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to change the course of the future

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Banished. It held an air of finality to it. Certainly when spoken by a raging king, his voice bellowing for everyone to hear. Never mind that just a few days before, the same king had showered gifts with a smile, a smile meant for only him. Never mind that he’d given him the most precious gift Bilbo had ever been given before.

“You would make another exchange, Master Hobbit?” Bard was asking. The man seemed even taller and more imposing than before. He certainly looked angrier, a fire alight deep in his eyes. Thorin had much the same look now, Bilbo would wager. He pushed the thoughts away.

“I would. I come to offer you gold and treasure, a large sum of it, too, from the very halls of Erebor.”

“In exchange for the stone.”

Bilbo nodded. He could see it, on a table behind Bard. Oh, how he hated that stone. It was cursed. Doomed to ruin the line of Durin. Doomed to ruin Thorin and everything good about the dwarf. The way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, his deep chuckle, his steady hand on Bilbo’s shoulder-

“We already made an exchange. I’m beginning to wonder if there is any honor in hobbits at all.”

The words stung, but he tried to hide it. “There’s a great deal of honor; I’m offering you what Thorin kept from you, what you want your people to have. There’s a lot of gold here, more than enough to return your town to glory.” More than enough: a fourteenth of the treasure, which he hadn’t originally been intending to take. Maybe a few pieces, for a remembered token. But when Thorin had cast him out, he’d taken it all, already loaded onto several ponies, and headed straight for Lake-town.

Bard’s eyes roamed over the chests piled high behind Bilbo. Bilbo could feel his heart fluttering in his chest, anxiety pulling at him until he thought he wouldn’t breathe again. I just need the stone. Please.

Maybe…maybe it would change Thorin’s mind. Maybe Bilbo could get his king back.

“I accept.”

Bilbo didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath until it came out of him in a relieved sigh. “I would have one more thing from you, hobbit,” Bard continued, and Bilbo slowly turned to look up at the man. He cut a terrifying figure, the fire roaring behind him, casting his vast shadow on the wall. His eyes bore holes through Bilbo’s very skin, and he resisted the urge to pull his jacket further around him.

“Yes?” Bilbo ventured when nothing else came.

Bard ‘s eyes slid from Bilbo’s face down to his chest. “That,” he said, pointing. “I want that as well. Then and only then will I release the Arkenstone.”

Bilbo stopped breathing again. Not his gift. Not the last thing he had of Thorin. “The pin?” he asked, aiming for a casual laugh and choking instead.

“Yes, the pin. Why, does it mean something to the king as well?” Bard asked, raising an eyebrow.

It did, once upon a time. When they’d been wandering in the fields, heading for Mirkwood, and they’d had a moment to themselves at camp, Thorin had gifted it to him. His father had given it to Thorin’s mother, he’d told Bilbo. His mother had given it to him before she’d passed on. “To be given to someone I called beloved,” Thorin had murmured, as he’d pinned the token to Bilbo’s vest. Two streams of precious metals, one mithril, one gold, were intertwined around each other until you couldn’t tell the difference between them, so joined were they. Bilbo had thought of Thorin as the mithril: strong, unbreakable, beautiful, and keeping the softer, lesser gold safe.

“Does it, Halfling?”

Bilbo hated that name. As if he was half of anything.

But Bard still had his eyes on the pin, and Bilbo wanted to push him away. It was all he truly had left of Thorin, the dwarf-lord, before he’d become King. Before he’d cast Bilbo out.

“It means nothing to the king,” he said quietly. “It’s…it’s just a trinket.” That’s all it was truly worth, now.

There was a triumph in Bard’s eyes, and Bilbo realized the man knew this pin meant something to him. He was being punished for asking for the Arkenstone back. It wasn’t Thorin that Bard meant to strike at, it was Bilbo.

“Then…” There was a pause as Bard let his voice hang in the air, his pointing finger becoming an open palm. Slowly Bilbo reached up and undid the clasp. The pin felt cool in his hands, and the light caught it, causing it to shine. It had shone the night Thorin had given it to him, catching the light from the fire. The sunshine had caught it, reminding him of its presence as they’d traveled. Thorin’s smile had been brighter, too, after he’d gifted the pin to him.

Banished. Cast out. Unwanted. Hated.

Bilbo laid it in Bard’s open hand. The pin was snatched away in an instant, so swiftly that Bilbo couldn’t help the sharp intake of breath. “Then the deal is finished,” Bard said. He stuffed the pin into a pocket as if it was nothing. Just a trinket that meant nothing to him. “You may go your own way now, hobbit. I will see that the stone is delivered to the King Under the Mountain.”

Bilbo nodded hesitantly. “I will have my men escort you to the edge of the forest, but that is all,” Bard continued, and Bilbo blinked.

“Now?”

“Now. Your presence in Lake-town is neither appreciated nor wanted.”

Unwanted.

“Would you at least allow me to stay the evening?” Bilbo asked, his voice coming out more desperately than he’d originally intended. “It’s late. There is nowhere nearby that I can reach by the time the sun goes down. I know you have been generous and kind already, but I would ask this one last thing of you.” Just one night before he wandered out into the wilderness on his own, to make his way back to the Shire.

Bard paused, and the flint in his eyes seemed to fade away. “One night,” Bard granted, his voice almost kind. “Then at first light, you will be escorted out.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo said, letting out a sigh. “Just…thank you.” One night to get a decent night’s sleep. One night to pretend he wasn’t despised by the same person who’d held him so tenderly, had laid kisses on his brow, had loved him. Had given him a gift that now meant nothing.

Bard nodded, and Bilbo left. There was an inn nearby, and Bilbo had kept a few of his coins for making purchases. It was early evening, the sun already dipping down behind the mountain, and fires were being lit all over the city. They guided Bilbo as he found himself a room, pretending there wasn’t suspicion being aimed in his direction.

Even the Sackville-Bagginses would’ve been more welcoming.

The Arkenstone would be delivered to Thorin. Not that he had much hope of Thorin forgiving him, but he hoped, perhaps, that it would give Bilbo a peace of mind. That was all he hoped for.

Bilbo pulled at his hair and stood, pacing wretchedly in front of the fireplace in his room. “Stupid, stupid,” he mumbled. All he hoped for indeed. He wanted Thorin to forgive him, to beg an apology of his own for being so damn reckless and foolish, to kiss him fully as they’d never gotten the chance to, all because of that forsaken stone.

He didn’t realize he was playing with the golden ring he’d found until it was between his fingers, a golden worry stone. He cursed and, in a moment of spite, hurled it into the fireplace. “Damn him! Damn him, damn him, damn him!”

No one answered him. Bilbo sank to the floor, fingers tying knots in his curls, eyes burning with tears he refused to shed. “Damn me,” he whispered miserably. If he could just go back, undo what he’d done… But he’d feared for Fili and Kili and Thorin, the weird haze that had settled into their eyes, the anger Thorin had given into when Bard and Thranduil had come to him for gold.

Gold. The ring. Bilbo leapt up and raced to the fire. The ring sat in the middle, and he pulled it out as quick as he could, wincing as his fingers brushed against burning embers. The ring itself was remarkably cool, a testament to the pureness of the gold. Bilbo sat back on his heels, sighing. Of all the things that would get him home safely, it was this one, and here he was throwing it away.

It began to glow. Bilbo stared.

“What-?”

The writing that ran across the ring was unlike any he’d ever seen. Perplexed, Bilbo spun it around, wondering what it meant. Just as suddenly as they’d appeared, the words began to fade away. Hastily Bilbo raced for the table in the room, tossing the ring onto the wood and scrambling for paper and ink. He began to quickly sketch the random pattern of words he’d seen, trying to remember what it had been. It was no good: he couldn’t remember. He reached for the ring again. Perhaps if he put it back in the fire-

The instant his skin touched cool gold, it happened. A flash of fire, a terrible eye like Smaug’s blinking open, trying to pierce through the flames. Bilbo dropped the ring in his haste to get away from whatever it had been, and it landed like a stone on the floor. He could only stare at it now, fear slowly creeping into his heart. A magic ring that made you invisible, and Bilbo had expected it to be without power? Oh but he was so stupid, so foolish. Of course there was a power in it. A dark power, something evil that had felt like it was waking up. He suddenly wanted it gone, to belong to someone else. He’d had enough of gold and its evils for a lifetime.

A ring like this had to be recorded. Somewhere, someone had to have a record of it. Then he would know what it was, how to be rid of it. Carefully he reached for the ring again, wincing when he touched it. Only cool gold met him, no fire, no eye. He dropped it in his pocket, then quickly gathered up the poor sketch he’d done before leaving.

Finding a local library was easy, even more so when the scholars still there late in the evening were content enough to let him be. He wandered the shelves, not even certain what he was looking for. If there was anything a hobbit knew better than gardening and food, however, it was books. Scrolls, papers, books, all of which were a hobbit’s delight. They were treasures to be passed down through the ages from one generation to the next. Bilbo remembered several that he’d told Thorin about-

No, he admonished himself. He had a mission; he had a long journey back to the Shire where he could dwell on thoughts of the dwarf he’d lost. Not now. Not when he was in the middle of…whatever it was he was doing.

“Rings, rings, rings…” he muttered to himself, wandering down the next shelf aisle. Rings of the Ages caught his eye, as did the next two books beside it. He quickly pulled them down and went to find a spot to read.

Several magic rings were discussed, but none of them mentioned invisibility. One of the books mentioned a ring to make its wearer invisible, but it wasn’t made of gold, and it certainly didn’t have lettering on it. Bilbo tossed the book aside and reached for the last volume.

He’d not flipped through more than three pages when he saw a picture of a simple ring with bright lettering. Bilbo dug for the paper he’d sketched on and found the lettering the same. Eagerly he pulled the book closer and read the inscription beneath the image.

Sauron’s Ring: The Ring of Power, taken by Isildur, son of the King of Gondor

Bilbo froze. Sauron. Not the Sauron? The Sauron that Rangers wandering through Hobbiton had told stories of? The Sauron who’d all become a legend, a myth that couldn’t really have existed? Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor?

It was with more hesitancy that Bilbo turned his eyes back to the book. The next several pages put his stomach into knots.

Isildur had taken the ring from Sauron, and it had been lost in a raid of orcs who had come to reclaim it. Isildur had been mortally wounded, and when his men had pulled him from the river, the ring had not been with him. Lost…until somehow, that creature from the caves had found it.

River. Gollum was obviously an adept fisher. What if he’d found it, one day, and taken it away into the mountains? Only for it to be lost, and Bilbo to find it.

The Ring of Power, the Ring that had brought ruin and death to Middle-Earth, and Bilbo had it in his pocket. He fell back into his chair, his head spinning.

He couldn’t keep it. He didn’t want it. He wanted absolutely nothing to do with the vileness that was the Ring. He couldn’t believe he’d used it so willingly, had intended to keep doing so to get him back to the Shire before he’d seen the eye, and he felt as if he’d be sick. He had to, to bury it. Throw it down a ravine, give it away-

He stopped, the gravity of the situation bearing down on him even more. He couldn’t give it away as he’d wanted to. If it could take a great man like Isildur, and turn him into a man who thought of nothing but this Ring, then who knew what it would do to someone else? Gold lust. It had caught Thorin in its snare, and Bilbo prayed it wouldn’t lead to his death. To Fili and Kili and the company’s deaths.

And if he buried it or threw it away, another Gollum could find it. If ti hadn’t been safe in a riverbed, it wouldn’t be safe in the earth. No, there had to be something else he could do with it. Talk to Gandalf, perhaps. Though what the wizard could do, he didn’t know. He didn’t even know where Gandalf was. Probably in Erebor.

The pain that shot through his heart was so strong he reached for his chest. Erebor. He wanted to be there so badly, with Thorin, the dwarf’s arm pulling him in to rest against the King’s shoulder. To be cradled, loved-

He stifled the sudden burst of emotion, but only just. The last thing he needed was for someone to come poking around to see why a Halfling was crying in the back of the library. Or to see what he was reading and wonder why.

His eyes shot back to the page, a familiar name catching his attention. Elrond of the Elves came to Isildur amongst the smoted ruins of Sauron and bade him follow to Mount Doom, where the One Ring had been forged. There, Elrond spoke to the new King of Gondor and entreated of him to cast it in to the fires, for from whence it came, thus can it be destroyed. But Isildur refused, and so the One Ring passed to the kingdom of Gondor.

There was a name Bilbo knew. Lord Elrond of Rivendell had been there? He read the writing again.

…to Mount Doom, where the One Ring had been forged…from whence it came, thus can it be destroyed.

Mount Doom. “Where is Mount Doom?” he murmured. He flipped through the pages, but there were no maps in this book. He quickly gathered up the books he’d taken out, put them back to where they belonged, and made his way to the map charts.

On a huge map, he got his answer. With all of Middle-Earth laid out before him, Bilbo quickly found Mount Doom, then immediately wished he hadn’t. Orodruin was its name, and it lay over the mountains, far, far to the south in Mordor. It was the farthest from Hobbiton one could possibly get, still a terrible distance from Erebor. Worse yet, there was nothing but Wilderland between Erebor and Mordor. The Brown Lands.

When the Rangers had come to Hobbiton during the Fell Winter, Bilbo had begged for stories. As a cute young hobbit lad, he’d played his youth to his advantage, and many a Ranger had chuckled and told stories of the world, including Mordor, Gondor, Rohan, the Brown Lands. They’d spoken of orcs that would eat little hobbits up if they didn’t finish their supper, but Bilbo had seen the quiet fear in their eyes. The Wilderland was nowhere to be. If Rangers would not pass through it, Bilbo wouldn’t, either.

Then he stopped. Why would he travel through the Wilderland in the first place? What business would take him through the Brown Lands?

Even as he asked himself the question, his fingers went to his pocket. The One Ring. He had found it, he had brought it out into the world. He needed to dispose of it.

“From whence it came, thus can it be destroyed,” he murmured under his breath. He was insane, absolutely mad. This was the work of an army, of a king, who could boldly march into Mordor and drop the Ring in. This wasn’t for a hobbit, a Halfling as Bard had reminded him.

But he knew what gold did to a king. He could see what it would do to men, to a whole army of men. The gold ring had not ensnared Bilbo, though. Gold meant nothing to him. He glared at his pocket, thinking bitterly of the dwarves and their reaction to the treasure room. It had been all they’d wanted. Even Thorin had fallen for the treasure horde. In the end, his treasure had mattered more than Bilbo had.

He slowly rolled the map up. Gandalf would know what to do, but Gandalf was who knew where. No, Bilbo had to make the decision. And in his heart, Bilbo knew he’d already made it.

This was a new adventure. It would just be less of a company, more of a solo hobbit journey. He couldn’t destroy the gold in Erebor, or how much it meant to Thorin. But he could get the Arkenstone back, and he could destroy this gold. The orcs, the goblins, the spiders in Mirkwood, all of the dangers they’d faced, and Bilbo knew it was because of the Ring. Evil begets evil, after all. And as betrayed as Bilbo felt, the dwarves deserved peace. The Shire deserved peace. Even Esgaroth, the Lake-town, deserved to live and rebuild Dale in peace.

No. Bilbo would do this. He’d come this far, after all. It wasn’t proper for a hobbit to see a job half done.

He finished rolling the map and shoved it under his jacket after ensuring no one was watching. He walked as calmly as he could out of the library, then hurried his pace to reach the inn. He didn’t know what sleep he’d get tonight, but he knew it would be the last restful sleep he’d have for some time.

 

Far off, a swiftly approaching group of orcs came to a stop. The message they had long awaited from their Master and Lord had come.

The Ring is found. Bring it to me.

They changed course, abandoning their quest for Erebor. They would find the ring, instead. Many of the orcs grumbled about not tasting Man and Dwarf flesh.

That problem was solved when they stumbled across the goblin army, headed in much the same direction. The orcs feasted well for the night.

The next day, they hunted.

Chapter Text

“My liege, Bard of Lake-town asks for but a few minutes of your time,” Dori called near the door. Thorin pursed his lips but gave a curt nod. He was surprised Thranduil had not come with him. Perhaps, in due time, he would.

It was indeed only Bard, who came forward with a wooden chest. “I have not changed my mind,” Thorin rumbled, standing from his throne. His throne, his beautifully carved throne, etched with gold and missing something too precious to name. His Arkenstone, his right to rule.

Curse the hobbit. Curse and damn him, and Thorin felt his lips curl into a snarl at the thought. He’d taken what mattered the most, then had the gall to be upset by Thorin’s response. It was only because Thorin had cared for him, that he’d lov… well. Bilbo was lucky to have left the hall alive.

“I care not,” Bard said, and Thorin startled at the sudden change.

“You care not?” Fili asked, disbelievingly, from Thorin’s right. “Pardon my bluntness, but why not?”

Bard didn’t give an answer, not until he’d stopped right before the throne. “I believe this belongs to you,” he said, and bowed low, offering the box forward. Thorin slowly stepped down and took the box, watching Bard as he opened the box.

Then stared. “What is it?” Kili whispered from his left. “Uncle?”

“Why?” Thorin asked, voice rough. “Why would you…?”

“It was exchanged for an ample amount of gold,” Bard said. “Enough to let my people rebuild. I have what I wanted. I was thus instructed to bring it to you.”

“Who gave you gold?” Thorin asked. He pulled the Arkenstone from the box. It gleamed up at him, and his fingers reverently ran over the stone. “Who bought it from you?”

“The Halfling, Bilbo Baggins.”

Thorin’s head whipped up. “What?”

“A fourteenth of the treasure, I believe, is what he gave me. It was his to give,” Bard said, a warning in his tone. “He asked for an exchange, the Arkenstone returned to you for his gold, and I agreed.”

Thorin didn’t breathe. “Bilbo gave up his treasure?” Fili said, stunned. “But…why?”

To return the Arkenstone to Thorin. Slowly he let his gaze fall to the stone in his hands. It felt cold between his fingers, and the light wasn’t as bright as he remembered. It was a stone. A beautiful stone, but a stone. Just like the gold.

When he inhaled, the world seemed brighter and more vivid than before, and it was as if he looked around with new eyes. The gold down below in the treasury no longer called to him as it had before, and his memory allowed him to see his grandfather down in that room, lost to the gold lust. Much as Thorin had been lost to it.
How had it happened? How had he been allowed to see clearly again?

“Where did you get that?”

It was Kili’s soft, choked voice that pulled Thorin from his thoughts. He followed his nephew’s gaze to Bard, and he frowned until he saw it.

A small pin, of mithril and gold, sat upon his breast, fashioned in the eternal tree of life. It was his mother’s, but more importantly, he’d given it to Bilbo. Bilbo’s surprised, pleased smile that night faded to the last time Thorin had seen him: frightened, grief-stricken, clutching the pin fearfully lest Thorin take it. I care not for it, he’d said derisively, turning away from the hobbit. It’s but a trinket.

Mahal, what had he done?

“It was part of my deal,” Bard said. He brushed his fingers over it, and regret fell upon his face. “I would only take the gold for the Arkenstone if I could have this, as well. He said it didn’t matter to you, swore it was but a trinket, but it pained him very obviously to let it go. I was…unjustly cruel,” he admitted quietly. “I took it from him because I was angry with him, and now, I...I don't remember why it mattered so much. I wish I could give it to him now, but he is long gone.”

“Gone?” Thorin said.

“My men escorted him to the edges of Mirkwood just as dawn broke this morning. He begged me to let him stay last night, to not have him pass through the woods in the dark. I am shamed that I nearly didn’t let him.” He gave a bitter smile. “Perhaps the Arkenstone poisoned me, proving it should be with the dwarves.”

It had poisoned them all, the gold and the stone alike. Thorin stepped forward until he was directly in front of Bard. “I would give you all the gold you wish for, in exchange for the pin,” he said quietly.

Bard gazed at him thoughtfully. “So it did mean something to you, then,” he said, voice equally soft. “I had wondered. He was near to heartbroken to give it to me, but finally did so, in order to return the Arkenstone to you.”

It’s but a trinket.

If Thorin died this day, he would enter his father’s halls with shame and so much regret. Bilbo, his Bilbo, had traded the pin given in love to satisfy Thorin’s greed. Even after Thorin had discarded him, even after Thorin had banished him and sentenced him to death upon return, he had given his gold and his gift in order to try and make things right.

Bard took the pin from his breast and gave it to Thorin. “Please return it to its rightful owner. I do not know how far he has gotten, but my men returned just as I set out from Lake-town, and the sun is only beginning to leave its height in the sky. He cannot be too far into Mirkwood.”

“I will,” Thorin said. Bard nodded, and an understanding passed between the two. Stones and gold were only as good as they could be bartered and used to further life. And Thorin had thrown away what happiness life had seen fit to give him for cold, dead gold. “Anything your people require in order to rebuild, turn to Erebor for aid. You will not be refused.”

Bard blinked in surprise. “We once had peace, where food and cheer passed between our peoples,” Thorin said, louder this time. “I would see it again.”

Bard finally nodded, bowing low. “I would, too. I give my thanks, Great King Under the Mountain,” he said, and left, leaving Thorin standing before his throne with the Arkenstone in one hand, a lost gift in the other.

“Uncle?”

Thorin slowly turned back to his nephews, who looked in equal states of shock. “Uncle, what have we done?” Fili whispered. “To Bilbo?”

“I do not know,” Thorin said in return. He looked up to his throne, seeing cold gold where he had once seen warmth. The hole above the throne held plain stone, waiting for the Arkenstone.

He tossed the stone into the box and shut it tight. “Fili, see that this is brought to the vaults and put somewhere. It is an heirloom now, and nothing more.” Fili nodded and quickly took the box. “Kili, find Dwalin and the company. See if they have awakened from their stupor. Bring those who have to the meeting rooms below. We have a hobbit to find.”

Kili grinned and hurried off. Thorin stayed near the throne, his eyes resting on the pin in his hands. He could see Bilbo’s smile when he’d given it to the hobbit: bright and beautiful. He’d laughed more with the company in the days following, had taken every moment he could to twine his fingers with Thorin’s. The pin between them had symbolized everything. Bilbo had been the mithril: strong and pure, making the gold better than it was simply because it was there.

He closed his eyes and felt them burn. “Bilbo,” he whispered brokenly.

“Thorin?”

He took a breath. Dori stood just a little behind him, blinking rapidly. “Um, Thranduil, he’s here,” he said. “Kili’s nearly rounded everyone up, I think.”

He wondered how long he’d stood there, mourning what he’d lost. “Let him in,” he said at last. Dori nodded and hurried off to the doors. Thorin forced himself to stand tall. Though Bard had been forgiving and just as shamed as Thorin by the deeds he’d committed for gold and Arkenstone, Thranduil would not be. He tucked the pin into a pouch and faced the doors.

Thranduil glided into the halls as if he owned them. Several attendants stood beside him, none looking as fierce as their king. “Have you changed your mind?” Thranduil asked sharply.

Before, Thorin would have growled and sent him away with naught a care for the war that would have certainly followed before he’d have given up one coin. Now, he wondered how the gold could matter so much. “Does the gold and wealth of Erebor truly give you happiness, Thranduil?” he asked.

Thranduil stared. “You hold in your vaults the treasures owed to me and my people,” he hissed. “We paid our homage through many years.”

“If they had mattered so much to you, one would’ve thought you would have battled to keep them safe when the fire dragon came down,” Thorin couldn’t help but point out, anger in his veins. Bard he would understand: the men had lost their home, too. Thranduil had not lost his.

“You will either give us what is owed to us, or you will find us at war, Thorin son of Thrain,” Thranduil snapped. “The men and the elves, you will find, are ferocious when in war together.”

“You will not find men at your disposal,” Fili said from behind Thorin. He stepped forward, and Thorin noted the lack of a box in his hands. Good: it was already in the vault. “The stone has been returned, and we are at peace with them. Will we also not find peace with you?”

Thranduil looked as if he would erupt. “And what would give cause to men to return the Arkenstone? What was given to them in return?”

“A gift from a hobbit,” Thorin said firmly. “One who has passed through your borders this morning.” The longer Thranduil spoke, the longer he feared he would lose Bilbo forever. He needed to set out as quickly as possible if he had any hopes of finding the hobbit.

One of the attendants, a young man with long blonde hair, spoke. “No one has passed through our borders except us.”

Thorin stopped. “How do you know this?”

“We have not seen anyone,” the young attendant said, and he almost looked sad about it.

“He would’ve been small-“

“Thought small in stature, we still would have seen him, your majesty,” the elf continued apologetically. “He has not been sighted, and no one has entered Mirkwood.”

“Will you give us the gold owed to us?” Thranduil cut in. “Or will we continue speaking of nonsense?”

Nonsense. That’s what the life of his hobbit was to Thranduil. “Your woods are dark and dangerous these days, Thranduil,” Thorin growled, stepping forward. “My concern for the hobbit is not ‘nonsense’.”

“You cast him aside,” Thranduil volleyed back. “He knew this, even when he gave the stone to Bard. He had accepted this, yet did it anyway, all for your lives and the war you even now wish to start.”

“I do not want war with you,” Thorin insisted. Bilbo really had saved them, even knowing what Thorin would do. When had Bilbo realized that gold and stone meant more to Thorin than the hobbit did? “If gold will cease that notion, then gold you may have. There are things more precious in this world.”

His offer put a look of surprise and pleasure on Thranduil’s face, but his last words left the elf staring with a twisted look of fury, and it took a moment to realize why. Thranduil now had what he wanted, the gold he claimed they were owed, but Thorin had made it sound meaningless. His charity towards the elves had broken Thranduil’s upper hand. In spite of everything, Thorin couldn’t help but smile. “Take what you believe you are owed, Master Elf,” he said, and he swore he saw Thranduil’s eyes twitch.

All Thranduil had wanted was what Thorin had seen as most precious. Now, it mattered as much as the pebbles on the ground, and Thranduil could not back away from what he claimed without sounding foolish. “Will you not have someone escort me to the gold?” Thranduil asked, trying to maintain some form of pride.

“Of course,” Fili said, giving a short bow. “I would be happy to. If you need help carrying it out, I’d be pleased to help in that regard as well.” Fili’s offer made it sound as if it mattered so little, that even a dwarf prince was willing to aid the elven king.

Fili would make a good ruler.

Thranduil made a short bow and turned away, his attendants moving behind him. The one who had spoken of Bilbo seemed pained when he cast his eyes on Thranduil, but he said nothing. Thorin wondered, then shook his head. He had no more thoughts for elves. No, he needed to find his hobbit. He needed to give him the pin again, if Bilbo would accept it. If Bilbo would accept his love again.

He had so much to make right, and all the gold in Erebor wouldn’t help him do that. Fingering the pin in his side pouch, he marched towards the meeting room to find his company.

 

The unanimous vote was decided almost immediately. Personally, Balin thought it had more to do with the fact that suddenly, none of them wanted to be in Erebor anymore. The land they had fought so hard for had seemingly turned against them. The gold they'd been willing to give their lives to reclaim had claimed them in such a horrifying manner that they were content to leave it behind for now. Distance would do their hearts well. Balin had elected to stay behind: someone had to wait for the coming dwarves and the gold didn't bother him now. He would be much too busy, trying to run the mountain on his own, to care for the gold below.

For Thorin, however, leaving was more for guilt than anything else. His 'short and sweet' disbanding of Thranduil was still being eagerly retold by Fili and Kili, despite their not having been there for the entire exchange. It had been clever, obviously, and Balin himself had grinned at the telling of it. Thorin, however, did not smile or rejoice in his victory over Thranduil. Balin knew why. He also knew why Thorin kept reaching for his side pouch.

The hobbit. Bilbo Baggins. Balin knew the signs of one who loved another with their very soul, and Bilbo had obviously dearly loved their leader. Thorin had, in turn, loved the hobbit. If his kindness and words of endearment had not spoken of that, his gift of the pin had quickly told everyone just how high and dear the hobbit was to him. Balin had simply rejoiced for his friend. Long had it been since Thorin had had reason to smile and even laugh, and Bilbo had brought it about.

Then the gold lust had overtaken them. And Bilbo had been banished.

“You still may not catch up to him,” Balin said quietly. Around them, the others were readying their ponies to travel, the new morning sun barely red in the sky. “There are many paths through Mirkwood.”

Hopefully, the men of Lake-town had taken Bilbo to the main road through Mirkwood, not the hidden one that the company had tried to traverse. With Mirkwood as dangerous as it was, taking the lesser known trail was nothing short of deadly. They'd all witnessed that.

Of course, the normal pass was probably just as deadly now, but that wasn't something Balin as about to tell Thorin. He was in enough of a state as it was. The king looked as if he'd aged years since he'd seen him just yesterday. Yet...yet he looked the better for it. More alive, more alert and awake than before. Even as full of despair as he was, he was still much more...more Thorin than he had been for quite some time.

It was good to see.

“I have to try,” Thorin replied. His hand went to a pouch at his side, and it seemed to pain him. After a moment, he returned his attention to attaching a sword to his pony. “I will not have him...go home alone.” He swallowed harshly. “He was good enough to help us reclaim our home, it is only right we help him reach his safely.”

Balin shook his head, catching Thorin's attention. “What?”

“I know you far too well to believe your half excuses. You wish to make amends and hopefully bring Bilbo back to the mountain, I can see it in your eyes.” Thorin turned away, but paused when Balin rested his hand on his shoulder. “There's no shame in that, laddie. He's more than proven himself. Love is given only but a few times in one's lifetime. Tell him you love him.”

“I have spoken such terrible, vile things to him that I did not truly mean. I never should have said them to any being, let alone one that I...”

Loved. It was painfully obvious now how his friend felt for the hobbit. Not that Balin had needed telling: one look at how much happier Thorin had been by Bilbo's presence had told him that much. Then the dreaded gold had taken them over, the gold lust made all that more powerful by the dragon who'd laid upon it for so long, and that had been the end of that.

“Your majesty!”

Balin turned to see a young dwarf hurrying over to them, his fiery red hair flying from beneath the helmet that was nearly too big for his head. His beard was just beginning to grow in, but even if he'd been fully bearded, Balin would've known his cousin anywhere. He grinned. “Gimli, you arrived quickly enough. How fares your mother?” he asked.

Gimli nodded. “Well, thank ye. I've a question to ask the king. I wish to join ye in your quest.”

Thorin, despite his heart's turmoils, gave a small, amused grin. “And as I told you last we spoke, Gimli, son of Gloin, you are not of age-”

“Ah, but I am now!” Gimli cut in, puffing his chest out. It didn't do much, exactly, but it did further amuse Balin and Thorin. “I'm seventy and a few months now, whereas I wasn't quite seventy when you made to reclaim Erebor. But now, now I'm old enough to join ye on this quest. My beard's even grown, enough to begin my braids!”

Indeed, he had the braids of a dwarf recently come of age. “He's even more braids than Kili,” Fili said, stepping over to join them with his brother. Kili placed a firm elbow into his brother's side, scowling all the while.

Gimli looked to Thorin hopefully. “It's not really a quest,” Thorin said, but instead of dismaying the dwarf, it only seemed to enliven him.

“Then it's just a good stretch of the legs. And that, ye need no age for.”

“Let him go with you,” Balin said. “Better more dwarves who know their way with a blade or two to better defend you on your journey.” Better more protection to keep Bilbo safe, and the minute Thorin's eyes widened ever so slightly, he knew the thought had finally come to mind.

“Then Gimli, son of Gloin, you are most welcome on this venture. Ensure that your pony is ready,” but Gimli was already racing back to his father, a triumphant yell being heard through the stable. Fili and Kili followed after him, chuckling.

“A wise decision,” Balin said, nodding towards Thorin. “I believe Gimli will prove a good companion to join Ori, Fili and Kili. Perhaps keep them out of trouble.”

Or induce more of it. It was really useless to waste breath saying the very obvious truth. Still, Gimli would be good to have along, of this Balin had no doubt. This would leave the company thirteen members strong again, besides, with Balin staying behind. Thirteen members had proven a good number the first time; perhaps thirteen would aid their quest again.

“Balin?”
Balin smiled. “I wish you good fortune on this venture. We will keep Erebor until your return. Are you ready, then?”

Thorin pulled himself up onto his pony, his face grim. “I am past ready: I am late. Perhaps too late.” He nudged his pony forward towards the doors. Everyone quickly mounted to follow him.

Balin held his hand up in a farewell until he could no longer see them clearly against the horizon. “Blessings to you and Master Baggins,” he murmured. He hoped the hobbit would be found in good health.

He hoped that his king could find the forgiveness and love he so desperately wanted.

 

Something was wrong.

Something else besides the Ring in his pocket. It had started...humming, sometime after the men had left him on the main road through Mirkwood. Bilbo had walked alongside Mirkwood after they'd left – this path was open and full of light and wide. This was a road, obviously well traveled, circling around Mirkwood. Even with the Ring being odd, this should've been a safe voyage. He wasn't in Mirkwood, just beside it. He'd had enough of the forest for one lifetime, and there'd be dangers up ahead soon enough. So, as far as he knew, everything was going well.

Yet something felt amiss. Something left him feeling tied up in knots, fingers straying towards Sting on his hip. He continued forward.

A rustling behind him made him turn around. Fool, he cursed himself. He couldn't have given himself away as a frightened traveler more if he'd tried. Something was out there, though, he knew it. If he was lucky, it was only an animal. But luck hadn't been his friend for some time. He checked Sting slightly, but the blade was silver.

How close was he to the end of Mirkwood? He'd been traveling for a few hours yet in this second day. The sun was high above him now. He could still see the forest ahead of him to the right, the empty plains to his left. He'd left Lake-town and Erebor long behind. He was somewhere on his map, trying to go due south. No one else should've come this way.

Another sound. Bilbo tensed but kept walking. His hand tightened on his sword, ready to pull it out when needed. Whoever was trying to attack him was going to get a surprise.

Something burst out of the woods, and Bilbo turned, Sting already in front of him. The rabbit looked at him for a long moment, then quickly hopped off the other way. Bilbo let out a strangled laugh and shook his head. Fool indeed.

A guttural cry made him turn just in time to see the orc bear down on him. He slashed his sword desperately, causing it to shriek and fall. Two more were behind the first, both on wargs, and Bilbo barely ducked around them, running back the way he'd come. Three more orcs on foot were there to meet him, and he held his sword out in front of him, hands trembling. They circled him, one of them kicking the orc he'd killed away.

“Lookit this one; fresh meat an' everythin',” one orc hissed. It licked its lips and smiled a toothy grin. Bilbo fought down the urge to shudder.

“Is this the one?” one asked. “Can we eat him and go?”

“Don't know,” one of the warg-riders said, slowly moving in to tighten the circle. Bilbo couldn't move backwards without running into another orc, but the warg in front of him terrified him. He'd been brave before, had even killed a warg, but Thorin's life had been on the line, and thirteen dwarves had been around him. Now he was alone. Now they were gone.

“Haven't 'ad fresh meat since...well, last night,” one of the orcs admitted, and the others began to laugh. “Could stand some more, though. This one looks better than a goblin.”

Goblin? “You traveled fast from the mountain,” Bilbo found himself saying, not certain whether stupidity or courage loosened his tongue. Probably stupidity.

“Ooh, he talks!” the first orc said, sneering. “Thinks we've come down from the mountain! Thinks he's clever, he does. We was going to the mountain. Ready to eat and kill pretty dwarves.”

Bilbo froze. Erebor. Thorin. “But we got a call from our Master. Said someone had sumfin' of his. You might be the one that has it. Well, do you?”

The Ring. Somehow, the Ring had woken up, and instead of heading for Erebor, the orcs had come after him. “I don't know what you're talking about,” Bilbo said as firmly as he could, but Sting shook in his hands. The orcs laughed again and tightened the circle. The noose, he thought hysterically, they were tightening the noose, and one of the orcs on the warg hefted his sword. Thorin, I'm sorry, he thought, and gripped his sword for one last attack.

The sound of a fast gallop caught everyone's attention, and Bilbo turned towards the sound. A horse. Or a pony. Maybe someone had come after him. Thorin, or Fili, or Kili, he didn't care, but his heart soared. The orcs growled, facing the approaching figure, all dressed in black. With the hood up, there was no way of seeing the face.

A knife suddenly flew into the face of a warg, killing it instantly. Bilbo seized the chance to fight against the orcs around him, ducking and slashing where he could. Between the sudden appearance of the rider and Bilbo's small stature, the orcs were all killed, and moments later, six corpses and two dead wargs were all that remained.

Bilbo turned to the rider, only to find the hood pulled back. It was a man, one he had never seen before, though upon closer inspection, he knew exactly what kind he was. “A Ranger,” Bilbo said, hiding his disappointment. Of course it wouldn't be Thorin. Thorin was most likely still seated in Erebor, wondering whether he shouldn't send out someone to kill Bilbo or not. His hand nearly strayed to where the pin had resided, but he pulled it back to his side. “Thanks for your help.”

“A hobbit,” the Ranger said, tilting his head. “I do not often see a hobbit this far east of the Shire. What are you doing so far from home, little one?”

“I traveled...to Lake-town,” he finally said after a moment of thinking. “They have a great library.”

The Ranger merely gazed at him. “And where do you go now?”

Mordor wasn't exactly what he could tell him, now was it? And he didn't think he could say anything about the Ring. This was a man, though a good man nonetheless, and he knew what gold did. “To seek counsel from a friend,” he said at last. “On my way home.”

“And who is this friend?”

Sure, put your foot into it, why don't you Bilbo? His brain traveled through the names of those he knew, and one from the book sprang to his mind. “Lord Elrond,” he burst out. Going all the way to Rivendell was much too far a journey for a Ranger to accompany a hobbit. No, he'd leave him to walk on his own. Perhaps for a few of the coins still left to him, Bilbo could persuade him to hurry and warn Erebor of the orcs. Though, it would appear that the orcs were more interested in Bilbo than the dwarves.

“You are an elf-friend?” the Ranger asked, surprised.

Bilbo nodded, and it was his turn to be surprised when the Ranger smiled. “As am I. Lord Elrond is not far – he is visiting the Lady Galadriel in the woods of Lorien. You should not go alone, though. These orcs were merely scouts ahead of the army I saw not but a few days ago, marching on Lake-town and the newly reclaimed kingdom of Erebor.”

Bilbo tried not to flinch at the mention of the dwarven kingdom, but the Ranger peered at him curiously. “They said a hobbit was among the company of Thorin, son of Thrain, who retook the mountain. Are you that hobbit?”

Bilbo let out a sigh. “I am,” he said softly. “Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End, at your service.”

The Ranger gave a formal, low nod from atop his horse. “I am known as Strider, but you may call me Aragorn, as you have given me your full name. If you truly seek counsel with Lord Elrond, I will take you there.”

Bilbo gazed at him for a long moment. Though he was obviously young, possibly too young for a Ranger, he still held himself with the bearing of a man who had seen much already. His dark locks were hanging around his face in a mess, but the hair on his chin was tidy and his eyes...

His eyes were kind. It was that reason and that reason alone that Bilbo nodded.

“I would be grateful if you'd accompany me. I don't honestly know where I'm at, only that Mirkwood was too dangerous to go through.”

Aragorn nodded. “It used to be a beautiful place of light and magic. Now, now the woods are dark and their thoughts twisted. The elves of Mirkwood will soon be infected, I fear. You made the right choice not to go through the forest. Come, ride with me, and we will reach Lorien quicker.”

In for a penny... Bilbo reached up to take Aragorn's hand, and found himself swiftly on top of the horse. He reached out and clutched the mane out of sheer instinct, and the man behind him chuckled slightly. “He will not let you fall, little one, and neither will I.”

“The orcs-”

“Erebor is safe. They have turned from the mountain and the town and come south. No, it is us that should be worried.”

That sounded about right: running terrified, orcs on his tail. Wouldn't be a proper adventure without that. Bilbo tried to think of his map while they road on. The woods of Lorien weren't south, but on the other hand, he could speak to the one individual who had been there the day Sauron had lost the Ring. Maybe Lord Elrond would know more.

Trying desperately not to think of the pin that was missing from his vest, he focused on keeping a grip while they sped away from Mirkwood.

Chapter Text

Where Mirkwood had been dark, the woods of Lorien were nothing but bright. The journey had seemed quick, but had taken several days. But now, now they were here, and Bilbo found himself staring in awe at the beauty around him. These elves dwelt above the ground, higher and higher impossibly so into the trees. Aragorn left his horse with one of the elves who came out to meet him, then led Bilbo up into the dwellings.

If ever Bilbo had wanted to draw something, it would've been the archways, the stairs, the beauty of it all. The last time he'd wanted to draw a place had been when he'd taken his first real good look at Erebor.

He shut his eyes briefly before shaking himself and following Aragorn again. Was everything doomed to remind him of what he'd lost? Of what gold and stones had taken from him?

Then they reached the top, and Bilbo forgot for a moment of Thorin and Erebor.

Lord Elrond was there, and if he was surprised to see Bilbo he gave no show of it. Another elf stood off to the side, and between them-

She was radiant. Her long, golden locks drifted down her back like the sparkling sun on water. She looked as if she was kissed by the flowers every morning, so beautiful was her face. And her eyes sparkled like the stars in the sky.

Bilbo stared, completely transfixed. “The Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien,” Lord Elrond said, seemingly amused at Bilbo's reaction.

“Welcome to Lothlorien, Bilbo Baggins,” she said, and her voice was like the sigh of a gentle spring breeze. Never before had he felt so comforted and so homesick all at once. Her eyes softened. “We offer you greetings.”

Bilbo bowed low. “And I, you, m'Lady.” He sounded like a fool. He winced, wishing he could speak their tongue to offer a better greeting.

Do not despair, Bilbo of the Shire.

Bilbo's head shot up. Her eyes danced and her lips spread into a smile, but they did not part in speech. What on earth...? I know why it is that you have come.

Her voice in his head brought a shiver down his spine. Her eyes were calculating now, no longer twinkling but sharp and terrible in their beauty. If he could've, he would've backed away, but his feet remained stuck. You...you know? he thought hesitantly in reply.

You have brought a great evil here. The Ring which you bear is indeed the ring you believe it to be.

Great evil. His mind suddenly drifted to Mirkwood and the dangers there, and he swallowed. He'd tainted this forest with it. These beautiful forests, destroyed like Mirkwood, and he'd-

Rest, Bilbo. The Ring was always fated to come to the woods of Lorien. Your bringing it, now, may have changed the fate of other woods for the better. Do not fear having brought it. Your heart is sore and in pain. Rest here and heal.

He would never find healing for that particular wound. Only a gentle, deep voice and bright blue eyes would fix the hole that was widening within him. Her lips turned into a sympathetic smile, and she spoke out loud for all to hear.

“What you saw has come to pass, Elrond. Bilbo Baggins has brought the Ring here to Lothlorien.”

“The Ring?”

Slowly Bilbo turned to Aragorn, who gazed at him in disbelief. “Not the One Ring?” the Ranger asked numbly.

He glanced at the Lady, who gave him the nod. Fingers suddenly clammy, he pulled the Ring from his pocket and held it outstretched for all to see. Aragorn inhaled sharply at the sight of it, and Bilbo resisted tightening his fingers around it. Here he was, baring the world's greatest temptation to elves and a man, and he should've been putting it away somewhere safe where no one could ever find it again-

Aragorn quickly turned from it, looking to Elrond. “You knew it was coming,” he said, and he almost sounded angry about it. Bilbo frowned, surprised.

“You don't...want it?” he couldn't help but ask.

Aragorn shuddered and shook his head. “I would not want that thing if it was all that was left in the world, little hobbit. How you can stand to touch it, I do not know.”

Safe. The Lady Galadriel had known he'd be safe showing it here. Bilbo let out a sigh and put it back into his pocket. “I don't want to touch it,” he said. “I hate it. I want it gone.”

“If you did not know about the Ring, Aragorn, then why did you bring Bilbo here?” Lord Elrond asked.

“He said you were a friend, and he sought counsel with you.”

Lord Elrond raised his eyebrows. “I am indeed a friend, Bilbo Baggins,” he said, kneeling down to thankfully spare Bilbo's neck from continuously gazing up, “but I do not know why you would seek counsel with me.”

“You were there,” Bilbo said. He bit his lip. “The day Isildur took the Ring for his own.”

Lord Elrond nodded slowly. Bilbo took in a deep breath. “I want to destroy it. I want to see it gone.”

“What has the Ring done against you?” the Lady asked him. She knew exactly why he wanted it destroyed, but he supposed he ought to tell everyone else. If it weren't for the sympathy in her gaze, Bilbo would've thought she enjoyed humiliating him.

It hurt to even say the words. “The evil of gold...it has no place in this world. It destroys everything. I've seen the power of ordinary gold and what it would do to...to those I care for,” he said softly. He didn't dare look up at the others. “I can't rid the world of all gold, but this Ring, this…this horrible Ring, it's killed and destroyed and I want it gone, and I'm prepared to march up Mount Doom to do it.” No, he really wasn't, but he was determined enough to make it happen, even as his body quaked at the thought. His mind and heart had already decided. His legs would just have to catch up.

Lord Elrond rested his hand on Bilbo's shoulder, and his voice held no small amount of admiration. “If but all beings had your heart and courage, Bilbo Baggins, Middle-Earth would be in a much better place. The Ring must be destroyed. Mordor is no place for a hobbit, though. It is a place for the cursed and damned. You will need a company to go with you.”

A company. Just what he didn't want. His heart still ached from the memory of the last company. “I'm quite fine on my own,” he managed, as if the words didn't break the remnants of his heart into pieces. Alone. He was good at being alone. He'd managed for years, he could do it again.

“Send out messages to all the great cities of Middle-Earth, whose kingdoms would be greatest at risk, including Erebor,” Lord Elrond said to the elf still off to the side. “Tell them to send delegates, for we call a Council, and it is most urgently that we need them.”

Erebor. They would send one to Erebor. “You, you can just leave Erebor out of it,” Bilbo called desperately to the elf who was already departing, but he didn't think he'd been heard. Disheartened, he sighed, twisting his fingers together. “King Thorin wouldn't come anyway,” he murmured. Not as soon as he heard who was involved, who had just put all of Middle-Earth in danger.

If Thorin didn't behead him on sight, he supposed he should count himself lucky. The King had obviously considered it that day, when he’d held Bilbo over the wall. If Gandalf hadn’t managed to talk Thorin down, he would’ve killed Bilbo without a single thought.

A soft hand pulled his chin up, and he realized he'd been crying only when the Lady wiped a few tears away. “Do not lose hope, Bilbo Baggins,” she said softly. “Gold does not hold its shine forever. Not as love does.”

“If there was ever love to begin with,” he said bitterly, angrily wiping his tears away. All the tears he’d stowed away seemed unwilling to stay back any longer, and he bit his lip to at least keep the sobs at bay. Here he was, bawling like a child in front of this magnificent elven queen, yet trying to convince them all he could go it alone.

There is love; your heart would not ache so if there wasn’t. It would be easy to push aside all thoughts of the one you call dear, if there was no love.” She cradled his face with her soft hand, then leaned in to press a tender kiss to his forehead, as a mother would her babe. “Right now, you hurt. Rest here until the Council comes. Push away your heartache until a later day. For now, there is sunlight and warmth.”

All the things a hobbit craved. In spite of himself, Bilbo found his lips turning up. “And cakes?” he asked jokingly.

She laughed softly. “And cakes,” she assured him. “Along with other good food from the earth.”

Things a hobbit would appreciate. He felt tears well again, but tears of gratitude. She didn’t know him, she didn’t owe him anything. He had brought evil to her forests. Thorin had marked him as a traitor and while Bilbo had done it for the good of the dwarves, a small part of his heart believed it was true. Yet here she was, offering him every comfort of home and words to steady his aching heart.

Peace. Peace he didn’t feel that he deserved, but peace all the same.

“Let me be your guide, Master Baggins,” Aragorn said with a slight nod. “I know the woods of Lorien as well as I do the passages of Rivendell.”

With an invitation like that, Bilbo couldn’t really refuse. “Lead on,” he said, and Aragorn smiled.

 

They had only begun traveling the main road through Mirkwood when several elves appeared from the woods. “Now what?” Dwalin grumbled.

Thorin was even less amused. They’d not seen any signs of Bilbo yet. In fact, what little traces of a hobbit they’d been able to find had quickly disappeared, and now there was no sign that anyone had passed through Mirkwood at all recently. Had he really been that much ahead of them? It had only been a day, and he was on foot, not on pony.

“May we not pass through the road?” Thorin asked, attempting not to growl at them. “Or must we take the long path around the forest?”

An elf came forward on his horse, and Thorin remembered him – the attendant who had spoken regretfully of not seeing Bilbo. “You are welcome to travel any road through Mirkwood,” the elf said with a respectful nod of his head. “We are actually traveling the same as you.”

“The same?” Bofur asked, frowning. “You’re looking for a wee hobbit?”

The elf turned to Thorin with confusion in his eyes. “You are seeking your friend?” he asked. “Are you not going to Lothlorien?”

“What reason would I have to visit elves?” Thorin asked, even more perplexed now at this sudden turn of events. What would possess him to visit the woods where the elven queen resided?

“Where’s Lothlorien?” Gimli asked.

Fili leaned in, as if to share a great secret. “They say a great sorceress lives in the woods,” he whispered loudly. Then he winked at his brother.

Kili nodded solemnly as Gimli’s eyes widened, the younger dwarf having missed the wink. “One look at her, and you fall right under her spell.” Gimli looked appropriately terrified.

Thorin started listing the names of his ancestors to keep from strangling his nephews. There was insult, and then there was direct insult in front of the very people whom you were trying to stay on civil grounds with. He glanced at the elves, who looked solemn as ever, if just a tad annoyed. The attendant elf, however, looked amused. “She is quite something to behold,” he added, smothering his smile when Gimli looked his way. “If you dare to look.”

Gimli sputtered. “’Course I’d dare to look! I’m not afraid of a witch!”

Gloin shook his head. Fili and Kili looked thrilled that an elf was willing to play their game. Thorin just sighed. “You will not have to dare, Gimli, for our path doesn’t take us to the woods of Lorien.” Though he had no real clue what path would lead him to Bilbo at this point.

The elf came forward, and up close, Thorin could see the brilliant blue of his eyes. Elves were tricky to gauge with their age, but this one was obviously very young. It showed in the soft features of his face and his willingness to approach the dwarves. This was one who had not yet grown a hatred for dwarves. It was…interesting.

“Lord Elrond of Rivendell has called a Council in Lothlorien with much urgency,” the elf said, pitching his voice too low for the others to hear. Only Dwalin was close enough to share in the conversation. “The kingdom of Erebor has been invited to join, as have several kingdoms of men, including Gondor.”

Thorin stilled. Men, elves, and dwarves, all in a council together? “What is the meaning of the council?” he asked.

The elf shook his head. “I do not know. My…king did not tell me.” His hesitation made Thorin’s eyes narrow, but the elf pressed on. “He merely bade me go in his stead. I believe the matter a secret one, dared not spoken but to those who attend.”

Bilbo, missing, and a secret council being called to all races of Middle-Earth. Thorin’s stomach twisted uneasily. “I would not depart from my first mission,” he finally said. “I seek my…my friend.” Bright eyes, soft skin, a gentle smile, curls that shone like the sun. More than his friend, but perhaps, perhaps Thorin would never get that back.

He had to try.

“The hobbit,” the elf clarified, and Thorin nodded. “I admit, I sought him further after leaving your kingdom just the other day. No one has passed through Mirkwood but you.” The elf took a breath in to speak again, then didn’t. Thorin’s gut tightened further.

“Tell me,” he growled.

The elf pursed his lips but continued. “There were orcs sighted outside of the forest. When scouts were sent out, they had gone, but blood was left behind.”

Thorin closed his eyes. One little hobbit wouldn’t have withstood a raiding party of orcs. No matter how brave he was. “The scouts were certain, however, that it was orc blood. And hoof prints were seen leading away from the attack to Lothlorien,” the elf continued, almost anxiously. “A horse, not a pony. It could be that your friend was rescued and brought to Lothlorien.”

“Or the orcs could have taken him away as they did their fallen,” Thorin said. Bilbo. His heart refused to hope. If the orcs had taken him, then there was nothing left of his hobbit. His mind brought forth images of what the orcs had likely done to him, and he shuddered. He willed the tears back – he would not show weakness in front of elves.

The elf looked saddened again, as he had in the halls yesterday. “I am sorry,” he said, and he truly sounded as if he meant it.

Never would Thorin have thought he’d see the day where an elf expressed sympathy for a dwarf’s grief. “Thank you,” he managed. The elf nodded solemnly.

“May we join you on the way to the woods of Lorien?”

Thorin looked up at his company. Their conversation must have grown steadily louder, for everyone looked to be just as grieved as he was. Bofur was wiping his tears away, and Kili leaned against Fili, seeking solace. They all looked to Thorin for an answer.

If the elf could be sympathetic to Thorin’s pain, Thorin could at least offer the same level of courtesy. “You know this path better than us; we will join with you.”

The elf nodded again. “It is merely a short journey, no more than a few days at most. You will be most welcomed, King Thorin, son of Thrain.”

“You have me at a loss, Master elf, for we have spoken, but I do not know your name as readily as you know mine,” Thorin said. He would’ve asked the elf for his opinion of the sky if it would’ve taken his mind off of the hobbit, his hobbit, his beloved Bilbo. If you were indeed brought to the hands of orcs, I hope your passing was swift. If you were taken, I will never forgive myself. He felt as if he’d be ill at the very thought. Unless a fight had broken out between the orcs, Bilbo would’ve suffered under their hands, was maybe suffering still. The urge to turn and go to the site of the battle, to look for any clues, swelled within him.

He may yet be in Lorien. Orcs do not ride horses.

He’d almost forgotten that he’d asked the elf a question when the answer came. “I am Legolas of Mirkwood,” the young elf said with a smile. “And for your sake, King Thorin, I hope your friend is at ease in Lothlorien.”

He hoped so, too. Oh did he hope so.

Chapter Text

Lothlorien was even more beautiful at night. The air seemed to glow, and everything held an almost dream-like appearance. It was stunning.

“You do not sleep.”

The beauty of Lothlorien, however, was not what kept Bilbo awake. Still, it was going to be his excuse. “It’s beautiful,” he said as Aragorn approached. He was glad he was sleeping on the ground; feeling the soft grass between his toes made him think of Hobbiton, of everything he’d loved about home, everything he’d wanted to show Thorin-

He closed his eyes.

“You hold a deep sorrow in your heart. Is it the Ring?”

Bilbo shook his head and opened his eyes. Aragorn looked very concerned, which Bilbo thought was nice of him. “No, not the Ring. I could give half a wit about it, to be completely honest.”

Aragorn gave a faint smile at that. “It does not seem to bother you. I am amazed at your strength.”

Strength. It made him want to scoff at the notion. “I’m only a hobbit,” he said bitterly. “I’ve got no strength. Not in a fight. Not when it matters.” He’d had no strength against Thorin’s rage. He’d run like a coward instead, like the betrayer he secretly thought he might be.

“Strength comes in different forms, Master Baggins. No other being would dare imagine going to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring, yet here you stand, poised to depart with a company to do just that.”

Bilbo bit his lip. “Is that what troubles you?” Aragorn asked softly. “Would a company make you nervous?”

Startled, Bilbo turned to Aragorn and found sadness on his face. “I would not blame you,” Aragorn said quietly. “I saw your fear earlier today, when you extended the ring. You already know the power the Ring can have over men. And for that, I am filled with anguish for you.”

Bilbo wasn’t certain he’d ever felt so ashamed before. “No, no, I’m not, I’m not afraid of you, or really, anyone that joined a company, I-“ And he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t tell Aragorn the real reason why he didn’t want to join the company tomorrow. Yes, fear of others, for he knew the power of gold over men. But he knew, he knew Thorin would be there, with some of his dwarves, and even as much as Bilbo wanted to see him, he was terrified. He wasn’t certain his heart could bear it.

Aragorn nodded slowly in understanding, the despair leaving his face. “One of the dwarves of Erebor,” he said. Perhaps too much understanding. “The Lady Galadriel spoke of love, a lost love.”

“It’s my fault,” Bilbo said, suddenly feeling the need to defend Thorin. “I, I’m the one who messed it all up. I’m the one who ruined what we’d started. I couldn’t bear to see him tomorrow at the Council and…and for him to know that I’ve carried this Ring, I…I just can’t,” he trailed off miserably. His mind honestly couldn’t begin to imagine what Thorin would do, what he would say. None of it would be good.

Aragorn was silent for a long time. Bilbo turned his attention back to the glowing woods, attempting to find peace again. Thorin’s thunderous face as he banished him, his furious words, it kept flooding his mind, giving him no rest.

“I am Isildur’s heir.”

Bilbo slowly turned at the near whispered admission. Aragorn gazed at him as if waiting to be struck. “My ancestor is responsible for that Ring being in the world, for the evil that haunts Mirkwood and keeps Mordor brimming with evil.”

“The Ring should be yours,” Bilbo said after a moment. “By all rights, it’s yours.”

“I do not want it,” Aragorn hissed. “I would rather die. His foolishness flows through my veins.”

“You’re not Isildur, though,” Bilbo said with a frown. “Aragorn, you are such a better man than he was.”

Aragorn raised his eyebrows. “You do not know me, little hobbit,” he warned, eyes darkening. “You do not know what I am capable of.”

“I know you can kill a warg with a single knife, and slaughter two with one stroke of your sword. I also know that you risked your life to save a hobbit you didn’t even know, and you, you haven’t called me a Halfling yet,” he added.

“Why would I call you a Halfling?” Aragorn said. “You are half of nothing.”

Proved his point rather well. Bilbo smiled. “You are kind, Aragorn. You should be a king.”

“The throne of Gondor has long been empty,” Aragorn said, shaking his head. “It should remain that way. They have done well for themselves with their Steward.”

“Kings are good men that lead their people, that do right by their people,” Bilbo argued, then stopped. Thorin had done right by his people, he supposed. And Bilbo had stolen what he’d had no right to take.

Aragorn knelt in front of Bilbo and laid a hand on his shoulder. “And sometimes a good King is misled by things that should not matter more than people.” So Aragorn had figured out which dwarf it was, then. Bilbo looked away.

“I do not judge,” Aragorn said, causing Bilbo to cautiously turn back. “Of that, you will never find from me. I know what it means to love someone of a different race, one you may never be able to call your own.” He smiled at the open curiosity Bilbo knew he had to be showing. “Her name is Arwen; she is Lord Elrond’s daughter.”

An elf? “You love an elf? But…you’re mortal,” Bilbo said. Aragorn’s smile dimmed slightly, and Bilbo’s heart ached for him. Dwarves outlived hobbits, but they could still see each other on the other side of the veil, perhaps. Elves did not die, unless in battle. And Elrond would never let his daughter see battle. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

Aragorn shook his head. “I would rather love once, and love fully, then turn away because it would one day end. Everything will end, one day. If there is love to be had in this life, I will take it, and if I must, I would fight for it.”

For some reason, his words struck a chord in Bilbo. “Everything good is usually hard-won, Bilbo,” his mother had told him once. “It takes effort. Don’t take the easy road just because it’s easy.”

It had been her Tookish blood speaking, but maybe, maybe he had to hold out hope. Maybe he would speak to Thorin tomorrow, if the dwarf would let him near. Maybe he could try. He’d faced down the Pale Orc, fought spiders, crept through a dungeon, and stolen the Arkenstone, all to save Thorin. He could buck up his courage and fight for him again.

“Thank you,” Bilbo said. Aragorn graced him with a real smile, one that made him look so much younger.

“You should rest now, Master Bilbo.”

“Perhaps in a bit. It really is beautiful here.” The forest seemed to hum with life. It would take someone made of sterner stuff to turn away from the beauty around him.

“That it is.” Aragorn gave him a bow, then went away. Bilbo watched him go, his smile fading as he remembered just what it was that had pulled him from his bed.

The Lady Galadriel still waited for him across the way. He swallowed hard and followed.

They walked for a way in the woods before she spoke. “I had thought to show you my mirror, but you know the dangers of this task. I would not risk waking the Ring any further.”

“Is it still asleep? I didn’t wake it, then?” Bilbo asked.

“It is becoming aware with each passing day. Using it would only wake it faster. But I know you would not dare do such a thing.”

No, Bilbo would rather face a thousand orcs than put that thing on his finger. “I want it gone,” he said. “I will do whatever I have to, but I want it gone.”

She smiled and paused in the woods. When he looked up at her, she was just as radiant as she had been earlier. She needed no sun to shine, he realized. She was beauty all on her own. “Do you make the forest glow?” he asked before he could think of what he’d said.

She laughed freely, and it sounded like bells. Bilbo could’ve sworn he felt heat in the very tips of his ears. “You have a beautiful heart, Bilbo Baggins,” she said, leaning down towards him. “It is strong within you, as is your spirit. Never doubt these truths.”

“I won’t,” he said. “Thank you.”

“You will need both on your quest. Which I already know you intend to take on your own.”

Bilbo froze. “I,” he began, only to stop when her gaze held firm.

“I will not stop you. In fact, I admire your spirit in setting out alone. I believe your decision is a wise one. It will be a hard road, filled with enemies and allies alike, and others would not believe your reasons for going alone. But I have seen the roads ahead of you, Bilbo Baggins. Your intent is pure, and your fears well-founded.”

Men, dwarves, and elves to accompany him. All who had fallen to the power of every day gold. How much more would this Ring pull them in? Never mind the pain of seeing Thorin, of facing the heartache that was still so fresh, of seeing loathing in the faces of the dwarves he’d called friends. He thought, perhaps, with Aragorn in his corner, he could face the man he loved once more. But no, Bilbo wouldn’t feel safe with a company that supposedly came together to protect him.

He’d go it alone. No matter how much the thought terrified him, he’d go alone. And apparently, someone agreed with him.

“You’re sure I can do it?” he asked despite it all. The idea of the Council had put a fear in his heart, and sleep hadn’t come. He hadn’t realized he’d packed himself up until he’d done it, and only then had his heart stopped beating a staccato rhythm within his chest.

“There are two things you must remember on this quest, Bilbo Baggins. Even the smallest person can change the course of the future, and love will endure when all else abandons you.” She brushed hair from his face. “Remember these two things, and your heart will be true.”

Even as he took these thoughts to mind, she extended her hand and gave him something that glowed more brightly than anything he’d ever seen. “This is the light of our brightest star. It will be a light for you when all other lights go out.”

The light dimmed slightly to show water in a crystal vial. Bilbo took it reverently, eyes widening. “How…it’s not glowing anymore.”

“Speak to it, and it will shine for you.”

“Speak…speak what? I don’t, I mean, I can’t speak Elvish.”

She smiled enigmatically. “You will know when the time comes. The star will not abandon you.”

Bilbo nodded absently, eyes still locked on the phial. A star. He was holding a star in his very hands. He clasped it to his breast and felt warmth for a moment, and then it faded. It had felt like…like being embraced by Thorin had felt. He shut his eyes tightly.

The Lady Galadriel rested a hand on his shoulder, causing him to look up. She gestured with her other hand across the glen, where a figure sat. “A friend would speak with you before you venture forth. Do not tell him of your leaving, for it would sadden him.”

The grass was still soft as silk beneath his feet as he approached the figure hidden mostly by a tree. Even before he caught sight of the hat, Bilbo began to smile. He’d know that humming voice anywhere. “Gandalf,” he said softly, and the figure on the large tree roots turned.

“Bilbo! What are you doing here, my lad?” Gandalf said, surprised. “I thought you were coming with Thorin tomorrow?”

Bilbo felt his smile fall, and Gandalf slowly let out a deep breath. “He has not changed his mind, then,” he said quietly. “I am sorry.”

“Didn’t…didn’t you come with them?” Bilbo asked curiously. “You were with them.”

Gandalf seemed to almost age right in front of him, and it was only then that he realized there was a bandage across Gandalf’s hand. “You’re hurt!” Bilbo said, kneeling to see it. “What happened?”

“I took my leave of Thorin when my shouting could not cut through the thrall of the gold. I had…business to attend to,” he said mysteriously, and Bilbo pinched his lips. Here they were, on the eve of the Council about the Ring, and Gandalf was trying to, what, protect him?

“I’m the reason they called the Council, Gandalf.” He dug into his pocket and pulled the Ring out. In front of Gandalf, the Ring seemed to hum, and Bilbo suddenly regretted his decision. Just because Gandalf was a wizard and wise didn’t mean the Ring wouldn’t call to him. He stayed where he was while Gandalf stared at it, rising from the roots he’d sat upon.

He leaned forward to examine it, but his hands went behind his back. Bilbo breathed slightly easier. “So you do have it,” Gandalf breathed, eyebrows knitting together. “Where did you find it? In the goblin caves? Or before that?”

“Should’ve known I wouldn’t be able to fool you,” Bilbo grumbled. He’d thought Gandalf had seen him tucking the ring into his pocket when he’d reappeared amidst the company.

“I’d seen you putting a ring into your pocket, yes, but it was only when Elrond spoke of you having the Ring that I allowed my mind to recall the events on the journey. You are full of surprises, aren’t you, Bilbo Baggins?”

Bilbo put the Ring back into his pocket when Gandalf seemed to have inspected it enough, and he could’ve sworn Gandalf looked less tense than he had before. “Where were you?” Bilbo asked again.

There was a gleam in Gandalf’s eyes, almost admiration, if Bilbo had to give it a name. “In Dol Guldur,” he said. “The Necromancer that Radagast faced – it was Sauron. I, with the help of my fellow wizards, sent him from Dol Guldur.”

Bilbo’s eyes kept widening until he was certain they’d fall from his face. “You…you faced Sauron?” he gasped. “You defeated him, then!” Perhaps that was why the Ring hadn’t shown that terrible eye again. Sauron was dead and gone-

One look at Gandalf’s face stopped any thoughts of that. “I only dismissed his presence from Dol Guldur. It was a very weak form he was attempting to take. Fortunately, while my actions will help Mirkwood and cleanse the evil within it, they will not help those who travel with you tomorrow. Sauron has retreated to Mordor, where he will only grow stronger.”

Of course. “At least he’s out of Mirkwood,” Bilbo offered. “The spiders will have to leave now. And the orcs will be chased out of there by the elves, I’m certain.”
Gandalf gazed at him for a long moment, then chuckled. “You always know how to see the brighter side of everything, don’t you?”

Except when it came to himself. Except when it came to his heart. Bilbo wasn’t certain he’d be able to hope again, though the Lady Galadriel’s kind words and Aragorn’s own story had helped.

The wizard stood, cracking his back and wincing as he did so. Bilbo flinched at how loud some of the cracks were. “You should rest,” Bilbo told him. “Tomorrow’s going to be a long day for you, I’m sure. For everyone,” he added quickly, but Gandalf didn’t seem to have caught anything amiss as he yawned.

“Indeed. You should also rest, Bilbo,” Gandalf said, patting Bilbo on the shoulder. Gazing up at the wizard who had become such a dear friend, the thought finally came to him, all too suddenly: This could be the last time I ever see him. He reached forward and wrapped himself around Gandalf’s legs, holding on tightly, shutting his eyes tight.

Gandalf seemed taken aback at the show of emotion. “Bilbo, is everything all right?” he asked.

“It’s just…I missed you,” he managed to choke out. “After, after Erebor…”

He was detached gently, only for Gandalf to kneel and pull Bilbo in for a proper embrace. “Oh, my dear Bilbo,” he murmured. “I am so sorry. I know that Thorin will come to his senses, if he has not already. Do not give up hope.”

Bilbo only held him tighter at his words, tears burning in his eyes. Perhaps, perhaps he should wait until morning for the Council, for Gandalf to go with him and the company.

You fears are well-founded.

He allowed himself a moment more, then pulled away, his eyes bright but dry. “Sleep, I think that’s what we need,” he said, and Gandalf allowed him the excuse.

“Sleep will bring the dawn, and the dawn, a better tomorrow. Get some rest, Bilbo.”

Some rest. Not all night – he needed to leave just before first light. But tonight, he could sleep under the safety of the trees of Lothlorien.

 

Dawn had barely broken over the horizon when the Lady Galadriel came to Bilbo, who was tying the last knot into his rucksack. A few elves had arrived not long before with gifts for him. They’d been kind enough to give him food for his journey, though Bilbo found he had no appetite this morning. The whole of Middle-Earth was about to converge onto Lothlorien, and he had to find the one way out that no one else would take to enter it.

They had also given him a cloak with a beautiful leaf pin to clasp at his throat. It had been hard to breathe or even utter thanks as he’d thought of the other pin he’d had, once.

She smiled, as if knowing his thoughts. She probably did. “Come; I will show you the river.”

River. Bilbo swallowed but fell into step beside her.

Boats waited by several docks, not even rocking slightly in the river. All was calm and still. He still kept his eyes off of the water. Hobbits didn’t do well in water, unless it was for a bath, and you’d be certain the water was shallow indeed.

“There is a path that goes alongside the river,” she said, and Bilbo let out a sigh of relief. “You will have to cross the river where it is shallow, but you will find the crossing place easily enough. Have you everything you need?”

“Yes,” he said, “oh, no, wait! There is…one last thing.”

He pulled from his pocket the letters he’d written and handed them to her. “Would you…would you be so kind as to send these to the Shire? I’ve already been gone so long, and the Sackville-Baggins will be all over Bag-End and the thought of them touching my mother’s things…” She’d been his inspiration to adventure as a child, and it was her he’d thought of as he’d wildly packed to catch up with the dwarves.

There were some days he missed her with an intensity that stole the air from his lungs. He wondered what she’d have thought of him, wandering around Middle-Earth and taking the One Ring to Mordor.

She probably would’ve approved and given him another biscuit, knowing her. He smiled at the thought.

Galadriel took his letters solemnly. “I will see that these are all delivered to their intended,” she said. Bilbo nodded his thanks. One for his Took cousins, one for Hamfast Gamgee, his beloved gardener, one for the Sackville-Baggins themselves, and one for the Thain, just to make things official. If he had not returned within three years time, Bag-End was to go to his cousins Primula and Drogo. They’d talked of beginning a family one day, and Bag-End could use the laughter of young hobbits again.

Then he remembered the letter on the bottom of the stack, and nearly reached for it back. “That’s…that’s not to go to the Shire,” he said hesitantly. “I could take that back, actually.”

Galadriel didn’t move and Bilbo reluctantly pulled his hand back. “You don’t have to give him that one,” he said softly.

“I have promised that these will be delivered to those whom they were intended for,” Galadriel said. “I believe your words will do him good.”

Given how Bilbo had written it, frustrated and unable to sleep and feeling heartache seeping into his very soul, he highly doubted it. At least he wouldn’t have to watch Thorin read it.

“The sun is near to rising,” she said. “And our visitors approach. They will follow by water, and may catch up if you do not go now.”

She was giving him one last chance to stay. Despite her words last night agreeing with his decision, she was letting him follow the path he thought right. She trusted him, he realized with a start. This wise and noble elf, one who could see the future and had lived through the ages, trusted him, a small hobbit, with this decision.

It was that knowledge that made him nod firmly and pull his pack higher on his back. “I suppose I’m off, then. Thank you. For everything.” They were poor words for such wonderful deeds, for such friendship, but they were all he had.

Her smile was radiant. “Goodbye, Bilbo Baggins. I hope that we may meet again, when darkness has left the land.”

He nodded and turned towards the path. His hand rose instinctively to where his mithril pin had been, then moved to the pin now at his throat, keeping his cloak about him. The elven cloak, they had said, would protect him from all dangers. He hoped the lightweight material would, as much as the mithril beneath his clothes would. He should have given it back to Thorin – or to Bard – but it was one gift from the king that he wouldn’t return. He couldn’t return it.

It could very well save his life, anyway.

One foot fell in front of the other, and before the sun had truly broken over the horizon, Bilbo was out of the forests and following the river.

 

The woods of Lorien were nothing at all like Mirkwood – the air was fresh and clear, and the trees were spaced enough apart that finding a path was easy. The trees were green and rising high, and sunlight streamed through the leaves.

Thorin would have enjoyed it more, perhaps, if his heart hadn’t been so sick over Bilbo.

Others were already in attendance by the time they made their way to the platform where the Council was gathering. There were enough chairs for all the dwarves, he realized with surprise, as if someone had anticipated the thirteen of them coming. They were stacked on a platform, the back row high enough to see the goings-on but still be included. Perhaps there was indeed a sorceress here.

Gimli certainly thought so, if his wide eyes were any indication. Fili and Kili were near to bursting with amusement, and even Legolas had a hint of it in his eyes. Thorin resisted rolling his eyes and looked around at the group.

Lord Elrond sat in a seat of high honor, beside an empty seat even more grand than his. A young man sat two seats from him; his long dark hair would’ve hidden his face if he wanted to, and no one else seemed to take notice of him. A Ranger, he would guess, by the way he held himself. This was someone who could not be seen, if he so desired. Interesting. The seat between the Ranger and Lord Elrond was vacant, and he paused on it for a moment before glancing elsewhere.

The elves of Mirkwood took their seats beside where the dwarves were to be seated. Legolas quickly took his leave of the group and approached the man. “Aragorn,” he said warmly, and the Ranger smiled.

“Legolas. I am glad to see you.” He spoke something in Elvish with such speed and accuracy, it was almost as if he were an elf himself. Thorin blinked. Rangers knew many languages, but he’d never known one to speak Sindarin so fluently. He was intriguing.

Thinking of other things wasn't any use: he couldn’t sit still anymore, he had to know. He headed over towards Lord Elrond, but stopped when a familiar face entered the Council.

“Gandalf!” Kili said cheerfully. “Where’ve you been?”

“On a quest of my own,” he said mysteriously, and Thorin let out a sigh. Of course. Riddles and more riddles. He’d get a straight answer from him, though. He changed course and asked his question, quiet but desperate.

“Have you seen Bilbo? Did you bring him with you?”

Gandalf shook his head, and the glimmer of anger entered the wizard’s eyes. “I did not bring him, but he is here.” The dwarves didn’t catch the anger, instead merely breathing sighs of relief and rejoicing that their friend was safe. Gandalf lowered his voice. “The numerous apologies you owe him, Thorin Oakenshield, are beyond my counting.”

“And mine,” Thorin said quietly, too relieved to say anything else. Bilbo was safe, Bilbo was here. “I am glad he’s safe, here. I had feared…”

The wizard’s eyes softened ever so slightly. “He is safe, though heartsick. Though you appear to have a taste of it, too.”

“If I do, it’s of my own making,” Thorin said firmly. “I will not rest until I know his heart is healed. Only then would I make an attempt to cure my own pains.” Believing that Bilbo was as heartbroken as he was hurt him to his very bones, but having it told that Bilbo’s heart was truly broken left him sore to his very soul. But Bilbo was here, and that meant he could make amends. He could make things right.

“The Lady Galadriel, who will reside over the Council.”

Elrond’s words made Thorin turn, and what he saw he was not expecting. She was mithril, polished until it shone, and her hair was more golden than all the treasure of Erebor. She moved with such grace to the vacant seat of honor, and when she met his eyes, he was stunned to see her offer him a smile.

If she was the sorceress, then Thorin would not object to this magic. Not when it left his heart so at rest.

Steps quickly approaching pulled his attention from her to the stairs, where men bearing the symbol of Gondor’s white tree quickly stepped up. “Our apologies,” the young man before them said, panting slightly. “The ride was long and hard.”

“Peace, Denethor, son of Ecthelion,” Elrond said, raising his hand. “You are arrived in time. Galadriel has just come to begin the Council.”

Denethor nodded, seemingly appeased. His eyes crossed over to the other seats, much as Thorin had done, but when he met with Aragorn and Legolas, his eyes narrowed. Legolas made to step towards him, but Aragorn’s quick catch of his wrist stilled him. If looks could have taken lives, however, then Denethor would’ve been smoldering ash on the Council floor.

No lost love between the elves and the men of Gondor, so it would seem. At least, not between Denethor and Legolas.

“This matter requires a Ranger and an Elfling’s presence?” Denethor said, and his voice was hard. “I thought it was of great urgency.”

“We have yet to know what the Council has even been called for,” Legolas said, and there was simmering fury in his gaze. “We have all been called, Denethor.”

“Including the dwarves,” Denethor continued, settling his gaze onto Thorin, and Thorin stiffened. “What have the dwarves of the wandering hills to do with this?”

“They wander no more, they are crowned. You will show them honor.”

The swift answer hadn’t come from Fili, or Dwalin, but from Legolas. Denethor stared in surprise, and he wasn’t the only one. Legolas stood firm in his words, not wavering in his stance, chin raised ever so slightly. Denethor finally gave a derisive snort and moved to the chairs left to them. “What honor would an elf show a dwarf, especially an elf of Mirkwood,” he muttered, loud enough for all to hear. “They do not have honor, last I have heard. And the King sends a mere babe to this meeting. Why does he not come himself?”

Legolas said nothing, but there was shame in his eyes now, and it unsettled something inside of Thorin, Of everything he’d learned from his quest for Erebor, it was that help came from kindness, and in all shapes and sizes, and so far, all Legolas had shown them was kindness. Even Thorin could admit to it. He would not return kindness with cruelty. Not when it had lost him perhaps the only person he would ever love.

Again, the voice against Denethor came not from Thorin, however, but from his sister-son. “That mere babe dares to walk through Mirkwood to guide others for safe travel,” Kili snapped, before he huffed a laugh. “I’d like to see you do the same.”

Denethor’s nostrils widened, but Galadriel raised her hand, and silence was held. Like magic, Thorin thought for a sudden moment. Legolas tipped his head to Kili, gratitude in his eyes. Kili gave what Thorin would’ve sworn was a bashful smile before settling beside Fili. Fili looked at his brother like he’d never seen him before. Thorin couldn’t truly blame him. Arguing with a Steward’s son for the honor of an elf.

Strange times, indeed.

“We call this Council for a peril that has come back into the world,” Elrond said. Galadriel gazed around at everyone, and Thorin thought for a moment that when her eyes rested on him, she looked straight through to his heart. He swallowed hard, ashamed at what she could see. Guilt, pain, fear that was abating, and so much regret. At least she wouldn’t see any gold there – it held no place in his thoughts or heart.

It was a small comfort indeed. Though, speaking of ‘small’…

“Where is Bilbo Baggins?” he asked. Gandalf frowned at his question, and all eyes turned to the empty chair beside Elrond. Thorin suddenly felt uneasy. “I was told he was here.”

“Where is he? Can’t he come to the meeting?” Fili asked.

“He is the reason the Council was called,” Elrond said, and though he appeared just as confused as everyone else, his eyes turned knowingly to Galadriel. She remained silent, and the uneasiness spread.

Gandalf was the first to speak, realization sparking in his gaze. “He is gone, then,” he said quietly, and Thorin stopped breathing.

“Gone?” Bofur choked out. “Was he…hurt?”

“No, not gone forever,” Gandalf said irritably, and his tone was so familiar that Thorin let himself breathe again. So long as Gandalf was annoyed, the world would continue on, he thought dryly. “He has taken leave of Lothlorien.”

“Who is Bilbo Baggins?” Denethor asked, bewildered. “Did he not know there was to be a Council?”

“He left the woods at first light,” Galadriel said, and her voice, oh, her voice. It was like the sweetest of music, a lilt of strings and pipes that harmonized and bewitched the soul.

Then her words struck him. “Left?” he whispered despairingly. He’d been so close. So close. He’d missed him by mere hours.

“He’d been anguished over something last night,” Aragorn said softly. “I could not tell what all it was, but while I had puzzled out some of the answers, I went to bed unsatisfied with the responses I’d been given.”

“Anguished is, perhaps, a good word for it,” Gandalf said, and the sigh he let out was one of deep sadness. “I should have known something was wrong. His call of a good night rang too strongly of a final farewell.”

Final farewell. Thorin shut his eyes.

“This Council is gathered to discuss what it is that Bilbo Baggins of the Shire carries with him,” Galadriel said. “It is for this reason that you have been summoned, for a company should go forth with him to keep him safe.”

“And yet he wanders alone?” Legolas asked. “Why could he not wait? A hobbit traveling alone is not safe.”

“A hobbit? This is all because of a Halfling?” Denethor said incredulously, and thankfully Galadriel spoke again before Denethor infuriated Thorin any further.

“He carries with him the One Ring, forged and worn by the Dark Lord Sauron. He moves to Mordor, where he intends to destroy it forever.”

The whole Council went still. Then everyone began speaking at once. Thorin sat back in his seat, staring at nothing.

The One Ring. Sauron’s Ring, the Ring that had doomed all of Middle-Earth, taken countless lives in the second age, and brought darkness into the world. And Bilbo had it.

His magic ring. The knowledge came swiftly and Thorin could’ve wept. That magic ring that had kept Bilbo invisible through the dungeons of the Elvenking. When they’d arrived in Lake-town, he’d looked so haggard and worn that the others had all but forced him into a bed, in order to rest and heal. He’d told Thorin later, when Thorin had come to look in on him, that he’d worn the ring for the majority of their time there, in order to keep safely hidden. He’d barely slept, barely eaten, but for all of that, the dark circles under his eyes, the ashen tone to his face, and the tremor in his hands hadn’t been explained.

Now, though. Now it all made too much sense. The evil in that ring had slowly been harming his hobbit. It seemed gold was always going to take and hurt the one he loved.

Do not despair, Thorin, son of Thrain.

Her lilting voice caught his attention, somehow louder than everyone else’s. The Council was still a group of loud voices, his dwarves well and truly a part of it, but for all of them, the only voice he heard was hers. She was gazing at him from across the Council room, and her eyes were more sharp than Smaug’s had ever been. He forced himself to sit upright before he gave into the urge to shudder.

He made the choice himself. While a wise choice to go alone, given what gold does to the minds of men, dwarves, and elves, I fear for his safety. Will you go with him?

He didn’t hesitate in his answer. I would follow him to the very fires of Mount Doom. And beyond, if given the chance.

Galadriel’s warm smile felt like a blessing. She gave him a nod, and Thorin stood tall. Though smaller in stature than the men and elves, his voice still rang above the din.

“SILENCE!”

The clamor came to a halt. Thorin took a deep breath before speaking. “Arguing and bickering over this foul thing will lead us nowhere. If we are to assist in any way, we must move quickly. He is a mere few hours ahead of us. If he keeps a steady pace, we can catch up.”

Denethor nodded. “I concur. We must find this hobbit and keep the Ring safe. It should be taken to Gondor.”

Thorin slowly turned to Denethor, who was smiling at last. “It belonged to Isildur, and to Isildur’s kingdom it should be returned. No one else has more a claim on it than us.”

“If that is how you would define it, then it should go to Isildur’s heir,” Legolas said, and there was a challenge in his tone. “Should it not?”

Denethor looked at him as if he were mad. “Isildur’s heir?” he asked with a scoff. “There is no heir left. The line was broken years ago.”

Legolas made to speak again, but Aragorn caught his wrist again. Legolas looked as if he wanted to resist, but finally stepped back. Denethor smirked in triumph. “As I was saying, the Ring should come to Gondor.”

“It was because of Gondor that the Ring was lost and not destroyed in the first place,” Elrond said, all but glaring at Denethor. “Tell me, why should the Ring go to Gondor?”

It wasn’t often that Thorin could say he agreed with an elf, but he could say it now. There wasn’t a single being on Middle-Earth that hadn’t heard the tale of Isildur and the Ring. It had all but passed into legend, but it was hard to dismiss the story as just another myth now. There was no mistaking the darkness that was creeping back into the world.

And there was no mistaking the gleam in Denethor’s eyes. Mahal, had he looked like that? Had Thorin appeared that mad to Bilbo, with only the want of the gold in his eyes? He had no idea what had roused him from his stupor, but looking at the man of Gondor now, he couldn’t help but shudder.

Perhaps Bilbo had been right to go off alone.

“We would keep it safe within the vaults,” Denethor defended. “Deep, deep down, where not even the darkest magic has ever been able to reach. It would be kept safe there, never to be used.” He paused, speaking again as if unable to stop himself. “Except in times of dire need.”

“You cannot use the Ring,” Aragorn said. “It only uses you. It is a dangerous foe all its own.”

“For a mere Ranger, perhaps,” Denethor said with narrowed eyes. “Not for a noble blood of the House of Gondor.”

“Show respect,” Dwalin growled, but Legolas couldn’t hold back anymore and strode over towards Denethor.

“He is no mere Ranger. He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn. You owe him your allegiance.”

Aragorn shut his eyes tightly. Arathorn: Thorin knew that name. Balin would’ve known immediately. From behind him, Thorin heard Ori’s sharp inhale. “Arathorn?” he whispered, almost in awe. “That would make you…”

“Isildur’s heir,” Denethor said, looking truly stunned for the first time since the Council had convened.

“I do not want the Ring,” Aragorn said. “I want no claim to it. It should be destroyed.”

“It is a gift!” Denethor exclaimed. “A gift to use as a weapon against Sauron!”

“Then that only proves you know far too little of the world,” Thorin said, his voice low. How could the man not see of the danger that the Ring was? “Gold carries its own danger, but that Ring is not a prize to be sought after. It is dangerous and would destroy you from the inside out.”

Aragorn gazed at him appraisingly. Thorin met his gaze briefly, then turned away. Gandalf’s gaze was much the same way, but there was also pride and approval. He wasn’t certain he deserved it, but he gave it a small nod.

Denethor’s face was red with embarrassment for a moment, then righteous anger quickly flooded it away. “And yet we would trust it in the hands of a Halfling?” he asked. “What makes him more special than the rest of us?”

“That ‘Halfling’ has more courage and strength than you could ever hope to achieve,” Kili said. “I would trust him with my life, and more than that, the lives of those I call dear.” The unspoken, I would not trust you, rang through the Council as loudly as if Kili had shouted it.

He would make a good ruler, too. Fili would reach the throne first, but Kili, Kili would be a good advisor. Erebor would be safe within the hands of his sister-sons. He allowed himself a moment of relief.

“We must catch up with Bilbo,” Gimli said, all but bouncing on the balls of his feet. He glanced at Galadriel for a moment and was graced with a bright smile. Thorin was fairly certain the young dwarf blushed before turning back to the Council. “We haven’t got much time.”

“Gimli’s right, if we were to go, it’d have to be now,” Dori said.

“It is a long journey, Master Dwarf,” Elrond said. “Would you all take it?”

Not all of them, Thorin would ensure that, but within their hearts, he knew they would all go. “For Bilbo,” Fili said with a nod, and there was a rumbling of agreement from them all.

Aragorn nodded. “I will go with you. I kept him safe from the orcs outside of Mirkwood – I would keep him safe through Mordor.”

“So he was beset by orcs,” Thorin said. It made his skin crawl to think of.

“And doing a fine job of defending himself until they had surrounded him,” Aragorn replied. He gave a half smile at the memory. “He was swift for someone so small. Even after I had joined the fray, he continued to defend himself until they were all fallen. He is brave, for someone so small.”

He was. He truly was. Hearing of Bilbo’s feats only made pride and admiration swell in Thorin’s heart.

“He will have my bow,” Legolas said with a small nod of his head. After a moment, Thorin accepted. Kindness came in all sizes, after all, and they would need much of it if they were to journey all the way to Mordor.

“And my axe,” Gimli said enthusiastically. Kili and Fili coughed in an attempt to cover up their chuckles, and even Elrond smiled.

“He will not,” Gloin muttered from the back. “He’s going home.”

He was, but there was no need to tell the young dwarf of that now. Not before the Council – Thorin would not shame him in that way. But Gimli would return to Erebor, and Fili and Kili would go with him. If something befell Thorin, he needed to know that the city they had reclaimed would be safe for the dwarves returning to the mountain. He needed to know it would be ruled after his passing.

They would make good rulers. Though he doubted telling them that would make them any happier about it. Thorin wasn’t entirely looking forward to explaining that to them.

Denethor looked unhappy about the turn of events, but he bowed low to Elrond and Galadriel. “If this is truly the will of the Council, then I shall represent Gondor and see this task done.”

“My bow would like to see your head done,” Kili muttered under his breath, so faint only those next to him heard. Still, Thorin noted that Legolas suddenly had need to cough, and the elf’s eyes slid over to Kili with a small grin. Just what Thorin needed: an elf who would encourage the inanity of his nephews.

