The dwarves did come to elevenses. It was not a particularly nice meal, though Bilbo served freshly made venison sausages along with a very good cabbage and potato mash. Stilted conversation and awkward silences did not make for a delightful morning, but the dwarves came anyway. More importantly, they left afterward. Apparently, they were quite content to come to Bag End once a day, enjoy a quiet meal, and wait for the brothers to take the next step. Whatever that might be.
After a few days of this, Kili nervously admitted that they came to his forge as well. “But I never speak to them unless you are there,” he assured his brother hurriedly.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“So you just stand in silence staring at one another?”
Kili rolled his eyes. “I do work in my forge, you know. I understand it is difficult for you to conceive of actual manual labor, but I do not go there to daydream.”
Hiding his smile, Bilbo focused on his crocheting. “Oh, yes, you must be very busy making your mathoms.”
“Not mathoms! Today I shod Fern Dooley’s new pony, Mungo’s geldling, and two other thrown shoes besides. That’s ten horseshoes in one day. It isn’t easy, you know. I would like to see you shoe a pony!”
“See me within two yards of one, and I shall give you ten silver pennies.” Bilbo laughed. “The dwarves did not offer to help?”
“It was only Dwalin today. He looked at the pots I had for sale, as though he was thinking of buying one, but he did not speak to me or stay long.”
“Well, there is no reason for you not to say hello if he comes again tomorrow. We might as well remain on friendly terms with them until Gandalf can tell us if there is any possibility of truth in their claim.”
If Bilbo thought this advice was a caution to remain neutral where the dwarves were concerned—avoiding the appearance of rudeness—he had cause to regret it the next day. Kili did not come home for second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, or afternoon tea. Before the arrival of the dwarves, this would not have concerned Bilbo in the slightest. Kili tended to forget meals when he was working. Occasionally he took tea with customers after making a delivery. Just as often, Kili skipped some meals entirely. He said he did not feel hunger, and perhaps a dwarf’s appetite was not as strong as a hobbit’s. Perhaps it was nothing to worry about. Yet worry Bilbo did, for his brother had been faithfully coming home at every single meal since the arrival of the dwarves.
Just as the hobbit resolved to go seek his brother, Kili burst into Bag End. Grinning like a fool, he was trailed by all four dwarves. At once the hobbit felt his temper swell. Kili smiling like that while surrounded by dwarves was a very bad idea, for reasons his brother could not possibly articulate.
“Bilbo! See what I have made you!”
“Oh,” Bilbo said, putting his overcoat back on its peg by the door. “A present?” Indeed, this mollified him greatly. All hobbits dearly love presents.
“Yes! Thorin showed me how. It is a kitchen knife, but there are scallops in the blade.”
“Scallops in the metal? How do you mean?”
Kili laughed. “A sort of indentation: they will keep cheese and meat from sticking to the blade. That slows the knife when you are chopping, you know, so this will be a great improvement. We also tempered the steel in such a way that it is quite sharp. Thorin knows many tricks of that nature. He says he will teach me!”
“Among my people, I am considered a master of the craft,” Thorin said immodestly. “I have much experience as a smith. One does pick up a trick or two over the years.”
Bilbo took the knife. He did not stab Thorin with it. So his manners were good enough.
“What’s for dinner?” Kili asked. “I’m starving.”
“Help yourself,” Bilbo said. “There are scones, soup, and roast left from the meals you missed. I pray you will excuse me. I am unwell.”
Indeed, this was very much the truth. After spending the whole day worrying and convincing himself that he was being unreasonable, the little hobbit felt light-headed and quite nauseous. Going to lie down for a little while seemed like the best possible course of action.
Naturally he was happy that Kili was happy, and even happier that Kili had not been kidnapped off to a mountain somewhere. Happiness simply overflowed from his heart, twisted his guts, and turned to bile in his throat. Or maybe it was some other, less kind emotion.
For suddenly, all of the interests that Bilbo had reluctantly indulged Kili with were shared by his true family. They knew everything of smithing, which Bilbo had never understood in the least. They were great fighters, while Bilbo had never managed to use a weapon more sophisticated than his fists. They were dwarves, like Kili, and Bilbo was a strange, bookish hobbit. All his life, he and Kili had been strange together. Now Bilbo discovered that Kili had been a perfectly normal dwarf. So Bilbo was alone in his abnormality. Perhaps that was how things ought to have been from the start. Kili deserved every happiness. If they truly meant him no harm, Kili ought to go with the dwarves, to a home where he would be able to be himself.
