great winds of a storm bashing against the unwielding eyries of a mountain, something that shouldn’t be lost to the sands of time.

Ori’s fingers curled tightly into the back of Kíli’s tunic, her heart beating like a frightened rabbits, but found herself unable to look away from the scene – entranced, despite her fear.

The Great Skinchanger was unchanged as he had been for years, his visage only slightly more wizened through hardship and trials. Beorn was old – possibly older than even Bilbo’s aged soul – and had walked this earth freely before the mountains themselves had even begun to settle. Those ancient eyes glared down at him, so unchanged from the few times the two had met in the past – from when Bilbo had tried to strike him and his fellows down with tooth and talon and wing-beat alike, and the Dovahkiin felt stripped bare before them. Against his back his fang throbbed, the power flowing and skipping across his skin, causing the hair on the back of his neck to stand on end, but Bilbo squashed the urge to reach for it, meeting every inch of that evaluating stare with his own.

Beorn wanted to judge him – let him, Bilbo had been judged by far greater. He bared his own dulled teeth at the Skinchanger, and the hands tightened on him, making the Hobbit’s far smaller form curve into the grip to keep pain from blooming across his front, and the Dragonborn was wondering just when Gandalf was planning on stepping in, because this had the promise of going very ugly, very fast – Bilbo could feel the other presence (the one he’d felt more and more of since he’d found the One Ring) inside him stretching, yawning, coming to life at the presence of such an old foe, and with it came the itch to fight, to tear skin from muscle and bone, when the sound of a soft cry, plaintive and sweet, interrupted the tense moment.

Bilbo was released as if skin somehow burnt Beorn and the Skinchanger stared down at him with wide eyes, mouth ajar in stunned realization. Something akin to hope – but somehow so much more vulnerable, so much more fragile – crawled across Beorn’s features and Bilbo felt the indignation and rage leave him in one quick heartbeat. All at once he was Bilbo again, simply Bilbo, and he carefully reached down to pull the cloak away from the babe’s face.

Beorn reared back as if struck, before shaking hands reached out towards Bilbo again. The Hobbit disentangled the little boy from both the cloak and his clinging grasp, holding the kicking and disgruntled tot out.

“I found him in the mountains.” Bilbo said quietly, watching with softening eyes as hands (so large, how could he ever really forget how big Beorn was in any form?) reached out and cupped the small form. Instantly the baby’s squirming stopped, craning its head back to stare at its adult fellow. The two stared at each other, unmoving, and Bilbo reluctantly pulled his own hands away, watching as the small form curled up in Beorn’s palms, staring up at the great Bear with wide eyes.

Beorn’s own eyes were bright as he turned the small cub, pulling him closer to his chest. The baby instantly latched onto the rough spun tunic with his good hand, standing on wobbly legs as he cooed and made quiet, kittenish yips, head butting the bigger Shifter’s chin.

“I had thought I was the last.” Beorn muttered quietly, leaning down to draw deep inhales of the cub’s sent, chuffing slightly as the baby let out a happy laugh and clung tighter to him. He made a low, distressed sound as he carefully handled the bruising and splinted arm, eyes mournful.

“There were others,” Bilbo admitted slowly, weary of igniting the Skinchanger’s rage once more. “Though there was little I could do for them. The Goblins had already begun…feasting…on them.”

Beorn’s face darkened, but he said nothing, only nodded slowly. His eyes drew unwillingly away from the small form in his arms, watching Bilbo with a shrewd, evaluating look. “One life, no matter how cherished, is hardly a replacement.”

They were speaking about so much more than just the Skinchangers Bilbo had been unable to save and his jaw worked, fingers twitching as he fought the urge to curl them angrily. “No,” he agreed quietly, refusing to drop that intense stare, “but it must begin somewhere, if it is to begin at all.”

Beorn’s head cocked to the side, before there was a small, sharp quirk to his lips. “True enough and an adequate bribe if nothing else.” Bilbo threw an annoyed look at Gandalf, who simply shrugged, graceful enough not to look smug. “Come then, stranger things have shared my hearth. Though do not test me, despite the return of my kin I will feel no hesitance to snap your neck if you threaten me or mine.”

“Agreed.” Bilbo said quickly, ignoring the outraged sound from the Dwarves behind him and Beorn had only just begun to move through the thick evergreen trees when Thorin was suddenly besides him.

“Are you mad, Hobbit?” Thorin ground out, his hands flying over Bilbo’s form as if unsure of where to touch before settling achingly gently over top his bruised shoulders. “That beast has threatened you, we can hardly stay with him.”

“That beast is our host and our only hope of reaching the forest alive, or do you have extra provisions and ponies that I don’t know about?” Bilbo asked quietly, ignoring the look of hurt on Thorin’s face as he pulled away abruptly, leaving the King with his hands outstretched, and quickly duck a low hanging branch, hurrying to the safety of Gandalf’s side.