“I will also be with you,” Gandalf said, rising at last. Thorin nearly kept forgetting how tall the wizard truly was, when he wanted to be. “It is my fault that Bilbo set out from his home in the first place; I bear responsibility for this task.”

“You did not tell him to take the Ring to Mordor,” Elrond pointed out. “That, he chose to do all on his own.”

Gandalf gave a half grin. “Of course it was. He’s a Baggins and a Took, which makes him determined and stubborn. Once he sets out on something, he will not deviate from it.”

Thorin hoped that included the matters of the heart, that Bilbo wouldn’t so easily give up on him. If he could just speak to Bilbo once, if he could just apologize to Bilbo, then…

When the Council is finished, come find me near the river.

He blinked at the soft voice in his head. Galadriel stared through him once more, and it was all he could do to stand upright under it. I have something to give you. Something from Bilbo.

It took everything to remain where he stood and to not follow after her as she gave the Council her blessing and took her leave. Elrond remained to speak to them about the particulars of the quest, and Thorin was forced to stay. The words ghosted through his ears, barely hearing anything that was said. All he could hear were the Lady’s words, like a balm on his aching heart.

I have something to give you. Something from Bilbo.

Perhaps Bilbo hadn’t given up on him, after all. Not yet.

Chapter Text

Lorien was as wide as it was deep, and the heights of the trees all but made Thorin dizzy. Still, he wandered up and down stairs to reach his destination.

When he finally found Galadriel, it was down by several boats that were obviously being prepared for their departing. He made his way over to her and stood beside her silently. It took every bit of self-control to keep from asking for what Bilbo had left for him, but she did not speak, and he almost feared to ask.

“He spoke of you.”

“Often?” Thorin asked, grateful for the words.

“Out loud, no. In his heart, though, it was a near constant cry of your name. You were ever present on his mind.”

Not in a good way, most likely. Thorin let his gaze drop to the water, his feelings torn within him.

A gentle hand, like the cool air that would sweep through a mountain, rested on his cheek, and he turned towards her. She bent down and smiled. “There is no remedy for his heart, or yours. Nothing but forgiveness will give you the relief you seek.”

“I do not deserve to even ask for it,” he rasped, his words choked in his throat. “If he denied me, it would be his right.” What he had done to Bilbo was more than wrong. He had cast him out, exiled him, all for cold, worthless gold. His mind had been so clouded, so led astray, and he blessed whatever it was that had freed him.

Galadriel tilted her head. “You do not know?” she asked.

“Know?”

“Of what freed you. Of what will free your heart from this anguish.”

Thorin shook his head. Galadriel’s smile widened, and if given all the mithril in the world, all the gold to work with, he would never be able to recreate the warmth and shine of that smile.

“Love,” she said gently. “Your love for him broke the thrall of the gold. His love for you is what motivates him to cast the Ring into Mount Doom.” Her smile faded slightly, her eyes deep and dark and all-seeing. “It may yet be this love that will determine the fate of Middle-Earth.”

He had always put his faith in things he could touch and see: his oaken shield, his sword, his friends, his kin. Yet the love he felt for Bilbo pulled at the very threads of his soul, sending him this way and that, blazing bright within his heart. He loved his nephews, his sister, his brothers in arms. They were a warmth he kept in his heart, one he coveted and kept deep within himself where no one else could take it from him.

The love he felt for Bilbo touched every part of him, from his mind to the very tips of his toes, curled in his boots. It felt as if it were so obvious that everyone could see it. There was nothing he would not do for the hobbit, his hobbit. The joy he would feel, if he could make amends with Bilbo, was almost terrifying.

If he could make amends. Which meant they needed to leave swiftly, if he had any chance of catching up with the hobbit.

Her hand withdrew from his face, only to offer him a folded parchment. Curious, he took it from her, stilling when he began to open it and recognized the lettering underneath. “Bilbo,” he breathed.

“He wrote several letters to be sent to the Shire, in his continued absence. This one was the only one intended for no other purpose than that of the heart.”

He made to unfold it further, but her hand stopped him. “Do not open it now. Keep it until you have caught up with him. You will need it then.”

After a moment, he reluctantly nodded and put it deep within his coat. He had trusted her this far: he’d trust her further still. “I thank you. For all that you have done. For him, most of all.”

She smiled again. “For that, you owe me no thanks. He is a friend. I look forward to the day when we may also call each other friend.”

Reconciliation. Bilbo had asked him once, “I can understand why you’re angry at Thranduil, but what has Lord Elrond done to you? What of the other elves who weren’t part of Thranduil’s turning away?”

They had not been involved. Yet Thorin had laid the blame of Thranduil’s error on them, nonetheless. “That day may be closer than you think,” Thorin said, daring to meet her gaze.

She gave him a bow, which he returned. “I believe it is, Thorin, son of Thrain,” she said, a glimmer of a smile on her face. “Your kin approach. I wish you good tidings.” Then she was gone.

Good tidings: he was going to need it. Fili and Kili led the group over to him, smiling bright as ever. “We ready?” Fili asked.

“I am, yes,” Thorin said, and instantly his sister-sons narrowed their gazes. He sighed. For all their silliness, sometimes his nephews could be too smart for their own good. “If something were to happen to me-“

“Then Mum could take over,” Kili said firmly. “Wouldn’t it be better for us to come along and keep you safe, then? Mum would skin us alive if something happened to you.”

“And what would happen if something befell either of you?” Thorin returned with a glare. “Skinning me alive would be a kindness, compared to what your mother would do to me.” Dis would kill him if either of her sons was hurt. Never mind what Thorin would do to himself if they were wounded, or worse.

“No: we’re coming with you.”

“You will return to Erebor, Fili, and you will take Kili and Gimli with you.”

“What? Now wait just a minute!”

“Gimli, this is now no longer a walk through the forests,” Thorin explained patiently. “I cannot allow you to go with us.”

Gimli looked just as devastated as his nephews were beginning to appear. Thorin sighed. “You are the future of Erebor. If I have a breath within my body to protect you, I will.”

Fili gave a short nod at last. “Understood.” He made to turn, then stopped, biting his lip. “We just…wanted to see Bilbo.”

“And talk with him. Tell him we were sorry. But…you could do it for us, I suppose,” Kili said, and even his hair hung sadly about his face.

Thorin’s resolve was crumbling like an avalanche. They hadn’t disagreed with Thorin that day when Bilbo had been banished. They had stood by his side, solemn and saddened by it, but they had agreed with Thorin in the end. They had said nothing when Bilbo had turned to go. They deserved to speak with Bilbo, too.

“You may come with us as far as Bilbo,” Thorin said, and they perked up immediately. “Only until we find Bilbo, though. Then you have to return to Erebor.”

“Absolutely.”

“Positive.”

“We’ll go back after we talk to Bilbo.”

“You won’t regret this.”

He was already regretting it. “See that everything is ready with the boats,” he said with a sigh, and all three young dwarves hurried off. That left him with his company. He began to speak, but Bofur shook his head.

“Don’t bother, lad. We’re going with you.”

“You cannot all come,” Thorin insisted. “If orcs are circling Mirkwood, they will surely head to Erebor and Esgaroth. The men will need defending, as will any traveling dwarves. I would not give this task to anyone else except you. You are no longer toymakers, tinkers, and scribes. You are my men, and I hold you to this high office.”

They had been loyal and willing to follow him through every danger. There was truly no one else he could trust more than those before him. The company before him looked at him with a wonder for the honor he had bestowed upon them.

“Someone’s still got to come with you,” Dwalin said, breaking the spell. “Don’t even think about it, laddie. M’going with you.”

He hadn’t thought any differently. Still, Thorin gave him a wry grin. “I had assumed as much,” he admitted.

Dwalin nodded. Thorin turned to the rest of the company, seeing willing hearts in every one of them. How could he tell them all to go?

“I’m going with you,” Bofur said quietly. When Thorin turned to protest, Bofur shook his head so hard his hat twisted sideways. He quickly righted it and spoke. “And not really for you, though I’d follow you anywhere, you should know that. But I’m going for Bilbo.” He gave a small smile. “He’s my friend. And I’ll not leave him.”

That would be two whom he could not send back. The rest of the group looked just as determined, and Thorin sighed. “There may not be enough room in the boats,” he said.

“Bombur’d probably float like a raft all on his own,” Nori pointed out, and they all gave a hearty laugh. Even Thorin’s lips turned up. Bombur just shrugged good-naturedly and continued munching on…some sort of bread. Where he’d gotten it, Thorin didn’t know.

“What is that?” Oin asked, also intrigued.

Bombur finished the small loaf and licked his fingers. “Lembas, I think the elf said. Not bad for elvish food.”

“Lembas?” Ori repeated in confusion.

Legolas, passing by, heard the question and answered. “Yes, Lembas bread. One small bite can fill the stomach of a grown man. It is quite filling.”

He continued on, not noticing the looks everyone was giving him. As one they turned to Bombur. “How many have you had?” Dori asked at last.

Bombur burped and shrugged again. “Lost count. Tasty things. Could have another.”

That set them all off again. Thorin shook his head, watching Aragorn and Denethor heading to the boats. “You cannot all come with us,” he said, hating himself for destroying their brief moment of levity. “Not all the way to Mordor. Someone has to guard Erebor and Esgaroth.” He’d promised peace to Bard and his people, and he would keep it.

He was greeted with smiles, which surprised him. “’Course we can’t,” Dori said. “But know that we would.”

“I do know,” Thorin said gratefully. “Thank you.”

“We want to go see Bilbo. Then we’ll head out,” Gloin said.

Bifur made a deep grunt and gestured with his hands a firm agreement. Thorin nodded. “Then we must get to the boats, for we have a long way to catch up.”

He only hoped they would catch up.

“Not sure I trust elven craft enough to ride in one,” Dwalin muttered as they made their way down to the boats.

Nori snorted. “Better than elven barrels, I’d wager.”

 

The river made a soft, quiet sound beside him as Bilbo walked along the path. It was less path-like now, more random pebbles and sand that kept threatening to trip up his feet. He’d found a stick that had been long and straight, and he’d broken it down to size to keep him walking steady. It had helped with the tougher terrain.

The sun was high above him, bearing down on him and making him wish the elves hadn’t packed quite so much food. He’d gotten used to a heavy pack on the first leg of the quest for Erebor, mind, but he’d quickly learned that he could do with much less. Food, however, was a necessity. He’d already broken down and nibbled on some of the bread they’d given him. It hadn’t been anything close to a loaf of good, warm, hobbit bread, but it had quelled the gnawing in his gut and let him keep going.

Up ahead, it appeared as if the river took a turn. Bilbo quickly made his way up and over a small cresting hill and down to the riverbank. Only then did he get his first good look at what was ahead.

The river went wide, wider than he’d expected, and for so much farther. The water was no longer as still, but with a gentle wave that would still pull him under. He had no idea where he was or how much farther he had to go; his map was firmly tucked into his sack. All he remembered was that he had to follow the river until he couldn’t anymore. It appeared he’d do that for quite some time.

A soft sound caught his ears, and he turned, glancing all around for the source. Again it sounded, this time louder than before.

“Bilbo!”

Several boats appeared, and Bilbo could see them now – the dwarves and Aragorn, Gandalf and others he did not know, and…

Thorin. Thorin. Seated in one of the boats near the front, paddling swiftly down the river. Their eyes met, and Bilbo quickly looked away.

They’d caught up; seemed for all his walking over the day, he hadn’t managed to evade them after all.

“Bilbo!” Kili called cheerfully again, and urged his brother to head towards the shore. Fili didn’t need any more encouragement, already paddling towards Bilbo. Bilbo stayed where he was, but he warred with the urge to run. They’d catch up with him in the woods though, unless he climbed a tree, but they’d be back soon enough. He could put the Ring on and disappear-

The thought whispered so swiftly and sweetly in his mind that he nearly tumbled onto the stones. “No,” he murmured. He was never putting the Ring on. Ever.

“You’re all right!”

“We’ve missed you!”

“So good to see you!”

“Enough!” Gandalf said loudly from his boat. Fili and Kili turned in surprise. “Aragorn, lend your paddle to our aid, please,” the wizard said, voice not as intimidating now. “Fili and Kili, back to the others.”

“But-“

“You will speak with him in good time; for now, he needs safe passage down the river. I care not for where we are: we must make haste.”

Soon enough, Aragorn and Gandalf were right in front of him. “In we go, my lad,” Gandalf said, offering his hand. Bilbo held back his sigh and let himself be helped into the boat.

“I don’t really do water,” Bilbo muttered nervously, looking over the sides of the boat. Hobbits didn’t go out into the water for a reason.

“Steady now; you’ll be safe with us. Aragorn won’t tip the boat, and you’ll not drown while we’re here,” Gandalf said softly. Even softer, he whispered to Bilbo, “I am glad you’re safe.”

Bilbo gave him a weak smile. He would be safer with Gandalf and Aragorn, he supposed. Though he’d been startled to see all of the dwarves following in boats of their own: that, he hadn’t been expecting.

And really, all his thoughts were wandering in an attempt to not think of the dwarf two boats to his right, the dwarf he could feel staring straight through him. Why had Thorin come? Had Thorin read his letter?

All he wanted to do was talk to him, to be back on a proper footing, for Thorin to forgive him and for the Arkenstone to be nothing more than, than a…

It’s but a trinket.

Bilbo reached for the pin at his throat and miserably sank into the boat. He should’ve run when he’d had the chance. It would’ve been better than knowing he’d have to face Thorin, now.

 

As desperately as he’d wanted to see Bilbo, Thorin found that he couldn’t speak to him now.

Never mind that they were in completely different water crafts. He could have called out to Bilbo easily and heard any replies without trouble. The reasons which made him hesitate from doing so were twofold. The first was that their conversation was to be in private. This was not something he would give an audience to. As much as he should have shouted the truth to everyone who would hear, he doubted the hobbit would appreciate it.

The second reason was the hobbit himself. Bilbo had all but folded himself up in the small boat, looking positively wretched. His gaze refused to move from Aragorn’s cape in front of him, and Thorin could not pull his gaze from Bilbo. Bilbo, who was whole and alive and not hurt, not dead, not a prisoner of orcs. There could have been no worse fate, and Bilbo had not had to suffer it.

If he could just talk to the hobbit, things would be so much better.

“Stop, everyone stop.”

Thorin froze, his paddle still in the water. Bilbo turned to Gandalf, who was whipping his head from shore to shore. “What is it?” Gloin asked the wizard.

“Something approaches,” Legolas whispered, blue eyes scanning through the trees. “Orcs.”

“But it’s sunlight,” Bofur said, puzzled. “They’ll avoid sunlight at any cost!”

“Unless they’re on a hunt,” Aragorn said, and everyone turned to Bilbo. Bilbo swallowed but said nothing.

Denethor gestured towards Bilbo’s boat. “I still maintain that it should be taken to Gondor, where it would be safe. Orcs couldn’t touch it there!”

“Denethor-“

“I wouldn’t trust it in the hands of men,” Bilbo said firmly, ignoring Gandalf’s brief interruption. “I’ve seen what gold does, and this gold is far more potent than your usual trinkets.” The word was all but spat, and Thorin felt his chest tighten. The letter that had burned against his skin no longer held a call to read it immediately. He would read it later, when his spirit could handle it.

Bilbo had not forgiven him, that much was certain.

“It needs to be destroyed,” Bilbo continued. “You have to see that.”

Denethor’s response was halted when Legolas sat up further in his boat, somehow not tipping it. “Something is approaching,” he said. “A small army of orcs, led by a rider on a white warg.”

Azog. Thorin turned to Bilbo and was stunned to find Bilbo gazing at him with fear in his eyes. Bilbo looked away quickly, but Thorin had seen it. Fear not for himself, but for Thorin. A small tendril of hope began to grow, despite the despair of their situation.

“We’ll be dead in the water,” Dwalin said. “We need to get to even ground to fight. We’ll never outrun ‘em with the boats.”

“If we can get farther down the river, we can get to Amon Hen, where the higher crags can protect us,” Legolas argued.

Aragorn shook his head. “Amon Hen is still at least seventy miles away. We’ve covered good ground this day, but not that good.”

“From what side, Legolas?” Gandalf barked. “The eastern shore?”

Legolas scanned both sides, his face grim. “Yes. They’re tracking us.”

“There is no safe stop on the western shore right now,” Gandalf said. His lips were pinched tight, and he urged Aragorn to paddle on. Thorin quickly followed suit. “We must get further down, past the North Undeep if we can. That is their best shallow crossing point.”

“They could still cross at the South Undeep,” Denethor protested. Aragorn shook his head.

“While still a shallow crossing point, it is not that shallow, and it is narrower. If anything, it would be a better place to make a stand: we could trap them there.”

“Then we make haste,” Gandalf said, and everyone put their oars into the water all the quicker. “Legolas, I will need your eyes.”

Legolas nodded and handed the oar over to Gloin, who sat in front of him. Gimli, who was in front of his father, looked ready to lend his hands as oars if that meant moving quicker.

Thorin began paddling faster down the river, Dwalin lending his strength behind him. “From the fire again,” he muttered. He just wanted one moment, one small moment, to speak to Bilbo, to ease the heartache that was twisting his stomach and constricting his chest. Just one moment.

“You’ll get a chance,” Dwalin murmured, as if reading his mind. “Even if I have to slaughter a dozen orcs to do it.”

The thought shouldn’t have been so cheering, but it was. “Hopefully I’ll have a moment before the orcs come.” He wasn’t certain he’d last until after the battle. Though, if he didn’t have a chance, there was always the promise of slaughtering the orcs in his path.

They wandered down the river for a time, a faster pace than before, when a cry from the eastern shore caught their attention. “Wargs,” Legolas said. He had his arrows out and notched before anyone else could say anything. Kili quickly followed suit, and Thorin found himself a small amount of amused at the quick bewilderment that passed across the elf’s face. Wasn’t often you saw a dwarf with a bow.

Nothing moved on the eastern shore. “Pull towards the western banks; we’re not far from the North Undeep now,” Gandalf said, his voice low but loud enough for them to hear. “The sooner we can cross it, the better. Hurry!”

All the boats drifted towards the western shore. Bilbo’s boat wound up so close to Thorin’s that if he’d but wanted to, he could’ve reached out and touched the hobbit. Up close, Bilbo seemed tense and strung as tight as Kili’s bow, with an array of emotions crossing his face that Thorin couldn’t hope to decipher. Bilbo said nothing, and Thorin also kept silent.

Just one moment, Mahal, he just wanted one moment with his burglar.

The rocks from beneath them soon turned into smaller pebbles that their boats couldn’t drift over. Grass grew close to the edge of the water, and the trees thinned out. “The North Undeep,” Gandalf said. “We’ll carry the boats across and keep going. Legolas, how close are they?”

“Very close,” Legolas said. “Too close. I do not think we’ll make it further down the river.”

It would take them a few minutes to pick up the boats and hurry across the shallow waters, precious minutes that they perhaps didn’t have. “Can we make a stand here?” Dwalin asked.

“Possibly. The water on the other side of the Undeep goes quickly deep. Deep enough to drown them.”

Bilbo shuddered at Aragorn’s words. Thorin remembered when they’d crossed a river on their first quest and his nephews had nearly drowned. Bilbo had been beside himself, terrified and barely able to speak as his sister-sons had coughed out water and roused themselves. Only after he’d been certain that they were all right had he finally explained that drowning was the death most hobbits suffered besides old age. All hobbits feared the water. He ached to reach out and comfort him.

“They have halted,” Legolas said, and everyone paused from getting out of the boats. “They hesitate on the border.”

“Why?” Ori asked. “Can you see?”

Legolas shook his head. “’Course he can’t see,” Nori muttered irritably. “He’s an elf, not a seer, Ori.”

Legolas seemed to pay no heed to the words, but his lips thinned. “Do we move on or build a defense here?” Thorin asked Gandalf, if just to halt a possible oncoming quarrel.

Gandalf thought for a moment. “Defense,” he said at last. “They could be mounting an air assault with their archers. Collect whatever wood you can find: there won’t be much. Stones, too.”

Wood indeed. The trees had thinned, growing only along the shore for a time. Through the slight slope heading down to the west, Thorin could make out the bare, nearly brown plains that ran wild with several hills and rugged crags jutting from the earth. The Wold. If they were pushed back through the meager trees and down the sloping hill, then they would be easily picked off by any orcs. Either they would be hunted across the plains or trapped on top of a deadly drop: neither were instances he cared for.

“Stash the boats; we may yet have need of them. Kili, you and Legolas will be our eyes.” Gandalf gestured towards the trees. “Secure yourselves a safe firing distance from the Undeep, and prepare to do battle.”

Kili nodded and took off for the trees, only slightly behind the elf. “The rest of you will be on setting up a defense,” Gandalf said. “Go! Quickly!”

Thorin moved with the others, then hesitated, seeing that Bilbo had been pulled back by Gandalf. “I can help,” Bilbo was saying. “Let me at least gather things here at the shore.”

“Then quickly,” Gandalf agreed. “But not much further. If an attack is mounted, I want to be able to send you down river as soon as I can, if the need arises.”

Bilbo looked ill at the very thought of going down the river again, especially alone, but nodded. His brave little hobbit. Thorin paused for a moment more, then carefully began picking up the bigger logs he could find nearest the shore. He began lining them up on the shoreline, building up small walls to cut off the enemy. And ever so slowly, he began making his way over to Bilbo.

He was nearly over to the hobbit when Bilbo suddenly stood, turned, and nearly ran into him. They both stumbled back a bit, and when Thorin looked at him, Bilbo’s eyes held fear.

Mahal, he was going to be sick. Anything but fear, please. “Burglar,” he greeted, and knew immediately it was the wrong thing to say. He hadn’t wanted to say Bilbo, though, because he no longer knew if he had that right. Even ‘Master Baggins’ was too familiar. He would earn them back.

The fear was being replaced by hurt – even worse than fear – but both quickly gave way to frustration and anger. “I suppose I am,” Bilbo said bitterly. He huffed a short, unhappy laugh. “That’s all I’ll ever be to you, now, isn’t it?”

“No,” Thorin said firmly. “You are more than that.” So much more than you know.

“No, that’s true,” Bilbo said, but it wasn’t said with a soft smile or a hopeful glance. No, it was with anger covering barely hidden, deep, lasting hurt. “I’m a traitor, too, isn’t that right? A betrayer to your kingdom?”

“No-“

“A burglar of the highest caliber, because I stole the Heart of the Mountain, and how dare I?” he said, and he was louder now, his voice trembling. The others were slowly stopping to watch them both, but all Thorin had eyes for was the hobbit falling apart before him.

“Bilbo-“

“Was I nothing more than a trinket?” Bilbo whispered, anger fading into pain, and Thorin’s heart finally broke completely. “A trinket to be tossed by the wayside when you, when you finally got your gold back?”

All the words Thorin wanted to say cut off his air and left him staring, completely mute, at the hobbit before him. There was so much self-doubt, so much hurt, and anything he said now would never be enough. He could speak until his voice gave out, but he would never be able to heal the hurts he had inflicted with only his words.

Actions spoke louder than words. And he would prove it to Bilbo as they journeyed. He had a whole adventure before him to do so with.

For now, though, words were all he had in the face of Bilbo’s pain, and he had to say something. “You could never possibly begin to imagine what I felt when-“

“Orcs!”

Thorin’s low and pained words were cut off by Kili’s cry. Orcs were racing across the Undeep, charging forward in a thick, solid line. They had tree branches and slices of bark cut to form shields beside and above them, keeping them safe. That’s why they waited, Thorin thought wildly. They were preparing to cross safely.

His next thought came swiftly after the first. Bilbo.

With one arm he swept the hobbit behind him; the other he used to pull Orcrist out. Already Legolas and Kili were firing arrow after arrow into the oncoming enemy lines. Several orcs began to fall and trip up those behind them, and for once, Thorin was glad to have his sister-son and an elf alongside him. If they had left with a smaller company, they would have been less defended. Bilbo would have been less defended.

Aragorn and Denethor had hauled more trees to the front line, and Bifur, with Dwalin and Gloin’s help, had rolled out several stones to block the end of the Undeep. The orcs would either have to climb over the hastily built wall or attempt to cross through the deep parts of the river. The wall would come down, but not yet.
More arrows flew down to the orcs, and the number thinned. Suddenly, arrows from the eastern shore began to pelt them, and Thorin barely managed to duck two that came his way. “We must get Bilbo away!” Fili yelled.

“We cannot send him down the river!” Gandalf shouted in reply. “He’ll be shot!”

Suddenly the orcs cried out in pain, and a warg jumped the wall, having apparently used the orcs as a leaping point. Dwalin’s axe made quick work of the warg, but two more appeared, and the numerous orcs on its back jumped over the wall before Kili and Legolas could take them out.

They were going to be overrun. “Go!” Gandalf bellowed, apparently having thought the same thing. Bilbo was already running, his sword out in his hand as he dashed into the trees. Thorin immediately followed after, but two orcs kept him from the hobbit’s side. He felled them as swiftly as he could, seeing that the other dwarves were occupied with sudden foes as well.

Arrows began to move from the shoreline to the trees, and a cry of pain pulled Thorin’s attention. “Kili!” Fili shouted desperately, racing to his brother’s side. Already Legolas appeared to be moving in much the same direction, covering Fili as he flew to his brother.

The joy of having his nephews fighting beside him dwindled into a gut-wrenching fear as he realized he could lose them both here, on the shores of the Great River, all because he had not told them to remain behind. They should be in Erebor, we should all be in Erebor, with Bilbo beside me, Bilbo!

He raced into the woods. Fili was already by Kili’s side, when he found them, and Kili grimaced but remained standing. “I’m fine,” Kili assured him tightly. “Just got clipped, that’s all. Go, find Bilbo, quick! We’ll hold the front line.”

“Trust us,” Fili said, and Thorin had no other choice now. He gave them a firm nod, his heart telling him not to leave them, but he had to find Bilbo. Bilbo was the highest priority now, for if the Ring fell into the hands of the orcs, if it fell into Azog’s hand…

He ran.

Chapter Text

Bilbo cleared the trees in a short amount of time and found himself out on a bare, brown field. There were flat plains and jagged hills, and the high rocks that cut through the earth and into the air were high enough to be frightening. He could see a river to his right that had cut a path through the rocks, making them sharp cliffs that made for a narrow path. There was a short slope down to the left, but even steeper and narrower than the slope he’d hastened down through the trees. Wargs would have no problem with it, not at all.

They were going to be cut off. They were all going to die.

He’d heard Fili’s cry for his brother, heard the battle shouts behind him. Gandalf had pushed him into the woods, and he’d gone. All while trying not to think of the dwarf he’d shouted at, the one who had begun to say…something. Something he couldn’t dwell on now.

“Hurry!” Gandalf said from behind him, and Bilbo hurried onward. Around them were high rocks everywhere. In the plains, they’d be easy pickings. But if they went up the rocks, they’d be trapped. Where was he supposed to go?

“Gandalf-“

He was turned swiftly around, Gandalf’s hands grasping his shoulders tightly as he knelt in front of Bilbo. “You will go down, and you will let us draw them away. Stay near the tree line – if you need to, you can always climb and be safe. Run, and don’t look back. Do you understand?”

He understood too well. For all his fear of the company joining him, he was now terrified of the exact opposite. “But you’ll catch up,” he said. His heart beat so fast in his chest he thought he’d pass out. “Right?”

Gandalf didn’t answer, yet it was an answer all the same. He shoved something into Bilbo’s hands – his pack. “Go now, and don’t turn back,” he said again. “Don’t be a fool: run!” He gave Bilbo a shove towards the rocks on the left, which led down a steep way to the plains. Bilbo only stumbled once before he kept going. Down, down he flew, his feet stumbling and catching beneath him, threatening to trip him up. He wondered for a brief, crazed moment where his walking stick was, but it would be no use here, not now, and of all the times to think of a walking stick, Bilbo Baggins, this was not the time.

Voices, familiar voices, familiar shouts and curses, pulled at him from behind. There was the clang of swords, the death cry of an orc, but nothing that said who lived. Nothing that said Thorin lived.

Despite Gandalf’s last words, Bilbo turned and looked back.

They were all fighting up on the highest rocky crag near the edge of the trees, overturning enemy after enemy. Not a single orc thought to look down towards the slight valley near the trees, where Bilbo was. All they saw were dwarves and men. Well, dwarves, a man, and an elf: the man named Denethor, Fili, and Kili were still missing. Still in the forest somewhere.

Suddenly a bright and loud trumpet blast rang through the air. “The horn of Gondor!” Aragorn cried, and he sliced through his enemies before hurrying back into the woods. The elf followed him, leaving Bilbo a perfect view when an orc cut through their defenses and knocked Gloin down. The dwarf yelled but then went silent.

Bilbo froze. Time seemed to slow as his eyes wandered across the group. Bofur and Bifur were racing into the woods with Aragorn. Oin flew to his brother’s side, his own weapon cleaving through the orc lines. And off in the distance, past the other dwarves who still remained standing, stood Gandalf, facing off against two wargs. He struck one down and also its rider with a carefully placed blow, then moved to the second one. He had barely struck it when the warg caught him with a flailing paw and knocked him down. The warg’s legs were suddenly unable to support itself under Gandalf’s attack. It tumbled and disappeared, having fallen over the cliff near the river. The tallest cliffs that Bilbo had seen.

And it took Gandalf with it.

He closed his eyes. Tears leaked from beneath his eyelids, and he wished he hadn’t turned around. Wished he hadn’t watched Gloin fall and Gandalf…Gandalf

When he opened his eyes again, the orcs were retreating as best they could, but were being cut down by Dwalin and Nori. On top of the rocks, near the battle, stood Thorin, gazing down at where Bilbo stood. Their eyes met and held, and Bilbo didn’t know what the wild stare in Thorin’s eyes meant. He’d yelled at him, poured out his heart’s sickness and all but cursed the dwarf when what he’d really meant was to beg forgiveness, to be held, but he’d suddenly been too violently angry instead.

You could never possibly begin to imagine what I felt when-

He didn’t know what Thorin’s words meant, either. He didn’t know what any of it meant anymore, how any of this was worth a thing. It was too much, all of it. For once, his courage failed him.

He turned and ran.

 

Thorin watched him run and began following him down when Bofur came racing out of the forest. “They took ‘em,” he gasped, eyes wide and shimmering.

Thorin felt his heart stop. “Took…”

“Fili and Kili,” Bofur said, still panting. “The orcs took ‘em. Over across the eastern shore.”

“What do we do?” Dori asked. He was all but covered in orc blood, and he could barely turn his gaze from Ori. The young dwarf appeared fine, if but a little covered in blood himself. Too close, though. Much too close. “What do we do?”

For the first time in his life, Thorin didn’t have an immediate answer. His nephews, the closest things he’d ever have to sons, were prisoners of orcs, the most vile of endings. Azog had his sons, and the thought put so great a fear in his heart that he felt as if his legs would give beneath him.

But Bilbo was alone. He swept the plains for the hobbit and found him still running along the trees as fast as he could go. He was alone, alone, and Thorin had made nothing right.

“Thorin? What do we do?”

No matter his answer, he felt as if he were damning himself. He would lose them all, he thought, and it made his vision darken as if he’d pass out.

He took a breath and let the traitorous words fall from his lips. “Gather up what you can – we follow the orcs, and swiftly.”

“Be right…right there…”

Thorin quickly turned and hurried to Gloin’s side. The dwarf was gasping for air, but when Thorin looked for the wound, he found cool, hard mithril instead. “I could kill you myself!” Oin cried, wrapping his brother in a tight embrace, and Thorin let out a sigh of relief. He’d felt the breath torn from him when he’d seen Gloin fall – to know he was safe now was a balm on his soul.

“Da!” Gimli yelled, hurrying over to join Oin. He wrapped Gloin in a massive embrace, weeping quietly. The young dwarf hadn’t suffered any injuries, it appeared. He’d fought well for one so young. They’d all done surprisingly well, given the onslaught. Only Gandalf had fallen, then.

Gandalf.

He turned to the crag, slowly approaching. He could hear the river below rushing through; if the fall hadn’t killed him outright, the river would’ve. Wizard or not, one could only fight nature for so long. He’d watched Gandalf fall, and something had made him turn to where no one was looking: to the left, where Gandalf had led the orcs away from.

He’d found Bilbo, eyes closed, grief on his face, tears on his cheeks. And then Bilbo had opened his eyes, stared at him, and run.

He leaned over as far as he dared, looking down into the rushing waters. He saw nothing of the warg or the wizard who’d killed it. He shut his eyes and whispered a parting blessing for warriors. It was the least he could do for someone whom he’d called a…a friend. He truly had.

Rocks slipping made him immediately take a step back, but it hadn’t been from beneath his feet. A bloody hand wrapped itself around a rock below him, and Thorin dropped to his knees in shock. “Gandalf?” he called, stunned.

Eyes with a touch of fear in them met his, and the wizard even still had his hat on. “I need aid!” Thorin shouted, reaching down as far as he could. Hands caught hold of his own legs, letting him reach further. He stretched and wrapped his fingers around Gandalf’s wrist. Gandalf nodded in relief and let go of the rocks, grasping instead Thorin’s hand.

It took several long minutes, but at last the wizard was up on solid ground. “We thought you’d gone over!” Ori cried.

“I did go over, Master Ori,” Gandalf said, breathing harshly. The fear began to leave his eyes – apparently even wizards were susceptible to the fear of death. “I just happened to not go all the way down. Where is Bilbo?”

No one else had the answer. Thorin swallowed. “He’s gone,” he said, and Gandalf turned sharp eyes on him. “Following the river and trees south.”

“Good,” the wizard said at last. “You’ve kept him safe, and that’s what counts.”

“He thinks you’re dead,” Thorin said sharply, glaring at the wizard. “He watched you fall.”

Gandalf looked pained. “Stubborn Took,” he muttered, pulling himself to his feet. “I told him not to look back.”

Thorin didn’t even know that Legolas was near until the elf spoke, surprising him enough to make him jump. “Denethor is failing,” he said with regret. “Fili and Kili have been taken.”

Denethor was news to him, though the plight of his nephews was not. Gandalf, however, immediately hurried to the trees. “Quickly!” he barked, and Thorin hurried after. He paused for a moment to gaze out where Bilbo had gone, but he couldn’t even see the hobbit anymore.

Bilbo was well and truly on his own, now. He let out a deep breath and raced back up the slight slope towards the river.

By the shoreline was Denethor, with Aragorn knelt above him. Off to the side, Oin was tending to Nori, who looked pale and bloody but alert. Wounded, not dying. Not like Denethor.

Denethor reached out, to him Thorin realized, and he made his way to the man’s side. “I couldn’t, couldn’t stop them,” he gasped when Thorin came near. He knelt by the man, puzzled. “The orcs,” Denethor tried to explain, then coughed, blood passing his lips. “They took…”

He’d fallen defending his sister-sons. His anger at what he’d deemed an insufferable man-child, arrogant and greedy, fell to the side. Denethor was wounded now because he’d tried to save Fili and Kili. “Thank you,” he whispered hoarsely.

Denethor coughed again, his eyes pained. “I tried to, to keep them safe but the orcs, they knew their names, they…”

Thorin went cold. “They’re alive,” Denethor tried to assure him, but that only made it worse. They would suffer under the hands of the orcs. They would suffer under Azog, for it was the Pale Orc who’d obviously ordered the raid. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted the Ring, or hadn’t known of it. Perhaps all he’d wanted was to destroy the line of Durin.

“Rest,” Aragorn urged him. Denethor’s breath became shallower, and his eyes drifted shut.

“Is he…”

“Not yet,” Aragorn said, sighing. “But soon, if we cannot heal him. His armor took the brunt of it; if the trees hadn’t been so thin, I would not have reached him when I did. He was right: the only thing the orcs wanted were your sister-sons, Thorin. We can still catch them.”

“Then we’ll catch them!” Gloin said, then groaned, reaching for his chest. Oin held him upright, with Gimli hanging by his side fearfully.

“Not all of us,” Thorin said, then glowered at them all when protests began. “I cannot risk those injured any further. You will go back to Lorien with the boats, and you will take Denethor with you in haste.”

It was Bombur who, surprisingly, spoke up first. “We’ll take ‘im back. Keep ‘im safe. You give chase.”

Thorin gave him a grateful nod. “The water is not so rough that you cannot make it back to Lorien,” Gandalf said. “If you hurry, you should make it back before nightfall. The elves are powerful healers. If anyone can save Denethor’s life, it is Lord Elrond and the Lady Galadriel.”

“Then you can return to Erebor and keep it safe,” Thorin added. If Fili and Kili could not protect the mountain, someone needed to.

The boats were decided quickly: Oin remained with Denethor in one boat, the better to help if he could, while Dori went with Nori in another. Gloin sat with Bifur, and Bombur took the last boat on his own.

Then Dori paused, looking around. “Ori, you and Gimli can find a seat anywhere,” he said. Ori swallowed but said nothing.

It only took a moment for his oldest brother to realize what was about to happen, and he made to step out of the boat. Nori’s good arm pulled him back. “Ori, no!” Dori called desperately. “You, you wouldn’t leave Gimli alone, would you?”

“M’not going with ye, Master Dori,” Gimli said with a nod of his head. He sank the end of his axe into the ground and leaned against it. “Someone’s got to stand for my da, and since it can’t be him, it’ll be me.”

Gloin gazed at his son with fear and admiration in his gaze. Dori turned to Thorin, a plea and question in his gaze, and Thorin pursed his lips. “He’s done well for himself so far,” he said. “And he won’t fit in any of the other boats.” It wasn’t quite true, but they had to move, and swiftly.

“I’ll keep ‘im safe,” Dwalin said, resting a hand on Ori’s shoulder. Ori looked up at the other dwarf gratefully before turning to his siblings.

“I’m older than Fili and Kili, you know. Just because I haven’t really selected a weapon yet doesn’t mean I don’t know how to fight, Dori. I’ll be fine.”

“We’ve no time left to lose,” Gandalf said, and he pushed the first boat into the water. Soon, all four boats were heading back to Lorien. Thorin watched until they were well on their way, then turned back to his remaining company.

Dwalin, Ori, and Gimli stood to one side, while Bofur stood with Gandalf, hat still somehow on his head. Beside them were Legolas and Aragorn, standing tall and ready. “You lead, King Under the Mountain,” Aragorn said.

A king’s heir bowing to one who hadn’t truly earned the title of king yet. He might have gained back the mountain, but he didn’t deserve the crown that rested within it. Not until he had found Bilbo and made amends. Thorin slid Orcrist back into its hilt and looked to the eastern shore. They could catch up, and they would. “Let’s hunt some orc,” he growled, and took off running. The company followed swiftly behind him.

He could save his sister-sons from their fate. He could find them and rescue them and keep them safe. Then he could try and find Bilbo. Try to keep the one he called beloved safe.

He had to.

Chapter Text

He ran until he couldn’t breathe, and then he ran some more. The plains had been too open, too rocky, so he’d taken to weaving in and out of the trees. It was finally some great distance later, however, that Bilbo finally stumbled over a root and hit the ground hard. He arched up into a ball, fingers clutching tightly in his hair, trying his best not to keen with grief.

He’d counted the dwarves as friends, Thorin even more so, but it had been Gandalf who’d been his constant, Gandalf who’d seen him through so many things. Gandalf whom he’d known since childhood, and he was gone, dead. He gulped down air and fought to keep from shaking apart. He couldn’t, not now. Maybe later.

Gandalf had given his life to get Bilbo away to safety. The least he could do was stay safe.

The sun was beginning to drift down to the other side of the sky when he finally sat back on his heels. He brushed the stray tears from his eyes and pushed himself to his feet. He was suddenly so weary and tired, and wondered how far he’d run. After Gandalf had fallen, after Thorin…

Thorin.

The run had cleared some of the cobwebs from his mind, and he felt so stupid now. He’d let his emotions dictate his actions and now, now he was paying for it by feeling even worse than he had before. He should’ve let Thorin actually speak, not just poured out his heartache, and it hadn’t felt good to air his pain. He’d thought it would, but it had just made it worse.

Even more than that, Thorin hadn’t had a chance to speak or offer a response or maybe, just maybe, an apology. He’d come along with the company, hadn’t he? That was a good sign. He’d been there to help Bilbo.

Except he’d greeted him with ‘burglar’. Which meant Thorin hadn’t read the letter. He was certain Galadriel had given it to him: even with Thorin’s strong dislike of elves, Galadriel would’ve made certain it got to him. But…but why hadn’t he read it? Had it just not meant anything to him?

Maybe he’d read it and decided ‘burglar’ was the more fitting word. Bilbo cringed at the thought. You are more than that, Thorin had told him. He might never know, now. Separated from Thorin by a long distance and plenty of orcs, the chance of never seeing the king again was quite high. It hurt to think he’d never see those blue eyes again.

And here he’d been content to go it on his own. One short time with the dwarves he’d called friends and suddenly he didn’t want to go it alone. Hold fast, Bilbo, he told himself. You can do this.

He stood and glanced into the woods. Orcs, he remembered with a sudden uneasiness. There’d been orcs along the river, and no matter how fast he could fun, orcs could always fun faster. He pulled Sting from its scabbard, just in case, but only silver shone back at him. He sheathed the sword, feeling slightly better, then headed out into the fields to try and get a better sense of where he was.

The arrow that shot past his ear made him dart back behind the tree. The pounding hooves were loud and getting louder with each passing moment. He slid down to the roots of the tree and curled into a ball, wishing he could be invisible.

Use me.

Bilbo stilled. Slowly his eyes turned to his pocket, where the Ring sat. It was a rasping, deep voice, one that terrified him and called to him all at the same time.

I can save you: use me.

He deliberately grasped the cloak wrapped around him with his fingers, squeezing tightly until he couldn’t hear even an echo of that horrible voice in his head. Thinking of the Ring, of any gold, made his stomach clench. It would take more than that to ensnare this hobbit.

The sound of hooves had stopped. Cautiously Bilbo dared to lean his head out and search the plains.

The spear tip at his nose made him freeze. “Um,” he said, following the sharp spear up to its master. There were men on horses, men in fearsome battle gear, swords within easy reach and adorned helmets blocking out the falling sun. They were tall, taller still on the horses, much too tall for Bilbo to battle against. He swallowed at their height.

“It’s but a child,” one of the men said. “Fulgram, stay your spear.”

“I have not met a child with such a grown face,” the man, Fulgram, said, but he withdrew his spear. Bilbo let out a sigh of relief.

“I’m not a child,” Bilbo said, slowly rising to his full height. It wasn’t much, compared to them so tall above him, but he drew up his courage and stayed firm. “I’m a hobbit, of the Shire.”

Fulgram tilted his head, as if considering this. “I have never met a hobbit before, though I know of the Shire,” he said. “What brings you to the Wold, Master Hobbit?”

The Wold. So that’s where he was. He weighed his next words carefully but quickly. “I was traveling down the Anduin when orcs came. They…they killed a few of my friends,” he added, swallowing back the lump in his throat. “I escaped. I didn’t know where I was, actually, until you told me just now.”

“You are lucky to have escaped,” the first man who’d spoken said. “Orcs do not let a potential victim go so easily. You must be very fast.”

“When I need to be,” Bilbo said, but the man’s tone had been gentle, not condescending. Given that his first comment had been calling Bilbo a child, he’d obviously revised his opinion, which Bilbo thought was kind of him. “Hobbits are generally light on their feet.”

“Where are you headed?” the man asked.

“I was to meet with friends in…in Gondor,” Bilbo said, cursing himself for not having a ready answer. Fulgram narrowed his gaze.

“That’s a long way from the Shire, Master Hobbit.”

Now what, Bilbo? his mind taunted him. Now what, indeed? A hobbit in a company was overlooked and easily so, but a hobbit on his own, this far east and south of where he should’ve been, that was going to draw questions, and rightly so. “I’m a…a map maker,” he said at last. He quickly dove into his pack and found the great map of Middle-Earth. Drawing it out, he held it up for the men to see. “I’m making certain that this map is the most accurate. My friends spoke of a great library in Gondor.”

“That there is,” Fulgram said, and the furrows between his eyes lifted. “But you are still a long way from Gondor, little one. And I would not have you travel alone.”

“Are you…from Gondor?” Bilbo asked.

The first man gave a smile. “Not us, no. We are of the Rohirrim, and my men are the Riders of Rohan. I am Holdwine, servant to our great King Thengel.”

“I am Fulgram, captain of the Riders of Rohan,” Fulgram said with a nod of his head. “I am greatly pleased to have met you, especially with the report you have given us, Master Hobbit.”

“Bilbo, please. Bilbo Baggins.” He gave a short bow.

“Bilbo Baggins, then. Holdwine, return to Rohan with Master Baggins; see him safely delivered to our King. How many orcs, Master Baggins?”

How many indeed. All he’d seen were the droves that had poured from the eastern shore, overwhelming their small but great company. “A great number,” he said at last. “You’ll find the remnants of the battle further north. The remnants of…of my friends.” He hoped they wouldn’t find Thorin amongst them. He’d distracted Thorin enough, though, before Bilbo had taken off running, and if he discovered he’d led the dwarf king to his death, much as he had Gloin and Gandalf-

He shut his eyes tightly. He couldn’t think about it. He had to focus on what he could do now. They’d possibly all given their lives to keep him safe, to further him towards his goal. He couldn’t give up now.

Peace, Bilbo, Galadriel’s voice whispered through his mind. Do not be afraid. You are not alone. You will meet many allies and enemies on this quest.

He’d met the enemies, all right: perhaps he’d finally found allies.

“Rohirrim, we ride north!” Fulgram called. The other men on horses immediately turned and followed, until only a handful remained with Holdwine.

“Have you ever ridden a horse, Master Baggins?” Holdwine asked him.

“Once, but I think the horse was smaller,” Bilbo said nervously, looking up at the horse. The tips of his curls barely reached the horse’s mouth. This horse seemed even larger than Aragorn’s had been. It bent down to nuzzle him, and Bilbo flinched as a cool nose brushed over his forehead.

Holdwine gave a laugh. “You’ll learn how, and quickly. Come: I’ll show you Rohan.” He leaned down towards the side and offered Bilbo his hand. Cautiously Bilbo took it, only to find himself lifted higher and higher into the air. He was finally settled on top of the horse, and he had most certainly not let out a very undignified squeak. He gripped the mane of the horse probably much more tightly than he should’ve, but the horse didn’t seem to mind.

Holdwine laughed again. “Onward to Rohan,” he urged, and, after thankfully wrapping an arm around Bilbo, they took off across the plains.

 

 

Everything was dark. Moving did absolutely nothing for him, as his hands refused to separate and his feet felt heavy in his boots. He tried to kick, but he didn’t know where he was. Frustrated, Kili kicked again.

He’d been moving, he thought, the realization coming only when they stopped. “Got one awake,” a gruff voice said. Orcs. They’d been fighting orcs by the river. Denethor had protected them, then fallen, they’d been taken, Fili!

Suddenly there was light. Kili gasped at the fresh air, then startled back at the grotesque face right in front of him. The orc laughed. “He’s awake, all right,” the orc drawled. “What about the other one?”

Kili pushed his head out farther, looking around. A huge band of orcs surrounded him. He was high, higher than he’d expected to be, but only had to look to his left to see the coarse fur beside him. Tied to a warg in a sack. He twisted his hands, trying to get loose. The ropes dug into his wrists, but he kept trying. No wonder his kicking hadn’t gotten him anywhere.

The warg next to him also had a sack, and when it was opened, Kili saw his brother’s face. “Fili,” he called. Dried blood covered part of Fili’s face, only making Kili more desperate. “Fili!” he called, louder this time.

The orcs laughed. “Not awake yet,” one of them said. “Give ‘im a bit of juice, might wake him up.”

“If you touch him, I’ll kill you,” Kili threatened, trying to push out of the sack. His legs were twisted funny, though, leaving him no leverage to move. “I swear I’ll kill you!”

The orcs just laughed again until a larger orc stepped in. “Enough!” it growled. “Leave off! We’ve got to move! Azog’s waitin’ on us, and I want fresh meat. Move out, scum!”

Azog. Kili felt the blood in his veins turn cold. They were going to Azog? That’s what it had been about – not the Ring, but Azog?

The warg began to move again. “Fili, wake up,” Kili hissed. “Now!”

Fili didn’t move. Fear began to stir in Kili’s gut. “Fee, wake up,” he whispered. “Fee?”

The warg he was attached to leaned over to nip at the one beside it. Both growled, almost in a friendly manner, but Kili didn’t care, because it put him closer to Fili. He managed to get his one shoulder out and gently nudged his brother. Fili mumbled something, but it was something at least. “Fee, wake up,” Kili whispered again. “I need you.”

Whether it was the tone Kili said the words in, or the words themselves, he’d never know, but Fili slowly opened his eyes. “Kee?” he murmured.

“Yes, I’m here,” Kili said, giving a soft laugh of relief. “I’m here, Fili. It’s all right.”

Fili tried to sit up, then frowned when he couldn’t. He glanced around at everything, frown only deepening. “I think your idea of ‘all right’ isn’t quite right, Kee,” he said. “What happened? Where’s Uncle?”

That had been the question Kili had desperately been avoiding, but it seemed he couldn’t avoid it anymore. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Just woke up, same as you. We’ll be all right though. I’m here, you’re here. Uncle’ll find us.” As long as he had his brother, he was all right. Kili could do everything with Fili beside him.

Fili nodded, though slowly. “You’re here,” he repeated, then smiled. “We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah,” Kili said, trying to put an affirmation into it. “We will.”

“Why can’t we just eat ‘em?”

The whine from ahead made them both freeze. “They don’t need all their parts,” the orc continued. “They’d live without an arm…or their legs.”

“Time to leave,” Fili whispered. Kili nodded and frantically began to pull at his wrists. The ropes were strong, but they were Durin’s sons: they could get out of just measly ropes, right?

“Getting tired of being lumped into sacks for eating,” Kili muttered. Fili let out a snort.

“They’re to go to Azog unspoiled!” the larger orc snarled. “Touch them and I’ll 'ave your head! There’ll be meet plenty once we get to Isengard. Now go!”

Isengard? Kili glanced over at Fili, trying to remember where Isengard was. West, he remembered that from his studies. “Isengard?” Fili whispered. “That’s west, isn’t it?”

“West,” Kili confirmed. “Least, far as I remember.” Balin would twist his ears at his lack of knowing right now. Given that his head still ached from however they’d knocked him out, and he was possibly going to be eaten, again, he figured he was allowed a small lapse in memory.

“Don’t like it,” one of the orcs ahead of them muttered. “I’ll follow Azog, sure ‘nuff, but I don’t like them wizards.”

Wizards? Fili mouthed to him with wide eyes. Kili didn’t have an answer. The only wizard he knew was Gandalf, though Gandalf had listed more. Oh, and Radagast, he remembered Radagast. And that one wizard who’d come to Rivendell, the one Gandalf had helped distract long enough for them to get out without being hindered. A white wizard: what was his name?

“Don’t you worry ‘bout it,” another orc said. “Azog’s got good faith in Saruman.”

That sounded right. But it didn’t make any sense. “Saruman’s a good wizard,” Kili said, glancing at his brother. “Isn’t he?”

Fili shrugged as best he could. “I don’t…ow!...know. Thought Gandalf had said he was a friend.”

Maybe not anymore. Kili pulled at his hands again, desperately wishing for a knife or an axe or-

Or a stone. Kili glanced behind them, found no orcs following them, then looked down at the ground beneath him. Thank Mahal his sack was twisted to the side. They weren’t walking fast now, given all the grumbles ahead, and it was slow enough he’d probably be able to…

Fili didn’t say anything, but he gave his brother one of his best, ‘What are you doing are you insane?’ looks. Kili got those a lot. This time, much as many other times, he ignored it, and bent down towards the ground. The path was muddy from having orc feet all over it, and he grimaced at what he was about to do. So long as he could get a stone sharp enough, he’d accept whatever came with it.

Thankfully, his stone appeared untouched. It was plain and not covered with anything except a small amount of moss. Somehow, it seemed it had been avoided by the orcs: probably due to its sharp point. He quickly reached down and, with his teeth, hauled the stone up.

Fili’s eyes widened in realization just as Kili tossed the stone out onto his chest. He got his hands up almost to the end of the sack. If there was one thing he’d learned from the trolls, it was how to get out of sacks, he thought dryly. He grasped the cord at the end of the sack with his teeth and tugged. After a few short pulls, it loosened enough for him to catch the stone with his hands. After that, it was a simple matter of cutting through the ropes until his hands and feet were free.

Fili wasn’t so lucky, but he wasn’t completely upright, either. Kili slowly edged himself out from the sack, glancing up at the orcs ahead. None of them were paying any attention to them. He waited until the wargs drifted closer again, then reached out and sliced through the cord at the top of his brother’s sack. Fili’s fingers drifted to the top, and Kili neatly handed the stone over. The warg drifted away, but too late now: Fili was already squirming in his sack, probably nearly free. Kili grinned.

Now how to get away without catching the attention of the orcs. The sun had set enough that they probably wouldn’t be noticed or missed for a while. Who even knew where his bow was, or Fili’s swords. The thought gave him a pang: they’d been coming of age gifts from Thorin, almost a blessing to accompany their uncle on the quest for Erebor. And now they were most certainly in the hands of the orcs.

Away first, then they’d find their weapons.

The sacks looked as if they were attached to the warg by only one strong rope. If they could snap those ropes, then they could drop and get away. Kili caught his brother’s eye, then pointed to the rope, mimed cutting it, then pointed to the ground.

Fili frowned. Kili raised his eyebrows expectantly. Fili pointed to the rope, then mimed the rope swinging back and forth, before pointing to himself.

Kili rolled his eyes. Sometimes he was certain all the brains left over from their blood line had gone directly to him. He pointed to the rope, pointed to the stone in Fili’s hand, mimed slicing the rope again, then pointed to himself and Fili before pointing to the ground.

Fili’s eyes widened in understanding. He immediately grabbed the rope above him and began to cut. “Not yet!” Kili hissed. “Wait!”

“What’s that down there?”

“Horses! Might get meat fresher than we thought!”

A war cry went up, and suddenly the wargs were taking off, faster than before. Kili could feel himself flying up and down, as loose as he was in the sack. He held on as best he could, and watched Fili glare at him. “Wait?” he asked. “Really, Kee?”

All right, so he hadn’t expected them to speed up. “Just-“

Fili was already back at the rope, and Kili knew there’d be no cutting of his sack loose. He’d just have to fall out. Fili was nearly ready, almost there…

“Hey! What do y’think you’re doin’?”

“Fili!” Kili yelled as two of the orcs hurried back to them. Fili fell to the ground and Kili tipped out, going head over toes as he rolled on the ground. One of the orcs was already on him, and Kili fumbled for a rock on the ground, something, anything to defend himself.

Suddenly the orc hit the ground, an arrow through its chest. Fili was there, already pulling Kili to his feet. “Go!” Fili shouted.

“Go where?” Kili shouted in return. There were wargs and orcs, horses and men suddenly everywhere, and he ducked when something went flying past him. “Fee!”

Fili grasped his hand tight and took off in a direction, pulling Kili with him. Kili dodged where he could, never letting go of his brother. They were nearly trampled twice, horses moving all around, but he only tightened his grip on Fili, trusting his brother to lead him safely. They finally made it to a safer place, out of the battle. Kili panted harshly, feeling Fili clutch at him. “Are you all right?” Fili demanded.

Kili nodded. Up close, Fili’s face looked horrible, but the blood was dried, and Fili was standing on his own two feet. He’d be all right. “I’m fine,” Kili assured him. “Fee, your head.”

“Just a crack,” Fili assured him. “I meant your side.”

His side from earlier, when they’d fought together beside the river. “Just brushed,” he said. “Really, Fee, I’m fine.”

Something whistled past his ear, close enough to make his hair fly in the object’s sudden breeze. Fili shoved him behind, though it didn’t truly do any good. In a moment they were surrounded, spears and arrows aimed at them. Kili caught the sight of a blood-tipped sword and clung tighter to his brother. Men were just as dangerous as orcs, sometimes. He’d learned that in the Blue Mountains.

One of the men stepped forward, gazing at them deeply. “You’re not orcs,” he said at last. “Dwarves?”

Fili nodded curtly. “Dwarves,” he said. “Prisoners of the orcs.”

“And nearly free on your own,” the man said. “That is an admirable feat. Tell me, how did you come to be their prisoner?”

“We fought them, near the river,” Kili said without thinking. Fili gave him a very ungentle nudge into his ribs, and he winced when it came into contact with his earlier wound. “We were overrun.”

The man considered this. Kili waited, barely breathing. They were outnumbered, and they were definitely shorter than all of the armed men here. That would be a terrible ending: to survive the orcs only to be slaughtered by this small army.

“Strange things,” the man finally murmured. “Strange things today indeed.” Louder, he asked them: “Are you acquainted with a hobbit?”

Of all the things Kili had expected him to say, it hadn’t been that one. “Bilbo?” he asked before Fili could say anything. “You’ve seen Bilbo?”

“Kili!” Fili hissed sharply. Oh right: probably shouldn’t have said his name. Kili bit his lip.

However, it seemed Bilbo’s name was exactly what the man wanted to hear. “He had mentioned friends slaughtered by orcs, but had not mentioned friends taken by them,” he said. He pulled his helmet from his head, and sandy blonde hair tumbled down his shoulders. A short, scruffy beard ran the length of his chin; if it had been a bit longer, and his eyes a bit lighter, Kili would’ve said he looked exactly like his brother. “Your hobbit is safely on his way to Rohan. We will bear you hence.”

“Wait, friends slaughtered?” Fili asked, and Kili’s heart stopped. “Who?”

“He didn’t say,” the man said. “Only that friends had fallen.”

Kili swallowed hard. Please not Uncle. Please. Any of the company perishing put his heart in pain, but his uncle had all but raised them with their mother. Losing him would be like losing their father. The only thing worse than losing his uncle would’ve been losing their mother. Or Fili, a little voice in his head whispered, and the thought was so…so wrong that he gave a full body shudder. Fili pressed against him, back to back, and Kili let himself breathe. Fili was here. They’d be fine.

“What are you names, Master Dwarves?” the man asked.

“I am Fili, and this is my brother, Kili,” Fili said. He’d be a good king one day, he really would; he could be as majestic as Uncle could, when he put his mind to it. Just as diplomatic, too. “What of yours, Master Horseman?”

The man smiled. “I am Fulgram of Rohan. We will take you swiftly to Rohan. This appeared to be the company of orcs your hobbit spoke of.”

“We were taken far from the site of battle,” Kili told him. “We did battle along the Anduin. The North Undeep.”

Fulgram paused. “You are near the South Undeep now,” he said. “The orcs must have doubled back to come west. My men will bear you to Rohan to your friend. Dernhelm, Baldor, and those who would follow: we ride north to the Field of Celebrant. I would see this battle site.”

He was off without another word, and a great many of the horses followed him. Kili suddenly realized just how many men on horses there had been: a small army indeed. “You will ride with us,” one of the men said, reaching down as if to offer him a hand.

“Wait!” Kili said, turning to the orcs. “Our weapons; they took our weapons. We’ll be but a moment.”

The man nodded. “Quickly, Master Dwarf. Night approaches, and the corpses need to be burned.”

Kili took off for the corpses, Fili right behind him. “Do you trust them?” Kili asked softly while they searched. Fili found one of his knives quickly, and Kili found his quiver mostly untouched. He was missing more arrows than he had before he’d been taken. He glared at a random orc but finally moved on. He could make more arrows.

Fili was silent for a moment as he continued to search. “We haven’t much of a choice,” he said at last. “They’re obviously foes of the orcs. And they have Bilbo, that much is certain. We can’t just leave him.”

And Bilbo could tell him who had fallen. “Then we’ll go with them,” Kili said decisively. He finally found his bow, nearly trapped under a warg carcass, and pulled it free with a grin. “And we’ll find Bilbo.” They could keep him safe for their uncle. He was their friend, too.

“Agreed,” Fili said. He strapped his swords back onto his back with only a small flinch of pain.

“And get you to a healer.”

“I’m fine, Kee.”

If he was fine, then Kili was a warg’s uncle. Instead he stretched, deliberately, then made a show of cringing when he did so. “Kili,” Fili said urgently, reaching for his brother. “You definitely need a healer more than I do.”

“I’m fine. I don’t need a healer, and I don’t want one.”

Fili pursed his lips. “Look, I’ll go with you, we can both see healers. How’s that?”

Exactly what Kili had wanted. “I suppose,” he said, trying to sound long-suffering, but he couldn’t stop his grin. Fili muttered something highly uncomplimentary under his breath and headed back over to the men of Rohan. Kili clasped his bow tight and followed.

 

 

They’d gone east for too long when Legolas called them to a halt. “I can’t see them anymore,” the elf said, perched precariously on a rock. He seemed steady enough, but if it were Thorin in the same position, he’d tumble.

More worrying were his words. “Why not?” Gimli asked. “You followed them easy enough!”

Legolas turned in a circle, hair whipping around as he did so. “They have turned,” he said. “They go back…west?”

“Double-backed,” Dwalin said. “We can cut them off all the easier.”

“Why double-back?” Aragorn asked with a frown. “Why go west? There is nothing for them westward.”

It was a good question, one that Thorin couldn’t puzzle out right then and there. “We can ask them when we catch them,” he said. Legolas darted off the rocks and quickly ran ahead, the company right behind him.

It was a troubling question, indeed. Why would the orcs go west? To the Misty Mountains? That was the goblin’s stronghold, or so it seemed. Did they go to Moria? The very idea of it sent dark memories through his mind.

It was still more pleasant than thinking of Bilbo. Bilbo, turning and fleeing, hurt deep in his eyes. Why couldn’t Thorin have said what he wanted to? Why couldn’t the words, the ones that floated so readily in his mind, have come to his tongue when he needed them to? If he could’ve just said something, he could’ve perhaps had Bilbo here beside him, safe. Who knew where the hobbit was now. Safe. I beg of you, let him be safe, he pleaded to any being of power that would listen.

They pushed on, across another shallow part of the river – the South Undeep, as Gandalf informed them – and then carried on. The Wold was as wild as it had been when they’d fought hours before, but this time they ventured further into it, trying to catch a glimpse of the orcs to follow them.

It was Legolas who noticed that the orcs had stopped. “Why would they stop?” Bofur asked with a frown. “They had a good pace going.”

“Legolas,” Gandalf said sharply, and Legolas sighed but finally gave a nod. Thorin felt his stomach lurch.

“They didn’t stop because they wanted to,” Dwalin said. It was all that needed to be said.

Half an hour later, they reached the remnants of the battle.

They all slowed and began wandering through the corpses. Wargs and orcs alike were strewn around. Blood saturated the ground, thick and deep. Most of the bodies were piled in a heap, still burning. What had done this, Thorin didn’t know. All he knew was that his nephews weren’t among the dead.

He began to breathe deeply, but was stopped by Ori’s cry of dismay. He turned swiftly and felt his heart stop when Ori lifted an arrow from the pile of corpses. It was very obviously a thick arrow, one Thorin knew well. He could see his nephew’s bright grin as he whittled it, his older sister-son handing over plucked feathers to tip the end. Now it was bloody and broken, the feathers all but burned away.

“Dead?” Bofur whispered. The toymaker’s face was filled with sorrow. “They’re…dead?”

Legolas bowed his head and began murmuring words in his own tongue that sounded like a blessing: a blessing for the dead. Gandalf moved to the pile of corpses and simply stared at it. Gimli began to quietly weep. No one said anything.

It wasn’t until he heard his own scream that Thorin realized he was on his knees, hands tearing at his hair and beard, heart breaking in two. Bilbo was gone to who knew where, possibly a fate like this, and his nephews, his sons

He let his head hang and his hands drop to his side. Dead and gone. He had ended the line of Durin and taken the smiles off his loved ones forever.

Dwalin came over and rested a hand on Thorin’s shoulder. Thorin didn’t move. “We should move on,” he said gently. “Still got a chance of catchin’ up to Bilbo. Or huntin’ Azog.”

Two paths again. Thorin didn’t say a word.

“Night has come on,” Aragorn said, his voice no more than a whisper on the wind. “I would advise we camp nearby. No one will come near the fire, not even orcs. We would be safe here, for a time.”

Thorin closed his eyes. “Make camp near the crag,” he said at last. “The hill will give us cover.”

If anyone saw the tears on his face, they said nothing.

 

 

The wind spoke nothing of those who had slaughtered the orcs. Frowning, Legolas tried to listen again, his eyes and ears seeking an answer. Still nothing came to him. There was too much blood, too many whispers of death from the corpses further away. The smoke still drifted through the night, and at last he sighed and went back to watching the horizon.

“You have not told him.”

Only Mithrandir could sneak up on him like that. “You will have to teach me how you do that,” Legolas said, turning. The wizard was watching him. In the moonlight, his eyes almost seemed to glow. “I know of very few beings that can creep up on an elf such as you do.”

Mithrandir only smiled. “That is my secret to keep,” he said. He stepped further up the hill to join Legolas. “You have not told him,” he repeated. “He does not take to secrets well, especially from elves.”

Legolas turned to the sweeping plains of the Wold. “He would not have allowed me to come,” he said at last. “Nor would he be as welcoming as he is, if he knew. I do not seek to lie to him, but I know his opinions of my father.”

“And you know your father’s opinions of Thorin,” Mithrandir replied. He moved soundlessly across the rocks that Legolas was perched upon. It was almost as if he wasn’t there at all. “What interests me is why you do not share your father’s opinions. You have almost been…kind to the dwarves.”

“They have not done me a wrong.” In fact, they had accepted the help of the elves with almost little grumbling on their part. The younger dwarves had been…playful, inviting him to join in their teasing of their kin. The one dwarf, Kili, had even held a bow, and done so well. He felt pain for Thorin. He had enjoyed the presence of the young dwarves, had even admired Kili for his skills and his smile.

“Your father-“

“Thranduil has parted with reason,” Legolas said, angrier suddenly than he had been in a long time. Thinking of his father and the darkness in their forest did that to him. “The darkness that has crept over Greenwood is slowly descending into my father’s halls. He knows it well. He has already spoken of leaving for the Grey Havens, while he still has the mind to do so.”

Mithrandir looked taken aback. “He means to set out for the Undying Lands?” he asked, surprised.

Legolas nodded. “He has given up on ‘Mirkwood’.” Even the name sounded wrong to him. Young as he was, he remembered the woods before the darkness had come. “He seeks asylum beyond the seas. I cannot fault him for that. I hope it brings him peace.”

“If he leaves Mirkwood, all the elves will go with him, or settle elsewhere.” Mithrandir’s eyes were too knowing, and Legolas turned to the horizon again. The vast nothingness did not speak to him or offer him anything to gaze at. “You will not be able to return to your home in Mirkwood.”

“I know,” Legolas said softly. He’d known it, even when Elrond had called for a Council. His father had not even given it thought when they’d listed all the kingdoms that were to attend, and Legolas had simply told him he was going to represent their people. In truth, his offering to go had been on account of the dwarven king. He’d remembered the pain on King Thorin’s face. He remembered Thorin giving the gold away as if it were water at a spring, no longer a care to him. Not as much as it had mattered to Thranduil.

Perhaps that was why he’d come. Perhaps he had sought solace with one who despised gold as much as Legolas did. It had not been the gold that Thranduil had sought, but it had been his father’s prize nonetheless. An example of the darkness that clouded the elvenking’s head. His heart ached for his father once, then settled. He could not dwell on it.

“You should tell Thorin of your princely nature.”

Legolas let out a soft sigh. “Perhaps later,” he finally acquiesced. “When he is not in mourning. I fear for his heart, that it may soon fall into despair.” Thorin had lost so much; perhaps too much.

“Do not lose hope, Legolas,” Mithrandir consoled, and Legolas turned to face him at last. His eyes seemed to twinkle in the moonlight. “We do not know Fili and Kili’s fate, and will not truly know until we meet with the ones who destroyed the orcs. They may be safe yet.”

Legolas took in a breath and smiled. Perhaps they were. “Forgive me for doubting,” he said. “You may be right. We cannot lose heart, not now.”

“No, not now. Not for any reasons that seem dark.” Like your father, went unspoken.

Legolas gave a nod. “Tell him,” Mithrandir encouraged. “Speak to Thorin.”

He had held off long enough. When the sun had risen, he would speak with him. “I will,” he vowed.

“Good. Go rest; I will watch the horizon for a bit. The fire is still warm.”

He had to admit, the dwarves had been clever in their resources, in a long field empty of trees. “And probably still smells of orcs,” he said, giving Mithrandir a knowing look. The wizard merely chuckled and pulled out his pipe.

Legolas wasted no time in hastening down the rocks to the fire. The stench of smoke and orc was no longer heavy on the wind, and it almost seemed to promise him a better tomorrow. For now, he would join the others.

He did not see the figure hidden behind a crag, for they hadn’t moved in a great long while. When Legolas had finally gone, Gandalf blew out a sigh and watched the smoke rise from his pipe. “He has never held princely airs,” he said, turning his eyes to the hidden figure. “Much like you and your nephews.”

Thorin slowly stepped from the shadows. “Thranduil’s son,” he said. “And you did not tell me.”

“I didn’t need to,” the wizard said firmly. “I knew Legolas would tell you in his own time. He does not hold animosity towards you or your kin. Do not lay the blame of his father at his feet. Thranduil’s mind is becoming as poisoned as the forest. I had feared it would happen, much as I feared the gold sickness would take you and your sister-sons when you reached the mountain. Thranduil’s decision to leave Middle-Earth is a wise one, though a heartbreaking one for Legolas.”

“He can still go with his people,” Thorin said.

Gandalf shook his head. “On a boat across, yes. But Legolas has made the choice to remain here in Middle-Earth, for the time being. He may never cross, which means he may never see his father or brothers again.”

Thorin was silent for a long moment. Gandalf took the opportunity to craft several smoke rings. “I can make ships and butterflies, birds and stars,” he murmured with a soft laugh. “I can do many things with the pipe smoke, but I could never make as perfect a smoke ring as Bilbo could. I doubt I ever will.”

Thorin flinched. Gandalf waited until Thorin met his gaze before he spoke, offering the dwarf a kind smile. “Do not worry for Bilbo. He is brave and resourceful. I have no doubt he’ll continue south, through Rohan and Gondor.”

“I wish I had found the right words when I needed them,” Thorin murmured. “Instead I let him go.”

“As you needed to.”

“You would have him go alone?” Thorin demanded. “You would be so cruel?”

“I believe we were meant to let Bilbo go,” Gandalf replied. “It is not cruelty, but rather fate, Master Oakenshield, that pulls us and moves us where we need to go. Besides, he is not completely lost to us. And in my heart, I believe that neither is Fili, nor Kili. Have faith. You have a strong, loyal company. There is still tomorrow. We have questions that can be answered.”

“One shouldn’t be that cheerful in the dark,” Thorin said, giving Gandalf a contemptuous look. Behind it, however, lingered pain and doubt and grief, and it was for those reasons and those alone that Gandalf did not use his staff to knock sense into the dwarf’s head.

“One should always be that cheerful in the dark. If not there, then where else?”

Chapter Text

As a child, Bilbo had imagined flying as the birds did. Now, on the horse, so high off from the ground, the wind streaming past his ears, he could nearly believe he was soaring above the earth. Riding was like flying, or the closest he’d ever come to it. Despite the height, he was almost enjoying himself on the horse.

Holdwine pulled the horse to a sudden stop, and Bilbo didn’t realize why until he looked out ahead of him. “Edoras,” the man said. “Home of the Rohirrim. Long have the Horse Lords called Edoras their home.”

Never would Bilbo have even thought of living on so high a hill. It was just short of a mountain, as far as he was concerned, but he could see clearly the numerous houses up and down the mountain, despite the sun nearly having been set. Nearly two days worth of hard riding, and here they were at last.

They were inside the gates before the last rays of the sun had truly set. Many people stepped outside to greet them, though many of their well wishes were lost in the wind. He didn’t need to hear their words to know just how curious and astonished they were to see him. He kept his gaze fixed ahead instead.

Then finally, they dismounted – Holdwine helping Bilbo off the horse, which he appreciated – and he was led up the hill. “Let me introduce you to our King and Queen,” he said. At the very top of the hill was a massive building, and the doors were tall and wide. As soon as they went in, Bilbo couldn’t help but gaze around.
The wood inside was dark but comforting, with flames flickering along the walls as well as is in the middle of the room. Guards stood at attention, with a few other men and women wandering about, but it all stopped when they entered the grand hall. The ceilings were high and vast, much higher than Bilbo could ever have imagined reaching. Holdwine continued on towards the back of the hall, and Bilbo followed.

The tall chair at the end of the hall held a man with regal bearing. His beard and hair were golden, but his eyes were kind, much like Aragorn’s. A woman with fair skin but a firm gaze sat beside him on a throne equally as tall and regal as the man’s. Holdwine stopped before the throne and bowed, and Bilbo hurried to do the same. “Hail, King Thengel,” Holdwine said. He smiled brightly at the king. “Long may you reign. Hail, Queen Morwen. May you be blessed to your days’ end.”

The woman smiled. The man on the throne nodded. “Hail, Holdwine, Loyal and a Friend. What news from the Riders?”

“Fulgram seeks out a band of orcs spotted west of the Anduin. I have brought to you a survivor of the attack, who seeks Rohan as refuge.”

Holdwine stepped away, and Bilbo supposed that was his cue. All eyes were on him, and he focused on moving up to face the king. He’d met Lord Elrond, certainly, and the Lady Galadriel, and he’d…well. Once been friends with a king. Perhaps was still. But he’d never fully addressed a true royal before in a proper sense, and now that he was here, he wasn’t certain exactly what to do. He’d do the best he could, he supposed.

“Hail, King of the Rohirrim,” he said. He pushed himself to his full height and tried to meet the king’s eyes. “I am Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, and I request asylum.”

The King slowly began to smile. “I have never entertained a hobbit before, and I know that’s exactly whom I am looking upon,” he said, and his voice was warm and kind, just like his eyes. “You do not need to seek asylum here, for you are among friends. I welcome you as a guest to my halls, Bilbo Baggins. Long may your homelands prosper.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo said. The tension he hadn’t even noticed building in his frame seemed to evaporate, and he breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you very much, your majesty.”

The King gave a bright laugh. “Among friends, I am known as Thengel, Master Baggins.”

“Among my friends, I am known as Bilbo,” Bilbo replied. Thengel gave him a nod.

“Bilbo, then.”

The Queen stood, regal and bright. Her warmth didn’t exclude him, but in fact, seemed aimed at him, for him. A stranger, yet already so accepted. “Bilbo Baggins: Welcome to Edoras.”

For the first time since he’d left Lothlorien, Bilbo smiled.

 

Far across the plains of the Wold, Thorin was gazing off into the distance, no chance of a smile on his lips. Two days of searching, two days of going west, and all it had brought them to was more rocky ground and vast, tall grass.

Up ahead, Legolas stood tall as a tree, his feet planted like roots in the stones. “Nothing,” he called back, and Dwalin finally let out a groan.

“Any more crags?”

“None: it is nothing but field ahead.”

No cover at all. “We will take a rest,” Thorin said, which the group heartily appreciated. Ori was already speaking of a small creek he had seen not far from where they were, and Dwalin agreed to accompany him to get more water.

Thorin sat on one of the rocks behind the crag that jutted out before them. His fingers drifted to his breast, where the letter sat. It burned against his skin. It certainly felt as if the words it contained were burned into his mind. He could recount them all by heart, now.

Still, he withdrew the letter from his pocket and carefully unfolded the parchment once more.

To Thorin, King Under the Mountain,

I give you high greetings from the woods of Lorien where I have been pleased to stay. Not that you would care to know, perhaps, or perhaps you would, and it would give you great pleasure to know how far I am from your Erebor and gold

I’m sorry, that wasn’t right. Forgive me for my words. I simply cannot sleep, and I shouldn’t even be writing this to you, now, I should be in bed, resting before I leave tomorrow. I’ve been told that you’re coming, and the thought fills me with fear…even as it fills me with joy. I want to see you again, I need to see you again. I miss y

Of all the letters I’ll be mailing out at first light, I think this one will be tossed into the fire. For that reason, I will continue writing, because these words inside of me must go somewhere. What more was I to you than a burglar? Was I anything more? Or was that the only title fit to me? I was certainly a great thief in the end, wasn’t I? I took your Arkenstone, the most precious thing you had, and gave it away to your enemies. I hope it made its way back to you: Bard gave his word in exchange for the gold. What would I do with gold, anyway? It’s poisonous, it’s nothing, not compared to the sun and a good tilled earth and. And love.

I am so heartsick. Are you the same way? Do you feel the same way I do? I suppose I’ll know when I see you; I feel as if the entirety of Middle-Earth could see how twisted up I feel inside, like an apple squeezed until it’s a dry husk, empty of anything good. You took everything good from me when you cast me out. You took my only friends, my only path left in life, because I’ll never be satisfied with Bag-End again, ever. It was an empty house after my father and mother died, it was never truly a home again, though I pretended it was a respectable one sure enough. I never thought I’d find a home again and there you were, on your pony, with your company, and I found it in the hidden trails over the Misty Mountains and around the campfires and you took it all with you when you banished me. You took the closest thing to home I’d found and wouldn’t let me keep it. You took my lov heart and exiled it.

You confounded, wretched dwarf. You broke my heart and even now, if you were to ask, if you suddenly appeared in front of me here in the glow of Lothlorien, and if you asked for my heart again, even with the intent to break it, shatter it, I would give it. Just to have you hold my heart one more time.

I miss you. I want you here. I want to see you smile in the glow of the campfire. I want you to give me my pin again, to tell me you cherish me and

I’m never sending this. I can’t believe I’m writing this, still. I feel no better for it. I just miss you all the more. I wish I hadn’t allowed Bard to take the pin, even though it was the only way he’d give you back the Arkenstone. It was just a pin, just a trinket to you, but to me, it meant so much more. I’d never wanted gold or expensive things until you gave it to me, because it meant you cared, that you counted me as beloved. I can’t even pretend that, anymore.

Oh Thorin, I wish you were here. I wish you were here right now.

“I wish it, too,” he whispered. His thumbs brushed over the water stain marks near the bottom of the parchment. He didn’t know which ones were his or Bilbo’s anymore; there’d been several stains before he’d begun to weep, and he’d desperately tried to keep them from ruining the ink. His hand fell from the parchment to his side pouch, where the pin still rested. One day, he prayed it would rest on Bilbo’s chest again.

He ever so carefully folded the letter back up and put it in his breast pocket. His eyes roamed over his group, trying to think of anything besides those he’d lost, perhaps forever.

Gimli was practicing swinging his axe, with Bofur and Gandalf looking on in amusement and offering tips. Aragorn was leaning against another stone, looking out in much the same way as Thorin was. For someone so young, he looked as if he’d seen much. He reminded Thorin of his sister-sons, who could be so light-hearted and foolish one moment, then serious, too serious, the next. The pain that passed through his chest nearly undid him, and he breathed deeply for a few moments before finally focusing on the last member of the group.

True to the words he'd spoken to Gandalf, Legolas had come to him at first light the next day after they’d found the corpses. “There is something I would speak to you about. Alone,” the elfling had said. Thorin had agreed and they’d parted from the group. Hidden by the wind, Legolas had spoken to him of his parentage, of being Thranduil’s youngest. He made no other mention of his father or his deeds, but had merely requested forgiveness for not telling him sooner.

“I did not make to deceive you, King Thorin,” he had said. “We were in much haste, and I…simply did not want to incur your well-deserved ire. I know why it is you despise my father. I can only tell you that his mind is not as it was, when Erebor and Greenwood shared peace and commerce together.”

It had obviously pained the young elf to speak the words he had. And for some reason, one Thorin still didn’t understand, he had reached out to comfort him. “They may still yet,” he’d said. “You have proven yourself with bow and words. I am glad to have you with us. I would not say this to any elf.”

The wide-eyed disbelief on Legolas’ face, more emotion than Thorin had ever truly seen from the elf, had slid into a bright, grateful smile. “And I am most grateful to be able to help.”

He’d turned away to return to the group, then had stopped. “Do not give up hope,” he’d said. “Fili and Kili may yet live. I feel it in my heart.”

If the elf could have hope, Thorin could, too. He had to believe that his nephews, the boys he’d raised and seen as his own heirs, his own sons, were still alive and had survived whatever skirmish had come to them.

“Thorin!”

Thorin shook himself from his thoughts. Legolas swiftly flew down the rocky crag, where he’d been perched, and hurried to him. “We are nearing Fangorn Forest,” he said, as breathless as an elf could ever be. “Off to the north, there were horses and men, coming down this way. If we can reach Fangorn, I believe we can intercept and speak to them. Perhaps they know of what happened.”

“Or perhaps they were the ones to do it,” Aragorn said. “If they were the cause of the battle, then perhaps your nephews are safe with them. Legolas, did they ride with the banner of a horse?”

“Yes.”

“Then they are men of Rohan, and are strong, brave and true. Their king is a good man. They would have taken your nephews in.”

If it hadn’t been said by Aragorn, Thorin wouldn’t have believed it. Men were tall and mostly treacherous. Long had they mocked and contested with the dwarves across the cities they’d traveled through. The people of Lake-town had been among the first who had actually truly welcomed Thorin and his dwarves, and that hadn’t lasted too long. Then they’d met Aragorn, who had taken no airs but had willingly offered his sword to defend Bilbo and the dwarves.

It seemed there were still men whom Thorin could put his trust in.

“Then we shall seek them out,” Thorin said, giving Aragorn a nod. “The forest-“

“Fangorn Forest,” Legolas said again, and Thorin froze.

“Fangorn?” he said. “Fangorn Forest, south of the Misty Mountains?”

Legolas nodded. “We will not enter.”

“What’s Fangorn?” Gimli asked.

It was Gandalf who answered him. “Long ago, the trees were awakened and spoke with the elves.”

“Elves: there’s a surprise,” Dwalin muttered, having come up with Ori from the creek. Legolas ignored him.

“Then their thoughts turned dark, for they watched as their kin were brought down for kindling, for houses, for fires. You do not wander into Fangorn Forest, and certainly not alone,” Gandalf finished. “There used to be shepherds of the forest, but I have not heard of them for a long time.”

“The Ents,” Ori said, and Gandalf smiled at him.

“Very good, Ori! That is a name I haven’t heard in a bit. Yes, the Ents used to walk through the Forest and keep the trees from wandering wild. But I have not heard from one in a very long time.”

Gimli huffed. “There was no sorceress in the woods we went to before, and I’ve never even heard of talking trees before. I don’t believe ya.”

Legolas frowned. “He speaks truth, Master Gimli. This is no mere joke, much as your kin told you before of the Lady-“

“Ah HA!” Gimli crowed triumphantly, and Legolas closed his eyes, pained. “I knew you were all jestin’ with me! I knew it!”

“Lesson the first: never tell the pranked of the prank,” Bofur said, patting Legolas on the arm. Legolas sighed but nodded.

Thorin glanced over at Aragorn, who looked to be hiding a smile much as he was. If they’d been here, Fili and Kili would most certainly had wound Gimli up like a toy and let him spin loose. Thorin’s heart ached again at their loss.

Have faith, Thorin Oakenshield.

Thorin breathed in sharply at Galadriel’s voice, soft and beautiful in his mind. Do not despair. Be bold, for fate is not finished with you or your sister-sons. Have courage.

He could have courage. For Fili and Kili, he could have courage.

For Bilbo, too.

“Then let us meet with the Rohirrim,” Thorin said. “Do you know them, Aragorn?”

“I have met with their Riders several times,” Aragorn said. “I have not had the pleasure of meeting their king. From what I have heard, however, he is a good man, and a benevolent ruler, one who has done well by his people.” He paused, eyes casting down. “If only Gondor…”

It was, perhaps, the closest Aragorn had ever stated to wishing he could lead a people. Thorin pressed a hand to Aragorn’s back in comfort. “I have faith that Gondor will one day have the king it deserves,” he said. Aragorn looked so young again that he felt old, older than his near two hundred years. Looking at the young man, he almost wished that Aragorn were just a Ranger, that he was not of the royal line. He would be happier that way, Thorin thought bitterly. The throne didn’t bring peace or happiness, much as Thorin had thought it would. It had not made everything right. Rather, the crown that belonged on his head felt like a noose, waiting to slip around his neck. It had been damning, and Aragorn didn’t deserve such a fate.

Aragorn gave a nod, one that looked relieved. Perhaps he already understood the hardship of the crown, and feared it. It was good to know there was a kindred soul, and it was one Thorin hadn’t expected to find. “We press on,” the man said, and Thorin agreed.

“We press on.”

 

Fangorn Forest was much darker looking than Aragorn remembered. When he had last laid eyes upon the forest, it had been much greener. One look at Legolas, who stood beside him, told him that the elf had not expected this darkness either. “I would not enter it now unless I had to,” Legolas whispered.

“Fangorn Forest,” Thorin murmured behind them. “What madness drove me there, I do not know.”

It seemed a place of madness now. Aragorn could not even make out the difference between the trees. There seemed to be no space: it was simply dark, compared to the light plains that surrounded them and curbed the forest a small ways off. Despite Fangorn obviously having an end, one they could see, it was still a haunting sight.

Thorin looked trepidatious at the sight. Dwalin was vocal about his opinions. “M’not goin’ in there,” he said firmly. He rested his warhammer’s hilt on the ground and glared at the trees as if they’d done him a personal slight. Ori leaned in closer to the treeline, as if to get a better look, and in one quick move Dwalin caught him by the shoulder and hauled him back beside him.

Ori gave the older dwarf a look. “I wasn’t going in,” he insisted. “I just wanted to look.”

“Look from here,” Dwalin replied shortly.

Legolas gave a small smile. Thorin looked confused by the exchange of the dwarves and at the elf’s smile. “Their boots,” Legolas said softly, so softly Aragorn almost didn’t hear it.

Thorin’s frown deepened. “Their boots?” he whispered. “What of them?”

“Muddy. As if they went down to the creek…and forgot about gathering water,” Legolas said slowly.

The dawning realization on the dwarf king’s face was almost comical. If Thorin hadn’t needed so badly a reprieve from the griefs of his mind, Aragorn might have laughed. “You did not know?” Aragorn asked him.

Thorin shook his head. “And I can certainly attest that his brothers didn’t know, either. Or else Dori would never have let him come.”

His brothers had seemed the type to not leave Ori alone. Perhaps this journey would be good for him, and them. Duress could break a man, but it could also make him shine. The Ranger looked briefly at Thorin, who had gone back to gazing at the forest, ignoring the two dwarves near him. He wondered what the journey would make of the dwarf king.

Or what it would make of Aragorn. He winced, thinking of his earlier words he truly hadn’t meant to say. Gondor was led by a good and noble steward, and Aragorn held tainted blood. Becoming king was nothing short of honorable, but Aragorn did not want that life. Nor did he think himself fit for it.

Yet he couldn’t deny that he called men to attention easily, and he only wanted what was best for Middle-Earth, for the men he commanded. They looked to him, the natural born leader, with confidence in his abilities, and he refused to let them down. The Rangers had looked up to him in this way. This band of men and women who did not give out their trust easily, much less as a group, and yet they had given it to Aragorn when he had finally left Rivendell to join them. When he had set out to prove himself a capable man to Elrond. To Arwen.

“What is that, in the distance?”

Ever vigilant, Legolas was. Aragorn was honored to call the elf a close and dear friend. He was now looking around the bend of trees down the plains, off towards the west and the shorter mountains. When Aragorn followed his eyes, he frowned at the faint wisps of dark clouds he could see. “What is that?” Aragorn asked.

Gandalf quickly marched over, the dwarves following. “Smoke,” Bofur said. “Black smoke.”

“Black smoke is a herald of woe,” Thorin said darkly. When Aragorn gazed at the king, his eyes were full of worry. “I have seen enough black smoke in my lifetime to know what a siege looks like.”

Most likely orcs, then. “What lies west?” Ori asked.

