Sharing a saddle with Gandalf was not very comfortable, as Bilbo had noted on their previous journey to Rivendell after the tragic affair with the scorpions. It was even worse this time around. The horse galloped at a tremendous pace. No dwarves gathered about them on ponies to laugh, dawdle, and sing. Indeed, they fair flew up the road—with the forest on one side and the river on the other—the horse bumping beneath them the entire time.
At least the horse could not keep up such a pace for a very long time. In fact, they stopped regularly to drink from the river and enjoy little meals from the wizard’s saddle bags. Or rather, Bilbo enjoyed little meals and stretched his aching legs. Gandalf groomed the horse and stared about as though they would be attacked by goblins at any moment.
When night fell and they had to stop, Gandalf relented enough to build a fire. It was the first Bilbo had seen since Mirkwood. Just watching the dancing flames cheered him greatly.
“Kili and Thorin were both well when you parted?” he asked for what felt like the twentieth time.
Gandalf did not like to talk while they were riding, but now that they were camped, he was friendlier. “Yes. Perfectly well. I saw them safely into the hands of other guides. Elves of the woodland realm, who took them on a much safer path through that forest than the one you trod. By now, they will be at home in the Lonely Mountain.”
“Oh.” Bilbo watched the sparks from the fire float up toward the stars. “Perfectly well?”
“Of course they mourned you, you ridiculous hobbit.” Getting out his pipe, Gandalf began to smoke. “And I am sure they will mourn you far more now that they are not running for their lives.”
Bilbo looked on in envy. He wondered just how many handsome fellows Thorin knew in the Lonely Mountain. He wondered how Fili and Kili were getting on. “Is what we are doing? Running for our lives?”
“It is.” Gandalf blew out his smoke, shaping it into a swooping dragon. “You were seen by a great evil—the name of which I will not speak here in this unprotected place—Bilbo. He wants what you found beneath the Misty Mountains. Truly, he will not hesitate to send an army to claim it from you.”
“I suppose I cannot just give it back to him?”
“To do so would be to give him the keys to the entire world. You would plunge the rest of us into darkness and slavery.”
Bilbo tugged the warm brown cloak given to him by Beorn a little more around his shoulders. Sweet as the summer wind was, he felt a chill.
“You are not smoking,” the wizard observed. “If you need leaf, you have only to say.”
“Lost my pipe,” Bilbo admitted. “Beorn doesn’t smoke, so he didn’t have a new one to spare.”
“Well, friends may share in a pinch,” Gandalf said, passing his own to the hobbit. It was long and unwieldy in Bilbo’s hands, but he was tremendously grateful nonetheless. The familiar scent of home filled his nose, and the sharp flavor of the leaf calmed his nerves.
“Tell me, who is Beorn? I have heard that name before.”
Very happy to talk about a friend to whom he was so indebted, Bilbo told Gandalf all about his adventures between the mountains and Mirkwood. The wizard knew some history of the skinchangers as a people—had even heard of Beorn by reputation—but he was terrifically interested in everything Bilbo had to impart. Overall, it made for a better conversation than speculating upon great evils or friends who mourned for no reason.
Riding to Erebor took five days. Plainly, Gandalf would have liked to ride constantly through day and night at great speed. Fortunately, their poor horse had trouble enough at the pace they kept. It could no more manage such a race than Bilbo. Even so, this did not mean they had the sort of pleasant, meandering journey Bilbo might have enjoyed with the dwarves.
Gandalf was also terrifically strict about not taking in any sights. At the mouth of the river, along the edge of the vast, shining lake, Bilbo saw a charming little village. He would have liked very much to visit, just to see the place and exchange a few words with someone other than the wizard. Gandalf completely forbade the idea and avoided the place like pestilence dwelt there.
“Do you truly not understand you are being hunted, my fine fellow?”
Bilbo sighed and continued to bump along like a sack of potatoes in Gandalf’s saddle. Being hunted was one thing, but it seemed a great shame to be out in the wide world without talking to the people who lived there.
Happily, they could not avoid Dale. Gandalf’s horse had to be stabled in the city. Under the mountain was no place for a horse. Dwarves kept only goats and pigs. Horses needed sunlight and pasture. Therefore, there would be no good accommodations for it in Erebor. While Gandalf dealt with the stable master, Bilbo crept off for a little wander.
He could hardly be blamed. It was such a beautiful marketplace. Silks, velvet, spices, mathoms, trinkets, and toys were all on display in every shop and stall. One who knew Bilbo well might be surprised that the toys fascinated him farm more than the rich fabrics and decadent foods. Yet all the toys were of dwarf-make, and most of them were magical. He spent nearly twenty minutes with a little windup bird that could really fly. The proprietor of the shop was very kind and offered to hold it for him until he could return with coin.
All of the proprietors were kind. Meeting so many charming, civilized Big Folk quite astounded the little hobbit. Although he was more used to Big People than most Shire Folk, the farmers of Bree were nothing like the merchants of Dale.
And the golden bells rang out every hour.
“I should think you would be more anxious to see your lost companions,” Gandalf said with poor grace. He seemed put out, but it was not Bilbo’s fault that he’d been so long about finding accommodations for the horse. The wizard had been dallying all the way on the other side of the city, as well. In contrast, Bilbo had been moving quite steadily toward the mountain. If slowly. And without mentioning the direction to his chaperone.
“Yes, yes.” Tearing his eyes away from a golden seed that grew into a little yellow daisy before folding back up into a seed again, the hobbit looked to Gandalf. “Naturally. To the mountain! Kili and I can come back here tomorrow. Do you think those lost companions of mine will be quite surprised to learn that I am alive?”
