“What is all this lying about?” Dwalin barked. “On your feet, my lads. We’ve ponies to find and supplies to recover, if we may.”
Around the camp, the spent dwarves groaned and levered themselves to their feet. Bilbo felt much the same, despite having been carried instead of running. Terror created its own sort of exhaustion, and a whole night fearing for your life is never restful. Still, he rose alongside his brother. Finding the supplies was necessary, and he hoped the ponies were unhurt.
“Not you, old friend.” Gandalf’s craggy hand was gentle on Bilbo’s shoulder.
“I can manage,” Bilbo said, stifling a yawn. “We must find the ponies.”
“Someone must,” Gandalf agreed, “but not you. These trolls will have a cave nearby to hide from the sun, and I know of no person more suitable to help me look than you.”
“I am no expert on trolls or caves,” Bilbo objected.
“Perhaps not, but you are an observant fellow. Moreover, I have never found a fortress or hold secure enough to be impregnable against a curious hobbit.”
Bilbo laughed. “Still the entertainer! No hobbit would enter a locked place like some kind of sneak-thief. Well, not an adult. Obviously one must make allowances for children. But I am not about to go stealing mushrooms as a fifty-year-old. How silly you are, Gandalf!”
“Quite.” Gandalf’s lips twitched in a smile. “Nevertheless, I should like your help looking. Have you any thoughts about where the cave might be?”
Rolling his eyes, Bilbo wandered over to the stone hill. “I suppose it must be in the mountainous bit of the camp, mustn’t it?”
Thorin snorted, hiding a laugh. Bilbo realized that all the dwarves save Thorin were off already, recovering the supplies. And Kili was gone as well. Kili must be counted separately from the dwarves, of course. Or perhaps Bilbo should get used to lumping them all together. He looked at Thorin out of the corner of his eye.
“Send me not from your side,” the dwarf said quietly. “I will behave.”
Flushing wildly, Bilbo’s eyes darted to Gandalf. Fortunately, the wizard seemed not to have heard. He was rapping the stone with the nob of his staff, listening for echoes. Naturally, he heard many. The cave was clearly a large one. Troll caves must be, for their residents are extremely large themselves. Yet there was no obvious entrance. Bilbo saw the shriveled husks of several night-bile scorpions along the stone. Apparently, simply being a creature born of darkness was not enough to grant one entry into the cave.
Knowing what they were looking for was half the battle. Casting his eyes about the campsite, Bilbo soon came up with a large gold key. It would have been quite small to the trolls, something to pinch between two fingers, but in Bilbo’s hand it was as big as a doorknob. He found the place in the wall where it screwed in, and opened the door very easily. Ignoring the impressed look on Thorin’s face was the most difficult part of the whole endeavor.
“There,” Gandalf said, as pleased with himself as if he’d been the one to find the key. “What did I tell you? Nothing beats a curious hobbit.”
Ignoring him was simplicity itself.
A troll cave was not a pleasant place. Certainly it had nothing at all in common with a cozy little hobbit hole. No furniture lined the bare stone walls. Instead, piles of bones and bloody rags were tossed about callously. Bilbo did not look too closely at the bones, but he could tell that they did not come entirely from animals. In fact, the skull of a Big Person was prominently displayed upon a pike, still wearing a steel helmet, though no flesh remained upon the bone.
Shuddering, Bilbo stepped closer to Thorin. Instantly, the dwarf wrapped a comforting arm about the hobbit’s shoulders.
“Courage, my love,” Thorin murmured. “For here we find the spoils of victory.” Gesturing with one hand, he indicated a dusty weapons rack and an enormous wooden chest.
Bravely, Bilbo left the warm circle of Thorin’s embrace and went to open the chest. Struggling a little with the heavy lid, he pried it open, staring down in amazement. Golden coins, jeweled chalices, and silver chains filled the chest almost to the brim. Grinning, Bilbo looked up at Thorin, whose eyes were wide and impressed.
Gandalf snorted. “Nothing of value in there,” he said matter of factly.
Thorin scowled at him. “It may be mostly coin, but there is value in the weight of the gold if nothing else, Tharkûn. Coin will make a fine reward for the Company after a night spent in fear and fighting.”
“Weight being the operative term,” Gandalf said. “You cannot carry that lot over the Misty Mountains. I’ve no objection to everyone replenishing their purses, but otherwise such treasure is of little use to us. Come, see what I have found.”
What Gandalf found was apparently swords. Normally, swords would be of even less interest to Bilbo than treasure, but these were rather beautiful. A hobbit was no judge of such things, but a blacksmith’s brother developed something of an eye for elegance.
“Forged in Gondolin by the high elves,” the wizard said, handing one to Thorin. “These swords glow blue in the presence of orcs, and will warn a traveler of certain dangers. You could not ask for a finer blade.”
Thorin accepted the sword gracefully. Drawing it from its sheath, he tested the edge. Despite sitting idle for who knew how long, it remained sharp. “Useful indeed, Gandalf. I take back my words. You noticed then, that my Deathless was notched in battle?”
“Perhaps.” Gandalf smiled enigmatically. “In any case, I shall claim one blade for my own use. It is only right that you have the other, as the leader of our Company.”
Laughing, Thorin slid the blade back into its sheath. “I suppose I cannot call you a miser if you share in such a way.”
“And indeed, I am not finished,” Gandalf said. “This one is for you, Bilbo Baggins.”
Unable to hide his surprise, Bilbo accepted the third sword from Gandalf. Much smaller than Gandalf’s or Thorin’s, it still looked rather like them. There was a gentle curvature to the blade that reminded Bilbo of a leaf.