Gandalf went still. “A tall tower, reaching to the sky between the forest and the mountains,” Legolas said, then turned. “Is it…?”

“Isengard,” Gandalf said. Aragorn paused, gazing at the smoke now in new horror. It could not be. It just couldn’t.

“Isengard has been taken?” he asked breathlessly.

“What’s in Isengard?” Gimli asked. The young dwarf’s questions were a near constant presence, but they instilled no anger or disregard. He reminded Aragorn of the friendly hobbit he’d met outside of Mirkwood.

Bilbo. His heart ached at the thought of the small hobbit wandering the Wold alone. I swore to protect him, he thought. And I have failed.

As sore as his own spirit was, it would never be as sore as Thorin’s. He didn’t know the full details of the pain between hobbit and dwarf, nor did he want to. All he knew was that Bilbo had been heartbroken by the dwarf king. When Aragorn had met him, he’d been tempted to rise to anger on behalf of his small friend. Then he’d looked the king in the eyes, and seen the same broken look in the blue eyes of the dwarf. Thorin seemed to be so old sometimes, and he flinched ever so slightly when he was given his proper title. He’d won back Erebor for his people: he had earned the title of king.

Perhaps…perhaps he didn’t feel that he had. Perhaps Thorin felt the weight of a crown as much as Aragorn did. Perhaps he feared it, even as he yearned for it.

Perhaps none of them should be kings, for the sake of Middle-Earth.

“Who is in Isengard,” Thorin corrected Gimli. “Saruman the White resides there.”

“A wizard?”

“And friend,” Gandalf said. He sounded very troubled. “A friend in dire need of aid.”

“Then we shall go to him,” Gimli said, and he hefted his axe high. Despite his troublesome thoughts, Aragorn spared a half grin for the dwarf. He might’ve been small in stature and young in age, but he was fearless. His enthusiasm gave Aragorn new breaths.

Still, for all his energy, Gimli could not take Isengard back alone. None of them could. Aragorn shook his head. “We cannot take on a whole army of orcs, for that’s what it must’ve taken to overrun Isengard. Why the orcs want Isengard, I do not know. If we’re to save Saurman, we must have an army of our own.”

“That, you will not find easily,” Thorin said. When Aragorn gazed at him again, his eyes were cold and calculating. “Finding a small company to take with me to Erebor was difficult enough. We have far too many tasks to finish and not enough to do them with.”

It was an odd thought, but one that Aragorn understood after a moment. He’d worked on his own for so long as a Ranger, only coming together with a few others if the need arose. This was a battle ground, one he knew very little, if anything, about. He had a feeling he’d learn. The dwarven king might not want his title, but he deserved it. Perhaps when they found Bilbo, the hobbit would tell him as such.

He felt it, before Legolas had even turned his head: the rumbling of hooves in the ground. “The Riders approach,” he murmured. Thorin paused for a moment, then closed his eyes and sensed the same.

“From the north,” Legolas concurred. The group stood and waited.

They were not disappointed. Not a few minutes later, the Riders were finally spotted off in the distance. Aragorn noticed that they were keeping a respectful distance from the Forest.

“How do we get their attention?” Bofur asked. “Are you certain they’re from Rohan?”

“Even more so now than I was before,” Aragorn assured him. The Riders came closer, spears at the ready, and he allowed himself a small smile. “And we need do nothing. In fact, I would suggest you do just that.”

“Aragorn, I highly advise you speak to them, as you’ve worked with them before,” Gandalf said. “Everyone else, stay still. Thorin, not a word. All of you, not a single breath about Bilbo.”

Thorin looked as if he wanted to protest, but he stayed his words. Within moments they were surrounded by a fairly large group on horses. Aragorn recognized a few pairs of eyes from beneath their helmets, but still their spears were held tight to keep the group contained. One of the horses came through the horse circle to speak, and Aragorn smiled at last. “Hail, Fulgram, Captain of the Riders,” he said.

The man paused, seeking him out until at last his eyes rested upon Aragorn. “Hail, Thorongil, friend of Rohan,” he said. The spears were raised and taken away, though it took a bit longer for Thorin and Dwalin to release their hold on their weapon handles.

“Thorongil?” Thorin murmured. Aragorn ignored him for the time. He’d tell them later.

“We have waited for you here, beside Fangorn Forest, hoping you can help us with our questions,” Aragorn said.

Fulgram snorted. “Waiting beside Fangorn Forest is nothing short of deadly,” he said. “You know better than that. Yet I believe I know exactly what questions you have for me, as you have dwarves in your company.”

Aragorn nearly refused to let himself hope. Nearly. “Have you seen other dwarves?” he asked, but Thorin stepped forward, too anxious to keep himself quiet.

“Fili and Kili, my sister-sons; young dwarves. Did you find them?”

Fulgram nodded. “I did, and they are being taken to Rohan in safety. They were injured, but not badly so.”

Thorin looked as frail as a cloth in the wind, nearly collapsing under his relief. “So you were the cause of the orc slaughtering we found,” Gandalf mused. “I had wondered.”

“Your dwarves had nearly freed themselves when we came upon the orc hoard,” Fulgram admitted. “Very clever, swift beings they were.”

“Sure we’re talkin’ about the same two dwarves?” Dwalin muttered. “Swift enough when they’re in trouble, but not too clever.” Bofur coughed out a small laugh that he quickly hid beneath a fist. Aragorn was tempted to do the same.

“We have sent them onward to Rohan,” Fulgram said. “There to meet with their friend, the hobbit.”

Any chance of breathing stopped completely. Could it be that luck had finally shifted their way? “A hobbit, east of the Shire?” Gandalf said, letting incredulity swiftly color his tone. “Now that’s a sight I would like to see.”

Fulgram appraised them all, nodding slowly. “Yes, you all are much more silent and closed off about the matter of the hobbit than your other dwarven companions. Your young dwarf, nearly beardless but for a brush of hair on his chin, was not. His kinsman seemed less inclined to divulge the details, but the other dwarf was eager in asking about the hobbit. Perhaps too eager.”

At least Fulgram was amused. Thorin looked ready to strangle his nephews, his earlier relief already sliding into frustration. “Foolish dwarf,” Gandalf muttered, before clearing his throat. “Yes, the hobbit is of our company, good Fulgram. How came he to Rohan?”

“We found him, not far from the edges of the trees near the Anduin river. He’d come a good, long way down south, but looked near to falling over in exhaustion. Holdwine, a good man and friend, bore him hence to our king. Master Baggins had mentioned a company, one who had lost several companions to the orcs. He will be pleased to see so many of you yet living.”

Lost? “None of our company was lost,” Legolas said, equally as confused. “Wounded, yes, but none lost.”

Fulgram stilled. “Do you mean to tell me the hobbit lied?” he asked quietly. “Or that you, perhaps, lie, over such a matter that should hold no mistruths?”

“Only misunderstandings, and grave ones at that,” Thorin growled, glaring at Fulgram. “Bilbo is more honorable than any man of yours. He saw the orcs deliver a fatal blow to a dwarf friend, one that was saved by mithril. He also saw our wizard descend over the cliff, but who was saved by a timely catch of hand. He did not lie to you, Master Horseman; you could trust anything he said more than what your kin would tell you.”

“Peace, Thorin,” Aragorn murmured. “He meant no harm.”

Fulgram narrowed his gaze. “My kin are noble and the best men I have ever found. I cannot say the same for dwarves. Perhaps it is because you do not stand much taller above the ground that you cannot see eye to eye with reason.” He tightened his grip on his sword.

Even while Dwalin tightened his grasp on his warhammer with a growl, even while the other dwarves moved to surround Thorin, Legolas had his arrow and bow strung and aimed straight at Fulgram’s head. “You would die before your stroke fell,” he declared. Immediately all the spears were aimed at him, which Legolas ignored. Thorin appeared stunned at the move and the truth behind them. Even Aragorn was startled at how his friend had reacted. Only Gandalf seemed unsurprised, his face innocent but his eyes knowing.

Meddling. The wizard was very good at meddling.

Aragorn turned to Fulgram. “The hobbit is a dear friend, one whom we were supposed to protect. Letting him go was a tactical move, one we have all regretted and feared over. Knowing he is safe with the Rohirrim gives us much relief, and we thank you for that.” As much as Aragorn knew why Thorin was as swift to anger and emotion as he was, there was still such a thing called tact and diplomacy. How a Ranger knew more of this than a dwarf king, he didn’t know.

Fulgram finally raised his hand, and the spears were retracted. Gimli let out a quick sigh of relief. Legolas hesitantly withdrew his arrow. “Steady there, elfling,” Dwalin murmured. It didn’t seem as if Legolas heard him, the dwarf’s words all but blown away into the wind, but at last the elf nodded shortly.

“If it is the hobbit and your dwarves you seek, then you should ride with us to Rohan; we return immediately. A few of our riders fell in the battle a few days ago; you may take their horses.” Fulgram gave a signal, and one of the men led several horses forward. “We can bear your smaller dwarves with us. That should allow you to ride as you need to.”

“Isengard is under duress,” Gandalf interrupted. Fulgram frowned, then cast his eyes westward, where Gandalf was pointing. “I fear if Isengard falls to orcs, the whole of Middle-Earth will be in great danger.”

Fulgram began to nod. “We have heard no cry from Saruman, but perhaps it’s because his voice has been silenced. Long has he been our friend: we will not leave him now in his time of need. But we cannot mount an assault now. We need more men, which the Rohirrim will bring forth. We must return to Rohan immediately.”

It was obviously not the answer Gandalf wanted, but after a moment, he finally nodded, wisdom winning over his emotions. “And quickly,” he said. He took one of the horses for himself, Aragorn and Legolas taking two others.

Aragorn offered his hand to Bofur, and the hatted dwarf gave him a nod of thanks as he was pulled up to the horse. “Bit taller than I’ve been as of late,” he said once he was settled, and Aragorn found himself smiling sadly as the memory of Bilbo, who'd ridden with him, came to mind.

“He won’t let you fall,” he said quietly.

Bofur hummed in agreement. “You didn’t drop Bilbo,” he said. “You took him to Lorien, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Aragorn said, slightly surprised at the knowing look from the friendly dwarf. “I helped him defeat the orcs outside of Mirkwood, then rode with him to Lothlorien.”

Bofur nodded again. “If you can keep a hold of my friend, I’ll not worry about riding with you,” he said. Aragorn found himself returning the dwarf’s smile.

Dwalin had taken one of the other horses, taking Ori with him, grumbling about trusting the blonde elf before he’d trust the men. Aragorn quietly swallowed back a grin. Gimli was given a hand up by Gandalf, and Legolas offered a hand to Thorin. After a moment of surprise, Thorin accepted, and found himself riding in front of the elf. Aragorn wondered if the king knew about the elf’s father. Given what he knew of the line of Durin, that hand may not have been as well accepted had he known it came from Thranduil’s son.

Or maybe he did know. Perhaps the king knew more about diplomacy than he thought.

Then they were off, riding across the plains to Rohan. Bofur would’ve fallen off if Aragorn hadn’t grabbed him: the dwarf had put both hands up in the air in pure glee. Dwalin looked like he was going to war, hanging on tightly to Ori. Gimli looked wide-eyed between terror and awe, and Thorin…Thorin looked determined. He had a goal, with his sister-sons and hobbit at the end.

Aragorn didn’t blame him: if Arwen had been waiting for him at the end of a ride, he would’ve looked much the same.

Five days it would take them to reach the good King Thengel, if they weren’t hindered. Aragorn prayed that they weren’t, for their sakes and for Saruman’s. As dark as the smoke rose from Isengard, he knew the wizard would need all the aid he could get.

 

Up in his tower, high above the world, Saruman was thinking much the same thing. Orcs were nearly piled outside the tower, burning all the trees around him. The area was completely ruined and dead as they began building the walls for defense. He was trapped in the tower, completely surrounded by orcs.

The doors nearly flew off their hinges from the power of the being behind what Saruman supposed were ‘knocks’. A moment later, they burst open, and a tall, pale orc stalked in. Azog the Defiler stood before him in terrible glory, his scars accented all the more when he snarled. My orcs never returned, he cursed in the Black Speech. The line of Durin still holds strong. I want them for my own!

Saruman merely stared at him. Azog glared at him, then finally bowed his head. What orders from Mordor? he hissed.

Those were the words Saruman had been waiting for. “Have faith,” he said, causing Azog to look up. “Your path and mine are still reaching in the same way. The line of Durin is incapable of turning away from the lure of gold. If they do not have the item I desire, then they will lead us to it. I know it has been rediscovered. Do not fret, for you will have your little dwarves. For your good work, our Lord and Master will reward you. He had not considered that the dwarves would retake Erebor. They now stand in his way.”

I will send my greatest and best to the mountain, Azog swore. They will tear it apart, stone by stone.

“Not yet. First, we must wait for the dwarves to lead us to where we need to go. Then, once we have what we need, you will take Durin’s sons as you wish. Bring their heads to the gates of Erebor. Perhaps I can be persuaded to ask that Erebor be granted to you for your service. Why live in perpetual worry about the beast in Moria when you could have a golden mountain all to yourself?”

It obviously had not occurred to the Pale Orc, but when it did, his smile was sharp and wretched. “Let us commence,” the orc said, twisting his tongue to speak in Westron.

Finally, Saruman smiled. “Yes,” he said. He glanced back at the swirling orb on the dais, hearing the voice of his Master even now. “Let us commence.”

He would find the Ring. And then, he and Sauron would rule the whole of Middle-Earth together.

Chapter Text

“A map-maker?”

Bilbo nodded. “Maps, yes. Just verifying accuracy and what-not.”

Thengel nodded slowly. Bilbo took the opportunity to guide another bite of thick stew into his mouth. After having nothing but lembas for the past few days, the stew felt glorious on his throat and stomach and tasted just as good. “This is a long way to come, just for the sake of a map,” the king said at last. “Times are dark and hard, now. This is no time for a hobbit to travel on his own.”

“Well, I wasn’t,” Bilbo said softly. Thoughts of Gloin, Gandalf, and Thorin wouldn’t leave him alone. Eventually he let the spoon drop into his stew, his appetite failing him for the moment. “There were others, as I told you. They were there to help guide me, protect me. Only…”

“The orcs,” Thengel said, voice equally as soft. He reached across the table and land a hand over Bilbo’s. “Long have they plundered our land and destroyed our villages, our people. You need not say more: I know the sorrow that rests in your heart.”

“Thank you,” Bilbo said. Thengel nodded and removed his hand, and Bilbo reached for his spoon again. “It’s very good,” he said, with a nod to the stew.

Thengel gave a smile. “Théodwyn is very skilled with her cooking. She takes after her mother in that fashion. She also wields a mighty blade.”

Bilbo finally chuckled, which seemed to be what the king had been aiming for. “I saw that, just last night,” he said. “Your daughter’s ferocious for someone her age. At twelve years, I was thinking about picking the best fruits from the farmer’s trees and how best to carry them off. Not besting several grown men in sword practice.” She’d been a ferocious, tiny thing, all right. Bilbo had thought that the men had given into Théodwyn because she was the king’s daughter and firstborn. When he’d seen one of the men walk off whimpering, shaking his hand out, he’d quickly revised his opinion. Standing as someone who one day was going to be tall, much taller than she already was, Théodwyn was a force to be reckoned with. Her blonde hair spun around her like a shield, free and loose as she defended herself with her long-sword.

The only one who'd had any sort of luck standing his own against her had been a young lad named Éomund, who'd taunted and teased at her with a bright smile on his face. It was the first time she'd actually gotten flustered, but she'd laughed all the while. It would've been what Bilbo's mother described as a 'blossom love': young and innocent. He hoped they would keep it. It made him smile.

Thengel let out a laugh. “I would think that plucking fruits would have its own brand of bravery and ferocity with it. I never would’ve dared to step into the kitchens to steal a ripe piece of fruit at that age; I fear I still wouldn’t, and I’m king!”

Bilbo was still laughing when the doors to the hall opened. “Hail, King Thengel!” someone called, but all Bilbo had eyes for were the two shorter figures in front of the group of men. He nearly spilled his stew racing around the table to get to them. They were safe, they were alive-

“Fili! Kili!”

Shouts of joy reached his ears, and then he was nearly squashed between the two dwarves. Their voices were like a balm on his heart.

“Bilbo, you’re all right!”

“We were so worried!”

“We’re so glad to see you!”

“And I’m glad, very glad, to see you both,” Bilbo said at last, pulling back to look at them. Their bright, beaming smiles were the first things he saw, but then his eyes moved elsewhere. “Fili, your head!” he gasped. The blood seemed to go everywhere, dark and crusted on the top of his head. The cut nearly ran from his hairline to the bridge of his nose. “What happened?”

“Orcs,” Fili said with a shrug. “We’re all right.”

“He still needs a healer,” Kili said firmly. “Only so much I can wash out with just water.”

“I’m fine, Kee. You’re the one that’s hurt.”

“You’re hurt, too?” Bilbo asked in dismay. “Kili!”

“I’m…it’s just a scratch, really,” Kili said. Fili flicked him, hard, on the back of his head, and Kili flinched. “And a lump,” he admitted sullenly. “It’s not that bad, though, really, don’t look that way, Bilbo!”

He didn’t really know how he was looking, only that it was upsetting both brothers. “You’ll be fine,” he said as firmly as he could manage. He didn’t know whether he was assuring himself or them, but they gave nods of agreement back. “You both need healers, though, and I won’t hear anything otherwise.”

“Could’ve sworn we left Mum behind in the Blue Mountains,” Fili muttered. Bilbo glared at him.

“I had no clue what had happened to either of you, do you blame me?”

“So, this is part of your company?”

Bilbo turned to Thengel, who until now had been quiet. The king approached with soft steps, giving gentle smiles to both dwarves. “I am pleased to meet more friends of Bilbo’s,” he said, nodding his head towards them. “I am Thengel, King of Rohan.”

Fili and Kili bowed in time. “Fili-“

“And Kili-“

“Sons of Durin, at your service.”

The way the both of them spoke at the same time was never going to stop being so peculiar. It really wasn’t.

Thengel stared. “Durin’s sons. I had heard you reclaimed your city at long last. How stands Erebor?”

Kili grinned. “No longer inhabited by a dragon. Erebor stands tall and filled with dwarves once more, as it should.”

“Good,” Thengel said, and there was true happiness in his face. “Good. I am very glad for you and your kin. Though Edoras is small, compared to other cities, I could not imagine being forced from it. I am glad to hear these tidings.”

Fili stood just a little bit taller. “When it is cleared completely and restored to its fullest, I would like to extend an invitation to you and yours to visit it and see its splendor for your own.” Kili gave a brief nod in agreement.

Thengel’s smile broadened. “Which I will take, and with gladness. Until then, I am glad to be able to have you as my guests. Welcome to Edoras, home of the Rohirrim.” He turned to Bilbo. “I will have my healer come out at once.”

“We don’t-“

“That’s kind but-“

“Would you both like stew?” Thengel said, smoothly riding over their protests. “It’s hot, and I imagine after long days of riding, you are both famished and tired.”

Kili, for once, seemed to know when they were beat. “Stew’d be great,” he said. Thengel nodded and, with a wink to Bilbo, went to find the healer.

Bilbo had to give the boys credit: they managed to wait until Thengel was out of earshot before pummeling him with questions. “Was anyone lost in the battle?” Fili asked.

Bilbo frowned. “You two were there; you should know better than I do.”

“We were taken by orcs,” Kili said, then waved his hands when Bilbo’s eyes went wide. “We’re fine, truly. See? We’re here and everything. But the only thing we know is that Denethor had fallen.” His face fell. “He fell protecting us. For all of his lesser qualities, he…he saved us. And we’ll not forget it.”

Denethor. Bilbo bit his lip. “I…I saw Gloin fall,” he began hesitantly. Fili shut his eyes tightly. “I heard the horn of Gondor. And…” He swallowed hard, his eyes cast to the ground.

“Not…not Uncle?”

At Kili’s choked voice, Bilbo immediately shook his head. “Not that I know. He was there, when I looked back. He stood tall. Still alive.” Still able to haunt Bilbo’s every waking moment. “No, it…” He didn’t realize he was shaking until Fili rested a hand on his shoulder.

“Who was it?”

Bilbo shut his eyes tight. “Gandalf. A warg took him over the edge of the cliff.”

Fili’s grip tightened. Kili let out a small noise of despair. Bilbo focused on breathing. Gandalf had been a dear friend to everyone, a solid companion when Bilbo had needed one. He thought back to the way Gandalf had spoken so softly and kindly to him in Lothlorien, the way he’d frantically sent Bilbo off to safety in the Wold. He’d saved Bilbo’s life. And in the end, he’d paid the price for it.

“We’re sorry.”

Bilbo sniffed and shook his head. “He was your friend, too,” he said.

“No, not that.”

Frowning, Bilbo raised his eyes. Both dwarves looked close to tears. “For how we treated you,” Fili said quietly. “It was…it was like a haze. And then suddenly you weren’t there and Kili and I should’ve said something to Uncle, should’ve said anything, truly-”

It was like getting punched, though Bilbo hadn’t gotten punched in a long time, and the last time had been an accident because his cousin had thought Bilbo was his other cousin, and that was what taverns did to you. But it certainly felt the same: air pushed out of his lungs, sharp, tight pain in his stomach, hollow feeling in his chest. He tried to get the breath back into his lungs and found that he couldn’t.

Then Fili and Kili were pulling him in again, holding him tightly, and suddenly feeling came back in a rush. “We’re so sorry,” they mumbled, over and over again until Bilbo thought he’d burst. His eyes burned and he buried his head in their embrace, clutching their tunics and trying to breathe. Of the dwarves he’d befriended on the quest, Fili and Kili had been two of the closest. Their silence had hurt, saying nothing and standing beside Thorin while Bilbo had left.

But they were here, now, wrapped tight around him and whispering heartfelt apologies. They were here.

When Bilbo thought his hair was getting too damp, he finally stepped back. Both brothers still looked miserable. “It’s all right,” he said. He brushed a few fresh tears from Kili’s cheek. “Really, it is.”

“No, it’s not-“

“What we did-“

“That’ll be enough of that,” Bilbo said firmly. “From the both of you.” Just their being there, welcoming him with bright smiles and warm embraces, had settled a part of Bilbo’s heart. Their broken words and apologies were nearly more than he could stand. “You’re both here and you’re alive, and frankly that’s more than I could’ve hoped for, given the attack. And you both need healers immediately.”

Kili chuckled. “No wonder Uncle’s besotted with you,” he said. “You’re just his level of bossy.”

Besotted? “Perhaps once,” Bilbo said, aiming for a laugh and falling short. Incredibly short. He hadn’t known his voice could sound that strangled. “I doubt that’s his opinion now.”

Fili and Kili exchanged a look. “Bilbo, you should know-“

“My gracious, your head, my lad!” an older gentleman exclaimed, coming forward. He gently brushed wild hair from Fili’s face, frowning as he looked at the cut. “Whomever has been tending to this has staved infection for the time, but you need more care.”

“I have,” Kili said, albeit reluctantly, as his eyes kept drifting to Bilbo. “I’ve been tending to it, washing it and patting it dry as I could.”

“Then you have done a fine job,” the man said. “My name is Aldor, and I am Thengel’s Royal Healer. Let me assist you both and ensure there are no other wounds worse to care for.”

Fili and Kili slowly followed after the man, but Fili stopped at the last moment to catch Bilbo by the shoulder. “We’ll talk later,” he promised. “Just…know that you are loved by Uncle. Loved so much.” Then he was literally caught by the elbow and pulled away by Aldor.

Bilbo stood and stared at them, long after they’d left the throne hall. He nearly forgot about his stew, and would’ve completely if the large hounds hadn’t gone sniffing at the table and a maid had scolded them for it. Even after he returned to his seat, he couldn’t take another bite. His stomach was too twisted, and his mind was as mangled as dead bushes, long tangled after a harsh winter. Besotted? Loved? Of all the things he’d imagined Thorin having told him, before the orcs had descended, he’d expected everything from harsh words to, and this was him being overly hopeful, a gentle apology. Maybe a rekindling of the dearness they’d had, of what Bilbo had always really wanted to be more.

But love? Love?

You are loved by Uncle, loved so much.

“Did they bring you bad news, my friend?”

Bilbo pulled himself from his thoughts. Thengel sat across from him again, his eyes clouded with shadow. “I admit, I did not expect them to come unharmed, but the blood on the young dwarf’s face startled me,” he continued. “You were lucky to have escaped as you did, little one.”

“At the cost of someone else’s life,” Bilbo murmured. Gloin, Denethor, too. Gandalf.

Thengel sighed. “If Gandalf the Grey gave his life to save yours, then you are indeed one to be protected. He was a friend of my court, and an advisor. His life will not go in vain. I will keep you safe from harm, Bilbo Baggins, for harm seems to follow you and your companions.”

His voice was still warm and accepting, but there was almost a wariness to his words, too. He suspected there was more to Bilbo’s tale than that of map-maker. Bilbo swallowed and pushed away the bowl of stew completely, his appetite completely destroyed. “I’m not a map-maker,” he said at last.

“I had thought as much. Though the map you carry is beautiful indeed. But dwarvish princes do not go on quests to protect map-makers, and hobbits, no matter how bold and brave, do not go east of the Misty Mountains for mere maps.”

His words held no recrimination. Bilbo glanced up and found the king watching him with a soft gaze. It left him feeling more sure of his next words. “I carry something else, something that appears beautiful but isn’t. It’s…it’s why I left. I still have a long way to go. To travel.”

Thengel slowly leaned back on the bench. “Does this have anything to do with the Council that the Lady of the Woods called together so quickly?”

Bilbo froze, then cursed himself inwardly for having given himself away. As kind as Thengel had been, he was still a man. And men fell easily to the sway of gold, never mind this gold. “I could not attend,” Thengel continued. “Orcs sighted coming west from the Misty Mountains caught and held my attention. But if this matter pertains to all of Middle-Earth, then I should like to know what it is, in order to better protect my people.”

The best way for Thengel to protect his people would be for him to kick Bilbo down the front steps and out of Rohan immediately, given what he carried. He kept silent for a moment instead, then finally said to Thengel, “I’ll speak to you and you alone, because you’re right, you deserve to know. But not everyone else here. It’s too dangerous.”

Thengel’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “To my chambers,” he said, and stood. Bilbo immediately followed, his hand reaching for his pocket. His finger kept turning the Ring over and over again, and once he realized what he was doing, he quickly yanked his hand away as if burnt. Oh but he wanted it gone.

Once they were in his chambers, Thengel nodded to the guard outside his door and promptly shut it. The two of them stood for a moment in the silence of the room. “What matter of grave consequence do you bring to me, Bilbo Baggins?” he asked.

Everything within him screamed that he should keep the Ring hidden. Even as he pulled it out, another voice added into his trepidation. He’ll take it from you, steal it from you, it’s yours, you found it! Use it and get away, so you can keep it!

It only made him push the Ring out farther in defiance. It felt heavier in his hand, for some reason. It hadn’t felt this heavy before. It was like holding a small stone instead of a light, cold Ring. “It’s a ring,” Thengel said, frowning in confusion. “A very simple band, as if for a wedding.”

“There’s no love in this Ring,” Bilbo said darkly. “You can believe that. This is the One Ring, forged by Sauron of Mordor.”

Thengel took two immediate steps back. “Sauron’s Ring?” he said, staring at it. “You’re certain?”

“Lord Elrond was certainly positive,” Bilbo told him. “The Council was meant to form a company to bear me all the way to Mordor. I’m going to destroy it, Thengel. That’s why I’ve set out. That’s why I can’t tarry, as much as I’d love to stay here with you and your people. Those orcs out there are searching for me.” He bit his lip and looked down. In the soft light of the candles, he could’ve sworn, for just one moment, that he saw a terrible, great eye in the side of the Ring. Then he blinked and it was gone.

“You have brought something powerful and terrible here,” Thengel said. When Bilbo looked up, the man had moved forward again, his eyes on the Ring. Bilbo could feel his fingers curling around the Ring, ready to dart out in an instant. There was a gleam to Thengel’s eyes that frightened him, and the thought of losing his friend to a simple piece of gold left his stomach in knots. Please, Thengel, not you too. Would gold take every good man and twist them?

Then he heard it. The quiet, barely there whisper. But he heard it, in that same, terrible voice that whispered in his mind. Take me. I am yours to command. You could rule over Middle-Earth. Let me guide you to full supremacy, to a time of peace and prosperity and warmth.

The king’s hand shook slightly as it reached out towards Bilbo. Bilbo’s heart began to pound so loudly he thought he’d faint. He had to run, had to put on the Ring and run-

Then Thengel’s hand slid to the right, resting on Bilbo’s shoulder. “You have a burden I would not want,” he whispered, his voice shaking, and the terrible whisper stopped. “You have brought evil to my house, Bilbo Baggins.”

“I’m sorry,” Bilbo whimpered. “Oh Thengel, I’m so sorry. I’ll, I’ll leave at once-“

“No,” Thengel said, and his voice was firmer now. “No. You need rest. You are a friend, and I will not cast you out. You are not banished from me. I will take a few days to gather you supplies so I can send you out properly, as a friend of Rohan. Then you will be well on your way to Mordor. You should wait for your company to join you.”

“You felt it,” Bilbo said. The Ring was even heavier now, and Bilbo let it fall into his pocket, thankful to not have to hold it for another moment. “You heard it. You’re a good man, Thengel, and yet you heard its call. I wouldn’t tempt my friends, however many are left, with this horrible thing. I wouldn’t dare. They don’t deserve that, you don’t deserve that. It’s a dark, evil, most vile thing, and it turns good to wicked. I didn’t think I could bear it alone, but I crossed the Wold for a long way before I encountered your men. I’ve carried it nearly alone, with no one else knowing for several days now. I can do it again.”

When he met Thengel’s eyes, there were tears shimmering there. “You are more brave than you know, little one,” the king murmured. “I am honored to have met you in my lifetime.”

Bilbo could feel the flush go straight to the tips of his ears. “I honestly haven’t done much,” he said. “I’ve just been carrying it in my pocket.” Like a trinket. He immediately forced his mind to hush.

“Which is a dangerous place to carry it,” Thengel said. “I will get you a chain to keep it on. The Wold is wild, and there are mountains between you and your destination. If it tipped out of your pocket, what then?”

He had a point. “Hadn’t thought of that,” Bilbo admitted. “It’s just been there, in my pocket.” The pocket was buttoned, but that wasn’t exactly the most secure of things. A chain would keep it safe.

“It’s the least I can give to someone who’s willingly risking his life to save us all.” Thengel patted him on the shoulder again, then went to the door and opened it. “Come, and let us go find your friends, and see how they are.”

There weren’t enough words of gratitude to give the king, this friend he had found, but Bilbo spoke anyway. “You have shown your true character, my king,” he said fervently. “And it is a good one.”

Thengel slowly smiled. “Coming from you, Master Baggins, they are words of high praise indeed. Let us see what Aldor has done for your dwarves.”

 

“Ow!”

“Stop sniveling, Fee.”

Sniveling? I took an orc weapon to the head, and I’m sniveling? What happened to you being sympathetic?”

Kili just shrugged and didn’t look nearly sorry enough for it as he should’ve been. Which was exactly how Fili wanted him: calm, not worried about Fili in the slightest. That’s how he should’ve been since the start, but apparently the wound had been worse than they’d expected. That had put his brother into a mood, and all Kili had done was hang off of Aldor and worry his lower lip.

Reassuring him hadn’t done a lick of good. He’d just still looked like someone had taken his favorite toy away. Fili should know: Kili’d had his favorite toy taken away a lot as a little dwarf. Not ever for long, with Fili around to get it back, but still, it’d been taken, and the point was that Kili’s face had held that same sorrow and anxiety now as it had then. So Fili had done what any good brother would do: he’d whined. And Aldor had scolded him because, apparently, he wasn’t the first prince to pout at him, and he wouldn’t be the last.

And Kili had sat back and started smiling with relief.

“Théoden, I know you’re hiding back there,” Aldor said without even looking up from mixing herbs. It smelled like an awful paste, and Fili made a face. “Come out and greet your guests like a good prince.”

Fili looked across the long, bed-filled room. A small, slightly dirty face peered out from behind one of the tapestries on the wall. Fili hadn’t even heard him step into the room. “Hello,” Fili said cheerfully. “I’m Fili, and the laughing monster beside me is Kili.”

“Laughing monster? More like the most handsome dwarf in the room,” Kili boasted. A giggle came from behind the tapestry.

“More like a bumbling liar,” Fili muttered. Louder, he asked, “What’s your name, little one?”

The little boy came out, and up close, his bright blonde hair bounced with him, nearly down to his shoulders. “Théoden, son of Thengel,” he said proudly, but he gave a bow. “My father’s a good man…and king,” he added, as if an afterthought.

Ah, that would explain the pride. It rested on the right words, that was certain. “He is,” Fili agreed. There were very few men he could say he genuinely liked, though Aragorn had certainly earned that title. Thengel, however, had obviously housed their hobbit and had immediately offered a healer to Fili and his brother. A good man indeed.

The thought of Bilbo only made his chest tighten in that terrible way it did whenever Kili was in danger, or when Uncle went sorrowfully silent. He hated that feeling, hated it. And now, thinking of Bilbo in pain, he was feeling it again.

“Are you hurt?”

Fili turned back to Théoden, who was much closer now than he had been before. Aldor made to shoo him away, but Fili shook his head, wincing when it jarred the wound. “A little,” he said. “I was in a great battle, y’know. I was brilliant.”

“You got hurt,” Théoden pointed out with all the honesty of a young lad. Kili snorted on the bed beside Fili’s. “I don’t think that’s brilliant.”

“Not really,” Kili agreed, before Aldor scolded him. “Should’ve ducked.”

“I’m learning how to duck,” Théoden said with a bright smile. “Dernwyn’s teaching me how.” He gave a very impressive duck, as if escaping from the very jaws of death. “She said I’m not ready for swords yet, though. She can hold two at once!”

Fili frowned slightly at the lisp in the prince’s speech, then realized the child was missing a substantial amount of teeth. “Have you lost many teeth?” he asked.

Théoden’s face lit up with pride. “Six!” he declared. “I’ve strung them up to save. Théodwyn’s lost all of hers.” His face puckered up. “She offered to share her teeth with me, but I declinted.”

“You declined,” Aldor corrected, eyes still on his paste. Fili and Kili shared a grin. “And while it was kind of your sister to offer you hers, you couldn’t have put them back in your head. Your own new teeth will grow soon enough.”

Théoden didn’t look happy about waiting. Fili knew the feeling. “What else have you learned from Dernwyn?” Fili asked.

“Théoden?”

The little boy’s head shot up at the feminine voice from down the hall. “Aren’t you supposed to be in a lesson with her right now?” Aldor asked, finally raising his head to give the boy a firm look. Théoden chewed on his lip.

“But there’s guests! Dwarven guests! I never got to meet a dwarf!”

“Well, now you have,” Kili said. “And you can tell everyone you got to meet dwarf princes at that.”

“Théoden, if you don’t come at once-“

Then she was there in the door, and the first thought Fili had was, She’s awfully short for a human. She looked to be barely taller than Fili, and while Fili was a very ample height for a dwarf – even if Kili claimed he was taller, which he wasn’t, not by that much – she was probably a bit short for a human. All of four foot eleven inches, maybe a little over five foot, if that.

“Come meet the dwarf princes!” Théoden encouraged. The slender woman came in, her long blonde hair whipping side to side as if to show her irritation.

“You’ll have time to talk to the injured later,” she said, and Fili sat upright at that.

“Injured? Wounded in battle,” Fili insisted. Her eyes met his, green and glaring straight at him. “I fought orcs, you know.”

“And obviously did a poor job of it,” she said. “Théoden, your defense lessons.”

“I was showing him how I ducked, Dernwyn,” Théoden told her, even while Fili tried to sputter out a response.

The blonde looked Fili up and down, eyes narrowing. “Perhaps the injured could use a lesson in it as well,” she said, and Fili finally found his voice.

“I’m a dwarf prince, you know, I’ve had plenty of battle training!”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said sweetly, before she pursed her lips. “Perhaps the injured prince could use a lesson in ducking as well. Your majesty.” Then she caught Théoden by the shoulder and steered him out of the room.

Fili sat and gaped at the door, long after she’d left, then finally turned to his brother, only to find Kili grinning at him from ear to ear. “What?” Fili snapped.

“Oh, you’ve got it bad,” Kili crowed. “Never would’ve thought you’d fall for a human, but she’s gorgeous enough. Spirit, too.”

Sometimes, Fili was certain that all the brains of the Durin line had come to him, because Kili had absolutely none. “She insulted me!” he sputtered. “She, she suggested I hadn’t had enough training! Did you hear what she called me?”

“I did,” Kili said, and he sounded gleeful about it. The brat.

“Hold still, young prince,” Aldor said, his paste in hand. It smelled even worse up close, and even Kili wrinkled his nose at it. “Awful it may smell, but your wound will heal all the quicker for it. Then you can challenge our lead shieldmaiden for your honor.”

Fili winced when the cold paste met his wound. It didn’t hurt, just…felt odd. “Shieldmaiden?” he asked, after a moment. “She’s a Shieldmaiden of Rohan?”

“She is indeed,” Aldor said. “And one of the best. Her father was captain of the Riders before he died in battle. Thengel gave her the title of Shieldmaiden not long after, and since then, she’s been beneficial to training the men and women of Rohan who want to go into service. And, of course, the royal children. Thengel’s youngest isn’t quite ready to see any battle yet, since she’s not even quite walking yet, and the Queen just made the announcement of a fourth child on the way. But when they’re old enough, Dernwyn will lead them.” He applied more paste, then added, “She’s not married or asked for yet. And the Rohirrim have no rules against marrying other races.”

Fili closed his eyes wearily. Kili snickered beside him.

Mahal help him, why did they think he wanted such an arrogant, mouthy woman?

Chapter Text

It wasn't until nearly four days later that Bilbo finally had a moment truly to himself. Thengel had made certain that Bilbo had always been surrounded by someone, and usually by very happy someones. His daughter and son, for example, were thrilled to talk with Bilbo and to hear the stories he told them. He'd never thought himself a skilled storyteller, not like some of the hobbits back home, but after he'd told the story of the three trolls, he'd looked up to find nearly everyone in the hall listening with bated breath. Even Fili and Kili, who'd been there and had more than their fair share of the story, had listened with grins hanging from ear to ear. Surprisingly, they hadn't interrupted once to add something to the tale, and Kili had laughed harder than anyone when Bilbo had said how the young dwarf prince had wound up knocked over flat.

Sometimes, there'd been those around him who'd not looked for stories, but had done all they could to make him comfortable. Bilbo had spoken with the Queen several times, and she'd reminded him so much of his mother that several times, he'd been forced to simply nod and listen appropriately, for fear that he'd choke on his next words. She was radiant and fierce, talented and full of spirit, and if she'd noticed how he'd suddenly go silent and simply stare at her, she said nothing, but merely continued talking with that sweet smile of hers.

He'd gotten to know a lot of the people in Edoras, just by venturing outside. The wind had been cruel, almost too cruel, until Thengel had realized what Bilbo wanted to do and had gifted him a coat with furs. “Now you can meet my people and do so with a smile, not clenched teeth,” he'd said with a grin. Bilbo didn't have any proof, but Holdwine had suddenly had nothing to do for the afternoon, and he'd offered himself as a guide around the mountainous city, and somewhere in the great hall, the hobbit just knew Thengel had given quiet instructions to watch and take care of Bilbo.

It made Bilbo think of Gandalf, and how the wizard had dedicated himself to Bilbo's safety, how he'd been, perhaps, the truest friend the hobbit had ever had. To know he'd met someone else, just as brave and wise, left him feeling very grateful.

The people of Rohan had been startled at first, to meet someone so small but obviously so much older than a child, but it hadn't taken long for Bilbo to hear greetings and cheerful calls when he wandered around the mountain. Some he even knew by name, and the children loved to follow him wherever he went, asking him all sorts of questions about hobbits and the Shire. It put smiles on the faces of the weary and the aged, and he was pleased to do it.

As quickly as the days passed, however, it still seemed as if it had been ages since Bilbo had been alone. He'd woken from a thoughtless dream that had left him panting for air, and he'd wandered into one of the empty rooms of the hall to sit by himself for a time. He could still feel the evil smoke choking him, clogging his throat and suffocating him. He rubbed gingerly at his throat, the sensation still too real.

Bilbo...

Bilbo slowly let his eyes drift to his pocket. The Ring was now on a thick chain, but he still kept it in his pocket. Feeling the cold metal against his skin left him more chilled than if he'd gone outside without his fur coat.

He doubted it was because of the chain.

Bilbo...

He shut his eyes tight. Not listening, not listening.

Just put it on... be cold no longer. You will be warm, where no smoke can pull the air from your lungs.

Without a pause he put his hands before him, clasping his fingers tightly together. No.

He will take it, the whisper continued. Thengel means to take the Ring from you. He is lulling you into a false sense of friendship, of hope. You know this to be true. Put the Ring on and disappear before he can!

Bilbo bit his lip. His eyes were open now, fixed on the blazing hearth before him. Thengel is my FRIEND, he will not betray me.

Did Thorin not betray you? He counted you as beloved, yet still saw you as a betrayer. His sister-sons suffer from the same illness: they will seek you out and take the Ring from you. Dwarves do not resist gold. Hide yourself, put it on! Put it ON!

“No!” Bilbo shouted, standing suddenly from the bench he'd been seated on, and immediately the whispers stopped. He stole harsh breaths, trying to quell the trembling that had started in his body.

“Bilbo?”

Fili and Kili were at the door, frowning slightly. “Are you all right?” Kili asked.

The memory of the whisper seemed even louder now than it had before. They will seek you out and take the Ring from you. Bilbo couldn't help himself as he reached for the pocket where the Ring was. They weren't here to take it, he knew it, but...just in case. He had to protect them from themselves.

“We were just coming to find you,” Fili said, a frown also on his face. “Sure you're all right? No one's hurt you, have they?”

Bilbo finally coughed and found his voice. “No, just...just a terrible dream,” he said. “I'm fine.”

“You're the picture of fine, absolutely,” Kili deadpanned. He looked Bilbo up and down, his frown deepening. “You look tired.”

“Want us to leave so you can try and rest?” Fili asked. He didn't even so much as look at where Bilbo's hand was awkwardly placed on his vest.

It was exactly what Bilbo needed to hear, and he let his hand fall with a sigh. “No, no, I just...I'm sorry,” he murmured. They immediately stepped beside him, taking a seat when he did on the bench. Both still looked concerned.

“It's that thing, isn't it?” Kili murmured. Bilbo gave a nod. “I wish I could do something for you. Carry it, toss it into a chest for a bit, anything so you wouldn't have to bear it.”

“You're looking pale,” Fili continued. “Paler and paler every day. Thengel's worried, too. We've talked to him about what to do for you.”

They're conspiring to take it from you! a voice in the back of his head nastily whispered, but it was hushed in an instance. It was so full of venom, though, that Bilbo couldn't breathe for a moment. It had been his voice, but it had sounded like...like Gollum.

He buried his face in his hands. “I don't know if I can do it,” he admitted. “I really don't. I thought I could, thought I'd spare everyone by taking it since it wasn't pulling at me but...”

“But it is now,” Fili finished after a moment. He sighed. “That's what we were afraid of.”

“There's got to be something we can do,” Kili insisted. He glanced from Bilbo to his brother and then back to Bilbo. “Isn't there?” he asked desperately.

Fili looked to Bilbo, the same sort of hope in his eyes, but his face was already drawn in resignation. He knew the answer. “No,” Bilbo still said out loud. “No, there really isn't.”

Kili slumped onto the bench. His brother reached to put his arm around Bilbo, though his fingers caught Kili's shoulder. Kili sat up a little straighter, and his arm soon looped behind Bilbo to do the same. “We'll do anything we can do,” Fili said. “We swear. Whatever you need, we'll do it.”

“Anything,” Kili swore, and Bilbo realized he'd been twice blessed again with good friends at his side. He hoped this quest wouldn't cost them their lives.

“Thank you,” he said, his gratitude nearly cutting off his air. “Thank you so much.”

“The others will, too,” Kili said. “Of that you can be sure. Even Gimli.”

“Gimli?”

“Gloin's son. He's a lot of fun to wind up,” Fili said with a grin. “The elf was even willing to help. He's got a lot of fun opportunities ahead, I can see that.”

Bilbo wasn't certain whether Fili meant Gimli or the elf, but he didn't really want to know. Either way, someone was going to be pranked, and as long as it wasn't him, he'd be fine. “It'll be nice to meet up with everyone,” he said. “I've missed them.”

For some reason, that made their smiles falter. “Even Uncle?” Fili asked softly.

Wasn't that the question of the day. There were so many answers that Bilbo could've given, but in the end, he went with the bare, honest truth. “Yes,” he said. “Even Thorin.” Perhaps especially Thorin, but there was only so much honesty one could give out all at once.

“He loves you,” Fili said. “He really does.”

“You said that before, and I know he...he was fond of me, at a time-”

“Oh Mahal, you can't be serious!” Kili said, and the exasperation in his tone startled Bilbo. “Fond? Bilbo, he's fond of Orcrist, fond of a good ale. He's in love with you!”

“Typically, you don't threaten to kill someone you're in love with,” Bilbo snapped, and the harshness of the words made him want to immediately apologize, but he swallowed the words back. He could still feel the wind whipping around him, Thorin's hand wrapped so tightly around his throat he could barely pull air in. Yet the fear of being dropped, the fear of dying, it hadn't nearly amounted to the sheer amount of pain he'd felt when Thorin had banished him.

“You didn't see him, after.”

Bilbo turned to Fili, who almost looked haunted. “When the gold sickness cleared from our eyes,” he said. “He...he looked desolate. Destroyed. He looked so horrified and wretched, and his voice, it shook.”

He tried to imagine it, the scene. He didn't think he'd ever seen Thorin in the way that Fili described. “He was broken,” Kili said. “Never seen him like that. He gave Bard and Thranduil anything they wanted.”

Bilbo blinked. “He gave...”

“He nearly gave Bard back the Arkenstone,” Fili said, nodding. “Didn't want it. He told me to bury it in the vaults, so I did. Then Thranduil came and Uncle couldn't have cared about any of the gold. He gave it to Thranduil quick as you please, just so he could hurry and start following after you.”

“We weren't going for the Council meeting,” Kili said when Bilbo's jaw dropped in shock. He gave a warm, happy smile. “We were already looking for you. Then Legolas told us about the orcs outside of Mirkwood that they'd found with all that blood, and Uncle was so certain you'd been killed or captured and oh, you should've seen it: he was so determined to turn immediately around because important Council or not, he had to save you!”

“And he would've, if the elf hadn't convinced him that there'd been a horse there, one that had galloped away to Lothlorien, and that you were probably with the rider. He was so worried about you.”

“Because he's in love with you.”

“Then why couldn't he have said something?” Bilbo said, frustrated beyond belief. “He could've, I don't know, said anything, but he called me 'Burglar' and couldn't say anything-”

“You didn't really give him the chance to,” Fili pointed out.

Bilbo let out a sigh. “He still could've said something. Anything.”

You could never possibly begin to imagine what I felt when-

“He's always been terrible with words,” Kili said. “Believe me. He's got a sharp, agile tongue when he wants to, but my Mum can run circles around him with her words any day. And he's even worse when he tries to say what really matters to him.”

“So you're saying that his being unable to say anything is actually proof that he loves me,” Bilbo said with arched eyebrows. Both both nodded emphatically.

“Exactly.”

“Completely.”

“It's utterly infallible.”

“Sure-proof method.”

One of them was insane, and Bilbo wasn't entirely certain it wasn't him. “Right,” he said, unsure of absolutely everything.

“Don't worry, Fili's just as bad,” Kili said, and at that Fili sat upright. “You should see him with Dernwyn.”

“That hot-tempered insulting woman?” Fili sputtered. “Of course I don't have words, I shouldn't have to have words! She's short and frigid and absolutely not worth my time!”

Kili had been right: Fili was hooked on the young Shieldmaiden. She'd been gentle and kind when Bilbo had met her, determined to look after him but still allow him breathing room. He suspected she knew what it was like to be undermined and watched after as if she needed to be protected. She was kind enough to Kili, the two often sharing words with smiles and even laughs. But Fili...

As soon as she saw the blonde dwarf, it was instantaneous. Her nostrils would flare, her eyes would narrow, and what had once been a decidedly beautiful young woman turned into a pinched face, dark eyes, and a harsh tongue. Bilbo had been completely surprised at her actions, but then Kili had come 'round and pointed out how hot-tempered his usually calm and kind brother was, and had offered a suggestion as to why. Bilbo had been forced to agree that a mutual attraction was the case.

Still looked to be, and Bilbo managed to hide a smile. Kili wasn't able to, nor did he probably want to. Fili used his hand to punch his brother in the shoulder, and Kili just laughed. “She's not that bad,” Kili said. “Really, Fee. And I know you don't really think she's that dreadful.”

Fili muttered something in Khuzdul that had Kili laughing and gasping for air. “Be nice when you talk about the one you love,” Kili sing-songed when he could finally breathe again.

“What do you know about love?” Fili said with a snort. “You don't know what it's like, either.”

“'Course not, but I'm pretty certain you aren't supposed to loathe each other.”

“All right, enough,” Bilbo said, finally giving into the laugh he'd held back for awhile. The two brothers leaned against him amicably, and Bilbo let out a sigh, this one more of contentment. “Thank you,” he said quietly, after a moment. “Whether it's true or not-”

“Just wait until Uncle gets here,” Kili said. He pulled his arm out from behind Bilbo to rest it on his shoulder. “Then you'll see. Believe me.”

He was going to have to believe him, for the time; he had no idea where Thorin was, or if Thorin was even coming to Rohan. He kept those thoughts private, having burdened the young princes with enough. They should've been in Erebor, living life at large, at home and peaceful for once in their lives. Instead, they'd come along to find Bilbo, apparently, then had joined in the company to escort him to Mordor. They'd been kidnapped by orcs, nearly killed, and yet here they were, still beside him, determined to follow him to the end.

Very blessed indeed.

Footsteps pounded down the outside hall, and a moment later, both Eomund and Théodwyn poked their heads inside the room, gasping. “Orcs!” Théodwyn cried. Bilbo’s heart froze in his chest. “There's orcs spotted coming to Edoras!”

 

“Orcs!”

“How does he see so far?” one of the men asked, bewildered. “I see nothing!”

“Never doubt an elf's eyes,” Fulgram said. To Legolas, who had given the cry, he asked, “Where?”

“Down the hills in the village,” he said. “That village, just down there,” he clarified and pointed when everyone looked at him in askance.

Thorin had to admit, the elf’s vision was impressive. He only wished the message was a better one. “How far are we from your city?” he called to the captain. They had traveled for days, a downpour making visibility nearly nonexistent and forcing them to call a halt. He’d understood the need to stop, but he’d still stared out into the Wold from the small cave that a crag had provided them.

There was a nervous thrum that ran through his veins. Somehow, the urge to get to Rohan had become more than just a simple need. He felt as if he didn’t make it to Edoras, the hobbit, his hobbit, would slip through his fingers. He had a chance to make things right. The fear, however, wouldn’t leave him, that they would arrive too late. What if the orcs besieged the city?

“How many women and children in the village below?” Gandalf barked. “Do you know?”

“I couldn’t tell you the exact sum, but I know that there are many,” Fulgram said. His eyes were pained. “It’s not a military outpost: it’s a village of our people.”

All he wanted to do was get to Bilbo, his nephews who could be there. But he knew already what they would do. He also knew Bilbo would never forgive him if they didn’t. “There are enough of us to lend aid,” Thorin said, swallowing back his other words. “Let’s settle a score with the orcs.”

“And I’ve just the hammer to do the job,” Dwalin said with relish. He handed something forward to Ori – a blade of some kind – then urged his horse onward. Thorin gritted his teeth and felt Legolas lead them forward. On ponies, the charge would’ve taken much too long to be any help.

On horseback, they were there in near minutes. Swift enough that the orcs suspected nothing until it was too late.

Thorin slid Orcrist from its scabbard and sliced neatly through an orc who’d been about to take the life of a helpless villager. “Go!” he shouted to the man, who quickly grabbed a small sack and ran. No, not a sack: a child. Its wide eyes glistened in the sun as they followed, and Thorin’s heart tightened. No child should have to see war or death. He felt pain for the loss of innocence, then turned his attention to the battle.

Legolas somehow managed to guide the horse to the center of town while pulling his bow and arrow taut. He let two arrows fly, both striking true, before they found themselves in the thick of it. Thorin swung over the horse and found Legolas lending a hand to ensure he hit the ground safely. He gave a swift nod then went to work. Two orcs met his blade, and another never felt Orcrist slice through its neck. An orc turned and found Thorin, snarling for others to join it. Thorin merely growled and raised his sword higher in challenge. You will not take me this day: I’ve something greater than you waiting for me.

A familiar war hammer swung through three orcs in one blow, and a sharp, quick slice of a shining sword slashed through another. Even Dwalin looked surprised at the speed and accuracy which Ori had unleashed. The slingshot had obviously taught him that much, though Thorin secretly wondered about how much Nori had lent a hand in his brother’s skills. While the thief’s methods were…unorthodox, if it kept his sibling alive, then even Dori couldn’t have found fault in it.

A scream made him turn. A young mother was putting her young children behind her, two small boys that looked barely old enough to walk. One was taller than the other, and he tucked his brother behind him further still as the orcs began to descend upon them. The mother was willing to die to protect her children, and the boys…

Thorin didn’t know he’d moved until his blade cut through both orcs. He roared and swung his blade again, stopping two more from approaching. “Go!” he yelled, and mother, with both sons, took off running. More orcs went to stop them, but Bofur kept them back with his mattock. Arrows flew through the air between the men and the orcs, finding targets in several orcs. Legolas didn’t even pause, pulling more arrows and releasing them at a dizzying pace. Off in the distance near Fulgram, Aragorn was cutting off the retreat, and Gandalf was making swift ends to a multitude of orcs with his sword and staff.

The village was safe.

A cheer went up when it was clear that the orcs were on the run. “For Rohan!” someone cried, and it echoed through the village. Men and women both clutched at each other and their families. Thorin caught sight of the man he’d saved, holding onto his small child, and both were smiling. Off near Aragorn, the woman and her two sons were embracing an elderly woman.

There were some who had fallen. A few bodies lay in the mud and grass, and several mourned around him. But Thorin saw that the majority of the villagers and their homes had been spared. They had acted quickly, and their swiftness had spared lives. He met Dwalin’s eyes and the two shared a smile.

Fulgram made his way over to Thorin and sheathed his sword. “I owe you a debt, Master Dwarf,” he said with a bow. “You saved my people and even led the charge with a fervor as if they were your own kin. I cannot express my gratitude.”

“You saved my nephews and one I hold dear,” Thorin said, shaking his head. “You owe me nothing.”

Fulgram smiled. “Perhaps you do not need to stand tall to see reason, after all.” His smile slid into a jesting grin, and Thorin allowed a smile in return.

“Perhaps you do not need to bend over to see it, either.”

The captain gave a full and hearty laugh. “I believe you and I see eye to eye on this, Master Dwarf,” he said. “And I am glad that you and your companions were found. Our king will be most pleased to meet with you.”

“Thorin.”

He glanced up and found Aragorn hurrying over. “Several orcs on wargs went ahead from the village, south from here,” he said. “I fear they make for Edoras. And I fear they follow after others already on their way.”

“There are strong guardsman and shieldmaidens waiting for them, then,” Fulgram said grimly. He wiped his sword clean on the grass and sheathed it. “Still, we will follow after them. We will attend to those who need help here, and lead whom we can back to Edoras for safety. If the orcs are daring to strike at a village so close to the heart of Rohan, they have a need that drives them.”

“Aragorn!”

Thorin turned at the elf’s urgent voice. Legolas stood over an orc, one who was still moving. He made no move to slay it, however, and Thorin quickly moved after Aragorn. “Kill it and be done with it,” Dwalin growled at Legolas.

Legolas pinched his lips. “It speaks,” was all he said. It wouldn’t speak well, not with an obvious mortal wound in its chest, and Gimli putting his boot firmly on its wound. It still drew enough air to give a guttural laugh.

“You can’t…keep them safe,” it rasped, coughing up blood. It huffed another laugh. “All your little dwarves. The line of…of Durin, it will…”

“I dare you to finish that,” Thorin snarled, fear in his breast. He grabbed the orc by the armor and pulled it upright, ignoring the gurgling sound that came from it. “I dare you.”

The orc pinned Thorin with its horrible dark eyes and grinned, black blood trickling from its mouth. “It will fall.”

Thorin dropped the orc as it laughed and choked. “You think you can end them? You’re already crossing to the end world of pain,” Gimli threatened, heaving his axe up and against the orc’s neck. “Tell us who sent you, and I’ll ease your passing.”

“I take orders from my lord,” the orc whispered, and its breaths came more labored. “A-Azog leads by…by the gu-guiding hand of…” It breathed something, a slurred word, and Gimli shook it with his boot, roaring for an answer. But the orc stared sightlessly up at them, and Thorin shook his head.

“You’ll get nothing more from it, Gimli.” Azog led by a guiding hand? Azog would never let someone or something else lead him. To think that Azog had formed an alliance…it terrified him.

“You all right, Mister Legolas?”

Thorin glanced up at Bofur’s words and frowned. The elf was nearly pure white, and the fear on his face only made his heart tremble. “What?” Thorin demanded.

“I…I must have misheard,” Legolas stammered, and Thorin shook his head. If there were two things that were constants in the world, one of them was that an elf’s hearing was perfect and absolute, just as a dwarf’s hand was still and always sure. The other was that elves did not typically fear, and if they did, it was never with the same fear that Legolas was showing.

“What was it?” Aragorn asked. “What did you hear, Legolas?”

Legolas looked up and met Thorin’s eyes. “He said…the guiding hand of Saruman.”

“Impossible,” Gandalf said firmly from behind Thorin. He marched past the dwarf king straight up to the elf. “You must have heard wrong. You must have heard ‘Sauron’ instead.”

But Legolas shook his head. “It was ‘Saruman’,” he said, and now his face filled with disbelief and pain. “But why would Saruman join forces with an orc?”

“He wouldn’t,” Gandalf said. Never had Thorin heard the wizard sound so stubborn before. “He wouldn’t. You misheard.”

“Gandalf,” Thorin began, and the wizard turned on him.

“Would you tell me that I am lying, Thorin Oakenshield?!”

Never before would he have thought that the wizard could be so deceived, but then he truly looked at Gandalf. He was frail, all of a sudden, and the look in his eyes begged for something other than the truth. He knew, then. He just refused to accept it. “No,” Thorin said slowly, shaking his head. “Only that you were betrayed by one whom you should have been able to call friend.”

Much as Bilbo had been betrayed by Thorin. That was a pain for another time.

Their small group was silent as around them, the village celebrated. Thorin suddenly felt as if he were on the brink of something terrible and massive, and he was about to tumble over into it. Even a small stone can start an avalanche, he thought to himself: wise words from his father so long ago. It seemed as if they were true.

Gandalf seemed to fold in on himself all at once. “Forgive me, Legolas,” he said, and his voice was that of a very old man. “It is pain that I feel.”

“Orcs lie,” Legolas said. He rested a hand on Gandalf’s shoulder. “You told me once to not give up hope. I would ask the same of you.”

Gandalf huffed a small laugh, and his eyes seemed to sparkle with life once more. “And so I will,” he said. “Perhaps Saruman is yet innocent and in need of rescue. We cannot find answers to this riddle until we have reached Edoras. We must depart.”

Everyone returned to their horses. Thorin couldn’t help but catch a glimmer of doubt in Gandalf’s eyes. Orcs told falsehoods when it suited them, but spoke the truth more when it would hurt much worse than a lie. He didn’t believe the orc had spoken wrongly, and neither did Gandalf. Thorin doubted that Legolas believed it to be a lie, either, but had tried to raise Gandalf’s spirits.

Either way, they needed to get to Edoras, and immediately. “How long to the heart of Rohan?” he asked Fulgram when the man returned to his horse.

“A day, perhaps. Wargs are faster than most horses, but not faster than ours. Still, we cannot tarry. Gather up those injured and who must come, and make haste,” he ordered to his men. “I am leaving a small contingent of you here, to ensure that the village is safe.”

A few people were pulled into the group on horses. “Will the injured be able to ride swift?” Legolas asked. “Is it not too much to ask?”

“They are Rohirrim, Master Elf,” was all Fulgram said. “They can ride.”

They all quickly mounted their steeds, eyes already aimed towards Rohan. The mother of the two sons was putting them both on a horse, and obviously making no intent to go with them. “Mama,” one of them called, tears in his eyes.

“You go with your brother,” she said as firmly as she could. Her eyes still glistened, and her lips trembled. She glanced back at the elderly woman, then back at her children. “We’ll follow after when we can, but for now, you must go.”

The youngest began to cry. His older brother clung to him, not looking any happier but still trying to be stoic and strong. In his eyes, however, Thorin could see the heartbreak. This was a child who’d grown up, perhaps too fast, while he’d tried to care for his younger brother and his mother all at once. It reminded Thorin too much of Fili, and the younger one clung as Kili had often done.

He found himself turning the horse towards them. Legolas’ confusion was keenly felt, but the elf remained silent. The horse was not stopped until they reached the parting family. “If I may,” Thorin said, and they all turned to him. He took in a deep breath and turned to the woman first. “I will see that your children reach Rohan safely. I swear that no harm will come to them, so long as there is breath in my body.”

She stared, stunned at his words. It quickly fell into tears of gratitude. “Thank you, oh thank you,” she whispered, coming up to him. She clasped his hand with a teary smile. “Thank you so much. I can never repay you.”

“I have no desire for you to,” he said honestly. “They…remind me of my own sons. You would leave me more in peace if I could watch over them on the journey.”

Understanding dawned in her eyes, and with it came a smile of sympathy. “Thank you,” she said again. She quickly turned and hurried to her sons, promising to meet with them once more when she was able to travel. She led their horse over to the group, only leaving them once Thorin had also rejoined the horses. Aragorn gazed at him with a thoughtfulness in his eyes, but did not speak.

Thorin reached out to the horse the boys rode on, brushing its mane with his fingers. He immediately caught the attention of both boys, but waited until he was certain they were watching before he turned to them. “I am Thorin, son of Thrain,” he said softly. The older one’s blonde hair reminded him so fiercely of Fili that his heart ached for his nephew, for the one he’d called his heir and son for so long. By Mahal, he hoped they were both safe in the city of Edoras.

The oldest, his arms still wrapped around his younger brother, gave a short nod. “Folcred, son of Ceorl,” he said. “This is my brother, Gamling.”

Thorin gave them a bright smile. “I am pleased to meet you both. Do you know how to ride a horse?”

Folcred nodded. “I’ve ridden many times. Gamling is still learning.”

“I myself am more accustomed to ponies,” Thorin said. “You may perhaps need to teach me how to ride.”

Finally, finally, Folcred gave a smile, though it was touched with incredulity. “Do you not know how to ride?” he asked. “You have a beard of age!”

“Didn’t pay attention in lessons,” Dwalin said, coming up beside Thorin’s horse. “Wretched at it. Falls off the minute the horse moves.”

If just to prove his point, the horse trotted forward before Thorin realized it, and he quickly caught at the mane. He glared at Dwalin but not harshly, for both boys were giggling madly behind him. Folcred quickly moved their own horse forward to catch up with Legolas and Thorin. “If you fall off, it’ll hurt,” the boy warned, but he was still grinning, tears long gone. His brother followed in his example and beamed from ear to ear.

Thorin would have to thank Dwalin later. Legolas too, because Thorin knew he’d felt the elf ever so slightly nudge at the horse to move onward. Still, he’d gotten the light-hearted cheer he’d hoped for from the boys, and they were speaking quietly with each other, looking around at all the company that surrounded them.

He still leaned back and muttered, “Do that again and I’ll show you how well a dwarf makes use of his hands.”

“Hard to use your hands when you’re too busy gripping a horse to stay on,” Legolas murmured back, and when Thorin glanced back, there was a faint smirk on his lips.

Dwalin snorted from beside them. “I almost like this one,” he said with a slight inclining of his head towards Legolas.

Thorin had to admit, he almost liked him, too. Out loud, he called to Fulgram, “Are we all accounted for?”

“We ride,” Fulgram answered, and their company, the Riders, and the villagers quickly began sweeping across the Wold. Beyond them, somewhere off in the distance, was Edoras. And within its halls were hopefully his nephews and his hobbit. Fili, Kili. Bilbo.

When the horse moved even faster, urged on by Legolas, Thorin didn’t so much as falter.

Chapter Text

The orcs had been nothing more than a few random scouts, ones apparently far, far ahead of a raiding party off in another village, but it had been enough to frighten the people at Edoras. More than enough to frighten Bilbo into taking the action he needed to take. He hadn’t wanted to: he’d wanted to stay longer, he’d wanted to catch up with the company, he’d wanted to talk in person with Thorin, to know if Fili and Kili were just reading too much into their uncle’s expressions, or if Thorin truly loved him.

It wasn’t an answer he was going to get anytime soon, though. Not now.

“I need to leave,” he said to Thengel, when the all clear had been given. “I won’t bring harm, well, more harm, to you and your people. It’s me they’re looking for, and you know it.”

“With the orcs so close in the Wold, it would be even more crucial for you to not travel alone,” Thengel said. His eyes were dark with worry. “You should not go alone.”

“And he won’t,” Fili said. The wound on his forehead was fading into a pink scar, still healing but much better than days before. “We’ll be going with him.”

“You will not,” Bilbo said decisively.

“But-“

“I’m not arguing with you about this, you need to be here for your uncle’s sake. He has to know you were taken by orcs. For all he knows, you two could be dead. You should be here if he comes to Rohan.”

“As should you,” Kili insisted. He rested a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder, and Fili placed his hand on the other. “You going off alone isn’t what anyone wants. It’s not safe. We should wait for Uncle-“

“And we don’t even know when he’s coming, or if he knows to come to Rohan,” Bilbo countered. “We don’t have time, Kili. There’s going to be more orcs, and if they hurt the people here, it’ll be my fault because of that thing.” That thing that still whispered to him, every now and then. It was just getting louder as the days went on. “I need to leave, and I should’ve, should’ve done it sooner, but I just…” I wanted to stay. I wanted to see Fili and Kili more. I wanted to see Thorin.

A memory of his mother came to mind when he’d come home from a day of ‘adventuring’, hurt not only because of the arm he’d scraped so viciously, but of the other hobbit children who’d laughed at him. “It’s not fair!” he’d insisted, big fat tears rolling down his face.

“The world’s not fair, Bilbo,” she’d said gently. She’d tussled his curls and smiled at him, so warm and comforting, and she’d wrapped him tightly in her arms. “That’s the first terrible rule of the world. But do you know what?” She’d tapped him on the nose with a twinkle in her eyes. “You don’t have to be fair right back. Be fair to other beings, but don’t play fair with the world, not ever.”

What he wouldn’t have given for her right then and there. He wondered what she would’ve thought of Fili and Kili. She probably would’ve wrapped them up in a huge hug and told them to pile everything on her glory box, because some things needed to be messy. He found himself almost smiling at the thought.

“Then stay,” Kili said. “Or let us come with you.”

Bilbo ignored him and turned to Thengel, who had been watching him. “I hate to take my leave so abruptly, but you know I’m right. You know I need to leave, and to leave immediately. I won’t bring the orcs here, not if I can help it.”

Thengel slowly nodded. “I’ll have Holdwine take you as far as he can, so he can guide you at least to the mountains. Can you ride a horse?”

He gave a short nod. He’d ridden two thus far, he could ride another without any difficulties at all. He hoped, at least.

Thengel looked as if he had more to say, then only gave a tired smile. He gave a nod and turned away. Bilbo watched him go with equal parts sadness and resignation. It was what needed to be done.

Now just to handle two more. He glanced up at the two determined dwarves before him and knew this wasn’t going to be as easily done. “Boys,” he began, and was immediately overrun by Fili.

“Let us come with you.”

“No, you need to stay here, to wait for your uncle,” Bilbo said firmly. “And that’s that.”

“But you’ll be out there alone!”

“You need someone with you!”

“Holdwine’s going with me, or don’t you trust him?”

“No, we do, of course, but…” Kili looked down at the floor. “We’d feel a lot better if we were with you.”

With a small sigh Bilbo hung his head. “I know,” he said quietly. “But you do need to be here, if Thorin comes. Someone needs to tell him about you both, and about me. And I can’t stay.” Fate, it seemed, was determined to be cruel and keep him parted from Thorin. He had this one chance to see Thorin, to perhaps make things right, to see him, and yet-

And yet. To be so close, yet to have the opportunity dance out of his grasp again.

“We could leave him a note with Thengel,” Fili offered, but it was with a wry grin. He knew they had to stay. “We’ll tell him everyth- what?”

Bilbo began to smile. “I’ve got to go do something, and quickly. Stay here, I’ll be back quick enough.” He had to gather up his things, and he had to find parchment. Fili’s words, though in jest, had given him an idea. If Thorin had read his letter at all, then…well, he didn’t know how Thorin would feel about the words he’d written in such despair and frustration. But while he couldn’t stay and make things right, he could do this. He could at least do this.

He flew through the hallways and ducked around a corner, only to nearly run into a familiar face. “My apologies, Master Baggins,” Dernwyn said, managing to not drop the armor she was carrying. “My mind was running elsewhere.”

“As was mine, no apologies necessary,” he promised. “But…I was wondering if you could help me.”

“Anything,” she swore. “Anything you need, anything I can do, and you know I’ll do it.” Her eyes were on fire, and he wondered if the armor in her hands wasn’t about to be put on over her slender shoulders. She was a warrior, and she was fierce, yet so loyal. She seemed taller than she truly was in the moments when her spirit shone, and she seemed as tall now as a tree, unwavering with roots buried deep.

“I do,” he said. “Oh, I do. I actually just need parchment. I’m leaving, but I have words that need to wait for someone.”

“Your dwarf king,” she said, and he nodded with a faint flush to his cheeks. ‘His’ dwarf king: he doubted that. But she’d pulled the story from him one night, nearly the whole thing, and it had been as if he’d been talking to his cousin. Where Queen Morwen reminded him of his mother, Dernwyn was his cousin Primula, so young and yet so tenacious and full of life. He’d always been able to trust her, to tell her everything though he was so much her elder. He felt much the same with Dernwyn, and he had a sneaking suspicion she’d told Thengel more details than Bilbo had about Thorin. Thengel had made no comment of it, and Bilbo hadn’t asked.

“My dwarf king,” he nodded. “I’ll need a quill and ink, too.”

“You’ll have them all,” she assured him. “I’ll bring them to your room as soon as I can find them. You may not be here to greet your king, when he comes, but your words will be.”

He went on his way then, back to his rooms to pack and wait. Words tumbled in his head, desperate to find the right ones. There was so much he could say, so much he could tell Thorin, so much so much he didn’t even know where to start.

Then Dernwyn brought him the inkwell, quill, and parchment, and he knew exactly what he wanted to say.

 

“He should stay,” Kili insisted. The silence from his brother all but undid him, and he reached out to tug on Fili’s arm as if he were a child of twenty again. “He should stay, Fee! He shouldn’t leave. If we can be taken so easily, what will happen to him?”

Fili didn’t answer, but he let his hand be caught in Kili’s. “What if something happens to him?” Kili whispered. Standing out in the wind, his words would easily have been lost, but he knew Fili had heard him. “What if something happens and we could’ve saved him?”

Fili still didn’t answer. Kili turned miserably towards the stable doors, where Bilbo was. Holdwine was helping him onto the horse and showing him how he could mount and dismount on his own without aid. It seemed that Bilbo was getting the hang of it, much to Holdwine’s approval, though Bilbo had been startled enough when he’d realized he was getting his own horse. Off to the side, Thengel stood with Théoden before him. Both looked more solemn and serious than Kili had seen them look before. None of them wanted Bilbo to leave.

Yet they all knew he needed to. There’d been a few more scouts that had come behind after the first pack of orcs, and while they had been easily disbanded, they’d only lent more conviction to Bilbo’s vow. He had to leave Edoras, and quickly.

That didn’t make it any easier for them to let him go.

He didn’t realize his lips had begun to tremble until Fili tapped gently at his chin. “He’ll be all right, Kee,” he murmured. “Stand tall. I’m not going anywhere.”

Kili took a deep breath and let it out. It was a little steadier than before. “We’ll be all right,” Fili promised. “All right?”

Kili nodded. It wasn’t him he was worried about, though. He quickly headed down the slope to where Bilbo was steadying himself atop the horse. The hobbit looked out of place on the large beast, but with a gentle pat the horse settled. The horse seemed aware that there was someone riding him who needed protection, and stepped forward slowly but surely. Kili could only hope the horse would continue in such a fashion.

Thengel stepped forward from the group of people surrounding them. “Go with my blessing,” he said solemnly. He handed Bilbo a small medallion, shaped in half of a horse’s head. “You will have to return for the other half of it. Wear it on your chain.” It would be something for Bilbo to look at, other than the Ring, and Kili watched as understanding dawned on the hobbit. He murmured thanks and let Thengel help him put it on. It slid beside the Ring, resting against it.

He didn’t even think as he saw Bilbo begin to clasp the chain together again. “Wait!” Kili yelled, hurrying forward. Bilbo paused, waiting. It took only a moment for Kili to undo his braid and tug the bead loose. He offered it up without a moment’s hesitation. “Here,” he said, when Bilbo didn’t take it immediately. “Take it with you.”

Bilbo stared. “Kili, I couldn’t-“

“And mine,” Fili insisted. He was also holding up a bead and it was, Kili was pleased to note, the twin to the bead Kili was offering. “Please, Bilbo.”

“I know what they mean to you,” Bilbo still argued. “And those beads, I’m sure, have some valued significance-“

“They were our first beads we made,” Kili explained. “Our first beads we made ourselves. Uncle helped us forge them.”

“You’re supposed to give them to family,” Bilbo explained, as if he were the dwarf and Kili the hobbit. “Those are your Firsts, your own creations. The company explained all about the beads, and those go to kin, Kili.”

“We know,” Fili said. He held his bead higher. “So take it.”

The dawning realization on Bilbo’s face was almost painful. He reached out and took them both and, very carefully, placed them on his chain with great reverence. They slid against the half-horse medallion with a gentle clinking sound. The small jewels embedded in the beads seemed to glow in the sunlight. Kili almost smiled at the sight. Almost. Except he knew what had urged him to give Bilbo the bead in the first place.

“The sun is high,” Holdwine said. “Let us go south.” His horse immediately began moving towards the gate.

Bilbo made a soft ‘oh’ sound and quickly dug into his coat. “Give this to your uncle,” he said, his horse already moving. He all but fell off leaning down to hand over a folded parchment tied with what looked like a strip of cloth. Kili hurried to catch it as Bilbo’s horse took off, racing after Holdwine. When Bilbo looked back, Kili held up the parchment and nodded. Then he was gone.

Kili stared out until the gate closed. He felt Fili’s hand on his shoulder, but when he turned to look, Fili’s eyes were just as transfixed on the gate as Kili’s were. The section of his golden hair that had once been braided now fluttered in front of his face, bent and wavy. It wouldn’t make any difference to Kili: very little of his hair had been braided, and the braid had merely been to keep the beads in. He only had one braid now – his coming of age braid – and the bead that went with it. He’d have to redo it somewhere else: it would look odd now, without its match.

He didn’t regret it, and he knew his uncle would be thankful when he discovered what they’d done. They hadn’t been able to go with him in body, but in spirit, they would remain with him, all the way to Mordor.

The crowd began to disperse. “Come,” Thengel said gently, and when Kili looked, the king’s eyes were red-rimmed. “My Riders are due to return soon, and should soon be here. We can only hope they bring your kin with them.” He nudged his son forward, and Théoden slowly made his way back up to the great hall. Up outside the hall’s doors, Théodwyn stood beside her mother, who held a babe by hand beside her. Dernwyn waited further up the hill, but her eyes were not on the king or his family. Rather, they were on Fili, and there was an odd look to her face. For once, the shieldmaiden didn’t look at his brother in annoyance, but rather…softness. Kili turned and saw what she did: Fili turned to the distance, hair across his face, hand on Kili’s shoulder.

Supposed he cut a handsome figure. At least, if you liked a prat that looked more like a warg sometimes, instead of a dark haired, noble Durin.

Still, Kili wasn’t interested in Dernwyn: fun enough, kind enough, but not what he wanted in a mate. Her long, light hair was a gorgeous color, though. There was something to light, near golden hair: it caught the light and almost glowed. Like Legolas’ hair: that was a perfect example.

He wondered if he’d ever find someone that had the specifications his silly whims had thought up. Probably not. He was still young, very young. Whoever his heart would call its own, they’d have to be willing to wait until he was old enough to be a worthy partner. Or until he matured enough to be worth courting.

That could take a while. A long while, actually.

He was far more free to love as he wanted, though, than his brother. Fili had duties, as the first in line heir to the throne. Of course, given that their uncle was in love with a hobbit, one without any real royal lineage since the hobbits didn’t really have royalty, he doubted Fili would be hard pressed to find a ‘suitable’ mate, Kili even less so. Free to love whom he wanted. And Dernwyn would be a good match for his brother. Maybe she was starting to see that.

Given how the two glared at each other not a moment later, perhaps not quite yet. Kili finally turned himself away from the gate and headed up to the hall with his brother behind him. They’d be great for each other. They just needed a bit of encouragement, perhaps. Kili could do that.

After all, what kind of brother would he be if he didn’t help Fili out?

 

The torches were lit by the time they reached Edoras. They were ushered in immediately, most of the men heading straight for the stables. Legolas urged their horse forward to follow Fulgram, who did not deviate from his path up the mountain. They dismounted in urgency, all of them feeling the need to step inside the halls. Thorin nearly vibrated, so great was his energy to see his nephews and friend.

Fulgram pushed the doors open and into a great hall, filled with old wood and bright fires. Everything stopped as they entered, and Legolas took the opportunity to look around. There was a feeling of peace in the hall, but also a feeling of despair. Had they perhaps already learned of the village’s fate? Had the orcs come and injured the people of Rohan here?

“Hail, King Thengel,” Fulgram said, bowing. “Long may you reign. I have a host who seeks words with you.”

“And long have I waited to hear them,” a man near a table said. He was dressed in fine linens, but not so fine as to be considered regal. He was a man of great bearing, however, and the way he stood spoke instantly of his royalty. This man could have been covered completely in rags and still have been spotted as a king.

He approached them with a smile, but it did not reach his eyes. “Welcome to my halls,” he said, giving them a nod. “You are the company that set forth from Lothlorien, are you not?”

His words startled them all. Did he know of Bilbo’s mission? Legolas suddenly feared for the hobbit, and the tension in the group spoke the same. While Thengel seemed like a gentle man, he was still a man. Dwarves, elves, and men were all corruptible to the call of treasure: perhaps Thengel was no different.

“Uncle! Uncle!”

Two blurs flew past Thengel, and before anyone knew it, Thorin had both of his nephews in his arms. He crushed them to his chest, and Legolas could see the pure relief burning in his eyes as the dwarf king murmured his gratitude in Khuzdul. They were both alive, and both unharmed, though Fili appeared to have a slight scar on his forehead that had yet to finish healing. But they were both safe.

It left Legolas feeling relieved as well, and when Kili pulled away from his uncle to let his eyes roam over the company, he could not help but smile back when the young dwarf sent a blinding grin his way. He could hear his father now in his head, berating him for smiling at a dwarf, but Kili’s smile was too infectious. Never before had Legolas been so joyful to see a companion not dead. To see…to see a friend, perhaps.

Then Fili and Kili’s smiles both fell. “Gandalf?” they gasped, and even Thengel appeared shocked. “You’re alive?”

“I was told you had fallen,” Thengel whispered. He began to smile, warm and overjoyed. “I am glad to see you, my old friend. Very glad to see you indeed.”

Gandalf only chuckled when Fili and Kili attempted to knock him over with the emphasis of their embraces. “I had almost perished,” Gandalf admitted. “But a lucky handhold kept me from a dismal fate. Luck was actually kind to most of our company.”

“Gloin? Denethor?” Fili asked. He frowned, looking at who was there. “Where are the others?”

“I sent them back,” Thorin told him. He still smiled, watching them both with grateful eyes. “Denethor yet lived, when we saw him last. And Gloin was safe with a vest of mithril.”

“Brilliant,” Kili said fervently. “Oh, he’d be happy to know that. That’s wonderful!”

There was no mistaking who the ‘he’ was. Yet the past tense reference only made their fear greater. “Where is Bilbo Baggins?” Gandalf finally asked for them all. “He came to your halls, yes?”

Fili and Kili ceased their smiles. Thorin looked as if he’d been struck. “Leave us,” Thengel ordered, and everyone save for their company and Fulgram remained. The air was so tense and stale that Legolas nearly could not breathe. It itched across his skin, a burning sensation that could not be soothed. The fate of the hobbit hung in the air like a heavy weight, ready to crush them all.

“The hobbit?” Aragorn finally asked, when all had cleared the room. “Where is he?”

Thengel sighed. “He is gone,” he said. “He left on horseback earlier today, with my blessing. A good Rider, Holdwine, went with him to guide him south. Once he is to the mountains and closer to his destination, Holdwine will return.”

“His destination?” Fulgram asked, frowning. “Why would a map-maker need to go south? Would he not go southeast to Gondor?”

Thengel didn’t speak. “You know,” Thorin said, voice low. It was not a question.

The king finally nodded. “He carries a dangerous burden, one I could not hope to bear,” he said quietly. Fili and Kili looked pained. “He revealed it to me, though with great reluctance, and I understand why. It called to me. I, who have cared nothing for gold or treasures, and I was tempted by it. I was truly tempted by the One Ring.”

Everyone froze. Only Fili and Kili did not seem distressed, and Legolas forced himself to relax. If Bilbo had been in danger, or had not been sent out as Thengel said he was, then they would not look as they did. Legolas found himself trusting the young dwarves. If his father knew, Legolas was certain there would have been harsh words from the Elvenking indeed.

Thengel finally let out a shaky laugh. “How he bears it, I do not know,” he said. “I nearly did not resist, but at last I pulled myself from it. It promised…”

“Promised?” Ori asked. He didn’t stray from Dwalin’s side; not that the older dwarf would have let him. “It promised something to you? It spoke to you?”

“A cold and dreadful whisper,” Thengel said. “It promised me peace, it promised me a throne through which I could govern all of Middle-Earth and bring prosperity and warmth to all the earth. And I wanted it, I did. It promised me nothing but good tidings. Yet…in my heart, I knew it was a lie. A beautiful lie, but a lie nonetheless. I wrenched myself from its whispers. Bilbo keeps it in his pocket as if it were a handkerchief. How he can stand it, I truly cannot begin to fathom.”

“He doesn’t.”

All eyes turned to Kili. He stood as tall as he could under the scrutiny. “I mean, he’s not. Not as well as you think. I think it’s starting to call to him, too. Whispering lies and promises.”

“You could see it,” Fili added, saddened. “Dark circles are starting to form under his eyes, and his skin is pale. He runs his fingers over the pocket without thinking, then whips his hand away like he’s been burned. He told us he doesn’t know if he can carry it.”

The company was silent in the face of such news. Thorin had closed his eyes tightly, pain and despair rolling off of him in waves that Legolas could keenly feel. He wondered how the others could stand under such an onslaught of terrible emotion. It wrapped around him like a cold wind, making him shudder. He wished there was something he could do to ease the dwarf’s pain. Anything, for the kindness he had shown Legolas.

He had not earned the kindness. He was the son of Thorin’s most despised enemy, yet he had not told the others, but had kept Legolas’ heritage a secret as had been asked. Still yet, he seemed to almost respect Legolas. For whatever reason that Thorin had placed his trust in him, Legolas refused to give him a reason to rescind it.

“He is on his way south, though,” Gandalf said, and Thengel nodded. “Good. Then you have done what we could not, and seen him safely on to Mordor.”

“It will take him a long time to reach Mordor,” Thengel said, shaking his head. “I would not wish the journey on my worst enemy, let alone someone I call a dear friend. He has become so dear to me in the past several days. I consider myself honored to know him.”

“As do many of us,” Aragorn said.

Thengel nodded. “It’s hard not to like him,” he said, finally allowing a small smile to come to his lips. “He is the most honest, virtuous being I have ever met. I only hope his spirit will endure.”

Legolas privately hoped the same. He had not spent much time with the hobbit, but Bilbo’s tenacity and strength had shone, even in the short amount of time they’d been together. For the hobbit’s sake, and for Thorin’s, he had hoped they would be able to meet and speak, albeit briefly. It seemed fate was not destined to be that kind.

“Your majesty, we bring harrowing news of Isengard,” Fulgram said. Thengel looked startled at that.

“What news from Saruman?”

For some reason, both Fili and Kili straightened at that. “Orcs have the run of Isengard,” Gandalf said. “And one…spoke of a truce, between Saruman and their leader.”

Thengel only stared at them. “It is because we are old friends that I lend your words any credence,” he said at last, and Legolas could hear the startled anger in his words. “Saruman has long been a friend to Rohan, protecting our borders and saving many lives. He has been nothing but kind and true. I would hope you do not speak of a brief and swift rumor.”

“An orc spoke it to us,” Bofur said.

“And orcs do not lie?”

“It’s true.”

All eyes turned once more to Kili. “What?” Dwalin said, eyes wide.

Kili clenched his fists for a moment, his gaze wandering everywhere. When they landed on Legolas, however, he seemed to still, as if drawing strength from the elf. Startled but willing to aid him, the elf gave a reassuring nod. His eyes remained locked on Kili’s, and he wondered at the multitude of colors in what one would consider such dark eyes.

It seemed to be what the dwarf needed, for he turned back to the others. “When we were taken by the orcs, they spoke about Azog and Saruman,” he said. “How Saruman would do right by the orcs.”

“It spoke strongly of more than a one-time truce,” Fili said. “They were taking us to Isengard. They said that Saruman wanted something, something the company had. We were supposed to be taken by Azog, as the line of Durin, but…but Saruman wanted something, as well.”

Gandalf closed his eyes wearily. “So it is true,” he murmured brokenly. “I had hoped it was not.”

“Isengard is on fire,” Legolas said. “Whatever Saruman and Azog are doing, they are razing the area to the ground. What reason would there be for that, if Saruman is an ally?”

“What do they get out of burnin’ a few trees?” Dwalin said. He gave Legolas an approving nod. “There’s somethin’ going on there. The elf’s right. As much as I can’t believe I’m sayin’ that,” he added under his breath. Legolas heard him but ignored him.

Thengel looked pensive. Legolas did not blame him, for to declare war on Isengard was folly. Yet if Saruman was destroying the earth, especially the earth he had blessed and kept safe for so long, there was a blackness in that deed that could not be undone. Something had to be done.

“We found orcs laying waste to a village, but were successful in stopping them,” Fulgram said. He nodded towards Thorin and Aragorn. “Without their aid, many lives would have been lost.”

“Then I am indebted to you all,” Thengel said, but his eyes were only on Thorin. “Are you Thorin, son of Thrain?”

If Thorin was surprised at the knowledge, he did not show it. “I am,” was all he said.

Thengel smiled. “Then we are well met; I have heard much about you from our mutual friend, Master Baggins.” Thorin didn’t move, but Legolas caught the tightening of his lips. No doubt Thorin feared what Bilbo had said. Yet Thengel seemed happy indeed, if not a bit sorrowful.

“Pappa!”

A young boy raced across the hall to Fulgram, and the change to the captain’s face was instant. He swept up the boy in his arms, smiling and holding him tightly as if he were also as young as the child. “Éomund,” he said happily.

Fili and Kili smiled at the both of them, obviously well acquainted with the boy. They both stepped closer to their uncle, however, and Thengel watched it all with careful eyes. At last he seemed to come to a decision, and he gave a long, deliberate nod.