He dared not look behind him, though Bilbo could feel Thorin’s mournful gaze. Madness, the Dragonborn thought breathlessly, sheer madness. I run from yet another ‘One’s’ desperate grasp to rest my head in the stead of one of my greater enemies.’

But such madness was hardly new, not to one who have lived life the way the Dragonborn had, and he followed quietly behind Gandalf and Beorn’s tall forms. The Skinchanger seemed quite content to ignore them, speaking lowly to the small babe in his arms, his words intermixed with growls and soft huffs and other such animal noises. It took them barely an hour to reach Beorn’s homestead and Bilbo eyed the horses that trotted up to great them wearily, aware of the unnatural gleam of intelligence in their eyes.

“Go,” Beorn said, gesturing to the large, simply hewed doors of his home, “and rest yourselves. I will have food brought to your shortly.” He shifted the little one in his arms, “I must tend to the cub’s wounds. I will rejoin you shortly.”

And then he was gone, long stride taking him around the house and out of sight. Only then did the tension truly leave Bilbo’s form, his shoulders sagging as he brought a hand up to run through his wet hair, a huff of breath leaving him.

“That wasn’t so terrible,” Gandalf announced casually and Bilbo sent him a glare, eyes narrowing.

“Why was he so hostile, Mr. Gandalf?” Dori asked as she took a handful of hesitant steps towards the house, eyeing the corner that Beorn had disappeared behind nervously. “For an ‘old friend’ of yours, he seemed quite displeased to see us.”

“Some more, perhaps, then others.” Thorin remarked shrewdly and Bilbo could feel the burn of his eyes – Thorin so often watched him now – but Bilbo refused to react, pretending to be fascinated by the sight of ponies and horses, donkeys and even a few hinnys and mules as they went about their duties of tending Beorn’s gardens and lands.

“Beorn has a deep distrust of any that are not of his own kind, or not of the animals he tends,” Gandalf explained as he pushed the doors open, stepping unafraid into the large, open room. “A feeling I’m sure you can appreciate, my dear lady.”

Bilbo followed mutely behind him, barely a step behind the Wizard’s side. As silly as it sounded, Bilbo felt as if the Istari was the only real protection he had from Thorin and his questions. Even if he and Gandalf were having a bit of a…disagreement, at the moment. Gandalf wished for the Dovahkiin to abandon his quest, to focus on the greater evil of the One Ring, which laid – even now – a heavy weight against his breast. Of course the Wizard was right; the One Ring was too dangerous allow to remain free and unharmed, even if Sauron was broken and scattered.

Yet Bilbo had bound himself to the Company in more ways than a simple contract; the Dragonborn had pledged himself to stopping Smaug. Once Bilbo had promised his services, he couldn’t revoke them’ not until Smaug was dead and gone could Bilbo possibly begin to address the Ring.

These were the rules that bound and guided him since his first rebirth and Bilbo simply could not change his path now. For greater or for worse, he must see this too the end. And after…after, if he survived by some miracle, then he would do what needed to be done. The Hobbit settled himself in next to Gandalf’s form, staring listlessly at the long table that spread out before them. The idea of another quest after retaking Erebor made his very bones ache.

But still.

Bilbo would see it done.

The Debt had to be paid.

Night found Bilbo tossing and turning restlessly in his bed of straw. Somewhere after midnight he gave up, stepping past the piles of sleeping Dwarves and pausing only to take in the sweet forms of Ori intertwined tightly with her beau, before stepping out into the bright moonlight.

“Do you not need to sleep, creature?” A low voice intoned and Bilbo jumped, spinning around to find Beorn standing some distance from his home, eyes shining bright in the darkness like a wolf’s. “Or is it perhaps that you wish not to. I cannot imagine what types of a dreams you must have.”

Bilbo let out a low huff as he made his way soundlessly down the stairs and to him, thumbs tucked into the front pockets of his gambeson as he stared at the bright face of Isil, the moon nearly full. The chill of the night bit at him, but the Hobbit ignored it easily enough. “I require sleep as any other, Brôggon.”

There was a soft chuckled. “I have not been called that in many a years and then it was by lips far sweeter than your own.”

“…I was once born a Silvan elleth.” Bilbo admitted quietly, uncomfortable with how much he gave away with that single admission. The relationship between the Elves of Mirkwood and Beorn was one of high esteem, especially those who came from Silvan heritage. The Wood Elves held much in common with the Skinchanger Lord, a deep and binding love of the wood and the fauna that lived within it only being one – abet central – part of it. Once, an age ago, Lachien had held Beorn in the highest of regards. Bilbo cleared his throat, “how fairs the boy?”