After living with Kili for over four decades, Bilbo should have anticipated the invasion of his privacy only minutes after closing his bedroom door. Unfortunately, he was not quick enough with his handkerchief. Kili saw him wiping his eyes. Beneath the short stubble of his growing beard, the dwarf’s face went white as new paper.
“Kili,” Bilbo said helplessly, “I—”
Without pausing, Kili turned and stormed back toward the dining room.
“Out!” he bellowed. “Get out!”
Scampering after him, Bilbo tried to grab his arm. “Kili. Don’t. I am sorry.”
Ignoring him, Kili faced the dwarves who had clearly only just paused in setting the table. “Get out of my home! You are not welcome here!”
“Kili Baggins,” Bilbo hissed, “You will not speak to guests that way.”
“They are not guests,” Kili said furiously. “We did not invite them to come, and we did not ask them to stay. They are not friends. You gave them permission to call because you couldn’t fight them off when they cornered you in the Gamgee still. You could not outrun them, you could not outfight them, and you could not hide. So you gave them tea. That makes them robbers. Nothing else!”
“Kili! They are your family!” It was only when he said this that Bilbo realized the full scope of the truth. “They are your family,” he repeated quietly.
Kili stared at Bilbo with wide eyes. After a long, silent moment, he said, “Wow.” A smile twitched one corner of his mouth, and he looked almost amused. “I can hardly believe it. You know, after you made that joke about dandelion fluff when I caught you in the shed on our thirtieth birthday, I thought it would never happen. I just assumed you would always have something clever to say. Just goes to show that Father was right: there really is a first time for everything.”
“No, Bilbo. After saying something truly stupid, I think you’ll have to be quiet for a little while.” Kili’s face hardened and he turned back to the dwarves. “Go. Away. Perhaps Bilbo and I cannot beat you alone, but we are not alone. If you make me call the Bounders, you will find out just how many friends we have.”
Astonishingly, the dwarves rose to leave. Or at least Thorin, Balin, and Dwalin did. Fili stood, but his face was red and his eyes flamed.
“He is manipulating you! Trying to keep you for himself! You are a dwarf, and my brother. Not his!”
“I would kill you before I called you brother!” Kili screamed. “Be gone!”
“Fili.” Thorin’s voice was like a stone wall. “Enough. We have seen that Kili is well and happy. We have no right to demand more. I apologize for disturbing the peace of your home. I hope that any injury caused by our intrusion is of short duration. On the morrow, we shall depart the Shire. Although I have no claim on you beyond an accident of birth, I ask that you send us a letter from time to time. Only as the mood strikes you. Any dwarf who passes through the Shire will take one, and be paid upon delivery in Erebor. Finding you alive is a miracle beyond hope. Hearing from you would bring your distant kin great joy.”
“That is not enough!” If Bilbo was unwell at Kili’s perceived rejection, Fili looked to suffer ten times as much at the overt one. The dwarf went pale and began shaking, as though in the grip of a deadly fever. “What about Mother?”
“Our family business is of no concern to Kili,” Thorin said, putting a very firm hand on Fili’s shoulder. “Come. Now.”
Bilbo could not be sure if Fili stumbled out of his own accord. It certainly seemed as though Thorin was dragging him bodily away from Bag End.
All too quickly, Kili slammed the door shouting, “And stay out!”
Turning to Bilbo, Kili clapped his hands together as though knocking away imaginary dust. He smiled. “That will be the end of that,” the young dwarf promised. “We shall not see them again.”
While he believed this very likely true, the idea did not cheer Bilbo the way it clearly cheered his brother. Kili might regret his haste one day. Even if he did not, there were Fili’s final words to consider. The hobbit sighed. Sometimes being the older brother was more trouble than it was worth.
Abruptly, Kili grabbed Bilbo, pulling him close for a tight hug. “I love you, you know.” The dwarf’s voice was muffled slightly by Bilbo’s hair, but the sentiment was pure enough. “You are my family. My only family. Excepting Parsifal and all of our cousins, of course. There’s no need to worry about strangers who will only make us unhappy.”
Patting his back gently, Bilbo agreed with Kili. Then he led him into the kitchen and fixed him a proper supper, feeling guilty for his earlier thoughts. Kili was worth any discomfort.
