Tea at Bag End was perhaps the most awkward occasion in Bilbo’s experience. And he once hosted Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Delphinium Boffin at the same small dinner party. Striking a balance between hosting a group of dwarves who might be Kili’s long-lost family and four well-armed travellers who had recently tried to kill them both seemed impossible. Eventually, he got out his mother’s second-best tea set, currant scones, and sugar, but no honey.
Kili frowned about the honey, but he didn’t complain.
The dwarves were surprisingly polite. Settling in the parlor without any objections, they looked about with courteous interest. All except Fili, who openly stared at Kili’s bare feet. Since Bilbo spent a large portion of his childhood defending the honor of those small, scratched toes, this put him even more on edge.
Balin made a few polite noises about the quality of the tea. Responding in kind was automatic, but it did not make Bilbo relax.
Finally, Kili huffed. “Will someone please tell me what is going on? Bilbo! I thought these fellows were here to kill me, but now we are all having tea.”
“Well,” Bilbo said sensibly, “it is tea time.”
Fili, the youngest dwarf with the yellow beard, snorted and hid a smile with his tea cup. Then he winced and shifted his recently bandaged shoulder.
“Please forgive our rudeness,” Balin said. “Allow me to make the introductions. I am Balin, son of Fundin, at your service. This sniggering fellow here is Fili, son of Dis. To his right, my brother Dwalin. And, of course, the leader of our company: Thorin Oakenshield.”
Bobbing his head, Kili took his teacup from the table. “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure. Kili Baggins, at your service. I believe you already know my brother, Bilbo Baggins.”
Watching carefully, Bilbo saw Fili’s mouth tighten at the mention of Kili’s name and his relationship to Bilbo. None of the other dwarves reacted at all. But then, they were old enough to school their faces.
“They have come for you, Kili, but I am not entirely sure that they are the ones we were warned about,” Bilbo said, trying to be fair.
Leaning forward, Thorin narrowed his eyes. “Who was it that gave you this warning? Who told you to hide Kili from us?”
Shaking his head, Bilbo set his own mouth into a firm line. “No. You first. You have told me that you were lost and looking for a blacksmith. You have told me that Kili is your relation and you are overjoyed to see him again. You have told me that we will all be showered riches. Now, you will tell me the truth.”
Fury twisted Thorin’s face, but Balin squeezed his shoulder. “My apologies for misleading you, Master Baggins. It was never my intention to lie, only to avoid alarming you.”
Bilbo put his teacup down with a gentle clink.
“Of course,” he said evenly. “Allow me to offer my own regrets for failing to convince you to leave before Kili came home.”
Apparently, it was Kili’s turn to hide a laugh in his teacup. Bilbo was glad to amuse his brother, but it was not the time.
“The truth is,” Fili said, lifting his chin and looking straight at Bilbo, “Kili is not your brother. He is mine.”
Kili leapt to his feet, but Bilbo only laughed. “So I suppose it was your best blue waistcoat that he spit wine all over the first time he had some of the Old Winyards.”
Anger diffused, Kili flopped into his chair and turned toward his brother. “I have apologized for that! And anyway, you deserved it for not watering my glass. Or at least warning me.”
“The truth is,” Bilbo informed Fili, “my brother is a great trial. Under other circumstance you would be more than welcome to him. Unfortunately, I promised our mother that I would look after him.”
Kili sniffed. “I don’t suppose you should like to take Bilbo away to be your brother instead. He is stuffy, overbearing, and never forgets a slight.”
Balin smiled. “The truth is, there is more to family than blood. However, you would be the first hobbit I have ever seen with the beginnings of a beard on your cheeks. Indeed, your feet are rather smaller than your brother’s, though you have nearly a foot on him in height.”
After many years of adulthood, Bilbo did not immediately leap over the tea tray to punish the fellow who insulted Kili’s feet. Instead, he calmly took a sip from his own cup, and cut where it was more likely to hurt.
“So tell me,” the hobbit said. “How did your family lose a child barely old enough to speak?”
The cup in Thorin’s hand shattered. Seeing the furious pain on his handsome face assuaged Bilbo’s own anger somewhat. Hurting another person can be a balm for many wounds, but always at a cost. Such a spiteful remark was bound to have dear consequences, and so it proved. Kili was instantly, disproportionately upset.
“The calla lily!” he cried. “You have ruined the set!”
Giving the broken pottery a cursory glance, Bilbo saw that it was, indeed, the one painted with calla lilies which Thorin had broken. However, it was only a teacup.
“My apologies,” the dwarf grunted. “I will pay for it.”
“It cannot be replaced,” Kili said, kneeling on the floor and gathering up the pieces without taking any care for the still seated dwarf in his way. “It belonged to Mum.”
