Supper was a stilted affair. Bilbo did not know what to say. Kili simply stared at the candles for a long while instead of eating. When the hobbit finally made a polite noise about the venison, though usually he would never have complimented his own cooking, Kili noticed it on his plate for the first time. At least that got the proud hunter to tuck in and eat something.
What bothered Bilbo most was the uncertainty of it all. He had learned long ago not to put trust in handsome faces or seeming goodness, but he did not know enough about Thorin or his story to discount it out of hand. So he was in a bit of a pickle. If he took the safer option and ran away to hide with Kili, he risked hurting people who already suffered a great deal. On the other hand, trusting Thorin might very well risk Kili’s life.
Bilbo needed an outside opinion from someone who knew a thing or two about dwarves. Unfortunately, hobbits who traveled outside of the Shire were rare. The only ones who might know about dwarves were innkeepers, or Bree folk. Bilbo didn’t need to know if dwarves in general paid gratuity and kept their rooms relatively clean. Bilbo needed to know if Thorin Oakenshield had a reputation for deceit.
When Kili picked up his violin—as was his habit when he needed to calm his mind—Bilbo went to his writing desk. Just sitting down gave him a brilliant idea. Immediately, he dashed out a letter. Sealing it and scribbling a direction was the work of seconds. Racing to the door, he bid Kili a hasty goodbye.
“Where are you going?” Kili’s violin screeched in alarm as his playing ended.
“Only to send a letter,” Bilbo said, throwing on his overcoat.
Kili’s nerves were not eased by this pronouncement. “I will go with you. Let me get my bow.”
“The only bow you should worry about tonight is the one in your hand. Go back to your violin. If you are so worried, I shall use the back door and go quietly. A hobbit’s best defense is remaining hidden. Besides, I do not think the dwarves would tell us such stories only to knife us in the dark. They had several opportunities to murder us in broad daylight, if that was their only goal.”
Nodding reluctantly, Kili looked down at the instrument in his hand. “Do you believe them, then? That they were my family before Mum found me?”
Bilbo did not know what to say. So he admitted as much. Kili was old enough for truth, if he wanted it.
“I don’t know. If you went missing, I would certainly spend the rest of my life seeking you. But that is only because I still haven’t gotten back at you for telling Poppy Mugwort that I do not like her sponge cake.”
“You loathe her sponge cake. Every time you eat some, you spend the rest of the afternoon complaining about how dry it was.”
“It does not follow that I loathe her company, and she has not had me to tea in a month! She may very well never forgive me!”
“Even so,” Kili said, and Bilbo knew that he had not been distracted from the point.
“Even so.” Bilbo sighed. “Ever since Mum died, it has been my duty to keep you hidden. To keep you safe.”
“I can keep myself safe.” Kili bristled.
“Indeed.” Smiling at his brother, Bilbo said, “But I hope you will forgive me for wanting to help.”
“So you don’t trust them out of habit?” It was a remarkably insightful question, and it cut right to the heart of the matter, as Kili often did.
“I do not think it is only that.” Bilbo frowned and tried to formulate his thoughts. “They did lie at first, and I feel that they have not yet told us the entire truth. Did you notice how often Balin and Thorin shared significant looks? As though they were deciding how much to reveal?”
Kili blinked. “I did not, but I believe you did. You always see more of that sort of thing than I do. So you do not trust them?”
“I am sorry, Kili, but I truly don’t know. It may only be that they are less fortunate than we are. Perhaps upon seeing Bag End, they doubted you would welcome relations without wealth. Or perchance they have some bad news. Your—Thorin’s sister Dis has not come with them to search. I wonder why. Certainly Mum would have lead the charge if you went missing while under her care. It’s also possible that you are in danger, and they do not want to tell you. That bit about orcs and dwarves was very carefully phrased. It’s likely they are still at war, or at least not at peace.”
“I would not mind that,” Kili said abruptly. “I think I would like to fight some orcs, now that I have a name to put to the monsters from my nightmares.”
“Well, I do not like to think of you fighting anyone,” Bilbo said firmly. “Anyway, this is all speculation. We need more information.”
“But if you do not believe Mister Oakenshield is telling the truth, how can we get it?”
Smiling suddenly felt quite natural. “I am writing to Gandalf.”
“The firework fellow?”
“Yes. He travels all over, you know, and he is acquainted with all sorts of elves and dwarves. I believe he must have performed in half the villages of Middle Earth. If the Oakenshields are a good family, he will have heard of them.”
Kili did not seem to share his brother’s confidence. “Well, certainly. But, er, Bilbo, he has not come to the Shire since the Old Took’s last birthday party. Do you not think he might, ah, be out of business?”
Bilbo blinked. He’d been so pleased to dredge up an acquaintance who might be able to assist that the thought hadn’t occurred to him. Big Folk did not live as long as hobbits. As far as such things went, Gandalf was probably quite old. “Oh dear.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Kili added quickly, seeing how disappointed Bilbo was. “Even if he has retired, he might write back with some information.”