There was nothing ominous about The Green Dragon. It was the cleanest pub in Bywater and had the best beer for miles about Hobbiton. Indeed, Bilbo favored it heavily on evenings when he felt sociable but had no invitations to answer. The moment he stepped through the door, he was greeted by name with a nice half-pint fresh from the barrel.
“Hullo Tom,” Bilbo said. Sitting down, he accepted the beer.
Savoring his first sip, the hobbit glanced around the common room. A fire was roaring cheerfully in the hearth, but the room was practically empty. In one booth, a pair of tweenagers were playing checkers. They were clearly on a ramble through the Shire of the sort tweens often enjoyed. Otherwise there was only Old Sandyman the miller. Slumped over the bar—deep in his cups—the miller was utterly unaware of his surroundings.
“You’re in late tonight,” Tom observed, as if to explain the lack of revelry in his usually merry establishment.
“Suppose I am,” Bilbo said easily. “My brother wanted an early night, but I felt like a bit of a jaw. You don’t mind, do you? If you’re closing up I’m happy to toddle home.”
“Not for the world, Master Baggins,” Tom said. “I’m that grateful for the company. My missus knocked off herself near three hours ago, but I hate to close up early or turn anyone out.”
The innkeeper cast a significant look at Old Sandyman. The miller wasn’t well liked in the neighborhood. But since his wife passed, he was clearly lonely. Everyone said his son ought to visit more, but he was too consumed with courting some lass off in Frogmorton.
“You’re a good hobbit, Tom,” Bilbo said, taking another. “I hope Zinnia is well? It’s late enough now, but I’d call eight o’clock a very early bedtime.”
“Aye, aye. No worries there, Master Baggins.” Tom went back to cleaning his mugs with a snow-white cloth. “Zinnia’s fit and fair as the day I married her. Only one of us has to be up before dawn tomorrow, and she said it might as well be her. She’s always been able to fall asleep anytime she likes. I’ve no doubts I’d be lying in bed wide awake right now if our places were exchanged.”
“I call that a talent,” Bilbo said, because it was expected. “But why the early morning?”
“Those dwarves we have staying asked for their breakfast at dawn. Strange folk, dwarves. They want to head out at first light, not even waiting for second breakfast.”
“Oh, are they leaving in the morning? That’s a shame. I was hoping to have a word with that Thorin fellow.”
The light of suspicion entered Tom’s eyes. He lifted his chin a bit, looking down his nose at the Master of Bag End. Hanging a little too heavily on Dandelion Took’s shoulders while Bilbo was deep in his cups was one thing, especially since those displays ended entirely with the death of Bilbo’s mother, but visiting strange dwarves late at night was not so easily overlooked.
With a casual air, Bilbo confided, “I wanted to talk to him about getting a little gold shipped here from his mountain as a birthday surprise for Kili. You know how my brother likes to make his mathoms.”
At once Tom’s face cleared. “You spoil that lad, Master Baggins. You really do. Letting him keep a shop and all. Not to say he isn’t the best cooper this side of the Brandywine, mind. And that new vat he made me brews up a right treat. Still, can’t say I see much call for him to be making things out of gold and jools.”
“Oh, do go easy on him Tom. He’s barely of age. He was so young when our parents passed away.”
Tom smiled and put away another clean, well polished mug. “Aye, he’s a good lad. You’ve done right by him. If you’ll forgive my being so bold, I expect your parents would be very proud of you both, shop or no shop.”
Bilbo returned the smile and took another sip of his delicious beer, making a show of enjoyment. “Thank you very much, Tom. Your opinion means a great deal to me.”
“Aw, go on you. Tell you what, Master Baggins. I’ll just nip down to the guest rooms and see if those dwarves are wanting anything. If I happen to mention that there’s a business deal for them to make out here in the common room, I’m sure they won’t object. Very interested in making deals, dwarves are.” Tom gave Bilbo a broad wink.
Laughing indulgently, Bilbo watched the innkeeper leave his bar and head down the winding hall to his guest rooms. Sure enough, a few minutes later Thorin Oakenshield followed him back up through the well lit corridor and into the common room.
The dwarf looked out of place in the Green Dragon. His long hair fell about his shoulders in a wild, untamed way. Even so late at night, Thorin Oakenshield was dressed in the same honeycombed armor he always wore. As though there could be any danger in Bywater to justify it. Bilbo wondered with a start if he had anything else to wear. Naturally, he then felt tremendously guilty for judging.