In Kili’s intense distress, Bilbo saw clearly the emotional tumult which battered his poor brother’s heart. “Well, it was an eight piece set, so now it shall simply serve seven. That is still better than Bedelia Bracegirdle’s Southfarthing Gardener set, and I suspect that is all Mother would have cared about.”
Kili smiled tremulously, still clutching the porcelain shards.
“Right,” Bilbo said. “This has all been more than enough excitement for one day. Thank you very much for coming, but I fear my brother is overwrought. We can continue this tomorrow.”
“No,” Thorin said.
“Excuse me? Perhaps I should rephrase in a manner that dwarves might understand. Leave now, or I shall find a way to make you leave.”
“You intend to run.” Though his voice was steady, Thorin had his hands clenched in his lap. He appeared to be restraining himself from some terrible violence.
Until Thorin spoke, Bilbo had not been aware of the fully formed plan in the back of his mind. They would wait for nightfall and then cut through the fields. Circumventing Hobbiton, they could be in Tuckborough shortly after midnight if they were quick. Once inside Great Smials, the dwarves would need an army to get Kili out. Parsifal and the rest of their cousins would make sure of that.
“Whatever do you mean?” Bilbo blinked stupidly up at the handsome dwarf. “I am a Baggins of Bag End. Where would I possibly go?”
“Since you are predisposed to distrust, it is the most reasonable course. Let us compromise. Allow me to tell you how Kili was lost to our family. A single attempt to persuade you that our claim is the truth. If I fail, we will go in peace.”
Bilbo did not see how this was a compromise, for it seemed to him very like giving Thorin his way, but he was uncomfortably aware that he could not force the big dwarves out of Bag End. Not without risking injury to Kili.
“Very well.” The brothers returned to their seats and their tea, but neither Baggins made a move to fetch Thorin another cup.
Apparently, receiving permission to tell his story stymied Thorin. He sat quietly for a moment, staring at the teapot. Finally, he spoke. “It was supposed to be me.”
This was quite a surprising beginning, and Bilbo did not understand what the dwarf meant. He could not possibly intend to suggest that he ought to have been the one adopted by Belladonna Baggins. Besides, knowing what he did about dwarven ages, Bilbo rather suspected Thorin to be over a hundred years old. Older than Belladonna ever was, though he seemed roughly the same age as Bilbo seated across the coffee table.
“We hail from the Kingdom of Erebor. It is the richest and most glorious kingdom you could wish to set eyes upon.”
“The streets are paved with candy and it is never bedtime, but there is always music and dancing in every public place.” Bilbo sniffed. “You needn’t tell us that you wish for Kili to go away with you, that is quite plain to everyone.”
Laughing nervously, Kili took a big sip of his tea. Bilbo realized that he was not helping his brother relax. This was just as well in his view. Especially given that he still believed relaxing around the strange dwarves might yet prove to be a fatal mistake.
Ignoring him, Thorin continued. “All dwarven kingdoms thrive on trade in one way or another, and Erebor even more than most. Our mountain is rich with gold and precious gems, so naturally all of our people wish to work as artisans and miners. Thus it is that we must trade for food and similarly necessary incidentals with other places. One of our most important partners in trade are the dwarves in the Blue Mountains. Though the distance is very great, the dwarves of the Blue Mountains produce certain teas, spices, and liquors which we value highly. Unfortunately, some decades ago, the greed of Erebor’s king grew too great, and the Blue Mountains threatened to end all trade.”
“Greed so great he summoned a dragon,” Kili murmured, half to himself.
All of the dwarves immediately looked at Kili. “Yes,” Thorin said. His voice was hoarse. “Do you remember him? King Thror?”
Bilbo blinked. “You cannot mean to suggest that Kili knew the king from his bedtime stories. We are not that gullible.”
Thorin’s eyes slid to Bilbo’s face. “I do not mean to say that King Thror ever held Kili in his arms, but the kings of Erebor dress in splendor. Thror most of all, in his greed. So it might be that Kili remembered seeing him, as a small child.”
“Oh.” Bilbo felt somewhat mollified by these words.
“Did he have a great gray beard, banded with black and gold?” Kili asked, offering the description of the king from their story about the Prince Under the Mountain.
“Aye,” Balin murmured. “That he did, lad.”
“And eyes that never looked up,” Bilbo added, “but were forever counting the gold in his hands.”
“Yes.” Thorin looked very surprised that Bilbo would know such a thing.
“It is from a story I tell,” Kili said softly. “The Prince and the Dragon. I suppose someone must have told it to me as a child.”
Thorin’s eyes were very soft, and for a moment Bilbo thought that maybe he really was some member of Kili’s family. Perhaps he truly had been fond of Kili as a baby. “My sister Dis, most likely. But the dragon was defeated several years before the events which I now relate.”