“Tonight, we shall rest. Tomorrow, we summon whom we can to face Isengard. Once we are all together, we ride. Whether he needs aid or sword, it will take a great force to remove the orcs there. If the orcs are daring enough to enter our villages, then we must act swiftly against the threat. For now, however, you are my guests, and I would meet and know you all by name. There is food, and fire, and ale. Tonight, you will rest.

“Tomorrow, we will call for arms.”

Chapter Text

The sound of soft laughs rang to the top of the hall that night. Though they’d been offered beds enough, Thorin couldn’t dream of sleep. Not with his nephews, his sister-sons, finally in his sight. They were both healing, the orcs having dealt painful wounds to them, but they were alive. Even now they were smiling and laughing alongside Gimli and Dwalin, talking animatedly with Bofur and Ori. Kili even continued to speak with Legolas and draw him into their circle. Though surprised, Legolas had joined in.

Something was off about his nephews, however, besides speaking so easily with an elf. Thorin didn’t have the first clue, but…something was different.

“You are more relaxed tonight.”

Thorin watched as the Ranger slid beside him on the bench. “They are well,” he said. “And alive. It was almost more than I could’ve hoped for.”

“I am…sorry about Bilbo.”

It was all he could do to not stiffen at the words. “I know you wished to see him,” Aragorn continued. The Ranger let out a soft sigh of regret. “As did I,” he murmured.

Bilbo, it seemed, had the ability to charm and befriend all beings, from elves to men, Kings to Rangers. Thorin gave a nod to show he had heard Aragorn, but said nothing. He focused instead on his company, cheerful as they were. He only wished he could join in their joy.

It was only then, gazing at his brave band of men, that he realized what was different about his nephews. He peered more closely, and found that his eyes hadn’t betrayed him. “Fili, Kili,” he called, and they looked to him immediately. “Where are your braids? Your Firsts?”

Surprisingly, his nephews began to smile. “We gave them away,” Fili said.

Gave them away? “To who?” he asked, bewildered. There was no family anywhere here, no dwarves, no one but-

He nearly choked when it finally dawned on him. “To Bilbo,” Kili said, only securing what he’d guessed. “We gave them to Bilbo before he left. We couldn’t go with him, so we gave him our beads.”

Because he was family. Thorin focused on breathing, though it wasn’t coming as easily as he’d hoped.

“Here.”

Somehow, Kili had come up to him while he’d been lost in thought, and was presenting him with some folded parchment, tied neatly with…

“He gave it to me to give to you,” Kili said, then paused at his own words with a frown. “Gave to me to give to you…no, that’s right. It just sounds odd, that’s all.”

“Oh for Mahal’s sake, Kili,” Fili groaned. “Just give Uncle the letter already.”

Kili handed it over and began explaining all about it, but Thorin already knew who it was by. The instant he’d seen the small scrap of cloth tying it together, he’d known. His mind drew him back to weeks before, when they’d escaped from Mirkwood.

There hadn’t been much to salvage of Bilbo’s vest, or any of his clothes, by the time they’d arrived in Lake-town. So they’d had his old clothes repurposed and refitted for him, with Thorin promising truly resplendent cloth and fineries once the mountain was retaken. “For now, these will fit and suit you,” Thorin had said. Truly, Bilbo hadn’t needed his clothes patched to look like new, and he’d protested the use of Thorin’s coin for it.

Yet Bilbo’s clothes had been one of the few things he’d managed to keep through the mountains, the goblin cave, the forest and the dungeons. Thorin had watched him fiddle with the vest and the missing buttons, trying to carve wooden ones at Beorn’s to at least keep it closed and not flapping in the wind. Thorin knew about needing something from home to keep with you. And those clothes had been Bilbo’s link to his home. Thorin had planned on showering him with gifts from Thorin’s home, to perhaps…perhaps have Erebor be like a second home, one that Bilbo would look on fondly or call his own. So he’d requested a trim be put on Bilbo’s coat, the fanciful link sewn in the manner of Durin’s line. “Now you truly look like a dwarf,” he’d teased when Bilbo had gaped at the threads. Moments later, Bilbo’s smile had been so bright and proud, and he’d insisted Thorin clasp again the pin to his newly fixed jacket.

The pin sat, heavy like a stone, in his pouch, but the trim from Bilbo’s coat was wrapped neatly around the parchment. Not all of it, however. Just enough to hold it shut, to mean something. It could mean anything, and for a moment, he didn’t dare open it.

“Aragorn! Help me explain how one can truly catch and mount a horse mid run.”

Thorin blinked at the elf’s odd request. But Aragorn went, moving as if he’d already been walking towards the group, and Thorin realized they weren’t excluding him, but offering him privacy to read the letter. Kili and Fili shot him bright smiles, then turned back to Legolas, who was making gestures on how to do the very deed he’d described. Kili seemed particularly fascinated, and Thorin wasn’t quite certain what to make of that. Better relations between their people, he supposed, if the two befriended. He shut his eyes for a moment. An heir of Durin befriending Thranduil’s son. He wasn’t certain it sat completely right with him, but it didn’t matter, here on this quest. They all had a common goal.

Right now, the company’s common goal was to leave him to read the letter. Thorin slowly undid the cloth tie, gazing at it once it was unfurled. It seemed long enough to have been a decent length, but it had been cut with obvious care, not ripped from the bottom. As if Bilbo had wanted it to stay in one piece. He wrapped it around his fingers and let himself remember that day in Lake-town, the obvious joy on Bilbo’s face, the bright smile he’d given Thorin as thanks. The warm look in his eyes when he’d gazed up at Thorin, as if he’d wanted to embrace him.

With that memory in mind, Thorin opened the parchment and read.

My dear Thorin,

I have to leave. I had hoped to see you again, to speak with you face to face, and once again I’m, well, stuck, with only words on a page. Your nephews insisted on coming with me, but they need to be here with you. I won’t endanger them again, not for this Ring. I won’t let it catch and take their minds, or worse, take their lives. They’ll be safer with you, as much as I’ll miss them. Just like I miss you. I do, you know. I miss you so, so much. I can only hope you can think and say the same.

Your nephews said something to me, the other day. I almost scoffed at their words but they were both adamant that it was true. Now…now I wonder if they were right. I had thought that you were fond of me, that you cared, and that I felt the same. Before the damned Arkenstone. But then you banished me and the pain I felt, the sheer misery of my heart breaking, and it wasn’t just fondness or simple caring that I’d felt, it couldn’t be. That was when I realized I cared far more than I’d admitted even to myself. Because deep down, deep down I knew. I knew how much…

Kili and Fili told me that you were in love with me.

Thorin sucked in a deep breath. The words, so blunt and obvious on the page, seemed to jump around in his chest and mind like the beat of a hollow drum. In love. It certainly summed up his feelings, the perfect answer to the problem, but he’d only truly felt it. He hadn’t tried to give his emotions a label, hadn’t tried to catalogue it somewhere. Yet…in love.

He read on.

Kili and Fili told me that you were in love with me. I don’t know if it’s true, or if they’re wishfully thinking and hoping for it. I think Kili especially has a matchmaking problem: watch him with Fili. He’s got his brother’s whole future lined up, and while I think his thought has merit, Kili’s bound and determined, and that typically doesn’t end well for anyone.

But the point is that if you were, that is, in love with me… Bother. I’m not even there to look you in the face and I’m not even willing to hide behind words on a page. This might be my only chance to tell you, and I’m going to take it, because you matter to me, so much Thorin. You matter in the worst and best ways possible. You rest in my heart, and you’ve all but swallowed it up, and every word you’ve ever uttered to me rests there, the good ones…and the horrible ones I can’t shake free from. Every thought of mine lingers on you. If this isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

There’s still pain. Oh, it hurts, thinking that you hated me enough to banish me, to toss me aside like I was nothing, but I still wish Kili’s and Fili’s words were true. I wish the Arkenstone had never existed, that you were here and I could just tell you these things to your face, that we could talk, that maybe…well. Now I’m wishing for what-ifs in a pond filled with not-nows, as my mother used to say.

I’m leaving you a piece of my coat, as much as it pains me to part with it. It’s one of the few things I have left from you. Bard took the one thing I called my greatest treasure. I would’ve called you my greatest anything, but I don’t know if you were ever mine. That pin, though, was your promise to me, that I was beloved, at least for a little while. Perhaps even now. Perhaps it wasn’t just a ‘trinket’.

But I’m leaving the embroidered cloth because it was something we shared: your threads over my coat. For all I know, you’ll toss it away, and you’re laughing at this whole parchment now. A hobbit, in love with a dwarf. A mere hobbit, a named traitor, in love with the dwarf King of Erebor. Perhaps it’s your nephews being ridiculous and me even more so for at least considering the idea.

But you had to know, and because…because my heart hopes that your nephews are right, that you do feel something for me. I have to think it: it’s what will keep me going. I might never see you again. People don’t just walk into Mordor. I might never come back. And I wanted so much to talk to you, to settle the pain in my wretched heart that just won’t stop aching. All I hear are those words you nearly spoke to me on the shore, and behind them, the ones you spoke in Erebor. I want new words in my head, Thorin. Even if…even if they’re a goodbye from you. That you don’t really love me, that you were merely affectionate because, well, for whatever reason you had. Your blasted nephews have put all this hope in my heart, though, and perhaps I shouldn’t be clinging to it, but I am. Because I want your love and maybe I’ll never have it and I wish I knew what you were going to say on the shore because I hope it was you trying to

Someone’s calling my name. I have to go. I’m giving this to Kili to give to you. Goodness, that’s a lot of gives.

Take care of them. Take care of yourself.

Even as he smiled and closed the letter, he could feel tears sliding into his beard. He didn’t deserve the hope, the subtle nod to a second chance, the love that Bilbo had poured out for him and him alone, but it was all there in the letter. He’d be reading it all again before he slept, he knew that much.

Perhaps Kili’s matchmaking wasn’t so bad a thing, after all. Whatever his nephews had told Bilbo, it had obviously soothed something that Thorin hadn’t been able to. He still owed so many words, so many apologies, to Bilbo, and he didn’t know if even that would mend the heartbreak that had cracked and spilled so much pain inside of him.

Even though Bilbo’s words had been much more composed than his last letter, however, he could still feel the ache underneath them. It was obvious that Bilbo doubted how Thorin truly felt for him. It was clear that Thorin’s harsh, terrible words had broken something in Bilbo, something that Thorin might never be able to fix. Bilbo would perhaps always doubt Thorin’s affections, his feelings, his love. But Thorin wasn’t going to give up, and he would try to offer what words he could when he saw Bilbo again.

I might never see you again. I might never come back.

He felt the shudder start in the base of his spine. Bilbo had already accepted that he might not, perhaps, ever return. These words on this page might be the last words Bilbo ever spoke to him. He realized he was crushing the parchment between his clenched fingers and immediately let it go. He smoothed it back until it was neat, then carefully put it in his pocket with the other letter. The cloth was still entwined around his fingers.

When he rejoined the group, they’d moved on to another random topic, and he was loathe to disturb them. “Dwalin,” he called softly, catching his friend’s attention immediately. He held out the strand of cloth.

Dwalin frowned. “His coat?”

Thorin nodded. “He leave it willingly?” Dwalin asked darkly.

As dangerous as he could be at times, and as frightening as he could appear, Dwalin had, perhaps, one of the stoutest hearts Thorin had ever known. It was obvious that his friend considered Bilbo a close companion. It made him smile. “He did, for me. A promise, one that I don’t deserve.”

Understanding dawned in Dwalin’s eyes. “This letter was better than the first one, eh?”

“In a way. I still have so much to mend between us.”

“Then we’d best deal with Isengard so we can find the lil’ bugger,” Dwalin said, a grin on his face and a gleam in his eye. “I’d hoped when we took Erebor you’d stop bein’ such a moody thing, but seems like we’ve still got a ways to go.”

Thorin glared and shoved him, making Dwalin laugh. “Come here with it,” he said, still chortling. “I’ll tie it for you.”

Thorin obediently held out his arm, offering the strand of cloth to Dwalin with the other. With careful deft fingers the cloth was neatly tied around Thorin’s wrist. “Should get a metal clasp for it,” Dwalin grumbled. “It’ll fall off like that, naught else but threads to hold it together.”

He didn’t get a response. Thorin gazed at the cloth band around his wrist. A promise. Both of them wrapped neatly together. Love.

It was so much more than he deserved, but Thorin wasn’t going to part with it.

A sudden boom of laughter made him look up just in time to see Kili topple to the floor, having attempted to perch on Fili’s shoulders. Kili looked none the worse for wear, and even Aragorn was grinning at their mischief. Thengel, not far from them, also looked to be smiling brightly at the two. Beside him stood Fulgram and a young woman, one he did not know. She was young, obviously, and fair of face, and her hair was free and untamed. She didn’t stand nearly as tall as the captain, and appeared grown in her stature. Her eyes were fixed on his nephews, and there was a look of something on her face, almost as if she was confused by her own thoughts.

Fili glanced over at her, and at once they both glared at each other. Kili snickered and gave Thorin a knowing look with waggled eyebrows. ‘He likes her,’ he mouthed quite obviously, pointing at Fili, as if Thorin didn’t know. Fili didn’t even look over at Kili but landed a smack on his shoulder nonetheless.

Sometimes, Thorin worried for the line of Durin. Now he understood what Bilbo had meant about ‘matchmaking’. Fili was still glaring at the woman, and the woman rolled her eyes disdainfully and marched off. His nephew glared after her as she left, but he kept his eyes on her until she’d disappeared. Then he shrugged it off and immediately turned back to the revelry that was still going on in the company. Kili kept jerking his head in Fili’s direction.

As if Thorin hadn’t watched his sister with the boys’ father, before they’d begun to court. They’d glared at each other much the same way. No one had been too surprised, however, when Dis had come back one day with a bright flush to her cheeks and the brightest, happiest, smile on her face, all but bouncing up and down as she’d told Thorin of their decision to court.

Oh yes. Fili and Kili both took after their mother in different ways, but take after his proud and strong sister they did. Kili wouldn’t have had to say anything, and Thorin would’ve known. Fili admired the young woman, and it was obviously returned.

As if he’d needed more complications. Thorin rose and went to Thengel where he sat. The king seemed as if he’d been waiting for him, and offered him a place to sit, along with a plate of warm rolls and bread. It gave him something to play with, at the very least. His hands needed something to do or else they’d run over the bracelet on his wrist all night long.

Thengel glanced at the group as another hearty laugh was heard. “It is good to have laughter in the halls,” he said. “I fear we’ll not have much of it in the coming days.”

“Isengard is well regarded throughout the free world,” Thorin agreed with a nod. “Finding those who would come to our aid against them will be difficult.”

He was surprised when he heard a chuckle. Thengel actually seemed amused. “You and I have different fears, Thorin,” he said. “I know where my allies are. I know who will listen to what I say as truth. A king’s true power lies not in his wealth or his own strength, but in those he can call to his aid. I govern many a people, but there are those who also dwell in the Brown Lands, those who dwell in the Wold. Edoras is not nearly so large or vast as Gondor’s gleaming citadel, but I have a place where I, too, can defend my own. Helm’s Deep is our keep, not Edoras. Edoras is simply where I choose to live and call my home.”

“Helm’s Deep,” Thorin repeated, letting the king’s words settle in his thoughts. “This is your castle, your might?”

“By some standards, I suppose so, yes. By other kingdoms, they would be confused that I do not live in my ‘castle’ in the mountains. It has the strongest defenses, the deepest hallways, and has stood tall for many an age.” He stood still, a smile on his lips: waiting. He was waiting for the inevitable question.

When it came, however, it did not come from Thorin’s mouth, but rather, Aragorn’s, who’d stepped over to join them. “Why?” the Ranger asked. “Why do you live out in the open? Why do you not keep to your kingdom?”

Thengel regarded the both of them for a long moment, then stood. “Come with me,” he said. Together the three left the bright and warm halls, quietly slipping out the front doors. Outside, the wind was wild and cold, nearly making Thorin wish for his coat he’d left inside. Yet at the same time, the cold was not cruel, but fresh. It reminded him of the wind that would whip into the mountain above the gates, when he would walk with his father and grandfather. He breathed in deeply.

Beside him, Aragorn also did not seem disturbed by the cold, though he did not have his cloak. He gazed out far beyond Edoras, and Thorin could see the Wold around them, going on for miles. The sky above was dark but filled with a multitude of stars, and Thorin wished Bilbo was there beside him. Somewhere out there, Bilbo was beneath those stars, maybe even looking up at them himself. His heart lurched for a painful moment, crying out for his hobbit.

A long, slow nod came from Thengel. “That is why,” he said, his voice nearly lost in the wind. It slowed from a harsh, cold wind to a gentle breeze, whipping around them and the hall. “I was not raised to live above those I call my own people. I was raised with them, in their midst. I cannot hear their words if I am not near to listen. Helm’s Deep is our refuge, in times of trouble. I open the gates willingly to all who need sanctuary. Until then, it is a military post and a small city to support them.”

He took a deep breath, his simple garb fluttering in the wind. “But these are things you both know,” he said. “Thorin, your small company has taught you the value of someone no matter their status…or size. And Aragorn, your time as a Ranger has taught you this as well.” His words startled them, especially Aragorn, who had frozen where he stood. Thengel gave a rueful smile. “Bilbo spoke to me about your blood line, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. I know of your right to rule.”

“It is not a right,” Aragorn swore, his voice pained. “Nor do I deserve it.”

“Neither do I,” Thengel argued. “But it was given to me, and I will bear it for my people and those whom I love. Very few of us choose the way our life will go. I have been blessed in being able to choose whom I love.” There was a fond smile on his face as he turned back to look at the hall. “I have been so very blessed to have Morwen standing beside me. She has made bearing the crown that much better. I pray that you both may find someone to share in your burden with you, one who would love you fiercely through the prosperous times and the troubled times.”

He slid his gaze to Thorin, a knowing look in them, and Thorin instantly knew that Thengel was aware of everything. Bilbo must have told him. “I believe you can still make it right,” Thengel assured him gently, as if he could read Thorin’s mind. “Bilbo spoke of nothing but high praise for you, even as it obviously pained him to speak of you at all. He told Dernwyn, my shieldmaiden you saw earlier, of the heartache between you, and Dernwyn imparted what I needed to know. It seems Bilbo’s pain is not a solo matter borne alone, but shared. And that is a very good thing.”

“A good thing?” Thorin asked hoarsely. “How is Bilbo’s pain a good thing?”

“Shared pain,” Thengel corrected. “For shared pain is usually lessened, carried as it is between two people. You also bear pain.”

“Pain I brought on myself. Mine is deserved: his is not.”

There was approval in Thengel’s eyes, he realized, and Thorin was glad that Bilbo had come here. Thengel obviously held the hobbit in high regard. “Bilbo is a valued friend,” Thengel said, confirming his thoughts. “But I would like to soon call you the same as well. And you, Aragorn.”

“You believe I should be king,” Aragorn said, his tone hollow.

“I believe you should be what you are meant to be. And yes, I believe that is what you are destined to be. I see two kings in name before me, but beyond you, I see the shadows of the kings you can be. I would be grateful to call those kings my allies, my neighbors on my borders, my friends.” He reached out and grasped their shoulders. “And I shall be honored if you call me yours.”

Thorin grasped his shoulder back, truly touched. “Erebor will always be at your call,” he swore. “My people will always consider Rohan a friend; your words and deeds will never be forgotten, especially by myself and my kin.”

Aragorn nodded and clasped Thengel’s shoulder as well. “I do not know what strength you see in me, but I will fight beside you and for you for as long as I breathe.”

Thengel slowly smiled. “Perhaps they are not shadows I see, but reflections coming closer.” He nodded, more to himself than to them. “Reflections of good kings to lead us,” he murmured.

Before they could speak more, the doors to the hall opened. “Gandalf wishes to speak with you, my liege,” Fulgram said to Thengel. “He has more to speak with you about regarding the quest.”

Thengel gave a curt nod. “And I will listen. Thank you.” He waited until Fulgram had gone before turning back to them. Somehow in the dark of night, with only a few lanterns still holding their flames against the wind, he seemed even taller than before. Yet there was such a kindness and wisdom in his eyes that Thorin could not imagine for one who was king. He had never seen such a light in his grandfather’s eyes. He had been wise, once, and he had been most fair to all the dwarves and elves and men of the region. But never would Thorin have called Thrór kind.

“Sleep in peace, son of Thrain, son of Arathorn, for you are safe here in Edoras. Your company will want for nothing. Bring all your concerns and questions to me.” He gripped their shoulders once more, then released them. “I am more than your host, I am a friend.”

If someone had asked him a year ago that he would have a friend in a man, Thorin would’ve scoffed. Now, however, the gratitude he felt for Thengel left his throat tight. “Thank you,” he managed to say. “Not just for me, but for my kin, my company. For Bilbo,” he added after a moment.

Thengel’s eyes darkened. “I wish I had done more for him. He bears something no one should have to carry. But I did what I could, and I can only hope it will be enough to see him to the end.”

“It was more than we could do,” Aragorn told him. “We could not reach him to aid him, but you did, and for that, we are grateful.”

More grateful than Thengel would ever truly know. The king nodded at them once, then went back inside, leaving Thorin and Aragorn standing in the cold. The night was still and silent in Edoras.

“You fear for him.”

There was no need to ask who the ‘him’ was. “I feared for him for a long time, before I even knew it was fear,” Thorin admitted. “He nearly tumbled off the edge of the Misty Mountains. I’d told Gandalf I would not be held accountable for his fate, but when he fell, I…I immediately jumped down to save him. There was no thought, no hesitation.” He could still see it now: small fingers digging futilely into the cliff, eyes wide and terrified as he scrambled for purchase. His fear hadn’t waned until Thorin had been back on solid ground. Even then, Bilbo’s concern had been for Thorin. It settled him even as it hurt.

Oh Bilbo, forgive me. He only wished he could say them out loud to the one who needed to hear it the most.

“He fears for you, too.”

Aragorn’s eyes were so much older than his face in that moment, eyes that had seen so much at such a young age. “Not your reaction, but your fate,” the young Ranger continued. “I could see it in his eyes. There was pain, when he spoke of you, such heartache that no one should ever feel. He told me it was all his fault, what transpired between you both; he defended you to the last.” Thorin closed his eyes in sorrow. “But there was worry for you, too. There was so much concern in his eyes, and love.”

If this isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

“I do not deserve it,” Thorin insisted. “I have done so much wrong to him, he should loathe me, despise me.”

“Thengel was right: we do not get to choose what we deserve, or what our path in life will be. Take his love for you, let it grow strong. Use it to carry you through to him.” His eyes were deep and full of longing, longing that Thorin knew well.

“Do you carry yours?”

Aragorn nodded, and his gaze drifted West. “You may have yet a chance to love and love freely. The one I love… She is beyond my reach in many ways. I have nothing to offer her but death.”

“Does she love you in return?” Thorin asked softly.

There was silence then. “Perhaps,” Aragorn allowed at last. “But her father would never let her. Long has he been kind to me and, for a time, my mother. But Elrond will not let his daughter suffer mortality for love. As he should not. She deserves better.”

Elrond’s daughter? “You love an elf?” he asked, surprised.

“She is Arwen Evenstar,” Aragorn said quietly, and the love in his voice was unmistakable. “She is the silver shine of moonlight and the warmth of the noonday sun. She is kind and brave, and my heart aches for her.” His face fell. “I will fight for her love, but if she cannot be mine, then…I understand.”

Love, it seemed, was not meant to bring happiness to anyone, no matter the race. “I’m…sorry,” Thorin said, sympathy catching his breath.

Aragorn nodded. “For you, too,” he said. “I hope one day, you and Bilbo may speak and find peace.”

It wouldn’t happen anytime soon, but Thorin hoped the same. Aragorn eventually wandered back inside, but Thorin stood outside for a long time, letting the wind pull at him, taking his breath wherever it wanted. Somewhere out there, he wondered if the same wind was wrapping around Bilbo, if the wind was caressing them both.

When the cold sank into his bones and left his eyes burning, he finally retreated indoors to warmth and happy murmurs of conversation.

 

“Can’t sleep?”

“No, I suppose not.” Bilbo took a deep breath in. “Is it always so cold on the Wold? I’ve wandered through snow-capped peaks that were warmer than this.” It felt like it, at any rate. The wind had been relentless, and if it hadn’t been for the coat that Thengel insisted he take, Bilbo would’ve been frozen solid. All day the wind had stung at his eyes, leaving them red and sore.

Holdwine nodded. “Snow falls around you. Wind tears through you. But the horses will shield us well enough, as will the crag.” Unless the wind changed direction – again – and swept up into the small shelter the crag afforded. Bilbo shivered and wrapped himself further in his furs.

It was beautiful enough. Off in the distance, there was a soft, faint glow of a village. Beyond that, the Wold was dark and cold. The wind blew through with a whisper, brushing through the tall grass with the sound much like spring rain falling to the ground. Above, the stars glistened in the sky, and the moon gave a faint glow on the earth. Not enough to see by: if something stalked them through the night, they wouldn’t know it until it reached them.

“Is it cold in the Shire, where you’re from?”

Bilbo smiled brightly at the thought of Bag End and the fields of home. “No, it’s warm. Sun’s usually shining, bright and hot, but not too hot that we can’t work the fields. And there’s always work in the fields. If we don’t work the fields, we work our gardens, digging in the earth and watching things grow. Always bright and green and full of life.” The Shire had so much more…color than anywhere else. Rivendell had held a lot of pastel hues and had been vivid enough, but not like the Shire. Mirkwood hadn’t had any color, dark and gloomy, and Lake-town had been the ample colors of life. Erebor, though-

His smile faltered. “Sounds pleasant enough,” Holdwine said. “You shouldn’t frown so, it’s no good for you.”

Bilbo snorted. “Dernwyn told me that, the other day, but she made it sound less like a suggestion. It was more of a command.” Her fierceness extended even to her desire to see others happy. He still found his smile returning at the thought.

Holdwine let out a good natured laugh. “I wouldn’t be surprised. That’s my niece for you.”

That caught his attention. “I didn’t know she was your niece,” Bilbo said. Now that he looked closely, there was a faint resemblance in the eyes, in their lips when they turned up.

“She is,” Holdwine said with a nod. “She is. My brother was the captain of the Riders until he was killed.” His gaze fell along with his smile. “Dernwyn was very young when it happened. Her mother died not much later, too grief-stricken over Holdred’s death. I helped raise Dernwyn as if she were my own, and Thengel also took her under his wing. He was fond of Holdred, and loved him like the brother that the king never had. I joined the Riders when Dernwyn was old enough to live on her own, if the need arose.”

“She’s a wonderful woman,” Bilbo said. “She is kind and gracious.”

“And fearless,” Holdwine added, his good humor returning, “and ferocious. My little niece has the heart of a lion.”

“Of that I have no doubt,” Bilbo said wryly, drawing a laugh. “She seemed fixed on proving that to Fili and Kili.”

“More to Fili, I think. But that may be on account of something else. She’s never had a suitor, never felt the stirrings of her heart, as far as I know. I don’t think she knows quite what to do with it.”

“Neither does Fili, trust me,” Bilbo muttered. None of the Durin’s Sons seemed to know what they were doing when it came to matters of the heart. Out of all of them, Kili probably had the best shot of going about love the way most people did: kind gestures, a sweet courting, hand-holding and shy kisses traded when you could.

And it seemed that no matter what he did, he was always going to think of Thorin. He let out a sigh and looked to his right. There was no sign of Edoras at all anymore. They’d covered a good distance for one day. To his left, though he couldn’t see them in the dark of night, he knew that there were mountains rising tall from the ground. The White Mountains, Holdwine had called them. There was no climbing them, and there was no going under them, either. Holdwine hadn’t explained why: Bilbo hadn’t asked. He knew a grave face, thoughts full of danger, when he saw one.

“I wish you had been able to stay, little one.”

Bilbo turned back to Holdwine. The fire was roaring, but shuttered from the wind by a metal screen that the man had pushed into the earth. The glow cast itself across the crag, but not too much so to be noticed. It was enough to light Holdwine’s face and display the pity there. “For your heart’s sake,” Holdwine continued. “You ache, much like Hild did when Holdred passed. I am sorry.”

Bilbo gave a nod to show his thanks, but couldn’t speak. Now that he was away from Fili and Kili’s infectious good moods, his mind turned back to the heartache he’d felt after his exiling. He remembered Thorin’s thunderous face, the hand wrapped tight around his neck. The roaring voice, filled with words that would’ve stopped a lesser being’s heart. The dismissal of the pin, the pin that had marked him as beloved.

He remembered Thorin’s face on the shore, filled with what could’ve been pain as Bilbo had spewed out all his heart’s sickness. Or it could’ve been anger at being talked to so insolently by one who’d been labeled at traitor.

You could never possibly begin to imagine what I felt when-

He’s in love with you.

He rubbed at his chest, as if that would ease the ache he felt. It didn’t help in the slightest. He wanted to see Thorin so much, wanted to push away the memory of those horrible last moments in Erebor with new ones, ones like the embrace on the top of the Carrock, or the lingering moments in Thranduil’s dungeon full of whispered, tender words and gentle caresses. The day Thorin had gifted him the pin, or the day he’d returned Bilbo’s clothes to him, newly threaded with the sign of the line of Durin.

He reached down inside his coat to the left side of his own jacket, feeling the rougher edges he hadn’t been able to sew again. He’d simply been able to cut off enough to wrap around the parchment and tie it, then had had to run so as to join with Holdwine. He wondered what Thorin would do with his letter, with the cloth.

A shuffle and clinking sound made him whip his head up, but it was only Holdwine making certain the horses were settled. “Get some sleep,” Holdwine said. “I’ll wake you for a watch. It’s a long ways down along the White Mountains, and it is not an easy path. Not if we want to have you safely there.” He settled down and into his watch.

Bilbo tucked his head further into his coat until the whistling wind was a dull murmur, hidden by the furs and thick wool. Somehow, he managed to drift into sleep, thoughts of Thorin following him even there.

Chapter Text

The halls were a bundle of noise and nerves for the next few days. Riders came and went, delivering messages and numbers to Thengel. Each number brought peace to Thengel’s face; at least, that was how it appeared. But Aragorn had long traveled on his own and met many men. He knew the calm demeanor of one inwardly troubled. And right then, Thengel was very troubled.

“What news from East Emnet?” he asked of the Rider coming into the halls.

The Rider sucked in quick breaths in order to speak. “They are two hundred strong, my king,” he said. “And will come to our aid.”

Aragorn added it to the tally easily. Thengel nodded and dismissed the Rider, ordering that food and ale be brought to him for his long and swift travels. Across the hall at another table, Thorin winced, ever so slightly. It appeared he had also been counting, and had drawn the same conclusion Aragorn had.

It was not enough. It was not nearly enough.

“We can count on the army at Helm’s Deep,” Thengel said to all in the hall. “I will not empty the stores of men there, but I expect near a thousand who would be able to march with us.”

Better, but still not good enough. The orcs would slaughter them all, and while they had a wizard on their side, a true and valiant wizard at that, the orcs had a wizard on theirs, too. Worse yet, even Gandalf had admitted to the power of Saruman. On his own, Saruman would have been a force to contend with. With an orc army behind him, he would be near unstoppable. And that was not counting whatever he was burning the ground and trees for.

Legolas shook his head and stood, pacing the hall. “It is not enough,” he insisted. “We need more aid.”

“Would Mirkwood come to our aid?” Thengel asked sharply, but it was a question nonetheless. “Do you think you could call on your kin?”

Legolas paused, lost in thought. “Perhaps,” he said after a moment. “But I do not think so.”

“What about the Lady?” Gimli asked him. “She would help, wouldn’t she?”

A smile bloomed on Legolas’s face at that. “You’re right: she would aid us.” He turned to Thengel, who was frowning in bewilderment. “Send a Rider to Lothlorien, calling for aid. The Lady Galadriel will not refuse you.”

“Long has it been since elves stood beside men,” Thengel said slowly. “I do not know that the wise and immortal Lady of the Woods would answer such a small plea.”

“She will,” Legolas insisted. “It was she who called the Council in the first place. The fate of Middle-Earth is ever present in her mind. She will not abandon us.”

Thengel looked to Aragorn, who, after a moment, gave a nod. Legolas had been swift to place his faith in the Lady Galadriel, but Aragorn wasn’t so certain that the elves would come. Yet if anyone would aid them, it would be Galadriel. He gave another nod, this one more decisive than the first. “Lothlorien would stand strong with us,” he said. “Legolas is right.”

“The Lady may even have felt the stirrings of darkness in Saruman’s heart, when last we all convened,” Gandalf added. He leaned on his staff, as if he were an old man instead of a wizened wizard. The news of Saruman had begun to haunt him, it seemed. “That may hasten their aid.”

“Send Riders immediately to Lorien,” Thengel ordered. Two men bowed and hurried for the doors. “They may perhaps join us on the march to Isengard. Though…” He let out a soft sigh, and at last the worry and weariness shone through. “I fear it will still not be enough,” he said quietly. “We do not have nearly enough to stave off an assault from Isengard, let alone enough to march on it.”

The truth of his words rang through the hall, despite the softness with which they were spoken. No one said a thing. Thorin clenched and unclenched his fists, and Aragorn wondered at what he might be thinking of. Bilbo? Or perhaps his kin, who were too far off to be of aid?

Little Ori cleared his throat, reddening slightly as all eyes turned to him, but he sat up all the straighter. “Have we exhausted everyone?” he asked. “Is there no one else we could call for aid?”

Thengel gave him a gentle, wistful smile. “If there was anyone else to call, I would. If I thought I could call up the animals that roam the Wold to join us, I would do so.”

Gandalf suddenly stiffened and stood taller, and when Aragorn looked to him, he appeared more alive than he had been before. It was obviously that he was turning and mulling over something in his mind, but he gave no voice to his thoughts. “I may have an answer,” he said at last. “You have inspired me, my good man, and you too, Ori, for having asked the question.”

Ori looked decidedly pleased at that. Dwalin gave a brief hint of a smile and patted his hand on Ori’s shoulder in pride. Thorin caught the action but said nothing. “You have an answer to the question?” Thengel asked. He stood from his throne, surprised. “What army do you have that could help us?”

Gandalf merely smiled. “I will need help,” he said, looking to the company. “I will need three persons. Legolas, Fili, Kili, you will do well.”

No one appeared more surprised at the name choices than the three named. “Anything to help, and we’ll do it,” Fili said after he’d recovered. Kili quickly nodded, then sent a bright smile at Legolas, who returned it easily. Never would Aragorn have thought he’d see such friendliness between a dwarf and an elf. If Thorin saw it, he made no mention of it, though Dwalin looked as if he wanted to speak on the matter. He doubted the dwarf’s words would be kind, given the storm threatening to break on his brow.

“Hurry,” was all Thengel said. Gandalf nodded.

“Look for us on the fifth day, once we depart. We shall neither tarry, but we cannot hurry, either. This will be a delicate process…and a gamble. But have faith, for I believe we may see something that has not happened in a long time.” There was a light in his eyes now that had not been there in some time, and Aragorn was glad to see it. Gandalf had always had faith and hope when the others had not, but it had been missing since Saruman’s misdeeds were confirmed. Seeing it again gave Aragorn and the others strength.

“Dernwyn, wait!”

Fulgram’s call turned all heads to the armored figure making her way before the throne. Her helmet was tucked under her arm, and her hair hung freely. But she stood otherwise fully equipped for battle, and her eyes were hard as stone. “You call for aid, for those who would do battle for you,” she said, her voice strong and clear. “I would fight for you, my liege.”

Never before had Thengel looked so lost for words. Dernwyn waited for his answer, but her eyes grew harder with each passing moment. Thengel finally spoke. “Then I will take your help, for we need defenses for Edoras-“

“There are guards to do that,” Dernwyn insisted. “Let me fight! I can fight for you, I can be a true Shieldmaiden of Rohan!”

“I will not risk you,” Thengel replied, pained. “I watched your father fall; do not make me watch you die, too.”

Pale fingers wrapped tighter and tighter around the helmet until the knuckles were white. “He died protecting you,” Dernwyn said lowly. “Allow me the chance to do the same.”

Thengel visibly swallowed, his gaze haunted. No matter what his choice, Aragorn knew the man would feel damned. He could deny her this request, and kill her spirit. He could allow her into battle, and watch her die a bloody and violent death.

“We’ll protect her.”

Kili’s voice rang through the halls like a mighty echo, so sure were his words. He gave a nod to both Dernwyn and Thengel when they started in surprise. “Let her fight with us: she can help us, and we will keep her safe. We’d be glad to have such an experienced fighter alongside us.”

The words were well crafted, Aragorn had to give the young dwarf that. He had not undermined Dernwyn, but he had also promised to watch out for her specifically, to assuage Thengel’s worry. Perhaps the dwarf wasn’t as young and foolish as he looked.

Kili nudged Fili beside him, who hadn’t said anything. “Besides, you can watch out for him and make certain he ducks properly,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

…Then again, perhaps he was. Fili elbowed his brother back hard enough to make Kili cough. Dernwyn raised her eyebrows. “Someone should keep an eye on the injured,” she said.

“Wounded,” Fili insisted through gritted teeth. “I was wounded. And I know how to duck: I’ll have to show you the difference between ducking to keep your head and ducking to lose it.”

Dernwyn scoffed, but there was a hint of a smile on her face. “If you dodge your opponent properly, there’s no need for a difference.”

“You and I’ll have a practice and I’ll show you how to properly avoid your enemies.”

“And I’ll show you how to avoid your enemies without being injured.”

“Fine.”

“Done.”

Kili looked beside himself with joy. Aragorn coughed to hide his grin. Thorin appeared to want to be anywhere but where he was, seated beside his nephews. Legolas shook his head, but Aragorn could read the amusement in his friend’s eyes.

Thengel cleared his throat, pulling the attention of the company back to him. While he did not smile, he looked more relaxed than he had been earlier. “You may ride with us,” Thengel allowed, and Dernwyn’s face lit up with joy. “I would speak with you later, however, if I may. I have something to give you, something I had hoped I would never have to give you.” He gave her a wavering smile when she began to grow concerned. “Have no fear: you will delight in it.”

Dernwyn nodded, her brow still furrowed in confusion, but she bowed and left. “I, however, will not,” Thengel murmured. He rubbed at his face. In the span of a few minutes, he had aged years. It was obvious he did not want Dernwyn along.

Bofur stepped forward, coming up to Thengel’s throne. He patted the king on the shoulder, a sweet smile on his face. “We’ll keep her safe, your majesty,” he promised. “Won’t let no harm get to her. Not as long as I’m standin’.”

“We will keep her from harm,” Thorin agreed. “My kin and I will keep her as safe as if she were one of our own.”

“Might be, one day,” Kili whispered cheekily. Fili reached out and tugged on Kili’s hair – hard – leaving the younger dwarf gasping in pain but still laughing. Thorin shut his eyes and breathed deeply for a long moment before he fixed his gaze on Thengel. He still looked pained at his nephew’s words, and Aragorn smothered a grin.

Thengel gave him a nod, then turned to Bofur. “You are kind and generous, Master Bofur, and I am in your debt,” he said. “I am grateful for your spirit and your friendship.” Bofur gave a quick nod, but his cheeks were slightly red at the praise he obviously had not been expecting. There was no doubt to the sincerity in Thengel’s voice: Bofur's promise had lessened the anguish in his frame and face.

“Fili, Kili, Legolas,” Gandalf said sharply. “Gather your things; we leave at first light tomorrow morning. Our journey will take longer than theirs.”

“Of course it will,” Fili muttered. Gandalf glared at him, and Fili made certain to look respectably chastened. Not that any of them considered him sincere for a moment. There was still too much of a gleam of mischief in his eyes. Older though he was from his brother, there was still a supple amount of troublesome youth in him. It was heartening to see, and continued to uplift the spirits of everyone who encountered it. Perhaps that was why Thorin hadn’t said anything to either of them, though Aragorn had no doubt that he would, if the need arose.

“That leaves us some time, then,” Kili said. He rubbed his hands together, attempting to look solemn, but his badly hidden amusement gave him away. “You need to get ready: you’ve a date.”

Fili let out an aggravated huff and took his leave. “Was it something I said?” Kili asked innocently. A moment later he winced when Gandalf smacked him on the head none too lightly with his staff.

“Leave your brother be. I sense his retaliation, when you discover love, will be swift and lacking joy on your end,” Gandalf warned him. “Be kind to him.”

Kili was about to speak again when Thorin put a hand to his shoulder. “Leave Fili alone for a time,” he said softly, though the warning was there for all to hear. He gave Kili a stern, disapproving look, and Kili looked down at his boots, shame brushing his cheeks. “Love is hard enough to come to terms with without being teased for it.”

“Sorry,” Kili mumbled. “Just happy for him, is all. He never takes anything good for himself, and I don’t want him to miss this now.”

Thorin’s face softened. “He won’t. I warn you more for your own good than his: ample teasing of Fili has never ended well for you.”

Despite the obvious scolding, Kili couldn’t help but grin unrepentantly. Dwalin rolled his eyes from where he leaned against the wall. “Children,” he muttered. From beside him, Ori chuckled, which made the other dwarf reluctantly smile. It was obvious that their own relationship was present, but it was silent and still, needing no words or exhibitions. What had assuredly started in secret was now a quiet river flowing between them, not needing to rush or roar loudly. It was a gentle murmur, shared between them both and those who sought to look for its simple beauty.

It made Aragorn think of Arwen. She spoke to him often without any words at all, just by a mere gaze, and he could hear all the workings of her heart. He was young, so much younger than her, yet she would look upon him with such kindness and sweetness that he could nearly not bear it. And when she smiled…oh, when she smiled. His heart felt light as a feather, pumping madly within his breast, waiting for her to laugh and her eyes to alight with joy and amusement. Those were the best moments. He had not known her long, having lived so long in Rivendell and then with the Rangers. But sometimes, sometimes, he felt as if she had always been there in his heart. Her gentle words were kind but determined, set on him in such an awe-inspiring way that he could not yet believe. How she could care so much for him, he who was with cursed blood, he who had nothing to offer her beyond a promise of death if she truly loved him?

Yet she loved him. And he loved her.

“You think of her.”

Aragorn gazed up at his friend who'd wandered over to him. Legolas’s eyes were fixed on him, brilliant blue and full of sympathy. “You hold her tight still to your heart,” he continued. “But I fear for you, that you do. There is pain there that may never be eased.”

“We all have a pain to bear,” Aragorn told him. “This is mine. One cannot ever attain pure happiness without also having darkness: without pain, you cannot appreciate that which brings you joy.”

Legolas nodded at the age-old wisdom but said nothing. Aragorn fell silent. It was a kindness on the elf’s part to not bring up empty words or condolences. That Aragorn could, perhaps, love again, that he would find a human woman and settle down. That he would forget Arwen, in time. He said none of these things, but merely stood by Aragorn’s side in a show of comfort and solidarity.

A bright bout of chuckles drew his attention to the dwarf company. Bofur was in the middle of a joke of some kind, drawing chuckles from even Gandalf, but especially Kili. Kili seemed to feel everything in life to the fullest. His smiles were always brightest, and his tears the most sorrowful. Aragorn envied him and his full appreciation for life and the innocence of it.

Legolas also seemed to be watching Kili and his laughter. “He is full of life, isn’t he,” Aragorn said.

“He is a light amongst the darkness.”

Aragorn paused at the words. There was almost a…a yearning there, the words full of wonder. When he looked up at his friend again, Legolas had a small, fond smile tugging on his lips. “Is he,” Aragorn murmured. “He is a good friend, loyal almost to a fault.”

“He is kind, and so different from most of the dwarves I have ever known,” Legolas said softly. “The others are kind, in ways I did not expect, Thorin most of all. Yet Kili holds something else within himself.”

Aragorn let himself nod while his mind whirled in circles. Legolas had an air of affection about him for the young dwarf, and the way he spoke was surprising, to say the least. By all rights, they should have been mortal enemies. Thorin had to know of Legolas’s parentage, by now, yet made no move to cast him aside. Perhaps Kili did not know.

For some reason, he doubted it would matter to the young dwarf. Constantly he saw Kili’s eyes seek Legolas out to call him into the group, to smile at him. It was certainly friendly between them both.

And perhaps, perhaps something more. Something that could not even be spoken of, given how the different races would take it.

He settled back on the bench and continued to say nothing. This was their last reprieve, and he would take it.

 

“Aren’t they beautiful?”

Dernwyn didn’t even stop polishing her blade. She would need it now, more than ever, if she was to join them in battle tomorrow. “Very,” she said instead, in response to the question. The spot down near the tip only frustrated her, and she glared at it before rubbing harder.

Not that an orc would care about a sword with a spot on it, when she’d run it through, but all the swords of the Riders were spotless. This was her one chance to stand up and prove herself worthy, to stand for her fallen father. She could stand tall and not be pushed aside for her size or her limits. She knew she was not as strong as a man could be. But she had other strengths, like being more nimble and quicker than her opponents. These were strengths, too. She could fight for Thengel as he had fought for her over the years.

“Are you even listening to me?”

Sometimes, Dernwyn wondered if perhaps Théodwyn had not reached her between years early. “Of course, princess,” she teased, knowing what the girl would do. “I always listen to your words of wisdom.”

Théodwyn showed off her wisdom by sticking her tongue out at Dernwyn. Dernwyn chuckled at the sight. She’d not had any siblings, but she’d been gifted with Thengel’s children who clung to her and loved her as if she were one of them. She would fight for them, too.

“You’re not listening again,” Théodwyn sing-songed. “That’s rude indeed. What’s a blade when you could speak with me?”

Oh the arrogance that the child was laying on thickly. One look at her young face told Dernwyn that Théodwyn was doing it on purpose to catch her attention. “I’m listening, I’m listening,” she insisted. “What’s beautiful?”

“No, not what, who,” Théodwyn corrected. She let out a happy sigh, her cheeks reddening. “The dwarf brothers.”

Dernwyn blinked. “What?” she asked blankly.

“Fili and Kili,” Théodwyn insisted. “Aren’t they so handsome?”

“And far too old for you,” Dernwyn found herself saying with a slight amount of irritation. “Look to someone of your own age, Théodwyn.”

Théodwyn looked surprised, and with good reason. Where had Dernwyn’s sudden anger come from? It hadn’t been quite anger – she wasn’t angry with Théodwyn in the slightest – but she had suddenly been so…annoyed at her, and hadn’t wanted her to speak of it any further.

Dernwyn tried to turn the topic around. “What about Éomund?” she said instead. “He is much closer to your age, and I’ve seen your face when he nears.”

Théodwyn blushed. “Éomund is a friend,” she insisted, but her lips curled into a smile. “A very good friend.”

“Your mother was once a very good friend with your father,” Dernwyn told her. “And you are still so very young to be thinking of marriage and handsome men.”

Théodwyn’s face suddenly appeared predatory, and Dernwyn leaned back in her seat when the young girl leaned in. “So you think the dwarves handsome?” she asked slyly.

What had gotten into her? “They’re, they’re a nice group,” she managed, before frowning. “Well, except for Fili.” That dwarf was just so…so inciteful. He made her pulse pound in her head and chest, could rile and rankle her with just a word, and every time she looked at him, she had to glare.

“Oh, Fili?” Théodwyn said, with all the innocence of a child. “He’s my favorite. He’s got the gentlest smile, and his hair is so fine and fair.”

Dernwyn breathed in slowly and counted numbers until she didn’t feel as annoyed. “And you are far too young,” she said at last. “Don’t lay your heart on Fili. He is not for you, dear heart. He is meant for another.” Her lips turned down of their own accord, and the emotion inside her heart confused her. Why she cared, she did not know.

“For you.”

Dernwyn blanched, and realized at last that Théodwyn had led her into a trap. Confound the child. “He’s meant for you,” Théodwyn said again, a bright smile on her face. “I know how you look at him.”

“He’s not meant for me,” Dernwyn insisted. “He’s royalty, even if he obviously cannot fight properly.” She’d seen as much, when the scar on his head had glistened with blood and paste. It had stained some of his hair red, but it had still been golden and flowing long beside his face, and his beads in his facial hair had framed his lips.

Théodwyn giggled, and Dernwyn realized she’d been doing nothing but thinking of Fili, for some preposterous reason. “You’re in love,” Théodwyn teased, and that was enough of that.

“Now see here-“

“Are you ready to show me your skills? Or have you not had time enough to prepare them?”

Dernwyn whipped her head up. Fili stood before her, bent slightly down to gaze at her. His eyes were deep, and his hair was braided back to accent his face. Théodwyn was right: he cut a handsome figure.

Then she caught sight of the smirk on his lips, and she glared at him. “Are you prepared, should be the answer,” she said, and swung her sword even as she stood. Fili ducked away and drew his own blade, backing up to give her room. She quickly stepped over to the main part of the hall where they would have the most ample room to spar. Her eyes drifted to the edge of her sword – the spot still remained, she noted with aggravation – then back to Fili. His own blade was much different than hers, but she knew where the weight would be, and how he would swing it best. He seemed intent on studying hers as well, sizing up how she would have to fight.

Oh, but he was so very wrong.

She advanced first, as a beginner would, then immediately rolled backwards when he went to block the blow that never came. Low on the ground, she swung her sword as far as she could, forcing him backwards to avoid being hit. She sprang up and took the advantage, swinging hard at him.

He blocked her swiftly, more swiftly than she had anticipated, and threw off her blade. The next two attacks came from him, both harsh and quick. But she was quicker, blocking and ducking to avoid the blows, and with her block came a retaliation. She threw off his sword with a yell and nimbly ducked beneath his swinging arm. The speed and power of his swing let him spin around to face her, and their swords met with a loud clang between them.

She could feel the sweat beading along her brow and along her arms and back, and in front of her, Fili’s skin glistened and shone with the same. They traded more blows, neither giving nor taking ground, too well matched for it. At last she managed a harsh swing that forced him to duck. He took a few steps back and grinned. “Do I duck well enough for you?” he asked, and the sheer amusement on his face was too infectious to ignore. She gave a laugh and swung her sword impressively around her.

“An orc would not be so kind to you as I have been, your majesty,” she taunted good naturedly. Fili threw his head back and laughed, and never before had sparring been so much fun.

Then he pulled a blade from his back straps. “How well will you duck, with both of my blades?” he asked, and advanced. She rolled backwards immediately and took off running, with Fili giving chase. As soon as she reached the blade rack she grabbed one without looking and spun around, catching his blades and holding them.
“Better than you’ll duck mine.”

His eyes lit up in blatant approval, and they began to swing again. It was less of a fight now, more of a dance, their feet stepping together as they moved. She watched his blades as he watched hers, catching the glint of the swords before they descended. Parry, swing, deflect, advance. Her hands felt slick wrapped around the swords, growing hotter with each hit. Her arms were sore but still strong, and the blades continued to swing high.

Suddenly he kicked up, as if to hit her hands and chest. Startled, her instincts drew her back, and it was all the advantage he needed. He caught the blade in her left hand and pushed it down, down just enough to sneak a blade in up against her throat. She stilled, glaring at him. “You cheated,” she managed between panting breaths.

Fili was also gasping for air. He gave a grin anyway, and up close, she could see the beads of sweat on his brow, the small pieces of hair that had fallen from their loose braids. The scent of him should have been off putting, but for some reason, it was not. “The world cheats, my lady,” he told her as he gulped down air. “You expected me to play fair, when your enemies will not. Don’t be so gracious.”

He froze suddenly, and she gave a feral grin. Her blade, pushed down, had found its way to where it rested now: nestled oh so gently between his thighs. “I’m not,” she breathed. His eyes flicked to her, and unconsciously she licked her lips. He seemed to be even closer than before, and Dernwyn suddenly was very aware of how quickly her heart was pounding. If he would but lean in further…

“Well done!”

“Oh, you got him good!”

They flew apart as Dernwyn became aware that, at some point during their sparring, their audience had grown from more than just Théodwyn. The young girl was standing by Kili, and both were cheering. Conspiring troublemakers, the both of them.

Dernwyn sought words to throw at Fili, to judge him for his lack of training, but she couldn’t give them voice. Fili also seemed to have trouble with words, and after a moment, he simply sheathed his blades. “Well done,” he said, echoing his brother’s words.

“And you,” she said after a moment. They gave quick bows to each other, very awkwardly, and then Dernwyn all but ran to put the second blade down. Her face felt hot, hotter than it usually did after a good workout and sparring. She nearly made it to the door to leave when Théodwyn’s laughter caught her attention, and she couldn’t help but turn back.

Théodwyn was seated in such a way that Kili was to her right, and Fili standing to her left. She was beaming from ear to ear at the very obvious attention of both dwarves, and Fili gave her an easy smile, even as he wiped his brow. Théodwyn gave her a bright smile of encouragement and a quick pull of her head as if to invite her to join them. Fili glanced over then to where Théodwyn gazed, and their eyes met. He narrowed his eyes; she scowled. Then she turned and left, as quickly as she could.

All through the hallways, she continued to ignore how her heart still pounded, as if Fili was right before her.

 

“Kili.”

Kili winced. That was not a happy tone. “I’ll be back,” he promised to Théodwyn, who was looking in askance from Thorin to Kili. It’d been a happy circumstance to find someone who was just as like-minded as he was, and if that put him on the same level of a human child, well, it didn’t matter. Théodwyn was smart beyond her years, and they had a common goal: Dernwyn and Fili, happily together. Even if the two of them were resisting with all their might, Kili would not be denied, and Théodwyn made as good a match-maker as he did. She was crafty, weaving her words with Dernwyn. If Kili hadn’t been on her side, he almost would’ve feared the young girl.

He rose and joined his uncle behind one of the columns. “Kili,” Thorin said, and how his uncle could make the word sound like a scolding, filled with stark disapproval, and somehow also a warning to never do it again, he had no idea. His uncle was gifted in that way.

“No, I know, I shouldn’t have pushed at Fili,” he agreed. “But I wasn’t the one who set them up for a spar, and I didn’t push him into it, and really, things would’ve been awkward if Théodwyn and I hadn’t jumped in to cheer-“

“I meant to tell you that Gandalf is looking for you,” Thorin interrupted. There was amusement on his face now, and Kili realized he’d confessed everything and explained it all without Thorin saying anything but his name. “He wishes you to pack for your departure tomorrow, as he has not seen you since earlier.”

That hadn’t been all Thorin had been after; Kili knew his uncle better than that. Still, Thorin appeared to be in a jovial mood, and that, Kili would always press to his advantage. “You saw them both, though, didn’t you,” he said, because of course Thorin had seen them fighting: the whole company had been there. “She’s a skilled sword master. I think she’d be a very compatible match for Fili, wouldn’t-“

“Kili.” Now that was a very stern tone, one Kili wasn’t certain he deserved. “Why are you so insistent on this?”

Kili paused, his grin falling. For once, he managed to keep his first response behind his lips. Unfortunately, that only seemed to spur Thorin onward. “Tell me,” he asked again, but it wasn’t harshly spoken: there was bewilderment and genuine curiosity.

It was also a tone that Kili couldn’t deny, though he wanted to, if just for his uncle’s sake. “I've seen your pain,” he said quietly. Thorin froze. “With Bilbo. I…watched you two go back and forth, and now you’re so far apart, and you’re hurting, and Bilbo’s hurting, and if Fili can just, just seize this moment, if he could just reach out for the happiness I know he’d find, then he wouldn’t…wouldn’t suffer,” he finished, his voice barely a whisper. “Like you, and Bilbo. I can’t bear watching it. If anyone deserves happiness, it’s you two, and you’ve been kept apart, and if that happened to Fili, I couldn’t…I couldn’t bear it.”

It was more than he’d meant to say. He kept his eyes trained to the floor, unable to look up. Above him, his uncle was as still as a statue, completely stunned into silence.

A hand caught his chin and gently turned his head up, just as had been done many years ago when Kili had been but a child. His uncle had tears in his eyes. “Do not worry for me,” he said. “It is for me to sort out with Bilbo; my happiness should not be dependent upon you, nor Fili’s. But I know how you feel for your brother, how close you two have been through the years. If I had not been there for your births, I would have said you two were twins, so close in mind and soul you both are.” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “I have to make things right with Bilbo. Our pain is my fault, and it is up to me to make it right. But I agree that time was wasted, time that could have been spent in happiness. Perhaps…perhaps things could have been different,” he murmured.

Kili watched as his uncle composed himself, though it took great effort. “If you truly feel this way, tell your brother. Your words will mean more to him than you could know, for Fili listens to you the way he would listen to himself.” Thorin chuckled quietly. “You would make a good advisor,” he said. “You see and hear more than others do. A King would be lucky to have you by his side.”

It was more than a compliment, it was a promise, and Kili stood all the straighter for it. “Thank you,” he whispered. Thorin nodded once, then let him go.

“Your brother will be packing his own things in a short time.” If there was a time to catch Fili and speak with him, it would be then. He gave Thorin a quick nod and turned to go.

“Kili.”

He turned at the gentleness in Thorin’s voice. His uncle gazed at him for a long moment, then slowly began to smile. “Thank you,” he said, his voice warm. “Your compassion means much to me.”

Never before had Kili felt so tall yet so humble. The last time Thorin had shown this much pride and affection was when Kili had pledged to join the quest to Erebor. Maybe not even then. To think that his words, his heart’s words, had mattered so much, brought warmth to his cheeks and quiet joy to his heart. He gave a quick nod and hurried off, a smile broadening on his face.

So wrapped up in his thoughts, he completely missed the person in front of him until he’d run into them. “Oh, I’m sorry!” he exclaimed, his smile still on his face. “Wasn’t looking where I was going.” Then he realized who he’d run into, and his smile widened again. “Are you going to pack?”

Legolas gazed down at him with a soft smile. “I was,” he said. “Though I do not think I am as cheerful about it as you are.”

“Oh, no, I’m not, well, not about that,” Kili said. In the glow of the lamps and torches, the elf’s eyes were a bright sky blue. It was beautiful, and he couldn’t have kept the smile from his face if he tried. “Just pleased, is all.”

“You are often pleased,” Legolas commented. “You smile more than your kin.”

“That’s because Uncle doesn’t have a good sense of humor. Too old,” Kili joked. Besides, Thorin saved his smiles for family or for one small, specific hobbit.
Legolas suddenly smiled, and Kili couldn’t tear his eyes away. He would never have expected to use the word to describe an elf, but Legolas was beautiful. His eyes were like jewels, and his smile was so soft and so kind-

“I enjoy your sense of humor,” Legolas said. “You bring lightness to those around you. Never have I met a dwarf like you before.”

“Is that a good thing?” Kili asked lightly, but for some reason, the answer was important.

There was no pause. “It is a very good thing,” Legolas said. “I am glad…to know you,” and Kili could’ve sworn the steady elf had stammered. An elf, not sure of himself or his words? Kili didn’t think he’d ever heard of that.

Kili nodded, trying to lighten the awkward air that had settled around them. “I’m glad to know you, too. It’s nice to have someone else who knows their way around a bow.”

“I must confess, your prowess with the weapon startled me,” Legolas admitted. “But you are very good at it. Is that why you keep your beard short?”

He wished. He bit his lip but kept his smile on. “No, I just…don’t have a beard. I’m young, still, so it’ll probably grow.” He knew of children who had more beard than he, though, yet his beard still hadn’t come in. It made drawing the bow easy enough – no beard to catch it in – but as a dwarf, it was almost unheard of, to not have his beard at his age.

Legolas nodded, and almost of its own accord, his hand reached out and brushed against Kili’s stubbled cheek. Kili froze, and Legolas seemed as if he’d regret the move. He boldly kept his hand there for another moment, however, before withdrawing. Kili’s cheek felt as if the warmth from Legolas’s hand lingered, burning his skin with the tenderness.

Legolas cleared his throat. “I am glad,” he said hesitantly. “To hear that it may grow. But…beardless suits you well. Your face is fair and striking.” He seemed to flounder for words.

“Without a beard,” Kili offered. Legolas nodded quickly.

“Without a beard, yes.”

Kili swallowed hard. “Dwarves are typically thought to be more handsome with a beard.”

“You are handsome enough without one,” Legolas assured him.

This had to be one of the oddest conversations Kili had ever had. Not unpleasant, however. Actually, Kili was enjoying his time with Legolas. “Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks beards aren’t the definition of handsome,” he said cheerfully. “I mean, you don’t have a beard, and you’re very handsome. For an elf,” he added in a rush, and Mahal, he hadn’t meant to say that, any of that.

However, it made Legolas’s face light up, and that only made him more beautiful. “Thank you,” he said softly, still smiling. “That…means much to me.”

They stayed there for a long moment, gazing at each other. Then Kili cleared his throat. “We should, uh, pack.”

“We should,” Legolas said. Neither moved. Kili would have been content to stand there all night and gaze at Legolas, and he felt as if something had changed between them, something huge that he couldn’t even wrap his mind around.

Finally Legolas turned down the hallway, and Kili made to step with him. “Do you mind company?” Kili asked.

The elf gave a blinding smile. “I do not, especially when it is such good company.” Kili grinned and stayed beside him.

And if his hand kept brushing against Legolas’s and sent pleasant tingles up his arm, well, that was his business, and no one else needed to know.

 

He didn’t know where he was, or how he’d gotten there. All around him laid the bodies of the dead, of the damned. His feet slid in mud made from blood, and he could feel it on his skin, making his steps slick and unsure.

He kept running.

There was his name again, called in a terrible voice, hanging in the air like a foul breath. Something was searching for him, something hot and terrible, filled with light that promised fire and death. He nearly tripped on a body but didn’t dare look down.

He ran on.

Then, from above, light burst forth, a terrible fiery light, as if the sun had come down to burn the earth. His name was loud, louder than his own heart that pounded in his chest.

Bilbo.

He stumbled and hit the ground, the heat of the light still upon him. He looked down – just once – and crawled away immediately, a cry lodged in his throat. No matter where else he looked, Thorin’s sightless eyes seemed to follow him everywhere. Beside him, Fili and Kili had fallen, blood fanning out around their heads like a crown. Dead. All of them dead.

He tried to scream, tried to let his fear out from where it choked him, but he couldn’t. Something hot burned on his chest, straight through his skin, and when he looked down, the Ring shone on his chest, melting the beads and the half-horse where they hung on the chain.

The Ring, Bilbo. Give me the Ring.

He shook his head in desperation when words would not come to him. Still that horrible flame followed him, and he couldn’t raise his eyes to see what it was, it was so bright. He didn’t want to see it, couldn’t bear it-

Bilbo. Bilbo.

No, no-

Bilbo!

He wouldn’t-

“Bilbo!”

Bilbo shot awake, panting for breath. Above him, Holdwine settled back, fear on his face. “You weren’t breathing,” he said, shaking his head. “You tossed and turned too closely to the fire, and then you didn’t breathe.”

The cool wind from the Wold was a comfort now, and Bilbo pushed himself out of his furs. Holdwine held a hand to his shoulder to steady him as he sat up, and the pressure was a welcome gift. “Thank you,” he rasped, coughing to clear his throat. It felt as if he’d screamed himself hoarse.

Holdwine nodded but said nothing. Instead, he reached to his saddle and pulled out a flask. Bilbo took it with thanks, and the cool water sliding down his throat was divine. He took three long pulls before he handed it back. “Thank you,” he said again, and his voice was much clearer.

The Rider took the flask back in obvious relief. “Glad to hear it,” he said. “I’ve not seen night terrors like that since Dernwyn’s parents passed, and she was wracked with fear and grief. Are you all right?”

No, he wasn’t, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. “An early start would help,” he said. His arms shook with nerves, and he felt as if he was one of Gandalf’s fireworks, trembling before it exploded. He tried to tighten his fingers into fists to settle himself, but it only made it worse. Finally he stood and wandered out from the crag they’d found to sleep beneath to let the cold wind whip around him. At least then he’d have an excuse for why he was shivering.

That dream. That horrible, terrible dream, that dream that was going to sit with him for a while yet to come. He wrapped his arms around himself miserably, his heart slowly starting to come down from the high speeds it had been at. He hadn’t been that afraid in…well, he wasn’t actually certain he’d ever been that afraid. Even hanging over Erebor’s walls, even facing down the spiders and Smaug and Azog, none of it had been that terrifying. Hurtful, in one instance, breaking his heart and what little of his spirit he’d had left after the journey, but even then he’d plucked himself up and kept going, if for the sake of destroying the Ring.

The Ring. His hand immediately jumped to his chest, where it easily found the Ring under his shirt. The two beads and the token from Thengel also were there, and he let out a sigh of relief. Not melted. It had just been a dream. Thorin and Fili and Kili, they were all alive somewhere. It had all just been a dream.

Well, not the heat: he’d apparently rolled too close to the fire, seeking warmth. And Holdwine’s voice had called his name, catching his attention.

Bilbo clutched at the Ring and refused to turn around. Behind him, he could hear Holdwine tidying things up, giving him his space, getting them ready to leave. Nothing suggested anything different from the other days they’d traveled. Yet…

Give me the Ring.

Had Holdwine tried to take it in his sleep? Had that been Holdwine’s voice he’d heard, before he’d awakened?

He immediately shook them off. “Don’t be silly,” he muttered. “Holdwine is a friend, a loyal friend. He doesn’t want the Ring.” He’d been so frightened when Bilbo had opened his eyes, so relieved to see Bilbo was all right.

Yet the doubt lingered in his mind. He turned back to join Holdwine, quickly sliding into his fur coat. Out of sight, out of mind, and Holdwine would be all the safer for it. What he couldn’t see couldn’t tempt him, could it?

Even as they rode off, the harsh biting winds of the Wold wrapped around them, Bilbo could still feel the burning of the Ring against his skin.

Chapter Text

“Don’t know why we had to leave so early,” Fili muttered. He hadn’t slept well the night before, and he’d left before most everyone else had been awake. Uncle had been awake, at least, and had seen them off, as had most of the company. Thengel had also bid them luck on Gandalf’s insane venture of leaving just as the sun broke over the horizon. No one else from the house had been awake to see them leave, however. Including Dernwyn.

Fili was going to kill his brother.

Of course Kili had slept well: he’d gotten to speak his mind, and it was hard to fault his brother for the concerns he had. Fili had seen the pain his uncle and Bilbo had gone through. He’d watched them splinter apart all for the sake of love, and Kili hadn’t wanted Fili to miss out on happiness.Happiness. As if there was happiness to be found in love. Kili’d been too young to remember the day their father had died, but Fili remembered. He remembered the heartache his mother had suffered. He could see now the pain Thorin was in, the heartache Bilbo suffered from. Kili hadn’t wanted him to suffer the same, wanted him to reach out and take happiness while he could. Fili was content where he was, thank you very much.

Then he remembered feeling the hyperactive singing under his skin as he’d danced with Dernwyn. She’d been more than good with her blades, she’d been an expert, and it had been wonderful to spar with someone on the same level as him. Even more so when he’d seen how much she’d enjoyed it, and watching her smile and laugh had set his heart racing and his own smile broadening.

Then she’d gotten close. So close that he could see the color of her eyes, watch them darken as she stared at him. The way her tongue had moved across her lips, the sheen to her skin, the wild frizz in her hair-

Mahal, he was going to slaughter Kili and bury him somewhere in a woodland realm. He’d been fine, and then Kili had made him think about it, and he’d barely slept all night.

“Where are we going?” Kili asked. He sounded so perky and cheerful that Fili wanted to knot his hair. His brother was even smiling back at Legolas, and Mahal help him, Legolas smiled back. Even the elf was happy.

“North, mostly,” Gandalf answered from behind Fili. They were traveling at a decent clip, but not so fast that words were lost in the wind. “I hope to be there in a few day’s time, and then we’ll march on to join the others.”

Fili frowned. “You said the fifth day,” he said. “On the fifth day from today, we’ll be at Thengel’s side in Isengard.”

“I did,” Gandalf agreed.

Now Kili was frowning. “Where are we going, Gandalf?”

“Back to where the company and I met with the Riders, Kili,” Gandalf said. From behind Kili, Legolas looked startled.

“You do not mean-“

“I do, Legolas. I do.”

Kili looked ready to scream in frustration. Fili knew the feeling. “Which is…?”

“Right outside of Isengard, Fili. In Fangorn Forest.”

Fangorn Forest? “You cannot mean to enter,” Legolas said incredulously. “It is folly, Gandalf. The trees have grown wild and fearless, and the Ents have not been seen in an age.”

“They’re there,” Gandalf assured him. “Of this I know. Well, at least one of them does. Finding him will be the hard part. As will crossing in front of Isengard without being seen.”

Fili shut his eyes tight. “We’ll be there with Thengel, though, won’t we? With Uncle?” Kili asked.

“We promised we would be there to protect Dernwyn,” Fili said without thinking, then nearly groaned. Kili looked beside himself with glee. Even Legolas smiled at him. Of course his mouth would wander away from him. Of course.

“Have no fear,” Gandalf said. “We’ll be there, and you will defend Dernwyn, even as she will defend you and your kin.” He sounded amused about it. Which, with Fili’s luck, of course he would.

He let out a loud sigh and felt Gandalf pick up the pace. Legolas matched him, and the four rode swiftly across the Wold.

 

“What orders from Mordor, my lord?”

Saruman wrapped his robe tighter around him. Without the trees, the air had grown stifling, and despite the fires as they burned into the ground, the cold seemed to seep into his very bones. Using the palantír only drew strength from him. It was a worthy cause, but wearying all the same.

The orcs still waited. Saruman drew breath to speak.

“Bring down the rest of the trees from around my tower. Continue digging deep into the earth, for it has vaster resources than we could have ever dreamed of.”

“The trees have deep roots, my lord,” the orc hissed, then quickly bowed its head when Saruman sat up sharply. “Those will take more time, and will leave grievous marks in the earth.” Even the orcs knew and feared what it meant, it seemed.

Saruman knew well about leaving scars in the earth, more than the orcs did. He had no reason to fear. “I care not for scars in the soil. Bring them all down!”

“For fires such as that, we’ll need more trees than there are.”

Saruman cast his gaze out the window. “We have all we need right on our doorstep,” he murmured. “Take the trees from Fangorn. Be swift with your iron, for the trees are dangerous. They have grown lax in recent years, however. If you are quick, you will come to no harm.”

The orc nodded and left with the rest of its entourage. Saruman laid back in his throne, deep in thought. Sauron’s voice still echoed through his head.

Build me an army worthy of Mordor. Pull them from the earth; there you will find a vast resource of warriors. You have no time to breed my mighty Uruk-hai: you must take them and hew them from the earth. Desecrate the earth, and reap the rewards. Send them out, burn Rohan, and find my Ring.

“Like maggots worming their way from the ground,” Saruman murmured. He could hear the crashing of the trees from outside as more were brought down, and he smiled, a feral smile. All of this would be worth it. In the end, he would stand, more wise and powerful than all the others, and he would join with Sauron to clean Middle-Earth of the lesser beings who did not deserve to live. Long ago, he would have cared. Now, now he had lived long past needless caring, and he understood things much more clearly.

He settled back in his throne to rest, curled up in his robes as his body shook from exhaustion and cold. He would go down to the fires later, and be warmed by the dead trees. Now, now he would take a well deserved rest.

 

“My liege?”

Thengel turned to the doors. Dernwyn stood before him, armor-less and with hair woven as a proper lady. Yet the blouse and trousers she wore were evidence of her intent. She would ride and fight with them, perhaps even die with them.

And he had blessed her to do this.

“Come in,” he said warmly. She stepped inside, no longer hesitant. When he opened his arms she rushed into them, clutching at him. They stayed together, embraced, for some time. She had been the only child in his life, for a time. Then Holdred had fallen, the one he had called a brother, and had left her behind. There were no words he could express for the fear in his breast. Holdwine would never forgive him for this, letting his niece out into a battle she had no part in.

He released her at last, cupping her face gently. “You have grown so much,” he murmured. “And your father would be so proud to see you here.”

Dernwyn’s eyes glistened but she only nodded. He kissed her brow, then turned to his trunk. After a long moment of staring, he pulled the item long buried from its hiding place. The cloth around it was covered in dust, but when he pulled it off, the item beneath it was clean and new. “I have heard from my daughter that your blade will not come clean,” he said, trying to aim for a light hearted tone. “Perhaps this will suit you better.”

Her eyes seemed to glow from the light of the sword before her. Reverently she took it, holding it out to test its balance. “It’s perfect,” she breathed. Her smile was one of breathless joy. “Thengel-“

“It was your father’s,” he said. “He promised it to me to keep, until you came of age. I know that I have been selfish in keeping it, but the time didn’t seem right to give it to you. Now, though. Now it’s right.”

“Thank you,” she whispered. She swung it through the air, reveling in the humming it made as it pierced the silence. “Oh, thank you.”

“A Shieldmaiden should have a proper sword,” he told her. “I have the sheath here, too. One that befits the daughter of a captain.”

Something in his voice caught her attention, and she turned to him, frowning. “Thengel?”

He could not do it. He could not send her to battle. He opened his mouth to utter the words, a declaration by the king, but when her eyes met his, he faltered. “Be careful,” he managed to choke out. “Oh Dernwyn, I beg of you, be careful. You are like my own child, and to lose you would be unbearable.”

Before he knew it, she had set the sword aside on the table and wrapped her arms around him once more. He held on as tightly as he could, tears pricking his eyes. If someone had told him Théodwyn and Théoden were in battle, fighting against an unnumbered amount of orcs and foes, he would have felt the same rattling in his knees, the same faltering of his heart.

“Promise me,” he whispered fiercely. “Promise me you will defend yourself first and me second. Please.”

She stiffened, then let out a shaky exhale. “Promise,” he begged, before she could speak.

“I swear,” she promised, but her voice was laden with sorrow at his insistence. “I swear it, my king. My Uncle.”

Thengel shut his eyes tightly. A moment later, soft footsteps came across the floor, and warm arms wrapped around him and Dernwyn. “For me too, I beseech you,” Morwen whispered. “Long have I counted you as mine. I care not for blood: you are my Dernwyn, and I want you to come home.”

It was Morwen’s words that finally broke through to Dernwyn, and she nodded. “I swear, I will keep myself safe. I fight in good company; I doubt I will see harm.”

“I doubt Fili will let you,” Morwen teased, and Thengel chuckled, grateful for the reprieve from fear. Dernwyn huffed.

“You and Théodwyn and everyone else seem to think-“

“My darling, I do not think, I know,” Morwen said. She stepped away to look Dernwyn in the eyes, taking her by the shoulders. “You feel a strange warm feeling in your chest when you look at him. You glare because if you didn’t, you feel as if your face would fall into wonder. You wish to impress him with your skills, and you want to be near him, for him to look at you.” She looked up at Thengel and caught his eyes, and his heart was warm with the sheer amount of love he felt for this woman, his one, his beautiful Morwen.

Dernwyn played with her blouse between her fingers, but her cheeks had reddened. “That means-“

“You are also jealous of a twelve year old child,” Morwen said, and his wife sounded highly amused now. Dernwyn’s blush spread into a wildfire across her face.

“I am not!”

“In this one instance, I think I will believe Théodwyn over you, though I know it is typically the opposite,” Morwen said, but her voice was gentle, not condescending. “Your heart feels for him. Of that I can tell you.”

Dernwyn swallowed hard. “And him?” she asked, so hesitantly that it nearly broke Thengel’s heart. He spoke before Morwen could.

“Does he continue to encourage your conversation even when it is nothing but trading blows with words? Does he seek you out when he could otherwise avoid you? Do his eyes follow your face?” Dernwyn looked as if she was mulling it over, but realization was beginning to spread across her face. Thengel smiled. “He left this morning with Gandalf, his brother, and the elf, but even as they headed to the gates, his eyes strayed back to the halls to see if you were there.”

Dernwyn blinked. “He could have been looking for his kin,” she insisted.

“He wasn’t,” Morwen assured her. “He looks at you when you look elsewhere, just as you do to him.” She fussed with Dernwyn’s blouse, though it needed no straightening. “Though their race is dwarven, they are good men. And Fili is kind, strong, and obviously cares for you. Just as you care for him.”

“I insulted him,” Dernwyn muttered. Thengel let out a loud laugh tinged with the grief he still felt.

“And he insulted you in return. It is actually not that strange a way to court.”

Dernwyn didn’t look completely convinced, but she was at least thinking it over. Thengel allowed himself to remember the earnest promise of the dwarves and took a deep breath. Fulgram had spoken of their skill in saving the villagers, of their swiftness to battle and their instinctive duty to protect the more vulnerable, though the people of Rohan were not their own.

Yes, he could trust Thorin and his dwarves with Dernwyn’s life. She would be safe, or as safe as she could be, in the midst of battle.

That was all he could hope for.

“Come,” he said. He gave the sheath to Dernwyn and a kiss to Morwen’s cheek. “We go to Helm’s Deep to rally the men, then gather our forces and march on Isengard.”

 

They had made good time, with only two horses. Now at their destination, however, Kili found that walking was the harder part.

“Stay close,” Fili whispered. Kili nodded, but his eyes wandered everywhere. The trees here were tall and dark, cutting out the sun, and reminded him painfully of Mirkwood, of the spiders, of being separated from his brother. His fingers reached out of their own accord, finding their way into his brother’s coat and twisting hard, feeling foolish for being so childish but unable to help himself in the dark forest. Fili said nothing, but he reached back with one hand to clutch Kili’s arm.

Behind him, Legolas followed closely, and Kili was glad to have him at his back. He nearly came up to the elf’s shoulders – almost, better than Fili at least – and Legolas was a solid, safe presence. Ahead of them, Gandalf trudged onward through the dark woods, seemingly uncaring about their situation. His hand was grasped tightly around his staff, however.

“Do not draw blade,” Gandalf murmured back to them. “Many of the trees sleep, but quite a few do not. Be cautious, and declare your intent to not harm them.”

“I’d rather be surrounded by stone,” Kili muttered. Stone he understood. He’d grown up in the tall Blue Mountains, where miners had found a place amongst the caves. He’d felt immediately at home in Erebor, though he’d been glad for the open space above the gate as well. He had spent a long time wandering beneath the stars, too.

Right now, the woods were so closed in, he didn’t think he could breathe. And he’d thought Mirkwood was bad. “I don’t think even your forests are this dangerous,” he murmured back to Legolas.

Legolas slowly shook his head, his eyes still moving about. “No, they are not as dangerous as this,” he agreed. “Long ago, the elves spoke to the trees here and woke them up, and set the shepherds of the forest in charge of keeping them, lest they roamed about Middle-Earth. The trees had voices, feelings, words of their own, and we listened.”

Kili looked around the forest with new eyes. Even Fili seemed interested. “What happened?” Fili asked.

Legolas’s eyes were haunted. “The Ents disappeared. The trees went wild and roamed until they settled here, around the mountain. I do not know what you hope to achieve here, Gandalf. The trees will not aid you.”

“No, but their keepers will, or at least, that’s what I hope,” Gandalf said. Legolas stared.

“You believe the Ents still here? They have not been heard from in ages.”

“With the darkness in the land, do you blame them? The Ents come from old magic, magic that would be corrupted. The more I’ve thought on it, the more I’ve decided that the Ents have to still be here. And I believe we will find one.”

Kili rolled his eyes. “What, you expect to just stumble across one?” His boot caught a thick root and he tumbled down, pulling Fili with him. Legolas, in a great display of elven grace, managed to catch himself right on top of Kili. They stared at each other for a long moment, Legolas’s hair hanging around Kili’s face like a curtain. He blinked and immediately tried to glance somewhere else, anywhere except the elf’s handsome face.

Then his eyes caught on something beyond Legolas’s shoulder, something that was moving. It was a tree, and it was moving.

He only managed to keep from screaming because the breath was stolen from him when a large branch pulled him out from under Legolas. It tightened around his ribs leaving him gasping for air. Higher and higher he went until he was so far off the ground, not even Legolas could reach him. “Help!” he gasped. “Fili! Legolas! Gandalf!”

“Let him down, now,” Fili snarled, blades out. Legolas already had his bow drawn, the tip of his arrow not even quivering. Around them, the branches of the trees began to rustle in warning. Kili shoved and tried to escape from his tree prison.

“PEACE!”

Everything stopped. Gandalf quickly came forward and in front of Fili and Legolas. “Peace, my old friend,” he said again, though his voice no longer boomed. “Call off your sheep, for we mean no harm. It is you we seek.”

A deep voice rumbled from within the tree that had a hold on Kili. “I am glad to hear your voice, my friend.” The voice was slow in speaking, but full of power and might. “You would bring orcs to my forest?”

“Orcs?” Kili said indignantly. The branch pulled him closer to the tree, and suddenly he realized he was staring into two eyes. He blinked. They blinked.

He was very grateful the tree branch had a hold on him, or else he would’ve fallen in shock. There was a tree talking to Gandalf, and it had eyes, eyes that were narrowing as they peered at him intently. The tree’s face was covered in moss as if it were hair, and the upper branches of its head sprouted everywhere. It even had a beard, a big, thick, full beard of moss that was longer than any other Kili had ever seen before. The tree had a better beard than he did. If he hadn’t been in such danger, Kili would’ve thought about being insulted.

“Hrum, orcs,” the tree said. “Though you do not sound as one does.”

“He is no orc, Treebeard,” Gandalf assured him. He made no other move to help Kili, but still somehow managed to keep Legolas and Fili back.

“I’m not an orc,” Kili repeated. The grip on him was relaxing, enough for him to breathe, yet not enough to get away from. “I’m Kili, I’ve got dwarf blood in me! Can’t you see? My skin’s not orc-ish in hue!”

“I do not judge by flesh,” Treebeard rumbled, pulling him closer again to peer at Kili. “As things that appear fair can be foul indeed, hrum.”

“Then believe me when I say I’m not an orc! I’m a dwarf, of Durin’s blood.”

“Blood! Barrum, too much talk of blood. Speak of trees, little one, of the earth from which you came.”

Kili frowned. “Um, from…from the East, East of the Mirkwood. Greenwood! Sorry, Greenwood. From the Lonely Mountain. Though I was born in the Blue Mountains.” Was no one going to stop him from stammering over everything?

“Such a hurry with your words,” Treebeard said, shaking his head and making the branches rustle. “Take your time, and time will linger for you. Do not be so hasty, little dwarf. You are young, younger than you know.”

He finally set Kili down on the ground, oh, the ground was good, very good. His legs nearly went out from under him, and he would’ve fallen had it not been for Fili and Legolas quickly snatching him up. Fili wrapped both arms tightly around him, holding him close, while Legolas wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Kili made a face, almost embarrassed by the attention he was receiving. “I’m all right,” he promised.

“I believe you, when you say you are not an orc,” Treebeard sighed. “For beardless though you are, you are most certainly a child of Aulë’s.” He hummed, a deep resonant sound that Kili had never heard the likes of before. “Why do you disturb our rest, wizard? Long has it been since the trees last stirred.”

“I come with the most urgent of needs,” Gandalf said. “Isengard has fallen to madness.”

Treebeard stepped back in astonishment. “Saruman has been my friend,” he said, shaking his head. The leaves in his branches rustled with even the most gentle of movements. “He used to walk in the forest with me. How could you speak of folly?”

“We have reason to believe Saruman has turned to darkness,” Legolas said, catching Treebeard’s eyes for the first time. Kili fought the irrational urge to step in front of the elf. Elves might have woken up the trees, but it was often the axes of dwarves who brought trees low. “He has brought Isengard and all around it to the ground.”

“Barrum! Such words you speak!” Treebeard rumbled. “How do you know this?”

“There’s a fire in Isengard,” Fili said. “Smoke and fire drifting high in the sky.”

Treebeard said nothing, but he looked troubled. Well, as troubled as a tree could look. “It might not be Saruman’s doing,” Kili said, even though he was very certain it was. “But orcs have been ravaging Rohan, and they’re certainly in Isengard.”

Treebeard made a ‘harrumph’ sound. “I have no quarrel with Saruman,” he said, and Kili’s heart fell. “Nor do I care for orcs. My task is to keep to the forests, little dwarf. And to the forests, I will keep.”

Kili stared, jaw dropping open. “So you’ll just do nothing?” Fili asked, stunned. “But they’re hurting people!”

“I must tend to the forest,” Treebeard said again. He leaned down, and his eyes were almost kind. “Long have these trees slept, and I must let them sleep further still, hrum. My trees are my keeping, and my duty to this earth. We must keep peace, barrum. That is what I must do.”

For a long moment, no one said anything. Kili stared at the ground, where Treebeard’s roots – feet – were. Without the aid Gandalf thought the Ents to be, their numbers would be too few. They would never be able to help Thengel and Thorin, and the orcs would go out after Bilbo-

“Thank you, friend,” Gandalf said, and Kili whipped his head over. The wizard was bowing to Treebeard, leaning on his staff. “I am glad to see you well.”

“It is good to see you,” Treebeard said affectionately. “Though it has not been that long since I saw you last.”

“Your clock runs differently than mine,” Gandalf replied. He seemed to be trying to make the most out of a very unwanted answer. “It’s been too long since last we spoke.”

“Hrum, you are young, my friend.” Treebeard shook his head. “It has not been that long at all.”

Gandalf made a tutting sound, then looked over to Fili and Kili. Kili frowned: there was a twinkle in Gandalf’s eye he wasn’t certain he liked. “Perhaps not. Long enough, perhaps, that I could ask you a favor? The elf and I have business to attend to in Rohan, business that requires swift riding not meant for dwarves. Besides, they were promised to be outside of Isengard in two days’ time. Can you deliver them safely? There is no one other I would trust with their lives more.”

Legolas looked to Gandalf in confusion, but held his tongue. Kili began to speak, but Fili stepped on his foot. “Ow,” he muttered, glaring at his brother. What was he missing?

“I could keep two dwarves safe for a time,” Treebeard agreed after a moment. “I will deliver them to the road leading to Isengard in two days. That is a very short time.”

“And I would ask it of no other,” Gandalf said grandly. He bowed low to Treebeard, then turned to the others. “I would say goodbye, if you would let me,” he said.

They needed no further encouragement. Treebeard stepped away and they huddled near Gandalf, questions going off as fast as they could.

“What are you doing?”

“We’re not so heavy that you can’t take us with you!”

“Why must you leave them here?”

“Because Ents are very solid in their beliefs,” Gandalf said, “but are swift to justice more than old friendships. Fili, Kili, go with Treebeard. Trust me. We will see you in two days’ time.”

Reluctantly Kili nodded. Fili took his hand and held on tight. “Will we be safe?” he asked.

Gandalf nodded. “You’ll be safer with Treebeard than anywhere else, of that I can assure you. Treebeard knows who you are, and knows what you are. He will not hurt Kili, I swear it.”

Blinking, Kili turned to his brother, who indeed looked as if he’d cut through anything that tried to get to him. “I’m all right, Fee,” he said quietly. Fili grunted, sounding a lot like Thorin, but he gave Kili’s hand a quick squeeze.

Gandalf nodded, clapped them both on the shoulder, then turned to leave. Legolas followed after him, then paused on top of a root. He glanced back at Kili, and the emotions in his blue eyes stilled his breaths. “Be careful,” Legolas finally said, as if unable to find any other words. Then, without another word, he turned and left.

“You too,” Kili said softly, knowing the elf would hear it, despite his distance ahead of them. He sighed and watched until he couldn’t see Legolas’s blonde hair anymore, then turned to go back to Treebeard. A tug on his hand made him remember he was still standing beside Fili. Fili, who looked very curious.

Kili swallowed. “What?”

“What was that?” Fili asked.

“What was what?”

“That, that thing, with Legolas.”

“He’s a friend. I know, he’s an elf, he shouldn’t be, but he’s nice enough when you get to know him.”

Fili narrowed his gaze. “That’s not just a ‘friend’,” he said, but before he could continue, Treebeard called to them in his rumbling voice.

“Come, little children of Aulë. Let us go walking to tend to the trees. It has been some time since I have gone west, hrum. I always did like going west; I feel as though I’m walking with the sun.”

Chapter Text

The mountains had towered over them for quite a long time when Holdwine gave the signal to stop. Bilbo waited while the Rider searched around the area. Whatever he’d found, it wasn’t to his liking, and Holdwine’s brow furrowed. “Do you hear that?” he whispered.