“Better,” Beorn said, “you did well in bringing him to me. Despite his young age, the scars he carries from witnessing the death of his sleuth will mark him. He will need the guidance of his own kin as he ages. I have decided to name him Grimbeorn.”

“A fine name.” Bilbo admired quietly.

A long silence stretched between them, marked only by the soft treads of Beorn coming to stand by the Hobbit’s side. He was at a loss of what to say, as he had been so many other times in his many lived lives. No matter how many time he ran into those he’d wronged in the past, Bilbo never had any idea how to act or what to say. An apology was too shallow a thing, but still…Bilbo had to try, didn’t he?  

“Once,” he started slowly, “I was a creature of the skies. I rode the winds as if I was born of it, and the feel of it-” Bilbo shuddered, holding himself tighter, “- the feel of it beneath my wings was the only true freedom I ever knew. I loved only the feel of fire and flesh beneath my teeth, the rending of bone under my talons, and I was the greatest of my kind save for my sire. I was – I was death, and the mere sound of my wing beats cast terror into even the most stalwart Elf Lord or mortal Man. Though I do not remember much of my life then, I can still…if I try, I can almost remember what it felt like. I can still almost remember that power.”

Bilbo’s eyes dropped from the moon to Beorn; the Skinchanger was watching Bilbo without emotion, though his head was tilted ever so slightly in attention.

“But I gave it up – all of it – for the single hope that one day I may live a life free of my own choosing. That I may die a straw death, old and frail from a long life, a life where no one ever looked at me with fear or horror. Even if you doubt me until my last, Beorn, one single fact will ever remain unchanged.”

“And what,” the Great Bear said slowly, “is that, little drake?”

Bilbo’s eyes flashed in the darkness, his fang glowing hotly against his back, “I will do whatever it is I must – pay whatever I must – to earn that freedom.”

“Such a simple wish,” Beorn murmured, his large fingers reaching out to catch an errant curl between them. “Yet one that may remain unfilled.”

Bilbo pursed his lips, eyes downcast. “I cannot believe that. I must not,” his eyes flickered back up to the tall form, “or I will perish under the weight of it all.”

For a long moment the two just looked at each other, the air charged as Beorn’s eyes swept of his face in evaluation, expression calculating. Then he stepped away, hands falling loosely by his side. “Then come with me, if your words are true. Goblins have strayed insultingly close to my lands – a gift, undoubtedly, that you and your Dwarves have brought to me, and I will not suffer their presence.” The skin on Beorn’s face trembled and suddenly he was shifting, his words queer as they escaped the giant bear’s gaping maw. “Come then, if you dare, and show me the strength of your resolve.”

Bilbo’s hand curled tightly around Orcist, feeling the bone hum, lips pulling into a heated snarl. He followed the bear to the thick gates of his homestead, determination filling every inch of himself. Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit; he was not born a warrior, nor was he trained to be one. But his soul – his soul was the white-hot of the forge, the burn of a dragon’s breath. He would not be cowed by the flesh of his birth so easily.

“Lead the way, Beorn.” Bilbo commanded, voice level. “And I will show you the ‘strength of my resolve.’”

The pair stalked into the dark of the wood, their shadows cast long and wide by the moonlight, unaware of the bright, stunned eyes watching them from the dark corners of the hooded porch eve.

“Dwalin,” Nori hissed, shaking the large form as she kneeled next to it. Her eyes flickered to the sleeping forms of their companions, but none stirred. “Dwalin – damn it all – wake up!”

She slapped the Dwarf harshly, eyes rolling in annoyance when Dwalin did not so much as twitch.

“Dwalin, I swear to the Stone, wake up right now or I swear I’ll-” The rest of her threat was lost behind a squawk when a large arm dragged her down, pulling her tightly against Dwalin’s broad chest. “Dwalin!”

“‘s early,” the Dwarf grumbled burrowing his face in Nori’s hair, “or very late, dependen’ on how you look at it. Not tha’ I’m complaining, but yer sister’ll have my beard for Ori to knit with if she wakes and finds ya in my bed.”

“Damn’t, Dwalin,” Nori snarled, pinching Dwalin’s chest. “Wake up, I’ve got to – you won’t believe what I just overheard.”

A sliver of brown appeared, the Dwarf’s lips thinning. “Can’t this wait till morning?”


Dwalin sighed, grumbling as he pulled them both up, Nori half in his lap with his thick, long legs curled loosely around her. “Alright, lass. What did you hear?”

“Yes, Nori,” a low, calm voice echoed, edged with just enough threat that the Dwarrowdam felt a twinge of cold fear dance down her spine, “what did you hear?”

Nori swallowed nervously, hands tightening slightly on Dwalin’s undershirt as she craned her head back to stare at very unamused looking Gandalf.


"Ah. Well, it's best if we return to our rest, do you not think?" Gandalf asked with an agreeable smile that should not have seemed so sharp. 

