Running a mountain kingdom was a full-time job, not just for its king and consort, but for those who advised them as well. Meetings between members of the Company often doubled as mealtimes, and Bilbo popped a tiny, succulent tomato in his mouth as he read over the report in front of him.
It was easy to ignore the other dwarves staring at him. They were like faunts, really. Normally, they would turn their nose up at anything that didn’t bleed upon their plates. It had not taken him long to work out that if he pretended to hoard the vegetables, the rest of the Company decided they were missing out on something.
Thorin tried to reach around him for one, and he slapped the back of his hand without thinking, moving the bowl out of reach. Dwalin did not even try to hide his chuckle at Thorin’s grumblings of false outrage. Few people dared to say no to Thorin these days. In Bilbo’s eyes, it was a good idea to make sure that the dwarf he loved remembered his place now and then.
‘May I have one?’ Ori asked shyly from his place down the table, craning his neck to get a better look at the gleaming offerings at Bilbo’s side.
Normally, Bilbo would not hesitate to reward such good manners, but this time he had second, selfish thoughts. It was not that he did not want the dwarves to eat their (very necessary) vegetables, it was that these were different.
These were his. Among the first of Erebor’s very own, proper harvest. There were plenty of other foods that the earth at the end of the valley had been coaxed to grow thanks to his knowledge and nurturing hands, but the tomatoes were his personal triumph. He had found and cultivated the narrow, sunny shelf in the valley side. It held the water just right, neither boggy nor dry, and still got hot enough to allow the fruits to bloom like rubies on the vine. And so flavourful! Not even the Shire’s offerings could compete.
Unfortunately, there weren’t very many. Two dozen at most, and Bilbo had already eaten almost half of them in a fit of gluttony.
His hesitance only further piqued the Company’s interest. He could feel far too many staring eyes upon him, and he reluctantly offered Ori the bowl. ‘You can have one,’ he said, trying not to sound too petulant about it. ‘Then pass it on for anyone else who wants to try.’
‘Ori gets one and I do not?’ Thorin murmured, his eyes sparkling as Bilbo huffed.
‘He asked nicely, rather than trying to thieve them from me.’ He nudged Thorin with his elbow before pecking him on the cheek. ‘You can wait your turn.’
Thorin muttered something about how Kingship should have its privileges, but his complaints were muffled things. Partly because he was watching the bowl make its rounds like a hawk, ensuring the rest of the Company obeyed Bilbo’s rule.
Bilbo himself pretended to be engrossed in his work, trying not to smirk as he observed that no one passed the tomatoes by, not even Bifur, who was permanently suspicious of vegetables. They examined the new morsels carefully: assayers analysing gemstones for flaws, hesitant and eager all at once.
Kili was the first to pop one in his mouth, brave and reckless as always. It was the perfect size, and the noise he made was practically indecent: amazed and approving. ‘What are they?’
‘Tomatoes.’ Bilbo watched as Thorin slipped the last one between his lips, that stern face melting into lines of surprise and pleasure. It made him wish he had not eaten the rest, just so that he could spend the quiet hours of the evening feeding them to Thorin and licking the sweet juice from his lips.
Clearing his throat, he put the empty bowl aside, shifting in his seat as he tried to clear his head. ‘They were grown right here in Erebor. Well, on Erebor’s lands, at least.’
‘You grew these in Hobbit’s Hollow?’ Balin asked, his snowy brow lifting to his hairline.
Bilbo stifled a sigh. The name had not been his choice; not by any means. Like so many things, it grew from nowhere, spoken upon the lips of Dwarves and Men alike until they would consider no alternative. And so it seemed the eleven acre stretch of land would be part of his ever-growing and, in his mind at least, much-exaggerated legacy.
‘A very small part of it. Most of the land’s devoted to… Well, this.’ He handed Balin the papers he had been looking over, the many pages thick and heavy in his hand. ‘Tomatoes need warmth and water and plenty of sun. I never thought they would survive up here in the North.’
He watched Balin’s eyes widen as he skimmed through the document, taking in the figures for the first harvest. There was more to come, of course. Some plants would fruit further, while others were still a few weeks from ready, but the end result was the same. Erebor, that had for so long relied on Dale to sustain it, had proven itself to be fertile farmland. At least, if you knew where to look.
‘Dale’s lands are better suited to grain,’ he explained, eager to point out they still needed the Men and their thriving trade. ‘They’re more sheltered from the wind, and the soil is less prone to bogging down. With the irrigation channels they’ve put in and with good, honest toil, they might even be able to manage a double harvest most years, but that leaves no land left over for anything else.’ Bilbo shrugged, settling back in his chair and smiling as Thorin took his hand under the table.
He knew all about it of course. For the past two years he had listened, attentive if a bit baffled, as Bilbo complained about soil and waterflow, dead earth and hard stone. He understood the toil it took to take a neglected piece of the kingdom and make it something useful: rich in a way that had nothing to do with the ores it contained. Plants grown only to be dug back in, stinking manure, blood and bone… Erebor’s soil was hungry, and Bilbo fed it so that it, in turn, could feed them.