Frowning, Bilbo glanced around. The small path they were on, directly in front of the White Mountains, held pebbles and stones and grass. There were a few trees, here in the mountains, and to their left, the Wold ran wild. The fog from the mountain drifted down, blanketing everything in its path. Everything was peaceful and quiet.

Bilbo stilled. Quiet. It hadn’t been quiet in days. Straining now, he fought to hear the sound of the birds, of the hawks that flew around the cresting mountain tops. There were no cries, no whistles. “Nothing,” Bilbo whispered.

Holdwine nodded grimly. “We need to find shelter, immediately. The crags in the Wold are a safe, sure bet.”

The Wold was too wide open, but Bilbo understood his reasoning: if someone had asked Bilbo where he should hide, given the choice between a thick, dark forest or the open sunny plains of the Shire, he’d have picked the plains, too. They were familiar, they were home. Logic had no part in it. Still, he had to speak up. “The mountains may provide better places to hide.”

“Not for the horses,” Holdwine said. “Quickly: I’ve no idea how long it’s been silent.” Bilbo bit his lip but dismounted all the same. He wasn’t skilled enough with a horse to guide it where he wanted it to go, but he could lead one easily enough.

As soon as his feet hit the ground, he felt it. A harsh pounding echoed through the earth, cold and ugly and wrong. Bilbo stared at the path behind him, and it was as if the road was coming up towards him, barreling towards him too fast. He clung to the saddle of his horse and shivered.

Then, he saw them. From out of the fog they came, tall, taller than anything Bilbo had ever seen, and cloaked in black. Their horses were black and wet, ridden too hard, but still they carried their riders forward. Bilbo couldn’t see their faces, but suddenly, the Ring began to burn against his skin. It whispered, the raspy voice growing so loud he didn’t know how Holdwine couldn’t hear it. We have heard the calling of the Ring…

“Bilbo!” Holdwine shouted.

It was too late to run. Even if Bilbo had been on his horse, they would’ve been overrun. He drew Sting from its sheath and urged the horse onward and away. It wasn’t the horse they wanted. It was Bilbo they were after. It was the Ring.

Run.

Bilbo froze, blade held out before him. Run, Bilbo. Put the Ring on and disappear!

They were almost there. Closer now, he could see the frothing at the mouth of the horses, their eyes dark and furious. They were massive beasts, so much bigger than him or the horses of Rohan, and now, now Bilbo could see that there were three riders. Looking at them chilled him to his core, and Bilbo couldn’t stop trembling. One of them let out a scream unlike anything Bilbo had heard before, high pitched and promising pain, and he ducked to try and cover his ears.

Put it on!

They were going to kill him. They were so tall and terrible, so massive and frightening, and as they drew closer, the stench of death was unmistakable. It smelled just as it had during his dream and Bilbo found he couldn’t move. Frozen to the ground, trembling like a child, his sword out before him as a token, not a threat. His hand inched up to the necklace hidden beneath his shirt. Clammy fingers wrapped around the chain and followed it down to the Ring. He could put it on, he could disappear, he could escape-

His fingers brushed against the beads first, and he shook himself from his stupor. Seconds later, he was all but thrown as Holdwine grabbed him and hauled him up onto his horse. “Back, you beasts!” he yelled. To Bilbo, he shouted, “Hold on!”

Bilbo grabbed Holdwine’s tunic and did just that. The riders were nearly upon them. He held Sting before him and held it out towards the riders, its shining silver blade almost dull in the face of the monstrosities before them.

Then Holdwine was shouting a battle cry and lifting his shield and sword high, and the stench of death was even closer, close enough to make Bilbo choke, and the unsheathing of a long, long blade caught his eye at the last moment. There was a wet sound and a pain filled neighing from the horse and the cracking of wood and then they were falling, tumbling to the ground, and Bilbo was thrown from the saddle. He hit the ground hard on his left shoulder, barely managing to refrain from crying out. It felt like his arm was on fire, and his stomach rolled. He managed to push himself up and get his shaking feet beneath him.

Holdwine’s horse was down, blood gushing from its throat as it twitched and then laid still forever more. Holdwine himself was on his feet, looking bruised and bloodied but holding his sword aloft against the riders. His left arm he held protectively to his side, and Bilbo could see the blood dripping from it. The three riders were quickly circling around, but still Holdwine stood his ground. Bilbo stumbled back in fear but kept his grip on Sting.

Slowly the riders moved forward, pinning Holdwine and Bilbo with their backs against the mountain. They could climb – but not fast enough. Stones dug into his feet as Bilbo kept moving backwards, searching for a way out, any way out. The fog rolled and broke over him, making them even more intimidating as they appeared and disappeared in the cloud. They were like ghosts, something out of a nightmare, and as one of them reached towards him, Bilbo shuddered.

Then, above the mountain, the sun began to peek through. The riders shrieked and wailed and backed away. Bilbo all but dropped Sting to cover his ears from the horrible noise. It seemed to tear through his head and leave him nothing but the scream in his thoughts and soul. He clenched his eyes shut and tried to focus on breathing, he had to breathe, despite the decay that was everywhere.

The sun continued to rise, spilling out over the land and banishing the fog. Bilbo, still in the shadow of the mountain, could feel the hard pounding of the hooves as the horses and their riders turned and fled before they were caught in the rays. When the pounding didn’t make every bone in his body shake, he dared to open his eyes, and found them racing off the way they’d come, back to the west. He stood and shook and shook.

Holdwine groaned and fell to his knees, and that was all the impetus Bilbo needed. He threw down Sting and raced over to his friend, catching him before he could fall. “Holdwine, Holdwine! Holdwine!

Slowly the man’s eyes opened at his desperate cries. “We must get you…to safety,” he rasped. “To…” He winced and clutched at his side.

It wasn’t just his arm that was beaten. There in his side was a large chunk of wood from the shield, when the black rider had shattered it. Bilbo bit his lip. He’d learned basic medicine from Oin on the journey, and had known some of his own just from being a hobbit. But this was beyond him to fully heal. “Need to keep you safe,” Holdwine gasped, reaching out to him. Bilbo froze as his hand drifted towards his neck, then his chest, following the chain.

But his hand merely rested against Bilbo’s heart, which was still racing madly in his chest. “I swore…to protect you,” Holdwine whispered. “To keep you safe, to see…see you to Mordor.”

Holdwine wouldn’t make it to Mordor. Holdwine would barely make it past the next few days if he didn’t receive proper medicine. “And you did protect me,” Bilbo whispered. “You saved my life, Holdwine. They would’ve had me, if you hadn’t stepped in. I owe you my life.”

“No, Bilbo,” Holdwine insisted, and his smile was tinged with blood. “It is we who owe you.”

Bilbo blinked past the burning in his eyes as he laid his friend on the ground. “Perhaps, one day,” he said. “But for now, it’s me who’ll be protecting you. Stay awake, and don’t move.” He raced to the fallen horse and pulled Holdwine’s pack from the saddle. He paused briefly, pressing a hand to the horse’s flank and whispering parting words of sadness and gratitude, then moved to his friend’s side once more. The linens and herbs in the pack were basic, and nowhere near close enough for what a healer could do, needed to do. But Bilbo could do enough to keep him until Holdwine reached a healer.

He carefully treated the wound as best he could, then bound the wound with the wood shaft still sticking out. “Don’t pull it out,” Bilbo warned. “You pull that out, and you’re done, you hear me?” Somehow, his words were faltering and shook more than he wanted them to.

Holdwine nodded, words beyond him. “Can you stand, if I help?” Bilbo asked, but he already knew the answer. How a hobbit was supposed to support a grown man, he hadn’t the foggiest: he’d had a hard enough time propping Thorin up when he’d been injured, and the dwarf had been healed by Gandalf.

The pain to his heart came in a swift two-punch. Gandalf, long gone forever, and Thorin, somewhere out in the world. What he wouldn’t give to have the dwarf by his side, even if all Thorin would say to him were the same words he’d shouted that day in Erebor. Just one embrace, just to be held one more time…

A puff of air on his cheek startled him from his thoughts. His horse stood before him, whinnying softly. “Oh, good girl,” Bilbo praised, even as the horse dropped to her knees. “Oh, you good girl, you.”

He began to lift Holdwine, pausing when the man obviously couldn’t endure any more. Once Holdwine was mostly upright, he helped the man lean over the horse, fingers knotting almost painfully in the mane. But the horse didn’t so much as twitch, merely knelt patiently, as if knowing her charge needed care.

Once Holdwine was on, Bilbo switched out Holdwine’s pack for his own on the saddle. He wrapped his friend in his own furs, then gently patted the horse’s flank. She rose carefully, jostling Holdwine very little. “Bilbo,” the man whispered, alert enough to know what the hobbit had planned.

Bilbo turned to the horse instead, drawing her head down low. “Thank you,” he whispered. “You’ve been such a good girl. Take him to the village we passed yesterday, will you? Don’t walk as we did: ride hard, as hard as he can handle.”

The horse huffed and stamped the ground once. Bilbo smiled. “Thank you,” he said again. Only then did he turn to his friend.

Holdwine looked wretched, face pale and gaunt, his tunic bloodied and torn. His arm he clutched to his chest, bandaged but still broken. “I have failed you,” he whispered miserably. “Bilbo, forgive me.”

“You brought me to the mountains, you saved me from whatever those things were, and you’ve protected me from myself,” Bilbo said, shaking his head. “You haven’t failed at all, Holdwine. You’ve done more than any man could’ve, or should’ve, for a Halfling like myself.”

“You are half of nothing, Master Hobbit,” Holdwine insisted. “You are a true friend. Be safe, please.”

Bilbo swallowed hard and nodded. “To the village,” he said, when he had found his voice again, and the horse began to move away at a brisk pace. Only when the horse was out of his sight, galloping past the high hills of the Wold that blocked his vision, did he begin to move again. Above him, the sun was cutting away more of the shade of the mountain, leaving the path brightened by light.

He couldn’t help but look behind him to where the black riders had been. Even orcs would stay and fight in sunlight, though it wasn’t ideal for them. Why had they turned and run? Were they so black and vile that the mere catch of the sun would harm them? Or had something called them away?

Neither made him joyful. He tugged his elven cloak about him further, the only cloak he had now, then made his way east alongside the mountain.

 

The sun was falling when Gandalf and Legolas arrived at Helm’s Deep. As soon as they were inside, they were met with a barrage of questions. Only one, however, rose above the noise. “Where are my nephews?”

Legolas turned to the dwarf king. “They are safe with the other forces,” he said. It was as much truth as he thought they should give, for the time being. Gandalf gave him a nod of approval. “They will meet us in Isengard.”

“They were well?” Thorin could not help but ask again. Even more so, he asked the question not of Gandalf, but of Legolas. Touched, Legolas dismounted and clasped the dwarf’s shoulder.

“I give you my word that they were both safe and treated as friends. I would not let harm come to Kili. Or Fili,” he added, with barely a breath in between. Only Gandalf seemed to catch his pause, and the wizard merely smiled. Somehow, the wizard knew of the fluttering sensation that lingered in his heart whenever he thought of the younger dwarf. How, he did not know. Who knew how Gandalf found things out?

For once, it would seem that Legolas agreed with the dwarves: wizards, especially wizards by the name of Gandalf, were annoying astute.

“Will they come?” Aragorn asked. Gandalf gave a much firmer nod than Legolas would have.

“I have complete faith in them,” the wizard said, a gleam in his eye. “And faith in your nephews, too. Politics are a delicate process best left to royalty.”

“And you left it with Fili and Kili?” Dwalin exclaimed. “And here I thought you were a bright one.” Ori nudged him with his elbow, muttering something about not insulting a powerful wizard.

Thorin also looked annoyed, but about what, Legolas did not know, for he never spoke. Instead, a cry came from above. “Raise the gate! Raise the gate!”

Legolas and Gandalf quickly moved their steeds out of the way as the gates swung open. There was a light sound, like the falling of rain on leaves, and Legolas felt his heart fill with joy. “They have come,” he whispered.

Into the gates came the bright elven warriors of Lothlorien, standing tall and filled with might. Their bows were nearly as tall as they were, and they held their fighting staffs held tight beside them. They fell into formation and stood before the amazed group, silent. Then, one moved from the group, dressed in golden armor. “King Thengel,” he said. “We have come.”

“Haldir,” Legolas breathed. Aragorn was already moving to greet him, gripping the elf by the shoulders, whispering glad tidings. Haldir smiled as he stepped aside to let Legolas embrace him. “I am glad to see you, Haldir.”

“And I, you,” Haldir said, speaking in Sindarin. “I had feared you would be still in Mirkwood, under the thrall of darkness.” His smile fell when Legolas looked away, anguished. “I am sorry, Legolas.”

Gimli huffed behind them. “Speak in a language we can all understand!”

Legolas smiled at the young dwarf. “We have only greeted each other, Gimli.” He could feel Thorin’s eyes upon him, not believing what Legolas said, but the king kept silent. Aragorn and Gandalf, who had heard and understood Haldir’s words, also did not speak, which Legolas was grateful for. He thought often of his father and the darkness that had permeated through his home. Of the Greenwood turned to Mirkwood, and the devastation that had been done to the forests. Of the darkness that had ensnared his father’s thoughts and heart and turned and twisted him into something he was not. At times, it was more than he could bear.

A memory of Kili’s smile and laughter flashed through his mind, and he found himself no longer filled with dark thoughts, but bright ones. The fluttering in his heart returned again. Never before had he felt such a thing towards someone who was not close kin and never with such fervor for anyone. Yet he could feel it stirring within him whenever he thought of Kili. The memory of Kili’s hand brushing against his left him feeling warm, so warm.

Thengel moved forward until he was directly before Haldir. “I must admit, I did not think that you would come,” he confessed. “Long has it been since elves and men have stood alongside each other.”

“It has,” Haldir agreed. “But once, long ago, we shared an alliance, to stand beside each other in times most dire. We have come to honor that alliance.”

Thengel smiled broadly. “And you are most welcome indeed, Master Elf. Come, rest your troops: we march early in the morning for Isengard.”

Haldir’s good cheer faded. “What news from Galadriel?” Gandalf asked.

“She has seen a great darkness in Saruman’s heart,” he said. The company went silent at his words. “A darkness that once was not there. But now, he aspires for something most dangerous: power. And it is not power that belongs in this world.”

“Sauron,” Thorin bit out through tightly clenched teeth. Haldir nodded.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Gimli asked, hefting his axe. “Let us go to Isengard!”

“We rest, first, then we march, Master Gimli,” Thengel said, amused. Even Haldir smiled at the young dwarf all but bristling to get to Isengard to crack skulls open. If given the chance, Legolas was certain the dwarf would tackle all the orcs of Isengard by himself, and be infuriated if a single hand was given to aid him.

Perhaps Legolas could change his mind. “I have heard that dwarves do not rest as well as elves can; when we rest, we draw energy from the ground below us and the sky above us. I could not presume that dwarves are the same,” he said to Gimli, but when he met Thorin’s eyes, he gave a quick wink, so quickly that Gimli missed it. Thorin did not smile, but his gaze held merriment.

“Pah, energy from the sky and ground! We dwarves were made from the ground, and let me tell you, Master Elf, when we sleep, we sleep hard,” Gimli said. He began making his way up the steps to the great hall on high. “Come with me, and we’ll see who gathers up more strength from a quick nap! My strength’ll rattle your very bones with its might!”

“His snores will, at least,” Bofur muttered. He shook his head and made his hat shift sideways. “You’ll be wantin’ cushions for yer ears, Master Legolas.”

“In this one instance, perhaps, my better hearing will not avail me,” Legolas said dryly. As he went up the steps, he heard Dwalin snort behind him and say:

“I really like that one.”

Legolas smiled and continued up after Gimli. Never before had the approval of a dwarf mattered to him; in fact, his father would have encouraged him to attain the disapproval of the dwarves. Yet now, it was welcome and left him feeling lighter and the happier for it.

In his mind, a young dark haired dwarf beamed at him, and left him lighter still.

 

Flying across the Wold, the Nazgûl rode on. They had heard the call of their Master, and they knew where they had to go. They left behind death and decay with each galloping step of their tainted steeds. They had felt the Ring, but had lost sight of it. Now, they rode to bring blood and death to the enemies of their Lord and Master.

From above, more flew to join them. For the first time in many ages, they were all together again, summoned to serve. And serve they would.

As the night drew on, the darkness giving them strength, they drew closer to Isengard.

Chapter Text

There was no sun in the sky when they neared Isengard. Clouds were waiting on high with rain at the ready. The sky had only grown darker since they’d awakened just a few hours before. 

Not that that seemed to concern Treebeard. Anything not involving trees or poems seemed to hold no concern for Treebeard, Fili thought sourly. And that included lending aid to those who needed it most. At least Treebeard was keeping his promise and delivering Fili and Kili safely to the road. 

“I remembered the growing of this tree,” Treebeard was telling his brother, pointing to a very tall tree. “So small and delicate, barrum. Yet now it stands taller than most of the others.” 

Kili gave a polite sound of affirmation to indicate he was listening. In truth, his brother’s eyes were fixed on the horizon, trying to catch a glimpse of Isengard. Given that he was fixed on a large branch extending from Treebeard’s shoulder, Kili would see it all first before Fili did. “Anything?” Fili asked him.

 Kili shook his head. “Patience,” Treebeard rumbled pleasantly. “You both must have patience. I promised Gandalf I would deliver you safely, and safely will I deliver you. We are nearly there. The mountain has been crossed, hrum, and now we go downhill.”

 It was much faster than running, that much was certain. Though Treebeard kept what he called a ‘gentle pace’, his legs were long and big enough to make even a sedate walk go by quickly. Twice Fili had had to hang onto Treebeard’s left shoulder to keep from tumbling off. 

Yet they had slept safely in the woods for two nights now, and had traveled many miles in such a short time. It had been sunny yesterday, and Treebeard had found a grove for them to rest in, filled with the sweetest of water that they’d both lapped up. They’d belched something fiercely afterwards, sending them into giggles like they were children, but they’d filled their need for a cool drink. Treebeard had given them berries – hunting wasn’t really a thing allowed in Fangorn, unless you wanted to lose a limb or three – and had found fruit for them to eat. As much as it reminded him of elves, Fili had actually found himself enjoying the food. Kili hadn’t seemed to mind, either.

 Of course, Kili didn’t seem to mind elves in general these days. Particularly one young elf who’d been traveling with them. Somehow, Kili had struck up a friendship with Legolas. Fili would’ve left it at that, because they were friends, and all the more power to his brother, except it was obviously not just a friendship, and Fili’d had enough of Kili trying to shove him into Dernwyn’s arms. 

Oh yes. Retribution would be swift and satisfying. 

“Just a few more hills, little dwarves, and I shall see you safely to your kin,” Treebeard said, and Kili and Fili shared a grin. “I hope you have enjoyed your time in the woods, for I have much enjoyed the time speaking to someone other than trees.” 

“It’s been much better than all the other forests we’ve wandered through,” Fili said honestly. Fangorn had seemed so terrible, just as awful as Mirkwood, but two days in it had changed his perspective. Safe on Treebeard’s shoulders, they’d wandered through the forest, the sun shining through, the trees almost whispering hello as they passed. 

Mahal save him, he was turning into a tree-hugger. He quickly reached up to check his ears and found them perfectly rounded. No elf tips for him, at least. He let out a sigh of relief. 

“This is my favorite part,” Treebeard told them. “These trees sing in the breeze, hrum, and slide down to…what?” 

The darkening skies had hidden the suddenly empty field before them. Not a field, no, Fili realized, but a desolation. Tree stumps and branches were strewn everywhere, and once before he would’ve called it a logging camp. Now, though, after two days speaking with Treebeard and traveling among the trees, he saw it as a battlefield. A battle which the trees had lost. 

Kili looked as stricken as he felt. “Oh,” Treebeard gasped, staring in horror. “Oh. These trees, they were my friends. I’d watched them grow from saplings. Now their voices are silenced forever.” 

“I’m sorry,” Fili said quietly. “Treebeard, I’m so sorry.” He knew what it meant to lose someone. He’d heard friends fall, watched people that weren’t even friends fall for him. But he’d never lost friends in such a way as this.

 From above, Kili perched himself higher. “Look,” he said, and they all turned to the west. Not far off, the tower of Isengard stood against the darkening skies. Below it were a multitude of fires. Even from their distance, Fili could see the deep caverns in the earth, illuminated by the fires down below. What were they doing? 

“Saruman?” Treebeard said, astonished. “A wizard should know better than to scar the earth and decimate the woods! Especially a wizard who swore to protect them!” 

That was definitely anger in his voice, and fury so deep Fili had never heard the likes of before. Treebeard planted his legs wide and pulled his arms back. “Hang on, Kee!” Fili called, and just in time. Treebeard leaned back, nearly bending himself in two, and let out a deep bellow. It echoed across the mountainside, full of grief and rage. It went on and on for so long Fili didn’t know if he could take it. 

Then it ended, and Treebeard stood straight once more. “What was that?” Kili asked. 

“It is a call to march,” Treebeard said darkly. “A march to end all marches. We will not wait long, little dwarves, for my kin. Gandalf will have the aid he requested: the Ents are going to war.” 

Fili stared out at the empty void before him with bright eyes. Hope sprang in his breast. “Yes,” he whispered fervently. “Yes!” 

From the trees behind them, crashing sounds came. Fili whipped around in time to see another Ent, thinner and taller than Treebeard, enter the clearing. The Ent’s eyes looked everywhere, and he let out a deep note of dismay. More crashing came from further down the line of trees, and another Ent appeared. 

“We will wait, but not long,” Treebeard promised. “For I have business with Saruman, in Isengard, and I would have my kin with me when I go, barrum. A wizard should know better.” 

“Oh, he’ll know better by the time you’re through with him,” Kili said, and Fili let out a delighted laugh. 

The Ents were going to join the others. No amount of orcs could possibly stand against the Ents. Even now, more appeared from the trees.

“Hang on, Uncle,” Fili whispered. “We’re coming.”

 

 

The rain fell steadily as they marched on. Not far ahead, the tall tower of Isengard sprang from the ground and rose to pierce the sky. It looked dark and ominous, even more so with the smoke and flames rising from around it. Whatever Saruman was doing, it was a dark and foul deed. 

Thorin stole a glance behind him. Despite his calm demeanor, Legolas was strung as tight as his bow, eyes searching ahead of him. “What do you see?” he asked quietly, soft enough to be hidden beneath the murmur of the horses, but enough that Legolas could hear him.

“There are many orcs,” Legolas whispered back. “And other creatures I have never seen before. They are as tall as a man, dark and full of too much torment to contain. Never before have I seen this beast.” 

“Uruk-hai,” Haldir said, coming to ride beside them. His lips were pinched in anger. “Saruman has done a foul deed, if he has Uruk-hai beside him. They are bred from orcs and man, and they revel in the taste of blood.”

His gaze swept forward. “He would not have had the time to do that. That means he dragged them from the earth, desecrating the very soil to create these foul abominations.” His lips curled into a snarl. “This is an unforgivable sin, to rape the earth in such a fashion. Never can he be pardoned.”

Legolas looked as if he’d be sick. Even Thorin shuddered at the thought. It reminded him of the damage Smaug had done to claim the gold inside of Erebor. The lives that the dragon had taken, the curse he’d laid in the halls, it had been such as this. Smaug had destroyed the very stones of the mountain, had tainted them and ruined them. But they had taken the mountain back and would help it heal. 

Thorin would take back this land, too, and it would heal as well. They just had to fight for it. 

“Hold!” Thengel called from the front, and Legolas quickly trotted forward to meet him. The rest of the company was already there, and when they reached the front, Thorin could see why the halt had been made. 

There had to be thousands of armored creatures before them. They weren’t orcs, though there were plenty of those as well. No, these had to be the Uruk-hai. They stood as men did and carried heavier weapons like dwarves. The Uruk-hai stood silently before Isengard, just waiting. Waiting for orders, Thorin realized with a start. They were calm and collected, smart enough to know tactics. “This will not be a battle easily won,” Thorin said. 

“Gandalf, my friend, why do you bring woes to me?” 

All eyes shot to the tower. On a balcony stood a man in white robes with long, white hair. Even through the haze of the rain, Thorin could see his black staff. “Saruman, cease this!” Gandalf shouted. “You are a wizard of the White Council, you swore to protect this land! Why do you taint it?” 

“Taint it?” Saruman replied with a deep laugh. “I have made it better than it was! It was nothing, nothing at all, just dirt and grass, but now, now it bears life. Life that is better than the others in this piddling earth.”

Gandalf looked as if he’d been struck. “What happened to you?” he whispered sorrowfully. “How have you turned from good to evil?” 

Saruman glared at him, having obviously heard the wizard’s words. “I have turned from nothing,” he snapped. “It is you who have been deceived, my old friend. You do not know what can be accomplished. Together, you and I could clean this world and start anew. Join with me! Aid me, my old friend, in doing what is right!”

Gandalf’s grief petered away until all that was left was a quiet anguish that began to fuel anger. “Tell me,” Gandalf said, loud enough for all to hear, “when did Saruman the Wise abandon reason for madness?” 

Just like that, Thorin knew that battle was upon them. He gripped the handle of Orcrist in preparation and saw the tip of an arrow just to his right. “Hold,” Thengel commanded. Fulgram relayed the order with his hands, his fist held just high enough for his men to see. Haldir ordered something in Sindarin and his elves waited at the ready, their own bows notched and held.

Saruman shook his head. “You have left me no choice,” he said, then looked down at his army. “They are at your command!” 

Thorin didn’t understand his words until a white warg moved through the ranks. His blood ran cold. “Azog,” he whispered. 

The orc somehow spotted him among the others and let out a harsh laugh. “Good,” Azog said, his tongue twisting with the use of the common language. “No Halfling to save you.” 

Thorin bared his teeth and tightened his grip on his sword. The cloth tied to his wrist almost seemed to burn, reminding him of the hobbit no longer by his side. Next to him, Dwalin cursed in Khuzdul, and Bofur readied his mattock. The sight made him grin. If Azog had thought to weaken them with the mention of Bilbo, he’d accomplished nothing. The thought of the hobbit would only spur them on. If the Uruk-hai got out, then Rohan would not be safe, the Lonely Mountain would fall, and somewhere, wherever he was, Bilbo would be found and killed. 

The Uruk-hai would not escape from Isengard. The orcs would not live to tell of the deeds that man, elf, and dwarf could do when they fought side by side. Saruman would not live to see the healing of the earth he had destroyed. 

“Shoot one,” Gimli asked of Legolas. “Any one of ‘em, I don’t care. Start it, lad!”

Legolas didn’t so much as move his bow, but his lips turned up into a smirk. “Patience,” he murmured. “You have to have patience, my friend.” 

“I can have patience when I’m dead,” Gimli said firmly. “Kill ‘em.”

Aragorn unsheathed his sword alongside Fulgram and Thengel. “Do not show mercy, for they have none for you!” Thengel called to his Riders. Thorin searched them until he found Dernwyn, near the front of the line, her own sword out and ready. He gave a quick nod to Bofur, and Bofur immediately slipped off from the horse he’d been riding on to join her. Once he was with her, Thorin turned back to the front lines. Thengel caught his gaze and gave him a grateful nod.

Azog let out a growl and raised his ragged blade high. The Uruk-hai roared, a loud noise that took Thorin back to the fight at the gates of Moria. He shook himself and pulled Orcrist from its sheath. 

Gimli finally gave a frustrated huff and tapped the end of his axe against Legolas’s bow. Legolas, not expecting the sudden jolt, accidentally let go of the arrow. It whistled through the air and caught between the armor of one of the Uruk-hai in the front line. The roaring stopped as they all turned to watch one of their own fall. 

Legolas turned to Gimli with a glare. Gimli shrugged and didn’t look nearly as sorry as he should’ve. “Atta boy,” Dwalin praised. Legolas swung his glare over to Dwalin instead. 

As one the roaring began again, and the Uruk-hai started running forward. “Do not let them pass!” Thorin roared. Orcrist gleamed so bright and blue amongst the rain that it looked like a lantern held aloft for all to see. 

“Deal with them,” Gandalf ordered. “I have business with a wizard.” He gave his horse a nudge and took off towards the line. Thengel immediately led the charge after him, giving a loud battle cry. It was Thorin who urged the horse onward as Legolas drew another arrow. His vision was focused on Azog and Azog alone. Cut the head off the snake, and the body will wither, his father’s voice rang in his head. Azog had certainly done so at Moria, so many years ago. His grandfather’s head had led to a hasty retreat that only Thorin’s mad attack had stopped. He hoped that Azog’s head would ‘inspire’ Saruman’s army in much the same way. 

The roars of the Uruk-hai mingled with the battle cries and shouts of the elves and men behind Thorin. Closer and closer they drew, the horses pounding the mud beneath them, and Thorin could feel his heart jumping in his chest. They were close enough now that he could see the rain sliding down the thick armor of the enemy. He lowered his blade to the side and hung onto the mane of the horse to lower himself further. Something held tight to his leg, and Thorin knew without looking that Legolas had wound his own leg around Thorin’s, to better keep him from falling. The elf was already firing arrow after arrow into the leagues of Uruk-hai behind the front line, trusting Thorin to break through. 

And break through he would.

He hit the enemy line with a clang, the force nearly knocking him from the horse. It didn’t stop him from slicing through the necks of several Uruk-hai with one blow. The horse continued onward and plowed through the enemy lines, but they were in the thick of it now, and soon, it would not be able to go much further. “Legolas!” Thorin bellowed, and swung his sword again, his blade already thick with blood. 

Legolas released his leg, and Thorin flipped over to land squarely on both feet in the mud. He didn’t even look, just swung and kept himself moving through the lines. The Uruk-hai were taller than him by more than a head, but he used his height to his advantage, sweeping low and cutting several off by the knees. Once downed, they were easy pickings for Orcrist.

One Uruk-hai swung a mace down at him, then found itself with two arrows through the neck. Thorin swung a look back and found Legolas already moving on, laying arrow after arrow into the enemy. Two arrows, though – a bit excessive. Thorin nearly grinned and kept going. He had a pale orc to find. 

“Their necks! Aim for their necks!” Aragorn cried to the Riders. Dwalin’s roar came from Thorin’s left, and he found his friend swinging his axe to great effect. Bofur and Ori formed a triangle with him, with Ori swinging a heavy axe that looked a lot like Dwalin’s. He seemed to be using it as one would use a sword, jabbing and knocking enemies over with great precision before cutting quickly through the weak spots. For someone who had started with a slingshot, Ori was showing great potential with heavier weaponry. 

With them was Dernwyn, who was battling fiercely as she had with Fili. This time, however, she held nothing back: this was not a spar. This was a battle to the death, and it was clear she took that seriously. Foe after foe met her bright, glimmering blade, and foe after foe fell before her. With Bofur and Dwalin at her back, and Ori by her side, she was obviously well protected. 

Without even looking Thorin jammed Orcrist to his right, felling the Uruk-hai who’d run towards him. He pulled his blade free and slid into a crouch, swinging the blade around him in a circle, bringing several Uruk-hai to their knees. The soft sound of arrows flew through the air, and all the Uruk-hai fell to the mud. Through the rain, Thorin could see the elves who’d moved to the higher ground, firing in tandem where they were needed. As much as it pained him to admit it, he was glad they’d called for their aid. There were still so many orcs and Uruk-hai around him that without the elves, the men and dwarves would have been overrun. 

And more enemies continued to come. He could hear horses whinnying in fear as they met enemies, heard their screams as they fell. Men cried out as they were struck down, and their bodies littered the ground alongside the Uruk-hai. More and more of the enemies sprung from the holes in the earth. Even the elves were falling, the Uruk-hai being calculated in the ways of the bow as well as hand-to-hand combat. A familiar voice yelled in surprise, and Thorin swung around. “Legolas!” he shouted, surprised at the fear he felt for the elf. He moved to find him, but suddenly found himself flying through the air, knocking over several Uruk-hai. He quickly cut through the ones still stunned beneath him, his heart thudding hard in his chest, then hurried to his feet.

Through the rain, the white warg stood out against the dark mud and the gray skies. Thorin froze. Atop his ride, Azog looked as smug as he had that night amongst the burning trees. This time, however, Thorin made no move to attack. The Uruk-hai were giving them a wide berth, as if sensing this was for Azog to deal with. Thorin tightened his grip on his blade and waited.

Azog chuckled deep in his throat. “No Halfling,” he taunted, his grin deepening the scars on his face. “No courage.” 

Thorin could feel his fingers cramping with how hard he gripped Orcrist. Slowly the warg moved forward, hunting him. The clash of swords and shields, the cries of the dying and the roars of the attacking faded away until all Thorin could hear was the pounding of his heart and the harsh breaths of the warg. His body tensed, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Would it be him who made the first stroke, or Azog? Who would attack first? 

An arrow flew through the air, sinking deep into the warg’s skull. The warg fell like a stone, and Azog tumbled from his perch. Startled, Thorin spun around to find the archer. 

And stared. 

“Sorry we’re late!” Kili shouted, his bow still in hand from atop his perch in the moving tree. Beside him on the other side of the trunk, Fili grinned. “Treebeard, drop us!” 

The tree did indeed reach with arms – it had arms, he thought to himself, the tree was moving and had arms – to carefully pluck his nephews and set them on the ground. “Where is Saruman?” the tree asked of him. Its voice was deep and full of righteous anger. “Where is the wizard, barrum?” 

“In the tower,” he managed. “Gandalf has gone to fight him.” 

The tree gave what Thorin would’ve said was a growl. “I have words to speak with him, he who would desecrate my forests.” Its eyes moved beyond Thorin, and the dwarf turned in time to see Azog rising to his feet. 

The tree let out a deep roar that echoed through the air and with its mighty arm swung at Azog. The orc flew through the air and into the army somewhere on the other side of Isengard. “I have no time for orcs,” Treebeard rumbled. “We have come to wipe their filth from our earth.” He moved on, carefully avoiding Thorin and his nephews. 

“They’re the Ents,” Kili said helpfully when Thorin tried to pull himself from his stupor. “Been a lovely host. Don’t make them mad: not a pretty sight.” 

There were more of the Ents coming down from the empty fields near the mountain, now, picking up heavy stones and heaving them into the Uruk-hai. Dozens of Uruk-hai and orcs were felled with single blows, and even more were kicked and thrown to their deaths in the pits. 

“The Ents have come!” Fili shouted, then raced into the battle, both swords flying. Soon the elves picked up the cry, and Thorin saw the moment the Riders rallied. The Ents swept through Isengard like a storm, and the Rohirrim cheered, fighting once again with a fervor. Thorin threw himself into battle, letting his blade sweep before him as a herald of woe. Orcs met his sword and fell, their dark blood mingling with the mud. He took a moment to pull a Rider in need of aid to his feet, then continued fighting. 

The battle had finally turned to their favor.

  

 

Higher and higher Gandalf climbed, racing after Saruman. The wizard once his friend had been too cowardly to face him, and had instead fled to the higher levels of the tower. Gandalf gave chase, feeling every one of his years in his bones. He could not deviate now. He could not falter. Middle-Earth was at stake, and despite the betrayal that wearied his heart, he had to fight on. He had to. For Rohan’s sake, for Gondor’s sake, for Bilbo’s sake. 

He had to fight for his friend. 

He finally threw himself into the last door and found himself on the very top of the tower. Saruman was nowhere to be seen. Gandalf led with his staff, seeking every corner, trying desperately to see through the rain. Suddenly he sensed a ferocious wave of rage, and he spun just in time to block Saruman’s attack. 

Saruman looked harried and soaked from the rain on the outside, but on the inside, Gandalf could see the fury, the hate in his soul, and it pained him. “What good comes of this?” Gandalf yelled above the wind and rain. “There is nothing good that can come from what you have done! You are wise, too wise to not know what Sauron will do!” 

“I have seen his plans,” Saruman shouted. “I know what he will do for Middle-Earth, for me. I will reach the pinnacle of power and know everything. All that knowledge, everything within my grasp, how could you not want that? It is not too late to still join with us!” 

Gandalf swung his staff and knocked Saruman back. “Sauron shares power with no one,” he said coldly. “You have been deceived by the Great Deceiver himself. You have become the fool.” 

Saruman screamed in rage and shoved every ounce of his malevolence into his staff. Gandalf barely stepped aside in time to avoid the blow, falling when a flare of it caught his elbow. The heat and anger burned through to his very soul, making him shudder. But Saruman was already swinging again, more fury ready to release, and Gandalf pushed himself up and moved faster, his staff filled with every ounce of ferocity he had. It managed to push Saruman back, but just barely. 

It made the white wizard stare and then laugh, a wild and terrible laugh that stole the breath from Gandalf’s lungs. “You fight me with fear,” Saruman taunted. “Fear is never strong enough, my friend.” 

A shriek from the sky suddenly echoed around them, and Gandalf froze. No. No, it couldn’t be. “Perhaps I can help encourage your fear to be stronger,” Saruman said, and Gandalf turned with dread coiling in his gut.

A dark shape from the sky flew towards Isengard, shrieking once again to announce its presence. Even from its distance, Gandalf could feel the death that clung to the rider of the terrible beast. Fear bloomed within him, at this cursed thing that should have remained dead. Only Sauron’s might could have pulled them from their graves. 

“He is stronger than you know,” Saruman said, reveling in Gandalf’s frozen state. “And his time has come.”

 

 

From the ground, Thorin watched as the dark winged beast approached. “What is it?” Kili yelled beside him, fear in his eyes. The long neck of the beast only accentuated its head and its teeth, and Thorin could feel it staring at him and watching him as the prey he was. Its tail lashed back and forth, but then the rider on its back demanded his every attention. It was cloaked all in black, and it felt as if the rider were staring straight into his soul, wrapping cold fingers around it and choking the life from him. For the first time in his life, Thorin nearly dropped his blade. He wanted to hide. He wanted to drag Kili and Fili to his breast and run and never see that terrible thing again. His fear choked him, leaving him unable to speak. 

A shout behind him tore his gaze at last to where a familiar blonde elf, bloodied and dirty but very much alive, jumped up above the battle onto a stone. “Legolas!” Kili shouted in relief. 

But Legolas could only stare at the creature fast approaching, and the pure fear on his face only terrified Thorin all the more. Then Legolas screamed, and the single name put ice into Thorin’s heart. It was a fable, a child’s tale, a myth from the dark days- 

“Nazgûl! Nazgûl!” 

And the Nazgûl descended.

  

 

Dernwyn saw it a minute too late. The shield, well thrown, didn’t take off her head, but it did knock her to the mud. Stunned, she shook herself and tried to push herself to her feet. An orc kindly tried to help her, and by help she meant get her to stand so it could gut her. She pulled her knees up enough to get her upright, then shoved her blade inelegantly forward. It caught the orc through the middle, and it toppled over into the mud, taking her blade with it. More were coming, from everywhere, and she felt Bofur’s hand at her elbow to help her up. “C’mon lass, we’ve more to do,” he said. She gave a tired grin and reached for her blade.

Then it landed, mere feet from her. Bofur let out a shout as the world shook, sending them both down to the mud. She spun around only to stare in horror at the thing in front of her. Its long neck moved like a snake, and it let out a screech that made her instinctively reach for her ears. But its rider- 

There was no face behind its fitted mask, yet she could feel it staring at her. Its long fingers curled around its blade, and when it was drawn, she could see her death in its reflection. It was then that she made her first mistake – she tried to stand. 

The creature swept her and Bofur off to the side with one swat of its giant wing, separating them. Dwalin roared and rallied to their aid, with Ori right beside him, but the other wing flung them into a pile of Uruk-hai. Alone, she watched as the creature stalked towards her. She tightened her fist, then froze, realizing too late that she had no sword. Her blade was still buried in the orc, now too far from reach. 

She could make it. Maybe. She pushed herself up, hands and knees sliding in the mud, and made to run for the blade, only for the long neck of the creature to cut her off, making her second mistake. She nearly slipped and fell as she backed away. A fallen Uruk-hai still had its blade in hand, and she tugged it free. The weight was all wrong, the iron cold in her hands, and she shivered as she tried to keep her grip. The creature only came closer, but it came too close, and she swung wildly with the blade, slicing into its wing. It shrieked and back-handed her out of reflex, its claw tearing at her face and sending her deep into the mud. She managed to keep a hold of the iron blade, but only just. 

Her face stung, and her arms couldn’t find purchase in the mud. She frantically fought to free herself as the creature only came closer. All the while, the rider stared straight through her, an icy grip lodging deep into her soul. The creature’s jaws snapped in preparation, and she screamed in frustration when the mud proved too slick to move. She was trapped, she would perish- 

Suddenly someone stood in front of her, blades slashing at the long neck. The creature screeched but backed away at the sudden threat. The rider’s gaze was broken, and Dernwyn took a deep breath of free air. Her eyes drifted up to see her savior, and her heart stopped. 

His blonde hair was already dirty with mud, and his tunic was covered with mud and blood. But his braids swung freely, and the rage on his face was clear to all. “You will not touch her,” Fili growled. He swung both blades to emphasize his point. 

“You cannot harm me,” the rider hissed, and something about its voice struck fear into her heart. Fili shuddered but widened his stance to hold his ground. “I cannot be killed by any man.” 

“I’ll give it my best shot,” Fili warned. The creature darted forward, and Dernwyn finally pulled free, thrusting her blade forward between Fili’s knees even as he swung with his own. Her blade tore teeth from the beast, and Fili’s blades found a home in the creature’s eye and neck. It shrieked and reared back, stumbling in the mud, wings waving frantically. The rider nearly fell from its perch, and then the creature took off for the skies, still screaming in pain. It dipped down towards the ground to lift something, then continued to rise. 

Dernwyn dropped the blade into the mud, panting for breath. Fili swung around and crouched before her. “Are you hurt?” he asked. His eyes drifted to her cheek, anger sweeping across his face. 

“It’s but a scratch,” she told him. “I lost my sword to an orc’s chest.” 

He gazed at her for a long moment, and Dernwyn felt her breath stolen away. Morwen’s words came back to her, and of all the times to feel a swell of affection, of love, this was not the best time. 

Fili shook himself and offered her a hand. Her skin touched his, and she found herself nearly eye to eye with him. So close, close enough to feel his warm breath against her frozen skin. “I have words for you,” she said, surprising herself. 

Fili nodded. “And I, you. Your blade first.” 

“Orcs second,” she countered, and he grinned. 

“Orcs second. You're a true fighter, Dernwyn.” 

Her name on his lips did funny things to her heart. “I ducked,” she told him. 

He laughed, and it only made her grin broaden until it hurt, her cheeks so chilled from the rain and mud. “I’ll have to show you my own ducking prowess,” he boasted. 

“I’d very much like to see that.” And she would. Fighting beside Fili…the very thought was just right.

Dwalin hurried over to them, glaring at them both. “Flirt later, we’ve a fight!” he yelled. He swung his axe up, and Fili and Dernwyn both ducked as he took out an Uruk-hai coming up behind them. “Go!”

With her hand still in Fili’s, she grinned and ran for her sword. Never before had she felt so alive, so good

A scream of terror shook her as her hand wrapped around the hilt of her sword, and her eyes flew up. Her veins filled with ice as she watched the battle from atop the tower. She didn’t need to hear the name shouted with fear to know what was happening, but each cry from Aragorn only made it worse. 

“Gandalf! Gandalf!

  

 

Saruman had been right, in the end: fear meant nothing against rage. 

With a yell Saruman flung him to the ground, breaking something in Gandalf’s ribs. Gandalf choked on blood and tried to crawl to his staff. His broken hand still attempted to wrap around Glamdring, to try and fight without his magic. His other hand wrapped around his staff just as Saruman reached him. A firm press of his foot crushed everything in his hand, and Gandalf barely managed to keep his scream behind his lips. 

Saruman merely shook his head. “We could have held dominion over everything,” he said. With barely a care he nudged Gandalf’s staff too far from his reach. “Yet you chose death instead of life.” He raised his staff to deliver the killing blow. 

Gandalf reached out with everything he had and pulled his staff to him, swinging up to counter the blow. Lights sparked from their staffs as their souls warred against one another. Saruman’s hatred and rage pushed against Gandalf’s fear, and Saruman cackled as he pressed his advantage. 

Gandalf closed his eyes. You cannot fear, he tried to reason with himself, but never before had he been so afraid. His heartache over being betrayed crushed everything within him, and left only this fear that had dug into his spirit. What could one do against being betrayed by someone you had admired, had looked up to, had loved as family?

Do not give up hope. 

His own words, spoken to Bilbo, flooded his mind. His little friend’s face, so full of despair and pain when Thorin had banished him, came to his mind. Then he saw Bilbo’s tear filled eyes in Lothlorien, when he had embraced Gandalf that night, when Gandalf had murmured those words to him to give him strength. 

He gives me courage.

His words to Galadriel only furthered the fire he found building within him. He found himself thinking of Bilbo’s strength to stand against Thorin and his gold-maddened mind, his determination to deliver the Ring to Mordor, his heart that still strove to love despite the hurt. 

The light from his staff grew. Slowly and slowly it mounted against Saruman, the white light sparking and building against Saruman’s hate. Saruman snarled and pushed back, his strength nearly overpowering Gandalf. He would, Gandalf realized. Saruman was too powerful for him to defeat. But he could help those below. He could help them win. He could fight for those he loved, too. 

He could help protect Bilbo, his little friend who still continued to surprise him time and time again. 

He took everything his soul felt and put it into his staff. The light exploded and pushed them both back, and sent everything at the base of the tower to its knees 

When the light cleared, the lifeless body of Gandalf the Gray lay on the top of the tower, hanging over the edge. His hair blew in the wind, but his soul had been expended.

Silence reigned as the loss of power was keenly felt by all. Then, a second rally was called by the men of Rohan, the elves of Lorien, the dwarves of Erebor. Their anguish rocked against the tower and frightened the orcs, many of whom turned and ran. The Ents bellowed their grief and continued their assault, demolishing what was left of Saruman’s army. Many of the Uruk-hai and orcs who fled turned for the forests that still remained around Isengard. Those who attempted to follow them, to pursue the assault, were held back by the elves who knew better. The forests soon rang with screams as the trees removed the filth that had slaughtered their kin.

The rain began to slow, but the skies remained gray in mourning. 

The battle was over.

Chapter Text

Kili found he couldn’t stop shaking. All around him were the bodies of allies and enemies alike. He was covered in blood, not much of it his own, if any, but there was mud, too, and the stench of the dead clogged his every breath. If he’d been breathing, he’d have choked.

He was too stunned to draw air, though. His bow hung limply in his hand, his steps faltered trying to find a clear place to step that wasn’t covered with a body. The only thing that moved rapidly within him was his heart, pounding against his ribs. His eyes, too, searched everywhere, trying to find a familiar face. Riders passed him with nods, and elves gazed at him but said nothing. He continued to search, no air in his lungs to call out to his kin. He’d lost sight of Fili almost immediately after having been set down from Treebeard, and he’d been separated from his uncle within mere moments of joining the fray. He was alone.

“Kili!”

Kili barely turned before he was being pulled against a solid chest. “Are you hurt?” Legolas asked, and Kili suddenly felt his emotions slam into him. He wrapped his arms tightly around the elf. More hesitantly now, Legolas held on as well. Fingers slid up to his hair and ran through it, clearing mud and grime from the locks, and Kili shuddered.

“Kili, are you hurt?”

Kili shook his head. “No, I don’t…I don’t think so. I just…I was trying to find someone, anyone, but…”

“It’s all right,” and Legolas let go, only to look down at him with a smile. The elf was also covered with blood and mud, but seemed less plastered with it than Kili was. “I am glad I found you. No one had seen you; your brother and uncle are searching for you.”

Had he gotten so lost? He’d followed the battle towards the back of Isengard. He blinked when he realized he was near a stone wall. “Kept fighting, I suppose,” he said, scratching his head. “I got carried away. Literally.” He let out a snort. “No wonder I couldn’t find anyone.”

Now that he was standing on his own, he missed the warmth that Legolas had provided him. Legolas also seemed to miss the loss, his hand rising to reach for him, only to pull back to the elf’s side. “I am glad to have found you,” Legolas said, and Kili decided to run with his impulses. They never served him too badly.

Well. Most of the time. He didn’t think it was one of those times, though.

He reached out and caught Legolas’s hand in his. Startled, the elf only blinked at him. “I’m glad you found me, too,” Kili said. The rush of adrenaline through his veins was going to make him do something incredibly stupid, so he only clutched at Legolas’s hand, keeping himself where he was. He hadn’t a clue why his heart kept racing as it did, but all he could do was stare at the elf.

Then Legolas smiled, a bright, blinding smile, and he tugged Kili forward, as if following his own impulses. Kili found himself wrapped around Legolas again, his forehead lying against the elf’s collarbone. He let himself breathe in deeply, and slowly his body stopped shaking. They stood there for a long moment, wrapped around each other, and the ‘how’ and ‘why’ were distant questions he didn’t care for. Right then, Legolas holding onto him, it was all he wanted.

It was only when he brushed against Legolas’s shoulder with no problem that he realized something was off. “You’re shorter,” he told the elf, stepping back to look at him.

Legolas looked him up and down, shaking his head with a smile. “No. You’re taller.”

“I can’t get taller!” Kili said incredulously. “I’m a dwarf. We don’t get taller. I mean, I’m already pretty tall, as far as dwarves go, but this is ridiculous.” The last time he’d stood beside the elf, he’d barely come up to his chest. Now, now he was perhaps a head away from looking the elf in the eye.

“Kili!”

Kili turned at the sound of his brother and laughed brightly, soon finding himself all but tackled by Fili. “Mahal, you scared me,” Fili whispered. “None of us could find you.”

Fili was the right height, at least. “I’m all right,” Kili assured him. “Legolas found me.”

His brother looked between Kili and Legolas, his eyes suddenly calculating. Kili frowned and stepped closer towards Legolas, not much liking the look in his brother’s eyes. It never ended well for Kili. “What?” Kili said, sounding defensive even to his own ears.

Before Fili could say anything, Thorin was hurrying over to wrap his own arms around Kili. He dragged Fili in as well, and Kili clung to his uncle, ignoring the mud and blood Thorin was all but decked in. Thorin didn’t say a word, just breathed, clutching at them as if they were the only things left on the earth. After a moment, his arm moved, and suddenly Legolas was wrapped there with him. The elf looked stunned, but soon embraced them all as well. Kili shut his eyes tight and felt tears leaking into his smile. They were all safe. Somehow, they’d all come out safely.

Then Dwalin and Bofur and Ori were hurrying over, and they all laughed and rejoiced at seeing each other. Kili couldn’t believe it: save for a few injuries, they had all made it through the battle together. Mahal but that was a blessing. “We’re all here!” Kili gasped in joy.

Dwalin tightened his grip on his axe while Bofur reached for his hat. Kili felt his heart stop. “Who?” he asked, looking through the group again. “Aragorn?”

“He is well,” Thorin assured him. “No, Aragorn is fine, as is Thengel. Gandalf-“

“No, I know about Gandalf,” Kili said, his stomach turning. He’d heard the cry ring through the rain. He’d seen the explosion on the top of the tower. And he knew, he knew that he’d seen the body of their friend hanging at the top of Isengard. He felt sick just thinking of it. He couldn’t even bring himself to look up at the tower to where Gandalf probably still was.

Gandalf had fought Saruman on his own for them. He had faced the most powerful wizard in all of Middle-Earth to help them. And now, now he was dead.

“Who?” he asked, when he had a voice again.

“Fulgram,” Bofur said. Kili swung wide eyes over to the dwarf. The toymaker gave a sad smile. “He fell defendin’ his Riders. He was quickly avenged.”

Kili couldn’t even bring himself to respond. The Captain had saved their lives, Fili's and Kili's, after they'd been captured. It hurt to think that in his hour of need, they couldn’t help him. “Does Thengel know?” Legolas asked for him.

“Aye, lad, he knows,” Dwalin said. “It was he who told us.”

“Dernwyn?” Kili asked his brother. Fili blushed but told him she was fine. The way Fili kept glancing back at the front of Isengard told him exactly where the Shieldmaiden was. Kili just grinned: it was nice to see Fili happy. Finally. If his brother had just listened to him at the start, he wouldn’t have scowled so much. Honestly.

“Haldir was grievously injured,” Ori told Legolas, who instantly tensed. “They’re planning on taking him back to the Lady. If you’re going to speak with him before they go-“

“I will,” Legolas said. “Thank you, Ori.”

“What happened with the wizard?” Dwalin growled. “You see, Kili?”

Kili bit his lip. “I saw something fall. I…don’t know if it was Saruman or…or Gandalf.” He swallowed hard, trying to ignore the figure who had finally slipped from the top of the tower.

“I cannot see Gandalf,” Aragorn said quietly from behind him, having joined the group. He was bleeding and his hair was matted with rain and mud, but he only walked with a slight limp. “His body no longer remains at the top of the tower.”

So it had been Gandalf he’d seen, then. Kili nodded, but said nothing. Legolas began murmuring a lilting blessing under his breath, the Sindarin somehow comforting. Kili closed his eyes and tried to not tilt over, a sudden wave of exhaustion nearly overwhelming him.

“Easy,” Fili murmured, catching him and pulling him in. He didn’t know who clutched more at each other, but all Kili knew was that his brother was alive, he was all right, and Fili’s fingers were digging tightly into his back. Kili leaned his head against his brother’s shoulder and sighed.

“You’re both taller!”

Kili opened his eyes to glare at Gimli. “No, I’m not.”

“But you are! I’ve not been shorter than you before!”

“You were always shorter than us,” Fili said.

“You’ve never been taller than the both of us. Even if Fili’s shorter than me.”

“I am not.”

“Oh yes you are.”

“Wait a minute,” Thorin said, stepping forward. He looked at Kili, who Kili realized he suddenly had to look down to see his uncle, then saw Thorin looking eye to eye with Fili. He’d never looked eye to eye with Fili before. “You’re both taller.”

“Impossible,” Fili scoffed.

Kili shook his head. “You’re just standing deep in mud, that’s all.”

“How would we be taller?”

“We’re dwarves, Uncle.”

“Would the both of you shut up?” Dwalin snapped. “Gimli’s right, you’re both taller.”

Kili frowned. “How would that happen?”

“Sleeping with trees,” Dwalin said with a shrug. “Turned you into an elf.”

With a roll of his eyes Kili shook his head. Because he’d slept with trees. How was that supposed to mean anything? He looked over at Legolas with a very annoyed face, expecting sympathy.

What he didn’t think he’d get was a calculating look. “What did you eat?” Legolas asked. “While you stayed with the Ents, what did you consume?”

Kili frowned. “Berries and fruits: I recognized them all. Trust me, they don’t make you taller.”

“And how did you quench your thirst?”

“Water,” he said, still wondering where Legolas was going with it.

“From inside the forests,” Legolas said. “From a spring in the woods.”

“Yes! What does it matter?” Fili said, annoyed.

Legolas began to grin. “You drank Ent-draught,” he explained. “It’s how the Ents live. It runs beneath them and through their roots. It makes them grow. It makes them grow taller.”

Slowly Kili looked over at the other dwarves. They were all staring at Fili and Kili as if they were some strange creatures. “What?” Kili said.

“Your nephews are turnin’ into tree-shaggers,” Dwalin said. “No offense, you’re all right, far as the elves go,” he added to Legolas. Legolas merely shrugged, already far too used to Dwalin to take offense.

Thorin looked disturbed at the fact that someone besides Dwalin was as tall or taller than he was. “Does it wear off?” he asked at last.

Aragorn shook his head. “They will always be this tall, now.”

“You could be taller than Dernwyn, maybe,” Kili said cheerfully. Fili scowled at him.

“You could be tall enough for an elf,” Fili shot back. Kili felt his cheeks heat and shoved his brother, hard. The other dwarves just chuckled, but Kili could feel his uncle’s eyes on both him and Legolas. And that was never good. It certainly wasn’t fair: Kili barely had his head wrapped around the fact that he liked Legolas and felt warm when he was near, but if Thorin got to that idea first-

Oh Mahal. He liked Legolas. He was falling for an elf.

Fili would never let him hear the end of it. Thorin would never let him. Dwalin would take his head off. Bofur would just laugh.

He wondered what Legolas would do. He wondered if the elf…felt the same way.

A thundering set of footsteps came over, and Kili took Treebeard’s entrance as a desperately needed change of topic. “Treebeard! How have things been?”

“Well indeed, little dwarf,” Treebeard rumbled. “We seek to fill the scars with the river, barrum. The rain put out most of the fires below, but it is time to clean the wounds. You must reach higher ground before we can do so safely, however.”

“Then to the high grounds we will go,” Thorin said.

“Won’t that take us into the trees?” Ori asked suddenly. “I’m…not certain that’s a good idea.”

“They will not harm you,” Treebeard assured him. “You have aided them in claiming vengeance: you will be kept safe.”

Ori nodded but didn’t look completely convinced. “Away with you, little dwarves, unless you seek to swim,” Treebeard said, ushering them onward. That was all they needed to hear before they moved back towards the front of Isengard. The mud was treacherous, slippery and slick in some places while nearly impossible to pull feet from in others. Legolas seemed to have no trouble, stepping quickly over the bad patches. Kili would’ve resented him for it if he hadn’t been willing to help the others through. Even Aragorn had trouble making his way through the muck.

Thengel was speaking with a Rider when they approached the gate. “Hail, Thengel,” Aragorn called, catching the king’s attention. “We have been advised to seek higher ground. The Ents are eager to clean away the filth of orcs.”

“And I would let them,” Thengel said grimly. To the Rider he said: “Get up all the injured and wounded that you can. If they are not orc or Uruk-hai, take them up towards the trees.”

“The trees will not harm you,” Legolas assured the Rider when he looked wary. “We are friends, not foe. You will be safe.” The Rider gave a more confident acknowledgement and hurried away. With him gone, Legolas turned to Thengel. “My kin, have you seen…?”

“Haldir asked for you,” Thengel replied. Legolas inhaled sharply, eyes filled with worry. “He is wounded, but still strong. They plan to carry him back to Lothlorien. He is up near the northern line of the woods.”

Legolas immediately searched with his eyes, but did not move. Fear, Kili realized. Legolas was afraid, afraid of what he would find. Before he could say anything, Aragorn had reached over to clasp at Legolas’s shoulder. “Come; I would see Haldir before he goes, too,” he said.

“Aye, we’ll see the elf off,” Gimli said. He raised his chin determinedly when Legolas looked to him in askance. Legolas’s eyes moved then to Kili.

Kili could feel his face warming – seemed the sun was coming through at last, or so he’d give as an excuse if anyone asked – and grinned. “Let me know how he is; we’ll be here watching the Ents flood everything.” If Aragorn and Gimli were going with him, Legolas would have enough friends, but not too many, there with him at a very obviously difficult farewell. Whatever Haldir had spoken to Legolas about before the battle had troubled the elf, and it was clear that Legolas didn’t want to speak with his friend alone. Too many people, though, and Legolas wouldn’t speak freely.

Besides, Legolas needed a reason to step back and rejoin the group. And if Kili stayed here, then maybe, maybe that would be reason enough.

Legolas nodded, his smile brighter than before. “We will return,” he said, then darted away, Gimli blustering about the unnatural speed of elves and moving to catch up. Aragorn just grinned and ran with them. Kili watched them go, Legolas’s hair still managing to catch what little sunlight from behind the clouds came through. Even with pieces of mud and dirt in it, it was still beautiful. His fingers itched to run a braid through it. Just a small one, just to show his affection for how much Legolas mattered to him.

He got a sharp elbow into his side, and he spun with a glare to where his brother was. Before he could say anything, though, Fili spoke up, and a bit loudly at that. “As amusing as it is to watch Gimli try and run after the elf, we need to focus. Thengel, what’s next?” Even as Kili frowned, Fili deliberately didn’t look at him. Laughing at Gimli? He hadn’t been watching Gimli, he’d been…

Oh.

Mahal, he could be obtuse sometimes. All right, maybe Fili had some brains, after all. Fili obviously knew just what – or rather, who – Kili had been staring at. But the others didn’t. Uncle might not have completely put it together, and as kind as Thorin was being to Legolas now, that didn’t change that Legolas was an elf. It was clear that as much as Fili was willing to poke and tease at Kili, he was still Kili’s brother, and that meant protecting him. Kili would’ve wrapped his brother in a tight embrace if it wouldn’t have drawn suspicion. As it was, he made do with a tight fist at his side that he bumped into Fili’s hand. Fili bumped back.

Now that it was apparent that Kili couldn’t show his affections for Legolas publicly, the next thing was to still display them…perhaps just to Legolas. Secret hearts entwined – it sounded horribly romantic, something the dwarven lasses would’ve cooed over.

But Kili could be stealthy. And quiet. He could keep a secret to himself.

Mostly.

Probably.

Maybe.

“We need to determine where Saruman is,” Thengel said. “He is our main concern. If he yet lives, he must be taken prisoner, and his staff removed hence.”

“We’re pretty certain we saw somethin’ fall,” Bofur told him. “Don’t know if it was…well. It could’ve been Saruman. But if it’s not, we’d best find him and fast.”

“Agreed. We’ll wait until Isengard is flooded, then seek him out.”

They didn’t have long to wait. Soon the Ents were roaring and then the river was let loose, flooding all over Isengard. Kili stared at how fast the river flowed, and yet somehow, the Ents weren’t washed away. The river surged and crashed against Isengard, rolling over the bodies of the fallen and into the pits. The brown, dark water soon began to flow clear, and at last, the remaining fires were quenched. The river began to flow smoothly, and the water started to fall. Isengard was clean once more.

“I’d wondered if perhaps you’d been washed away,” a familiar voice called, and Kili grinned as Dernwyn made her way towards them. She was bloodied and a mess, but when her helmet was pulled free, her golden hair still shone. She returned his smile before letting her eyes slide to Fili. “I am glad you were able to find your kin.”

Fili nodded. “Other side of Isengard; he was completely, hopelessly lost.”

“Funny, that’s what I thought would’ve happened to you,” Dernwyn teased, and Fili just grinned all the broader for it. Oh yes, they were the perfect match. Kili felt as if he’d burst from joy.

“What’s that?”

Aragorn’s voice caught all of their attention, and as one they gazed up at the tower. On the top of the tower, something was moving. Something in white.

“The white wizard,” Dwalin hissed. To Kili, he said, “Shoot him down.”

Kili had his bow pulled taut before Dwalin even finished speaking. He was too far out to even come close to hitting him, though, so he began to scramble down the hillside, away from the trees and back to Isengard. His uncle yelled after him, and he could distantly hear Thengel ordering Dernwyn to protect the fallen. When he hit the water, it came up only to his thighs. He could run in that. Not well, but he could run.

A bright white began to burn from the top of the tower. “Kili, strike him down!” Aragorn shouted. Kili didn’t wait another moment: he took half a second to steady himself in the water, then let his arrow fly.

What should’ve hit true suddenly burned to a cinder, and the white light continued to grow. “Legolas!” Aragorn screamed, and suddenly the elf was right beside him, pulling an arrow back to fire. Kili grabbed another of his own, sending it right after Legolas’s. One of theirs had to hit.

Both were swatted away as if they were flies, and suddenly Kili’s hand began to burn. He gasped and dropped his flaming hot bow, Legolas doing the same with a cry of alarm. The white light grew brighter and brighter, so bright that Kili had to shield his eyes from it. His hand groped wildly beside him, reaching for something stable. His fingers met a long arm, and instantly Legolas shifted to catch his hand. Kili clung tight and tried not to cower in the face of the light. It was more than light, it was power, surging through him and all but knocking him over. No wonder Gandalf had fallen to Saruman.

But it didn’t feel cold or cruel. This power was…was warm, enveloping him and somehow settling gently on his tense muscles. It was almost as if it were saying, “Be still, you have nothing to fear.”

Or that could’ve been the loud, booming voice that seemed to echo all across Middle-Earth.

“Saruman!” Thorin roared. “Come down and face us!”

The light began to slowly fade, enough that Kili could see. He blinked away the spots in his vision and tried to look up, but found that the light was still too bright to look straight at.

His uncle held Orcrist aloft and it gleamed silver in the daylight, despite the clouds that still hindered the sun. At least it wasn’t glowing blue as it had during the downpour. And at least he hadn’t had his weapon taken away. Even as the thought crossed his mind, Fili raced in front of Kili, both blades out. Aragorn stepped beside him, his own blade raised high.

“You seek one who will not answer to you,” the voice called again. Thorin growled and tightened his grip on his sword.

“Would he answer to the King of Rohan?” Thengel shouted. “You must answer for your crimes, Saruman!”

“I have done no crimes against you, Thengel, son of Fengel. I have only been, and forever more shall be, your friend.”

The light finally dimmed even as the sun came out, shining behind the tower, illuminating the figure on top. Kili felt his jaw drop. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t.

“Gandalf?” Aragorn breathed. “It cannot be.”

Legolas immediately dropped to kneel right there in the water and mud. “Forgive me, I did not see,” he said. Even still, his hand remained in Kili’s.

“But you were dead!” Thorin cried. “We saw you fall! We took up the battle in your honor and pressed on.”

“And well you did, Thorin, son of Thrain.” Even from the distance, Kili could see the faint glimmer of a well beloved smile. He found himself smiling brightly, tears stinging his eyes. Gandalf was alive. Gandalf was alive.

But that meant…

“Saruman was the one that fell,” Fili said. “That was who we saw.”

“It was indeed Saruman who fell.” Sadness crossed Gandalf’s face, and Kili suddenly realized that Gandalf was white. His long white hair seemed to shimmer in the sun, and his robes were as pure as snow. “There was nothing more I could do for him. He had turned to wickedness, and in the end, it was his own hatred and rage that felled him.”

He shook himself, then gestured to his side. “I will come down to you and prove it is myself, for I can see the disbelief in your eyes even now. I promise you, this wizard is still breathing.”

And he did. Kili still stared and gaped as Gandalf waded to them from the water. As soon as he was close enough to grab the dwarves pulled him in, laughing and hollering in joy and relief. Gandalf just laughed and spoke briefly to each one a greeting before moving on. When he at last came to Thengel and Thorin, he gave a swift bow.

Thengel slowly shook his head in amazement. “How can this be?” he whispered. “We saw you fall. We all did.”

“I did,” Gandalf said. A shadow passed across his face. “When the power Saruman and I created flung me away, I was thrown through time and space itself. I drifted and watched eons fly by in the blink of an eye. There was no meaning to the word ‘time’. It was just myself and the limitless eternity of stars and worlds that have been, and worlds yet to be.”

The sheer enormity of what Gandalf said awed Kili, even as it left him trembling. Legolas’s hand squeezed briefly, centering him.

Gandalf began to smile. “Then suddenly, I could breathe again, and my first breath was jagged and cold. Warmth flooded back in, and with it came my new knowledge, my reason for breathing again. I am Gandalf the White, and I come back to you now in this dark hour, at this crucial turning of the tide.”

“But Saruman’s dead,” Bofur said. “Isn’t he?”

“Mm. We shall see to that in a moment. But Saruman’s cruelty and power were spurred on by another power, much vaster and darker than his.” Gandalf tightened his grip on his bright white staff and frowned. “We have much to do before the end. Saruman was only the beginning of what will be a terrible fight. Not just for ourselves, but for all of Middle-Earth.”

“Bilbo,” Thorin whispered. Gandalf nodded.

“Yes, Bilbo.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “He is nearing Mordor with every step…and doing so alone,” he added, his brow furrowing further.

“What? That is impossible,” Thengel insisted. “He left with my trusted Holdwine.”

“Then Holdwine is with him no longer,” Gandalf said. Ice began to coat the inside of Kili’s stomach. Bilbo was alone? Out in the open by himself, carrying that horrible thing? “I can sense no one with him but himself…and the Ring.”

Thengel covered his eyes with his hand in sorrow. “I beg of you, do not tell Dernwyn,” he pleaded of the company. “Let me tell her of her uncle myself, at a later time. Let her be victorious now.”

“When you tell her, I will be there,” Fili swore. Kili blinked in surprise. To admire and find her attractive was one thing, but to bear with her through the loss of a kinsman was more like…

Thengel nodded his thanks. “Is Bilbo safe?” Thorin begged of Gandalf. The pain in his uncle’s eyes was almost more than Kili could bear to look at. “Tell me if Bilbo is safe, please.”

“He continues on his way,” Gandalf assured him. “But that is all I know. Yet with each passing day, he travels closer and closer to Mordor. His progress is slow now, hindered by how far he can walk on his own. But he does continue to walk. As far as I know, the Ring remains hidden from Sauron. Saruman sought it desperately. He believed it to be with the company, and had hoped it would possibly be with you, Fili, Kili.”

With them? “Wait, is that why we were taken?” Kili demanded. “That’s why we were kidnapped?”

“Azog sought the line of Durin, but you were kept alive because Saruman hoped it was with one of you. The line of Durin is susceptible to gold sickness, and would not let such a trinket from their sight. Or so he clearly hoped.”

Kili felt Fili shudder next to him. Thorin set his jaw but said nothing. Never, Kili swore to himself. Never will I fall to the curse of Durin. There were more important things than gold and jewels, and he managed to refrain from turning to look at his brother or Legolas. He’d watched Thorin lose the one who’d taken his heart, and the chance of him ever seeing Bilbo again fell with each day. Even if Bilbo managed to destroy the Ring, he might never return, and the last words his uncle had truly spoken to him had been the ones of rage in Erebor. All because of the Arkenstone and the gold piled high in Erebor.

“And on the topic of Saruman,” Gandalf said, changing the subject, “let us find him.”

By the time they’d figured out the general direction that the figure had fallen, they’d joined back up with Treebeard and several other Ents. “We have found Saruman, hrum,” Treebeard told them. He spoke no more, but gestured to a great water wheel. There, with a broken piece of wood jutting through his torso, was Saruman the White. Kili winced.

“He suffered no pain,” Gandalf said, peering at the remains of the wizard.

“Unfortunately,” Treebeard agreed. “A pity.”

“Indeed,” Dwalin muttered.

“We will bring him down and set up a pyre,” Gandalf said. He raised his staff when the company began to argue. “Not to honor him, but to rid the world of his treachery. Let his remains blow away to be caught forever in the wind.”

Finally Thengel nodded, though he didn’t look happy about it. “There are still scaffolds remaining that are not too soaked for burning. Treebeard, will you allow your fallen kin to send Saruman forth from this world?”

“I can think of no better honor for them,” Treebeard rumbled, “than to see this vile deceiver off into a final parting, barrum.”

Kili began to speak, to offer to help bring Saruman’s body down – with plenty of jostling and kicking, hopefully – when something glimmered in the water beneath the water wheel. Curious, he sloshed his way over, ignoring the conversation flowing behind him. Closer, it appeared to be a candle, somehow burning beneath the water. He stepped around it, peering until he huffed at the uselessness of his eyes. “What are you?” he pondered out loud, and was reaching into the water even as Gandalf called his name.

“Kili!”

The sudden shot of fire up his arms made Kili freeze, and everything around him faded away. The burn wasn’t nearly as great now, and the warmth was desirable. He clutched at the flame in his hands and knew that the great expanse Gandalf had spoken of was right in front of him. There was nothing but time and space in the orb, and Kili stared in awe and wonder. Oh but it was so warm, so wonderful, and everything he could’ve wanted was right before him, happiness and peace-

“Kili!”

Kili snapped his head up. All of the company was gathered around him, and Gandalf was already reaching to pull the flame – no, the orb, it was an orb – from his hands. “I’ll take that, my lad,” Gandalf said kindly, but firmly. The loss of contact was felt immediately, but with it came a clarity that had been missing since he’d touched it. Still, he shivered where he stood in the water, suddenly too cold.

“Bless my bark,” Treebeard murmured, shaking his head in astonishment. “Is that…?”

“It is,” Gandalf said shortly. He grabbed a pouch from his robes, one which looked a familiar gray, and wrapped the orb in it. The instant it was out of sight Kili felt his entire body sag. He was suddenly so tired.

“Kee?” Fili asked, somehow right beside him. His brother looked concerned, and behind him, their uncle was making way to Kili.

“I’m fine,” Kili lied, shaking himself. “Just wondered what it was, that’s all. It caught my eye.”

“And a good thing you recovered it, too,” Legolas said, but he didn’t look as if he believed his own words. If anything, he watched Kili with a sharp eye, worry evident on his beautiful face. It looked wrong, there. He should be forever happy, the way the orb had made Kili feel.

He clenched his fists when he found them suddenly too empty.

“Let us depart,” Thengel said after a long moment. “There are still many horses left. The elves are already returning to their home, and I would return to mine with my kin. Let us finish with Saruman and leave this accursed place.”

“We will tend to it,” Treebeard said. “We will heal and mend the earth, barrum. Never again will the hand of evil stretch this far.”

“You have my thanks, old friend,” Gandalf said with a bow. “Thengel is right: we must return to Edoras. This defeat will deal a harsh blow to Sauron, but I fear his retaliation. If we are to keep Bilbo safe, and destroy the Ring, we must discover his next plans. I had hoped Saruman could tell us, but we must find out for ourselves.” He moved through the water more swiftly and smoothly than Kili would’ve expected.

Fili didn’t move until Kili gave him a nudge. “I’m fine,” he insisted. “Really.”

“You just stared, Kili,” Fili said softly. “We kept calling to you and you couldn’t hear.”

No, he hadn’t heard any of it. He’d been so lost staring into eternity and the sheer joy of it that the voices of the company had been nothing. It wasn’t something he was about to share with Fili, not when his brother looked more worried than he ever had before. “Just an orb, Fee,” he said with a forced grin. “A very flashy orb.”

Thorin gave them both a measured look, before he nodded towards the departing company. “You both fought well today. Your father and mother would be proud of you. I know I am.”

The hard earned praise, once the most sought for thing, didn’t compare to the beauty of the orb. But Kili was still grateful and gave a smile and thanks, though his wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as Fili’s. He shook himself and brightened his smile. His uncle, proud of him, despite his having gotten lost in Isengard. It was a treasure, and it was better than anything else, especially when his uncle clasped him on the shoulder. Perhaps he was finally grown in the eyes of his uncle.

Even through his pride and happiness, his eyes still kept drifting to the pouch that Gandalf carefully carried.

 

Far beyond the reaches of Isengard, an injured creature bellowed and continued on over the White Mountains to Mordor, a dark rider upon its back, a pale orc tight in its grasp.

Far below the creature, a small hobbit cowered in the mountains, hiding from the terrible sound. He shivered and shook, dirty hands covering his ears, despite the pain from his injured shoulder.

And below his filthy clothes, a Ring burned and tore at his skin, getting heavier day by day.

Chapter Text

The sun was rising over the mountains slowly when he heard his name called.

“Bilbo!”

Bilbo froze. No one here knew his name. There was no one here to even say anything, yet he’d heard a voice, and it had his name. He slowly sat up from his crouched position behind the rocks and looked around. The White Mountains were empty of everything except rocks and the wind.

He turned to the road next. The path he and Holdwine had wandered on was closer to the mountains themselves, but from his vantage point as he climbed the mountainside, Bilbo could see the road, well-worn but untraveled so far as he knew. He’d not seen anyone on it, at least, since he’d set out on his own. The last living being he’d seen that could speak had been Holdwine, and that had been days ago. Possibly a week. He didn’t really know, anymore. Time sort of…got away from him. He hadn’t been keeping track. And it wasn’t like the person he wanted the most to appear was going to come riding down the road searching for him.

“Bilbo!”

But the voice was unmistakable. Worse yet, it was a voice Bilbo knew he’d never hear again. It didn’t stop him from stuttering a desperate whisper in reply.

“Mother?”

“Bilbo, darling, where are you?”

Bilbo slowly stood. It had to be a trick. Something that the orcs had done, or maybe those terrible black riders he kept seeing fly above him.

But it was her voice, her lilting voice, and his fingers clutched at the rocks he was leaning on. “I’m…I’m here,” he called. His throat was raspy from disuse, and he refused to raise his voice too high, lest he be heard. He shouldn’t even be doing it now: it had to be a trick, because she was dead and gone and he’d helped wrap her in her finest shawl himself before they’d buried her.

But oh, the warmth of her voice as she called to him, the kindness he could hear. He felt all of ten years old again, just a babe, crawling into her lap and falling asleep in the shelter of her arms.

“Bilbo,” she called again, and tears stung his eyes. “Bilbo, it’s all right, dear heart. Oh, my sweet Bilbo. I never wanted you to be alone.”

“Don’t go,” he choked out, suddenly desperate to see her. His eyes scanned wildly everywhere; had her voice been louder over that way? Was she only a disembodied voice? Did spirits go to the mountains to stay when their bodies had withered away? “Please, Mother, Mother-“

“Bilbo,” she called, and her voice was fading.

“Mother! Please, come back!”

“Bilbo,” she whispered, barely more than the wind. Out of the corner of his eye, he swore he could see her chestnut hair flying in the breeze.

“No!”

With a gasp he jolted awake. All around him, the mountain was cold, and the warmth of his dream was long gone. Bilbo shivered and pulled his elven cloak further about him. His cheeks were frozen, and his fingers encountered iced tears.

There was no voice in the mountains for him. Only the wind was there with him, howling as it tore around him and through him. The rocks had only given him so much for shelter, and now that the wind had turned, again, he was exposed to the elements.

He coughed into his elbow, and the sound still seemed to echo like the clang of swords. His chest felt tight, like he was wrapped in unforgivable iron. Whether it was the rain from a few days past or just the sheer lack of air from being higher from the road, he didn’t know. Perhaps it would be worth it to head down back to the road, if just to breathe a little better. He rubbed at his throat ruefully and pulled his pack about his shoulders again.

Voices suddenly yelled, making him pull his elven cloak further about him. It was gray now in color, no longer green, just the right shade to match the stone around him. He tugged the hood up more closely around him, offering some protection from the wind. It was all the comfort he had now.

And all the hiding he’d be able to do as a surge of orcs suddenly headed up the slopes past him.

Bilbo froze. “You can’t cross the mountains, fools!” an orc yelled. It had come from below on the path beside the mountain, if Bilbo had to hazard a guess. “What d’ya think you’re doin’?”

“Gettin’ the prisoner to talk,” one of the orcs near Bilbo spat. Bilbo could see now that they were carrying a sack of something that wiggled and jerked in the orc’s hands. A prisoner. They’d caught someone. His heart ached to help, to aid whoever it was, but he forced himself to stay still against the rocks.

An orc gave the bag a good kick, and muffled noises came from within it. The orcs just laughed, and before he knew it, Bilbo found his hand wrapped around Sting’s handle. Anger poured through him at the thought of an innocent caught and abused at their hands. They obviously had worse fates in store for whoever they’d captured, and the urge to run his blade through the orcs surprised him.

The orc suddenly tossed the bag, and Bilbo could hear it rolling and careening down the mountainside. He heard the distinct thudding when it hit the bottom, and he cringed, huddling even further into himself. The laughter of the orcs rang through his ears, loud and raucous and jarring.

He still heard one orc from below call out, “Ready to talk, lizard?”

He still heard the response, the one that made him freeze in terror.

“We hates you! We hates you!”

The creature from the caves, the one who’d nearly killed him, the one he’d spared.

Gollum.

“Shut up!” the orc from below bellowed, and a heavy sound was immediately followed by a shriek of pain. The orcs near Bilbo just chuckled.

“Give ‘im here,” one of them said, its slimy dark tongue slithering across its lips. “I’ll drop ‘im again. See if that might loosen the lips a bit.”

“Could carve his face up,” another said. “Make it watch as I eat the lil’ pieces of flesh.”

Bilbo forced himself to swallow down the surge of sickness at the words. His hand remained wrapped so tightly around Sting he thought it would never come loose. He could maybe dispatch two of the orcs, three if another moved just a little closer. But there were five orcs above, and who knew how many below. And there was no way he could use the Ring. Even now, his fingers itched to hold it, to take comfort from it.

He hated the Ring. Oh how he wanted it gone.

“Won’t do you any good to struggle, lizard,” the orc called from below. “Tell us what we want to know, and we’ll ease your pain.”

“It’s ours, precious!” Gollum shouted. “Nasty orcses can’t have its! It’s ours, all ours!”

“Kill it,” one of the orcs near Bilbo cried. “It’s fresh enough to eat, I’d wager!”

“You’d get nothin’ but bones,” the one with the dark tongue snapped. “And we’ve orders to break ‘im ‘till the Dark Lord gets what ‘e wants!”

His mind put together the pieces too slowly. Even as Bilbo felt his heart stop in terror, one of the orcs suddenly sniffed the air. “Smell that?” it asked. All the orcs stopped arguing to sniff the air. “Smells like fresh meat t’ me.”

The wind. The wind had shifted and now it was blowing towards the orcs on Bilbo’s left. He didn’t move, he didn’t breathe, waiting as the orc moved closer with a frown. If he made his move, he could strike out and kill it, surprise it, and maybe get away. He could disappear with the Ring-

Use me.

Bilbo bit his tongue so hard he could taste blood. His fingers clenched on Sting’s handle. The orc came so close Bilbo could count the blood specks on its armor. He shuddered.

The wind shifted, blowing down from the mountain. “Can’t smell nothin’,” one of them said after a long moment, shaking its head. “There’s nothin’ up here, anyway.”

“I smelled it!” the orc growled. “You callin’ me a liar?”

“Callin’ you a dreamer,” the orc with the dark tongue snapped back. “Give it a rest. Sooner we make camp, sooner we can eat the rations.” To the orc below, it called, “You get anythin’ out of it?”

“Little lizard’s awfully quiet,” the orc from below said. “Give me the sack; we’ll toss him about more.”

Gollum started screeching and fighting the orcs, reminding Bilbo so much of the dark cave that he wanted to put both of his hands over his ears to block out the sound. After a few moments, it went muffled, and the orcs went on their way. Bilbo waited until they were down the mountain again, heading east, before he dared to move. His hand clenched as painful spasms ripped through it when he finally released his grip on Sting.

They were taking the path he needed. There was no way he could go that way now, especially given what they were seeking. It wasn’t Gollum they were after. No, it was Bilbo. Gollum just happened to know the most about the Ring.

He shut his eyes tight. It pulled at his neck, heavier and heavier until he thought his head would snap off one of these days. He tugged the chain up to relieve the pressure, if just for a little bit, and found the necklace as light as always. It was as if there was nothing there hanging from it.

As soon as he let it down upon his neck again, though, it felt like a stone. A stone used by pirates, the ones Bilbo had always heard about from his mother, the drowning stone. Cast about a prisoner’s neck to haul them all the way to the bottom of the sea.

Bilbo fisted his hands in his hair and tried to breathe. Too many things all at once, especially when he’d spent the last several days on his own. The orcs who searched for the Ring, Gollum who’d been taken prisoner, his mother. He breathed in and tried to remember her voice as it had echoed across the mountainside. She’d been there, he knew it. Perhaps the mountain was really where the shades went after they’d departed from the world.

Or maybe he hadn’t properly slept since he’d left Holdwine. He wondered where his friend was; he hoped he’d managed to reach the village safely. The Rider had been loyal to the end, and had saved Bilbo not only from the black riders, but from himself, waking him from terrible dreams.

He let himself sit for a moment. The cold breeze went straight through him, but he could no longer smell the foulness of the orcs. They were a small blur up ahead, no charging pace, just walking, all the way to Mordor with their prisoner.

Mordor. Bilbo sat up straighter. The orcs were taking Gollum to Mordor. He’d lost Holdwine as a guide, but perhaps fate had finally, finally, given him a gift in the form of the orcs. If he could follow them…

He secured his pack under his elven cloak. Making certain the leaf pin was tight at his throat – and very consciously not thinking of another pin he was beginning to miss as one would miss a limb – he made his way down the mountainside as silently as he could. Then he was up the road after the orcs, crouching behind rocks and thorny plants and everything else that would hide a hobbit.

And if the thought of his mother’s shade, there in the mountain, gave him the courage to keep moving, he kept the thought to himself.

 

At dusk, they stopped. Despite their casual pace, they’d still moved their longer legs down the road faster than Bilbo’s legs could, and he’d found himself all but running after them several times. There was nothing but relief when they finally stopped to make camp.

The small tents they pitched were covered in some sort of tar and easily hidden in the darkness. They set a fire going, and even the hint of warmth that drifted to the outskirts of the camp, where Bilbo was crouched, was a welcome warmth indeed. He hadn’t realized how cold he was until the warmth licked at his skin. He muffled another cough – smaller, better now that he was no longer so high in the mountains with the thin air – and watched as they divided rations. The orcs fell together, laughing and jostling another. It was…strange. Strange to see them so obviously like comrades. It made them almost like a human, or a hobbit, or a dwarf.

Unbidden, the memory of a different night around a campfire came to mind.

The dwarves laughed and joked amongst themselves under the stars. There in Beorn’s fields, they were safe, and well fed, though they couldn’t hunt. Farther out from the main camp, Bilbo was enjoying the sanctuary. It was almost like a night picnic, Bilbo decided. It was beautiful and warm, and he stretched out on the ground with a sigh. The grass whispered against his cheek, his ears, just enough to put a smile on his face.

“Are you content?”

Bilbo opened his eyes to find Thorin moving to sit beside him. “Content enough,” Bilbo replied. “I could use some more of the honeycombs Beorn packed for us. I don’t relish the thought of fighting your nephews for another piece, though.”

Thorin actually smiled; not a small thing, no, but a bright smile that made his eyes twinkle, even in the falling night. He offered his hand to Bilbo, and nestled there was a piece of the treasured honeycomb.

“You’ll make a fine king indeed,” Bilbo declared, quickly sitting up to snag the golden treasure. “Especially if you’re so generous with your hard-won gains.” The honeycomb sat on his tongue for a moment, melting perfectly in his mouth, and if he’d groaned in pleasure for a moment, well, he was with Thorin, and he didn’t care.

Even if did make Thorin chuckle. “Sharing honey is the basis of a good leadership?” he asked, highly amused.

“A great leadership,” Bilbo declared, or at least, attempted to. The honey made his tongue a little stuck, and he blushed at his muddled words even as he grinned at himself. His grin broadened when Thorin let out a startled laugh.

They sat there for a time, watching the others amuse themselves, before Thorin shifted beside him. He held out another golden honeycomb, and Bilbo reached for it. When his fingers grasped cool metal, however, he frowned. “What…?”

When he looked up at Thorin, the dwarf actually looked nervous. That was enough to further bewilder Bilbo. Thorin, nervous? The world was coming to an end. “Thorin?”

Thorin turned his hand so Bilbo could see what he held. It was a tree, but with knotted branches that wrapped around to join with the roots. Two metals twisted and joined each other throughout the tree, and they both shimmered in the light from the distant fire. Bilbo stared at the simplicity and beauty of it.

“It was my mother’s,” Thorin said, his voice hushed in remembrance. “It was a gift from my father. A token of…affection. Great affection. She gave it to me, so that I could give it to one whom I felt fondness and great affection for. It is forged from gold and mithril; two halves of one whole.”

Bilbo’s heart ached within him. “It’s beautiful,” he offered, trying to put as much enthusiasm as he could into it. He probably could have put true enthusiasm into his voice, if he hadn’t been wrapped up in those ridiculous feelings. Feelings that had driven him to return to the dwarves after the goblin caves, feelings that had made him rush forward to defend the fallen Thorin. Feelings that had only intensified when Thorin embraced him, held him close. He wouldn’t care so much except he knew they’d never be returned. Thorin was the rightful king of dwarves. Only recently had Thorin even accepted him into the group. Friendship was all Bilbo could hope for, and to even think of wanting more made Bilbo’s mind swirl.

Thorin made a soft hum of agreement, then unclasped the back. Pin, Bilbo realized, it was a pin, and that was all the thoughts he could think of when Thorin shifted to his knees in a low kneel. “May I?” he asked, and though his voice was steady, Thorin’s face was filled with anxiousness.