“Astounded, I should say,” Gandalf said. Leaving Dale reluctantly behind, they carried on toward the great gates of Erebor.
“Then I shall put on my ring,” Bilbo declared happily. “And you must give me a good buildup. Something about meeting an old friend on the road. Oh! Perhaps, ‘Not all those who wander are lost,’ eh? That’s a good little chestnut of mine, but you may have it for the occasion.”
Gandalf stopped walking to stare at the hobbit. “Bilbo Baggins: you must not put on the Ring!”
“Not even just this once? It would be such a good joke, Gandalf!”
Gandalf closed his eyes. He seemed to have a bit of a headache. “When we are safe, you and I are going to have a long talk about the Great Eye. For now, trust me. You must not put on the Ring ever again! Not for any reason.”
“Oh, all right,” Bilbo said, but it was a wrench giving up the idea. Kili deserved a little surprise, after leaving him for dead and everything.
The pair walked along in silence for a few paces. Then Gandalf said, “Put the cloak Beorn gave you over the oak shield and your pack, then pull up the hood. It is an artfully woven garment, and hobbits are not well known in this part of the world. All will take you for a dwarf. Your presence at my side will not be questioned until we reach the king.”
Brightening at once, Bilbo did as Gandalf suggested and cast up his hood just as they were reaching the gate. This little deception meant leaving all the talking to the wizard, but that was alright. Gandalf knew the polite dwarven greetings and secret passwords necessary to get them past the gate. Sadly, it also meant not exploring the dwarven city within the mountain, which was even more expansive and fascinating than Dale. Promising himself that he would return soon, Bilbo hurried along. Padding quietly next to Gandalf, he tried not to draw the attention of the four dwarven guards who escorted them.
The guards seemed to be very well attired fellows, with gleaming suits of metal armor. They carried long spears, wore short swords on their belts, and had shining shields slung across their backs. As they marched along, Bilbo noticed that their footsteps all rang out in perfect time, like dancers stepping to a beat.
Eventually they reached the throne room. Bilbo saw the king, seated and crowned. He looked rather like an older version of Thorin, though his beard was much longer and grayer. His clothing was ornate armor, more like the plate worn by the guards than the practical studded stuff that Thorin favored. The comparison was easy to make, since Thorin stood at his right. He appeared to be quite comfortable in a blue silk tunic, and Bilbo did not see so much as a black armband about his person.
Beside Thorin was Balin, and on the king’s other side were Fili and Kili. Kili did wear black: a black silk tunic with gold embroidery, which complimented the little gold beads in his carefully braided hair very well. He looked fine, and very princely.
Lining the walls were more of the armored guards, and Dwalin stood with those. He, however, had some added decorations on his armor and spear that indicated importance. Perhaps he was their chief. All of them were grave faced and serious.
In the shadows of his hood, Bilbo grinned.
“Welcome to Erebor, Tharkûn,” the king said. “My son tells me you escorted his Company from the Shire to the eastern side of the Misty Mountains, through no little danger. You will find us suitably grateful.”
Bowing deeply, Gandalf said, “May your beard grow ever longer, King Thrain! I am honored to be welcomed into your halls. Yet I come bearing grave news. The Council of the Wise has learned the nature of the evil which beset Mirkwood from the tower of Dol Guldur lo these many years. Thinking to destroy it, we forced him only to fall back, and that to a location of his choosing. For he is Sauron, the Dark Lord, risen to power once more. I fear, in his new chosen stronghold, the ancient black kingdom of Mordor, he will only grow in strength.”
King Thrain nodded solemnly. “We have been expecting a storm, now Kili is returned to us. You shall tell me your story in the fullness of time, for I see that there is more to impart. But who is your companion? Why does he lurk in my throne room without speaking?”
“An old friend met unexpectedly on the road.” Gandalf smiled. “Not all tidings a wizard may bring speak of oncoming storms. My companion means no harm to your kingdom, and perhaps some good. I will let him introduce himself.”
“Step forward and do so, stranger,” commanded the king.
Bilbo did so. Casting off his hood with a flourish, he bowed low before the throne. “I am Bilbo Baggins of Bag End in the Shire, your majesty, and I am entirely at your service.”
The king raised an eyebrow, clearly recognizing the name. His was by far the most subdued reaction. Balin’s jaw fell slack. Fili gave a most undignified squeak. Among the guards, Dwalin dropped his spear.
Kili folded his arms over his chest saying, “And what sort of time do you call this, then?” He was the exact portrait of Belladonna Baggins on many a long ago night when Bilbo staggered home in the wee hours after meeting Dandy at the Green Dragon.
Bilbo had never been so proud of anyone in all his life.
Before he could make some answer to this delightful sarcasm, a rockslide struck the hobbit. Bowled over by the force of it, Bilbo took a few moments to realize that the stone enveloping him was not painful, only powerful and irresistible. It was also kissing him, and smelled rather like Thorin. That was alright then. Bilbo opened his mouth. The stone tasted like Thorin, too. Like Thorin, and a little like salt.
When they parted, Thorin did not go far. His hand tangled in Bilbo’s hair and his forehead dropped to press against the hobbit’s. “You came back to me.”
“Try getting rid of me!” Bilbo wiped a tear away from where it threatened to fall into Thorin’s beard. “You made me a promise, Thorin Oakenshield. I shall hold you to it.”
Laughing, Thorin ducked down to kiss Bilbo again. Once that was accomplished, he turned—with his arms still about the hobbit—to face his father. “My king, I wish to marry.”
“After such a display,” the king said dryly, “you had better.”