Few things in life were as enjoyable as sitting in front of Bag End, savoring a lovely pipe, on a golden afternoon in late autumn. The grass held onto its green, but the trees along the Hill were glorious explosions of red and gold. From his little bench, Bilbo could see all the way to Hobbiton. He watched the miller’s wagon making end of the week deliveries along the winding road. Puffing a particularly large smoke ring, he appreciated the way it floated up to join the little white clouds in the bright blue sky. As dearly as he loved his brother, it was always nice when Kili took a few days to go hunting in the woods. The dwarf could burn off some of his boundless energy and Bilbo could have a little time alone with his thoughts.
Someone coughed very politely.
Coming down from the clouds, Bilbo thought for a moment that he was looking at a cloud personified, standing in the road. The fellow had perfectly white hair and a long white beard, both straight and styled like wisps of smoke.
“Good afternoon.” Bilbo gave a friendly smile. When he noticed the three others standing a little ways behind the elderly fellow, however, trepidation stole into his heart. Four dwarves standing in front of Bag End could never be a good thing.
“A very good afternoon to you as well, Master Hobbit,” the polite dwarf said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Balin, son of Fundin. At your service.”
“It is very nice to meet you, Balin,” Bilbo said, though he meant no such thing. “I suppose by that form of address, I would be Bilbo, son of Bungo, but you would have a hard time sending me a letter by that name. Ha! Baggins might serve you better, if it is service you require. Bilbo Baggins.” His goal in making this speech was to appear rather tedious—in hopes that the dwarves would go away—but Balin’s eyes lit up.
“It is a Baggins we are looking for!” one of the other dwarves exclaimed happily. He seemed to be the youngest of the group, with golden hair and a short, neatly braided mustache.
“Well, it is a Baggins you have found,” Bilbo said. His heart sank. “Although I cannot imagine what use four dwarves would have for one.”
“Ah.” Balin smiled. “It is the Hobbiton blacksmith we are looking for. Perhaps he is a relative of yours? We have heard that he goes by the name Kili Baggins.”
Of course, it was possible that four travellers might have need of a blacksmith. It was even possible that, upon discovering his shop was closed, they might seek him out at home to shoe their ponies in a hurry. However, Bilbo was rather too clever to believe in such a coincidence. He was also too smart to lie. Kili’s best defense was remaining inconspicuous. He did not want to make the travellers suspicious with obvious falsehoods.
“Naturally.” Bilbo grinned broadly. “My twin brother.”
All four dwarves started. “Your twin brother?” Balin asked. An air of disbelief colored his friendly tone.
“Indeed. Of course, our parents would not have approved,” he prattled, “so I certainly understand why it would surprise you. A Baggins of Bag End laboring! Who would have thought? We were quite identical as children. No one in all of Hobbiton could tell us apart. But now we could not be more different. Why, he even has darker hair than me! His is more of a chestnut, while, as you can see, mine is rather sandy.”
“Your twin brother.” The young dwarf with the yellow hair looked so crestfallen at this news that Bilbo very nearly took pity on him. In defense of his brother, however, the hobbit was relentless.
“I am afraid he has gone hunting. That he gets from our mother, you know. She was a Took, after all. A very capable woman, our mother. Could drop a rabbit with a stone at forty paces, then have it cleaned, broiled, and on a plate for supper within forty minutes. Still, Kili brings home rather larger game. I have had to learn to be a proper butcher to deal with it. Truthfully, I do not mind. A little venison is nice enough, now and again. Unfortunately, it is his habit to stay out in the woods until he finds something quite impressive. I do not think he will be around to open his shop for a few days at least. There is another blacksmith in Bywater. Or old Deacon Smith out in Michel Delving. Neither is far, and I imagine they are nearly as good as my brother.” Bilbo winked saucily. “Not that there is any blacksmith in the world to match a Baggins, of course, but they have both been at it for much longer than he has.”
Judging by the fallen faces of the dwarves, this speech had its intended effect. Bilbo was quite sure that the hunters would look elsewhere for their prey, assuming that no dwarf could ever be the brother of such a silly hobbit. Indeed, the tallest of the dwarves stepped forward.
“We are wasting our time with this little grocer, Balin,” he said, sounding deeply unhappy. “Speaking to these halflings is always a waste of time.”
Focused as he was on his own dissembling, Bilbo had not taken the time to properly look at the dwarves. Now he saw that he was face to face with the most handsome fellow he had ever been privileged to meet. With long, dark hair gently streaked with silver highlights, eyes as blue as the sky which so mesmerized Bilbo only minutes before, and a short, dignified beard, the dwarf had a regal countenance. To match that, he was wearing armor. Underneath his fur cloak, he wore a leather hauberk studded with a honeycomb of steel plates. The bald dwarf and the yellow haired dwarf wore rather dubious coats of leather and fur. Those might have been mere protection on the road, but there was no question that the handsome one was dressed for a fight.