Later, Bilbo could’ve sworn he’d said something, not just nodded dumbly, but it hardly mattered. Not when the pin was clasped oh so carefully to his vest. Thorin’s hands were warm through the cloth, and it made Bilbo dizzy. He looked down at the pin to steady himself and found the pin gleaming back up at him.

When he glanced back up at Thorin, he couldn’t keep his smile from his face, and he certainly couldn’t keep it from stretching ear to ear. “Thank you,” he said, and without thinking, reached out to catch his hand in Thorin’s. He entwined his fingers with Thorin’s, no longer feeling them through his clothing, but right there, wrapped in his own smaller hand.

Thorin smiled, all the way up to his eyes, and didn’t let go.

“M’not feedin’ the maggot! S’your turn!”

Bilbo jolted himself alert. One of the orcs was wandering over towards the back of the camp, where he realized Gollum’s sack had been placed. “Just throw him one of the rotten fish,” another orc said. “Make certain he’s tied to the post well and good!”

As soon as the sack came off Gollum tried to attack, but one good blow to the head knocked him down. Bilbo flinched. “Come on, come on, get up,” he whispered beneath his breath. He didn’t know why it mattered so much, but seeing Gollum down on the ground was just wrong, and it cut like a knife through his chest.

Slowly Gollum began to push himself up. “Eat,” the orc ordered, and threw something down onto the dirt. Gollum flinched away, and the orc left with a laugh. After a moment Gollum leaned back against the pole, not even touching the food. Blood trailed down his head from the blow. He looked frightened, Bilbo could see. He looked scared.

Despite the fear Bilbo still harbored in his heart at the thought of the cave and running from the very creature before him, he could feel the intense wave of pity flood through him again. When he’d finally told the story to the company, after one nightmare too many had goaded a worried company to asking, Thorin had been furious about it. “He nearly killed you,” he’d raved. “He hurt you! Why did you spare him?”

His answer then was what slowly made him climb to his feet now. The words he’d spoken to the dwarves still rang true. “Because I pitied him.”

Carefully he crept in the shadows of the camp towards Gollum. The small creature was still hunched around himself, pale and bone thin against the stake in the ground. Closer now, Bilbo could see the other marks on the creature’s skin, various cuts and bruises the orcs had dealt to him over their journey. It made him so angry to see that they’d harmed Gollum, this creature smaller and more powerless than them.

Perhaps it wasn’t just pity that moved his feet silently across the camp. A touch of guilt, too, because Gollum had been captured on his account. They wanted him to talk about who’d taken the Ring. Gollum was in pain because of him. And for some reason, despite this creature having nearly killed him, despite this creature being responsible for long nights filled with terrible dreams, Bilbo found he couldn’t abandon him now.

Up close, he could see the rope wrapped too tightly around Gollum’s ankle. The skin was near purple where it was knotted, and Bilbo winced in sympathy. He pulled Sting from its sheath and reached down to carefully cut through the rope.

Suddenly Gollum whipped his head up. Bilbo froze. Gollum stared. Off in the camp, the orcs had begun to fight with each other.

Strangely enough, Gollum didn’t scream or call attention. He merely looked from Bilbo’s blade back up to Bilbo, and only stared. He was waiting for Bilbo to hurt him, and the realization nearly made him sick. He quickly reached down and sliced through the rope, trying to ignore Gollum’s flinch. He set the sword aside and worked on the knot wrapped around Gollum’s ankle. Even his deft fingers fought with the knot, and when it was undone, he settled back with an air of satisfaction.

Gollum couldn’t seem to believe his eyes. “You…you freed us,” he whispered.

“Yes, I did,” Bilbo breathed. “Now go, run! Before they notice.”

But Gollum only stared at him, the only move he made being to shake out his sore ankle. The sounds from the camp were only getting more violent, and Bilbo could feel panic beginning to set in. “Go!” he hissed.

Gollum finally moved, but only his head, jerking up to stare in fear behind Bilbo. Slowly Bilbo became aware of a presence behind him. A very orc-like presence. His blade was a bright blue, and more importantly, too far to reach in time. He shuddered, and footsteps clunked heavy behind him. “What ‘ave we ‘ere?” an orc said from behind him.

It was then that Gollum seemed to wake up from his thankful trance and turned back into the creature Bilbo still feared in his dreams. He snarled, showing all nine of his teeth. “Thief!” he screamed. “Thief!” And he lunged for Bilbo.

Bilbo ducked and swung to the right, towards his sword, and Gollum went straight into the orc behind him. The orc roared and fought with him, and Bilbo took his chance. He grabbed Sting and tucked it back in its sheath and ran.

More of the orcs were making noises now, snapping and growling and joining in the fight. Bilbo didn’t look back, only running farther down the path. His chest heaved as he ran, gasping for breath that wouldn’t come. His feet hit the ground hard, pounding and pounding, taking him further into the darkness. He stumbled across pebbles, straying too close to the mountainside, but he kept going, trying to be as silent as possible.

In his head, he was anything but silent. Did he dare continue down the path in darkness, with no light to lead him? Did he try to hide on the mountainside, guaranteed to disturb rocks and give away where he was? Did he try for the Wold, wandering along in the grass without a horse to protect him from the animals that roamed at night?

His choice was taken from him when he caught a rock in the road and went down hard. All the breath was driven from his lungs. He struggled to find his feet, struggled to move again, but his leg ached, and he still couldn’t breathe. Behind him, he could hear the clanking boots of the orcs, and he shoved himself off the path. He drew his elven cloak around him and forced his legs beneath him. With the cloak wrapped around him, he laid by the side of the mountain, his heart pounding so hard he felt dizzy.

The orcs stopped near where he was. “What was it?” one of them asked. “Looked like lil’ more than a morsel.”

“Fresher than anythin’ we’ve got,” another one said. “Lizard called it a thief, and a thief it is.”

Bilbo froze, terror stealing what little air he’d managed to recover. Oh no, please no, no no no-

“Tried to steal our prisoner,” it continued. “Who knows what else it stole?”

“Back to camp,” an orc barked. “Look through everythin’! And find that weasel prisoner! I’m not goin’ back to Mordor empty handed!”

Bilbo managed to hold his breath until they’d left. When they were gone, he let out a heavy breath, feeling as if he’d pass out. So Gollum had gotten away. Good. And somehow, by fate, Bilbo had been allowed to get away, too.

It took a little more time for him to unwrap himself and sit up. His foot and ankle felt numb, and as if it were sympathetic, his shoulder began to ache. He needed a healer. He needed a day to just breathe.

He forced himself up all the same and began moving down the path in the dark. He’d get no sleep tonight, and if he stayed, the orcs would just find him. And if they didn’t find him, Gollum might.

“Bilbo, you fool,” he muttered under his breath. Perhaps Thorin was right: he should’ve killed Gollum when he had the chance. He certainly wouldn’t be as fearful, wandering through the dark, if he had.

But he’d be haunted. Tainted by the knowledge that he’d taken Gollum’s life. No, he couldn’t do that. He’d done what he needed to, and even now, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it. The Ring was trying to take hold, but he refused to let it change him. He’d saved Gollum. And that, to him, proved that he was still Bilbo Baggins.

Without the fire, the cold swept through, chilling him to the core. He shivered and pulled the cloak closer about him. He wished for warmer days, of the sun, of lying in the grass of the Shire, of being tucked up in a warm bed, safe from harm.

He wished for Thorin to be beside him, his warmth drawing Bilbo in, his smile all Bilbo had wanted.

He refused to acknowledge the tears in his eyes as he limped down the road.

 

Two days later, he came down over a hill and found a gleaming white city off in the distance. It seemed to stretch as tall as the mountains, and Bilbo could only stare in wonder. He quickly pulled his pack off and dug around for the map. He only winced once at the tug in his shoulder, which was progress. The sharp pain in his ankle, however, had yet to subside. He’d twisted it or sprained it, of that he had no doubt. Oh, what he’d give for Hamfast Gamgee’s liniment. Anything to dull the ache.

When he realized where he was, he almost wept from joy. He’d made it. Somehow, he’d managed to make it all the way to Gondor.

“Hello,” he whispered to the distant city of Minas Tirith. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, of that I can tell you.”

Beyond Minas Tirith, the dark gloom of an oncoming storm made him quickly pack up. If he could help not getting caught in a torrential downpour again, he’d do it. His cough had faded, but his chest still hurt from the fall he’d taken a few nights before. Getting sick now, when he was so close to Mordor, wasn’t something he could afford.

It was only when he began following the main road to Minas Tirith that he realized what the storm was. It never moved, only stayed dark, and his steps slowed.

Mordor. That storm was Mordor. And Minas Tirith was sitting right on its borders.

He shouldered his pack and continued down the road.

Chapter Text

When he got closer to Minas Tirith, he could see a smaller city further ahead, near a wide river. Tall ships sailed to and from the city, and Bilbo let himself stare in astonishment. He’d never seen ships like that before, not even at Lake-town. They were bigger than a barrel, that was for certain.

A caravan of people were traveling from the smaller city to Minas Tirith, and Bilbo began to slow his steps so he didn’t risk meeting with them. The less people he bumped into, so to speak, the better off he’d be. Less people to tempt, and less people to stop him. He began to follow them from behind, close enough to be counted as one of their own, but not close enough to engage. Perfect.

Unfortunately, he never quite remembered to account for the children.

“You shouldn’t be alone!” a young girl said, no older than Théodwyn, as she raced to the back to greet him. “Don’t you know there’s pirates about?”

“Fin!” an older girl scolded. Her long dark hair flew freely in the wind when she caught the younger girl by the arm. “She doesn’t mean anything by it,” the older girl apologized. “Truly.”

“I’m not frightened,” Bilbo assured her. “It’s very kind of her to be concerned.”

“Don’t walk alone,” the young girl pleaded. “Please come join with us. Ivriniel, can’t he walk with us?”

“That’s up to him,” Ivriniel said. “Perhaps he’d rather walk alone than deal with a girl who can’t get her head out of the clouds, hmm?”

The younger girl giggled at the teasing, and Bilbo found himself reaching for the beads on his chain. He found himself missing the two dwarves they belonged to something fierce. He quickly moved forward even closer. “I’d be pleased to join such fine young ladies for a bit, so long as our paths are the same,” he said, and that put the both of them into giggles. “What?”

“You’re no older than we are!” the youngest declared. “You can’t be more than fifteen years!”

Even with the pain in his shoulder and the firm ache that was lodged in his ankle, Bilbo still found himself smiling. “I’m actually fifty,” he whispered. “I’m not a man, I’m a hobbit.”

Both of them stared with eyes round in wonder. “A hobbit!” Ivriniel whispered, awestruck. “I never thought I’d see a hobbit!”

“A real hobbit,” the younger said. “You’re not any taller than I am. In fact, I may even be taller than you!”

“You will certainly end up taller than me,” Bilbo told her. “But that’s all right. I like being small.”

The younger one bit her lip. “But you’ll be crushed! It’s so hard being small: often no one sees you at all, and they never care. You must stay with us, now: we’ll keep you protected.”

“Are you hurt?” Ivriniel demanded, having taken stock of him. “We’ll put you in the wagon.”

“No, no, that’s all right,” Bilbo insisted, but before he knew it he was being pushed and shoved up into the moving wagon, and both girls were beside him. Ivriniel looked very pleased with herself.

“There, much better,” she declared. “Now you can rest. We’re going to Minas Tirith for a time. You should stay with us!”

Perhaps engaging the two girls hadn’t been the wisest of decisions. “I really can’t stay,” he said. “I’ve somewhere else to be. I can’t tarry.”

“Neither can we,” Ivriniel told him. “We’re to stay only long enough for Father to meet with the Steward of Gondor, then we must be away, to go home, back to the sea.”

In spite of himself, Bilbo found he was curious. “The sea?” he asked. He tried to recall the map in his mind.

The youngest nodded. “Dol Amroth is very close to the south point of the sea,” she told him. “It’s just beautiful. You’ll never see anything more beautiful in your life. The breeze, the crest of the water, the way the sun shines across the waves…it’s beautiful, Master Hobbit.”

For one so young, she sounded as if she knew the true meaning of beauty. “Bilbo,” he said, giving as much of a bow as he could on the back of a moving wagon. “Bilbo Baggins.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” she said, very formally, before she grinned. “I’m Finduilas of Dol Amroth. This is my sister, Ivriniel.”

“Have you ever been to Minas Tirith, Bilbo?” Ivriniel asked him.

“No, no I haven’t.” And he wouldn’t be staying for long, either.

“Neither have we. But Father has words to speak with the Steward about the pirates and trade, and he finally let us come. The city gleams almost as the sea does.” Ivriniel turned to the city looming above them with a bright smile.

“Almost,” Finduilas said, and when Bilbo looked at her, there was a longing there that was much too old to be on a child’s face. He wished he could comfort her, but he had no words. He knew home was more than a place. It was a feeling, it held the people you cradled in your heart. The adventure of going somewhere new was always exciting, but in the end, it never held a candle to home.

Of course, home could change. When he thought of home, now, it wasn’t just Bag-End and the memories of his mother. Now, it held two mischievous dwarf princes, laughing and playing pranks, and their uncle, with bright blue eyes and a warm smile. It made his heart ache so much he almost reached for his chest.

So it was that Bilbo Baggins entered into Minas Tirith.

 

The hall was silent as everyone stood. No one moved or even seemed to breathe. Many were lost in thought, and too many were lost in grief.

Finally Thengel raised his goblet. “To the victorious dead,” he said, and his voice echoed through the room. “Hail to those now passed!”

“Hail!” everyone echoed. As everyone went to drain their mugs, Legolas saw Aragorn and Thorin pause. A moment later, they drank theirs down as everyone else did, but Legolas had seen the slip. Though neither had truly lost a close comrade in the battle, it was a horrible thing to watch an ally fall. It made you think of those long gone who had been lost ages before. Aragorn, Legolas knew, probably thought of his father and his mother. Perhaps some of the Rangers he had traveled with. Thorin no doubt had many names he could call to mind, such as his father. But somehow, Legolas doubted it was a dwarf that was at the forefront of Thorin’s mind.

Somewhere, out there, a hobbit traveled alone. Legolas felt his heart break for Bilbo, and for Thorin. Gold had separated them, and gold would continue to keep them separate for the current time. Not that it made the parting any more painful to accept.

The celebration of life and victory quickly got under way, and Gimli soon found Legolas and told him to join the drinking game. “I’ll teach you how to drink,” Gimli insisted, pulling him over to the table. “You ever even had alcohol before?”

More than Gimli had had in his lifetime, of that Legolas was certain, but he carefully schooled his face to a more neutral stance. “How does one play?” he asked. The other dwarves were already at the table, mugs lined up for drinking.

“Keep drinkin’ ‘til you fall,” Bofur said cheerfully. “Last one standin’ wins.” With that having been said, he pulled a mug up and drained it in what seemed to be one big gulp. He slammed the mug down in front of him with a satisfied sigh.

“It’s the dwarves that go swimming with little hairy women,” Gimli said with what Legolas would have classified as a giggle and drained his own mug. He grinned and immediately reached for a second. Dwalin appeared to be on his third, and Fili was trying to catch up. Legolas reached for a mug, then paused, eyes drifting to Kili. Unlike his brother, Kili was nursing a mug, his gaze almost staring at nothing.

He’d been like that, most of the journey back to Edoras. He would respond, and well, if you spoke to him, but he seemed almost in a daze, or a spell. Legolas tightened his grip around the mug handle so much so that he felt it crack beneath his fingers. He quickly downed the mug and reached for another, if just to ensure he could not break the first one.

He knew when Kili had changed. The instant he’d put his hands on the Palantír, his eyes had gone distant. Since then, engaging him had been near impossible. Nearly everyone had tried, and because Kili had responded well, they’d simply begun leaving him alone. Only Fili and Thorin seemed to share his concerns, watching him more closely when they could. Fili had glued himself to his brother’s side and had not left him.

Watching Kili now, it made Legolas angry, so very angry. Not at Kili, no, but for Kili. The Palantír had touched him and changed the usually bright and cheerful dwarf into a dull, near silent ghost. It left Legolas helpless and so angry at what had been done to Kili. But there was nothing he could do to help.

He only realized he had kept drinking when he saw all the dwarves gaping at him. He glanced down at the mugs before him, paused, then looked back up. “There’s a tingling in my fingers,” he said. “I think it’s starting to affect me.”

Dwalin snorted ale up through his nose. Fili tried not to do the same. Gimli was starting to look woozy on both of his legs, and Legolas watched his eyes start to cross. On the opposite side of the table from Gimli, though, Kili was staring at Legolas, and an honest smile spread across his face. Legolas felt his heart beat quicker. That was Kili gazing at him and not the shade he’d been since Isengard.

Perhaps the thrall of touching the Palantír could be undone, over time.

“Starting to?” Dwalin managed. He rubbed at his nose ruefully. Ori, sitting beside him, gave him a sympathetic pat on the back. “Y’know how many you’ve had?”

Legolas glanced down at the mugs before him. “A slight few,” he finally said. Fili hooted and drained another mug. Dwalin shook his head with what looked to be begrudging respect.

Gimli gave a laugh, hiccupped, and fell backwards onto the floor. “He’s out!” Bofur said unnecessarily, though Legolas was certain the dwarf had stated the obvious because it meant he, himself, was not yet out.

Kili stood and headed for the hallway. Legolas immediately finished the drink he had been given and followed after him. The other dwarves attempted to do the same, but found that their walking was a little impaired.

When he found Kili, the dwarf was leaning against the wall in the hallway, head hung so low his hair covered his face. “Kili?”

Kili did not move. Legolas slowly moved around to face him. “Kili, speak to me,” Legolas entreated. “Please.”

After a moment, Kili lifted his head and blinked several times. “Are you well?” Legolas asked, though he knew the answer. It would be the same answer Kili had given since they had left Isengard.

“I’m fine,” Kili insisted. Legolas kept his sigh inward and instead reached for Kili. He had not been able to simply be with Kili since the battle, traveling back over the plains with little to no privacy. Standing too close to the dwarf would have raised suspicions. Blatantly following Kili tonight even would be spoken of with narrowed gazes, but they were drunk enough, or would hopefully soon be, that it would no longer be a concern. And if it were…well, Legolas would confront it honestly. He cared for Kili. He thought, perhaps, it could even be the true stirrings of the heart.

His hands cupped Kili’s face, and Kili shuddered. “Speak truth to me,” Legolas pleaded. “You matter too much to me to accept anything less.”

A spark of something came back to Kili’s eyes, at last. “I…” After a moment he swallowed, and he leaned into Legolas’s touch. “I’m so tired,” he confessed. “I can’t seem to sleep. I’ve got such an awful headache.”

Acknowledging the problem gave Legolas hope. Perhaps the effects of the Palantír were truly wearing away. He did not claim to understand its magic, but he knew of their power. And he knew better than to not fear them. “You should rest,” Legolas said. “Somewhere quiet. Take the time for yourself.”

Kili nodded but didn’t move. Legolas could not seem to let go of him. He let his fingers move carefully from Kili’s face across the back of his head, entangling quickly in the thick, dark locks. Kili closed his eyes and let out a soft sigh. “S’lovely,” he murmured.

More than lovely, Legolas thought to himself. Kili’s hair was soft, so very soft, and it made Legolas think of one of the springs in Greenwood. It had been gentle and had whispered of the breeze it had so admired. The breeze in turn had brushed against it, sending it down the stones with a quiet murmur. It had been so beautiful, so gentle, and so full of affection and love that it had nearly brought Legolas to tears of joy more than once.

The spring babbled no longer. The breeze was all but gone from Mirkwood. Yet here, in this hall so far from the forests Legolas had been raised in, he had somehow found that same affection and gentleness and…and love.

When he glanced down, Kili was looking up at him as if he, too, were thinking the same thoughts. “You move my hair like the breeze through the mountain does,” Kili murmured, and Legolas closed one half of the gap between them, Kili the other. Their lips brushed once, twice, and Legolas had never thought lips could be so soft before when they were surrounded by a near-bearded face. Kili’s whiskers were tantalizing as they brushed against Legolas’s cheeks, and he could barely contain the shudder. The press of lips to his again made him tangle his fingers further into Kili’s hair to draw his mouth closer. It was Kili who shuddered this time, grasping at Legolas’s tunic.

“Kee!”

They separated, faces warm, lips hotter still. Kili blinked, as if coming out of a daze, and Legolas knew that the spell of the Palantír was not yet finished. It still had a course to run.

He could not help himself from pressing one last precious kiss to Kili’s forehead. “I am here,” he swore. “And I will not leave.”

Kili’s eyes sparked once, just once, with that bright life that was all Kili, and then it was gone, swallowed once more by the spell. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I’m going to go lie down.” His fists clenched and unclenched, as if of their own accord.

Legolas could only watch him go, standing in the hallway alone until Fili rounded the corner. “Where’s Kili?” he demanded. He sounded more sober than Legolas had expected.

“Resting,” Legolas said. Fili bit his lip but reluctantly nodded. “You feel it too,” he couldn’t help but ask.

Fili slowly nodded again. “There’s something wrong with him. I’ve never seen him like this. It’s like…it’s like he’s in a trance.”

“We will watch him, together,” Legolas said. “I think he is coming back to us, but I fear how this will affect him.”

“We’ll keep an eye on him,” Fili agreed. “I’ve been watching out for him since he was a wee babe. I’m not stopping now.”

Legolas thought back to his own brothers in Mirkwood, so much older than he himself was, so much more distant, and felt a pang. “He is lucky to have you,” he said.

“Lucky to have you, too,” Fili commented slyly. Even before Legolas could draw breath, Fili shrugged. “I’m in love with a Shieldmaiden. The others can’t know about you two yet, though. You know that, right?”

Even more than Fili did. Fili and Kili still had no idea who his father was. The time would come when the truth came out. Now, it was of no matter. There were other things more important than that. “I do,” Legolas said. “I’m grateful for your silence…and blessing.”

“You make him happy,” Fili said quietly. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted for him. Same as I felt for Dernwyn. I kept trying to shove Kili’s stupid idea out of my head, but when I saw her fall in battle…” He rubbed at the back of his head, distressed. “I felt as if I’d come undone. There was no need to think about going to aid her. I just did. Much like you did for Kili when we were searching for him.”

Legolas had felt that same terror. Seeing Kili swaying in the mud, dirty and wounded but alive, had lengthened his strides, until he could pull the dwarf to his chest. Never before had he felt so adrift and yet so whole in just a matter of moments. Yes, he understood.

Fili gave him a fierce look, and Legolas was reminded of how swiftly the dwarves had cut through the ranks of the orcs and Uruk-hai at Isengard. “You hurt him, and I’ll chop the tips of your ears off. For starters.”

Legolas nodded. “I understand. I will never intentionally hurt him.” Sometimes, life was not kind. Promising no pain at all was beyond Leoglas’s reach.

Fili seemed to accept this and settled back against the wall. “For an elf, you’re not half bad,” he said with a cheeky grin.

He received one in return. “For a dwarf, you are admirable as well. Despite your propensity towards long swords and not bows.”

The dwarf snorted in amusement, his smile dying away as he gazed down the hall where his brother had gone. He began to speak again, then paused, shook his head, and wandered after Kili. Legolas stayed until Fili had gone before he went back to the main room. Fili was right: they would have to keep their heart stirrings to themselves, lest the others discover them. Especially if his parentage came to light.

Thinking of his father only burdened his heart further. Haldir’s last words to him, before he was carried back to Lothlorien, came to mind.

Your father’s mind darkens as the forests grow colder. If you have any hope to save him, you must see this quest through.

Darkness grew everywhere, it seemed. His mind drifted to the cloudy haze that seemed to have overtaken Kili, and he sent a prayer to the Valar.

He is beloved by me. If I can only save one, then I choose Kili of the Line of Durin. Remove the darkness from him, please.

A world without his father would be wretched enough, but he had long ago accepted that his father would fall to the darkness. To lose the light that Kili brought to the world would be unbearable.

If what grace Legolas had been given would save him, then he would give it all to bring Kili back.

 

Sleep seemed pointless. At least, that was what he was telling himself, given that he couldn’t sleep at all.

With a sigh Kili sat up. Everyone else was fast asleep, with only Aragorn, Legolas, and his uncle missing. The rest were sleeping off their celebrations. For once, Kili hadn’t been able to join in. Normally, he would’ve been in the very thick of it, bouncing off of Fili, drinking down every last drop of ale he could get a hold of. But last night, he just…hadn’t been able to. It hadn’t seemed worth it.

He groaned and rubbed at his head. Mahal but it ached something fierce. Nothing he did seemed to help it. Perhaps he’d taken a hit to the head in the battle, after all. But it felt different than a wound. He’d had head injuries before; growing up with Fili had dictated being good friends with head injuries before the age of fifty. No, this was something else. Like…something stuck in his mind, making it hard to think or to see anything. Legolas had managed to make it better for the first time since Isengard. The memory of the kiss still lingered on his lips, and Kili smiled at the memory.

Even that, however, didn’t feel nearly as bright as he knew it should’ve. He just couldn’t shake the pain, the harsh something in his head. Everything was dull.

Well. Everything except that.

His eyes slowly turned to Gandalf, off on the farthest side of the room. Wrapped in his arms was the all-seeing orb. It hummed like an itch under Kili’s skin, calling him, breaking through the haze of his mind. He’d almost seen everything, everything, and his mind craved more of it.

Suddenly he was on his own two feet, and he was moving towards the far side of the room. If he could just, just look at it one more time. Just one more time. It would clear the pain in his mind, he knew it. He just needed to look once more.

“Kili?”

Fili’s sleepy murmur made him pause. “Go back to sleep,” he whispered, but it only served to wake Fili all the way up.

“What are you doing?”

Kili didn’t answer, just continued over to where Gandalf lay sleeping. The open eyes made his heart pound, but when he realized Gandalf was asleep, he bent down towards his goal. Once, the open eyes would’ve garnered surprise or even a joke, because a wizard who’d learned how to sleep with his eyes open was sort of terrifying in a funny way, but now he couldn’t even muster up amusement. What was wrong with him?

He just needed the orb. He’d feel better after he finished looking into the orb.

“Kee? What are you doing?”

Fili’s voice was louder now, worry heavy in his tone, but Kili paid him no real attention. It was only as he tried to figure out how to get the orb out from under Gandalf’s hands – paranoid wasn’t a good enough word – that Fili rose from his own bed. “Kili, get back over here, now,” Fili ordered.

Finally Kili looked up at him. “I just need to see it again,” he said, and his voice came out pleading. “Just once more.” He needed it, couldn’t Fili see that?

“You get back over here, or I’m calling for Uncle,” Fili threatened. “Kili!”

A nearby water jug made for the perfect switch, and when the cloth covered orb was in his hands, Kili let out a shaky sigh of relief. Just the small hum of it, from where it was hidden, left him feeling so much better. The pain in his head began to recede, but only just a little. The haze seemed even stronger now than before, and he knew the pain would be back. He had to get to the orb, he had to.

“Kili!” Fili called desperately, and when he looked up at his brother, he found Fili’s face twisted in panic. “Kili, no!”

Already Fili was moving over to him. Kili quickly pulled the cloth away and revealed the orb. It was just as beautiful as he remembered it being, and even Fili paused at its beauty. Kili slowly began to smile as his fingers wrapped around it. He thought he heard Fili call his name, but it could wait.

Everything blurred and then came into sharp focus: the brilliance of eternity, the stars twinkling around him, everything, and Kili felt as if he were soaring. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

But the pain in his head wasn’t getting any better. If anything, it was getting worse. It felt like sharp fingers digging into his head, gripping until he thought it was all going to squeeze out through his ears and eyes. He tried to focus on what he could see in the orb, tried to fight past it. He needed to look, something kept making him need to look-

Then the fingers turned to flames in his mind. His hands felt as if they were burned onto the orb, unable to let go. He was burning, he was on fire, he couldn’t let go, Fili, Legolas, Uncle-!

And then he saw the Eye descend upon him, and Kili screamed as it gripped his head even harder and began to burn him away.

Chapter Text

It was funny, given what their conversation had been about. Aragorn and Thorin had been unable to sleep, too filled with thoughts to try and close their eyes. They had stood together in the dark near the smoldering fire in the hall. Legolas had joined them after a time, but his eyes had been filled with worry. “What is it?” Aragorn had asked.

“Kili,” Legolas had said. “There is a shade about him. Something is wrong. I fear for him.”

Thorin hadn’t even been able to part his lips to reply before Fili’s terrified scream had made them all freeze.

“Uncle! Uncle!”

Somehow, Thorin had managed to get in front of Aragorn and Legolas, tearing through the halls back to the room where they’d bedded down. When he’d flung himself through the door, however, he’d stopped, and could only stare now in horror at the scene before him.

Fili was barely being restrained by Dwalin and Bofur, and his arms still kept reaching for his brother. Gandalf was shouting and ordering everyone else back, and Kili-

His mind flashed briefly to Kili’s birth, of the sweet babe he’d been handed with the dark hair and bright eyes gazing up at him. He remembered Kili’s first steps, of Kili and Fili running down to the forge with lunch that had reached him mostly intact, little fingers having taken most of the sweets Dis had packed inside. Kili with his coming of age braid, Kili laughing and smiling on the journey-

Kili was jerking and flailing on the ground as if he were dying. His eyes were seeing something awful and terrible, with such fear that Thorin had never seen before. His mouth was parted in a silent scream. And in his hands was the dark orb they’d brought back from Isengard. It looked like a ball of flames, licking at Kili’s fingers, and Kili lurched from the ground again.

Even as Thorin moved, Aragorn finally whipped around and caught the orb before Gandalf could stop him. “No!” Gandalf shouted, but the orb was already in his hands, flaming and angry. Aragorn immediately began to writhe and fell to his knees, pain and agony across his face. Legolas quickly grabbed a dark cloth and threw it over the orb, and it fell from Aragorn’s hands, rolling off and away to a dark corner.

“Confounded dwarf!” Gandalf roared, then stilled. Kili laid on the floor, not moving. His eyes were empty and gazed at nothing. Thorin couldn’t breathe. No. No, he couldn’t, no-

Fili howled and pushed himself free of Dwalin and Bofur, sending the other two dwarves back against the wall. “Kee, Kee,” he wailed, pulling Kili into his lap. “No, Kee-“

Gandalf fell to his knees in front of Kili, placing a hand over Kili’s face, blocking the view of those terrible sightless eyes. He closed his own eyes and began to murmur something that raised the very hairs on Thorin’s flesh. Fili shuddered but refused to let go of his brother. Gandalf’s voice raised, louder now, fervently trying to do something, anything.

Kili surged up from the ground, drawing a horrible long breath of a man too close to death. Fili just clutched at him and pulled him against his breast. Thorin raced over, nearly fit to knock Gandalf aside if the wizard hadn’t shifted to let him near. He knelt beside them, fingers reaching to fix it, to mend it, to help, but terrified to make it worse. Finally he settled for resting a hand against Kili’s arm.

At his touch, Kili broke. Ugly sobs burst forth, tearing what little air Kili had gotten back from his lungs. Fili began to murmur nonsensical words of comfort, in Westron and in Khuzdul, pressing his forehead against Kili’s. Kili clutched at Fili’s tunic, still sobbing.

“What is that thing?” Dwalin growled. His hands twitched for an axe, and his eyes were dark and full of rage as they eyed the orb in the back of the room. Thorin felt a sudden urge of fury and turned to lay his own bare hands on it, to destroy it for daring to take Kili from him, for hurting his son.

Gandalf held him firm. “The Palantír is not something to be trifled with,” he said. “Do not touch it. I fought hard enough against Sauron's hold in Kili’s mind to pull him back to us. I do not have the energy to save you this night, either. Aragorn-“

“I’m well,” Aragorn assured him. He sounded out of breath, and he leaned against the wall for strength. “It did not take me. It only tried to fight me, and wagered barely a battle cry before Legolas wrenched it away.”

The elf himself looked shaken as well, but for reasons other than touching the Palantír. His eyes were locked on Kili and his grief, and Thorin could see the urge to comfort written across his face. He remained where he was, though, as if he’d been physically struck.

Then Kili choked out words that Thorin didn’t understand, but that Gandalf must have heard, for the wizard immediately reached for Kili’s shoulders. “What did you say?” he asked harshly. Kili swallowed hard, and Gandalf gave him a quick shake. “What did you say?”

“Leave him alone,” Thorin growled, but Kili stuttered out a response.

“The Eye. The…the Eye, it burned, it…it was in my head,” he whimpered, shutting his eyes, as if he could block himself from the memory. “He wouldn’t leave me alone. Kept twisting my head and drove me to…” He shuddered.

To the orb.

“What did it say?” Gandalf insisted. “Tell me!”

“It…it wanted my name,” Kili whispered miserably. Thorin took hold of his hand, and Kili tightened his grip so much Thorin feared for his fingers. Through it all, Fili refused to let go. “I didn’t give it to him. Then I saw a courtyard. A…a white tree, dead, and then it was all on fire, and I was on fire, Gandalf, the fire-“

“It’s all right, Kili,” Gandalf said, and his voice was gentler than before. He patted Kili on the shoulders before releasing him, and Kili immediately turned in towards Fili. He refused to let go of Thorin’s hand, though.

“Minas Tirith,” Aragorn said. Gandalf nodded.

“Minas Tirith. As unfortunate as this has been, you may have saved a vast number of lives, Kili.”

Thorin didn’t understand a thing besides the name of the Gondorian city. All he knew was that his young, brave nephew was now huddled like a frightened child against his brother’s chest. Kili had been tortured, hurt, and there was nothing, nothing, that would keep Thorin from seeking retribution. Even if it meant waging war against Sauron the Deceiver himself. Fili looked to be about the same mind. They were already waging war, in a sense, with-

“Bilbo,” Thorin breathed, and everyone stopped. “Kili, did you…?” If Kili had given away Bilbo and the Ring while he’d been tortured, then this was all for naught. Bilbo would be captured-

But Kili shook his head, and everyone let out a breath. “No,” Kili promised, and finally, finally, there was the light in his nephew’s eyes that he’d missed this past week. “I didn’t tell him anything about Bilbo or the Ring.”

Thorin believed him. So did Gandalf, if the way the wizard’s shoulders dropped was any indication. “If the rest of the house is not awake, I would advise someone wake them,” Gandalf said. Ori and Bofur both gave quick bows and took off running. “We only have a brief time to make good on Sauron’s arrogance and pride. This could be the niche in the armor we’ve been seeking.”

Thorin finally stood, with Kili releasing his hand reluctantly. He gave the elf a long look, then briefly nodded his head towards Kili. Legolas wasted no time in settling down beside Kili, and Kili wrapped his hand in the elf’s tunic. His breathing settled even more, only a few brief hiccups coming out.

With Kili surrounded by those who could give him the most comfort and support, Thorin stumbled back until he hit something solid. “Easy, lad,” Dwalin murmured, holding him steady. “Easy. He’ll be all right.”

“I’d cast that thing into the bottomless pits of Moria if I thought it would help,” Thorin muttered. His eyes drifted to the innocuous cloth in the corner. It looked to be a piece of Gandalf’s old grey robes, and perhaps there was a touch of good magic still left in the robes to keep it safe. Though not safe enough: it had called to Kili, pulled him in and tortured him.

But Thorin knew why it had drawn Kili in. He'd touched it and it had awakened the curse of the line of Durin. It was something he had never wanted his sister-sons to know of, but they had been touched by it all the same because of Thorin's weakness. And now, now Kili had been caught by it, and Sauron had used it to his advantage to creep into Kili's mind.

“Nah,” Dwalin said. “Better to sharpen your axe on the Eye. See if you can make fire bleed.”

Thorin felt a tired smile pull at his lips. “I’m grateful for your wisdom, my friend.” Even if it was full of sarcasm and a dry wit.

“Always be around to give it,” Dwalin assured. Then he gave Thorin a friendly nudge and grinned. Thorin huffed in amusement and shook his head.

His eyes drifted to his sister-sons, and his heart twisted so sharply he thought he’d stumble. Wasn’t it enough he’d lost Bilbo? Did the world have to conspire to take his nephews from him, too?

Dwalin stood beside him, a strong, firm presence as the house of Thengel quickly woke with haste, the sun still hours from rising. Thorin drank in the sight of his sister-sons, both alive, and breathed.



“It’s beautiful!”

Though it was the eighth time Bilbo had heard those exact words from the exact same person, he couldn’t help but smile again. “Yes, it is,” he agreed. His eyes cast everywhere, drinking in the sight of such a tall, opulent city.

There were various levels that all ascended to the very top, where the Steward of Gondor sat. Each level had been met with various degrees of excitement from the girls, who had taken him with them when they’d been led upwards. As beautiful as it was, Bilbo was constantly reminded of how far from the exit he was going. He wouldn’t be given audience, he knew that much, but he still couldn’t stop the feeling of dread that was building in his gut.

Still, he was in good company, and no one bothered him with a second glance, given that he was the height of the two young girls who had begun to dote on him. Their father, Prince Adrahil, had been well pleased to meet him, and had offered the services of his guardsman when he’d discovered Bilbo was wounded. The guardsman had been so much like Dwalin, gruff but full of heart as he’d examined Bilbo’s ankle, that it had almost drawn tears. He’d struck up a friendship with the dwarf, the very first dwarf he’d ever met, and even now he hoped Dwalin was well.

His ankle had been sprained indeed; not too badly, but when one was a hobbit, it was a difficult injury. It was wrapped tightly and treated with a strange powder mixed with oil, and within minutes Bilbo had found relief from the harsh ache. He’d offered his gratitude, and the guardsman had seemed surprised but pleased. The girls had been beside themselves with joy with his mannerisms.

If they were to ever meet up with Fili and Kili, Bilbo would fear for the world.

Finduilas remained right by his side in the cart, the most faithful of companions. Ivriniel remained beside him as well, but she also wandered off everywhere, from the stalls to the wall’s edge and back again. She was nearly of the age where her merriment as a child would end, and she was making the most of it while she still could.

Her younger sister, on the other hand, was calmer, though still high spirited. She reminded Bilbo of his cousin who was an old soul. She still took joy in the simplest of things, from the birds that flew above to the cheerful calls that people wished them as they continued onward through the city. Her eyes were alight with wonder at the things around her, but she remained by Bilbo’s side, seemingly content there. That didn’t mean she was silent: she was ever asking questions, both of the city and of him, of his travels, of how his ankle felt and would he need to stop and rest? She was ever conscious of him and her sister, sometimes calling her sister back when she feared her being trampled. Adrahil appeared amused, so Bilbo assumed her worrying and constant chatter was nothing new.

It reminded Bilbo painfully of a young hobbit lad who’d pestered his mother with questions of elves and adventures.

When they finally reached the top, Bilbo couldn’t help but stop where he was to take in the view. The field before them was simply beautiful, and the city – Osgiliath, he’d learned – gleamed alongside the river. He could also see Mordor ahead of them, dark and ominous and filled with too much bleakness. He turned away, chilled by the sight.

MINE!

He stumbled and would’ve hit the ground if it hadn’t been for the quick hands of Finduilas and her father. “Are you all right, Master Baggins?” Adrahil asked with concern.

“Spun too fast,” Bilbo lied. “Just caught my ankle wrong, that’s all.” Beneath his shirt, the Ring felt as if it were on fire, and he itched to take it in his hands to calm the fire. If he could just touch it, he’d feel better.

He grit his teeth and painstakingly kept his hands on Finduilas and Adrahil for balance instead. “Don’t be so worried, Fin,” Ivriniel assured her. “He’s all right.” But her own eyes held concern.

“Perhaps being up where the gale flies so high isn’t a good idea for one who’s injured,” Bilbo joked, and the concern faded from their eyes.

“You’re so small, you might blow away,” Finduilas said with a quick smile. “All of us could!”

“We’re not that small,” he assured her. “And you’ll grow taller than you are, you know. You’ll not always be hobbit sized.”

Finduilas nodded, but her smile had waned. Bilbo frowned. “What’s the matter?”

It took a moment, but finally she spoke. “I’m…small, for my age. I should be taller, bigger. I should be taller than you, but I’m not. Maybe I won’t ever be tall.”

Someone so young shouldn’t be so concerned about heights, but Bilbo had a sneaking suspicion there were other factors in play to encourage the worry. Other children, perhaps. Certainly not Ivriniel: she’d gone out of her way to ensure her sister’s height was a happy thing, teasing her gently, making it seem normal. And Adrahil didn’t seem the type of man to pressure his daughters into feeling anything less than what they were.

She looked so downcast, though, that Bilbo couldn’t help but speak. “Being this size is nothing to scoff at, you know,” he said. When she peered at him curiously, he gave a wink. “Everyone always underestimates you. You can get through places no one else can, you can creep more quietly than everyone else. There’s advantages to not being so tall. And I’m certain you’ll grow to the perfect Finduilas height in no time.”

Her smile grew bright and wide until it nearly split her face in two. “Thank you, Mister Bilbo,” she whispered. She threw her arms around his neck and held him close with all the fervor a child could. “Oh thank you.”

Startled at first, he finally smiled and embraced her in return. “You could be a hobbit,” Ivriniel said, teasing, when they’d parted. “You could go barefoot all the time and grow hair across your toes! Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“I do love going barefoot,” Finduilas said. “All the better to step into the sea with!”

“Girls,” Adrahil called. Up ahead, the guards were opening the doors. “Quickly now.”

Both girls hurried over to join him. “We have to wait for Bilbo,” Finduilas insisted, however, when they reached the door.

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” Bilbo insisted. He settled himself down on the bench across from an old, dead tree. It was beautiful, even though it bore no flowers. He felt sad looking at it, and didn’t know why. “I’ll be right here: go on, girls.”

Finduilas didn’t look happy about it, but she followed her father and sister in, nonetheless. The guards closed the doors behind them, and Bilbo let his shoulders sink at last. All the walking hadn’t done his ankle any good: they’d had to leave the wagon behind for the last stretch of the city. But that wasn't the thing that left him so pained and weary.

Finally he couldn’t hold back any longer. His fingers reached for the chain around his neck and slid all the way down until they clasped the Ring through his cloth. A buzzing he hadn’t even known was there disappeared from his ears, and his headache subsided. He let out a sigh and inwardly cursed at his simple mindedness. He knew he shouldn’t be touching the Ring. It was nothing to take comfort from.

But every day it grew heavier and heavier. Every day it burned into his flesh a little more. He could see it, now, the bright red mark it was leaving behind. His neck felt torn and raw from the chain’s weight. It pressed even harder on his soul, an itch that wouldn’t leave him alone. Sleeping the whole night through now was impossible. The humming and buzzing from the Ring reminded him of the time he’d spent with the Ring in Thranduil’s dungeons. The thought of having it on for that long left him shuddering now. No wonder he’d felt so sick, so drained. The Ring had taken his life force, much as it had taken Gollum’s.

“You really should be resting…my lord!”

Bilbo turned at the voice and stared. An older man was sternly glaring in his direction, eyes pinched with worry. But it wasn’t Bilbo he was staring at.

It was a familiar face that Bilbo had long thought dead. A familiar face that was rapidly approaching. His stomach fell.

“Denethor?”



“We have been given a gift, though by tragic means,” Gandalf said. His eyes drifted to Kili, and Fili tightened his grasp around his brother. Gandalf’s gaze was soft with regret. “Kili was given a glimpse of Sauron’s plans: he means to strike the city of Minas Tirith, in Gondor.”

“We’re certain,” Thengel said, but it came out as a question.

Aragorn nodded. “The white citadel with the dead tree high above: it must be. Gondor is right on Sauron’s doorstep.”

From beside him, Kili shifted, swallowing hard. “Do you need…?” Fili asked softly. Kili had already been sick twice that morning, the shock to his body still ripping through him. Aldor had gone to his aid, but there was only so much even the most gifted of healers could do against black magic.

Kili shook his head, despite look wan and gaunt. “M’fine.” He leaned further into Fili, though, and Fili merely squeezed his shoulder in reassurance. He’d end Sauron himself, if his uncle didn’t beat him to it. No one hurt his little brother. No one.

Light footsteps approached, and with them a warm fur blanket. “To keep the chill away,” Legolas offered. Fili released his grip enough to help the elf settle it around Kili’s shoulders. Some of the tension poured from Kili’s frame, but it probably had more to do with the elf than the furs.

Still, it drew a smile from his brother, and Fili would’ve kissed Thranduil himself if it would’ve helped brighten his brother’s mood. “Thank you,” Kili said. Legolas smiled and almost looked shy, and Kili’s smile widened at the clear affection. Fili tried not to roll his eyes and simply wrapped his arm back around his brother. If this was their idea of subtle, Fili would’ve hated to see what their idea of obvious was.

They seemed to remember themselves when Thorin spoke. “They must be warned,” he said. “Someone must tell them of the oncoming attack.”

“They will be warned,” Gandalf assured him. “But you must be ready when they call for aid.”

“Call for aid?” Thengel asked incredulously, and he gave a short laugh. “Gandalf, there is no one left to call. I have exhausted my Riders, and the elves of Lothlorien have done a great deed enough by coming to our aid against Isengard. I cannot ask them to fight again.”

“You will have time enough between battles for your men to rally,” Gandalf told him. “And there are others you can call, others who would willingly fight for their kin.” He gave a sharp look in Thorin’s direction.

Even Kili sat up straighter when he realized. “Call to Erebor,” Fili murmured, before he grinned. “Oh that’s brilliant.”

“But there are none there,” Legolas said, frowning. “Are there some you could call for aid?”

“They may have arrived,” Thorin said. “Perhaps. I will send a message, calling to arms those who can come.”

Legolas nodded but said nothing. There would be none from Mirkwood: they were fighting their own battles enough. It was clear that the knowledge burned in the elf's mind. Kili nudged him in the leg with his shoulder, and Legolas leaned back, his hand resting on Kili’s back, hidden from view. Fili kept himself from rolling his eyes again. It was almost sickening how desperately in love they were. Truly.

His eyes met Dernwyn’s across the room, and he felt his cheeks burn. All right, not the only ones in love. Dernwyn cast her gaze to the door in the far corner, off to the armory, then back at him. Well, they’d needed to have words, and he gave a quick nod. They would have them. The thought made his stomach flutter like the humming of a sword once it clashed with another.

“Even then, it will not be enough, not with Mordor’s forces so easily called from reserves,” Thengel insisted. “Where else can we call for aid?”

“That must be something you do,” Gandalf said. “I will go ahead to warn them. And I won’t be going alone.” He shifted his gaze to them, and Fili inhaled sharply. Not to them, but to Kili. Kili stilled but said nothing. Oh that wasn’t happening.

“We’ll go,” Fili said, as cheerfully as he could. “Not a problem.”

“Just myself and Kili,” Gandalf said. “I cannot bear you both.”

“Not happening,” he said firmly. “Either it’s me and Kili, or not at all.”

Gandalf finally began to look annoyed. “I understand your wanting to help your brother, but I must take him.”

“Then why not me?” Fili yelled. “What’s so important about just taking Kili?”

“Because he thinks I have the Ring.”

All eyes moved to Kili. It was the most he’d said since that morning. Kili swallowed and looked green again, and out of the corner of his eye, Fili could see Ori reaching for the sick bucket. “Sauron thinks I have the Ring, doesn’t he?” Kili asked. Gandalf said nothing, confirming with his silence. “That’s why you’re taking me away. Before he can attack Rohan. Better for him to search for me than to wreak havoc because of my…my stupidity,” he spat, and that was enough of that.

Fili swept down to his knees and grasped his brother by the shoulders. Kili looked miserable and so full of self-loathing it hurt to look at. “Being spelled by the most powerful black magic user Middle-Earth’s ever known is not stupid,” Fili insisted. Kili looked away but Fili shook him. “Listen to me! It’s not!”

“It was more than that, Fee, and you know it. It was the curse, the gold-lust. I had to take it in my hands. And I shouldn’t have touched it,” Kili said bitterly. “I wish to Mahal I hadn’t.”

“I wish you hadn’t either, but because it hurt you, not because of whatever foolish thing you’re thinking.” Fili brushed an errant lock away, wishing he could’ve been the one to touch that thing and spare Kili, wishing there was something he could do now besides try to speak over Kili’s guilty mind. “Watching you, I couldn’t…” He choked on his next words when he thought back to it. Kili wandering to the orb in such a daze, his words in a voice not his own, his whole being trembling for the orb. Then he’d been screaming and dying and-

A cool hand pressed against his cheek, and when Fili looked up, Kili was very much alive. His brother bit his lip in remorse. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

“Me too,” Fili said. He pressed his forehead against Kili’s and sighed. “Me too, Kee.”

“I have to go with Gandalf,” Kili said, and Fili stiffened but hesitantly nodded.

“I know.” And he couldn’t go with him. He was parting from his brother, a being he’d never truly been without. The very thought of losing sight of Kili caused his heart to trip from its beat. Kili’s face held his own fear, but the light in his brother’s eyes was encouraging. That meant it was Kili in there and not Sauron dictating his brother’s every move. The hold of the Palantir was gone.

“Come,” Gandalf said quietly, somehow right behind Fili. Beside him was Thorin, and next to him was Legolas. “We’ve much to prepare in a short amount of time.”



The floor of the armory was dirty. For everything else that was so clean, the dust seemed to speak volumes of the peace Rohan had enjoyed for so long. Now there were footprints in the dust, and it seemed to be cleaning itself as people came and went for weapons and armor.

The door parted, but Fili didn’t look up from the floor. Soft footsteps tread until he saw small feet in front of him. “You’ve small feet,” he said. He got a light rap on the head for it, and he finally gave a smile. “Well, you do.”

“Is it your manner to always insult the woman you long for?” Dernwyn asked. Her own voice, however, held no annoyance, but sympathy. She knew why he’d hidden away once Kili and Gandalf had disappeared from sight.

Fili had no answer. Her hand stayed, resting gently upon his head, and he let his head tilt back into the touch. “Am I the one your heart longs for?” Dernwyn asked, her voice no more than a breath.

He finally raised his eyes to meet her gaze. There was doubt there, even as she stood as tall as he did, now. Her eyes when she’d realized that they were the same height now, growing wider and wider, had been more than amusing, and he’d never had to repress that much laughter before.

He finally stood, his legs aching with how long they’d been forced to sit. “It is,” he confessed. “I don’t know how it happened, but…you’re the one I dwell on.” He paused. “That is, if I’m the one your heart longs for.”

The doubt faded away like the storm clouds that disappeared when the sun came out. “It is,” she said. “I don’t know why, given your propensity to being injured, but it is.”

The words startled a laugh from him, and for the first time since Kili had disappeared from sight, his heart felt…less restless. There was still a large part of him that wanted nothing more than to race after them. He’d nearly put splinters in his hands as he’d gripped the outer wall of Edoras tight, his eyes cast out to the distance Kili had slowly faded into. Her here with him, now, was like a balm. It wouldn’t heal the pain, but it was there as a comfort.

“May I?” Fili asked, pushing all thoughts of his brother aside as he offered her his hand. Thinking of Kili hurt, worse than when he’d watched Kili part from him on the legs of the stone giants. He wondered if this was how Thorin felt all the time, without Bilbo. He wondered how he’d feel if both Dernwyn and Kili were gone, and the very thought made him want to be ill.

Dernwyn frowned, and Fili offered his hand higher. She finally placed her own hand in his, and he bent down, pressing his lips against the back of her hand. Her cheeks went red, but she grinned all the same. It was a promise, and with another battle on the way, it was all he could give her.

She surprised him by reaching with her other hand into a small pouch. She pulled forth a handkerchief, offering it to him. “I made it myself, many years ago,” she said. “One gives it to their intended, as a token. I never really understood the purpose, besides that you now have something I’ve made, and not made well at that-“

He took her other hand in his, the cloth tight between their fingers, and cut off her rambling voice. “I will treasure it,” he swore. “Maybe it’s my promise. I’ll keep it for you, and when you have need of it, in grief or sickness, I’ll be there with it.”

Dernwyn blinked. “If I’d known it I was going to be the one using it,” she finally said, “I’d have made it with better fabric.”

Fili couldn’t help the grin that came to his face. “It is a bit scratchy,” he agreed. “Pretty, though.”

“Charmer,” she said, but her glare was half-hearted at best, and eventually her own smile won out. Her eyes looked like gems, gleaming in the candlelight, and he found himself leaning in closer to gaze at them. Her lips were like the flowers he’d seen outside of Erebor, pink and pale but glistening with dew. They were parted now, soft breaths passing between them, and he could feel her breath on his face. He licked his own lips and she leaned in even closer. Her hands gripped his, and he almost feared for the handkerchief before he closed the gap between them.

The door rattled and they shot apart. “Door’s stuck again,” Théoden called loudly from the other side. “I can’t get it open!”

“Shhh!” Théodwyn hissed, and Dernwyn slapped a hand over her mouth to keep from giggling. Fili hid his own mirth. “Don’t go in there right now! Dernwyn’s in there with Fili!”

“Why can’t I go in there, then?” Théoden asked, sounding very much like the put-out child that he very much was at the moment. “Just because they’re older-“

“And sometimes, those who are older need a moment to themselves,” Queen Morwen’s voice said calmly, and even as she spoke, their voices faded. “Come, your father was looking for you…”

Only when their voices were gone did they finally start laughing. “Mahal, if that’d been Dwalin or Bofur,” Fili managed, and Dernwyn went off into peals of laughter again. It put a glow on her face, and it further settled the ache in Fili’s chest. Kili would be fine. They’d be fine. Truly.

Had he honestly just begun to court Dernwyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan?

It wasn’t a guarantee of marriage, he reminded himself. But it was a promise to share his time, his heart, with her, until they were certain. Then he could ask for her hand. He had very little doubts about that, though. Oh, what Kili would say when he found out-

He clenched his fists and fought not to think of his brother. Kee, please be safe. Please. I’m not there to look out for you.

Her hand came to rest on his shoulder, and when he looked at her, she slid her hand to cup his face. “Kili will be fine,” she said with all confidence. “I know it. And when we reach Gondor, he’ll already be there. And yes, we,” she said when Fili began to speak. “Don’t even try to tell me that I shouldn’t go. Thengel needs all the good warriors he can get. We are stretched few in numbers as it is.”

“I wouldn’t forbid you from following your spirit,” Fili assured her. “I just want you to be safe. Seeing you fall before that creature…I can’t begin to tell you how wretched it was.” Or what it had done to his heart.

Dernwyn’s gaze softened. “Then stay beside me in battle. You kept me safe once: I have faith you’ll do it again. And I’ll be there beside you to defend you, alongside Kili. He'll aid us. As will Legolas.”

“Saw that too, did you?” Dernwyn rolled her eyes.

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t seen it. What they think they’re accomplishing, I have no idea.”

Fili smiled and placed his hand over hers. She was warm against his beard, and he was suddenly so grateful that he’d found his heart’s longing here, in Rohan, where he wouldn’t be alone. He was so selfishly grateful that he wouldn’t have to bear the loneliness on his own.

“We’d best move out, before someone stronger than Théoden comes to open the door,” Fili said. “He’s not strong enough yet to pull it, but someone else will be.”

“Are you insulting my capabilities as tutor for his training?”

“I am insulting nothing. He’s a child still, with the arms of one.”

“And I’m telling you that I’ve tutored that child for several years now. If he’d truly wanted the door open, it would’ve opened. Strength means nothing against the tenacity of a young boy filled with curiosity. He simply wasn’t curious enough.”

Point. He made a mental note to thank Théodwyn and the Queen later for their quick thinking. For now, he led Dernwyn from the armory and back to the main hall. Her handkerchief found its way to his pocket, and the tangible gift was something he would come to treasure for some time.

Chapter Text

The long hallway was difficult to walk down, given the injury in his ankle. Thankfully, his walking companion moved slow, if not slower, than he did.

“Fili and Kili think you dead,” Bilbo said. “The rest of the company probably does as well.”

“I would be, if not for them,” Denethor agreed. “Their quick thinking saved my life. After I was tended to by the elves, I was delivered safely here, back to my father.”

“Your quick thinking saved the life of two of my dearest friends,” Bilbo countered. “For that, I thank you.” If Fili and Kili had died in the raid…no, it didn’t bear thinking on.

Denethor almost seemed to flush at the praise, before his eyes lifted to the walls. “Are these not the most beautiful pillars you have ever seen?” he said wondrously. “Long have I dreamed of seeing this city gleam high and bright amongst Middle-Earth. Of leading our people to happiness and wealth, of making the name Gondor mean something again.” His face fell. “It will mean nothing, soon enough.”

Bilbo stopped, bringing Denethor and his aide to a halt as well. “Nothing? The city still stands, and Mordor hasn’t come close to touching you yet,” he said. “Why would Gondor mean nothing?”

Denethor seemed to wage an inner war with himself before he finally came closer. Bilbo forced himself not to move. While Denethor seemed to have truly changed from when they had spoken last, he remembered too well how the young man had wanted to bring the Ring to Gondor. If Denethor dared to reach for it, he’d have the Ring in his hands, and there was nothing Bilbo could do. Recovering or not, Denethor was still bigger and stronger than he was.

Had Bilbo honestly told Finduilas earlier that being smaller was a good thing? He took it back, he took it all back.

“My father has fallen ill,” Denethor confessed in a harsh whisper, and Bilbo started at the unexpected words. “He has been in conference with Saruman, the great White Wizard, but Saruman no longer answers his pleas. My father now wastes away, and Gondor with him.”

Saruman. Gandalf’s friend and mentor, he thought. His heart felt a pang for the loss of his friend, then it faded. Time helped ease some pains, it seemed. “If your father fell, though, you could lead,” Bilbo argued. “Couldn’t you?”

Denethor stared, as if the idea had not come to him. “I lead?” he said, as if asking himself. “I…could lead, I suppose. If I had to. Not that I would know how,” he said, bitterness taking hold once more. “He never lets me speak when the advisors come. My voice bears no weight. I am nothing in his eyes. He would take the words of mere Rangers over mine!”

As much as he didn’t want to, Bilbo couldn’t help but feel sympathetic towards him. He knew how it felt to be held less than others, when you were supposed to matter the most. The Arkenstone gleamed brightly in his eyes, and he physically shook himself to rid his mind of it. “Perhaps he wants to keep you safe,” he tried instead. “If you have no voice, you are still his son and not one who can be touched by violence and war. He sent you to Lothlorien, didn’t he?”

“I sent myself,” Denethor said. He gave a wry smile, all the same. “Though your words are touching, Master Baggins. I appreciate your attempt to provide a light in a hopeless situation.”

“You’re far too dour for someone who wants to see a city gleam again,” Bilbo couldn’t help but say sharply. “If you don’t have hope, what’s the point?”

Denethor gazed at him for a long moment, then gave a real smile, and it made him young, the age he should’ve been. “True words indeed. Thank you.”

Bilbo nodded once, and they began to walk again. “What will you do for your father?” Bilbo asked, once they had gone a ways.

“All I can do,” Denethor replied. “All that is within my power to save the city…and him.”

That sounded much more hopeful. Bilbo smiled as they came back out to the wide view of the world. No one had come from the throne room yet. “It really is beautiful,” Bilbo said.

Denethor nodded. “And will be beautiful again. One day.”

“Why do you keep a dead tree?” Bilbo couldn’t help but ask. “It’s pretty in its own right, but couldn’t you remove it and replace it with something new? It obviously doesn’t draw water from the pond anymore.”

“It is the tree for the King,” Denethor explained. They walked closer, and the young man put his hand almost reverently upon the bark. “It will never bloom again until the King returns at last.”

Bilbo thought of Aragorn, young with haunted eyes, fearing the Ring and the throne. Aragorn would make a good king. “Would you accept a king?” he asked softly.

Denethor stiffened. “If he were worthy,” he finally acquiesced. “If he could lead Gondor to an age of peace. Then, then I would accept him, and happily.” He glanced back, something unexplainable in his eyes. “You think of the Ranger.”

“I do.”

“Would he be a good king, do you think?”

“Yes,” Bilbo said. “I really think he would. A king needs heart. A king needs to love those other than himself. A king needs to be courageous but not so much that he could not feel fear.” Aragorn could be that king.

Thorin would be that king, if the gold lust left his eyes. Bilbo thought of his pin and tried not to ache.

Denethor regarded him strangely, and Bilbo couldn’t help but stumble back when the man advanced on him. “Does he fear?” Denethor asked. “What does Aragorn fear?”

Bilbo couldn’t help but reach for the Ring, to try and keep it from Denethor, to press it to his breast, and too late he realized his mistake. Denethor immediately looked to his chest and knew what was there. “So you have brought it to my city,” he breathed. Bilbo drew in shallow breaths, stealing glimpses towards the path down to the city. There was no other way out, at all. The only other way to escape was to jump down to certain death.

The doors burst open, pulling Denethor from his daze with a few confused blinks. Bilbo steadied himself and breathed deeply to steady his racing heart. He turned to where the girls were racing towards him. Neither was smiling. “What’s the matter?” he asked, frowning.

Ivriniel spoke first. “He told Father no. He said he wouldn’t help against the pirates.”

“Iv,” Adrahil admonished as he came to them. “Come. Bilbo, if you are to join us, we leave at once.”

“The pirates?” Denethor said, frowning. “The Corsairs?”

Adrahil glanced from Denethor to Bilbo, a deep furrow in his forehead. Bilbo spoke quickly. “This is Denethor, son of Ecthelion. He has the power to aid, and his word is good. He saved the lives of my two companions, who even now draw breath because of his valiant efforts.” He glanced back at Denethor, whose face had given way to shock and awe at his words. Bilbo managed a smile. “Ask him for aid.”

Adrahil finally spoke, though with hesitation. “The Corsairs have begun to pillage the cities further from the sea. There was even a raid attempt on Dol Amroth, and they have gone as far north as Pelargir. If Gondor would but give us enough to build a watchtower, many of these attacks could be cut off. It is not men I lack: it is foresight. They will continue to raid the coast and without swift justice to bring fear to their hearts, they will travel further north until they reach your city. I would not see Gondor fall to the Corsairs of Umbar, my lord.”

Denethor paused, but only long enough to form the words in his mind. “I will see to it that the funds will be given for the watchtower. If you have any further need of men, I will send guardsmen down to man the tower. Send reports back regularly of its construction, then of its being manned. I will deliver to you the funds which you seek. Your aim to keep Gondor safe is nothing short of noble, and will be rewarded.”

Adrahil looked beside himself with joy, gaping at Denethor. “T-Thank you, my lord,” he said. “Thank you so much!”

Denethor smiled. “Hirluin,” he called to one of the guards nearby. He waited until Hirluin had joined them before saying, “Take them down to the vaults and count out the silver pieces necessary to build the watchtower. It is time we took back Gondor for our own.”

Hirluin didn’t even blink, just nodded and went to lead them away. Finduilas was last, as usual, waiting for Bilbo. She paused when passing Denethor, however, and said, “You are far kinder than your father.”

Even before Denethor began to reply, Finduilas stepped forward to gaze up at him. “You’ve shown what you’re made of,” she said, and then she smiled. “And it’s good. So very good.”

He knelt down as carefully as he could, even as his aide fussed from behind him. “Your father has shown himself to be of good character, as well,” he said. “You are lucky to have him as a father.”

Before he knew it, Finduilas had darted forward to embrace him and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Don’t be sad for your father,” she whispered. “One day, things’ll be better.”

Words were never truer, Bilbo thought fondly, than when a child spoke them. Tears gathered in Denethor’s eyes as he carefully embraced the child. She stepped away after a moment with a smile. “You should come to the sea,” she said. “You would love it so. You can’t be sad at the sea.”

“I’ve never been to the sea,” Denethor said, laughing a little despite his shimmering eyes. “I wouldn’t know where to go.”

“We’ll show you,” Finduilas said. “Me and Ivriniel. If you come, we’ll show you everything in Dol Amroth.”

“Perhaps I will, one day,” Denethor said. “Perhaps I will.”

She smiled and went after her sister and father, who were waiting by the gate. Bilbo made to follow them, then stopped when Denethor’s hand fell to his shoulder. “A moment, if I could,” he said quietly.

Bilbo’s heart began to race, but he gave a bright smile to the family by the gate. “Go on, I’ll catch up,” he promised. They left with Hirluin, and the gates to the lower levels were shut.

Denethor spoke first. “What a precocious child,” he said, and he was still smiling. “Perhaps there is still hope for Gondor, after all. She has certainly brought me some.”

He paused, then breathed out, and his hand tightened on Bilbo’s shoulder. Bilbo tried not to shake or think of the Ring, growing hot on his chest. He could hear the buzzing in his ears getting louder until finally, the words came out.

Take me. Take me to bring Gondor back to power. Save your father, save your people, save the innocence of children. Take me!

Denethor suddenly shoved Bilbo away so harshly he fell to the ground, jarring his ankle. “You must leave,” Denethor said, trembling. “Leave Minas Tirith. Take the path away from the Black Gate into Mordor.”

“I don’t know what path that is,” Bilbo protested.

“You cannot go near the Black Gate, you must leave,” Denethor insisted. He held his hand out to Bilbo as if to block the hobbit from his sight. “You cannot keep that thing here in the city.”

“I don’t know where to go!” Bilbo cried. “I, I only have a map, and fortune, good and bad, has led me this far. I don’t know where I need to go next! What Black Gate?”

“The Black Gate is guarded by orcs, and will never open to you,” Denethor said. “There are other paths available to you that will not take you that way.” He took a deep breath. “I will arrange for a guide to take you into Mordor, and then let you go your own way. You must swear never to bring that…that thing into my city again.”

“I swear,” Bilbo promised. He fought to get to his feet, his shoulder protesting all the way. “I swear it, Denethor. I’m sorry.”

Denethor shook his head. “No, it is I who am sorry. I thought it would help Gondor, I thought it would help aid us against the enemy.” He finally looked at Bilbo, and it was with such despair that Bilbo almost reached for him to comfort him. Almost. “It would seem the Ranger was right, after all. I have seen the illness that has taken my father, and I have heard the whispers that have twisted him and broken him. And now, now the Ring whispers to me. It would take me, much as the Seeing Eye has taken my father.” He shook with wretched, silent sobs, and Bilbo did reach for him then.

But Denethor waved him off. Bilbo bit his lip. “I’ll go to Osgiliath tonight,” he said at last. “Is there an inn?”

“Many. Stay at the inn nearest the river. I will send a guard to you in the morning.” Denethor tried to smile, but it twisted bitterly upon his lips. “Go,” he whispered. “Go, my friend. May you part in peace from Minas Tirith.”

Bilbo didn’t hesitate: he went as fast as he could for the gate. As he left, he could hear Denethor’s harsh weeping as the gates closed behind him.

 

The hall was solemn and silent. Thengel sat not on his throne, but at one of the tables, silently pouring over his maps. Beside him sat Aragorn, tracing the villages and peoples close enough to aid them with his finger. Every now and then, he would nod or shake his head as to who could help them. A scribe nearby made a count and gave it to a young Rider, who would then make haste for the outside.

At another table sat Thorin, his eyes upon the fire. Fili sat beside him. Both looked to be thinking of wretched things, of Kili, of Bilbo. Of the small friend they had lost long ago, of the family they had lost just the day before. The guilt and blame across Thorin’s face was clear enough for all to see, and no matter how Dwalin or Bofur would nudge him with small conversations, how Dernwyn would come to offer them stew, they could not be swayed.

In the dark of the hall, away from the candles, Legolas leaned against a pillar and gazed at the door. His eyes were hardened, but his lips turned down from sorrow. He did not move. Beside him at the other table sat Éomund. His fingers clenched around a sash in his hand, the Captain of the Rohirrim’s mark crusted with blood. His gaze was haunted and empty. Only when Théodwyn moved to sit beside him, her hand resting over his, did he finally blink, and his fingers trembled as they clutched at hers. A father was mourned together, not alone, by two friends.

The doors burst open so suddenly everyone started from their seats. A villager gasped for breath and leaned on the doors. “M’lord,” he managed, “Holdwine has come home.”

 

It was a solemn affair. Dernwyn and Thengel went in together first to see him, and when Dernwyn came out alone, head held high but tears shimmering in her eyes, Fili simply followed after her. Aragorn watched them go and could not help the way his heart ached for his own brave, beautiful maiden. His Arwen.

Thengel finally came from the room, more tired than he had entered it. “Well?” Bofur asked, when the silence finally became too much. “How is he?”

“Ill,” the king confessed. “They fear for him, having ridden so far with his wounds.” He gave a bitter smile. “He would not be here at all, if not for the gentle, deft hands of our hobbit.”

Thorin’s head rose. “Bilbo?” he asked. Thengel nodded. “He saved Holdwine?”

“He did indeed. He even sacrificed his own horse to return Holdwine to us. He would have died if Bilbo had not acted as swiftly as he did. Holdwine wanted it known that Bilbo Baggins saved his life.”

Aragorn could not keep back his smile at the thought of his little friend. The brave little hobbit indeed. “He said Bilbo was well when he left him,” Thengel continued, and he hesitated briefly before continuing. “Though he believes that Bilbo was hiding a wound from the very attack that led to Holdwine’s injury.”

Thorin started muttering in his own tongue, and from the storm clouds on his face, they weren’t kind words. “He’s a knack for doin’ that,” Dwalin explained. “Bilbo hid wretched night terrors from us until he was nearly fallin’ off his horse for lack of sleep. Like we didn’t know anyway. Then he took sick in Lake-town after we escaped from Mirkwood; if we hadn’t ganged up on him, he likely wouldn’tve done a thing about it.”

“He was a miserable patient as it was,” Thorin said, shaking his head. “It was all we could do to keep him abed long enough to heal.” The smile on his face was one of wry fondness, but the misery in his eyes spoke of the long heartache he endured. Aragorn closed his eyes and took deep breaths. All of them, heartsick and full of loss or longing. Broken, or near to breaking. How were they to continue on?

“Fear not for Holdwine,” Thengel said to them, and Aragorn raised his eyes. The king smiled at them all. “He has given us good news of Bilbo’s continued march to Mordor, and they both still breathe. If Aldor has anything to say about it, Holdwine will breathe for some time yet to come. I am hopeful. We must all be hopeful.”

For as little words as they were, they had an immediate effect on them all. Backs straightened, lips turned up, eyes brightened. Even Thorin seemed to shrug off the melancholic cloud that had settled over him.

“What attack was this?” Aragorn asked. “Orcs? The path alongside the White Mountains is supposed to be one of the safest routes in Middle-Earth.” It offered nowhere to hide for an ambush, with the Wold on one side, and the tall, impassable mountains on the other. Holdwine had done well to lead Bilbo along the road.

“Black riders, he said,” Thengel told him. “From the way he described them, I have to say they were probably-“

“Nazgûl,” Legolas said sharply. Thengel nodded.

“That's what I fear. They cornered them against the mountain. As one they left; I believe they came to Isengard. My men said there were black riders amongst them as they fought, but when the rider on the winged creature fled, so too did they. Holdwine believes they were spared because the sun rose, and they left to hide in the shade.”

“The Nazgûl do not fear the light the way the orcs do,” Legolas said. “They do not prefer it, but it is not a hindrance. Where they go, the shadow follows. If they have taken the Great West Road, then no one traveling it is safe.”

“Legolas is right: if Sauron has released his Nazgûl, then he will not bring them back until he has something worth their returning.” Such as Bilbo and the Ring, but Aragorn could not speak such words out loud. It was a cruelty, especially when Thorin’s face was filled with pain already.

He frowned when Legolas moved to the doors. “Where are you going?” Aragorn asked.

Legolas turned back, and never before had Aragorn seen his friend so full of turmoil. “Gondor will not know of this,” he said. “Neither will those who travel to it.”

Kili. Thorin immediately moved to join him. “We will ride swiftly,” he said. Legolas nodded. Already Dwalin and the others were moving to join them, but Aragorn called out, stopping them where they stood.

“If Minas Tirith is indeed in danger from Sauron, then we cannot all go. Gandalf is already on his way to warn them. We must defend Rohan first and try to find more troops to join Gondor in their aid- Legolas!”

By the time Aragorn was out the door, Legolas was halfway up to the halls. “Legolas!” he bellowed over the wind.

Legolas moved swiftly back down to him, clearly agonized. “There was a warning in my heart, when they left. I should have gone with them, but I allowed myself to be swayed to stay. I must go, Aragorn.”

Aragorn gazed at his friend for a long moment. Someone’s heartache, at least, could end. “Go,” was all he said. Legolas gave a quick nod and took off for his things.

“You would bid me stay, when my kin, my son, is in even more danger now than before,” Thorin hissed. His eyes were dark and wild, and Aragorn could see now how easily frightened one could be of this strong dwarf, if that was all one saw. But Aragorn knew what drove the king’s rage. “He is already wounded-“

“And with the greatest healer for the spirit he could find,” Aragorn argued. He let out a sigh, and it was lost in the wind. “Thorin, we need you here. We are no good to Kili if we cannot bring him aid. If your kin replies, who could answer to them? None have your power.”

“Fili could,” Thorin said, but even as the words left his mouth, he shut his eyes. “But Fili will demand to go with me.”

“We cannot all go,” Aragorn said. He moved closer and gentled his voice. “Better to send Legolas than all of us. He would be swifter and safer than a large company together.”

He carefully did not say that by running to the aid of one sister-son, he would abandon the other. It was clear that while Fili would’ve charged to his brother’s aid, he also could not leave Dernwyn or Thengel. Rohan was weak, with its Riders still recovering, and its resources nearly depleted. Leaving them now was tantamount to destruction.

Thorin let out a deep breath. “Then we must find those to aid us, and swiftly, for I will not leave Kili alone without help.”

“And we won’t,” Thengel said, joining them. “We will not abandon Kili or Gandalf. We will not abandon Gondor. Not when they all depend on us. Not when Bilbo depends on us.” Thengel shook his head and missed the deep gutted look of pain that crossed Thorin’s face. “Would that I had not let him go with just Holdwine,” he murmured. “Would that I had sent him with a legion of men to bear him to the borders of Mordor. To think of him wandering the wilderness alone, with only his small sword to save him in times of need-“

“Stop,” Thorin pleaded, and there were tears in his eyes. “I beg of you, stop. Let me hear no more of the truth.” He began to speak again, but lost his voice, and he turned to go back up to the halls.

Thengel’s own eyes were filled with misery as they watched him go. “I didn’t mean to bring more pain,” the king said. “If there is one person who could feel more pain than I, especially in regards to our Ring-Bearer, it is Thorin. I keep forgetting that his heart is tangled up with Bilbo.”

It was tangled like the tree pin that Thorin had begun to polish diligently by the fire. It was a beautiful pin, of gold and mithril woven together, and it had cast a faint glow of light about the room when it caught the reflection of the flames. But Thorin would not put it on, and instead pulled it from his pouch when he thought no one was near. He would gaze at it, then he would carefully polish it until it gleamed impossibly brighter than before.

No, it wasn’t for Thorin to wear. Aragorn suddenly remembered the night he’d spoken to Bilbo, of how the hobbit had continued to reach for his breast, as if missing something.

Thorin’s heart wasn’t the only one tangled.

“Come; I would find the one I call my niece,” Thengel said. “Holdwine will be well tended to, down here in Aldor’s home. Better he stay here at Aldor’s side than up in the halls.” He mounted up the hill, and Aragorn followed him, along with the rest of the company.

They’d nearly made it to the top when Legolas hurried out, his pack slung across his back. “Legolas,” Aragorn called, and though he hesitated, the elf moved to his side. Aragorn smiled and clasped his friend by the shoulder and arm. “May your roads be short and your journey a happy one,” he said in Sindarin.

Legolas smiled at the parting blessing. “Thank you. Be safe, and be well. Care for Thorin and the others where I cannot, and know that I will keep Kili safe.” Even as Aragorn’s Sindarin was true and flawless upon his tongue, Legolas’s would always sound like it should: like rain falling upon the trees and leaves.

Aragorn nodded, and Legolas raced for the stables for his horse. A moment later, and he was gone out of the gate, flying across the Wold. He would make good time, though he would perhaps not catch up with Gandalf. Who could catch a wizard when he rode the Lord of Horses?

“He knows the land well,” Gimli commented. “Like my father and I know the stones of a mountain.”

“He does,” Aragorn agreed. “And it will serve him well, though he’s never been this far south before, as far as I know. He has lived his life in the north, and never before seen the White Mountains with his own eyes.”

“I haven’t, either. I’d like to.”

Aragorn smiled. “I believe you will, Gimli. You and I will both see the distant mountains up close.”

“You should see Erebor,” Dwalin said. “Prettiest sight you’ll ever see. At least, before the dragon took over.”

“I have no doubt that Thorin will lead it back to prosperity.” More and more every day, Aragorn could see the king that the dwarf was meant to be. His hardships and heartache had molded him into a king who knew what it was to fear, to sympathize, to make calls against his own wills, and to love. “I would perhaps see it one day, when it has reclaimed its glory.”

“Oh, you will,” Bofur promised. “And if they don’t give you a proper invite, you’ll have one from me.”

Aragorn’s smile only broadened. “Thank you, Bofur.” His eyes cast back out to the Wold, but Legolas was already beyond his sight. “Be well, my friend,” he murmured.

Dwalin shuddered. “M’freezin’ bits of me off. And they’re bits I’d rather hang onto.” Ori gave him a quick punch to the arm, making him grin. “Is the elf well on his way?”

“He is.”

“Then that’ll be good news for Thorin, at least. Mahal knows he could use more of it.”

They all could. Aragorn could only hope that at some point, they’d receive it.

 

The sun hadn’t quite risen yet when there was a harsh knocking on the door. Bilbo startled, still on edge from his meeting with Denethor. He hadn’t slept all night, only managing perhaps fifteen minutes before he’d awakened from a horrible nightmare. Of Gollum, holding him down, while Denethor cut the Ring from his chain. When he’d taken it, the whole world had gone up in flames, and somewhere in the distance, Thorin had screamed his name.

He hadn’t gone back to bed after that.

But the knocking persisted again, and Bilbo finally pulled himself together enough to answer the door. The man on the other side was nothing that Bilbo had expected: a dark cloak hung about him, and his eyes glittered beneath his hood. The man looked him up and down before raising his eyebrows. “I would ask if you were Master Baggins, but you are the only Halfling I have encountered in my lifetime,” the man said.

Bilbo fought to not let the word matter so much. “I am Master Baggins,” he said instead. “You have me at a disadvantage…?”

The man gave a short bow. “Mablang,” he said. “I am here to see you out of Gondor and through to the mountains of Mordor, per Lord Denethor’s request.”

“Has he spoken of why?” Bilbo asked suddenly. He fought to not lift his hand to his chest.

“No. Only that you were to be escorted.” He peered at Bilbo through narrowed eyes. “Though I supposed you were a prisoner for bartering, that is obviously not the case.”

Bilbo stepped back and into his room. He made no invitation to Mablang. “If you give me but a few moments, I can be ready,” Bilbo said instead. “I was in the midst of repacking when you knocked.”

Mablang gave another nod, but his eyes wouldn’t leave Bilbo. Bilbo packed, feeling the harsh gaze remain on him, leaving him ill at ease. Denethor must’ve told him something. There was no other way around it. Still Mablang made no mention of it, and Bilbo wasn’t about to ask. There was no other way for him to reach Mordor: he didn’t know the way. He had to trust in this stranger for now.

When he was finally ready, he swung his pack upon his back and headed for the door. “Your patience is kind,” Bilbo said. “Shall we?”

“When you’re ready,” Mablang said nonchalantly. He bade Bilbo walk first, and Bilbo made his way carefully down the stairs, mindful of the wrapped ankle. He tried to walk normally despite it, not wanting Mablang to see a weakness. That was the last thing he needed. For some reason, Bilbo felt the need to be wary around Mablang. He hoped it was only because of the sleepless night he’d had. It was certainly why he felt like he was stumbling everywhere he went.

Behind him, Mablang continued to stare at him, his gaze boring into the back of his skull.

Chapter Text

Over the roar of the wind, Kili still managed to hear when Gandalf called to him. “There ahead is Minas Tirith, the gleaming Citadel of Gondor!”

Or maybe it was because the city was impossible to miss.

If Erebor had been beautiful, the city tunneling into the mountain and showing depths and heights that no one had ever seen before, then Minas Tirith was its opposite and equal in every way. The city had been carved open from the mountain, and higher and higher it rose to a jagged peak that jutted out into the sky. It was stunning.

The city only loomed higher the closer they reached, until they were welcomed into the gates. Gandalf immediately turned and they began to ascend, higher and higher up the levels until Kili thought he’d be dizzy from all the turning. He gripped the horse’s mane tighter. Falling off now, after days of hard riding, wouldn’t be to his advantage.

Finally they reached the top, where gates separated them from the high rise Kili had seen from a distance. But when they made to enter, a guard stepped forward, hand held up to halt them. “I cannot allow you to enter,” the guard said. “By order of the Steward of Gondor, Ecthelion the Second.”

Gandalf blinked, clearly startled. “I am a friend,” he assured him. “I am Gandalf the Grey, and I have come to speak with him. I was once an advisor to him.”

The guard looked more hesitant, but still he shook his head. “I still cannot allow you to enter. None may pass.”

“It’s Gandalf,” Kili found himself saying. “You wouldn’t let the greatest wizard in all of Middle-Earth pass?”

“Kili,” Gandalf muttered under his breath, the warning clear. Still, it garnered a response.

“The Steward is very ill,” the guard said. “And will suffer no visitors. Does the explanation suffice, now?”

“I could, perhaps, help,” Gandalf said, but he made no move forward. “We will retire to the next level below: ask Ecthelion if we may enter and aid him.”

That caught the guard’s attention, or so Kili thought. Then, a very familiar voice spoke, and Kili whipped his head so quickly he felt it in his neck. “Gandalf is allowed entrance,” Denethor said, from above the gates. “Let him in.”

The guard nodded sharply, and the gates swung open. Gandalf urged his horse on and then they were in, entering the most beautiful courtyard of stone Kili had ever seen. White stone gleamed in the sunlight, and a murmuring fountain in the center tried to give water to the dead tree.

Flames licking up the tree, all the stone broken, screams in the air, you are MINE

Kili flinched and clutched at his head, but it had passed quickly. “Again?” Gandalf murmured. Kili nodded. “It is only a memory. It cannot hurt you now.”

If it had been anyone else, Kili wouldn’t have believed them, but Gandalf had saved him. Somehow, Gandalf’s hand had stretched through the nightmare and the fire and pulled him away from the Eye and back to his own unburned body. If Gandalf said it was a memory, then it was a memory.

He shook himself all the same and turned to where Denethor approached. “Denethor!” he called cheerfully. “You’re alive!”

“And you as well,” Denethor greeted. He moved slowly, as one severely injured, but he was moving. The young man’s smile fell. “I am sorry I could not keep them from taking you. I tried my best, Kili, please believe that.”

“You did more than that,” Kili assured him. “I thought you’d died saving us. I am glad to see you didn’t. Your fighting left Fili and I in a better shape to escape, which we did. We owe you everything.”

Denethor almost seemed to turn shy. “Well, I am glad you are alive,” he said at last, and Gandalf turned the conversation elsewhere.

“Your father is not well?”

Denethor’s face fell. “No. He has not been, for some time. But it is not a physical ailment of the body. It is in his mind. For a time, Saruman aided him with this sickness, but Saruman helps no longer, and now the orb whispers to him constantly.”

Kili froze. “The orb?” he whispered. Gandalf settled a hand on his shoulder, as if to ground him, but all Kili could feel were the flames licking at his feet.

“A black orb,” Denethor confirmed, and Kili’s heart sank. “It whispers to him…much as the Ring whispered to me.”

If Kili’s heart had stopped at the mention of the orb, his lungs refused to let him breathe now. “The Ring. You have seen the Ring? Where?” Gandalf said urgently. “How came you by it?”

“It is gone, now,” Denethor said, and he gave a small humorless laugh. “With Bilbo. May he destroy it.”

“You’ve seen Bilbo?” Kili whispered.

“A few days ago. He came into Minas Tirith, but when the Ring called to me, I made him depart. He is not to return until the Ring is gone.”

Banished again. Kili was glad for Gandalf’s hand on his shoulder, or else he couldn’t have stood. Oh Bilbo.

“Where is he now?” Gandalf asked.

“On his way to Mordor. I sent with him a trusted friend, one who scouts for the Gondorian troops. He knows the paths well, and I would have no one else lead Bilbo safely from the Black Gate.”

Gandalf shuddered. “Yes, he moves away from the Gate,” he murmured, and when Kili glanced up, his eyes were distant. “You did well, Denethor, when other men would have faltered.”

Denethor shook off the praise. “Can you help my father? Can you save him?”

Gandalf pursed his lips. “I can try.”

It wasn’t the answer Denethor wanted, but he accepted it with a terse nod of his head. “Come; I will bring you to him.” He nodded to the man behind him, who held a crutch in one hand. The aide followed behind, clucking at Denethor when the man went faster than he probably should have. But Denethor was a man on a mission, and Kili remembered what it had felt like when the gold lust had fallen away, and he’d been left standing in Erebor, praying his uncle had been restored to sanity. If Thorin had still been under the thrall, he didn’t know how he would’ve felt, or what he could’ve done. Much like Denethor, he imagined.

The doors to the throne room opened, and Kili stared up in wonder at the tall ceilings. Light seemed to dash through the windows, turning the room a brilliant white. Down at the end was the tall seat of the King, and below it, on a small seat, sat a man.

The further they went down the room, however, the darker it grew. Even though the sun shone, everything seemed to be filled with gloom and vileness. A chill went down Kili’s back, and he shivered, despite the warmth of the sun. If he looked to the corners, he swore he saw a darkness waiting to devour him. He stepped closer to Gandalf and fixed his gaze on the man.

Denethor moved in front of him and gave a brief nod. “Father, they are here to see you,” he said. “Gandalf and a companion of my venture. Will you not receive them?” He walked closer when he heard no reply, and Kili was able to see the man Denethor called his kin. His skin was pale and wrinkled, and he looked to be a man of great age, despite having fathered Denethor. Spots danced across his leathered hands and face, and his eyes were pale and unseeing. In his dirty hands, nails so long that Kili winced uncomfortably, sat the orb.

Fire burning skin and memory and soul all for the GREAT EYE

Kili flinched again and looked anywhere except at the man.

Denethor’s voice now was a plea that would’ve sounded better on a fearful child wanting its mother. “Father? Will you not answer me?”

When Ecthelion spoke, it was not the voice Kili had been expecting. It was low and torn, as if he’d been screaming all night. Within it was a dark power Kili knew all too well. “Why would I answer a traitor?” Ecthelion said. His eyes never left the orb.

“Traitor?” Denethor gasped. “How have I betrayed you?”

“I ordered no funds to Adrahil, and yet you went behind my back and stole from me,” Ecthelion hissed. “You are a traitor indeed. Because you are my son, you are allowed to live.”

Denethor stumbled back, the pain on his face so wretched to look at that Kili reached to steady him. Denethor didn’t look at him, his eyes fixed on his father, but he clung to Kili’s arm. The hurt Kili saw wasn’t new, he realized, but resigned. This was not a new feeling. New words, perhaps, but Denethor had well expected the greeting he’d received. It only made Kili feel worse for him.

Already Gandalf was moving, his staff held high. “You will release him, Sauron,” he demanded. “Your darkness will not be allowed to linger!”

Ecthelion began to laugh, and it raised the hairs on Kili’s flesh. “The orb is mine,” he said. “If you think Sauron holds power here, you are wrong. This power is mine!”

“And with every day that passes, Sauron corrupts you, my old friend,” Gandalf said. He pushed his staff forward and Ecthelion fell back into his chair with a cry, the orb gripped tight in his hands. Denethor lunged forward, but Kili managed to hold him back.

“You seek someone…who wants a seat of power!” Ecthelion gasped. “You do not seek me! He is there, beside you! He tells lies to usurp me!” Ecthelion glared at Denethor, and Kili felt the urge to step in front of the young man in an attempt to defend him. “Do not believe him!”

“Silence!” Gandalf thundered, and the room turned darker still. Kili glanced around and found the guards held back by a mighty power. The mighty power of Gandalf. Even Denethor didn’t dare to move when Gandalf seemed to grow in scale right before them. A howling wind began to race around the room, pulling at them and whipping their clothes and hair about.

