Two of the ponies were lost. Bilbo hoped that they simply ran too far to be found, but he did not inquire too deeply into the matter. Bofur’s face was uncharacteristically grave when they spoke of it. Thankfully, Myrtle was well enough, but as the smallest and the lightest, it was clear that Bilbo would need to be the one to share a mount. The supplies which had been carried by a single pack pony were redistributed to all the rest as the party made ready to leave the troll camp.
“Bilbo will ride with me,” Thorin said, putting a hand on the hobbit’s shoulder.
Knowing he should object, Bilbo wondered if he would be too much of a burden for Kili. It was clear after the night before that despite his un-hobbitish interests, Kili was not a seasoned adventurer like the others. Yet suggesting he share with a dwarf other than Kili or Thorin might cause more problems than it solved. Fortunately, Gandalf stepped in.
“Bilbo’s weight may be a blessing to you, Thorin Oakenshield, but it is a burden to a pony. The hobbit will ride with me. A horse is better able to bear two riders.”
So that was that. Thorin frowned, but he did not argue. Everyone was too tired to fight. A morning nap was not the same as a good night’s sleep, and night could not come soon enough for anyone. Even Gandalf seemed tired, speaking little to Bilbo as the horse beneath them plodded along.
Riding a horse was even less comfortable than a pony, for Bilbo’s legs stretched too much around the broader seat, but the forest was pretty enough. Dappled sunlight danced between the new green leaves of spring. Ash, oak, and elm made beautiful guardians of the path. Beneath their eaves, Bilbo should be almost as safe as smials. Even so, he was uneasy. If his own feet could touch the dirt of the path, the hobbit knew he would feel better.
“Tomorrow, we will come to the house of Elrond,” Gandalf murmured as the sun sank low on the horizon. “Not soon enough to rest in safety this night, but tomorrow. Perhaps half a day more of travel, Bilbo. Courage!”
At these words, the hobbit realized he was trembling. In a firm voice he said, “I have never been afraid of the dark in all my life.”
“You did not know the dangers that lurked within it,” Gandalf said, still softly enough that the other riders could not hear him. “This fear is not cowardice; it is wisdom.”
“Will the scorpions come back?”
“No. The night-bile scorpion breeds quickly and in numbers so vast a hobbit can hardly countenance them, but they are easily eradicated. When they swarm, they lose any semblance of the instinctual self-preservation possessed by natural animals. Thus, they are caught out in the light of day, which destroys their kind. Few likely survived the swarm last night, and Elrond’s people will seek out the nest to end the infestation entirely.”
“Good.” Bilbo relaxed. “Then we shall have a lovely evening under the stars tonight. I am sure we could all do with some peace.”
Which was, of course, when the orcs attacked.
The horse crumpled beneath Bilbo, screaming horribly. Bilbo did not know a horse could scream. Falling to the dirt path, Bilbo banged his arm against a rock and rolled to the side. Air slammed out of his lungs. For a long moment, he couldn’t breathe. All around him was clashing steel, shouting voices, cries of pain, and fading light.
Blinking, he saw Thorin’s back. The dwarf stood tall above him, fighting another person with a sword. An orc, Bilbo realized slowly, as it gurgled around the sword in its throat and then fell. He saw it lying on the ground opposite him with empty gray eyes. Mottled, pock-marked skin covered its face, and black blood oozed from various wounds. Inside of its half open mouth, Bilbo saw sharp, twisted teeth. The monster did not look so very frightening, dead on the ground.
Thorin dropped low, catching an arrow with his wooden shield before it could strike Bilbo. While he crouched, a big brown beast with an orc on its back charged him. The slavering mouth was huge, each knife-like tooth as big as the dwarf’s fist. Thorin gave no ground before the monster, stabbing his elven sword up through the roof of its mouth and into its brain. The beast dropped on top of the orc, pinning it to the ground. Without pause, Thorin leapt forward and beheaded the downed orc, snarling a challenge of his own.
Bilbo sat up.
An arrow whizzed past his head.
Thorin spun around like a dervish, throwing a little ax from his belt at an orc with a bow. Bilbo was not certain this was the same orc who shot at him. Even so, the orc was dead. An ax sprouted from the center of its forehead. The blood that covered Thorin’s hands was black, but his face was red with fury.
Suddenly, Kili was there, pulling Bilbo all the way to his feet. “Are you hurt?” Kili did not look at Bilbo as he asked, turning to fire an arrow at some attacking orc.
“Just my arm,” Bilbo said. “I’m fine. How are you?”
“No complaints.” Kili grinned, which was so out of place that Bilbo wondered suddenly if he was dreaming. This was Kili’s dream, after all. His nightmare. He should not be smiling. “I’ve already killed three orcs,” the younger Baggins offered by way of explanation.
Kili shot another arrow, then laughed outright. “Four,” he corrected. “They are smaller than I remember.”
“Well, you are larger,” Bilbo said, looking about. Orcs and monsters were everywhere between the trees. It seemed to the hobbit that the dwarves were rather badly outnumbered.
Someone agreed, for Balin shouted, “Thorin, Thorin, we must retreat!”
Thorin only growled incoherently and tackled one of the big furred creatures, wrestling it to the ground before stabbing it through the heart. Finally connecting his knowledge of history to the evidence of his eyes, Bilbo realized that the furred beasts must be wargs. Their blood was black, like the orcs, for they were wolves twisted in the darkness to unnatural creatures. Darkness gave them strength.
Panicking, Bilbo looked to the last rays of sun sinking between the trees. Soon it would be gone entirely.
“Gandalf!” he cried. “The light is going!”
“Run, you fools!” the wizard commanded. “Out of the trees and into the open! We must make for Rivendell.”