"Yes," Nori said quickly, scrambling away from a confused and weary looking Dwalin and towards her own bed. Nori tucked into it, curling into a snoring Dori's side. She threw her blanket over head and tried to ignore the frightening weight of Gandalf’s eyes.

Best to play it safe, at least until morning when she could get Dwalin alone. Bilbo and Beorn's conversation burned on her tongue like a hot weight - Nori had never been good at keeping other peoples secrets, not unless she wad paid to do so - but even she wasn't foolish enough to invite the wrath of a Wizard.

Chapter Text

The pastures that surrounded Longbottom were burning, distant enough that the flames couldn’t be seen, but it colored the sky a white-grey from all the smoke. The streets were abandoned save for all but the Bounders and a handful of Dwarves that were racing quickly towards the burning meadows, and herself. There were supposedly Elves too, Elves from the Grey Havens that had come on great destriers that were almost as taller as they were according to gossip .

“Are ya sure she’s there, lass?”

“She must be!”

The Dwarf that followed her had attached himself to Prisca’s side once he’d spotted her running from the caravan and back into the village. Prisca, who had always been a wonder with names, placed him as Auðólfr, one of the grandsons of the Dwarf leader Álof, who had brought his clan down from the Blue Mountains in hopes of land. She’d meet him briefly through her cousin, Otho, and after she’d managed to explain (through her pants and words thrown carelessly over her shoulder) that her grandmother had gone missing, Auðólfr had unsheathed his axe and taken up the pursuit for her.

The last thing that Prisca wanted was to return to Longbottom; they’d all heard about the violent ends of Stock and Woodhall, Willowbottom and Deephallow and Rushey, Samford and East Samford, and all of Buckland. The death toll was in the hundreds – greater now than even what the Fell Winter had taken from them. Included in that number was Posco. Oh Posco, dear Posco.  That Posco was dead seemed unfathomable to her; she and her brother had always been attached at the hip. And though the arrival of the Elves and a group of twenty or so Rangers that Saradas Brandybuck had brought back with him from the wilds had finally brought hope to the desperate Hobbits, the tide had not yet turned in their favor. Longbottom was the first real test, with the combined forces fighting in the Red Downs and the fields of that separated the Shirebloom River from the village proper.

And even if they now had big folk to help, Prisca had lost so much already she’d not be risking adding her grandmother to that list.

The bottoms of her feet stung from the sheer speed that she sped down the cobblestone streets, her skirts and apron held up in one hand, cursing her grandmother a fool. She skidded into a turn, nearly crashing into an overturn wagon before streaking up the hill that held the greater smials of Longbottom. When she reached the top of it, Prisca’s feet stilled in sheer shock. For a moment all she could do was stare, taking in the sight of her grandmother sitting in an wooden lawn chair, sipping from one of her good Flora Danica china tea cups. As Prisca gaped, Laura Baggins nee Grubb, one of the most powerful and respected Hobbits in the Shire squinted up at the sky, her wrinkled face scowling, before reaching down and flicking a goldenrod yellow parasol open against the sun.

The move was so otherworldly – so surreal – that it shook Prisca from her stillness.

“Grandmother!” She shouted, charging up the stairs, “what in the name of all that was green were you thinking? Why did you come back?”

How did she manage to get back on her own? The Baggins matriarch had celebrated her ninety-eighth birthday this year, yet had somehow managed to escape from underneath Prisca’s and her cousin’s watchful eye to return to the city.

“Prisca, darling, you shouldn’t be here. Oh good, you’ve got a Dwarf. Go on then, shoo.”

“I shouldn’t – you shouldn’t be here!” Prisca sputtered, taking the cup from her grandmother’s hand and carefully setting it down on the pathway. “Come, we must hurry! They’ve taken Overborn Marshes and I fear the wolves and trees will be upon us any moment.”

Grandmother Baggins stared at her, lips a firm line. “I won’t go.”


“There has been a Grubb on the Great Hill in Longbottom since the founding of the Shire!” She snapped, eyes flashing, “my forefather Tolso Grubb built this smial after the land was gifted to him by Marcho Fallohide himself!”

“Ma’am,” Auðólfr said, stepping forward, axe on his hip once more, "time ta go.”

The parasol snapped closed, spearing forward like a sword and Prisca gaped, unable to reconcile the move with her genteel grandmother. Auðólfr caught the lacy thing with a laugh – an honest to gods laugh, like the world wasn’t burning around them – and threw it away.

“Why!” Grandmother gasped, hand clutching her shawl, “I never!”

“Sorry about this, ma’am,” Auðólfr was still laughing, even as he lifted the frail Hobbit up into his arms, “but we must be movin’ on.”

“You – You ruffian! Put me down this instant!”

