Bilbo pressed a kiss to Thorin’s lips. Although his beloved was unmoved, his skin was warm and his mouth was soft, surrounded by that lovely bristle that made kissing the dwarf such a unique experience. Yet it was not a unique kiss. Thorin slept, as he had slept beside Bilbo so many times before.
“I will come back to you,” he vowed. “Once this danger I brought to your people is delt with, I am going to hold you to all of your promises, Thorin Oakenshield. Just you wait: I’ll pop up like a snowdrop in spring.”
So saying, he slipped away from his husband and out of the sick room.
Hobbits are very good at not being noticed when they take the trouble. Moreover, the entire mountain was working to support the war at the gates. Everyone not out in the fighting was helping the healers, or providing food, weapons, and other needful things. Most of the hallways Bilbo passed through were empty.
Bilbo packed his bag very quickly. An old hand at traveling and deprivation, he made sure to have his cast iron pan and his tinder box first. After that, he essentially filled the thing with walnuts, candied chestnuts, dried raisins, and a bag of oats which he had on hand in the kitchen for baking. Then he dumped the contents of his fruit bowl atop everything else, which would make for something nice during the first few days. He carried the water skins empty. Since he intended to stay with the river for as long as he could, keeping his weight down seemed most important.
Likewise, the weight of a bedroll or a change of clothes was an unnecessary encumbrance. Instead, Bilbo belted the brown cloak Beorn gave him over the mithril armor he was already wearing. Soft and sturdy, the cloak would serve him well enough for sleeping under the stars. With Sting on his belt, Bilbo was far more prepared to go than he had been upon first leaving Bag End. If his destination was far less enticing, and his company nonexistent, at least this time he knew what he was getting into.
Sneaking out of the mountain unnoticed was easy enough with dwarves running in and out with wounded folk on stretchers and battle clashing so very close to the front gate. Surprisingly, the battle itself was relatively easy to creep around as well. Between the dwarves, the elves, the men, and—most importantly—the eagles, the orcs had been pushed well back from the mountain. It seemed to be a matter of time before they were all slaughtered. Many of the piratical men from the tall ships were fleeing back to their vessels, though Bilbo saw that some of those were burning on the lake.
He was leaving, but he was not leaving his friends to die. Hopefully, the danger would follow him, anyway.
Sticking close to the mountain, Bilbo skirted along the outer edge of the battle without encountering a single enemy. Unfortunately, when he was past Dale and almost to the edge of the lake, he met a friend. While that meeting explained how so many of the ships were on fire, it did not bode well for the hobbit going off entirely unnoticed.
“Bilbo Baggins! In the name of all that is good, what are you doing outside of the mountain?”
Gandalf’s face was so stern that the hobbit regretted not putting on his ring to assist his departure. Despite knowing that it could only hide him from friends and lesser foes, not the truly evil creatures he ought to be avoiding, Bilbo thought it might have been useful after all.
“Er, shouldn’t you be closer to the actual fighting?”
Gandalf glared at him. “I was. Then I saw you.”
Unlike a hobbit trying to be stealthy, a wizard attracted attention wherever he went. Three orcs descended upon them. Whirling his staff and sword in a blaze of light, the wizard decapitated one, sliced open the belly of a second, and knocked the third to the ground by hitting it in the back of the knee. Bilbo finished that one off with Sting.
“If you must know,” the hobbit said, “I am going on an adventure.”
Gandalf looked down at him once more. “Alone?”
“I have a map.”
“You have a map of ways into the Black Land, through the impassible gates, beyond mountains created to contain a darkness you yourself cannot possibly comprehend?”
“Well, it’s mostly of the river and how to get there. I shall figure out the rest when I come to it.”
Five more orcs broke away from the battle to attack them as the wizard laughed. Bilbo only managed to defend himself with Sting, but that was all right. He provided sufficient distraction so the orcs could not overwhelm Gandalf with their numbers. Instead, the old man was able to handle them all at his convenience.
“My dear friend, you will not have to. I know many secret paths into those lands.”
“Only, I did rather think to go alone,” the hobbit said weakly. “I brought this trouble to Erebor. I should be the one to fix it.”
“Oh, you were not going alone in any case.” The wizard laughed again. “Is that not so, Legolas?”
From the high rocks behind Bilbo, an elf vaulted down, landing lightly and with no apparent effort. “My father has commanded me to see the hobbit’s errand done, though I know not the nature of that errand.”
“Well, I un-command you,” Bilbo said. “It’s too dangerous.”
As if to prove his point, more orcs rushed their position. Legolas dispatched them before they arrived with an arrow for each, right through the eye. Even Kili couldn’t have done it. “I fear no peril.”
“We might as well bring him along,” said Gandalf. “I know Legolas of old. He’s a very useful fellow to have at your side in a tight corner.”
“I am not bringing you along! There is no we!”