“Master Baggins,” he said with a wary nod. “You have some business to discuss with me?”
“Indeed I do,” Bilbo said. “May we have another pint on my tab, Tom?”
When the innkeeper obliged with a smile, Bilbo led Thorin over to the fireplace. It was well away from the bar and the two checker players. They could have a private enough conversation. As long as it did not devolve into shouting.
Unfortunately, that might have been too high of a hope. Thorin’s first words were, “I did not break my word. You would not have seen my face again. Why seek me out?”
So they were doing without pleasantries, then. That was just as well. “What is wrong with Fili’s mother?”
Thorin leaned back in his chair. “Ah. I did not think you would care about that.”
“Of course I care. If Kili’s—if you have come here for our help, that is quite different than simply wanting to take Kili away.”
When Thorin tilted his head to the side, his long hair spilled over his shoulder. It made him look soft in a way that belied his armor and his strong features. “Is it? You would welcome beggars over princes?”
“I welcome the truth,” Bilbo said firmly. “More importantly, Kili’s temper runs hot, but he won’t be angry forever. In a few years, he probably will send you one of those letters you asked for. If that happens, I would hate for him to learn about a tragedy we could have prevented.”
“What is wrong with her?” Bilbo blushed faintly to be so bold, but he added, “If you need money or medicine, I am sure I would be happy to—”
Thorin’s laugh was loud and sudden. It changed his whole face. If Bilbo thought he was handsome before, that was nothing compared to the warmth of his smile and the bright twinkle in his blue eyes. “You really would welcome beggars, wouldn’t you?”
Quite red now, Bilbo said, “I wish to protect my brother. If I can save him from some later harm by offering you material assistance now, I will do so.”
“Unfortunately, it is nothing quite so simple.” Turning, Thorin looked into the fire. Flickering shadows gave his face a melancholy cast, and it was a long moment before he spoke again.
“My sister is mad. There is no gentle way to put it. She is mad. Our line carries a weakness. A love of gold that devolves to a love of nothing else when one falls to it. In times of stress, or after a great loss, one walks among the gold and loses their cares. Dis does not eat unless she is forced. She does not sleep, except when alone with her treasure. She does not look at her remaining son.”
“I see.” In truth, it sounded like the worst fate Bilbo could imagine. No rest, respite, or joy at all in life. Part of him wondered if death would not be preferable to such an illness.
“You need not fear for Kili,” Thorin said softly. His face was unreadable. “There is not enough gold in your entire land to tempt such madness. His love of delicate teacups and the tools of his craft is only the usual dwarven tendency to seek perfection.”
“I was not thinking of Kili at all,” Bilbo admitted honestly. “I was wondering about your sister. Can nothing be done to ease her torment?”
Thorin’s eyes returned to the fire. “No,” he said. Then, “Perhaps.”
“What do you mean?”
“None have ever cast off the madness. At best, those like King Thror can manage to mitigate it in some way that allows them an honorable death instead of wasting away among the glittering gold.”
“But you believe there is something that can be done for your sister?” Bilbo paused. He didn’t want to say it. He had to. “You believe that Kili can save her.”
Thorin sighed. “My father believes it. For decades we have consulted with the best and wisest healers. Even elves, long the enemies of our folk, have come into the Mountain to judge her condition. None have given any hope. Some even suggested we end her suffering.”
“No.” Bilbo could not help the outburst, though it was hardly his place to pass judgment on people so wholly unconnected to him.
Thorin met his eyes and offered a tight smile. “Indeed. Those healers were shown from the Lonely Mountain at swordpoint. Unfortunately, the others were scarcely more helpful. A few offered ways to make her sleep. Ways to keep her clean. Ways to induce her to eat. Nothing that could be called hope. Only one had a different suggestion.”
After another long moment of silence, Bilbo said, “Oh?” in his most encouraging manner.
“Elrond Half-Elven does not often leave Rivendell. He did not come to the Mountain. He saw my sister once when he aided her and Fili, but never in the depths of her madness. Never among the gold. Even so, two years ago he sent word to us. Some vision or augury advised him that she could be cured. After decades of madness, it was hope unlooked for. My father—my father believes. Having lost so much himself, he desperately desires her salvation.”