“Well,” Bilbo said, feigning offense. “I am very sorry to hear it. I shan’t offer you tea, since I am sure it would only waste more of your precious time. For courtesy’s sake, however, I will recommend the Green Dragon to you. If you care to press on to Bywater tonight. They have very good beer, and quite inexpensive rooms.”
“Thank you, Master Baggins,” Balin said. He alone bowed politely. The other dwarves had already turned away. “Forgive Thorin’s short temper, please. We have traveled many miles to be met with such a disappointment.”
Bilbo sniffed, though he understood what Balin meant much better than he wished to. “Well, it is the weekend. You cannot expect a Baggins to keep weekend hours. It is not as though a brother of mine needs the custom, in any case. And Bywater is not so very far.”
“No indeed,” Balin said. “Good afternoon.”
Bilbo wished the dwarves a good afternoon, and that was very nearly the whole of it. The dwarves might have gone off. Bilbo might have found Kili in the woods and taken him for an extended visit to Great Smials until they were quite sure the strangers were gone from the Shire. The two brothers might have continued to live quiet, uninterrupted lives, if at just that moment, Kili himself had not crested the hill.
He was dressed in his hunting leathers—quiver slung across his back—and he was carrying a deer that must have been three times his own weight. With his hair dangling in loose clumps around his face and the shadow of a beard that had recently begun darkening his cheeks, he looked every inch a young dwarf.
“Bilbo,” he cried. “See what I have caught! A twelve point buck! Oh. Do we have guests for dinner? Well, there will be venison enough for all and no mistake.”
“Liar!” Overcome with rage upon the discovery that Kili was their quarry after all, the yellow haired dwarf sprang at Bilbo with a knife.
Fortunately, a long swath of Bilbo’s childhood was comprised of fighting bigger bullies in defense of Kili. Dodging nimbly to the side, the hobbit managed to twist the knife away from his attacker. Unfortunately, the rest of the dwarves had much larger weapons, and they outnumbered the brothers two to one.
An arrow pierced the shoulder of the young dwarf who was now facing Bilbo with a sword in one hand and a second knife in the other. Daring a glance at his brother, the hobbit saw that the deer lay discarded on the side of the road. Kili already had a second arrow on his bow. It was a distraction Bilbo could not afford. A big hand grabbed him from behind, and there was a sword pressed against his throat.
In other circumstances, Bilbo might have enjoyed having such a handsome fellow at his back, one arm wrapped around his chest. As the matter stood, he screamed for his brother to run.
“I am not going anywhere,” Kili said steadily. To the dwarf holding Bilbo, he added, “If you draw a single drop of my brother’s blood, my next arrow goes between your eyes. Shooting to wound your friend was a mistake I’ll not make again.”
“Your brother?” Thorin was apparently as strong as he was handsome, but he didn’t seem all that clever. Despite having Kili’s arrow aimed at his forehead, he continued to antagonize them. “Any with eyes to look can see you are a dwarf. You share no blood with this miserable creature.”
“Can you do it?” Bilbo asked. Speaking their secret language was a risk. Indeed, Thorin’s arm tightened painfully around the hobbit’s torso, but Kili’s only hope was a solid plan. “Can you take the life of a thinking being?”
Blinking, Kili shifted his gaze to meet Bilbo’s eyes.
“If they harm a single hair on your littlest toe, I will kill all of them,” he said plainly, in a voice loud enough for the entire Hill to hear.
Bilbo smiled. “Then, once I move, shoot the bald one. Aim to kill, but don’t stick around to watch me in action. Run to Tuckborough. I will take care of the rest and meet you there.”
Shaking his head minutely, Kili said, “I won’t leave you to fight three armed dwarves alone.”
“There is no need for us to fight,” Balin said in a soothing, reasonable voice. “Lower your bow, Kili.”
“They’re after you, remember.” Bilbo hardened his voice. In the years after their mother’s death, he had been the one to shepherd Kili through the dwarven equivalent of his irresponsible twenties. He was the older brother. It was his job to set boundaries. It was his duty to protect. “Trust me. Run. I will find you once they are dealt with.”
“I believe you have quite mistaken our purpose in coming here,” Balin continued. “We suspect that you may be a kinsman of ours who was lost as a child. We do not mean any harm to you or to those who have sheltered you. Indeed, they will be richly rewarded.”
“All right,” Kili said, lowering his bow a fraction of an inch. All of the dwarves watched him do it.
Taking advantage of this distraction, Bilbo levered himself up on Thorin’s arm and aimed a powerful kick at the dwarf’s crotch. Of course, he had not the height to land the blow where it would be most effective. Instead, he hit the inside of the fellow’s thigh, knocking him off balance. Rolling to the ground, Bilbo came up with his sword. Just as the hobbit was doing this, Kili loosed his arrow and sent it flying toward the neck of the bald dwarf. Somehow, the big warrior was ready for the attack and managed to deflect the shaft with one of his axes.
