One of the Big Folk ambled up the twisting path to Bag End, leaning on his walking stick to steer around the melting ice and muddy snow. His clothes were gray enough to blend in with the dreary sky, but there was no question that he was a big person destined for Bag End. Kili was so distracted by the sight that Fili knocked him to the ground far too easily.
That could not go unanswered. Kicking out, Kili wrestled Fili down, locking the dwarf’s head between his knees, and planting that arrogantly braided mustache in the mud. Fili struggled, but could not escape.
“Enough,” Dwalin said. “You’ll drown him like that.”
Kili released Fili at once. It was such a relief to be able to wrestle and play rough without the risk of injuring someone that he sometimes forgot dwarves could be hurt at all. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly, bouncing to his own feet and pulling Fili up. “Are you alright?”
Spitting out mud, Fili looked thoroughly disgusted, both with the dirt and himself. “As if you could injure me with only three months of proper training. Let’s go again.”
“Another time,” Kili said. “There is a big person in Bag End. Do you know him?”
Dwalin and Fili exchanged a look.
“There is no Man in Thorin’s Company,” Fili said. “I can think of no reason for one to visit us here. Perhaps he is visiting your brother?”
“Bilbo? Visit with Big Folk? I see more of them than he does in my smithy, and even there I do not see many. I cannot envision one making a house call on a winter morning.”
“Then we should go see what he wants,” Fili said. And so they did.
When Kili, Fili, and Dwalin tumbled into Bag End covered in mud with apple-red cheeks from the cold, the big person, Balin, Thorin, and Bilbo were just sitting down to a cup of tea. Instantly, Bilbo fetched the requisite additional cups and saucers. He was so out of sorts that he did not even insist his brother wash, let alone their guests. If Kili were a better Baggins, he would do so without prompting. Sadly, he was too curious about the big person to bother with good manners.
Ensconced in the only armchair that would fit him, the big person looked like a clever old goat who’d found his way into a rabbit hutch. His gray beard was longer than Balin’s, and his gnarled walking stick rested in the corner behind him. Being somewhat familiar with Big Folk, Kili wasn’t surprised by the way the fellow’s head nearly grazed the ceiling even while he was sitting.
He was surprised when the man nodded at Fili and Dwalin as though they were already acquainted, naming them in turn. Then smiled at Kili. “So, you must be Kili Baggins, the Lost Prince of Erebor. It is a pleasure to meet you after all this time. I am Gandalf, an old friend of your mother’s. I thought an old friend of yours as well! I have since learned that your brother Bilbo is my friend and former assistant. And I must say that if dear Belladonna had confided in me, much heartache might have been saved over the years.”
Kili dropped his teacup, but Fili caught it deftly so it did not break. In the act of pouring tea, Bilbo continued to do so, staring at Gandalf as the cup overflowed and tea spilled all over the table.
Frowning, Gandalf leaned forward to right the teapot. At once, Bilbo came to his senses and began cleaning up. Kili ran to fetch a tea towel and the mess was soon righted. The mess in his heart, however, only grew.
“I am surprised at your reaction.” Gandalf looked hard at the dwarves. “Naturally, your letter was full of confusion, Bilbo, but you wrote me as soon as the dwarves arrived. I hope that after three months, you know exactly what sort of family Thorin Oakenshield comes from.”
Abandoning the tea, Bilbo sat down hard. Less overwrought but more confused, Kili returned to his place beside Fili on the settee.
“Well, he told us the Oakenshield bit was because he saved a king in a battle,” the younger Baggins said. Thorin was very still and stiff in his chair.
“And so he did.” Gandalf’s face was hard, and his focus was entirely on Thorin as he answered Kili. “His father, Thrain II, who is the current king of Erebor. You are grandson to that king, Kili, and a prince in your own right.”
Fili seized Kili’s hands in a rough, dwarven gesture. “Come with us to the mountain! Thorin said we must not tell you for you only be more suspicious, but I see that you trust the wizard’s word. In Erebor you shall want for nothing. Gold will flow through your fingers. If you continue to forge, you shall work in only the finest metals. Be a farrier no more! Let your dreams be the only limit to your craft!”
Pulling away from this enthusiasm, Kili looked to Bilbo. The hobbit was still staring at the teapot. “You have been lying to us,” he said slowly. “Hiding things. Just as Bilbo always said.”
Gandalf frowned, still looking only at Thorin. “Dwarves naturally tend toward secrecy, but to hide your own heritage once they found you seems extreme.”
Kili’s focus remained on Bilbo, who could not meet his brother’s eyes. Abruptly, the younger Baggins leapt to his feet. “I would not follow Thorin Oakenshield to Erebor if the streets really were paved with candy! In fact, I think it would be best if you all left at once.”
“We’re going.” Bilbo’s voice was flat, but it brooked no dispute.
Kili blinked at him. “Thorin is a liar, Bilbo. You were right. He’s been lying to you all this time.”