“And that is Kili?” Bilbo pressed.
“It is a riddle, as is ever the case with elves. ‘The storm comes, but salvation runs ahead of it. When the youngest son of Dis comes from the Kindly West, she will see him with clear eyes and a steady heart. Doom shall crack first upon the dwarves of Erebor, and the King Under the Mountain will be childless.’”
“I see,” Bilbo said, even though he didn’t. “I presume the king that you have now does, in fact, have children.”
Thorin’s mouth pressed into a flat line. “Yes.”
“I meant no offense. Oh dear, is it terrible of me to suggest that the fellow might not have heirs?”
“No,” Thorin said. “I take no insult. The king has children, but his direct heir has none. Some worry—I worry—that in bringing Kili to Dis and effecting her cure, we will doom our king to death.”
Bilbo took out his pipe, filled the bowl, and lit it carefully, offering his pouch of weed to Thorin. After a moment’s hesitation, the dwarf accepted it. “A conundrum indeed,” Bilbo admitted. “To save one life at the expense of another. And what does it mean about the salvation of the kingdom from a storm? But this can hardly be a philosophical question for you. She is your sister. Does your king know the prophecy? Did he try to stop you from coming here?”
Lighting his own pipe, Thorin took a long drag before shaking his head. “He is not so very old. Barely two hundred and seventy. But he thinks of himself as aged, having outlived one of his sons and his wife, among many other losses. He says that if it is his fate to die, he will meet it on his feet.”
Bilbo hesitated. It was strange to hear Thorin repeating the words of a king as though kings were people one might converse with over tea. Yet in light of a prophecy tying his family to the royal line, it was not completely unbelievable. Moreover, the way Thorin puffed on his pipe as though deeply unhappy about the connection lent much credibility to the story.
“He sounds like a good king,” Bilbo said neutrally.
Frowning around his pipe, Thorin said, “A great one. His son will not be his equal.”
Returning the frown, Bilbo said, “Perhaps the lad will surprise you.”
From the widening of his eyes, Thorin was surprised indeed. Then he laughed. “A fine lad he is,” the dwarf said, “at nearly three times your years, if not necessarily your age, Master Baggins.”
Laughing along with Thorin felt natural, and for the first time, Bilbo was not nervous in his presence. “Ah, well.” The hobbit sighed. “We are all lads when the time comes to lose our parents. I hope you will not judge him too harshly. Why, when my father died—oh, but you don’t need to hear about that.”
“I wish to know you.” Reaching out subtly, Thorin brushed a calloused finger over the back of Bilbo’s hand. A shiver followed in its wake. “Anything you would tell me, I wish to hear.”
Wondering if perhaps he and Thorin had more in common than simply Kili, Bilbo coughed. Changing the subject to a neutral one, he said, “I have looked up your mountain on my maps, you know. Unless they are quite incorrect, Erebor is all the way on the other side of the Misty Mountains. Surely you do not intend to cross them with such a harsh winter looming?”
“No,” Thorin said. “We go to the Blue Mountains to winter with our kinfolk.” The dwarf hesitated. “If Kili changes his mind, and wishes to see the homeland of his people or meet Dis, he has time to consider. We will not head east until the first spring thaw.”
“Stay,” Bilbo said, surprising himself. “Stay here.”
Thorin glanced around the common room. “I do not know that dwarves would be welcome for such a long stay. These inns seem designed for guests of shorter duration.”
“Yes,” Bilbo agreed quickly, not mentioning the expense of such a proposition. “In truth, you have probably already stayed here longer than any other lodger yet this year. Mostly, one stops at an inn overnight on the way to visit family or friends elsewhere. When a hobbit arrives at his destination, naturally he stays with those he came to visit. So I invite you to do the same. Bag End can certainly accommodate the four of you. No one will even have to share a bedroom.”
Thorin’s lips twitched slightly. “Pity,” he said softly, looking Bilbo up and down.
Which answered that question very nicely.
Bilbo coughed again. They were, after all, still in a public place. “It will give us time. Time to get to know each other. I will not promise to let Kili go with you. In truth, even the acquaintance of several years would likely not be enough for me to trust his welfare to another on such a venture. However, if you are not setting out for Erebor until spring, it would be best for us all to think through our choices carefully.”
Nodding gravely, Thorin agreed. “Some decisions cannot be rushed.”