“Yes, of course,” Bilbo said, but his enthusiasm for the plan was markedly less. Still, it was the only idea he had. Bundling up with his favorite scarf and a nice warm hat against the autumn chill, he slipped out into the night.
Mail in the Shire was carried by the Bounders, who doubled as watchmen and criers, so the Hobbiton office was open even late at night. The outpost was a small one, as all Bounder offices were, with the usual round hawthorn door to match the walking sticks they carried. Marching into the well lit office early in the evening was not at all unusual for a hobbit, though Bilbo was not there to complain about a neighbor’s goat getting into his tomatoes.
While Bilbo was unsurprised to find Tad Underhill speaking to another visitor when he arrived, he was a little nonplussed to see that it was a Big Person. Big Folk and dwarves in the same day seemed too strange to be a coincidence when the Shire sometimes went two months together without seeing hide or hair of either.
“Master Baggins!” Tad put down his tea, stood up from behind his small desk, and came to the door to greet Bilbo. “Strider and I were just talking about you.”
Surprise quickly turned into alarm as Bilbo noticed the sword carried by the dark stranger. It was possible that the dwarves were more thorough in their attempt to trap Kili than anticipated, and had sent armed men to keep the Bounders from acting in their capacity as guards. Before Bilbo could excuse himself and flee, the man spoke.
“More precisely, we were talking about these strange dwarves that have come to the Shire. It seems that they were asking after your brother, but it would be bizarre indeed for dwarves to need a hobbit blacksmith. Nor do they travel as dwarves usually do when passing through the Shire. They have no goods for sale here or in Lune, and Tad tells me that they have let their rooms at the Green Dragon for a full week.”
“It seems to me that you know a great deal about their business, Mister Strider,” Bilbo said evenly.
Strider shrugged. “Simple curiosity. A traveller such as I cannot help but notice the travelling habits of others.”
“Strider is a ranger. Comes through the Shire every so often because he likes the beer at the Golden Perch,” Tad said. “Helped us find young Esmeralda Took when she got lost in the woods last spring.”
Bilbo relaxed. “I heard about that. Or at least I heard it was a Big Person. My brother and I are both rather fond of young Esmeralda. She’s a cousin on my mother’s side, you know, and we are no strangers in Tuckborough. Do come for tea at Bag End any day, if you care to.”
When he smiled, Bilbo saw that Strider was much younger than he’d first supposed. “Thank you for the invitation, Master Baggins. I shall take you up on it one day soon. But you had business with the Bounders.” The man’s face hardened. “Perhaps because you feel threatened by someone. I care a great deal for the peace of the Shire. If you are troubled, please allow me to offer my assistance.”
For a moment, Bilbo pictured Strider and his big sword facing Thorin as he had been that afternoon. The hobbit did not know much about arms or fighting, but he thought Strider would have to be very impressive indeed to see off all four dwarves at once. Anyway, it seemed that the dwarves were not an immediate threat.
“It is not a matter for swords,” Bilbo said slowly. “At least, I hope it will not end up being one. What I need is some good advice. I was hoping to send a letter to an old friend of my mother’s.”
“Of course,” Tad said helpfully. “Leave it with me and I’ll see it goes out on our rounds first thing in the morning.”
“That is just the thing, Tad.” Bilbo frowned. “I do not have a proper address for him, and I am quite certain the Bounders do not pass his home on their rounds. I don't even know that he rightly has a house.”
“What sort of hobbit does not have a hole?” Tad asked, thoroughly confused.
“As it happens, he is not a hobbit. I am writing to Gandalf the Grey.” Thinking for a moment, Bilbo turned to Strider. “I do not suppose you know him? You are both Big Folk, after all.”
Strider laughed. “In fact, I do know him, but only because I have met him in Rivendell on occasion. We are both travellers, and travellers tend to meet on the road, but not all Big People know one another.”
“I do not see why they wouldn’t,” Tad said slowly, “I reckon I know most every hobbit in the Shire.”
It was a reasonable claim. Tad’s career as a bounder spanned nearly fifty years. During that time, he had walked most of the routes, and likely conversed with everyone he met along the way. He was a very friendly fellow, and if he did not know every single hobbit in the Shire, he certainly knew at least one member of their family.
When Strider smiled, he looked very fond of Tad. “But do you know the hobbits in Bree?”
Bilbo, who knew a great many hobbits in Bree, said nothing. Tad blinked. “Well, no. Can’t say I do. That is a fair point. But you do know this Gandalf fellow?”
“I do,” Strider said. “He will certainly give plenty of very good advice, when asked for it. What is more, if Master Baggins will entrust his letter to me, I believe I can get word to him. Though it may take a little time.”