“Thank you, yes.” The hobbit laughed uncomfortably. “I ought to have got something better than a walking stick for myself before now. I was nothing but dead weight on Thorin’s back last night.”
“Never that,” Thorin said. “The ease of my mind when you are close frees my hands to fight. I could bear you all the way to Erebor. If Myrtle is not found, I will. Just as it pleases you.”
Bilbo laughed uncomfortably once more and looked at Gandalf. The old wizard was smiling gently. He must not have understood the sentiment behind Thorin’s words.
Thorin cleared his throat. “It is well that you now have a sting, to match any scorpion who tries for you again.”
Grinning in delight, Bilbo looked down at the little sword with new eyes. “Sting,” he said. “Yes, that is very good. My Sting.”
Thorin smiled. “Then you are pleased?”
“Enough of that! You can please me best at the moment by setting your dwarven eye to this treasure. We shall give the finest piece to Kili as a present, to cheer him up after his wound.”
“Shall we?” Thorin cocked an eyebrow.
“If you help me choose, I do not see why it cannot be a present from both of us. If we are all done with swords and such.”
“We are done with swords,” Gandalf said. “Distract yourselves as you see fit. I will be filling my pipe in the fresh air, if you care to join me when you finish.”
That sounded like a fine idea, but before Bilbo followed suit he was serious about choosing a present. Kili liked baubles, and he deserved some cheering up after being injured. Helpful up to a point, Thorin suggested a thick gold chain for Kili. Once that was done, however, he insisted on choosing a reward for each of the eleven other members of their party. Otherwise, it would be favoritism.
“Of course Kili must be our favorite,” Bilbo argued. “He is my brother and the object of your quest.”
“Our favorite.” Thorin smiled. Bilbo was suddenly aware that they were quite alone in the troll cave.
“Speak for me.” As the dwarf stepped close, Bilbo realized once again just how tall Thorin was. It was entirely unfair that someone so handsome should also be so tall and so very brave. “Share with me. I have no objection. Let all that is yours or mine be ours.”
When the calloused fingers lifted his chin, Bilbo did not pull away. A clean break would be best. Sneaking off together during the journey could only add danger to an already perilous quest. Yet Thorin did whisper the sweetest nothings. And his kisses were stronger than wine.
Eventually, Bilbo pushed Thorin back with extreme reluctance. “We cannot have one off in a troll cave with all of these grisly things about. It is too awful. And that skull is watching me.”
Thorin’s grin was fiercely triumphant. Clearly, he did not feel rejected by Bilbo’s words. “Not here,” he agreed. “But we will be together again. You desire me still, my love.”
Hooking into the very core of Bilbo, Thorin’s eyes pulled him ever closer. In truth, had the dwarf pressed, Bilbo would have allowed him anything at all. But Thorin never did press. He only accepted what was offered. After all, he was a prince. He could have anything he liked. Enjoying the distractions Bilbo provided was not the same as wanting him.
Shaking his foolishness away, Bilbo followed Thorin out into the sunlight where they enjoyed a quiet smoke with Gandalf. Then he got to work. By the time everyone returned with ponies and packs, Bilbo had a very passable mutton and barley stew on. It was not really proper for breakfast, but it was all he could make with the few trustworthy provisions in the troll camp. Fortunately, everyone was too hungry to care.
Even more than breakfast, the dwarves all appreciated the tokens selected from the treasure. Thorin presented these with no little ceremony, complimenting each member of the Company on some specific act of bravery during the fighting. So it was that Kili received his gold chain for not allowing the poison of the scorpion to fell him, and Oin received a jeweled chalice for having a poultice ready to save Kili’s hand. Fili got a beautiful golden brooch for thinking to collect Kili’s arrows. Balin’s prize was for protecting Fili from the trolls, and Dwalin’s was for killing the most scorpions over all. The giving of tokens took a rather long time, but it bucked the dwarves up tremendously. Besides, Bilbo liked listening to Thorin speak.
Surprisingly, when Thorin finished handing out the things they selected together, he turned to Bilbo.
“Bilbo Baggins,” he declared, “more than any other here, you saved us in the battle. By quick thinking and your clever tongue, you delayed the attack of the trolls. Without your action, we would have been caught between two evils and surely would have perished. This was crafted for a Man, and will not fit the wrist of a hobbit, but I think perhaps you might make use of it in another way.”
Then he dropped to his knees. Naturally, Bilbo was very familiar with the site of Thorin on his knees. His reaction was instantaneous and absolutely mortifying. All of the dwarves were looking at him. His brother was right there, grinning at him proudly. On his knees, Thorin caressed Bilbo’s bare ankle as though they were entirely alone. Flushed and fevered, Bilbo thought he might faint. If he did, he would not have to look at Gandalf to see what the wizard suspected. Nor was looking at Thorin safe. The bastard smirked at Bilbo before rising, but he also kept his body angled in such a way that no one would notice the obvious.
“Let us rest a while here. It is not wise to stay long in a place of such violence, but a little food and sleep will keep us on our feet. We travel at midday.”
Bilbo looked down at his ankle. A shiny silver bracelet now adorned it. Such fripperies did not look right on a hobbit, but it seemed to please dwarves to give them out. Obviously, Thorin chose this one to tease Bilbo specifically. Deciding not to give him the satisfaction of complaining, Bilbo claimed his pack from Kili and threw himself onto his bedroll. He was too exhausted for worries.