“Grandmother, that is enough!” Prisca snapped, her fear and irritation so strong she felt like she could feel her curls frizz from it all. “You forget that you’re not just a Grubb, you’re a Baggins too! And if you think for a single moment that any of us could take another loss after – after...”

But she couldn’t even bring herself to say her brother’s name out loud, the wound too deep.

Her grandmother’s face softened, fury leaving it all at once, and the hand that had been raised to slap Auðólfr drifted down. She sighed and for the first time since this mess had begun, Grandmother Baggins truly looked her age.  “Yes, my dear.” She said quietly, “you’re quite right, of course, forgive an old woman and her pride. Well?” She snapped, eyes narrowed at the Dwarf carrying her. “What in the Four Farthings name are you waiting for? Get us out of here, Master Dwarf.”

Auðólfr looked utterly bewildered but obeyed.  

Bilbo was weary when he stepped through the tall hedge gates that led to Beorn’s land. Tired, yet pleased. Their hunt had been successful that night and though most had met their death at the hands of Beorn or his dogs, Bilbo was quick to strike down any that strayed too close to him, or those that fell or stumbled under the animal's claws and teeth, ending their lives before they could recover. Though he knew that little had truly been solved between them, at the very least Beorn’s hadn’t antagonized him in hours. Bilbo knew better than to harbor hope that any good will may grow between himself and the skin changer, but even the casual dismissal of which Beorn treated him now was better than the constant reminder of what lay just beneath his skin.

“Don’t look now,” Beorn said quietly, amusement haunting every word, “but I believe you have left your misses worrying.”

Bilbo’s head popped up in confusion, brows furrowing. “My misses, what are you – oh.” Thorin was standing on the great veranda of Beorn’s home, expression as dark and grey as the morning clouds. Bilbo let out a muted sigh, side eyeing a greatly amused Beorn. “He is not my ‘misses.’”

“As you say, little snake.”  

Thorin barely allowed Bilbo up the stairs before he was upon him. Bilbo bit back an indignant squawk as he was all but manhandled away from Beorn (for all that the Great Bear even noticed, the skin changer simply drifted passed them, patting the trip of goats that had gathered around him in greeting).

“Where have you been?” Thorin hissed, his fingers digging deeply into Bilbo’s shoulders. “I woke to find you gone and now I find you out in the wilds with that-”

“I would watch your words,” Bilbo warned sharply, thumbs digging into the meaty flesh of the Dwarf’s palms, forcing his release, “and to remember whose hospitality we currently enjoy. Or are you truly so arrogant that you simply do not care if we are all tossed out of here with nothing but the clothes on our back?” Thorin’s hands dropped by his side, eyes narrowed as he glared down at Bilbo. And yet, where Bilbo expected more words of disdain and rebuke Thorin said nothing. He simply stared, frustration written on every inch of his expression. Bilbo sighed, turning away. “I’m going to bathe and then sleep. Please don’t wake me unless there is a need.”

A hand caught his own, stilling his escape.

“Did you truly think I have not noticed the disdain with which our host holds you? And then I awake to find you gone with him, into the wilds, alone?” The grip on him tightened, almost like a beseechment. “Is the idea that I may be worried for you so far from your mind that you cannot even imagine it?”

“Thorin, I appreciate your belief in your affections, but they are misplaced. You…” Bilbo’s words stuttered to halt, feeling a shiver shoot down his side when Thorin stepped close behind him, so close he could feel his words against the back of his neck.

“You may deny this, Bilbo, that is your right.” Thorin’s voice was nearly silent, almost hoarse. “But I have not that luxury; I can not change this, I won’t change it. I will not stop myself from wanting you safe.”

Bilbo squeezed his eyes close, trying to ignore the ache in his heart. He knew of what Thorin spoke; it was not unheard of for a Dwarf to have a One who did not return their affections. And that was the path that Bilbo had to take, it was the only one available to him. There was no other option, because no matter what Thorin Oakenshield thought, Bilbo could not possibly be his one. Mahal wouldn’t be that cruel, to curse one of his children in such a way. In Bilbo’s future only death and destruction lay, he would not cast that onto Thorin. Thorin would find another, his actual One. Bilbo knew this, knew it had to be true. What frightened Bilbo was the silver of want, desperate and fierce, in his chest that desperately wished it to be true. He scolded himself silently; he was far too old to believe in such fairy tales.

“Let me go, please.”

There was a harsh breath behind him, then Bilbo was released. But be he’d barely stepped into the house proper when Gandalf was by his side, expression stern.

“Bilbo. We must talk.”

Beorn’s farmstead was a remarkable place, in Ori’s opinion. It had several out buildings besides the main house, and were surrounded by great and stretching gardens, and the entire thing was encircled by a mighty hedge that was quite impossible to traverse over unless you entered through the gate, and for the first time in weeks the Company felt safe. The gardens to the left of the house were strictly vegetable and orchids, but to the right was a wide, expansive meadow that went on as far as the eye could see, filled with tall grasses and flowers of every shape and color. And bumblebees! Giant bumblebees the size of - if not bigger - than a cat. Everything about the land contained in Beorn’s farmstead was impressive, though she felt the flowers were easily the most beautiful, and Ori had taken to the fields early in the morning to sketch.