“Sorry. Do you mean to say the dragon was real?” Bilbo could not help the question, but he was conscious of how rude his continuing interruptions were.
“Aye lad,” Balin said softly. “Dragons are quite real, though I am happy that none have ever disturbed the peace of your little village.”
“Oh, Bilbo does not care if the dragon is real.” Clearly Kili was recovered from his earlier emotional turmoil. The teasing lilt in his voice was unmistakable. “He wants to know if the prince is real. And if so, does he really have hair like waving wheat and lips like rose petals?”
“Excuse me?” Thorin looked rather shocked. He could be nowhere near as startled as Bilbo was.
With no other option, Bilbo bent forward and knocked over the teapot. Kili rushed to help him clean it up, slowly realizing the weapon that he had given the dwarves to use against his brother.
“We always thought the story was about big folk,” Bilbo said, mopping up the tea. “From Kili’s description, I thought maybe the prince was an elf. That is often how they are described in books.”
“Right,” Kili said quickly. “Anyway, Bilbo does not care at all what fellows look like. He once proposed marriage to Astoria Holman, you know. But she was already promised to Biffy Boffin.”
It was in fact true that Bilbo had once proposed to Astoria—knowing how deeply in love she was with Biffy—happily curtailing any suspicions about his nature among his neighbors. Unfortunately, he rather thought that announcing this gossip in relation to the fact that Bilbo did not care what fellows looked like would serve only as confirmation of his preferences. All the hobbit could do was hope that the dwarves were the sort of people to whom such deviance did not even occur.
Kili was extraordinarily loyal, but he was not particularly good at dissembling.
Balin and Thorin exchanged a glance. “I believe your story describes Prince Frerin,” Balin said slowly. “He had golden hair. Tragically, he fell to the fire. It was the eldest son of Thrain who defeated the dragon, in honor of his brother’s sacrifice.”
Vaguely, in the back of Bilbo’s mind, he remembered whispering in the dark of their shared bedroom as fauntlings. “We switched them.”
“Oh yes,” Kili recalled. “You thought that the one with golden hair should be the hero.”
“Well, I did not know it was a history!”
“Revisionist!” Kili crowed. “What would Father say?”
“He would say that you should take care criticising my historical acumen, when you still cannot name any of the Thains except for Isengrim.”
“Which one is Isengrim?”
“The current Thain! Our uncle!”
“Well then, I can also name the Old Took,” Kili said triumphantly. “Our grandfather.”
“All right.” Bilbo narrowed his eyes. “Name him.”
“Say his name, if you know so much about history. What was our grandfather’s name?”
“The Old Took? Er.”
“Well how am I supposed to know that? I never met him.”
“Yet I am the poor student for conflating two princes that I believed to be fictional!”
“I am quite certain the princes of Erebor would take no offense,” Balin said gently. “Indeed, Frerin would likely think it a splendid joke.”
Bickering with Kili was comforting, but when Bilbo turned back to the dwarves it was with a wary heart. “And how would you know what princes and kings think? I suppose in the land of stories from whence you have come, such lofty folk often confide in ordinary people.”
“I make no such claim,” Balin said carefully. “For you have made it very clear that you distrust all mention of honor and titles. But it was not for nothing that Frerin was called the Laughing Prince. His good humor and friendly nature were known throughout Erebor. All of his people remember him fondly. He was only in his thirties when he died.”
Remembering Kili at the side of their mother’s sickbed, Bilbo understood that Frerin had been little more than a child. Anyone would call that a tragedy. “Then I am sorry for the loss,” Bilbo murmured sincerely.
“The dragon destroyed many families that day,” Thorin said in a low, mournful voice. “The royal family not least. Though Prince Frerin was lost, it was known to all that the king, his grandfather, did not shed a single tear. The eldest of Thrain’s sons was lauded and rewarded for defeating the dragon. Not for saving their people, but for protecting the treasure hoard of Thror. Our people narrowly escaped the fire of one dragon, only to live under the rule of another.”
Bilbo nodded, though he did not truly understand. The Thain of the Shire did not so much rule as advise. A peace loving hobbit could not wholly conceive of tyranny.
“So it was that some member of my family needed to travel to the Blue Mountains, bringing gifts and attempting to repair trade relations that had been badly damaged by the greedy taxation of the King Under the Mountain.”
This seemed reasonable enough to Bilbo. Or at least it was the kind of thing a family of merchants might do.
“I should have been the one to go,” Thorin said again. The guilt in his eyes did not seem feigned. “My father could not, and I was the eldest. Unfortunately, my grandfather would not give me his blessing to leave the mountain. So my sister was sent instead, though she had two young children. Her husband did not want her parted from them for the long months such a journey demanded. And so the four of them went together. Fili, his father Vili, my sister Dis, and Kili, the youngest.”