Naturally, the argument drew more attention. Over a dozen orcs broke away from the main fight with a great bear right behind them. Massive, slamming paws dispatched the invading soldiers from behind. Snapping, dagger lined jaws ripped entire heads from orcish bodies. Into this furious assault, Legolas shot a few more arrows. So it was that only one orc actually made it to their little group, easily slain by Gandalf.
The bear could not speak, but he sat in front of Bilbo, showing the hobbit his back in a very pointed manner.
“Thank you, Beorn, but no. I’m not going back to the mountain, much as I appreciate your offer. It is lovely to see you again. Even in such dreadful circumstances.”
The gigantic bear cocked his head to the side, meeting Bilbo’s eyes like a confused pup. He made a gentle, curious sound.
“All of these orcs are after me, you know. After something I found. I have to go destroy it. Then—” Bilbo paused. “Then I can come home to Thorin.”
One would think that the low growl of a bear could only be threatening, but Beorn simply sounded sad.
“One of the ships of our enemies would be the fastest way,” Gandalf said. He indicated a smaller craft that had an intact mast and no scorch marks. “If it could be cleared of the pirates.”
Beorn growled, leaping into action. Legolas raced after him, shooting the pirates and the orcs indiscriminately. It was probably for the best, both of them returning to the battle. They were terribly good fighters, and would help put an end to things quickly.
However, “I have no intention of taking a boat.”
Gandalf raised an eyebrow. “You said yourself that the quickest route on any map leads down the river.”
“I’m going to walk alongside it. Like a sensible hobbit. Not take a boat like some sort of—some sort of—Brandybuck!”
“Bilbo, be reasonable. This will be much faster. Where is your sense of adventure?”
Gaping, the hobbit did not even notice the company of orcs bearing down on them until the wizard was spinning his gleaming sword to sever limbs from bodies.
“My sense of adventure? My sense of adventure?”
There were too many orcs this time. Bilbo found his back pressed against the rocks. Although he wielded his glowing Sting to the best of his ability, he could do little but dodge his attackers. He was painfully aware that he would not be able to dodge forever, and Gandalf seemed unfortunately busy.
Footsteps pound against the stone and earth. A cry of “Du Bekar” echoed off the rocks behind Bilbo, ringing from the onrushing dwarves. Orcs surrounding the hobbit fell in sprays of blood and bile, one after the other. Behind one geyser of blood was Nori’s face and a spinning knife. The next revealed young Gimli, but only briefly. His ax soon found another target. Unlike Dori, who took plenty of time to chide Bilbo.
“You’re supposed to be safe in the mountain!” the fastidious little dwarf cried. “What will King Thorin say?”
Unfortunately for Dori, Bilbo knew the answer to that very well. “Thorin would say that duty comes first.”
“You’re a hobbit! Your duty is to be safe. My duty is to keep you that way. Come along, Nori and I will see you back to the mountain. Ori is already there with an arrow to the calf. He can keep you company.”
Distracted as he was, Dori didn’t notice the orc rising over his shoulder. He must have seen Bilbo’s horrified expression, however, because he turned. He turned, and was thus stabbed in the gut instead of the back. As he floated through the air, his sword came up very slowly, slicing the orc’s throat clean across from one end to the other. Blood oozed from the wound, rather than gushing. The cloth hem of Dori’s armor fluttered in the wind. It had such a lovely pattern.
Then he hit the ground. The orc fell atop him. Someone screamed. That was probably Bilbo.
“In your defense.” Dori’s eyes were as grey as the clouds above. “For Erebor.”
Shoving the orc away, Bilbo pressed a hand to the dwarf’s wounded belly. Everything was sticky with blood.
“Dori!” Nori tore open some sort of vial and poured the contents over his brother’s bleeding stomach.
“Don’t waste that!” Dori scolded. “Leave me. Get the prince-consort into the mountain.”
Nori’s blood spattered face twisted in pain, as though he was the one with a gut-wound. “Dori.”
“Get your brother into the mountain,” Bilbo ordered.
Clearly torn, Nori looked from his injured brother to the husband of his king. Straightening up, the hobbit tried to look confident and capable of doing more with Sting than simply waving it about.
“I’m fine,” said Bilbo. “I’ll stay with Gandalf. I promise.”
“You have a duty,” said Dori. He lifted a hand to cover his cough. Red dwarven blood mingled with the black orcish bile which previously stained his fist. “Forget about me and do it.”
Nori chose his brother. Lifting the wounded dwarf, he met Bilbo’s gaze steadily. “Remember, if you get killed, Thorin will probably put us both to death.”
Bilbo grinned. “You’ll just have to chance it.”
Wrenching his ax free from the fallen form of a particularly large orc, the young dwarf turned to Nori and saluted. “Master Nori?”
“Stay with Bilbo,” the dwarf ordered. “Get someone else from the Company to talk him into doing the right thing. Your father, if you can find him.”
“Yessir,” Gimli said, saluting briefly before bowling into yet another orc ax first.
Without another word, Nori sprinted off toward the mountain with his brother still shouting about duty and negligence.
Bilbo looked up at Gandalf and sighed. He had promised, after all. “We’re taking a boat, then?”