She was still there now as the afternoon blossomed, wishing she had something other than her charcoal to capture the vibrant colors. The sound of someone approaching had Ori looking up and she couldn’t stop the pleased, happy smile that stole across her lips at the sight of Fíli making his way towards her. The golden prince answered her smile with one of his own, one that made Ori’s heart beat unevenly in her chest. She could never had imagined capturing the interest of someone as great as Fíli, Crown Prince of Erebor, though she could not deny that she was pleased by it. No one was more surprised as Ori was when her own affection for the prince had grown over the last few months of their travel together.

»Hello, Ori.« Fíli greeted, holding up a wrapped parcel of linen. »I thought you might be hungry, say what you want about Beorn, but he knows how to make a rather mean honey cake.«

Ori laughed at that, setting her sketching aside to take the offered meal. »Would you like some, Fíli?«

»No, no. Kíli and I ate already.«

»And where is your brother? It’s odd not to see you two together.« Ori asked as she took a big bite of the pastry, eyes closing at the burst of sweetness that erupted across her tongue.  

»He’s helping Bombur with the provisions, I,« Fíli cleared his throat and Ori opened her eyes, feeling them widen slightly at the abashed expression on his face, »uh, wanted to spend some time with you. Alone. That is, if you don’t mind.«

»I don’t mind.« Ori said quietly, feeling herself blush, staring down at the honey cake. She bused herself with eating her snack and when she’d finally finished and Ori looked up again, she was shocked to find Fíli’s paging through her journal. »These are very good,« he said when he noticed her attention had returned to him, »I had no idea you were so artistic.«

»Thank you,« Ori mumbled, then felt her eyes grow wide in horror as he flipped further back, »Oh, Fíli wait –« But it was too late; the Prince’s face took on an expression that she couldn’t read as he examined the various sketches of himself. Ori looked down at her hands, her fingers twitching. She knew that there were several, from throughout their journey, and she shrunk into herself as he flipped further and further back, examining each one. They were not sketches done from memory but rather from sight, and Ori was embarrassed to think of just how much that revealed about how often she had found her attention caught by the handsome prince.

Ori ducked her head, shrinking into herself slightly. If they were back in proper Dwarven society, to gaze so openly at a prince – at her betters – was a punishable offense. »…I’m sorry, I hope you don’t mind that I drew those.«

»I can hardly mind,« Fíli said quietly, »I looked at you just as much.«

Ori looked up in surprise at that, only to find Fíli staring at her, grey eyes intense. She felt her breath hitch when the prince reached out, fingers hesitating for only a moment before stroking her beard, curving to follow the line of her jaw. Ori shuddered, leaning into the touch despite herself.

»I don’t think I’ve stopped looking at you since Bree.« Fíli admitted, voice low and heavy, »I always find myself looking at you. That night in Bree, with your journal, I…your beauty, it stole my breath.«

»Fíli…« Ori whispered, taken aback.

The grip on her face tightened, Fíli’s grey eyes dark and thunderous. »In the caves, when those filth touched you…I had never felt so angry. When I saw them lift you up, when I thought they meant to throw you – I thought my heart would die along with you.«

Ori blinked, eyes drifting down to Fíli’s fine beard – to his lips – and felt a fondness so strong it made her chest tight. »Do you mean that? Truly?«

The fingers against her face twitched. »I do.«

»I…but why?« Ori mumbled, even as she cursed herself for questioning this. »The ‘Ri line was nobility once, but no more. We have no house, no high door of stone, no wealth. We’re…we’re nothing.«

She found face tilted up demandingly, forced to look at Fíli even though she was almost afraid to see what was there. But Fíli’s face was determined, his eyes bright. »You really think I care about any of that? My line is hardly any better; I am a prince without a kingdom, I’ve spent the majority of my years serving as a guard for a tavern in the Blue Mountains, Kíli as well. Even Thorin and Dwalin only survived as blacksmiths willing to work for the cheapest coin. Ori, you’re all I’ve ever wanted in a wife.«

Ori’s lips parted in surprise, staring in wonder at the impossibility in front of her. Without thought, she pressed forward, the remaining cakes in her lap forgotten to tumble in the grass. Fíli caught her with a chuckle, pressing her close to his chest. Ori could hardly believe her own daring; Dori would kill her if she knew that she had all but thrown herself at a male, even if Fíli had announced his intention to court her. And now that she found herself in Fíli’s lap, her face mere inches from his own, Ori found herself at a loss.