Gandalf pushed his staff forward, and Ecthelion cried out again. The orb began to burn in his hands, and Denethor finally made to move again. “No!” Kili shouted. “You can’t!”

“It’ll burn him!” Denethor yelled. “You don’t understand!”

“No, you don’t understand! I’ve been burned by that, by him!” Kili looked at it again and found himself caught by the Eye. That horrible, terrible Eye that had burned him away to nothing, until somehow, Gandalf had found him. “Gandalf saved me! He can save your father, too!”

Denethor looked torn, but when Kili pushed him back, he stayed, though his grasp on Kili’s arm tightened to the point of pain. It almost sounded like a storm now as Gandalf fought against the orb. “Release him!” Gandalf roared. “Release him!”

The orb flared so brightly that Kili thought he’d never see again. He shut his eyes tight and turned away to where Denethor was also cringing at its might.

Gandalf shouted again, somehow being heard over the tumult. “Release him!

Ecthelion howled, a terrible sound that left Kili shuddering in fear, and then it all stopped. Something thudded against the ground, and when Kili finally dared to open his eyes, the orb was rolling towards his feet. He gave a frightened yell and shoved Denethor away from its path. It rolled to a stop in the middle of the room, a dark, silent orb once more.

Denethor recovered from his stupor and moved past Kili to the chair. Ecthelion was slumped over the side, eyes closed, cheeks sunken and still. He appeared dead. “Father!” Denethor cried, reaching for him.

Only the swiftness of Gandalf and his staff held him back. “Not yet,” Gandalf warned. “Let the power fade from him before you touch him, or you would be ensnared.”

Even as Kili watched, the pallor in Ecthelion's face began to warm to a rosier hue. His skin tightened, his hair was no longer wiry but full and long, and when his eyelids fluttered open, the eyes beneath were colorful and aware. He blinked a few times, though he did not move to rise. “Where…?”

“You are home, Ecthelion,” Gandalf said warmly. “Welcome back, my friend.” He removed his staff from Denethor’s path, and the young man raced to his father’s side. He clutched at his father’s hand, smiling brightly through the tears in his eyes.

“Father, you are well again. The curse is gone!”

Ecthelion nodded slowly, making it clear that while the orb no longer claimed his life, he was still weakened. Kili had only touched the orb but twice, and briefly: to be attached to it for so long, day after day… he forced himself not to quake in fear, but it was close. Mahal, he couldn’t even begin to imagine it.

The Steward’s eyes rose to Gandalf’s, and he smiled at last. “Gandalf, my old advisor,” he said. “Long have we awaited your return.”

“And it seems that I have come when I was needed most,” Gandalf said. “Would that you had not suffered at all.”

Ecthelion shook his head. “Such things are beyond us, my friend. But I am clear minded once more, and grateful to you for it. To you and your friend,” he said, turning to Kili. “Who has come with you?”

“He was one of the company with me,” Denethor said. “I saved his life, his life and his brother’s. That is how I fell.”

Ecthelion gave a short nod, but his eyes remained on Kili. Feeling awkward, Kili finally spoke. “I am Kili of the line of Durin, and I owe my life to your son, my lord. He indeed saved my life, and my kin’s, with his valiant efforts.” There, that hadn’t been too off, had it? He glanced at Gandalf for approval, and Gandalf merely smiled in clear amusement. Sure, let the wizard laugh and be of no help in times of political crisis.

“I am glad he was of use to you,” Ecthelion said. He rose at last, unsteadily, and when Denethor offered him an arm and a hand, Ecthelion very obviously ignored him. “Though I did not permit him to go.”

“You were ill,” Denethor murmured, but the resigned look on his face spoke of this conversation having been spoken before. “The Lady of the Woods has long been an ally, and never before has she called upon us for aid. I was glad to go.”

“Forgive me,” Ecthelion said, nodding to Gandalf and Kili with a smile. “I must retire. You have saved me: let me not damage the good work you have done by collapsing here.” Guards came forward then, along with several attendants, and as one they moved from the throne room.

Denethor looked as if his heart was broken. “Denethor,” Kili began, but Denethor shook his head.

“He must heal. How can he lead Gondor if he’s not well? I will not badger him with more questions.” He spun on his heel, heading for the door with bitterness in his brow.

“Denethor,” Gandalf called, stopping the young man where he stood. The wizard looked pained but spoke and said, “Your father loves you.”

“He loves Gondor, as he should,” Denethor said, and there was the pain again, clear to all who would see it on his face. He gave a sad smile. “When a flower blooms, you do not need to tend to it as much as you would a seedling. It is self-sufficient. So it was with me: when I was full grown, I didn’t need the little things such as love or comfort.”

“But a flower will die if it can’t get what it needs,” Kili interjected. “And you’re not a flower, Denethor, you’re a person, you’re his son.”

Denethor’s pain disappeared beneath a mask of stone. “Then perhaps I should begin acting as a son of a Steward should.” He stormed off and out of the throne room, and Kili could’ve sworn he saw a young child in his shadow, lost and afraid. Then he was gone, and even the warmth of the sun that now brightened every corner of the room wasn’t enough to ease his heart.

It wasn’t as if Denethor was wrong, either. It was clear that Ecthelion felt no compassion or love for his son, and Kili felt his own heart twist at the thought of not being loved. How could you not be loved, especially by family? They were the only ones you were supposed to turn to, the ones you counted on. He’d had Mother and Uncle and Fili, and while it hadn’t been a lot, he’d still had something.

“This may not be something I can mend,” Gandalf said with a sigh. He wandered over to the orb, and Kili carefully looked away. When he looked back, the orb was wrapped in a cloth, and was being tenderly held by Gandalf. “I can push away the powers of darkness, and I can see distant events and people. But I cannot mend hearts or repair rifts long torn.”

“Everything can be healed,” Kili swore. “Two hearts pushed aside over some sense of betrayal can always be joined again. It might take work, but it can happen.”

Gandalf raised his eyebrows. “I think you’ve wandered away from Denethor and his father to two individuals no longer with us.”

Kili flushed and looked away. “What of it?” he mumbled.

“Kili, they may never reconcile,” Gandalf said gently. “What Thorin did to Bilbo was a grave injustice, worse still because he broke more than Bilbo’s heart, he broke part of Bilbo’s very spirit.”

“You didn’t see Bilbo,” Kili countered. “In Rohan. He misses Uncle. He still loves Uncle.”

“And yet, that may not be enough to repair their relationship,” Gandalf said. Kili stared at the white tile beneath him and found, to his humiliation, hot tears burning in his eyes. He felt all of twenty-five years old and crying over his favorite toy being lost. But he had never accounted for his uncle and Bilbo being unable to fix things between them. It had just been a matter of getting them together to actually talk, which Mahal knew his uncle was wretched at, and then things would’ve been better.

He’d never considered that they wouldn’t be together, in the end of it all.

“Perhaps they will,” Gandalf said. “But you must be prepared for it to not go according to your plans, Kili.” He walked towards the doors of the throne room.

“No.”

Gandalf stopped and turned back to him. “No,” Kili said again, raising his head and glaring at Gandalf. “I refuse. Because I’ve seen how much Bilbo loves Uncle, and I know how much Thorin loves Bilbo. I saw it on the journey, and I saw it in Bilbo in Rohan, in the letter he wrote to Uncle, and I saw it in Thorin in how he refuses to give up hope, how he’s desperate to find Bilbo. I will not give up, because they will make things better. Don’t give up on them now. If we can’t hope for happiness in their future, how are we supposed to hope for happiness amidst all this other darkness?”

It wasn’t often that Gandalf was struck silent, but Kili’s words seemed to have stopped him in his tracks. Kili tried to even his breathing, his fists unclenching.

Finally Gandalf cleared his throat. “I believe you’re right, Kili,” he said, and he smiled. “I’m proud of you, for you’ve seen the truth and the heart of it. We must hope, and we must hope for those we love. If they can achieve happiness, then joy and love will never be lost, not so long as we fight for it.”

Kili felt a real smile brighten on his face for the first time since they’d entered Minas Tirith. “And they’re fighting for it.”

“More than anyone else ever has,” Gandalf agreed. “Come. We have to find the Captain of the Guard and round up the Gondor troops. With Ecthelion ill, the power passes to Denethor. And Denethor would rather die than see the White City fall. I would also know more of Bilbo.”

Kili nodded and hurried after Gandalf, back into the real sunlight outside.

 

The days passed swiftly after that. Riders came and went, each bearing news of villages and whom they could spare. They were noble people, willing to lend aid to their king, but the numbers were too few and far to truly defend against the might of Mordor.

“Three hundred men strong will come with Lord Wulf.”

Thengel nodded, and the Rider left. “Are there any others?” he asked.

The man at the door shook his head. “Not yet, my liege. But perhaps tomorrow; the sun has set for the evening.”

“Perhaps,” Thengel murmured. Aragorn could see the weariness beginning to set in his face, aging him quickly. “That will be all, Haleth. See to the Riders; you are now Captain.”

“It should be Holdwine, my liege,” Haleth said haltingly. “I cannot take the post.”

“Holdwine may not be fit for the post,” Thengel said. “And if he is, his recovery will still take time. Until such time, you are the Captain.”

Haleth gave a sharp nod and left. Only after the doors had shut did Thengel give a sigh and sink further into the throne. “Too few,” he murmured. “There are too few.”

“We must have hope,” Aragorn said. Thengel nodded and sat up straighter, but not by much.

“Is there no one else?” Thorin asked quietly. “No one else who would aid us?”

“Have you any kin left, Thorin?” Thengel asked, not unkindly. “For I have none that I have not sent Riders to. I called everyone whom I could for Isengard. I had not expected Sauron to mount another attack so quickly.”

The doors opened, cutting off Thorin’s response. Aragorn turned his attention to the two figures cloaked in black who approached. Something about them was…familiar. He leaned forward in his seat.

The figure on the left pulled back their hood. “Hail, King Thengel of Rohan,” said Lord Elrond, to the startled gasps of many. Thengel sat up straighter in surprise. “May your winds blow good fortunes to you.”

“Lord Elrond,” Aragorn whispered. It was all he could say, in his shock. What was Lord Elrond doing here, so far from Imladris?

“Well met, Lord of Rivendell,” Thengel greeted. “You are welcome in my halls. What brings you so far from your home?”

“I come to aid you,” Elrond said. “I have only a few warriors, but they, and I, shall stand with you against the abomination in the East. Long ago, I stood beside men to destroy the Ring, and I failed. I will not do so now. I would see this evilness destroyed.”

If someone had dropped a blade of grass, it would have made a sound, the halls were so silent. Growing hope was on every face, and Aragorn breathed in deeply. Hope indeed was welcome.

Then Elrond spoke again. “I confess that it is not the only reason I have come so far.” He looked hesitant, something Aragorn had not often seen. He stepped away, and the second cloaked figure approached, until only steps remained between them and Aragorn. Then the hood was pulled away.

Aragorn stared, stunned into silence. Lips turned up into a smile. “Is that a way to greet me?”

Arwen,” he whispered, the name dragged almost painfully from his lips. She was there in front of him, beautiful and sweet, and with her came the fresh air of Rivendell. Somehow, she was here.

Murmurs from the dwarves behind him pulled him from his stupor, and he realized they were murmurs of admiration. They had seen the beauty of Lady Galadriel, but they had never seen Arwen. She was like the soft dew of the fresh morning, the gentle sunlight of the evening. She was bright, she was kind. She was his Evenstar, the only star he had ever turned to for guidance. And he had never dared to think that she could be his, for he was mortal, and she was not. She was his every desire that he could never have, his every hope for a happier life.

Yet she stood before him now, and she reached out to brush her fingers across his face. Aragorn closed his eyes and reveled in the sensation. “I am here for you,” she said. “I am here to give you what you need most. I am here to give you your hope back, Aragorn, son of Arathorn.” When he opened his eyes, her smile was subdued, but there was such warmth in her eyes he almost dared not look. “It is time.”

She pulled from beneath her cloak a long scabbard and blade and offered it to him. “Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,” Elrond said, and Aragorn let his trembling fingers wander over the sheathed blade. “And the crownless again shall be king.”

Narsil. The shards of Narsil were right before him, but no longer were they broken. “This is Andúril, the King’s Blade,” Elrond declared. He moved his gaze to Aragorn and seemingly pinned him there. “It is for one who would be King.”

Aragorn did not take the blade. He could not. “I am not King,” he whispered brokenly. “Arwen-“

“You are more than you have ever thought you were,” Arwen spoke to him. “You are the King. You always have been. You may one day be King of Gondor, but you have always been King of your own destiny.” She leaned forward, closer so only he could hear. “And you are King of my heart.”

He was certain the room was spinning. But when she offered him the blade again, he did not hesitate this time. He gripped the handle and pulled, and the long, gleaming blade shone in the light. It seemed made for his hand, and the balance was better than any other he’d ever had. It felt as if it belonged with him. It seemed to be an extension of his arm, and it felt right.

He finally looked back to her and her glowing face. He could take one of these offered gifts, but not the other. “I cannot be your King,” he murmured. “I would not see you parted from your people, from your life.”

A blade in one hand, the love he craved before him. He clenched his fists and wished he could cling to both with everything he could. Arwen merely smiled, her eyes bright.

“How many have you brought to aid us?” Thorin asked. His question was not growled but honestly asked, and it spoke volumes of how much Thorin respected the elf lord. Or perhaps, it spoke of one who was growing into his own crown, much as it seemed Aragorn was growing into his. He thought of the weight that the crown should feel like, of how it had felt before, but it only settled briefly onto his shoulders. When he looked to Arwen, it faded completely.

Perhaps…perhaps the weight was not so unkind, if there was someone there to aid you.

“Four hundred,” Elrond said, regret in his tone. “It was all I could spare. But there is another army. One whom you could call upon.”

All eyes rested on him. Elrond in turn looked to Aragorn. “There are those in the mountains,” he spoke slowly. “You could call them.”

Thengel reared back just as Aragorn did. “Traitors,” Aragorn hissed. “Murderers. All of them. These are who you would have us call?”

“Who are they?” Gimli asked, but it was Ori who answered.

“The Dead. You speak of the Dead.”

Elrond nodded, and Ori continued to explain. “Long ago, they swore an oath to the King of Gondor, but when he needed them, they turned and fled. He cursed them and swore they would never find release from this world until they had fulfilled their pledge to him.” His eyes widened when he realized what Elrond was suggesting. “You think Master Aragorn…?”

“I am no king,” Aragorn protested. “Elrond, I cannot command them.”

“You are the King,” Elrond persisted. He nodded to the blade in Aragorn’s right hand. “Put aside the Ranger. Become the King you were born to be. Summon them to your side, and you could release them and gain the aid you seek.”

The army of the Dead was rumored to be great indeed, and it was an army of soldiers who could never die. This was an army that could meet Sauron’s forces on the field and aid the beings of Middle-Earth for good. Mind made up, Aragorn turned to Thengel. “I would take leave of you, now that Lord Elrond is here. He can aid you, better than I could.”

“You underestimate yourself,” Thengel said, but he gave a sharp nod. “If you believe you can find us aid amongst the Dead Men, then I bid you good fortune. May it help us all.”

He had no idea if it was truly going to help, but he had to try. He gave a nod in return and, after taking the sheath from Arwen, he went for his things. There was no time to waste. If Elrond had foreseen that the Dead could aid them, he would not deviate from it. Perhaps he, too, could be the King that could make a difference.

Only when he had gathered everything to him did he realize there was a presence behind him. He turned and found Thorin at the door. “Walking the Paths of the Dead is dangerous, or so Ori so descriptively described after you left,” he said. “Don’t leave in the morning without us, we’ll be joining you shortly enough.”

Aragorn blinked. “We?”

From behind him, Gimli stepped out. “Aye, we. You didn’t think you’d be leavin’ without us, did you?”

“This is not your battle,” Aragorn said. “I would not see you come to harm.”

“And I would not leave you abandoned when I could aid,” Thorin replied. He gave a quick smile, the first that Aragorn had seen in days. “Haven’t you learned enough of the stubbornness of dwarves?”

“I may have heard such mention,” he said dryly, and Gimli chuckled.

“Best not argue with it then, laddie. We’re goin’ with you. Dwalin too, but he’s off tryin’ to leave Ori behind.”

“Ori, Bofur, and Fili will remain here to aid Thengel. We will go with you to help plead with the Dead.” Thorin’s smile fell to a dark frown. “They have no morals or honor, and they will not hesitate to cut us down. This, I do not need Ori to tell me. I studied their tale as a lad, much as Ori did. I will not leave you in that den alone.”

Despite the sorrow that seemed to have settled in the halls, of the despair that crept through the doorway with each Rider, Aragorn could not help but smile. This was the hope that they so needed. A guiding hand to show them the way, a light in the darkness that spoke of the only love Aragorn could ever want, and loyal friends to remain with him until the very end. “Thank you,” he managed. “Thank you.”

Thorin nodded. He paused, as if listening to something, then gave a smile. “You should say goodbye to your queen,” he said quietly. “Do not do as I have done, or you’ll regret it forever.”

“You may see him yet,” Aragorn said. Thorin just sighed.

“Even if I do, I will forever bear the regret in my heart. I should have told him when I had the chance. You have a chance: do not waste it.” He left then, tugging Gimli with him. Not a moment later, as if she had been waiting, Arwen appeared. Her cloak was gone, and her hair hung loosely around her shoulders and arms.

Aragorn did not hesitate to pull her close, and she brushed her nose against his. “Long have I waited to see you again,” Arwen said, the Elvish language flowing off her tongue. “And here you stand, on the cusp of a great battle that makes to swallow you whole.” Sadness crossed her face. “Will you make me a promise to return?”

“I cannot,” he murmured back in her language. “There is no promise that I can give of that. I can only try and do my best.”

She nodded and lowered her eyes. “If you do return…I would be yours.”

Aragorn stopped breathing. She could not mean-

“All the stars in the sky do not shine as brightly as your heart,” she whispered. “I have seen you, your valiant heart, your shimmering soul. I fell in love with you when first I saw you.” Her smile was warm, and her eyes spoke of the truth to her words. Gently she brushed a lock of hair from his face, and the longing in her eyes, the love that shone from them, nearly took his breath away.

“There will never be another for me. You are the one my heart desires. You are my everything. Long did I live, before you, but now I cannot imagine a lifetime without you.”

“I would take from you your very life,” he told her, and he wasn’t certain if he was begging her to stay or to go. “You would never be immortal with me.”

“I would rather spend one lifetime with you than live out the ages without you,” she told him. She looked down again, and when he felt her hand on his, he too let his gaze drift down.

In his hand was her necklace. The Evenstar itself. His eyes shot back up, his surprise making him drift into Westron. “I cannot take this-“

“It is a gift,” she said, and she wrapped his fingers around it. “And a promise. Your life and mine are entwined, now, like the roots and branches of a tree.” She leaned forward, and her breath was sweet on his face. His eyes drifted shut as he reached for her, his hand drifting up her shoulders. His Arwen, his beautiful Elven maiden.

She whispered, and the words sounded like a shout in his mind. “I choose a mortal life.”

He pulled her to him and brought his mouth down on hers. She wrapped her arms around him and brought herself closer still. Her lips were soft, so soft, and despite their gentleness, there was a determination behind each kiss, each pass of her lips against his, as if to tell him that she was his and would never leave. He clung to her, wishing it were true.

They stayed that way a long time, trading kisses, sharing breaths in their own intimate world. It was simply them for this short time, as short as they had. I will come back, he wanted to tell her.

She smiled at him, eyes shining. I know, she wanted to say.

They kissed again instead.

 

“Ori-“

Ori stiffly ignored him, shoving things into his pack. “You can’t,” Dwalin said softly again, and that was it.

He rounded on Dwalin, fury in his eyes. “You told me you hated the way Dori coddled me like a child. You said you hated when Nori would tease me like a babe. Yet here you are, ordering me around, doing the same thing!” He turned back to his pack, ignoring the shaking in his arms as he did so.

Dwalin didn’t. He put his hands on Ori’s shoulders, making him tense even more. When Dwalin said nothing, Ori began to speak, but then he felt a gentle nudge against the back of his head. “I said I didn’t want you to go,” Dwalin said. “I’m askin’ you to stay.”

“And you expect me to be all right with you, what, darting off into the Paths of the Dead?” Ori said before he snorted. “You’re going through the Dwimorberg, Dwalin. You’re going to walk amongst the Dead. No, I’m not all right with this!”

“Ori-“

Ori tensed up so hard he thought he’d shatter into a million pieces. Then he felt the fight leave him all at once, and Dwalin tightened his grasp to keep him upright. “I won’t leave you,” he mumbled. “I won’t.”

“Ori,” Dwalin murmured, and when Ori turned around, the gruff warrior looked heartbroken. “M’not leavin’ you. But I’ve gotta see Thorin through to safety. There’d be no one else to watch for you, like Bofur could.”

Anger began to swell again, and hurt, buried deep beneath where Ori didn’t want to look. “I don’t need watching over-“

“No, but I need to know you’re safe,” Dwalin said, and Ori paused. “This isn’t about you, it’s me that’s the problem. I can’t defend Thorin knowin’ you’re not safe. And I can’t keep you both safe at the same time.”

“You could,” Ori said defensively. “You could keep a hundred orcs at bay and still keep us both safe.”

Dwalin chuckled. “As much faith as you have in me, it doesn’t make it truth, much as I’d like it to.” He sighed and rested his forehead against Ori’s, and Ori closed his eyes. He knew what was going to happen. He knew what Dwalin was going to ask of him. And he knew what he was going to say.

“Please stay,” Dwalin said, and Ori’s eyes shot open at the word that never, ever passed his warrior’s lips. “Please. If I’ve got to get down on my knees to beg, I’ll do it.”

“Dwalin,” Ori breathed, but Dwalin wasn’t finished.

“I know about the Dead. And seein’ you there with ‘em, I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t swear to Dori or Nori to keep you safe, I swore to me, and I can’t…I can’t do that there. Even if you ride into battle with Rohan, you’ll have Bofur and Fili, Thengel and the elf lord. You wouldn’t be trapped with the Dead.”

“And you think I want you with them, either?”

“The Dead don’t scare me, Ori. I’ve seen enough dead in my lifetime. You amongst the Dead…aye. That’ll scare me more than anythin’ else in this world. I’d rather face Sauron with nothin’ more than a cheese knife than see you there.”

Ori bit his lip. “Please,” Dwalin entreated, and finally Ori nodded.

“I’ll stay. But you’ve got to come back.”

Dwalin smiled. “Give you my word as best I can. ‘Sides, I’ve got to make certain Thorin gets out alive. If he doesn’t, I’d have to answer to Bilbo, and a hobbit mad isn’t anythin’ I want to mess with.”

They both chuckled at the thought, though it quickly turned sad. Ori thought of his fellow book-lover, the friend who’d spoken with him when no one else would, the one who’d encouraged him to speak to Dwalin in the first place. He owed Bilbo so much.

It was important, now, that Dwalin know. “Bilbo told me to speak to you,” he said. “That night. When the others had all gone to sleep.”

“Did he?”

“He did. He saw how I watched you. Told me to at least speak to you and be friends.”

Dwalin chuckled, and his smile was bright and bold. “What?” Ori said, frowning.

“Nothin’. Only that he told me to talk to you that night. Said he was tired of my simperin’ around when you were right there for talkin’ to.”

Ori began to grin. Of course Bilbo had spoken to Dwalin. “I should’ve known: you spoke more openly that night than I’d ever heard you speak before.”

“Was his doing,” Dwalin admitted. “Wouldn’t have had the nerve otherwise. One of the bravest beings I’ll ever know.”

Ori thought of Bilbo, out there somewhere, all alone, and shut his eyes tight. He thought of Thorin, parted from him for so long, and wondered if he’d be the same. If he’d never see Dwalin again, and know that this was the last time he’d be able to speak to him.

“Dwalin-“

The warrior cut him off with a kiss, his tongue parting Ori’s lips easily. Ori moaned and tilted his head, his tongue brushing against Dwalin’s. He tasted of ale and something sweet, perhaps the berries from the table, and something distinctly Dwalin. It was everything Ori had ever wanted, and he clutched at Dwalin’s shirt, pulling him even closer.

It would be a while before they emerged, subdued but not sorrowful. They weren’t parting forever, and they were both certain of that. Just for a time. A short time, if Ori had anything to do about it. Dwalin was coming back.

And that, Ori was holding him to.

 

Inside the halls, a dwarf heir sat with his Shieldmaiden, sitting by the fire and thinking of those whom they loved no longer with them. Their hands were joined, and Dernwyn’s forehead pressed gently against Fili’s. He pulled her closer to him and shared breaths with her.

Outside the halls, a dwarf king gazed at the stars above, wondering if his beloved was watching the same stars as he was. Thorin closed his eyes and imagined that they were gazing at the same star in the sky, the bright one far out towards the south. He clenched his hands and wished they were holding Bilbo.

Far away, head tucked against a rock, Mablang sleeping beside him on the ground, a hobbit stared at the brightest star near him and thought of Thorin. Bilbo shivered from the cold winds sweeping over the mountain and clutched his hand over where a pin should’ve been.

Chapter Text

The river was wide and soothing, even as ships sailed in and out. Kili watched it for a little longer until he felt a tap on his back. When he turned, Gandalf was smiling. “The river is well fortified, now,” he said. “Any forces of Sauron’s will have been warned against.”

“Good,” Kili said. His gaze unconsciously drifted to the dark storm ahead of them. It was no storm, Gandalf had told him, but Mordor itself. There was lighting in the sky, and the wind that swept over the plains smelled cold and dead. He shuddered. “If they come, though, where will the people of Osgiliath go?”

“They’ll go to Minas Tirith,” Gandalf assured him. A soldier called his name, and Gandalf left him gazing at the horizon.

Somewhere out there, there was a hobbit and a guide, wandering into Mordor. “Be careful, Bilbo,” he murmured. “We’re waiting for you to come back.” Up until Denethor had led them to the city by the river, Mordor had been a fairy tale in his mind, a terrible name. It hadn’t been real. But there was no denying what was so close, close enough that Kili could make out features in the mountains.

When he was tapped again, he turned, but frowned when he didn’t see Gandalf. “Down,” a young voice said, and Kili immediately dropped his head.

She was young, much younger than he’d thought, only a child. But her eyes were deep and knowing, and when she smiled at him, he immediately smiled back. “Hello,” he said. “Are you lost?”

“You said Bilbo,” she said, and Kili froze. Mahal, him and his big mouth… “Do you know Mister Bilbo, too?”

He’d barely reprimanded himself for reprimanding himself, given that this was a child in front of him, and then her other words finally struck home. “You know a little hobbit?” Kili asked.

It was the right thing to say. Her face lit up. “Yes, I do!” she said. “He’s absolutely lovely. But he left without saying goodbye.” Her smile fell. “I’d wondered if…if you knew him. If he was still here.”

“He’s gone on,” Kili said regretfully. It was interesting that he had to look down, down enough that he finally crouched in front of her. He was actually tall enough to warrant crouching. That was a lovely surprise. “But he’ll be coming back. He’d better.”

“Are you one of his friends?” another girl said, this one – unfortunately for Kili – taller than the first. Her dark hair spun around her face in the wind, and she reached for the other girl, tucking her in against her. “He spoke of friends that were no longer traveling with him.”

“I am,” Kili said. “Kili, at your service.” He stood and gave a bow, much to their delight and laughter.

The first girl gave a quick curtsy. “Finduilas, at yours. This is my sister, Ivriniel,” she said, not even giving the girl a chance to speak. Ivriniel rolled her eyes but didn’t argue.

The hot pain of Fili tore through him, stuttering his breath. He missed his brother. “Well met, Finduilas and Ivriniel,” he said instead. “I’ve just been looking at the river.”

“We’re traveling on it today,” Finduilas said. “Back home, to the sea.”

“The sea?” Kili said, blinking. Of course everyone knew it was there, but he’d never thought it was so close. “This river leads to the sea?”

“It does,” Ivriniel said. “You should travel it, one day, you and Bilbo. You could come visit us in Dol Amroth.”

“That does sound like something fun,” Kili agreed. “I’ve only ever seen ponds and rivers and mountains and caves. I’d like to see the sea.” He grinned at his own words.

“Mountains?” Ivriniel said, her eyes widening. “And caves? Are you…are you a dwarf?”

“I am indeed.”

“But you’re so tall!”

Kili laughed. “A bit, more than most other dwarves. I got lucky, I suppose.” And had met an Ent, but that was neither here nor there.

“Wow,” Finduilas breathed in awe. Ivriniel looked just as awestruck. “A real dwarf. Just like we met a real hobbit.”

“Not many girls can say that,” Kili said, and they both giggled at his wink. He almost wished they weren’t going: they’d managed to brighten some of the dismay in his heart. Like Legolas did.

Well, so much for not feeling dismal anymore.

Finduilas looked up and frowned. “It’s not sunny anymore,” she said, and when Kili looked up, there were indeed dark clouds rolling in from the east. “I didn’t think it would storm today, it was so bright.”

“Neither did I,” Kili murmured. When he looked towards Mordor again, a tall ship moved to block his vision. He glared at it, annoyed, until it had passed. When it did, however, his eyes immediately locked onto several crafts coming across from the east bank. Crafts that were full of-

“Orcs!” Kili shouted. “Gandalf, orcs!”

That was all the orcs needed. Suddenly arrows whipped through the air, one of them striking Kili across his cheek. It stung, but not enough to halt him as he reached for the girls. Ivriniel screamed and clutched at Finduilas, and they needed to get out of there, now. “Come on!” Kili yelled, and he hauled them away.

Finduilas suddenly struggled against him, trying to get back to the docks. “Fin, no!” Ivriniel shouted.

“Papa!” Finduilas screamed, and Kili wanted to shut his eyes, wanted to not be here, listening to the fear in her voice. “Papa!

But the orcs had nearly made the docks. There was no going back. People were running and screaming, racing in Minas Tirith’s direction, and that was exactly where Kili was taking them. His bow was back with Gandalf’s horse Shadowfax, and he couldn’t believe he’d left it there. All he had on him were his daggers and the small sword Fili had insisted he take before he’d left his brother in Rohan. Fili, Mahal, he couldn’t fight without his brother, he needed Fili-

There was a loud roar from behind them as the orcs made land. “Go!” Kili shouted, pushing at the girls. As fast as they were, Finduilas was still a child, and eventually Kili simply picked her up and carried her as best he could. She was small, but not that small, but they needed to run. He took Ivriniel’s hand in his and, keeping Finduilas on his hip, her arms wrapped tight around him, he made his way through the city.

All around him, people began to fall to the orcs. Soldiers appeared and began to fight, but the orcs had gained too much ground to be so easily beaten back. Kili thought of the other side of the city and wondered if they’d simply been silenced before a warning could be given.

“Gandalf, where is Gandalf?” Kili muttered. He didn’t remember the way out of the city, and there were so many passes, so many doorways and gates that he didn’t know how to get out. He just aimed in the direction the masses seemed to be going, and he urged the girls onward. “C’mon, we can make it,” he told them. “Just keep going, we’re almost there.”

He was almost out, the field to Minas Tirith in his sights, when something flew through the air. The chunk of rock that they’d catapulted hit hard, destroying stone and wood, and the arch began to collapse. Kili caught Ivriniel around the waist and pulled her in close, then threw himself into the arch, twisting to land on his back. He hit the ground hard and gasped as the air was forced from his lungs. The stones fell and he tried to curl around the girls as best he could. The arch was soon covered and crumbled, and the building next to it began to topple without the support.

Worse yet, there was enough room for things to get through. Things like orcs. “Go,” Kili managed to gasp, and the girls, who seemed unhurt, scrambled to their feet and raced out of the city. Kili pushed himself up slowly, painfully, and tried to reach for his sword. But he wasn’t breathing right, the air not back in his lungs yet, and two orcs were coming through. He stumbled and pulled the blade out, but it wasn’t in time. With a savage yell the orc’s blade tore through the air at his neck.

Then it froze, blade falling from its hand, and Kili could only stare at the arrow that was lodged deep in its skull. The other orc had suffered the same fate, and even as they fell, even before the sound of the approaching horse behind him registered, even before he turned around, he knew who it was.

Legolas.”

The elf was already sliding off the horse by the time Kili had run out of the city. He threw himself at Legolas, and Legolas held on so tightly Kili thought he’d lose his breath again. “You’re here,” he mumbled. “What are you doing here? I don’t care, you’re here, and that’s all that matters, Legolas-“

“We have to go,” Legolas said, but he was reluctant to release Kili. “The orcs have taken Osgiliath.” He paused, eyes darkening in anger when he reached for Kili’s face. Kili frowned, confused, until Legolas’s fingers came away with blood. The arrow, the first arrow, before he’d grabbed-

“Finduilas! Ivriniel!” he shouted, wildly searching the fields. “Two girls, they came running out together, did you see them?”

“Kili!”

Then they were there, racing back to him, and he wrapped them tightly in his arms. “Can you bear us all?” Kili asked.

“For you, anything,” Legolas said. Kili felt warmth begin to blaze in his heart, sweeping through him even as the cold winds from Mordor continued to sweep around them. Legolas was here, with him, and while it didn’t ease the ache of missing Fili, there was still someone here with him.

They quickly put both girls on the horse, with Legolas in the back and Finduilas positioned in front of Kili. With the girls secure, they raced back to Minas Tirith, following the fleeing people of Osgiliath.

 

“Master Baggins,” Mablang said. “We must move on.”

Bilbo nodded absently, his eyes still gazing westward towards Gondor. The storm had begun to drift further beyond Mordor’s borders, and he could make out Osgiliath, clouded and smoking. His thoughts traveled back to just a few days ago, when they’d barely started climbing the mountain between them and Mordor. They’d hidden as orcs and more orcs had marched past them, all of them heading west. Bilbo had felt uneasy, praying that they’d go elsewhere, that they’d leave the innocents in Osgiliath alone.

But they were orcs, and orcs aimed at making the innocent suffer.

“Master Baggins?”

“It burns,” he said, his response nearly lost in the wind. They were nearing the top now, so close, and Bilbo had never been more grateful to be so high. Not that he was looking forward to going back down, but it had to be easier than climbing up unforgiving rock. He’d pulled cloth from his trousers to wrap around his hands when the sharp rocks had cut at him, and even Mablang’s gloves hadn’t lasted long against the stones they used to climb. They weren’t even going to discuss Bilbo’s feet, which were shredded and so painfully tender now that every step sent pain up his legs. He could feel every little pebble against his skin, and it made him want to hop to safety. And they weren’t going to speak of the ankle that throbbed with his pulse, pounding in pain with every waking moment. If he was able to walk at all after this, he’d be grateful. He didn’t even think he could handle walking on grass now.

Maybe cool stone. Cold stone passageways, perhaps, he could walk down those. Like the ones in Erebor that he’d walked along briefly before…

Mablang had come along beside him now, and was staring out at Osgiliath. For a moment, his eyes tightened in sadness, and then it was gone. “The orcs will have their way with the city,” he said at last. His voice was soft, as it had been since they’d begun their ascent. Speaking any louder seemed foreign and wrong, here in the mountains under the black clouds. “Osgiliath was never truly protected. But if it fell, then it served its purpose: Minas Tirith will be warned. It was meant to be a port and nothing more, but people began to flock there to live, especially those who work in trade.”

“Children?” Bilbo couldn’t help but ask. He hated himself for doing it, but the words left before he could halt them.

“Families, yes. That is something you should know by now, Master Baggins.” Something dark crossed past Mablang’s face, and when he turned to Bilbo, the hobbit barely managed to keep from shivering. “War does not ostracize the innocent from its path. If it breathes, then the orcs will cut it down. Even if it is another orc. They are nourished from the sight of spilled blood. You would do best to remember that. They turn upon each other just as easily as they would a brand new babe.”

Mablang turned back to their ‘path’, or what counted as one, and began to ascend. “Keep up, Halfling,” Mablang snapped, and after a long moment, Bilbo did so. There was something in Mablang’s past there, something dark and vile, something that had torn innocence from him. Something that had hardened him.

It still frightened him to walk beside Mablang, though. Bilbo had very carefully kept the Ring hidden and had kept his distance, so it didn’t whisper to the man. But he knew that the closer they came to Mordor, the louder it would get. And he didn’t know if it would be enough to save him, when the time came.

For now, he climbed. The cloth tied to his hands was beginning to unravel, and it wouldn’t last long. Please let us be near the top, he thought. Please. I’ll never make it through Mordor if I can’t climb the mountain.

Mablang would be no help to him, and honestly, he wasn’t certain if he even wanted help from the man. He felt the Ring burn against his chest, and the pain was almost enough to distract him from his ripped hands and feet.

Almost.

“We’re nearing the top,” Mablang called quietly over his shoulder. “Then we’ll take the path higher into the mountains, to the stairs.”

“Stairs?” Bilbo asked. “You mean someone put stairs here?” Why hadn’t he been told this before?

“We could not reach them the other way. I would not take you to Minas Morgul, Master Baggins. It is the City of the Nazgûl. The black wraiths that you have seen flying around from time to time.”

The black riders that had attacked them and injured Holdwine. “But there are stairs,” Bilbo entreated. “A real path.”

“A real path.” Mablang huffed a laugh. “You could say that. I will take you to the stairs, but no further. You will find your way hence from there.”

Despite the fear that Mablang set in his heart, the fear of being alone was worse. “You won’t come with me?” Bilbo asked.

Mablang stopped his climbing and looked back at him, and from under the hood, his eyes glittered. “I would not cross the plains of Mordor for all the gold you could give me, Master Hobbit. Whatever deed you have to do, it is not so important that I would risk my life for it.”

Bilbo swallowed and fought the urge to reach for the Ring. He’d be on his own, then. Somehow, traveling across the plains of Mordor, filled with orcs and the black clouds and the fire he’d seen from a distance. And the Eye. The Eye that kept taunting him in what little sleep he could get. Honestly, he was surprised and grateful he hadn’t slid down the mountain yet, for all the sleep he’d been missing.

He began to climb again when Mablang did. His thoughts began to focus on the long walk from the borders of Mordor to Mount Doom. All on his own. He’d do this all on his own. There would be no one there with him. No Gandalf, no Aragorn, no Thorin-

He shut his eyes tight and allowed himself a moment to panic and fear and grieve. Then he shifted his shoulders to try and take some of the weight off of his back from his pack, refusing to think of the real weight that was pulling at his neck.

Stairs. He could climb stairs well enough on his own. One foot at a time, darling, his mother whispered in his ear. You can’t get anywhere faster by trying to walk with two feet at the same time.

His heart ached for her loss as if she’d passed on just yesterday, and he climbed.

 

“Where’s Papa?” the youngest girl whispered again, and once again Legolas felt his heart tear a little more at the seams for her. This child, human though she was, should never have had to face this deplorable day. She had possibly lost her father in Osgiliath forever. She was too young to have lost her dreams, her family.

“Fin, hush,” her older sister said, but it was clear she was just as panicked and fearful as her sibling.

Kili, who’d been having his face examined, broke free of the healer and went to them. The gash across his cheek looked uglier than it was, but it still made Legolas want to cut down every orc there was. The thought of Kili being hurt was just wrong, and it made his stomach twist. He wished he’d been quicker. He wished he’d been faster.

“It’ll be all right,” Kili was saying to them. The young dwarf had knelt in front of the girls and was now brushing their wind-blown locks from their faces, much as a parent would do for their child. “Lots of people were separated. I got separated from my friend, too.”

Gandalf. Legolas turned to scan the crowd, but there was no sight of the white wizard. He pursed his lips and turned back to the quiet scene before him. Kili continued to speak with them, and soon they were smiling, albeit with sadness in their eyes. They were old enough to know that clinging to hope would not do them well. But they were young enough to still believe in a happy ending.

Legolas envied them. The proof that a happy ending could be taken from you in a moment’s notice was evident on Kili’s cheek. An inch further to the right, and it would have pierced through Kili’s eye, and through his brain. He would have lost Kili forever. And all of it without truly telling the dwarf how much he mattered. Yes, they’d spoken briefly. Yes, they’d touched and kissed. But Kili had been under the spell of the Palantír, and Legolas had still not spoken with him the words that mattered.

He would. When he had a moment to himself, and he could draw Kili aside, he would speak them.

“Kili!”

Legolas turned as Kili did, and there was Gandalf, striding through the commotion. “I am glad to see you,” Gandalf said with a relieved sigh. He didn’t even seem startled when he saw Legolas. “And I am glad you found your way safely to us, Legolas.”

It would not surprise him, if Gandalf had been waiting for him. “I went as swiftly as I could,” Legolas said. “I have matters to speak to you.”

“Then we will speak them together,” a voice from behind Gandalf said, and Legolas started at the sight of Denethor of Gondor, alive and well. He limped and clutched at his side, but it was much better than the death Legolas had feared he had suffered.

Denethor seemed to notice the surprise on his face, and he gave a short smile. “Well met again, Master Elf,” he said. He offered his hand, and Legolas took it, shaking it in the custom of men.

“I am glad to see you well.”

“The elves of Lothlorien are adept healers,” Denethor said. “Without them, I would have been lost.” His eyes cast around to the havoc about them, and his face tightened in sorrow. “I may still be lost, yet,” he murmured.

“Where is your father?” Legolas asked. Denethor’s face clouded, but it was Gandalf who spoke.

“Ecthelion is healing from the influence of a Palantír. It is Denethor whom we shall now speak to, in regards to Gondor’s future.”

Legolas nodded as Gandalf led them away, but Kili called them to a halt. “I won’t leave them,” he said, and when Gandalf frowned, the dwarf drew the girls before him. “They’re missing their father. I won’t abandon them here.”

Never before had Legolas felt so much pride in the one his heart called for. Kili truly was a light in the midst of the darkest times. His heart was so open and kind, and it was shown in the gentle ways he spoke to and handled the lost girls. He was much like Thorin was, Legolas presumed, when Kili and Fili had been raised. Thoughts of his own father came to mind, and Legolas pushed them away.

The youngest girl looked to Denethor, and there was recognition there. “Have you seen my father, m’lord?” she asked.

“I have not,” he said regretfully. To Gandalf he said: “Adrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, is their father. Let me leave a message behind with the captains here, that if he comes forward, he will find his daughters with us.”

Gandalf nodded approvingly. “And a wise idea that is, Denethor. Kili, bring them.”

The girls stared up at Gandalf in awe, and Gandalf gave them a gentle smile. “Who have we here?” he asked, and Legolas knew of how Gandalf offered his fireworks and magic tricks to the youngest elves in the forest. Of one thing Legolas was certain of: Gandalf adored the children above everyone else. He delighted in their shrieks of laughter and their bright smiles. Innocence, joy. Hope. The wizard had spent time with the children in Rohan, performing trick after trick to bring them smiles.

It worked again now. “Ivriniel,” the oldest said, clasping her younger sister’s hand in hers. “This is Finduilas, my sister.”

“What beautiful names,” Gandalf complimented, and as one the girls smiled. “You have found princesses and ladies indeed, Kili. I would be glad of their company.”

“Come,” Denethor said, and they moved through the mass of survivors. Healers darted everywhere, but between the four of them, they managed to buffet the girls from the horrors and tragedy around them. Many were injured, and many more were dying, and Legolas fought not to reach for Kili. Kili was there, he was alive. That was what mattered.

Something brushed against his hand, and when he looked, Kili was there, his hand outstretched in an open invitation. Legolas smiled and took his hand. Finduilas, who was walking in front of them, happened to glance back at their joined hands. “Are you in love?” she asked Kili.

Kili swallowed hard, but he spoke out loud, despite his fear. “I am,” he said, and his voice was nearly steady.

In the midst of the chaos and destruction, in the midst of pain and fear, Legolas managed to find a way to smile so brightly that all hesitation fell from Kili’s face. Finduilas even smiled, adding a skip to her step.

All the way up the various levels, Kili’s hand was warm in his.

 

They were fine until the horses balked. Being nearly tall enough to ride horses instead of ponies, they’d been given swift horses to take them deep into the mountain. The pass through had been tough terrains at times. For the most part, it had been easy riding. The last stretch, however, had required leading the horses through as the passage became narrower and narrower.

The door they found had been dark and deep, and when the foul wind had blown from it, the horses had taken off. “No!” Thorin shouted, reaching for the bridle, but they were gone too quickly to catch. All of the horses ran back the way they’d come, leaving them abandoned in front of the door.

“What’s it say above the door?” Gimli asked, pointing to the ancient symbols that decorated the archway.

“Home of the Dead, wipe yer feet,” Dwalin muttered. His hands twisted the pole of his war hammer in his hands. It wasn’t his best hammer: that he’d left with Ori, back in Rohan. Something to defend the dwarf he loved, when he himself could not.

Thorin resolutely gazed into the darkness and didn’t think of the one his heart ached for.

A hissed voice called to them from the doorway, and the very hairs on Thorin’s neck rose at the sound. “Show yourself!” Aragorn yelled.

Nothing. Thorin pulled Orcrist from its sheath and held it forward in his hands. “Obey your king!” he bellowed. “Show yourselves!”

“There is no KING!”

The voice surged from behind them, and they all whipped around, weapons at the ready. No one stood there. There was nothing to see.

Gimli looked a lot less steady than he had only moments before. Thorin could admit to being unnerved, and even Dwalin looked hesitant. This was nothing they had ever dealt with, before. The dead remained dead. This was something they could not harm.

Aragorn looked uncertain as well, but then his gaze dropped to his sword. It was a beautifully crafted work, and Thorin could hear its ancient power as much as he could when he unsheathed Orcrist. There was a presence about the sword, and it carried itself.

Aragorn let his gaze rise to the door, and his eyes narrowed. “I do not fear the dead,” he said lowly, and before they could say anything he stepped inside. The darkness swallowed him immediately.

Thorin quickly moved forward, determined to follow the young man wherever he went. Dwalin was right behind him, and they stepped into the darkness. No light shone through, and Thorin began to make his way forward, following where Aragorn had gone.

A voice seemed to echo through the cavern from behind them. “A dwarf, afraid to go underground?” Gimli said, trying obviously to steady his voice. “If my father saw me now, he’d drop me in a barrel of ale and leave me to drown!”

Dwalin was rolling his eyes, Thorin knew it. “Get in here!” Dwalin snapped, and in a moment Gimli was with them.

Soon it began to lighten. Aragorn moved ahead through the mist that he could now see. The halls were made of stone, and there were skulls everywhere in the wall. Whole skeletons were laid out, and their empty eye sockets almost seemed to be peering through him. Thorin tightened his grip on Orcrist and refused to acknowledge the fear that was building at the base of his neck.

Something came up at him, and instinct made him swing at it, only to find the mist parting. But it had moved towards him…

“What is this?” Dwalin exclaimed, and when Thorin turned, the mist was coming up towards him. Fingers formed out of it, and Dwalin batted them away into nonexistence. Thorin turned to Aragorn, who looked just as bewildered as he was.

More hands began to reach for them, but they caused no harm. When his boot gave beneath him with a crack, Thorin looked down and through the mist at what was beneath his feet, and his chest tightened. He’d seen much death in his lifetime. But never before had he seen so many remains, nor had he walked on them or crushed the skulls of those passed beneath him.

There were so many of them, and he wondered at how many men had died here, in the mountain. Thousands of them, cursed, living their lives out in the mountain until they were left to rot here. When they had said it was the Paths of the Dead, he hadn’t thought it meant that the paths were made of the dead.

“Do not look down,” Aragorn warned, as more cracking noises came from the crushed skulls beneath them. Dwalin clenched his jaw and steadfastly kept his gaze up. Gimli winced with every step he took as more cracks echoed around them.

More passageways were filled with the misty arms of the dead, grasping at them for something. Echoes of voices long dead cried out in fear and pain, begging for relief. Thorin could feel their cold hands on him, chilling him to his core, and he wondered if this feeling of cold was what it felt like to be dead. When he passed on, would his spirit linger somewhere, perhaps in the halls of Erebor, cold and unable to feel, begging for life?

If he never made peace with Bilbo, if he could not find forgiveness and peace here, then he knew his spirit would be as damned as those here. He would be lost forever, and worse yet, he would have deserved it. He could not imagine entering the halls of his forefathers with what he had done. If forgiven, he could perhaps pass, and pass with honor. But not before then.

Then his traitorous mind left him thinking of Bilbo, dead and gone, his body cold and empty, and his spirit wandering lost across Middle-Earth. He shuddered so fiercely Dwalin caught his arm with concern. “All right?” Dwalin muttered.

Thorin gave a sharp nod. Dwalin didn’t look convinced, but he let Thorin go.

The passage began to open, and suddenly they were in a wide cavern, as tall and open as the Great Deep in Erebor. A steep cliff ended not far from them, and along the far wall were bodies tucked into crevices. But the greatest part of the cavern was there in front of them, reaching high to the top of the cavern.

The front of the building was massive, and the tops of the spires were lost in the cavern ceiling. This had not always been a cavern, then. Just hidden away, trapping it with the dead. It looked to be a royal hall, or had been, once upon a time, carved from the rock itself. It held an air of terrible awe, and Thorin could not help but admire it, even as it chilled his blood.

“Who dares enter my domain?”

The voice from the entrance to the Paths was there, angry and close, and before his very eyes. Even as he watched a figure, glowing the green hue of the rotten dead, appeared before him. It was a corpse with eyes long unseeing, but Thorin could feel when it stared straight at him. He could see beneath its tattered skin and its rotten hair. The only thing vibrant about the ghost before him was the crown atop his head. It had not saved even the king of the men here in the mountains. It was made of fine gold and jewels, but it glowed the same ghostly shade as the corpse, leaving it weathered and worth nothing.

In the end, the treasure you took with you into death meant nothing. You were still dead. Thorin thought of the cursed Arkenstone, of how Bilbo had seen the truth. It was a stone. It was not worth a life.

I will make it up to you, beloved. I swear it.

Aragorn stepped forward towards the being and cleared his throat. “I call upon you to fulfill your oath to Gondor,” he said. “I am Isildur’s heir, and I would have your allegiance.”

The ghost began to laugh, a horrible sound that made Thorin tighten his grip on Orcrist. Suddenly there were ghosts everywhere, pouring from the walls, their pale wisps surrounding them. Dwalin immediately set his back against Thorin’s, growling at them. One ghost came too close, and he swung his war hammer straight at it. It flew through it, as if it wasn’t there, but when the ghost reached out and touched Dwalin’s arm, the dwarf shuddered and stumbled back, his face pale. “Dwalin!” Thorin yelled as he hauled his friend back.

“M’all right,” Dwalin muttered. Color slowly began to return to his face. “The Dead aren’t friendly. And they’re not receptive to bein’ struck, either.”

“Find your feet,” Thorin urged. No other ghost made to come closer. “You wouldn’t have me return to Ori without you, would you?”

“Nah, I like you better than that,” Dwalin said, and Thorin couldn’t help chuckling.

“We answer to no man,” the king hissed. “No man but the King of Gondor.”

Aragorn moved forward, pulling forth his sword. The king faltered, his pale eyes wide. “You will answer to me,” Aragorn said, voice dangerously low. “I am Isildur’s heir. I can free you from your turmoil. You have only to follow me and aid me, and I will give you release.”

The king said nothing. Around them, the ghosts had gone silent. Thorin swung his gaze from them to the king, and for some reason, it felt just like it had the day Thranduil had said nothing. Though there had been screams of the innocents dying, of fleeing in terror, Thorin had heard nothing but the echo of his pained cry for help. And the silence of Thranduil’s answer as he’d turned and left.

“Will you not answer?” Thorin shouted, fury coursing through his veins. He stepped forward beside Aragorn, glaring at the ghostly king. “Would you remain traitors, murderers, and locked here in this mountain of death? You abandoned the King when he needed you most, you left him in peril, and brought death and destruction to his people! All because you could not do the right thing!”

Nothing. Thorin could feel his chest heaving with his raging breaths, and he was suddenly so angry he could barely see anything but the red in his gaze. “Would you abandon him now, when he offers you a second chance? You could be free! You could do honorably by his people, by yours! You could live once more, and breathe the fresh air, then rest in peace!”

“I swear to you, if you aid me, I will set you free,” Aragorn said. “By my blood, I swear it!”

Slowly the king began to cackle. The ghosts began to vanish, one by one. “I give you my word!” Aragorn roared, and Thorin watched as none remained, not even the king. His laughter still echoed through the cavern.

Dwalin shook his head. “Honor. What would they know about honor? Dead or livin’, doesn’t matter: too few know what real honor is.”

Gimli looked as disheartened as Aragorn, but he moved over to the young man, resting a hand on his arm. “We’ll go with you,” he said. “We’ll not abandon ye now. Not when Gondor needs us.”

Aragorn gave a small smile at Gimli’s sincerity. “Thank you,” he said. He glanced up at Thorin, who merely nodded the same. “Thank you. We-“

The cavern began to shake. A whisper of sound began to grow louder and louder, like the falling of sand through fingertips or the clinking of gold on a pile. Suddenly the front of the royal hall burst open, and hundreds of skulls poured out. “Run!” Dwalin shouted.

It was too late to go back the way they’d come: Thorin could only pray there was an exit ahead of them. He dashed forward, making certain Gimli and Aragorn were ahead of him. More of the wall began to break, and thousands of skulls now began to flood the room. They pooled around him and pushed him towards the cliff, but Thorin’s feet were solid, and he made his arm a fierce wall. He was Thorin Oakenshield, as strong as a tree trunk with deep roots. He would aid his friend in saving Gondor, he would find his sister-sons again, and he would find Bilbo. He would make amends.

He pushed on.

A small crevice ahead was just big enough for them to fit through, and they hurried forward until they saw light. Fresh air called to them, a rare gift with the stench of decay thundering behind them. They quickly pushed onward and suddenly found themselves outside. Grass and sky and the breeze were there, all for the taking, and if Dwalin fell to his knees and pressed his hand to the grass, well, Thorin couldn’t blame him. He stood and tried to catch his breath.

“Thorin.”

At Gimli’s voice, he turned and saw a tall ship floating along the river not far from them. A village that ran along the river was smoking, and even from their distance, Thorin could hear the cries of fearful villagers, the death cries. The tall ship bore sharp spines that looked like bones, and Thorin felt his heart fall. Decimated, destroyed. Hopeless. All of Middle-Earth would look this way, if Gondor fell, and Sauron reigned supreme. Erebor would tumble, Legolas’s forests would fall to the darkness, and Bilbo’s beautiful Shire would be burned to the ground.

In front of him, Aragorn stumbled to sit on the ground, and he could see tears in the young man’s eyes as he stared at the village. Dwalin rested a hand on Aragorn’s shoulder, and Thorin watched as the young man began to silently weep. Gimli stared at the ground mutely.

They would not have enough to combat the forces Sauron would unleash on Gondor. They would fail Middle-Earth. They would fail Bilbo. Thorin swallowed back the sudden rush of tears.

A whisper stirred in the air behind them, and they all turned to suddenly see the ghost king emerge from the wall. Aragorn stood swiftly, hand still on his sword.

The ghost king looked down at the blade, then up at Aragorn. His wretched voice no longer echoed, almost silent in the sunlight, but it still creaked with his visible jaw bone, and it sounded like a horrible gasp for air. When he spoke, however, it was still the most joyous sound Thorin had ever heard.

“We fight.”

Chapter Text

After two weeks, a Rider finally came, and promised that their allies were gathered at Helm’s Deep and ready to march. Finally, it was time.

Thengel didn’t even try to tell Dernwyn to stay behind. She was already packed and ready to go, her armor about her as if she were the queen of the battle. Only when Fili stepped beside her, however, did Thengel’s shoulders drop. He trusted Fili with her life, and it left Fili humbled and terrified, all at the same time. He hadn’t been able to save Kili, he couldn’t help his uncle, and now he was being handed the very life of the one his heart yearned for?

Mahal. He almost wished they were back in Thranduil’s dungeons: it had been easier than this.

The wind blew through Edoras as if it were just as ready for battle. It sent a chill down Fili’s spine as he stood outside of Aldor’s house, waiting for Dernwyn. Many of the Riders were already marching towards Gondor, to join with those coming from Helm’s Deep. Hopefully the numbers were enough. Hopefully Thorin was having good luck with the Army of the Dead in the mountains. Hopefully Legolas had reached Kili and they were safe.

Kee, you better be safe. I’ll kill you if you’re not safe.

The door opened and Dernwyn stepped out, breathing in the fresh air. “How is he?” Fili asked.

“He wants to speak with you,” she said, and that wasn’t expected.

“What?”

Dernwyn turned to him, and though her eyes were red from crying, her lips were turned up in a smile. “He wants to speak with you. Go, I’ll wait here.”

Completely bewildered, Fili wandered into the house. Aldor gave him a brief nod before leaving, and then it was just Fili and Holdwine. The Rider looked to be faring better: color had returned to his face, and he was propped up against the wall behind the bed. His smile was still weak, though, and he could barely raise his hand to summon Fili over.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better. Not well, though. But better. Aldor seems to think I’ll be well enough by the harvest march to lead the men.” Holdwine’s face fell. “I heard of Fulgram passing. How is his son?”

“Bitter, inwardly. Grieving. But so proud of his father.”

Holdwine smiled. “That doesn’t surprise me at all.” He winced as he tried to sit up higher. “I called you because I need you to do something for me.”

“Tell me what I can do for you,” Fili said, and he knelt beside Holdwine’s bed to take his hand. “Anything, Holdwine.”

Holdwine gazed at him, as if peering deep into his thoughts, and finally gave a nod. “You’ll do well by her. I’m glad.”

Fili blinked. “Wait, what?”

The Rider chuckled, even as it obviously tore at his chest. “She was right: you’re a bit dense sometimes, but it’s an endearing trait.” He laughed even more at the face Fili made. Dense indeed. That woman…

Holdwine began to cough, and Fili went to get Aldor, only to be stopped by the man’s grip. “No, wait. I want to give you my blessing. She’s no family left, not really, and I know Thengel’s approved of you both. So as her guardian, I want you to have my blessing.”

Fili stared, floored. “But, but I’m supposed to ask for it-“

“What you have given her is more than I could ever thank you for,” Holdwine said. “She’s happy, she’s full of joy and life again. I am so grateful to you for bringing that to her. You have given me the gift of a lively niece: let me give you the gift of my blessing.”

It was all Fili could do to nod. “Keep her safe,” Holdwine implored. “I would be there beside her, protecting her, if I could. But my body failed Bilbo, and now it will fail her, too.”

“You saved Bilbo,” Fili argued. “You protected him. Gandalf saw him marching onward. He’s still out there, walking to Mordor, because of you. You did that, when no one else could. We owe you everything.”

Holdwine measured him for a long moment, then began to smile. “You’ll do, lad,” he said quietly. “You’ll do. She chose well indeed.”

Fili ducked his head, cheeks warm, but the praise meant more than Holdwine could have ever guessed. To have received the blessing from him meant he was worthy, he was accepted in their home, that he was deemed strong enough to protect her in times of crisis and heartache. Holdwine had given his blessing, and never before had Fili felt so grand and so small, all at the same time.

He stumbled out of the house after he gave his farewells, only to find Dernwyn waiting. “Well?” she asked, eyebrow raised. “What did he say?” She had her arms crossed, the poised look of confidence, but in her eyes Fili spotted nervousness. So she’d known what Holdwine would ask.

He scowled at her. “You threw me to the wolves,” he complained. “You knew what he’d ask and you didn’t even warn me-“

“How was I supposed to warn you?” she exclaimed. “I had no idea what he’d say, beyond that he’d size you up and deem you worthy of being with me!”

He scowled. She glared. He didn’t know who broke first, but when the stifled snort of amusement burst forth, it was all they could do to not fall over laughing. “Next time, warn me,” he managed, when he’d pulled enough air back into his lungs.

She almost started laughing again at his words. “Next time? I have no others to size you up, Fili. Holdwine’s all the family I have!”

“You have me,” Fili said, the honest words out of his mouth before he could stop them. Dernwyn blinked, but before Fili could take them back, she smiled, a bright, wide smile that made her eyes light up.

“I do,” she said softly. “And you have me.”

He smiled broadly. Together they went down to the stables to join in the march.

Fili was fairly certain he’d just promised more than a courting, that he’d promised years together under the same roof, of maybe little feet waddling across the floors of Erebor. But when she shot him another smile from atop her horse, he couldn’t bring himself to mind. He had a feeling they’d always been heading that way.

He only had to ask his uncle. And given that Uncle was in love with a very stubborn and determined, sweet and well missed hobbit, well, Thorin really didn’t have a leg to stand on. And he wasn’t Kili, chasing after an elf.

They just had to survive the defense of Gondor. Then he could ask his uncle, and then ask her to be with him.

It was a warm thought that carried him across the cold and windy Wold.



Kili was on top of the world. Well, metaphorically speaking. It certainly felt like it, that was for certain.

Legolas stood beside him in the hall, hand still wrapped in his. They hadn’t a chance to talk yet, but there he stood, smiling down at Kili like Kili was the greatest treasure he’d ever seen. He didn’t know if he’d ever been looked like that before, and his heart felt as if it would burst. It was a happiness he was almost guilty about having, in the midst of all this sorrow.

But it was making even the girls smile, and they whispered and giggled amongst themselves when they looked at them. Ivriniel seemed to have stars in her eyes, and more than once he’d heard her whisper to her sister about weddings. As long as they were amused, Kili was content. It was better than hearing Finduilas whimper for her father.

A man quickly stepped into the hall, and Denethor glanced over. “What news?”

“M’lord, Osgiliath is lost,” he said, and the hall went silent. “It has been overrun with orcs. We have managed to keep them from going any further towards Minas Tirith, but their forces were too many. I am sorry.”

“You did your best, under the terrible circumstances,” Gandalf said, giving the man a nod. When the man simply continued standing there, however, Gandalf spoke again. “Is there any other news?”

“Unfortunately,” the man said apologetically. To Denethor, he said, “M’lord, Hirluin is dead.”

One man amongst the city where many had died seemed odd, but the color drained from Denethor’s face so fast Kili moved forward to steady him. “Are you certain?” Denethor asked, eyes wide.

The man nodded. “They found him as they fled Osgiliath. Dead for quite a while, not in the battle.”

“Who is Hirluin?” Legolas asked. “A friend?”

“A most trusted friend,” Denethor whispered, and he moaned, raising a trembling hand to his face. “One of my guardsmen. I sent him…”

He looked up at Kili, and his words sent a bolt of terror through Kili’s heart.

“I sent him with Bilbo.”



“Bilbo?”

Bilbo slowly opened his eyes. Thorin was there in front of him, bright blue eyes shining with concern and worry. “Bilbo?” he whispered again.

“You’re not real,” Bilbo murmured. The heat felt less, now, and the pain in his feet, ankle, and hands was a dull murmur. All sure signs that he was dreaming.

Thorin settled down beside him on the rocks, and he looked just as regal and bearing as he had that day in the throne room. “You have to keep going,” Thorin said, ignoring Bilbo’s words. It would be just like the dwarf to do that. “You’ve done so well so far, and you’re nearly there.”

“You can’t say that,” Bilbo said, suddenly so very angry. “You can’t say that! You’re not here, you don’t, you don’t know what it’s been like! Walking all alone in the mountains, not trusting anyone you see, and even when I’m with someone, I still feel so alone. You left me alone, Thorin,” he finished, anguished. “I’m all alone.”

Thorin looked saddened, but said nothing. How could he? Bilbo’s mind didn’t know what to say, so this Thorin had no voice.

He swallowed hard. “Lie with me,” he whispered, no, begged. “Just for a little while. Please.”

“Always,” the Thorin swore to him, just the way Bilbo wanted him to, and indeed, he moved to rest beside Bilbo on the unforgiving rocks. He looked at peace that way, dark hair not even fluttering in the breeze. Bilbo reached out, unable to help himself, wanting to touch, needing to touch. He hesitated before his fingers touched Thorin, knowing he’d wake if he did.

“Swear you’ll always be here,” Bilbo pleaded, tears in his eyes. “Thorin, swear it.”

“I swear it.”

“Swear you’ll never leave me, never cast me aside.”

“Never; I will never do that to you.”

The earnestness in his voice and gaze was nearly his undoing, but Bilbo still managed to find a voice to beg for one more thing. “Swear that you love me,” he choked out.

“Bilbo.”

Bilbo blinked and the Thorin was gone. The heat rolled over him, the breeze doing nothing to alleviate it, and his wounds ached. He swallowed and tried to find enough moisture to wet his lips. Goodness knows all he’d need to do would be to wipe the tears for his eyes, but the salt would only dry his lips out further. His water-skin was slowly being depleted, drop by drop. And he knew there’d be no water in Mordor.

He sat up. Mablang was seated on a rock, gazing at him. “Do you often dream such vivid dreams?” the man asked. “I have seen many dream, but never before have I seen one weep while they do so.”

Bilbo felt his cheeks burn, but he kept his head held high. “Heartache comes in many forms,” he said. “But I doubt I need to tell you that. Loss comes to us all, in one way or another.”

Mablang nodded after a moment. “So it does, little Master, so it does. Wiser words were never spoken.” He pocketed the knife he’d been twirling – another blade Bilbo didn’t recognize, and how many did the man have, after all? – and stood, stretching his back. He winced when he flexed his fingers, and Bilbo felt his pain. He didn’t know if he could bear climbing with his hands any further. But he had to. There was no going back. The Ring had to be destroyed.

Mablang…

Bilbo’s head shot up as Mablang froze. “Did you hear something?” the man asked.

Bilbo managed to shake his head. “No,” he lied, and kept his voice steady. “I heard nothing. Why, what did you hear?”

Mablang slowly turned back to his pack. “Nothing,” he said hollowly. “I heard nothing.” But his fingers clenched and unclenched, as if feeling no pain, and Bilbo’s stomach turned to ice.

“We have nearly reached the stairs,” Mablang said, and gestured for Bilbo to go forward. “Not far at all.”

“I wouldn’t know the way,” Bilbo protested as soon as he realized Mablang wanted him to go first, to turn his back to the man. “You should lead.”

“If I went first, and I fell on the stairs, I would take you with me,” Mablang said. “The path is narrow to the stairs, and we are not joining them from their start. We’ve come around the longer way to avoid the City of the Nazgûl: I would not undo our hard progress now.”

Bilbo shouldered his pack and finally moved forward. Every nerve in his body was attuned to the man walking behind him. He couldn’t rest his hand on Sting, but he couldn’t be without a guard, either. Not here, not this close. Not when the Ring had begun to call to Mablang. Distance mattered nothing to the Ring.

Not when it was so close to Sauron.

They climbed for a little longer, and before long, they reached a flattened tier of rocks. It curved around the mountain, and when they followed it, gingerly stepping where they could, Bilbo could see a glowing city far below them. It was terrifying to gaze at, and he felt the same darkness creep into his body the way it had when he’d seen the black riders.

The Nazgûl.

“Keep going,” Mablang hissed, and Bilbo realized he’d stopped to stare. He murmured an apology and moved alongside the mountain. His ankle was unsteady and getting worse, and he could feel his feet trying desperately to not touch anything. He braced his arm alongside the mountain to spare his hands as he kept turning.

Finally, he came around another sharp corner, and there they were: honest stairs. Bilbo would’ve wept in relief if he hadn’t seen how steep they were. Narrow, too. These weren’t stairs, they were a mockery of it, and the hope in Bilbo’s heart began to fade.

More climbing.

At least they were flat and even; it would spare his feet. And they were already near the top.

He stepped onto the stairs and felt all the hairs on the back of his neck go up. Before he could even turn a sharp dagger was at his throat. “Keep climbing, Halfling,” Mablang whispered. “Up you go.”

“I have no gold to give you for payment,” Bilbo said, but in his heart, he knew why Mablang was threatening him. “Denethor would pay you a large sum for delivering me here, I know it-“

“You think I’ve been dragging you around for gold?” He laughed, and it sent a chill down Bilbo’s spine. “And why would the son of the Steward pay me anything, when I wasn’t the one he sent?”

The slam of fear to his gut nearly made him ill. “You’re not-“

“Haven’t any clue who the fellow was,” Mablang said as Bilbo inched higher and higher up the stairs. “He died quickly, if it’s any consolation to you.”

No, no it wasn’t, and Bilbo wanted to shut his eyes. An innocent man, a trusted guard of Denethor’s, and he’d died because of the Ring, because of Bilbo. “Why not just kill me?” Bilbo asked, courage rearing its head at the wrong time. Or maybe it was the right time. Up ahead, near the top of the stairs, there was a cavern. It was dark and there was absolutely nothing to see through with, but if he could just hide in the cavern…

“One man dead makes no fuss at all. One hobbit missing, especially one carrying such a special trinket…that’s talk right there. Besides, I’ve to give it to the Lord himself, and what better way than to do it so close in person?”

Bilbo made it to the top step and felt the blade press a little harder, drawing just a few drops of blood from his neck. “He’ll kill you,” Bilbo swore. “He’ll burn you alive. You don’t know how it weighs, what it does to you-“

“I’ll take my chances,” Mablang said darkly. “A chance to rule the orcs who took from me so long ago, a chance to destroy them at any whim? A chance to make them pay, and to bring destruction on the men of Gondor who let innocent people die? Oh yes. He’s promised me, been promising me since I passed you in Osgiliath by chance. It was easy to find you after that. A hobbit in Gondor: you made quite the gossip. The Ring guided me after that.”

He was going to die, here and now, if he didn’t do something. Worse yet, the Ring would be in the hands of Mablang, then onto the hands of Sauron. It would all be over. Gondor would fall. The woods would darken further still. The Shire would be torn apart. Erebor would be desolated. Everyone he loved, gone. Bodies covering everywhere, just like in his dream.

Thorin, dead.

He shoved himself back against Mablang, making them both teeter on the edge. As Bilbo had hoped, Mablang withdrew the blade to steady and save himself, and Bilbo had just enough balance to pitch himself forward into the dark cavern. “No!” Mablang shouted in rage, but Bilbo kept going through the darkness.

There was no light. Absolutely nothing to guide him. He kept running into something sticky, something that pulled at his arms and his face and his hair, but he brushed it aside and kept going. Beneath his feet was a moist earth, and he forced himself not to think of it, or of the faint hissing that echoed in too familiar of a way. He’d heard that hissing, had held these sticky strands before in his hands. In Mirkwood, before the elves had come.

Spiders.

“You miserable Halfling!”

He was closer than before, Bilbo thought wildly, closer than he’d expected, and he could hear Mablang’s footsteps getting closer and closer. Without thinking Bilbo dove to the side and pulled his cloak about him. He pressed against the wall and something cracked beside him. Something that felt too much like the hard shape of bones. He shut his eyes and tried not to shake. Where had he ventured into?

Mablang’s footsteps flew past him, further into the darkness, and Bilbo waited until Mablang’s angry voice was well beyond him. It echoed throughout the cavern, but it was no longer there. He pushed himself up and tried not to step on the bones around him. He was walking on corpses, or with them, and a strand of cobweb brushed against his ear. He managed to not shriek, only let out a gasp of terror, and flailed in the darkness, trying to brush it away. Only when he stopped did he realize that he’d turned himself around in his fright, and he had no idea where he was.

He froze. Lost in the darkness with no light. Not even Mablang’s voice was a guide as it echoed through the cavern. It was just him in the dark with the dead, all alone, and not even a breeze to guide him.

I want to go home, he thought, and once he thought it, his terror took over. I want to go home, I want to not be here, I can’t be here anymore, someone save me, someone find me, please, Thorin!

“Thorin, help me,” he whimpered, clutching at his cloak. “Please, help me. I can’t do this alone.”

“You can’t give up, Bilbo.”

Bilbo jumped. “Thorin?” he whispered into the darkness.

“You can do this. You fought spiders, you escaped an Elven dungeon, you faced Azog. You can do this.”

“I can do this,” he murmured, trying to instill the courage Thorin’s voice was asking of him. “I need light, Thorin.”

Thorin didn’t answer. Bilbo froze, suddenly desperately alone once more. “Thorin?” he called, and immediately threw his hand over his mouth. The sound echoed through the cavern, too loud, he’d been too loud.

A voice answered him, but it wasn’t the voice he wanted. “I am not your Thorin, but I will find you,” Mablang said, and he was getting louder. Bilbo turned away from the voice and ran. He could hear the chittering sounds of the spiders, and they were close, so very close. Ahead of him, something heavy moved in the darkness, and he turned and found a new path. Away from Mablang, away from whatever was there in the darkness, away from the spiders-

He caught his foot over something and hit the ground. He gasped and tried to pull himself up, to keep running. His ankle kept shooting spikes of pain up his leg, and his feet were on fire. He was dirty, filthy, covered in cobwebs that left his skin crawling, and he was bleeding, he could feel it, and he was alone. He shut his eyes and tried not to cry. There was no comfort here, none at all, not even a light, he just needed a light-

It will be a light for you when all other lights go out.”

The phial. Galadriel’s star. Bilbo frantically tore into his pack, fingers shaking as he dug for the phial. Everything else seemed to get louder, including his pounding heart, and finally at last his trembling, bloody fingers closed around the phial. As he tore it from his pack, the words flowed like water from his tongue.

“Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!”

The phial began to glow, and soon a piercing light shone forth from it. Light. There was light, here in the darkness. Bilbo felt tears of relief flood down his face. “Thank you,” he murmured, hoping that the Lady could hear him.

The only unfortunate thing was that with the light, Bilbo could now see. And oh, it was a horrible sight to see indeed.

There were cobwebs everywhere. The tunnel was vast and huge, and the sheer size of what could travel through them sent shivers of fear down his spine. There were bodies everywhere, some still wound up in the cocoons like Bilbo had found the company in. A bony hand jutted through one, as if it had tried to escape but failed, and he stumbled back in terror.

“Halfling!”

He’d given light to Mablang, too. The pack was thrown on his back, and with the phial in one hand, Sting in the other, Bilbo began to run. He turned in random places, not trying to get anywhere but just to escape from Mablang. Each passageway looked the same as the next, all of them filled with massive cobwebs and death. The stench was horrible, burning his eyes and nose and making him gag. If he could just get away from Mablang, just get away, then he could find his way back to the stairs, scale the mountain down into Mordor-

Pain so sudden and sharp sparked in his back as something hit him hard, and he stumbled under the weight of it. He forced himself to his hands and knees. He had to move, he had to-

Then it was wrenched free, and the pain was worse. Bilbo cried out and fell back to the ground. Boots came into his vision, and Bilbo glanced up through watering eyes at Mablang. He was twirling a blade in his hand. Stabbed. Bilbo had been stabbed. Why wasn’t he dead?

“Give me the Ring, and I’ll kill you quickly,” Mablang said. “I’ll not leave you to Shelob.”

Shelob? “Who…?”

“She’s been hunting you since you entered her domain,” Mablang said. “Eats everything that wanders in. Give me the Ring, and I swear to you, you won’t suffer.”

Something moved in the darkness again. A spider, it had to be. But it sounded huge and heavy, and no spider was that massive. At least, Bilbo hoped it wasn’t. “No,” he said. He glared at Mablang. “You will never have the Ring.”

“I’ll cut it off of you,” Mablang warned. “One last chance, Halfling.”

Bilbo glared at him, his best glare he’d learned from Dwalin and Thorin. “You’ll regret it,” he said, feeling just as foolish as Kili did. Did Kili feel overwhelmingly confident when he said things like that? Because all Bilbo felt was more frightened. No wonder Kili and Fili got into the worst scrapes imaginable.

Mablang shrugged, and in his eyes was a horrible fire. “Suit yourself,” he said. He twirled the blade and then it was in his grip and swinging down to Bilbo’s head.

Suddenly Mablang was being hoisted into the air, his scream of pain cutting off into gurgling. A thick spine had gone completely through him, and Bilbo scrambled to his feet, lifting his light high. It was a spider, her stinger having pierced Mablang through, and already Mablang was limp in her grasp. Her stinger was nearly the size of a good tree trunk, and her eyes were bigger than Bilbo’s. He stumbled back, his heart pounding so heavily he thought he’d pass out. She was massive. He didn’t think he’d ever seen a creature so large before that hadn’t been a dragon.

Leave. He had to leave, he had to leave now.

Her legs were twirling Mablang into a web, and for a moment, Bilbo wondered if there was something he could do, anything he could do to save him.

Bilbo, love, go!

His mother’s voice rang in his head loud and clear, and Bilbo did as any good son would: he obeyed. He tore down the passageways, avoiding the cobwebs, cutting frantically at the ones that blocked his path. He turned and he turned, slashing at the darkness when it hissed at him, his light held high above his head.

One step too far, and he screamed as he tumbled down a slope. He hit the bottom and rolled, his stomach churning. He managed to crawl a few steps and get his limbs beneath him before he was sick. Too much. It’d been too much. The spider, Shelob, the terror, his heart pounding, Mablang, the darkness, that horrible darkness, the feeling of the cobwebs all over him-

He managed not to heave again, but it was a near thing. He wiped his mouth, wishing he could spare himself a little bit of water to clean his mouth with. There wasn’t much left. Not much food left, either. He had some dried fruits from Osgiliath, and the ever present Lembas bread that had kept him nourished, at least, as he’d traveled. He had one small piece of smoked meat left from Rohan, and he was desperately saving it in the bottom of his pack-

His pack. He glanced around the area, wildly searching, and found his pack not too far away, Sting and the phial dropped next to it. It was a wonder he hadn’t stabbed himself in the fall.

Stabbed. He’d been stabbed. He pushed himself up, his whole body trembling from the adrenaline of running and being sick. He reached back tentatively for the stab wound, and prepared to flinch, only to encounter something smooth. Frowning, he grabbed at it and found it came with him easily. When he realized what it was, he could’ve wept. The mithril armor. Oh but he was glad he hadn’t surrendered it. It had saved his life.

When he finally recovered enough to stand and gather his things, he looked around at where he was. There were steps cut into the rocks, and, thankfully, they were real steps. They wandered up to a tower, and with a sinking feeling in his stomach, Bilbo realized exactly where he was.

He’d done it. He was in Mordor.

Chapter Text

It took him nearly two hours to find his beloved, and when he did, it was in the most unlikely place. At that point, Legolas had nearly given up, assuming that Kili wanted to be alone. After the young dwarf had disappeared in the commotion followed by Denethor's exclamation, Legolas had immediately left to find him. “Where are you going?” Denethor had called to him.

“He's in love,” Finduilas had told him. “That's what people in love do: go after the one they love.”

“Indeed,” he had heard Gandalf muse thoughtfully behind him, but Legolas had had neither the time nor patience for meddling wizards at that point. He had needed to find Kili.

So when he sighed and wandered out onto one of the balconies, intent on taking strength from the air before he wandered back to search for Kili, he was surprised to find it was occupied. There in the corner sat his dwarf, arms wrapped around his knees, forehead resting against his forearms. He looked the perfect image of miserable, and everything about him screamed that he wished to be alone.

Legolas spoke very quietly. “Shall I leave?”

Kili didn't answer at first. “I can leave you alone,” Legolas continued. “I followed because...because I was worried. Because I love you.”

That brought Kili's head up. “You do?” he whispered.

Legolas moved to sit beside him, and it pressed his left side against Kili's warmth. “I do,” Legolas said quietly. “Never before have I yearned to be beside someone in my lifetime. When you fled, I felt my chest tighten so much I nearly could not breathe. It was not just that I wanted to follow you, it was that I had to follow you.”

Kili finally stretched out his legs a little more and leaned against Legolas. It left a chance to pull him in even closer, and Legolas wrapped his arm tightly around the young dwarf. “I just couldn't stay,” Kili confessed. “Not after finding out that Bilbo's out there with some, some murderer and there's nothing we can do-”

“Gandalf said that he felt Bilbo's presence near to Mordor, and no one with him,” Legolas said. “There may yet be hope that Bilbo escaped the clutches of one who would harm him.”

Kili said nothing for a moment. The wind blew across them, and it whispered of foul things to the west. Osgiliath still burned on and on, the black smoke rising miles into the air now. Legolas thought of the two young girls back in the hall with Denethor and Gandalf, of the hundreds of men, women, and children strewn across Minas Tirith's lower levels, and his heart felt the same sorrow that the breeze did. More blood would be shed, soon enough. Tomorrow's sun would rise a terrible red in mourning. He thought of the blood on Kili's cheek, of the arrow that had nearly ended him, of the orcs who would have finished him if Legolas had not been there, and he could not help himself. He pulled Kili against him and pressed a desperate kiss to his forehead, feeling warm, living skin beneath his lips. Kili was alive. Kili was alive.

“You love me.”

Legolas nodded, his lips still against Kili's forehead. “That works out then, because I love you,” Kili replied, and Legolas knew the dwarf could feel it when his lips moved into a smile. “Um. I don't know how well the others will take it, though. But I don't care if you're an elf of Mirkwood. I don't, and I'll defend you with my dying breath. You're...you're the warm feeling in my heart, you're the calming presence that I've missed so much these past few days. It's been hard enough without Fili or Uncle, but without you, too...I missed you so much.”

They weren't words he wanted to say, but Kili needed to hear them all the same. “I'm a prince of Mirkwood,” he said quietly. Kili stilled in his arms.

“You're...Thranduil's son?”

“His youngest.”

“I thought you were his attendant, the day you came to Erebor!”

“I am his attendant, of a sort. I am the first that he would call to his side for anything.”

Silence. Then, Kili gave a short laugh. “Well, that'll make introducing you as my betrothed interesting.”

Legolas felt his heart jump within him. “Betrothed?” he asked.

Kili swallowed, and Legolas pulled back to gaze at him. Kili looked nervous, but in his eyes was determination and love. “Well, it's not really the best time for it, and I don't know how an elf would do with a dwarf form of courting or betrothal, and I really have no idea what in Mahal's name I'm doing but-”

Legolas pressed his lips against Kili's, effectively silencing him. When he had kissed Kili before, he had felt those same warm lips against his, but they had been tame under the thrall of the Palantír. Now, now they were fierce and bold, slanting sideways to deepen the kiss, and Kili's lips were like a fire on his skin, scalding and burning him with each touch. It was Kili's spirit meeting his in hot spit and a surprisingly gentle coaxing of his tongue, and Legolas wound his fingers in Kili's hair and pulled him in even closer, reveling in the moan he pulled from the dwarf. This was the kiss he'd expected from Kili. This was the passion, the fire, the love that he had seen in Kili.

He parted from Kili at last, panting heavily, his thoughts only focused on Kili and his lips and the call for more more more. “You do not care?” he asked. “About my father?”

“He's not you,” Kili said firmly. Well, as firmly as he could, given that he was gasping for air and staring at Legolas's lips as if they held the answer to all the world's secrets. “Which is good, because I don't want to kiss him, I'd much rather be kissing you again. We'll tell the others later.”

“Your uncle knows,” Legolas confessed. “And has known for some time.” Kili's tongue slid out across his lower lip, and Legolas had not even made his intentions properly, none of this was being done the right way, and he didn't particularly care.

“Good for him,” Kili said, and then he was finally kissing Legolas again, his lips wet and lush, and Legolas ignored the breeze when it swept up around them. There was a moment of happiness to be had amongst all of this destruction and death, and it was for Legolas and Kili, and he would take it. There would be little chance of it later.

He twined his hands around Kili's, and their fingers slid together as if they had been made that way. Perhaps they had.

Then he stopped thinking and let himself be surrounded by Kili's lips and Kili's tongue and Kili's hair and Kili.

 

My Ring is lost to me.

“I will seek it out for you, Master.”

You cannot seek it out. Only I can listen for its call. You must begin the march, raise my banner. Already my allies come to aid you. You are my general, my trusted one, my beloved. You and your son are my own, and for your loyalty, you will be repaid. Already the ones you want come towards you. Strike out in my name and take them for your own! Bring Middle-Earth to its knees!

With a nod Azog curled his tongue around the Westron. “It will be done.” He turned to the army preparing near the Black Gate. It was time to end the line of Durin. It was time to wear Thorin Oakenshield's nephews as his armor. It was well past time to send a pike though Thorin's head and carry him through battle as he went.

It was a pity no one had found the small Halfling who had defended Thorin so. Azog would've enjoyed tearing him apart in front of the dwarf. He would have to do with the two young dwarves.

He called his son to him and gestured to the battle. “You will lead them with me,” he rasped. “You and I both will do well by our Master.”

Bolg swung his bone club and chortled. Yes, they would do well. Azog turned his gaze back out to the army of scrambling orcs and shouting Uruk-hai. This was an army fit for a king, for a god. Azog would be their god, and Bolg would be right beside him.

It is time.

And Azog smiled.

 

“Dernwyn.”

She looked up at her uncle's voice. Thengel gave her a kind smile and nodded to his tent. She handed her still full bowl of stew to Fili – there was little chance there would be any of it left, given that it was Fili she'd handed it to – and followed Thengel in. The cool night air was diminished by the cloth surrounding them, but despite the candles it was still cold. “Yes?”

Thengel stood for a long moment, his back to her. Long enough that Dernwyn came up to his side. “Uncle, what troubles you?”

He turned at last and rested his hands on her shoulders. “I know that I have already given my blessing to you and Fili,” he said. “But I want you to know that Edoras will always be your home.”

She smiled, truly touched. “I know that. Honestly, I don't know if I could leave it. But I know that Fili is duty bound to Erebor, being the heir regent behind Thorin. That is a concern for later, when there is not a battle ahead.”

Thengel nodded. “Yes, the battle. It is why I wanted to speak with you.”

Dernwyn felt her smile fall from her face. “Please do not insult either of us by trying to send me back,” she said as calmly as she could muster. “I know you do not think I have a place here, but Elrond's daughter has come-”

“Peace, Dernwyn,” he said. “You have more than earned a place amongst the other warriors. Arwen will not see battle: her goal is to reach Minas Tirith and tend to the people within, as a healer. She will be well protected. As will you.”

Dernwyn tried not to roll her eyes at that. Knowing that the dwarves thought her a capable fighter helped her growing ire some. Some. “Then what of it?”

Thengel seemed to be searching her face for something. Something that he wasn't finding. Unsettled by the fact that she wasn't measuring up to whatever standards he had put before her, she strove to stand taller and raise her chin. “Then what of it?” she asked again, more kindly than she had the first time.

He coughed, or so she thought. His smile broadened and he was laughing, brushing an errant lock from her face. “I will forever remember the young, wild girl who ran through Edoras as if it were all her battleground, battling orcs in the market, defending the halls from villains and ruffians.” Her face went hot, but he was still smiling fondly. “I admit, there are days I miss that child. She was young and free of true battle.”

He shook his head. “But then I would have missed knowing this beautiful young woman before me, this headstrong, stubborn, but strong woman who will fight her own real battles.”

Her face flushed even more at the praise. “I go to battle not for the sake of battle, my king,” she said. “I go to defend Rohan. I go to protect you.”

“And I would have you swear once more to me that when the time comes, you will defend yourself first, not me.”

“I did as you asked of me at Isengard,” she argued. She didn't know why she was arguing, but there was a sharp spike of fear shooting through her at his tone, his words, and she felt ice coat her belly. “I defended myself first. But I go into battle to protect my king.”

“I am no longer your king,” Thengel said quietly. Dernwyn blinked, stunned. “You are promising your hand to your new king. One day, Fili will take the throne of his people, and it will be you beside him. It is a beautiful and glimmering future of hope and peace, and I would not have it lost on a battlefield.”

Somehow, she had forgotten that. Fili was a prince, Thorin the king. But kings gave way to princes, and one day, it would be Fili as king. Then she would never be able to return to Rohan. “I,” she started, but found she had no voice to continue.

Thengel leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. “I will not see you fall,” he whispered. “You, who has been a daughter, a niece, a child of mine. I will not see you fall in my stead.”

“You speak as if you are dying,” she said sharply. “Have you no hope for tomorrow?”

When Thengel would not answer her, Dernwyn reached out and took his face in her hands. “Uncle,” she entreated, hating that her voice was trembling. “Uncle, speak to me. You're frightening me.”