Obediently, Bilbo ran with Kili at his side. They were of a pace, for Kili ran slowly, firing arrows into the trees as he went. All around, dwarves clashed with orcs as they ran. Thorin was not with them.
Looking back, Bilbo saw the dwarf at the site of the ambush, still battling ferociously. He was a terrible sight, covered in blood, full of rage. Neither blade nor arrow could touch him, but surely weight of numbers would bear him down eventually. Surely he realized they must run.
“Call out to him,” Balin said, beating a warg away from the tight group with his big staff.
Bilbo did not understand.
“Please Bilbo,” Balin said. “I know he frightens you right now, but you must call out to him. He will not hear me.”
Although he did not understand why this would be, Bilbo shouted Thorin’s name. Nothing happened. The path turned, and Bilbo could not even see the dwarf through the trees anymore. “Thorin!” he screamed. “Help! Please, Thorin! Please!”
With unbelievable speed, Thorin Oakenshield came charging through the trees like a ram, cutting down any orc in his path as easily as breathing. His eyes locked on Bilbo. In the dim twilight, Bilbo saw recognition there, despite the wild fury that seemed to lend wings to his feet and power to his blows.
As Thorin reached the group, the forest opened up into grassland and the last rays of sunlight left the company in darkness. Bilbo ran. Surrounded by fighting dwarves, snarling orcs, and hungry wargs, a hobbit could do nothing but run. At the head of their group, Gandalf’s staff shone with a bright light as the stars blinked into existence. The light gave Bilbo hope, but it also seemed unwise. There was no way they could lose the pursuing orcs while Gandalf bathed them all in light. There was no hope of hiding in the grassland.
So they ran.
Once again, Bilbo’s abject terror lessened somewhat as the pounding of his feet grew repetitive and the clash of swords began to sound ordinary. Bilbo was not simply a burden on Thorin’s back this time. Running on his own two legs, Bilbo had a sword of his own. He drew it.
One of the warg-riders struck at Kili’s unprotected side, and Bilbo parried the blow away with his little Sting, cutting the orc across his hand.
“Well done!” Kili cheered, turning to loose an arrow into the warg’s eye. The beast dropped back snarling, then charged again. Kili shot the riding orc through its throat and Bilbo stabbed the warg deep in its other eye. Both fell.
“Brothers have to stick together.” Bilbo grinned, flicking blood off of Sting.
“So they do!” Kili cried. “And that is a good thing, for I am almost out of arrows.”
Running and fighting at the same time was impossible, so Bilbo did not try it. Instead, he merely ran and poked his small sword at anyone who threatened his brother. In the dash and clash of the larger folk, a sharp little poke from a quick witted hobbit was quite effective. Many orc fell, but many more came on. Like the scorpions, Bilbo did not understand how there could be so very many orcs in a place only a few days away from the Shire.
“Who did you tell about finding Kili?” Gandalf demanded of the dwarves, but all he got in response was a chorus of denials.
By the light of the rising moon, Bilbo saw Thorin run up the low snout of a charging warg to battle with the orc sitting on its back. Once the orc was dead, the warg ran madly about, trying to buck the heavy dwarf off, but Thorin’s weight kept him balanced. Stabbing down into the warg’s spine, Thorin drove the beast into the ground. He was a hero. A dragonslayer out of myth. Even in darkness and terror, watching him made Bilbo feel safe.
Distracted and exhausted as he was, Bilbo did not see the spear driving toward Kili until too late. He parried the blow with Sting, but the orc was much stronger than a hobbit and had the momentum of a charging warg besides. Bilbo’s deflection only resulted in the spear slicing across his own belly instead of piercing Kili’s back.
Turning, Kili caught him in both arms as he fell. Pain unlike anything Bilbo knew in the Shire burned through his abdomen, and he felt quite dizzy. Kili bounced up and down as he ran, crying out for help.
“Put me down,” Bilbo said, “I will help you. What do you need?”
But Kili did not answer him. Bilbo wondered if he was speaking aloud. His eyes were full of tears and his throat hurt from crying out. Perhaps he was too hoarse to make himself heard.
Oin appeared, running beside Kili. His broad hands pressed hard against Bilbo’s pained stomach. “You must press here,” Oin said. “Keep the blood in.”
Then Kili was the one pressing hard against Bilbo’s stomach with the hand that also wrapped around his lower legs. It was an exceedingly awkward way to be carried, but Bilbo couldn’t really complain. He felt no pain. He felt nothing. Looking down at his waistcoat, he despaired a little. His third best waistcoat was lovely mustard yellow, but now there were ridiculous white bandages wrapped over it, soaking through with red despite the press of Kili’s hand. A bloodstain would quite ruin the fabric. Bilbo wondered where his pack was. It held his other clothes.
“Kili,” he said. “I have to change. I cannot be seen like this.”
His brother did not answer. Kili’s eyes were focused on the horizon as he ran. Bilbo could see the stars above his head, like a crown drifting into focus.
“The crown is a challenge from the Valar to the forces of darkness,” Bilbo remembered.
Kili did not answer him, or tease him for bringing up an ancient myth.
“Can you believe Thorin was the prince who killed a dragon?” Bilbo asked. “I should have liked to see him in a crown. I kissed him, you know. Really and truly.”
The stars swirled overhead as Bilbo’s vision began to blur. “This is nothing to do with you, Kili, so don’t think it for a minute. I’d have gone chasing after Thorin no matter what. And it was worth it. It was worth it. You were right. I was happy, for a while. Happier than I knew I could be. So don’t you worry about what comes next. It was nothing to do with you.”
Kili said nothing. Darkness came.