Fíli lips quirked in a lopsided grin and then she was being kissed. Unlike the frantic, brief one in the trees – born from desperation and the fear of loss, this one was long and steady. Ori let her eyes close, leaning heavily into the strong frame below her. Fíli’s hands stroked her neck, her shoulders, slid down her back in a blaze of warmth before wrapping around her hips. And…



Fíli’s hands felt like brands, their grip possessive and covetous. His shoulders felt strong and firm under her hands and Ori shivered as she was pulled closer still, her breasts pressing firmly against Fíli’s chest. There was a flick of wetness against her lips and instinctively Ori found her mouth opening, quivering at the feel of Fíli’s tongue licking into her mouth. She whimpered, a hand tangling in Fíli’s hair while the other gripped his tunic like a lifeline.

The kiss quickly turned into more, their mouths barely pulling apart before pressing together once more. Ori almost felt lightheaded with it, her chest heaving. She could feel Fíli’s own chest rise and fall just as quickly, as if the two of them had just run a great deal. She pressed closer, wanting to be as close as she could to Fíli’s warmth as possible, and let out a shocked sound at the feel of her center sliding over something hot and hard. Ori felt her lowers tighten at the sensation, a wave of arousal – as foreign as anything yet deeply, primally, familiar – roll over her. Fíli broke the kiss, panting, his fingers digging into Ori’s sides, keeping her from moving.     

»Fíli,« Ori managed, shocked at how breathless she sounded.

Fíli pressed his face against her neck, the prince’s body shuddering under her touch. »No more, my darling, less I dishonor us both.«

The words did nothing to damper the lust she felt and even though she knew it was true, Ori pressed an open mouth kiss to Fíli’s ear. Fíli groaned, hips twitching under her weight, before he gently moved her off his lap. Fíli dropped onto his back, an arm thrown over his eyes. Slowly their breathing calmed, the trembling of their bodies stopped, and only then did Ori trust herself to curl into the prince’s side, her hand resting over the steady beat of his heart.

» Fíli?«


»Please don’t tell your uncle, but I almost didn’t go on this quest at first. I thought it a foolish risk for my family. But I – I’m glad I let Nori talk me and Dori into this. I wouldn’t have met you if I hadn’t.« Ori whispered, then immediately burrowed even further into his side, hiding her face. The arm around her tightened and Fíli’s lips were rough and dry but so warm and lovely against her forehead. 

Nori let out a breath of relief when she finally, finally escaped Gandalf’s piercing gaze. The Wizard had been never far from Nori’s side since she’d awoken, but finally she was able to get away. She managed to get Dwalin’s attention as well and she slid off to use the outside privy. She had to speak with him – she had to tell someone what she’d heard!

To think, this whole time they’d been traveling with a Dragon! What was it that Bilbo was planning? He had spoken those words with such regret, spoken of his past as a murdering serpent with genuine remorse, but dragons were lords of lies, second only to the black tongues of those who created them.

They couldn’t be trusted, she had to – the sound of footsteps behind her had her turning in relief. “Dwalin, thank the stone, I’ve got to-”

But it wasn’t Dwalin.

It was Bilbo.

Bilbo, who’s eyes burned like the golden center of a fire, pupils drawn into slits, one hand curled tightly around the hilt of his sword. “Hello Nori, terribly sorry about all this.”

Dwalin made his way casually from the hall and out towards the outhouse. Nori had been trying to get him alone all day which couldn’t bode well, especially after this morning. That damanable Tharkûn had haunted the Dam’s steps and that alone did little to ease the concern in his breast. even if it meant he had to wring the Wizard’s neck. He followed barely there prints (Nori had always had a light step, even back in the mountain) to a one of the barns by the outhouse.

Dwalin’s frown grew even more fierce when he found the redheaded beauty standing there, eyes blank and distant. He called out to her, but she didn’t even twitch, just staring out over Beorn’s lands.

»Nori, Nori, Nori, luv,« Dwalin after a moment, exasperated and forced her to look at him, »where have you been? First ya wake me up balls early and the next I can’ find ya anywhere.« Nori stared at him, blinking hard for a moment, as if she wasn’t really aware that Dwalin was standing in front of her. Dwalin’s hand fisted, knuckled popping as he sneered back at the house, furious. »What’s that Wizard done ta ya? I’ll kill him.«

A hand caught his own and when he looked back, Nori was giving him a weak smile. »He didn’t do anything, he wasn’t even here.« Nori looked confused for a moment before shaking her head. »I…just felt a little faint there. Too much time in the heat, I bet.«

Dwalin’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. »…right lass, sell me ‘nother one.«

»Dwalin, no!« Nori whispered harshly, launching herself forward to still him as he moved to turn once more. »Honestly, nothing’s happened. Well, I mean…this morning, I overheard something I shouldn’t. Gandalf just told me not to be a gossip.«