Bilbo seemed to look past Thorin without seeing him. “He is Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror, Prince of Erebor, Protector of the Western Slopes, High Marshall of Durin’s Army, Guardian of Ravenhill, and Heir Apparent to the Arkenstone.” Turning to Gandalf, the hobbit asked, “Is that correct?”
Gandalf nodded, looking slightly relieved. “I believe those are the current titles.”
“He told you?” Kili frowned. “Why would he tell only you the truth?”
“Because the mother of your birth is sick,” Bilbo said, turning to his brother gently. “There is no cure.”
“Oh.” Kili sat down again. He did not know what to feel. Glad that Bilbo did not say his mother? His mother was dead. But he had another. And that mother was sick. Soon to be lost, just as Belladonna was.
“You can cure her.” If Fili’s voice was intense, his eyes were aflame. “It is prophesied that if the Lost Prince returns to Erebor, he shall bring his mother’s cure. Come with us. Thorin says you owe no duty to your family, as we lost you to fear and ferity long ago. Then do not do it for duty. Do not do it for family, if you will not have a second brother. Save her for friendship, if we have earned any from you. Save her because you are kind hearted and she suffers. Save her for no reason but that you alone can do so.”
In his confusion, Kili retreated to anger. “How could you keep this from me?” he demanded of Thorin. “You lie and manipulate. How can we trust what you say now?”
“Leave him alone,” Bilbo said. “What Fili does not say is that Thorin’s father, the king, will die as the other half of this prophecy.”
Suddenly, Kili was aware that Bilbo was the smallest person in the room. Bilbo never seemed small. Kili knew he was taller than his big brother. He stronger and older as well, technically. But he never felt that way. The force of Bilbo’s personality made him a giant. Yet Bilbo looked so small. Hurt in some unknown way. Kili rather suspected he knew who was to blame.
“Yes,” Gandalf confirmed. “It is said that when the princess is cured, the king will fall. Yet I have heard tell that is the king’s greatest wish.”
“Even so,” Thorin said. He sounded like a fool. What a non committal thing to say!
“Even so.” Bilbo was staring at the teapot again, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “If Thorin’s quest succeeds and he brings you to the mountain, his father will die and he will be king. Some might call that treason, or seizing power by another means.”
“They would not be the dwarves of Erebor,” Balin said. “Thrain commanded this quest publicly, and all know his greatest wish is to see his daughter cured of her pain. The king is old. Secure in his line with Thorin and Fili. He does not fear death.”
“Erebor is the watchtower of the north,” Gandalf said. “It stands between Mount Gundabad—the last outpost of the wicked kingdom of Angmar where orcs breed in great numbers—and the peaceful lands to the south and west. While its ruling line languishes in uncertainty, the foundation is not firm. Thorin’s quest is a noble one, that could have consequences for all of Middle Earth.”
Kili’s stomach churned. Like a proper Baggins, he took a sip of his tea.
“Who could make such a choice?” Bilbo asked, still looking at the teapot. “It is his father you speak of. Who could give their all in pursuit of such a goal? If there was a convenient excuse, if the lost prince was happy with his home and family, then perhaps it would be best to leave him where he was.”
“The wise do not ignore the advice of Elrond Half Elven,” Gandalf said firmly. “To act against a prophecy only ever leads to heartache. In any case, such visions are of what might be only. The future is ever mutable.”
“I am no healer.” Kili’s own voice was soft after Gandalf’s weighty proclamation. “I am not a doctor or an herbalist to ease a sick person’s pain.”
“Your presence will save her,” Fili said. Of everyone, he was the most animated. Fierce in his belief that Kili was the answer to some riddle. But Kili was not a prophecy or a prince. He was only a Baggins of Bag End, and a blacksmith. “She has mourned you for nigh fifty years. If you are returned to her, that mourning will be at an end. She will be saved.”
“It is a sickness of the mind,” Bilbo explained dully. “Like Gaffer Holman, Daisy Cotton, or Old Widow Boffin, but not caused by age or birth. This was brought on by grief, and the dwarves believe an end to grief will cure it. You must go.”
The bottom dropped out of the world and Kili felt he might sick up all of his tea. “Without you?”
At once, Bilbo’s eyes were sharp and steady. Straightening in his chair, he looked squarely at Kili.
“Of course not! Don’t be ridiculous. Look at you, all over mud. You’d catch your death of cold in five minutes without me around. I cannot believe you greeted Gandalf in such a fashion. He shall think we’ve raised you to be a savage. My word! We have had quite enough talk for such an hour of the morning. And I in my housecoat! Dear me. Kili, you must go wash up and change at once. I shall put on something respectable, and a little something toothsome in the oven as well. We will all feel much better after a proper luncheon.”
Just like that, Kili did feel better. After all, he did not need to know what to do. Bilbo was the clever one, and he would take care of everything.