‘All this?’ Bombur asked, his voice hushed with awe as he read over Balin’s shoulder. ‘Here?’
The others leaned in, some getting to their feet to cluster around. Back when he had first known them, they would have been dismissive at best. When he first began this project, staking his claim, they had taken an interest out of politeness: tolerant of their consort’s eccentric obsession with things that grew and bloomed.
Now, it seemed, they were finally seeing the value of farm and furrow: land they had once deemed worthless suddenly brimming with wealth of a different kind.
‘That’s all that will be ready to harvest in the next three months. There’ll be more after that; even into the winter.’ Bilbo reached for his cup, sipping at the wine within as he continued, talking more to himself than his rapt audience.
‘If we use it right, rotate the crops, it need never lie fallow. We can gather our own seed, though I’ll buy some in too, for stronger plant stock. Almost all of it will come straight to Erebor’s tables. Scraps for the animals, as well, and with the hives right by the fields, there’ll be plenty of honey to spare.’
He gestured to one of the soldiers, who heaved a huge basket from the floor, balancing its burden on his shoulder. ‘This is one of each type of vegetable that’s come out of the first harvest,’ he explained.
At the other end of the table, Fili’s eyes widened, almost comical. Indeed, the bushel took up almost all the space, brimming with voluminous leaves and the jewels of nature’s bounty. Some were commonplace: carrots and the steadfast potato – roots that cleft any earth they could find. Others — sweet shallots and lush broad beans, leafy cabbages both bitter and peppery, tender spinach and marvellous marrows – they were far less common in these climes.
Bombur’s delight was palpable. ‘Stews: such good stews. Soups! Salads in summer. They’ll grumble of course, but a few slivers of game a-top will shut them up in no time.’ He nodded his head, his dark eyes bright. ‘The kitchen already has a small clamp: Somewhere dark and cool for the roots and tubers to last. I can expand it.’
Bilbo nodded. ‘The best place for most of them is in the field, at least while the weather stays good. It’s near enough that we can go out and harvest what we need every few days: no more than half an hour off by cart.’
‘And come winter?’ Dori asked.
‘Pickles and chutneys!’ Bombur sighed happily. ‘Not to mention pies!’
‘And any we can’t keep, we sell.’ Bilbo grinned as Gloin hummed his approval, his quick mind no doubt already calculating profit. ‘Dale’s market is close enough, and some of the hardier vegetables will make it to Mirkwood. There are many kinds they cannot grow amidst the trees, and even Elves must tire of berries and nuts.’
The conversation rose and fell around them like an ocean, waves of chatter swelling and fading as the Company considered the options before them. Gloin was scribbling costs and estimates on a handy scrap of paper while Oin investigated each plant, rambling about medicinal properties. Bofur listened to Bombur rattling through recipes, throwing in his own suggestions as Bifur nodded in eager support.
Dori and Nori watched their younger brother like a hawk as he followed Kili and Fili’s more adventurous example, trying bites of various plants. Some he would wrinkle his nose at, but others he offered to his brothers, urging them to try it until they reluctantly obliged.
Bilbo glanced over at Thorin, a flush heating his cheeks as he realised he was on the receiving end of a warm, prideful gaze. Thorin looked at him as if he were more precious than all the gems in Erebor’s hoard, and even now, years later, it still warmed Bilbo all the way down to his toes.
‘Thank you,’ Thorin murmured, lifting Bilbo’s hand to press a kiss to his knuckles.
‘This.’ He gestured to the rest of the Company and the basket that crowned the table. Yet the wave of his hand somehow encapsulating more than just the dwarves before them. ‘All of this.’
‘I didn’t do it alone,’ he pointed out, thinking of the dwarves and men who had helped him, pitching in without complaint because he had asked for help.
‘No, but you started it. It is one thing to win a kingdom back from a dragon, which we could not have done without you.’ He cast a fierce look in Bilbo’s direction, quieting his protests. ‘It is quite another to make it thrive, but that is just what you’ve done.’
‘What we’ve done,’ Bilbo corrected him, his voice heavy as he tightened his grip around Thorin’s fingers, as if he could press the truth into his skin. He would not let Thorin diminish his own triumphs: his successes at bringing Men, Elves and Dwarves together to make this land richer, happier and more prosperous than it had been, even in the mighty Thror’s poisoned days. He had inspired the dwarves who made the long journey back to Erebor to rebuild the place stone by stone. Without him, there would be nothing here but ruins and tombs.
‘What we’ve done,’ Thorin agreed at last, his lips brushing Bilbo’s brow as if sealing their vows all over again. ‘Together.’
Bilbo smiled, happy to accept the compromise. Perhaps they could never see themselves through the other’s eyes, never love themselves as much as they should, but that was why they had each other: to love fiercely, to try harder, and to build a kingdom that flourished day by day, and would for many years to come.