There was no time to be impressed. Trusting Kili to run, Bilbo used Thorin’s sword to slap yellow beard on his ass and cut Balin’s purse. With the heavy sword in his right hand and the jingling coin purse in his left, Bilbo raced down the Hill heading North. It was a direction that took him away from Tuckborough where Kili would head.
All of the hobbit’s energy went into sprinting, but he dared a single glance behind. The four dwarves were following him. He had that much luck. Unfortunately, the bald one had given Thorin one of his axes, and even Balin looked deadly serious.
One way or another, Bilbo’s luck was going to run out in the little wooden shed at the edge of the Gamgee’s property. Slamming the door open, he rushed through the shed, twisting dials, turning nozzles, and tugging several spiraling lengths of copper piping from their barrels. He had little enough time to work. The four dwarves were right behind him.
“Ha!” The yellow bearded dwarf grinned wickedly. “We have you cornered! So much for your plan!”
“Yes.” Bilbo smiled at the dwarves. It was a peaceful smile, not a cruel or victorious one. From the moment he had seen Balin in front of Bag End, his heart had been racing with fear. Now, at the end of his dash, it beat a calm, steady rhythm.
Suddenly, Thorin threw down his axe and raised his hands above his head. “We surrender!” he shouted. “Throw down your weapons! We surrender!”
The other dwarves obeyed Thorin immediately, though they looked puzzled. Meanwhile, Bilbo couldn’t help hesitating. All he had to do was knock over the lamp, and Kili would no longer be in danger.
“It’s a still,” Balin whispered, horrified. “I did not recognize the scent.”
“Can you do it?” Thorin asked, his blue eyes burning with a desperate intensity as he unknowingly repeated the question Bilbo asked his brother earlier. “Can you kill four people who have done you no lasting harm after they have surrendered?”
Bilbo swallowed hard. “That is disingenuous,” he said, though he did not knock over the lamp. “I have only won through trickery. The moment we are outside, you will find it easy enough to murder me and go after Kili once more.”
“But if you blow up the distillery you will be killed as well!” The yellow haired dwarf was quite late in coming to the realization. Bilbo supposed that big, strong dwarves did not often need to risk everything they had in a fight.
“If this is to end in fire,” Bilbo said, quoting the bedtime story Kili whispered to him so often when they were children, “you and I will burn together.”
“None of us need burn!” Thorin said vehemently. “We are not here to harm your brother. Someone has lied to you, telling you that any who come looking for him intend him harm. That is not so! Long ago, a child of our kin went missing. His name was Kili. When we heard word of a blacksmith of unusual stature going by that name in this village, we came looking for him. That is all. Let us go, and we will go in peace.”
Bilbo wanted to believe Thorin. Authority and sincerity imbued the dwarf’s voice with power beyond his words. Besides that, his eyes shone like the sun on morning glories. But Bilbo couldn’t risk Kili. Not for anything. He’d promised his mother.
“Bilbo?” Kili’s voice was hesitant, but it wasn’t nearly distant enough. He ought to have been halfway to Tuckborough, not right on the other side of the door to the Gamgee Distillery. “Sorry for not doing my part. Do you need help?”
Halfway to the lamp, Bilbo’s hand froze.
“Back away from the building or your brother loses his head,” Thorin shouted. “I’ve my sword to his throat, and he’ll not wriggle away so easily this time.”
Bilbo stared at the dwarf.
“We can both agree that Kili must not end in fire here,” he said softly to Bilbo.
Nodding jerkily seemed to be the only option available to the little hobbit.
Thorin licked his lips. “My nephew, Fili, is only five years older than Kili. Headstrong—and perhaps at fault for some portion of our misunderstanding—but young. As young as your brother, or very nearly. Will you not allow him to leave as well? Let him live long enough to learn that he ought not judge peaceful folk harmless.”
Taking a deep breath, Bilbo said, “We are coming out, Kili. Don’t shoot anyone right away.”
“Fili, Balin, go,” Thorin ordered. Trying to ignore him, Bilbo took a few moments to correct the pressure valves and reconnect pipes, ensuring that the Gamgee’s still would not explode the next time someone came in with a match. The two named dwarves slipped outside at once, but Thorin and the bald one waited for Bilbo to finish his work.
“If you do intend to harm Kili,” Bilbo said, very quietly, “I would advise you to kill me at once.”
Surprisingly, Thorin laughed at that. “You speak wisely, Master Baggins. It is fortunate, then, that I mean neither of you any ill. For I expect Kili would never forgive one who caused harm to come to you. Brothers are like that.”