»If its somethin’ I should know, than I’d know it. Gossip or no.«

Nori looked uncomfortable, reaching up to itch at her side burns. »Did ya know that Thorin’s claimed Bilbo his one?«

»Ya heard him say this?«

Nori bit her lip. »I heard Bilbo say it this morning.«

The silence that followed that was heavy and long. Dwalin felt like his lungs had sunk into his stomach. Ah, hell laddie. His thoughts raced; he’d known that his cousin felt something for their burglar for some time but to declare Bilbo his One? Did Bilbo even understand what that meant? Dwalin felt his shoulders drop in exhaustion; madness ran in their line, a madness deeply rooted in lust and want. What would happen if Bilbo did not return Thorin’s feelings? Would the act throw Thorin into that same madness? Would he grow embittered and angry like others who had been denied by their One? Or would he just fade away into death, like so many of that horrid fate had?   

Dwalin brought a hand up to rub at his head in frustration. »Nori, ya can’t speak on this ta anyone, do you understand?«

The Dam nodded, reaching out for him, her small hands cupping his face. »I won’t. I swear I won’t.« Nori gave him a weak grin, »And I’ll keep a promise if it’s you.«

Dwalin leaned down, brushing their foreheads together in gentle affection, eyes drifting close. »Ya better, lass.«

Nori’s skilled fingers tangled in his beard. »…think we can squeeze in a quickie?«

Dwalin laughed, loud and brash, and hiked the Dam up by the waist.

Bilbo and Gandalf were having what may be the most polite argument the Dragonborn had ever participated in. They were walking deep in the fields of Beorn’s lands, far away from any who may over hear them – but still they fell back to Quenya, a language rarely spoken in Middle Earth anymore and by none of their present company. They were due to leave Beorn’s in the morning and Gandalf planned to leave them. He wished to ride to Lothlórien to seek Galadriel’s wisdom – and he wanted Bilbo to come with him. Bilbo, who was already feelings exhausted and in low spirits after binding Nori’s memories, felt his nerves fraying thin the longer the conversation dragged.

¦To wait is folly, Bilbo, be reasonable. Surely you must see that?¦

¦It is done.¦ Bilbo announced with a finality. He was aware their disagreement had not gone unnoticed, but a twist of Gandalf’s staff had their words muffled even to Beorn, who's sharp eyes and ears watched them even from a distance. He turned away from the Istari dismissively, packing his pipe as he trudged back towards the hall, ¦when Smaug is defeated, we may speak of the Ring.¦

¦Bilbo,¦ Gandalf said, his voice very quiet, ¦the danger of the One Ring is undeniable, and each day brings more of a chance for discovery. Every moment we wait, the Enemy grows stronger. Should he be allowed to gain a foothold, the death and destruction he will unleash on this world will be devastating, beyond imagination.¦

¦Enough!¦ Bilbo felt his patience snap like a twine stretched to its breaking point. ¦Do you intend to lecture me about the dangers of Sauron?¦

Gandalf cleared his throat awkwardly, ¦well, now, I wouldn’t say lecture –¦

But Bilbo wasn’t done and he continued on, his voice like ice. ¦You? You who were too fearful to even come to these shores when the Deceiver was at his height? You, who still resisted even once his spirit had been scattered?¦ The Dragonborn advanced on the Wizard, eyes narrowed and blazing. ¦What have you seen of the horrors that he or his fallen master has wrought this of this world? What have you to tell me what of this fetid family that birthed me that you know, that I do not?

You have chosen this path, Olórin. When The White Counsel warned you that my time may not have come yet, that need may still lie for me in another direction, it was you dug in and directed me down this path – a path that I have since sworn an oath to complete and signed my name to. I cannot turn from it now. Everything in this moment has come to fall by your machinations. The Ring must wait.¦

Gandalf let out a heavy breath, then another. “You are correct, of course, Bilbo. Forgive me.”

Bilbo turned at the sound of Westron, feeling at once embarrassed by his outburst when he saw terribly old and drained Gandalf looked in that moment. Bilbo sighed himself. “Forgive me as well, I should not have said that. To speak out of anger is the height of foolishness.”

“And impoliteness.” The tall man jibbed gently, a small smile on his face.

“Truly, would have turned my auntie's hair white in horror.” Bilbo agreed just as quietly.

“I will ride with you as far as Mirkwood, then I shall go to Fair Lady and ask her if she has seen a path.” Gandalf said with a sigh. “I have no doubt she will call another White Counsel.”

“That shall be an interesting sitting.”

Gandalf let out another long sight through his nose. “Yes, I dare say it will be. Lord Elrond, in particular, shall have several words to share.”

Bilbo reached out, placing a comforting hand on Gandalf’s arm. “You did what you thought was best at the moment, Gandalf. You can ask for nothing more.”