“Oh! That is better than I could have hoped,” Bilbo said, offering Strider both the letter and a purse for his expenses. Strider politely attempted to decline the silver, but eventually he was pressed to accept it and a more serious invitation to dine at Bag End whenever he was next in Hobbiton. “For you will likely save my brother’s life, delivering that letter.”
Once again, Strider’s smile fell away. “If these dwarves mean you harm, I am at your service. Do not fear for my safety. I can send word to my kinsmen. I need not face them alone.”
“Oh, no. I do not mean literally,” Bilbo said, hoping, rather than knowing this to be true. “Only the direction of his life, and that sort of thing.”
“Very well.” Strider nodded seriously. “Thank you for your trust, Master Baggins.”
Bilbo did trust him, and he trusted Gandalf to come. The old wizard was too kind not to. Hopefully the hobbit had stated his case well enough. After the usual pleasantries, asking about the wizard’s health, fondly reminiscing about their mutual acquaintances, and that sort of thing, Bilbo had written most seriously.
“You may not remember meeting me, for my mother introduced me to you by my brother’s name. It was a part of a grand deception that has gone on for all of my brother’s life. We have kept him hidden. We have kept him safe. Now, that secrecy is no longer an option. He has been found. Dwarves have come to the Shire seeking him specifically, and I do not know what to do. They are very strong. I believe they hope to take him away with them. Of course, he is an adult and whether he consents to accompany them will be his decision, but I should like it to be an informed one. Unfortunately, there is very little in our father’s library about dwarven customs. All I really know is some few lines about their history from an elven perspective and the fact that they are perceived to be a quite secretive people. I hope that in your travels you have learned more.
“The leader of their company is called Thorin Oakenshield. The other dwarves gave their names as Balin and Dwalin, the sons of Fundin, and Fili, son of Dis. If you cannot come yourself to advise me, please write with anything you know. Are the Oakenshields a good family? Can you think of a reason why they would hunt my brother for so many years? My books do say that dwarves are very fond of gold. Do you think I could bribe them to leave us alone? There is nothing I would not do to keep my brother safe, and money is certainly not a concern.
“On that note, I shall, of course, be very happy to compensate you for your time and any travelling expenses. Perhaps you do not remember me, but I shall be forever grateful to you for comforting me when I was a lonely child and missed my brother. If you will allow me to impose upon your good nature a second time, you will have a friend for life. Please come.
“Your Obedient Servant,
“Bilbo Baggins of Bag End”
Thinking about this letter and wondering how much time it would take to receive a reply, Bilbo almost did not notice the dwarf sitting in his hedge. It was Fili, the youngest. He was watching Kili play his violin through one of the round windows along the eastern side of Bag End. While Bilbo was quite willing to admit that the golden light and the solemn expression on Kili’s face made for a welcoming picture on a cold evening, he did not at all approve of people hiding in his bushes.
Still, there was something about Fili’s face. He was looking at Kili as though Bilbo’s brother was a magic ring, the solution to all of his problems. More than that, he looked young, cold, and hopeful. Bilbo sighed.
Fili jumped in surprise and turned to face Bilbo with a knife in his hand. When he saw who was behind him, the dwarf quickly sheathed it and apologized. “You surprised me, Master Baggins. I thought you were still inside.”
“Hobbits don’t wear great clunking weights on our legs, and so we are light on our feet. However, that would not excuse you pulling knives on any of my neighbors. I will not help you if the Bounders are called.”
“No,” Fili said quickly. “Once again, I am very sorry for doing so to you. Allowing myself to be so distracted was inexcusable.”
Bilbo shifted on his toes uncomfortably. “Well, go on then,” he said, once again extending his scarf to Fili.
Hesitantly, the dwarf took the cloth. “Thank you, Master Baggins.”
Shrugging, Bilbo retreated to that comfortable refuge of all awkward conversations: the weather. “Ah, it is an unseasonably cold night for so early in November, is it not?”
“Indeed.” Fili followed suit admirably. “I would not be at all surprised if winter snow comes early this year.”
“Tell your uncle to outfit you more warmly the next time he orders you to sit in my bushes all night through.”
Laughing, Fili said, “I promise I shall not be here all night.”
“Oh? Are you taking turns?”
Uncomfortable with this line of conversation, the dwarf frowned. “It is for Kili’s safety as much as anything. We have only just found him. If something was to happen, my uncle would never forgive himself.”
“Of course,” Bilbo said peaceably, not believing a word of that explanation. “And if we should happen to do a runner, you would quite naturally follow us for our safety, as well.”
Poor Fili was at an utter loss to answer this, but Bilbo took pity and did not leave him stammering for long.
“I would bring you a cup of tea, but if you had any sense, you would not drink it. For if I had any sense, I would use the opportunity to drug you to sleep. Unfortunately, neither of us have any sense, and so I shall see you tomorrow for elevenses.”
With that, the little hobbit went inside and to bed. Though he did not sleep a wink the entire night, he was soothed somewhat by the eventual sound of Kili’s snores echoing down the hallway.