“How did they travel?” Bilbo asked evenly.
“With a large retinue, in a caravan of wagons full of trade goods and gifts, surrounded by guards. Perhaps they presented too tempting a target, perhaps they were hunted down, or perhaps they were merely the victims of circumstance. As they neared their destination, they were attacked by an even larger band of orcs. Orcs and dwarves have hated each other since the conception of that foul species. Always when we meet we fight. This was no exception. Though, given the outcome of that battle, a part of me wishes it was otherwise.”
Thorin sighed, and looked at Kili. “Among the beasts of burden in the caravan, there was a great horse, a black gelding of Rohan stock. Dwarves do not ride such animals, of course, but my sister saw that her band was vastly outnumbered. Leading the attack was Azog the Defiler, the foulest of that evil species, who has sworn to end the line of Durin. Taking her eldest son, Dis rode for help. You were both so small. She could not hold you both in the saddle of such a mount. Not on what she knew would be at least a two day ride to Rivendell. Besides, your father was a mighty warrior, and it was her first time astride such a steed. She had every reason to hope that you would be safest with him.”
“Nevertheless,” Fili said, “A choice was made, and she has regretted it every day since.”
“That is not so,” Dwalin said harshly. Bilbo had been convinced that the fellow was the type to only grunt politely now and again, as many Southfarthing farmers were wont to do, but he actually spoke quite eloquently when he had a mind. “Your mother mourns the loss of her One, and is bereaved by the uncertainty surrounding your brother’s fate. But she does not regret saving you. She could never regret saving you.”
“You look like him.” Kili’s voice was a wisp of smoke on the wind, but he suddenly had the full force of Fili’s attention.
“It has been said by many that I am the image of our father.”
Kili ignored this reference to his dwarven paternity, but he said faintly, “I know what happened after that. The shadow kisses him and floats away. Thunder fills my ears. The dwarf with the yellow beard smiles at me. Adâd! Adâd! There is a monster, but its stomach explodes and all of its insides spill on the ground. Adâd has blood on his axe. I have to be quiet. There is a monster, but its head falls to the ground and its body topples in the other direction. I have to go in the box. It is noisy and smelly and I don’t like it, but I have to go in the box. Then Mum comes, and I wake up.” Kili blinked and shook his head. “It is a dream I have had many times.”
Squeezing his brother’s shoulder, Bilbo said, “I am quite willing to believe that you know the circumstances of Kili’s misfortune, and perhaps it all happened precisely as you say, but you have yet to explain the most important part of the story.”
“And what is that?” Thorin asked, looking at Kili like a starving hobbit seeing a pie fresh from the oven.
“The dwarf’s—Vili’s—last words.”
Thorin blinked. “If those are known to Kili, they are known to no one else. The elves of Rivendell did come to my sister’s aid, but it was days later when they searched the desecrated bodies of the fallen dwarves. No sign of Kili was ever found. Vili was long dead by then.”
“They were not spoken to Kili, but to our mother. ‘Save him,’ he begged her. ‘They will never stop looking for him.’” As Bilbo spoke, he heard the echo of his mother on her deathbed, and felt the ache of a promise etched into his heart. “What say you to that?”
Thorin’s blue eyes shone with a fierce, determined light. “I say that I have not broken Vili’s faith. Indeed, we have never stopped looking for Kili. Dis sent to the mountain for aid, and I ignored my grandfather’s edict to lead hundreds through the fields and forests surrounding the place where the caravan was attacked, searching for any sign of my missing nephew. Azog made his home in Moria, and so our mad king was convinced to make war on that place. Thus did King Thror fall honorably in battle. Many warriors fell at his side, but I do not call the cost too great. For my family became certain that the lost child had not been made a slave in those mines. We have even come to Bree and to the Shire before this day. We would have found him before now. Except, in misunderstanding Vili’s words, your mother hid Kili well, and we saw no sign of him.”
Bilbo stared. He had nothing to say. Thorin’s version of events was plausible, but the price of trusting him might be inconceivable.
“I can see you two lads have much to think over,” Balin said. He gestured and the dwarves rose. “May we call on you tomorrow?”
“What?” Kili looked completely dazed, but also slightly reluctant for the dwarves to leave. If they truly were not dangerous, they could answer some of the questions that had plagued Kili since Belladonna’s death.
Thorin stepped forward, looking down at Bilbo, demanding his gaze. “May we call on you tomorrow?”
“Yes, of course,” the little hobbit squeaked. “Elevenses?”
So that was decided, and the dwarves left peaceably enough. Though Bilbo did not like the way Kili stared into space without speaking long after the visitors were gone.