Thengel sighed, and he seemed to age before her. “I have so much hope for the future, for our people, for you and Fili and my children,” he said. “But my dreams have been dark as of late. I have seen the white citadel of Gondor, overrun with orcs, and I fall when it does. I have hope for your future, Dernwyn. But I have none for mine.”

Her heart felt as if it were gripped in a vise. “They are dreams, and nothing more. You will not fall. I won't let you. Don't fear for that.”

His sad smile only heightened the terrible sense of foreboding within her. “I do not fear it. I fear your loss more than mine. I have lived my life, Dernwyn. I would spend many more years on this earth, and happily, if that was what fate wanted to gift me. But I fear it is not to be.”

He breathed in deeply. “Morwen will rule in my stead until Théoden comes of age. I would have you go with Fili, to make his kingdom your kingdom. But know that Edoras will always welcome you.”

“My liege, Lord Elrond would speak with you.”

Thengel gave the man at the tent entrance a nod of acknowledgment, then turned back to Dernwyn, who was frozen in front of him. “This battle will be fiercer than Isengard,” he said. “I lost sight of you so swiftly, and could only pray that you remained with Thorin's kin. It will happen again, and I wanted you to hear these words now, before it could be too late.” There were tears in his eyes, but a smile, the softest, most tender smile, on his lips. It reminded her of the smile he had given her when her father had been brought home, dead, and he had comforted her. He left her then, off to speak with Lord Elrond. Dernwyn found she couldn't move.

“Dernwyn?”

Slowly Dernwyn blinked. Bofur was crouched before her, and she realized she had somehow sat down on the ground. “We've been lookin' for you for some time,” he said. He frowned and took her hands in his. “You're all but frozen solid! Should get you over to the fire, warm you up a bit.”

“Do you think we'll win?” she found herself asking him, her throat clogged with fear and unshed tears. It was an unfair question: one had to believe in a victory, or the battle was already lost.

Bofur blinked, but when he answered, it wasn't the response she'd expected. “I think we're fightin' for somethin', somethin' more precious than jewels or gold,” he said slowly. “I think we're fightin' for everythin' that makes us good. Friends, kin, strangers we'll never know. We're fightin' for them because it matters. It's what Bilbo's fightin' for. For those he calls his treasure. And if we fight for that? Then we've already won. Battle's the easy part, after that.” He gave a wink, and she couldn't help but chuckle.

She sniffled and wiped at her eyes. “People'll fall,” he said quietly, making her pause. “You don't go into battle thinkin' you'll all make it out. But you do the best you can, and you win so the deaths will stop. And if it’s someone you knew, someone you loved, someone you called family, then you let those around you help bear the grief.” There was a knowing look in his gaze; given that he had found her in Thengel’s tent, she knew he had to know what had frightened her, what had struck her so dumb she had crumbled to the ground.

“Thengel swears he has seen his death foretold to him in a dream,” she told him. “He swears when Gondor is taken, he will live no more.”

“Then we won’t let Gondor be taken,” Bofur said simply. She took in a sharp breath, then held it, letting the air burn within her for release. It gave her more clarity, more comfort in the here and now in what she could control.

If the dream was true, then Gondor had to fall for Thengel to die. If Gondor did not fall, then he would live. Fate, however, was often not that kind, nor that easy to divert.

But Maker help the one who stood between her and her king. She would not let him fall. She would not.

“You’ll be there to protect me,” she asked. Bofur nodded easily. “And I’ll be there to protect him.”

He gave her a bright, warm grin. “That sounds like the perfect way to go into battle, lass. We’ll not let him fall.”

Ori and Fili came in soon enough, and Bofur helped relay the events when Dernwyn could not find the words. All of them swiftly agreed to protect Thengel at all costs. “If he fears the dream, then we’ll fear it with him,” Fili said firmly. “Uncle and Aragorn will return with the army, and Gondor will never be overrun. We’ll keep it from happening, Dernwyn, I swear to you.”

Perhaps fate couldn’t be turned away. But with three determined dwarves before her, and her heart soaring high with hope, Dernwyn let herself believe that it could be stopped. And perhaps it had been nothing more than a fearful dream on Thengel’s part.

She would not let him fear alone on the battlefield. She would aid him, and Fili would be right beside her. They were all walking off of that field. She would not lose any one of them. She would not lose them.

She still leaned against Fili’s embrace all night long, and if she did not truly sleep, no one said anything of it.

 

When he tripped for the third time, Bilbo knew he had to do something.

His pack had been torn in his desperate escape from Shelob’s lair. As such, several things, such as the smoked meat he’d been saving, had been lost. He’d found one last loaf of lembas bread off a bit further, still unspoiled from its protective leaf wrapping. He’d stuffed his cloak in the bottom of the pack to keep everything safe within it, and had pointedly ignored his stomach for the night. The berries, the meat, it was all gone. All he had was the lembas bread, and it wouldn’t be enough for the trip there and back if he didn’t save some. He would go hungry, that was all. It was very un-hobbit like, but as he wandered through the valleys and rocky terrain of Mordor, the ground hot beneath his torn feet, he surmised dryly that none of this was very hobbit like.

He sat now beside the small path he’d found that had skirted far too close to the orc tower for his own safety. He’d heard a fight brewing within with raucous laughter and too many death cries. He’d moved on as swiftly as he could, the light of the phial helping to guide his path. Sting had glowed so blue he’d thought it would outshine the phial. Here, he was safe: Sting was a shimmery silver now, and nothing more.

His clothes stuck to him from sweat, but were too big overall, and if it weren’t for his suspenders, his trousers would have barely kept up at all. He’d lost a great deal of weight already, and his skin was beginning to bruise quite easily. He felt like one of the statues near the front of Erebor, filthy and cracked: one good tumble and he’d splinter apart.

He shook himself and watched dust fly from his once clean, curling hair. The heat had dried it out, and it scratched against his cheek and neck when the hot winds rolled by. It felt like straw when he brushed it away, but his own hands were so wretched and hurt that his fingertips ached: if his hair was really that straw-like, he wouldn't know from touch.

Finally he pushed himself to his feet, and a wave of dizziness washed over him so swiftly he tumbled back to the ground. It sent sharp pain up his spine and left him reeling for a steady grip on anything around him. A pained whimper passed unbidden from his lips, and he clenched them tight to prevent another, even as his dry lips protested the abuse.

You suffer needlessly.

Oh no, not now, please not now. The chain holding the Ring cut through his neck every day, and bloody trails had begun staining his shirt. He dug his shredded fingertips into the ground and clutched at the rocks, gripping them hard enough to break skin.

Put me on, and you can rest. You can rest at last, for you are tired.

One hand had drifted to the Ring without his knowing it, and he could feel the Ring pounding against his skin. It was like a cold, refreshing drink of water when he touched it, and Bilbo sighed in relief. Just…just for a minute. He could hold it for just a minute, then he’d put it away and he’d be fine.

“Oh my love, my heart.”

Bilbo blinked. She was there right before him, just as she’d always been, down to the apron she’d taken to wearing when the other women of Hobbiton had wagged their tongues at her and her adventuring ways. She looked sad now, gazing at him so brokenly that he reached out his hand to her to wipe it away.

“Mother?”

Belladonna smiled then, but the hurt was still there. “You’ve come so far on your own,” she said. “My brave, brilliant Bilbo.”

“Farther than any other hobbit,” he tried to say proudly, bravely, but his face crumpled. “Further than I ever wanted to go.”

She bit her lip, and it was almost like he was back in Bag-End, only a child, watching her try to find the right words to comfort him. She always worried about the right words, and he didn’t know why. She’d always found the right words to say. “You know there’s further to go, don’t you, my love?”

He did, but he didn’t want to. “I want to go home,” he confessed. “Mother, I don’t know that I can do this-“

“You can, and you will,” she said, and her smile was so bright and beautiful that tears pooled in his eyes. His brave and wonderful mother, and he wanted so desperately to hold her, to have her cradle him in her arms, to tell her how much he loved her.

“You will do this, Bilbo Baggins. So many depend on you, but so many believe in you, too. Including me. I always did, love.”

Then she was gone. “Mother?” Bilbo said frantically, searching around. “Mother!

Only the howling winds answered him. He turned against a large rock and wept, hot tears that stung his eyes and seared across his cheeks. He’d been alone, and he’d been fine with being alone, but her immediate loss was like a knife cutting through his heart. In his mind, he knew he’d been alone the whole time, but she’d been so real, and he’d smelled the peonies she’d always picked fresh and put in her hair. She’d been so real.

He was awake again, though, his mind fully alert, and with it came the realization that he couldn’t keep going with everything he had on him. It was simply too much. He had to lighten the load. And the first thing his mind came to was his coat. His filthy, stained, torn coat, one of the only things he had from the Shire left. He couldn’t bear to leave it. But Mordor was too hot, and he was exhausted, and the weight of the coat was just too much. It had to go.

He pulled at one of the buttons until it came free, and he tucked it away in his trouser pocket, if just to keep something of comfort with him. His eyes drifted to the hem, to the border trim that had been embroidered for him. Part of it had already been ripped away in his desperate attempt to escape Mablang’s clutches, but another part had been carefully cut away by his own hands. Only a small strip remained, but even then, Bilbo couldn’t do it. He couldn’t toss it away.

He sat on one of the rocks and pulled Sting out with trembling hands. Carefully, oh so carefully, he sawed at the hem and fought to free the last bit of embroidery, wincing as his strokes pulled at his torn hands. But he couldn’t leave it: it was the last bit of home, of Thorin, that he had.

When he pulled it free, he tossed the coat over into the ravine behind him and decidedly didn’t watch it fall. His eyes instead he kept on the long thread in his hand. Perhaps it was just long enough…?

He laid it across his knee and rested his wrist against it. With his other hand and his teeth, he managed to pull the two ends together to knot it, despite his fingertips fighting him the whole way. It was tight and close, but it was enough. The knot wouldn’t slip easily, and hopefully he wouldn’t tear at it too much with his climbing.

He sheathed Sting on the second try, his arm needing extra focus to do what it needed to do, and he stumbled on his way, the bright embroidery a stark contrast against his pale white wrist. Hopefully losing the coat would be enough. Hopefully he could keep going at a steady pace from here on out.

And if he imagined a presence beside him, of a long red skirt he’d clutched at as a child and a tender smile that was all for him, it was enough to keep him going.

 

“I gave you no authority!”

The harsh voice was enough to make Kili and Legolas race for the throne room. The scene before him was a startling one.

Denethor stood in the center of the room, facing down Ecthelion, whose eyes carried a great rage. Off in the corner, Finduilas and Ivriniel were tucked by a pillar, watching the events unfold with wide eyes. Gandalf stood beside Ecthelion, his back to Denethor in an obvious show of which side he was on. It only spurred Ecthelion on.

“You would side with this…this traitor, this child that I should have cast out-?!”

“That man saved countless lives with his swift thinking,” Kili burst out, ignoring Gandalf’s piercing glare and Legolas’s hand on his shoulder. Kili glared at Ecthelion, who was startled into silence at his sudden appearance and words. “You should be proud of him, you should be grateful!”

Ecthelion’s face twisted into something so vile it almost made Kili step back. Almost: he’d faced enough orcs, he’d faced the Pale Orc, to not be so easily frightened off. “How dare you speak to me this way?” Ecthelion hissed. “You are not of Gondor, and I am its Steward!”

“I’m a prince,” Kili snapped. “In terms of power, my lord, I believe that means I outrank you.”

Silence fell on the room. Ecthelion looked as if he’d burst, but Denethor’s shoulders dropped a good four inches in relief. Kili could’ve sworn Gandalf was hiding a smirk, but when he turned to Ecthelion, he was solemn and serious once more. “Kili has no wish to hold political authority here,” he assured Ecthelion before the Steward could speak. “He merely wanted to have his voice be heard. It is hard to be so young and hold so much responsibility when none will accept it.” He gave a pointed look to Kili.

Well, this time, the political unfairness was fair, given that Kili had blurted out the words he had. What in Mahal’s name had he been thinking? “Gandalf speaks truth: I merely wanted my words to hold the weight they should hold,” he said. When Gandalf’s eyes narrowed, he stumbled to continue. “But even were I not a prince, am I not also a guest? I do not speak wrongly of your son, but I sing his praise. He has done well by your people-“

“He lost Osgiliath,” Ecthelion said bitterly. “There is no praise to be sung.”

“And if you had increased the men on the west bank, as I had suggested before I left for the Council, then perhaps this wouldn’t have happened!” Denethor shouted. “Lives could have been saved, you could have held glory and honor, but instead, you rule a dying land with burning cities that hold charred victims.”

The crack of Ecthelion’s hand on Denethor’s cheek pulled startled gasps from the girls, and that was enough. Before Kili could speak, however, Legolas spoke up, voice cold and calm.

“He speaks only truth. Osgiliath is lost.”

“Do not speak to me, elf, of lost lands: your forest is overrun and ruined, is it not?” Ecthelion said.

Legolas’s eyes only narrowed in silent fury. “At least we can admit to when it has been lost,” he answered coolly. Ecthelion’s face went bright red as he fought to control his anger, and Kili fought not to grin. It was probably wrong that he thought Legolas was still very attractive when angry, so long as it wasn’t Kili that Legolas was angry with. He was a strong and dangerous being, as capable with his words as he was with his bow, and all right, it was really attractive.

“Legolas is right: Osgiliath is lost. We must focus our defense on protecting Minas Tirith,” Gandalf said. “King Thengel of Rohan is swiftly riding to aid you, but he cannot fight this alone. We must speak with your captain. What men do you have?”

Ecthelion glared at Legolas and Kili for a long moment, then finally turned to Gandalf. Denethor he ignored completely, and the young man took the chance to back away from his father, his face hot with humiliation, hand pressed carefully to the slapped cheek. There was blood there, a neat, thin line that bled just enough for a few drops to well and spill over his skin. One of Ecthelion’s rings. Kili suddenly wanted to rage at Ecthelion on Denethor’s behalf, for his own breaking heart at the sight of such obvious dismissal, but even as he made to move forward, Legolas caught him by the arm. “Let me go,” Kili hissed under his breath.

“If I cannot lodge an arrow into him, you cannot harm him, either,” Legolas murmured. “It’s only fair.”

“You’re no fun,” Kili muttered, but he subsided. Ecthelion and Gandalf were already leaving, off to see the captain.

So it was with surprise that Finduilas stepped away from her sister and moved to block their path. Ecthelion smiled kindly at her, though his brow was still pinched. “Hello, little one,” he said. “Would you like me to seek news of your father for you?”

“Denethor is already doing that, because he is a good man,” she said politely, but her eyes were furious. “You are a cruel and terrible man, and a horrible father. If you can’t even lead your house in peace and love, how do you expect to lead your people in the same?”

It was only Ivriniel’s pulling Finduilas away swiftly that probably spared the child from whatever poison would come from Ecthelion’s mouth next. Though the Steward looked to be in a state of shock, gazing at her, then at Denethor. His eyes caught on the blood on Denethor’s cheek, but before anything further could happen, the doors opened, and Gandalf ushered them both out.

Only when the doors closed behind them did everyone let out a breath. “What were you thinking?” Ivriniel yelled at her sister. “No, you weren’t thinking, you scolded the Steward!”

“He needed a good and proper scolding,” Finduilas said stubbornly. “He hurt Denethor.” She moved to Denethor, who knelt as soon as she came close enough. Her eyes turned fearful when they saw the blood, but she still stood resolutely before him. “Does it hurt?” she asked.

Denethor shook his head. “No, no longer,” he promised. “The blood has already dried.”

“What about in here?” she asked and pressed her hand against his chest, right where his heart would be. “Does it hurt there still?”

Denethor’s eyes glistened, but he gave her a bitter smile. “It always hurts there,” he said quietly. “And one day, I fear it will make me just as wretched a man as him: alone and mad.”

“He wouldn’t be alone, if he didn’t want to be alone,” Kili said, coming over with Legolas to join them. “That’s not your fault.”

Finduilas raised her hand to where Denethor’s cheek was still bright red and bloody. “I don’t think you’ll be alone,” she said at last. “Find someone who will always be by your side. Then you won’t ever be alone again.”

He smiled at her, touched by her words. “Wise words, from someone so young,” he said. “Thank you, Finduilas.”

She smiled in return, and Kili could’ve sworn the air felt lighter to breathe. Even Ivriniel was smiling now, though she still shook her head resignedly when she gazed at her sister. Kili knew that look: he got it often enough from Fili. And there was the pain, right on schedule, whenever he thought of his brother. Fili, hurry.

The doors opened wide, but it was not Ecthelion or Gandalf who entered. Two men came in, one a guard, one in dirty clothes. “My lord,” the man began, but then Finduilas and Ivriniel were running for the door, their happy cries only making the moment better.

Papa! Papa!

The girls were swept up not a moment later by the disheveled figured, and their joyous laughter filled the throne room. For a moment, Denethor looked so happy for them, yet so painfully jealous, that Kili wanted to comfort him. Then Denethor’s face cleared, and he went over to greet the man. Kili watched the two young girls hang on their father, chattering and being held as though they were the most valuable treasure in the world, and even as his heart ached for Fili, it ached now for the only real father he’d ever known. He’d been swept up and adored and loved like that as a child.

“They will be here soon,” Legolas said, as if reading Kili’s mind. “There is nothing that could keep Fili or Thorin from you. You didn’t see their faces, when the Palantír held you in its grasp. There was such fear there that…” He shook his head. “You are just as loved as Finduilas and Ivriniel.”

“As are you,” Kili said, and he didn’t even know if the words were true. The sadness on Legolas’s face from that day in Erebor pulled the words from him. “Your father loves you.”

“Somewhere, deep inside, yes,” Legolas agreed. “But Mirkwood is dark and dangerous and tears at his mind. This Thranduil is no longer the one I called family. I fear for him.”

“If we can claim Isengard, if we can save Gondor, then we can move to Mirkwood next,” Kili declared. “We’ll wrestle the spiders out of there. Maybe even get my uncle and your father to talk nicely.”

Legolas chuckled. “The darkness in the forest would be easier to fight than that.”

That was the truth. Kili grinned, but his next words were cut off by a frantic shout from outside.

“Orcs! Orcs have come to Minas Tirith!”

“But Fili and Uncle aren’t here,” Kili whispered, gazing up at Legolas. The elf pursed his lips but said nothing. “Legolas, they’re not here yet!”

“Then we will help defend Gondor until they arrive,” Legolas said. “Come: I want to watch you pluck orcs from the ground with your arrows.”

“That does sound like fun,” Kili said, swallowing back his fear. He ran for his bow, Legolas right behind him, and once armed, they hurried together down to the wall.

Chapter Text

“The wall falls! My lord, the wall-“

“Hold, you will hold!” Denethor yelled. Two levels down, he could see the massive amount of orcs outside of Minas Tirith. They stretched almost from Osgiliath to the white city he now stood in, and the sheer volume left him breathless and silent. They had not the strength of men to fight them. He had a sudden insane urge to go open the gates and let them come in as they pleased. It would be easier than watching the people of his city fall.

A hand on his back steadied him, and when he turned, Gandalf was there. “The men are lining up to defend the city,” he said. “You would do best to don armor.”

“And my father?” he couldn’t help but ask. “Where is he?”

“Safe,” Gandalf said vaguely. Denethor felt his shoulders hunch in despair as he once again looked out to the fields. The roar from the orcs was deafeningly from this high up: he had no idea how loud it had to be on the ground. There were orcs, there were orcs that seemed as tall as a man, and there were trolls. From the still smoking city of Osgiliath, he could see what looked to be a company of men marching with the orcs. The Corsairs of Umbar. The pirates.

He thought back to the man who’d asked his father for help against the same pirates who now marched on Minas Tirith. “Adrahil and his daughters, where are they?”

“Safe,” Gandalf assured him, but this time he gave more details. “They are hidden high above in the eighth level, along with the rest of the women, children, and injured.” He turned back out to the field and said casually, “Prince Adrahil has requested armor to borrow.”

“Permission denied,” Denethor said sharply. “He will remain with his daughters. I will not see them parted.”

“I told him your words would be as such,” Gandalf said, and if Denethor hadn’t known better, he would’ve said it was approval in the wizard’s eyes. Then again, it had been so long since he’d seen approval, he wouldn’t have known it if it had come up to bite him.

Or slap him. He thought of the mark on his cheek, of the rage in his father’s eyes, of the disappointment that Denethor had never wanted to see so blatantly from his father. His heart hardened and he tightened his fists.

“Finduilas seemed particularly concerned that you should not be alone, however,” Gandalf said. Denethor thought to the child, of the friendship she seemed determined to have with him, how she’d stood up to his father. How she seemed so taken with the idea that she needed to protect him, her, this small child of no more than ten years. Somehow, she’d found him a kindred spirit.

He would take her friendship: though a child, she seemed more wise and kind than most adults he knew. And finding someone who believed in him…he would always be grateful for someone who stood beside him. Just as Gandalf did now, and never before had he been so grateful for the wizard.

“How are your wounds healing?” Gandalf asked. “From the battle in the Wold.”

“Well enough to fight for my people,” Denethor said. “I will not leave my men below to fight for themselves. I am of Gondor: I am equipped to fight.”

“Legolas and Kili will be grateful for your presence, of that I know. They both hold high respect for you. Kili because you saved his life, Legolas-“

“Because I saved Kili’s life?” Denethor guessed, and he smiled for the first time in what felt like years. Gandalf snorted, shaking his head.

“What they will do when their uncle and kin find them, I don’t know. Subtlety was never Kili’s strong suit, as you evidenced in the throne room.”

“Speaking his mind honestly is a power on its own,” Denethor said. “He will make a good advisor for his king. Hopefully he’ll learn to keep his honest thoughts for only his king, though.” It would be on his death bed that Denethor would admit how good it had felt to see the dwarf and elf stand up to his father for him. Perhaps he had more friends than he’d thought.

And he had to stop thinking in terms of ‘father’, for Finduilas had been right: Ecthelion was no more his father than any other man. Denethor had no family anymore. He would serve his fath…Ecthelion. He was honor bound to do that. But to commit to having family was folly.

He would have friends. But Denethor of Gondor would be an orphan by choice.

For some reason, even as the child within him cried at the loss, his grown heart felt lighter for the admission. It would aid him in battle, too.

“Where is King Thengel?” he asked. “Have you heard nothing?”

“When I embarked for Gondor, Thengel was preparing his troops and gathering men to him for you,” Gandalf told him. He tapped his staff against the ground and cast his eyes beyond the orc army, far out to Mordor. “As horrible as this day will be, there is one life that this battle will spare.”

Denethor thought of the small being who stood taller than he in terms of bravery and wisdom. “Bilbo,” he murmured. Gandalf nodded.

“This vast of an army has drawn a great force out of Sauron’s lands. It will allow Bilbo to keep moving through.”

“Does he still…?”

Gandalf smiled, even as the orcs only roared louder beneath them. “He continues moving on, but the dark cloud of Mordor has begun to make my vision hazy. Soon enough, I fear he will be swallowed by the darkness, and I will see him no more.”

Denethor thought of the Ring, that terrible, beautiful Ring that had called to him, and he shuddered. “Never would I want to have such a thing,” he said. “I cannot imagine how he bears it, day by day.”

“Neither can I,” Gandalf said as the captain approached. “But I am glad he can.”

The captain slid to a halt before Denethor, and it was a grim, almost embarrassed expression on his face. “Speak,” Denethor demanded.

“My lord, I’ve been asked to…to escort you from the wall.”

Denethor stiffened. “By who?”

“Your father, my lord. He would have you safe.”

The roars grew louder. All around him was the sea of Mordor’s army. Denethor pursed his lips. “My lord?”

“I have no father, so I know not who you speak of,” he said sharply. “If you refer to Ecthelion, you may tell him that I will fight as a Gondor soldier. Perhaps then I will be of worth to him, when I return. Though I am certain it will depend on the manner of my return,” he murmured. Out there, somewhere, he was certain there was a sword, axe, club, or arrow with his name upon it. Perhaps he would die out there, alone, in the Pelennor fields. Or perhaps he would be slain here in the city, defending her with his last breath.

He thought of those he called friends that were here in the city, those who had saved him in the Wold because it had been the right thing to do. He had allies, people who would guard and protect him.

“Captain, to your station,” he ordered, and the captain nodded after a moment, then departed.

“Ecthelion will give the command to fight,” Gandalf reminded him.

“And when he does, I will go.” He turned to Gandalf. “Will you ensure my armor is sound?”

Gandalf eyed him for a long time, then finally nodded and pulled straps, securing the armor. The white tree glistened in what little sunlight there was above them, shining down as if to further illuminate Minas Tirith to their enemies. They howled and clanged their shields, and Denethor could see now the siege towers that were large enough to carry a whole host of orcs within them. There were so many, and Denethor feared that even if they fought to their true extent, the orcs would reach through all the levels and leave Minas Tirith burning and filled with the dead.

He thought of Ivriniel, of her sister Finduilas, and he clenched his jaw.

“Aim for the siege towers,” he ordered to the men below. “I want them taken out before they reach us.” It would at least keep them busy, for a time.

“Look out!”

Somehow, the siege towers had hidden the catapults. Denethor ducked in time to avoid the large rock that cracked the wall behind him, bringing two archways down. More stones were on the way, and Denethor shouted, “Return fire! Catapults, launch!”

The battle had begun.

 

When they crested the hill, Fili couldn’t help but stop and stare. They’d ridden hard all day yesterday and the day before, and now they were here, here at Minas Tirith, here in Gondor, and all before them was nothing but orcs.

“Mahal help us,” Bofur murmured. Beside him, Dernwyn’s eyes were as wide as saucers, staring in dumbstruck horror at the army before her.

It was a siege, and it seemed they’d already reached the city’s walls. Siege towers were everywhere, and rocks were tearing Minas Tirith down to the ground, and was that a troll?

Thengel rode out in front of them all, sword held high. “I do not have to ask you why there is fear in your eyes,” he called. “But let it remain only in your eyes, and not your heart! I will not see us perish while the forces of wickedness strive to destroy our lands, destroy our homes, destroy those we love!”

The roar of the orcs could be heard plainly from their distance. Fili’s horse stomped in place in agitation. “Easy,” Fili murmured, but truth be told, his own heart was beginning to race. He’d expected an army. He hadn’t expected…well, this.

There was no Kili beside him. Thorin was who knew where. It was just him and Bofur and Ori and Dernwyn and Lord Elrond and four hundred of his best elves and a host of men and the Rohirrim Riders.

The thought was comforting yet frightening all at the same time. He found himself reaching for Dernwyn, taking her hand in his. She glanced to him, frowning. “Stay with me,” he asked. “Don’t leave my side. We’ll keep Thengel safe. Just don’t leave me.”

Dernwyn clutched back at him through her armored glove. “You can’t leave me, either,” she said. “Make certain you duck.”

He grinned unexpectedly, and she beamed back at him. This beautiful, courageous, crazy woman. Mahal but he loved her.

“This is the day we show the world that though darkness overwhelms us, we will always stand up to it! This day, we will fight for innocent lives and the future of Middle-Earth!” Thengel roared. “This day is ours!”

The army below bellowed, but the roar of those who marched for Thengel was even louder. Fili added his voice with a yell and heard Bofur and Dernwyn shout a loud battle cry beside him. This was it, he realized. This was the battle that would decide their fate, Middle-Earth’s fate, Bilbo’s fate. He felt the weight of it settle on his shoulders and squeeze his heart until he thought it would burst.

He looked at Dernwyn once, just once, before Thengel led them down. Her helmet covered her face, but her eyes were still visible, and they were the brightest he’d ever seen them. Her hair was tucked under the back of the helmet, but there were wisps of it that kept teasing out from the bottom. Her sword she clasped in her right hand, and she looked terrible and haunting and so beautiful Fili wasn’t certain he could breathe.

She met his eyes, as if feeling him staring at her, and she frowned. “I love you,” he said suddenly, blinking at himself, watching her mouth drop open in surprise.

Then they were racing ahead, and Fili fixed his gaze on Thengel, knowing the others were doing the same. They were not going to lose him. They just weren’t. He knew Lord Elrond was there behind them, his elves already shooting off arrows far into the orc army. Ahead of them, right where the army waited for them, Fili could see spears waiting to trip them up. He gave a yell and swung his sword over his head. He would not fear them. They were between him and Gondor, between him and his brother somewhere ahead of him, and that was nothing to fear. He urged his horse onward and watched as the orcs ahead began to tremble.

Elrond gave a shout, and suddenly arrows flew past Fili, so close that his hair whipped around his face. The spear line dropped, and what few orcs remained began to run. Fili braced his sword and waited.

Just for a moment. Nothing more.

He breathed in.

They plunged through the orcs, and Fili caught two right off the start, and then he was racing on with Bofur on his left, the toymaker’s mattock quickly picking its way through the enemy lines. But they had only breached the lines; they were nowhere near Gondor, where the orcs were heading for the wall with siege towers. Catapults continued to fire, and Gondor continued to crumble.

“Need to get those catapults put down!” Bofur yelled, and Fili nodded, calling to Dernwyn. Ahead of them, Thengel was buffeted by two loyal Riders who remained with him as he weaved and dodged his way deeper into the orcs. An elven group broke off, Arwen carefully protected in the middle, and they made their way to the gates, where the orcs were.

“Come on!” Fili shouted, and they took off after them. They found a catapult close enough, and it only took Fili and Dernwyn to bring down the orcs manning it while Bofur’s mattock found a home in the wood. He pulled it free with a yell and the catapult began to topple. One down, several to go. More flew to Gondor, but Gondor no longer retaliated: not with their allies in the field.

“What’s that?” Ori yelled. Fili followed his pointing finger to the gates, where Arwen was headed. There was something huge heading towards it, trying to beat them there, and Fili stared in stunned horror. Was that fire?

“Ori!” Fili shouted, but suddenly it stopped moving towards the wall. A small rain of arrows was swiftly taking out every single being that was pushing the contraption to the wall, and even the trolls were falling. Fili grinned and tried to make out the archer. He was certain Gondor had plenty of archers, and good ones, too.

But no one was better than Kili. That was his brother above the gates, and he knew it.

They took down another catapult, following the elven contingent and beating the orcs back. Fili took both swords to each side of him and swept through six orcs with the power of his horse’s momentum. Beside him, an orc suddenly made to pull him down, but a sharp sword pierced through its back and left it falling to the ground. He glanced up at Dernwyn who gave him a fierce nod, her sword already moving to strike down another.

The elves were already at the gates. Fili swung his horse around and, with the help of the others, made a barricade to get Arwen inside safely. Minas Tirith wasn’t going up in flames yet, but it was still smoking here and there, and her healing knowledge would be necessary to save lives inside. The least Fili could give her was safe passage.

The gates began creaking open. Orcs raced for it, but Ori was ready for them. He threw two small knives out into the approaching orcs, taking several out as orcs tripped over each other. Arrows flew above them, halting more, and Fili pulled his blade up through two orcs that dared to get too close. One blade caught an orc in the chest, and Fili used both hands to wrench it up and through its head. Another orc, enraged at the slaughter, rushed forward with a howl, but Bofur brought it down with a swift swing of his mattock. It crumpled under his blow, sending the horses backwards with nervous whinnying.

More orcs tried to attack, but Riders and elves had joined them at the gates by then, and they managed to form a short wall, protecting Gondor’s weakest point. They delivered swift blows and one by one, the orcs began to fall. Even as he knocked off the head of another orc, Fili could see a small amount of the army racing off to the east, back to where the storm clouds hung ominously in the air. Retreating, they were retreating. “Get ‘em!” Bofur yelled, and with battle cries the Riders began to pursue the deserters.

But so many more orcs remained. Fili swung at another orc, but the one right behind him was suddenly there with a heavy spiked mace, and it was pure luck that had Fili pulling away at the last minute. The mace caught his horse against the flank, and Fili found himself falling to hit the ground, hard. He managed to get his leg out before the horse could crush it, but his roll to get away wasn’t all that steady. He stumbled to get to his feet, hearing his uncle in his head. Always keep your feet beneath you, or you’ll find your head no longer above you. As soon as he got his foothold secured, he ducked and turned. The loud whistle of a weapon above him told him he’d gotten it right, and he sank his blade deep within the orc’s belly. It gurgled and hit the ground.

A horse approached fast, and Fili glanced up in time to find a hand reaching for him, bright Rohirrim garb catching the sunlight. He caught the hand and swung up onto the horse, and a very familiar set of eyes glared at him. “Are you hurt?” Dernwyn demanded.

“I’m fine,” he insisted. They were leaving the gate behind, he realized, and he tried to reach for the reins. “Dernwyn, you’re going the wrong way!”

“The elves have the gate,” she yelled over the battle around them. The horse wound its way through the masses of orcs, and both Dernwyn and Fili ducked as a thick spear tried to cleave their heads off. “I can’t see Thengel!”

Fili raised his sword high in the air, catching the attention of all around as they rode on. “To the King!” he yelled. Several Riders answered the call and began to ride alongside them.

“To the King!”

He could feel the tension in Dernwyn as she urged the horse on faster. Fili cast his eyes everywhere, searching for the King. He’d been right there, before, and then suddenly he hadn’t been. The thought of Thengel being struck down, of being ended, left a ball of fear in his gut. Mahal, please, spare him.

“Uncle!”

Fili looked up, almost not daring to hope. There Thengel was, fighting on his own amidst a great hoard of orcs and Uruk-hai. The Riders with him were no longer there, and he alone stood against the orcs in the field. “Uncle!” Dernwyn screamed.

Ori desperately began to throw knives, bringing down a few orcs. They were too far away, even as Riders threw spears, and as an Uruk-hai reached for Thengel, Fili could feel time slow. Dernwyn’s scream of fear and rage seemed to echo in his ears, the only sound he could hear beside his racing heart. Fili felt himself falling, falling off to the side, but then his emotions caught up with his brain and he heaved his sword above his head even as he caught himself in the saddle to remain sideways. His blade seemed to float in midair as everything moved so slowly, too slowly.

Then everything sped back up, and the sword hit true. The Uruk-hai tumbled, freeing Thengel’s horse, and Thengel managed to get out of the trap. Then they were there, swinging and carving up all of the orcs, who’d been so focused on Thengel they hadn’t expected the rear attack. They most certainly hadn’t been expecting the rage and fury of the attack, and they were felled in quick succession. The horse tried to find even ground amongst the bodies as they piled up, and beneath the orcs, Fili could see the horses of the Rohirrim, the bloody limbs of the fallen Riders who’d held close to the King.

“Uncle!” Dernwyn yelled, sliding off her horse and hurrying to his side. Thengel gave a weary smile and grasped her hand with his bleeding one.

“I am well, Dernwyn. Thank you.”

Fili looked around, ready to urge Dernwyn back onto her ride, but when his eyes spotted no orcs in their area, he gazed even further. The once overwhelming mass of orcs were now small pockets spread across the field, leaving red grass in between them. A separated army was a weak army.

They actually might have the orcs on the run. “Let’s finish this,” Fili said, but even as Dernwyn turned, even as the words left his lips, he heard the loudest trumpet sound he’d ever heard in his life. It was deep and almost throaty, and it didn’t ring of metal as a trumpet was supposed to. It almost sounded alive.

“I’m not certain what we’re supposed to do with that,” Bofur said, and when Fili looked, he seemed paler than before. He nodded towards Thengel and Dernwyn, and the trumpet blared again. Fili glanced up.

And froze. The largest animal he’d ever seen, besides Smaug, was coming straight at them. It had a long and free limb where its nose should’ve been, and two long teeth – tusks, his mind supplied, knowledge from somewhere deep down – jutted out. They were covered in barbs and thick, sharp metal that ran from tusk to tusk. They were tall, impossibly tall, and even as he watched in horror, more than one of them appeared. There were at least five of them, and they only got more massive as they approached. On top of them were small tents, and he could see people on top of the beast.

“What is that?” Dernwyn asked, bewildered.

“Mûmakil,” Ori said, his jaw dropping. “Called Oliphaunts, sometimes. They’re real, they’re actually real-“

“Riders to me!” Thengel roared. A new line of Riders formed as the Mûmakil approached. They moved swiftly for bearing that much mass, Fili had to give them that. He quickly caught Dernwyn’s hand and hauled her up onto the horse. “Riders and all who can be spared!”

Elves nearby quickly joined them, Elrond leading them forward, grim determination on their faces. Fili wanted to ask them if they’d ever faced one of them before, if there was any advice to be had against this, but then Thengel let out a vicious battle cry, Elrond echoing it, and they were flying down the fields again. Fili watched as the Mûmakil began to shake their heads, but even as his mind tried to process why, the first Mûmak raised his head and swung its tusks down, barbs and all, against a row of Riders. “No!” Fili shouted, but it was too late.

The Riders went soaring through the air, screams of pain and death falling as their bodies did. The line quickly broke, fear moving the horses in a random pattern as they tried to avoid the tusks and the legs. Dernwyn gasped as a tusk came too close, and Fili swung the horse around the oncoming danger, pulling Dernwyn away and to the side in case he couldn’t weave in time. But the horse moved to safety, and then they were flying down the field to turn around and come at them from the rear.

“If they get to Gondor, the wall’s finished!” Ori shouted. “The wall can’t possibly hold against the Mûmakil!”

Fili wasn’t certain how anything could hold against them. More Riders and elves went flying, and one unfortunate Rider was gored by a tusk. Fili flinched as blood slid down the white tusk.

An arrow flew past him, making him jump in surprise, and he looked up to one of the oncoming Mûmak. Its passengers were sending volley after volley of arrows down below, and Fili felt when one of the arrows grazed his arm. “Fili!” Dernwyn shouted, moving to turn and see him.

He caught her around the waist and forced her attention forward. “I’m fine, keep going!” he yelled. Then, his eyes widened. “I didn’t mean keep going that way!”

“I need your blades!” she called. Somehow, the horse kept going, straight for the Mûmak. It danced across the field, avoiding orcs and large limbs, and then they were almost right beneath it. “Now!” she shouted.

Fili pulled his blade with his non-bleeding arm and swung hard into the nearest leg. Dernwyn caught the other side with her own sword, and together they hit the last two legs. The horse took off, racing to get out from beneath the Mûmak as it trumpeted in pain. It stumbled, its legs too injured to hold it, and it hit the ground hard enough to make their horse lose his footing for a moment. When Fili looked back, the Mûmak was down, and for good, as Riders swung past it and placed spears in its skull while elves attacked with arrows.

“Bring them down!” Thengel shouted, not far from them. “Bring them down!”

A shriek echoed through the sky, a shriek Fili knew too well. Still, his eyes rose to the skies, his stomach twisting until he thought he’d be sick.

It was he who screamed to alert the Riders, he who could only stare as they flew and circled the field, diving down towards them with death in their eyes.

“Nazgûl! Nazgûl!”

 

As soon as the Nazgûl appeared, Kili raced across the wall top. He slid to a stop in front of Denethor, his words halted briefly by another rock that struck two levels above them, sending fragments of the city falling down to the levels below. Only when it rested did he finally speak. “I’ve got to get out there.”

“Out there,” Denethor said, shaking his head. “Impossible. There’s enough orcs trying to clamber up the walls, if you want a fight.”

“You don’t understand,” Kili said as Legolas hurried to join them. “My brother’s out there. Fili’s out in the field, I know I saw him. I can’t leave him out there alone!”

The Nazgûl shrieked above, and it sent a shiver straight through Kili’s soul. Where the sound had once only grated on his very nerves, now it was like an assault that made the memory of when he’d touched the orb only that much more present.

“I don’t think it’s wise for you to go,” Denethor began, but a screech from behind them made them all startle backwards. But it wasn’t a Nazgûl: it was Ecthelion.

“I told you to return to safety!” he yelled at Denethor. “Why are you here on the walls?” The Steward himself was dressed in full armor, much as Denethor was. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, however, which left the full impression of his fury available for all to see.

“I am a soldier and man of Gondor,” Denethor told him firmly. “This is my place, among my people.”

“I am your father, and I order you back to safety!” Ecthelion yelled. “Guards, seize him!”

“You would take the guards away from defending Gondor just to suit your whims?” Legolas asked incredulously.

“This is not a whim-“

“Sure seems like it,” Kili said, glaring at the Steward. Around them, several guards had paused in their defending of the city, unsure as of what to do next.

Fortunately for them, Denethor solved that problem. “Return to your posts! Defend Gondor at all costs!” he yelled. They turned back to the wall, dropping rocks and firing arrows at the oncoming orcs.

Ecthelion looked as if he’d burst. “You dare defy me? All of you, traitors!” He unsheathed his sword, and Legolas grabbed Kili to pull him back. Denethor’s eyes went wide as he began backing away from his father. “I have ordered my guards to seize you, and you will be-“

Suddenly Ecthelion fell as a familiar white staff cracked him across the face. With a deftness Kili had never seen, Gandalf flipped his staff and delivered a final blow to Ecthelion’s head, rendering him unconscious. He settled his tussled robes, then turned to the men, who were standing and staring. “Get back to your posts!” he yelled. “We must preserve the wall!”

“Gandalf, I’ve got to get out there,” Kili insisted. Beside him, Denethor was staring in shock at his father. “I’ve got to find Fili, I just…I just know it.”

“Then you will join the battle,” Gandalf said. “Take Shadowfax with you: he will bear you swiftly to your brother.”

Kili nodded and turned to go. “Coming with me?” he asked Legolas.

The elf smiled. “I wouldn’t let you leave without me.” The words emboldened Kili to reach out and take Legolas’s hand. Together they hurried across the wall and down towards the gates.

Elves from the battle were there when they reached the gates, and an order was given to open them again. Kili mounted Shadowfax, Legolas right behind him. “Ready?” Legolas asked.

“Bet I can fell more than you,” Kili boasted. “You or Gimli.”

Legolas chuckled. “We shall see about that.”

“Legolas!”

A clear, feminine voice cut through the hustle just as the gates began to open. “Arwen!” Legolas called, and a young elf joined them beside the horse. “What are you doing here?”

“Father’s joined with King Thengel to help,” Arwen said. “I’m seeing to the wounded.” When her eyes went to Kili, they were friendly, but there was something deep and dark within them that made him suddenly want to look away.

She reached for his hand, not Legolas’s, and reluctantly he took her hand in his. “I have fears for the King of Rohan,” she said. “And for your kin.”

Kili’s heart stuttered. “Fili?”

Arwen said nothing, but he knew he was right. “Is my uncle out there?” he demanded. “I couldn’t see him.”

“Go!” a guard called, just as the gates opened enough to let them through, and Arwen’s hand was tugged from his as they took off. He barely had enough time to fix his trembling hand to his bow before they were in the midst of battle. Orcs were everywhere, and Kili brought them down, one after another, trying to pierce two orcs with one arrow to conserve his shots. His quiver was full, almost overflowing, but when he saw an arrow easy to pull free, he reached down and did so. Legolas also did the same, catching an arrow from an orc and pulling it loose, only to aim again and fire the twice used bolt. Orcs fell around them.

A Nazgûl flew over them, and its very presence left Kili’s skin burning hot and too cold all at once. His eyes followed the figure, and it seemed to almost be staring at him. He trembled, nearly losing his grip on the bow.

Arms wrapped around him as Legolas fired another arrow from in front of Kili. “I’m here,” Legolas murmured in his ear, loud enough that the rest of the battle faded away, just for a moment. “I won’t let him harm you again. Not now, not ever.”

Kili nodded once, then twice, and the second time was more sure of himself. Legolas was here. Fili was…somewhere. Somewhere close. Near the downed Oliphaunt, he was betting, and Mahal, they were real.

“Come on,” Kili urged, and Shadowfax was already moving faster across the blood soaked field. Orcs were disappearing off to the west, to the smoking Osgiliath, and Kili didn’t know if they were retreating or simply going for more reserves. He really hoped it was the former.

He didn’t know if they could survive another assault. Riders were dead all around them, but somehow Shadowfax managed to leap or weave his way through the corpses. Orcs rested with men and elves alike, and the dried grass was red and black with their blood.

He had to find Fili. He had to.

“Kili!” Legolas shouted, and Kili looked up as Shadowfax turned straight into the path of an Oliphaunt. Kili tried to lead the horse away, but he was determined, and Kili found himself shrinking back. Oh Mahal, they were going to get crushed, and wait, what was Legolas doing?

“What are you doing?” Kili yelled, but Legolas was already leaping from Shadowfax. Kili gasped and stared in equal parts horror and awe as Legolas caught one of the ropes leading to the top of the beast and began to climb easily. He made it to the saddle tent where multiple people stood, and before they could do anything Legolas had cut them down with his knives. It took not another minute to dispatch the main rider of the Oliphaunt, and then Legolas pulled arrows from his quiver. Kili urged Shadowfax on to keep pace with the Oliphaunt, carefully watching where Legolas could jump from. Legolas readied his arrows, all three, and sank them neatly into the base of the Oliphaunt’s neck. It stumbled with an unsteady wail, and Kili stared as Legolas did not jump to the side, but instead stepped out and slid along its trunk. He made a neat jump from the trunk to Shadowfax, and landed right behind Kili.

“I think that worked out well,” Legolas deadpanned, then he grinned. Kili let out a laugh.

“I have to tell you, that was very handsomely done. I don’t know that anyone else could’ve done it that well.”

“I live to make you smile,” he said, and while the words were light, there was something very serious about it. Kili’s cheeks went red and warm.

“Look out!”

The Rider’s warning was all they got before something dove in low and nearly ripped them both from the horse. But Shadowfax was quicker, and they were out of harm’s way. The Nazgûl still found horses and Riders and elves to fling away from the battle, and Kili shivered at the creature’s long talons.. Not a fate he wanted. “We need to find Fili,” he said, but even as he spoke, something cracked, and loudly. Kili swung his gaze towards the sound and stared in abject horror.

The Nazgûl and its creature had caught hold of a large boulder from beside a catapult and had easily lifted it, and heaved it, through the air and straight at the gates. It didn’t break the gates completely, but the guards above were powerless to stop the sudden destruction of the gates. Kili thought of the elves, of the maiden Arwen inside, of Finduilas and Ivriniel, and he shut his eyes tight.

“Denethor will defend Gondor with his dying breath,” Legolas told him. “If we’re to help them, we need to find your brother. And quickly. Arwen’s words trouble me.”

“I have fears for the King of Rohan, and for your kin.”

They troubled Kili, too. “Come on,” Kili said, and Shadowfax needed no further urging. They raced into the battle, tumbling orcs where they could, and decidedly not looking back to where Gondor began to burn.

 

“I’ll jump out first.”

“You’ll do nothin’ of the sort. They wouldn’t even notice you.”

“You’re not much taller!”

“I cannot believe I’m listening to this argument,” Thorin muttered. Aragorn grinned and hefted his sword. He still couldn’t believe that this blade was his. It seemed so unreal.

But then again, so did floating down the river in a pirated pirate ship towards Osgiliath, an army of Dead at his complete command, Arwen’s grace hanging from his neck. That was going to take some getting used to. Even now, the Dead’s presence in the ship seemed so oppressive against him that he didn’t think he could breathe. How they had all managed to fit themselves into one ship, he did not understand.

As they neared the remnants of a city, however, Aragorn could see Minas Tirith in the distance, and he was grateful for their being with them. The city cast up smoke to the sky, though it still stood. Even from the distance, he could hear the roar of the battle, only muted by how far away it was.

“We disembark here,” Aragorn said quietly, and the Dead began to pull the ship to anchor. Thorin put his eyes to one of the holes in the ship, and he let out a growl. Aragorn peered out through another space between the wooden planks and found the source of his displeasure. A multitude of orcs were waiting for them.

“You jump out first,” Gimli said to Dwalin, and Aragorn frowned at his sudden fear. “Then I’ll jump out, and they’ll stop bein’ amused and start bein’ frightened.”

Dwalin turned wide eyes to Gimli, stunned, before he began to chortle. “Ah, Gimli. You’re a fine dwarf indeed, laddie. Make your da proud.”

Gimli looked extremely pleased. Thorin seemed only moments away from rolling his eyes. “Aragorn, get their attention,” he muttered. “I’ve a sea of orcs between me and my sister-sons, and it needs parting.”

He had even more orcs between him and Bilbo, but there was nothing Aragorn could do about that. This battle had to happen first, and if they won, then they could try and help Bilbo. But this battle had to be won first.

“Hey, sea-rats! Outta your ship: plenty of work and killin’ to be done!”

“If that’s not an invitation, don’t know what is,” Dwalin said, raising his eyebrow at Aragorn. Thorin gave him a nod, and Aragorn deftly leapt over the side of the ship, landing in front of the hoard of orcs. They blinked, startled at his sudden appearance. Aragorn stood firm, his blade held high. Not a moment later he felt Thorin, Dwalin, and Gimli join him.

The orcs slowly began to laugh. “We’ve a meal finely delivered to us,” the first orc said, licking its chops with what Aragorn could’ve sworn was a forked tongue. It grinned at him, revealing jagged teeth. “Come to us with no fussin’, and we’ll see you dead before we eat you.”

“How kind,” Dwalin said, twisting his axe. “We’re touched.”

Join with me, Aragorn thought, and he could feel the Army of the Dead rising from the ship. Aragorn began to run towards the orcs, the dwarves right beside him, and he watched as the orcs went from amused to horrified. Aragorn swung hard with his sword and began fighting through the hoard. Really, there wasn’t much to do, though. The Army of the Dead were terrifyingly swift. He could only watch as one by one, the orcs met their end and were swiftly turned to nothing.

“Glad they’re on our side,” Gimli said, pulling his axe from an orc chest. “They’ll beat us to Gondor if we don’t hurry!”

“Go!” Thorin yelled, and as one they raced out of the ruined city and to the fields.

 

One minute they were on their horse, and the next, Dernwyn found herself flying through the air, her arm catching on something and then burning as if it were on fire. She actually batted at it, trying to put out the flames, before she realized it was only bleeding. But oh did it burn. The armor had deflected some of the blow, but she could feel the torn skin and the blood oozing down her arm all the same. She managed to crawl to her feet and stare in terror at the scene before her.

Fili was also sprawled on the ground, but taking his time getting up. And stalking towards him was the Nazgûl. The creature hissed and snapped its jaws, and Dernwyn knew its rider, knew it well. It was the same crowned rider from Isengard. And it was heading straight towards Fili, Fili who still wasn’t getting up. He kept trying to get his arms beneath him to push himself up, but he couldn’t seem to manage it, and he looked as weak as a newborn kitten.

It was only when she got closer that she could see the blood on his head. He shook his head, blinking blearily, and tried to reach for his blades. She hurried to aid him, but the creature shrieked at her and nearly took a bite out of her side. She managed to duck away but tripped over an orc corpse and landed flat on the ground. It began to stalk her, slowly, as if it had all the time in the world. She managed to pull her blade out and swing hard. It caught the side of its mouth and drew blood, thick, black blood. It howled and whipped its neck so suddenly that she didn’t realize it had thrown her until she landed. She gasped for air, trying to find her sword. Where was her sword, where was it, where-?

She reached for it just as it lunged for her. She spun but it was too late.

Suddenly the creature backed away, snapping and shrieking, and there was Thengel right before her. “You’ll take her over my dead body,” he growled.

Dernwyn’s eyes swung to Gondor. The gates were sprawled open, and orcs were pouring in. The city had fallen. No, no, no-

The creature managed to avoid Thengel’s sword and caught the king in its teeth, and blood pooled in its mouth. Thengel let out a choked scream, and then he was flying through the air, hitting a boulder hard enough to crack it. “No!” she shouted. No, it couldn’t be, no

He slumped over and was still.

Dernwyn could only stare. “Thengel,” she whispered brokenly. This couldn’t be happening. She wasn’t losing the only man she’d called a father, not now, not now-

But the creature was already moving on to its next target: Fili. The dwarf still had yet to fully get up, and even as he moved to put his feet beneath him, the creature dove in with its head and knocked him over. “NO!” she screamed. She pulled her blade to her and ran, not even caring if it wrapped its long neck around her and suffocated her. If she could save Fili, if she could just save Fili.

An arrow flew out of nowhere and pierced the creature in its eye. It howled and shook, its long neck waving back and forth in agony. Before Dernwyn could do anything, a well missed figure stood between Fili and the creature, and on his face was a fury the likes of which Dernwyn had never seen on him before. “You do not touch my brother again,” Kili seethed, pulling another arrow taut. Beside him was Legolas, an arrow almost plucked and ready. The creature wailed but made to strike them.

With a mighty shout Dernwyn raised her father’s sword and swung it down on the creature’s neck. The head fell off with the blow, and the body shook with death throes. The black rider toppled off, falling behind the flailing wings. Dernwyn focused on drawing enough air to grip her sword better.

“Dernwyn-“

“Get him out of here,” Dernwyn ordered, looking at Fili. He was watching her with fear in his eyes, fear very obviously for her, and Dernwyn tried to speak, to say something to comfort him, but nothing came out.

Fortunately, he could still talk. “Duck,” he managed, blood nearly seeping into his mouth, and she couldn’t even laugh before the rider was standing tall before her. In its hand was a mighty ball and chain, large and covered in spikes. She readied herself, sword held high.

It swung it above its head in a single second, startling her with its speed before she threw herself out of the way. Kili and Legolas were already hauling Fili away from the battle as Dernwyn kept its focus on her. “Will you not fight me?” she taunted. “I’ve defeated you once, and I’ll do it again.”

“You cannot kill me,” the rider hissed, and out of the corner of her eyes, she watched Kili falter and shudder, his hand coming up to his ears to block the sound. He resolutely pushed on, but the pain on her face made her grip her sword even harder. “No man can kill me.” It swung the mace again and she ducked, avoiding its blow. It pulled it high above its head, but she was already rolling away before it struck the ground. Emboldened, she moved forward with a yell, sword raised high, but its other hand struck hard and hit her arm. Pain shot up her shoulder and she screamed, hitting the ground hard.

She struggled to get up. But her eyes betrayed her, and they locked on the limp form of the king, her king, her Uncle and leader and family. Blood soaked his pierced armor, and his skin seemed to pale even more as she watched. She had failed him.

And she had failed her new king, the man who’d insulted her and asked for her to be his and loved her, and he’d picked the worst time to tell her his heart’s desires. She moved her gaze to where Kili and Legolas had set Fili down near a bright white horse. Both looked very concerned, and Fili didn’t seem to be moving.

Had she failed them both? Had she failed in the one task she’d set out to do?

The clinking of the chain behind her suddenly enraged her, and she pushed herself to her feet with a roar. The Nazgûl stopped in its tracks, and the fear she felt as it gazed through her only fueled her fury. “No man can kill me,” it said again, and it raised its mace.

She tore her helmet from her head and let her hair cascade down her shoulders. The rider paused, and it was all Dernwyn needed. “I am no man,” she said lowly, then with a shout rammed her sword up and into its face. Her hands began to burn as the rider shook apart, and its helmet started to contort and twist. A spike of something shot through her injured arm, and with a cry she fell away, pulling her arm to her. The pain, the pain, it was all she could see, hear, feel, she was nothing but agony in skin, and she writhed on the ground as something dark began to burn through her.

With a shriek the Nazgûl burst into a ball of burning light. The pain faded, but lingered like an ache. It was enough, however, to let her push herself up and look around. Her sword wasn’t far, and she managed to drag it towards her.

Her eyes landed on Thengel, and she didn’t deny herself this time. She stumbled and tripped but finally landed beside his limp form. She reached out with her good hand, trembling.

His chest rattled with wet breaths, and she was so stunned she nearly fell over. Was he…was he alive? “Uncle?” she managed through trembling lips. “Uncle?”

Slowly he raised his head. His eyes were slow to find her, and blood trickled from his lips. But he smiled when he saw her, and though rough, his voice answered her. “Dernwyn,” he murmured. “My beautiful Dernwyn.”

She gave a laugh that sounded more like a sob, but she smiled broadly all the same. “You’ll be all right,” she told him. “It’ll be all right just, just breathe. I’ll get you to help-“

“Let me go, Dernwyn,” he said quietly. Her smile froze and began to falter. “I have…I have had my time on this earth.”

She watched as he coughed, his breaths coming slower each time. “You can’t go,” she said desperately, her good hand clinging to him. “Thengel, Uncle, you can’t-“

“I swore to your father that I would protect you,” he breathed. “And I have done that. Never could I have given my life in a better way.”

There was too much blood, and her mind knew it, but her heart refused to accept what was happening. “You can’t go,” she whispered again, and a sob escaped her. “Th-Thengel, please, just, just hold on…”

“Dernwyn,” he said gently, and it wasn’t fair that he was here comforting her at the end of his life. She should be comforting him as he passed, she should be stronger than this. She had come to defend him, and she was failing him in every way. Yet she couldn’t stop the tears as the man she’d come to call her father, her loyal king, began to fade.

“Dernwyn,” he said again, and she struggled to hold herself together. He was still alive, and she would not grieve while he still drew breath. “You…a-and Fili…”

“We will live on,” she swore, and she was promising nothing she could truly give. Around her, the battle raged on, but somehow they were being left in peace, if just for the moment. Perhaps because the gates had fallen. Gondor had fallen. “We will live on, I swear it.”

“Tell Morwen,” he whispered. “Tell my children.” He didn’t need to say what to tell them. She knew. “T-Tell them I go to, to my father’s halls, proudly. Tell them as I have…have told you…”

She waited for a long moment for the next words, but his eyes suddenly slid shut, and she knew the halls of his fathers had called him onward. She reached with shaking hand to cup his face, and his skin already felt cold, so cold.

She knew she needed her blade. She knew she needed to join the battle again. She knew all of this and more. But she couldn’t pull herself away from Thengel’s side.

She wrapped herself around him to protect him in death the way she hadn’t been able to in life, and she cried and cried.

 

Everything hurt. He didn’t know where his blades were. But the pain, Mahal, it was everywhere, coursing through him, Dernwyn, he didn’t know where Dernwyn was, not after…after something had happened.

The only thing he knew was that his brother was there. “Kee?” he mumbled.

“I’m right here,” Kili swore. He was crouched in front of him, looking dirty and scratched but right in front of him, whole and alive. “I’m here, Fee.” To someone by his side, he said, “Go find Dernwyn.”

The figure nodded, sending messy blonde hair into the wind. Legolas. “I’ll be right back,” the elf said, and he was suddenly gone. His loss was keenly felt, and Fili struggled to sit up, struggling to clutch at Kili’s arm.

“Don’t go,” he croaked. “My blades, I don’t know where, Dernwyn, don’t go.”

Kili looked like he’d swallowed something vile, but he knelt down even closer, brushing something from Fili’s forehead. His hand came away red. “I’m not,” Kili swore. “I’m going to protect you, Fee, I swear. I’m not going anywhere.”

Then he was gone. Fili’s eyes darted around everywhere, searching for Kili, but it was a pained yell that pulled his attention to the left. Kili was scrambling to get to his feet, and a tall, white figure began closing the gap between them.

Pale Orc.

Azog.

“No!” Fili shouted, or tried to; his voice failed him, and he began to cough. Azog turned at his whimpered cry and began to laugh.

“Stay right where you are, little Durin,” Azog said, twisting his tongue around the common language. “I’ll be with you in a moment.” He began to stalk Kili, who was up on his feet and pulling out the blade Fili had given him. He wasn’t as good with the sword as Fili was, though, and Fili began pushing up. Pain shot through his head and made everything fuzzy for a moment, and by the time he’d cleared his head, Azog had Kili back down on the ground, clutching at his arm, trying to crawl to his blade. Azog was playing with him now, stalking slowly, and Kili knew it. Any minute could be the death blow, but Azog wanted to toy with Kili. He wanted it to hurt.

With a strangled cry Fili pushed himself up to his feet and nearly fell back over. Everything was spinning, but he managed to keep his feet beneath him. Blades, where were his blades? He needed his blades, he needed to take Azog down before he hurt Kili-

He stumbled and fell, almost close enough to reach Kili if he extended his arm. “Kee,” he whispered, and Kili stared back at him with terror in his eyes. This was it. They were done. The line of Durin was going to be cut short, and there were no words of comfort he could give Kili. The only thing he could do was be there with his little brother as everything ended. If Kili was going to die, he wasn’t going to do it alone. Azog gave a deep and throaty laugh, and Fili reached for his brother one last time.

A roar full of anguish and rage filled the air, and suddenly Azog was being pushed back, hard, by-

“Uncle,” Fili breathed, letting out a sigh. Kili was crawling to him and pulling him up, and then Legolas and Dernwyn were there, tugging them away from the battle. Orcs had ignored them, steering clear of the fight that went only to their leader, and it was keeping them safe for now. Thorin was like a man possessed, driving Azog back as if his life depended on it. Orcrist seemed to fly through the air, one moment in front of Thorin, the next at his side after a quick defense, and then thrusting forward, trying to cut through Azog. Azog almost seemed surprised at the ferocity with which Thorin fought, but not for long. Fury and hatred began to boil to the surface, and Azog began to slash and attack with a vengeance.

“What is that?”

Kili’s exclamation pulled Fili’s attention towards Gondor. There was something green racing towards the city, and soon it poured through its broken gates. It almost looked like people, but Fili’d never seen green people before in his life. He was wounded in the head, and everything was still blurry, but he wasn’t that out of it.

Suddenly Gimli was there, his axe bloody before him. “Army of the Dead,” he said proudly. “Made a clean sweep of the orcs by the river, let me tell ya that! Not so many that I couldn’t knock a few of my own back, mind.”

“And how many did you knock back?” Legolas said, a smile of cheer on his face. Fili couldn’t help his grin: an elf who was good friends with dwarves. Who knew?

“Thirty-six,” Gimli said proudly.

Legolas gave a long nod of consideration, but Fili could see Kili grinning despite his pain. “Thirty-seven, myself,” Legolas said after a moment, and Gimli’s face  dropped into a scowl so quickly Fili had to imagine it hurt to do so. “Wasn’t it thirty-seven, Kili?”

“I lost count after awhile, to be honest,” Kili said. He pushed himself to sitting with a wince, which nearly drove Legolas’s smile from his face. Kili shook his head and winked. “Thought you were up in the seventies, but it’s hard to tell.”

Seventies?” Gimli sputtered. He was kept from speaking the rest of his indignation out loud by Dwalin hurrying past him.

“Keep the orcs off of them!” Dwalin ordered to Gimli with a nod towards Fili and Kili. “We’re not done yet, not by a long shot!”

No, they weren’t, and Fili could see now that the orcs were regrouping, encouraged by the sight of their leader battling Thorin. Thorin was glistening with sweat, chest heaving for air, and Fili knew it was only a matter of time before exhaustion took hold. “Where are the Riders?” he asked, and his head was so muddled, why was it muddled?

“They went to defend the city, but-“

Legolas was cut off by a loud roar. Leading the orcs was a taller orc with a wild mane and paler skin. He looked…he looked almost like Azog. Fili stared in horror and disbelief. Even Thorin looked thrown as the orc led the remnants of the army onward. What would’ve been a band of deserters, in the face of the Riders and elves and the Dead Army, was now rallying behind the tall orc and making its way back towards them.

“My son,” Azog said, grinning at Thorin with his sharp teeth. “Bolg will enjoy carving your sons into skinless corpses.”

Thorin swung Orcrist up so hard Azog almost missed it, and they began to battle again. But it wasn’t going to be enough. Legolas was already firing into the army, and Kili was trying to do the same, but his injured arm was hindering him. They had to get up, they had to get out.

“Get me up,” Fili whispered. Dernwyn began lifting him to his feet, and it was only then that Fili got a good look at her face. “What’s wrong?”

Dernwyn shook her head, and Fili felt the blood drain from his face. Gondor had fallen, and with it…

“Not now,” Dernwyn insisted, her voice choked with more tears. But despite her red eyes and tear-stained cheeks, she glared at him, all hot-blooded and determined, and he took back everything he’d thought before the battle: never before this moment had she been so beautiful. “Not now. I need to get you out of here, now.”

“Go!” Kili shouted, and hands caught Fili by his shoulders and pulled him back. It was Aragorn, putting Dernwyn and Fili behind him, pushing them towards a white horse.

“Get out of here, go!” Aragorn ordered.

“Where’s the Army of the Dead?” Dwalin yelled as Bofur and Ori hurried to join them. “Where’d they go?”

“They’re still taking back Gondor!” Aragorn looked back behind them and raised his sword. “Riders of Rohan! Elves loyal to Elrond! I call for your aid! I call for your aid!

It wasn’t going to be enough. Bofur began moving Fili and Dernwyn away, back to the horse, and Fili wanted to shout that it was no good: how far could they get when they had nothing left? How far were they supposed to get when everyone they loved was dead on the field? “Kili,” Fili called desperately, but he knew that the last image he’d have of his brother would be his long dark hair, matted with dirt and blood, standing tall beside Legolas, firing arrows through the pain of his injured arm. Ahead of him was his uncle, fighting through exhaustion and pain to keep Azog back, to save them from Azog. He was giving his life with each stroke, each parry, each swing of his sword, to keep them alive.

Fili didn’t even have the strength to fight Bofur, and tears of frustration pooled in his eyes. “Go!” Dwalin roared, and Dernwyn caught Fili’s arm just as the orc army came even closer. Bolg ran ahead of them, faster than the rest, and in his hand was a terrible bone club. It was going to end up in someone’s head, someone that he loved, and Fili couldn’t leave. If he was going to die, he wanted it to be by their side, protecting Kili, protecting Dernwyn. Something, anything.

Mahal help us, please.

A long trumpet blast sounded, but it wasn’t an Oliphaunt. Startled, everyone turned back towards the north, towards the rise near where Fili himself had come down at the beginning of the battle. A long row of horses began to line the hill, and even as Fili stared in astonishment, Legolas called out a name with joy. “Tauriel!”

The Mirkwood elf, Legolas’s companion. But even as Fili marveled at the fact that Legolas’s family had come, that they had a fresh army ready to do battle, another army appeared, much shorter than the elves. Even from the distance, Fili knew the white-haired leader and knew it well.

Balin!” Dwalin roared, then let out a wild laugh. More dwarves were with him, and beside them came another group of horses, but they were neither elves nor dwarves. The one in front was a face Fili would never have expected to see again.

“Bard?” Kili whispered in astonishment. But it was Bard of Lake-town, standing beside Balin and Tauriel and a host of men, elves, and dwarves. With a shout they descended, and their numbers were great. So great that the orcs stopped where they stood, and even Bolg came to a halt, staring at the sudden mass of warriors before them. Azog turned to look back briefly, just briefly, but it was all Thorin needed.

With a scream of rage Thorin swung Orcrist and landed the blade right against Azog’s neck. A swift pull, and the head of the Pale Orc tumbled from his shoulders and down into the grass. His body tumbled after him. Thorin stood and panted, but Orcrist remained steady in his hands. He lifted his head towards the orc army, waiting, as if to challenge them. “Next,” he growled.

Bolg let out a shriek of agony, but his grief didn’t last long. He howled, infuriated, but two Uruk-hai caught him and pulled him back into their midst. The Riders and elves, bolstered by the new allies, joined the ranks of the newcomers and gave chase towards the east. Fili let his eyes cast around for any remaining orcs, but there were none. It was done. The battle was over.

“We won?” Kili asked, stunned. Thorin didn’t move, eyes locked on Azog’s head. Fili couldn’t begin to imagine how his uncle felt. His long sought after enemy was dead, felled at last by his own hand.

“We won,” Dwalin said. His words seemed to bring Ori back to life, and the dwarf raced over to him, all but tackling him with a long, tight embrace. Dwalin dropped his hammer and caught Ori in his arms, and the two rested their foreheads together and breathed deeply, not saying anything.

Fili caught Dernwyn around her shoulders and pulled her close, close enough that he could feel her hair sweep across his face. “You’re here,” he murmured.

She nodded, but there was no joy on her face. Relief, that was there in spades, but there was no joy. He knew there wouldn’t be. Not now, when Thengel…

“Are you two all right?” Aragorn asked, coming forward. “Fili, you’re hurt-“

“It’s…it’s fine,” Fili said quietly. Thorin had turned at Aragorn’s words, and now the whole company was gazing at them with concern. “Let’s just get to Gondor.”

“What’s the matter?” Bofur said, but a piercing cry went up not a moment later, and the whole company stilled.

“The King has fallen!”

Dernwyn buried her face in Fili’s shoulder and silently wept. Her hot tears against his skin only made him close his own eyes, thinking of the man who’d saved them, who’d led them, who’d been so kind and so good, not just to them, but to Bilbo, to all his people and those who were not his own. The man who’d given Fili his blessing to ask Dernwyn for her hand.

When he opened his eyes, the company looked to be in equal states of devastation. Kili was trying not to lean into Legolas, but the elf had his hand on Kili’s shoulder, and it was obvious that Kili was drawing strength from it. His brother’s eyes were red, and quiet tears slid down his face. Bofur carefully pulled his mangled hat from his hair and bowed his head. Thorin and Aragorn looked as if they’d been gutted, gazing off to where the Rider had given the cry. No one spoke a word.

They stood amongst each other, silently grieving one of the greatest men they’d ever known. The battle had been won, but at a horrible price. One that Fili didn’t know if they could handle paying, in times to come.

He closed his eyes once more and pulled Dernwyn closer, and didn’t even bother hiding his own tears.

Chapter Text

The aftermath of battle was always the hardest. Men and elves alike, from Rohan and Gondor and the west, all of them were strewn about with horses and orcs and Uruk-hai. Aragorn wandered the field, helping to lift the injured so they could be taken to Gondor. Arwen was already in the city, and Elrond had gone to aid her. But searching for the wounded was easy, compared to what they’d done earlier. Watching the Riders reverently lift Thengel’s body from the ground and place him on a cart, where he’d been taken to Gondor…

He shook himself and pulled a struggling Rider to his feet. “We’ve medicine and healing in Gondor,” Aragorn told him. The man nodded wearily, and Aragorn caught him gently by both shoulders, both to keep him and to steady him. When the man met his gaze, Aragorn smiled. “This battle has saved Middle-Earth. You saved innocent lives of both Rohan and Gondor, and many other cities on this earth you may never see. You have done well.”

The man stood taller after that and gave a nod. “Thank you, my liege,” he said. He was gone before Aragorn could correct him. Was he ready to take the throne?

“Aragorn!” Gimli called, and Aragorn went to his friend. The company was gathered together on the field, and before them was the Army of the Dead. He noted with some grievance that neither Fili nor Dernwyn had gone for aid, and Kili himself did not seem to be standing completely straight. Thorin’s cheek had long since closed on its own, but his blood still stained his beard, and Ori seemed to be nursing a limp that Dwalin was trying not to fuss over. Gandalf had joined them, he realized, and the wizard seemed ruffled but otherwise unhurt.

All of them were watching the Army of the Dead with mixed apprehension and awe. Aragorn stepped forward to where the king waited. “You gave us your word,” the king said. “Release us.”

“We could still use them,” Gimli said, and the king leveled a harsh glare at him. Gimli seemed unperturbed. “Right handy in a fight, these men. Cleared Gondor with no trouble at all.”

“You gave your word!” the king demanded, and Aragorn took a deep breath.

“You have more than fulfilled your oath, aiding not only myself, but the people of Gondor in their time of need. I release you: be at peace.”

The king stared for a long moment, then he began to smile, a genuine smile of pure joy, and he almost looked alive. He closed his eyes, and with a breathy sigh the entire army began to fade away, until all that remained was the bloody field.

Gimli huffed behind him. “We’re going to regret that.”

“I have no doubt,” Aragorn murmured with a chuckle. A large mass from the east was approaching, and Aragorn saw with great relief that it was the three armies that had joined with them at the end. There were no words to describe how grateful he was for their timely arrival. If they had not come…it didn’t bear thinking on.

“Tauriel!” Legolas cried with joy when the group came close enough to see. Tauriel quickly made her way to his side, giving Aragorn a quick nod of greeting, but she was not as happy as Legolas. Aragorn watched his friend’s smile falter. “What is the matter?” Legolas asked.

Tauriel reached out to place her hand on Legolas’s elbow – a sign of comfort. Legolas stood straighter, as if waiting for the blow. “They have gone, Legolas,” she said at last. “To Valinor in Aman, on one of the ships. Mirkwood is empty.”

Legolas stared, stunned into silence. Around him, the company gathered, like moths to a flame. “My father-“

“He regained enough of his senses to know that he could not stay,” Tauriel said quietly. “He and your brothers have fled the forests for the West. They have abandoned Middle-Earth: the darkness is too much.”

“But we’re fightin’ it,” Bofur said. “We’re takin’ it back! Couldn’t they return?”

Legolas swallowed hard. “You cannot return from the West,” he said softly, so softly and full of pain, that even Dwalin’s face showed the yearning to reach out and comfort him. “They are gone.”

“You can go with them, still,” Tauriel insisted. “There is time yet, Legolas.”

Kili stilled so suddenly that Aragorn wasn’t certain he was breathing. Thorin watched both his nephew and Legolas, waiting for the answer.

It didn’t take long to come. “I cannot,” Legolas said, shaking his head. “Greenwood is my home.”

“Greenwood no longer exists,” Tauriel said sharply, but her eyes were filled with sorrow. “Mirkwood is dark and dangerous, and there are no elves within it anymore. Everyone has gone, and those that came with me will either go on to Lothlorien or leave on the ships. You have no home left, Legolas.”

“Then Arda is my home,” Legolas snapped, suddenly angrier than Aragorn had ever seen him before. Even the dwarves looked surprised at his anger. “I will not abandon this world. I will stay, and I will fight! I will find a home elsewhere, with the elves of Imladris or Lorien. But I will not leave.” He took in a deep, shuddering breath, and his anger fled, leaving only pain and grief behind. “I am…glad, that he has gone,” he said at last. “Perhaps he may find peace in Valinor, from the darkness that has haunted the woods and his mind for so long. But I would not find peace on the West Shores. I cannot leave, Tauriel. I will not.”

Tauriel gazed at him for a long moment, then gave a brisk nod. “So be it,” she said. “We will find another home.”

“I would not ask you-“

“I will not leave you,” she insisted. “I am your guard, your companion, your friend. If you made your home in a hole with dwarves, I would follow you.”

“We’ve nice holes, thank you very much,” Kili said. Behind him, Dwalin coughed, trying not to laugh, and Kili blushed bright red when he realized just how his words could be taken. “Stone holes, holes in mountains, obviously. Caves! Caverns, mountain caverns-“

“Kee, shut up.”

“Thank Mahal,” Kili muttered, covering his face in embarrassment. Fili just shook his head.

Finally, however, Legolas smiled, and even Tauriel’s stony exterior cracked enough for a hint of a grin. Thorin looked pained, but his lips were twitching as if he wanted to laugh. Gandalf merely rolled his eyes with a muttered, “Dwarves.”

Dwalin’s smirk gave way to a frown as something obviously occurred to him. “Wait, your father?” he asked. “He’s leadin’ the elves? What about the king?”

Legolas swallowed, and Aragorn felt keenly for his friend. Long had he dreaded with Legolas the moment these words would come. Aragorn did not pretend to know of the grievances between Erebor and Mirkwood, but he knew it was a harsh one. He thought of Kili, standing silently by Legolas, and bit his lip.

Surprisingly, when the words came, they did not come from Legolas, but from Thorin. “Legolas is Thranduil’s son,” he said quietly. Dwalin sputtered. Even Ori stared. “He came with us because he wanted to aid us in our quest. He has given his help and very life to assisting us.” He seemed to war with himself for a long moment, but finally met Legolas’s eyes. “I am pleased that you came with us, Legolas, son of Thranduil,” he said at last. “You have been nothing short of honorable and worthy.”

Tauriel’s mouth fell open. Even Legolas seemed stunned, but he recovered quickly. “I have been glad to help: I could not have left you to face this danger alone. It would not have been right.”

Thorin smiled, as if Legolas had proved a point. Dwalin didn’t stay as silent as his king. “When did Thorin find out?” he demanded.

“I told him, soon after we began our quest,” Legolas said. “I did not keep the truth from you deliberately. There were more important things to be done. But I wanted Thorin to know: if he’d felt it was necessary and pertaining to the quest, I knew he would make the right call and tell you.”

Dwalin narrowed his gaze, but finally gave a nod. “You’ve a better head than your father, and that’s for sure.”

Legolas slowly began to smile. “Does this mean I’m still all right, for an elf?” he taunted good-naturedly.

Dwalin started chuckling. “Knew I liked you.”

“We have much to do, now,” Gandalf said. He looked back at Minas Tirith, and his eyes held sadness as they watched smoke rise from the citadel. “Denethor awaits us inside the city.”

“Denethor?” Fili exclaimed. Aragorn blinked in surprise. Denethor was alive?

Gandalf smiled. “Yes, alive, and he’s quite well.”

“Except for Ecthelion,” Kili muttered under his breath, but loud enough that Aragorn could hear him. Gandalf gave him a sharp look, but Kili just glared back defiantly. Aragorn was surprised at Kili’s sudden response, as was everyone else save for Legolas, but Gandalf seemed to have been expecting it. Not appreciating it, but expecting it, which startled Aragorn all the more. When last he had heard of Ecthelion the Second, it had been with favor; he had heard of a kind and benevolent Steward who kept Gondor safe. Meeting his son had thrown Aragorn, but now, perhaps, he would find an explanation.

Perhaps Ecthelion was not the pillar of leadership Aragorn had heard him to be.

Gandalf chose that moment to answer part of his question. “Ecthelion was, until recently, under the influence of the Palantír, which clouded his judgment.”

“That doesn’t excuse how he treats his own son,” Kili snapped. “And if memory serves, you delivered a harsh blow to Ecthelion himself during the battle.” Legolas coughed to hide a sudden smile.

All eyes turned to Gandalf. Gandalf cleared his throat. “Yes, well. Even good friends need friendly reminders, every now and then.”

“If that’s friendly, I’d hate to be your enemy,” Kili said, and Legolas choked on a laugh, turning his head away completely. Aragorn had a good idea as to what kind of ‘blow’ Ecthelion had been dealt, and he wondered if the man was even conscious yet. Gandalf acted swiftly and violently when he wanted to. The wizard was a fierce warrior, and not one Aragorn ever wanted to cross.

“Come,” Gandalf said, gesturing to the city with his staff. “There is much to discuss, and we must rest before we make our next move. We have the upper hand with this victory: I would not see it lost.”

Tauriel stayed beside Legolas as they moved into the city, glancing suspiciously at the dwarves. She managed to keep her tongue. Fili was still being supported by Dernwyn and Kili, and Aragorn went to relieve her, if just to let her own wounds be tended to. Bofur stepped in to help Fili cross the plains to Gandalf’s horse, where both Dernwyn and Fili were lifted to ride. Kili kept to Legolas’s side.

Soon the other armies came forward, elves that Legolas knew, and several that Aragorn also recognized. Balin, who had led the dwarven army, came forward and banged his forehead jovially against Dwalin’s, who looked pleased to see him. Every dwarf that Thorin passed bowed low to him and with bright smiles, and Thorin seemed almost shocked at the attention. Aragorn had a feeling that, were he ever made king, he would feel much the same way. There was a difference between being told you were a king, acting like a king, and being treated as a king.

Arwen was there, waiting for him at the gates. She bounded forward and into his arms, seemingly not caring for his bloody and dirty state. “You have returned to me,” she murmured. She pulled back and smiled. “I knew you would.”

“I made a promise, as best as I could,” he said. Her hair was pulled back and up above her neck, and her clothes were plain, sleeves carefully rolled away to not hinder her hands. Yet she still looked regal and majestic, though something was different, something Aragorn could not place. “Are you well?” he asked.

Arwen nodded. “Tired, that is all. There are many that need healing, and I must return to them. But I wanted, no, needed to see you. I had to feel you with my own two hands, to see you with my own eyes.” She placed her hand over his heart, and they stayed like that for a moment. Aragorn breathed in deeply and felt such a longing in his heart, to hold her fast within his arms and to whisper sweet nothings in her ear. She shivered, as if knowing his thoughts.

She pulled away, reluctantly, after a few more breaths. “I will take you both,” she said to Fili and Dernwyn. “Legolas, will you aid me?”

Legolas nodded and spoke softly to Shadowfax in his own tongue. Shadowfax immediately began following Arwen, and she led the horse on, with Legolas, Tauriel, and Kili immediately after her.

“You should go, too,” Dwalin told Ori. “Your leg’s all wrong.”

“Only if you go with me,” Ori said firmly. “I’m not going alone.”

Dwalin smiled so softly down at Ori that Aragorn paused to watch them. “Didn’t say you’d go alone,” he said quietly. “Not while I’m here.”

Ori began to smile. With Dwalin right beside him, they slowly made their way down after Arwen. Balin watched them go with raised eyebrows. “You did not know?” Aragorn asked, when it was clear as to why the dwarf followed them with his gaze.

“Oh, I had my suspicions,” Balin said readily. “But I’d not seen it myself, not until now. I’ll admit to feeling a wee bit foolish for not having seen it before.” He gave a wry smile, and Aragorn chuckled. “’Course, there’s other more…obvious love to be seen amongst you.” He looked pointedly after the group that was swiftly disappearing.

Aragorn smiled. “Arwen has been my light for some time now. It was not until recently that I found that, somehow, I had won her heart for my own.” He pressed his bloody hand to his shirt and felt the Evenstar warm beneath it. “An elf and a man are not that strange together, are they?”

“No, not at all,” Balin said. “But it wasn’t you I was referrin’ to, anyway.”

Oh, that one. “Fili and Dernwyn are courting, as well as any of us know,” Aragorn said. “As for Kili-“

“Shh, we don’t talk about it,” Bofur whispered, nudging Balin with his arm. He grinned broadly. “It’s a secret.”

Balin rolled his eyes. “One that, hopefully, his uncle knows of.”

Aragorn was certain that everyone knew, but it was hard to tell. It was obvious to him, but no one had spoken of the intimate tenderness between Legolas and Kili. It was clear with every delicate touch, every gentle smile, that they had found their heart’s longing with each other. How anyone could miss it, Aragorn wasn’t certain. All the more amusing when he considered that they thought they were being secretive.

“Denethor awaits us,” Gandalf said. Balin blinked.

“Denethor? He lives?”

“So said we all,” Thorin said, coming forward from where he had been speaking with a young man with long hair. Aragorn was certain he’d been of the number who’d helped lead the last charge. “Bard and his men will be staying here in Gondor for a time. They are healthy and well, and not tired from their travels or fighting. He said that the orcs turned and fled upon seeing their numbers, and none were wounded.”

“Good,” Aragorn said. “These are things the Steward will want to know.” More numbers for them to fight with. Hopefully many of the Gondor soldiers yet lived, and Elrond’s elves still stood. With these armies, perhaps they could face whatever needed to be done next.

He followed after Gandalf and the others as they made their way to the top of Gondor.

 

“Bilbo, you need to rest.”

“Can’t,” Bilbo mumbled between cracked lips. “Almost there.” Closer than he’d ever been before, and the sky was no longer dark, but getting brighter and brighter, red and terrible, as he moved towards Mount Doom. He could see the shape of the mountain now, and he swore he could see the path that would lead him to where he needed to go.

“You must rest, Bilbo.”

Bilbo waved off the Thorin’s concern. “Really, I’m fine,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“You’re talking to yourself, love. You know we’re not real. You must worry about yourself.”

The voice of his mother, as kind as it was, spoke nothing but truth, and Bilbo shuddered. The pebbles beneath him skittered this way and that with every shuffling step he took, and they looked to be sharp indeed. Not that he knew: his feet had long gone numb. Or maybe his mind had, because every now and then, he felt a sharp pain, then a deep, dull ache, all from his feet, and then it went away. A mind was a powerful thing.

And given that his mother and Thorin were walking beside him, well. A frighteningly powerful thing indeed.

“Bilbo, rest here, for just awhile.”

The rock the Thorin gestured to looked smooth enough, and Bilbo could see himself perched on it, perhaps even sleeping. Sleep, sleep, real sleep. He could imagine it was his bed in the Shire, back in Bag-End, that big beautiful bed that his parents had left to him. It was far too big for a single hobbit, but…but perhaps it was big enough for a hobbit and a dwarf. A confounded, infuriating, heart breaking, wonderful, kind, kingly dwarf, who could sleep beside him as they had on their journey together. They’d not had a bed together, but their bedrolls had been drawn close enough, so much so that Bilbo had counted Thorin’s eyelashes as they’d fanned across his cheeks in sleep. Thorin had told him once that Bilbo’s freckles were his favorite thing, and he did not have freckles, thank you ver-

“Bilbo!”

The pebbles suddenly gave way and he’d been walking too close to the edge. His foot slipped and then he was falling, hitting something sharp and hard, and he kept rolling and tumbling until he hit the unforgiving ground. He wheezed and tried to breathe, and his fingers slid first to the Ring, ensuring it was still there. He closed his eyes and felt his breath even out at the cool touch of metal across his fingers. His beautiful Ring…

MINE.

He pulled his hand away with a sharp gasp and scrambled up to sitting. Heart pounding, he drew in deep breaths, trying to will his hand to stay away from the Ring. It always felt as though it were on fire, and his neck burned from what was once a gentle glide of chain across his skin. It had dug a deep groove into his neck, and every time he adjusted it, his fingers came away red. It hurt, but what didn’t? His hands were healing but healing badly, and he thought perhaps there’d be scars. He’d fallen yesterday and caught his ear something terrible, and he’d pulled a piece of cloth from his trousers to bind it and keep it from bleeding further. His ankle…he wasn’t even going to think about it, except that it was swollen and made him shudder to look at. He was grateful that his feet were numb. Everything was going numb, and while he was glad for the reprieve, it was just another sign that things were horribly, horribly wrong.

“I should never have come this way,” he murmured. Gandalf hadn’t meant for him to come this way, and especially not to come this way alone. He closed his eyes tight. There was no one coming for him, now. If one little hobbit had had so much difficulty getting into Mordor, how was anyone else to get in?

The air was foul, and he coughed now, feeling it tighten his chest. How one could breathe the air and not feel ill, he didn’t know. Maybe that was how orcs came about: regular beings breathing in Mordor’s air.

It happened so fast, he didn’t even see it coming. One minute he was sitting on the ground, and the next he was being hauled up by cruel, strong hands and dangled over the ground. “What’s this?” the creature said, and Bilbo stared in horror at the group of orcs around it. Whatever had grabbed him was taller than an orc and even more terrifying. “Looks like a tidy meal to me!”

No. No no, oh no, not with Mount Doom right there. Bilbo kicked out and caught the creature in the chest, and with a grunt it dropped him. Bilbo took off running, racing to get away, but sudden pain blossomed through his head, and everything went hazy. He hit the ground, unable to push himself up. His arms and legs no longer worked, and his vision spun and went blurry. Pain, so much pain in his head, had he been struck? He had to get up, he had to-

The last thing he saw was the group of orcs coming to surround him.

Chapter Text

“We need to go,” Kili said suddenly. Legolas turned to him, frowning.

“What?”

“We need to get up there,” Kili said, standing. He seemed to tip once on his feet, and Legolas hurried to secure him. Thankfully, Tauriel did the same from his other side. She then frowned at how tall he was, bewildered. Legolas did not bother explaining it as Kili spoke once more. “I mean it, there’s something going on.”

“How do you know?” Tauriel asked. “Do you see visions?”

“No, no, I just…Uncle said he’d be down to check on us, when he’d finished speaking to Denethor and Ecthelion, and he hasn’t been back,” Kili admitted. “He spoke to me, right before we came into the city. I’ve got a bad feeling, is all.”

Legolas knew: he’d heard the words, quietly spoken, but had put them from his mind as they had not been meant for him. Still, Kili was right: it had been hours, and Thorin would not have tolerated hours apart from his nephews very well. Not when both were injured. “Then we go,” he said. He caught Arwen’s eye from where she worked to aid Dernwyn, and she gave a nod. She would keep them safe.

Shadowfax waited for them outside the houses of healing, just as Legolas had thought he would. Tauriel gave a low whistle, and her horse appeared not moments later. “Carefully,” Legolas warned, settling Kili atop Shadowfax.

“I’m all right,” Kili said, but he pulled his arm and sling closer to him. Legolas quickly mounted behind him, and once Tauriel was ready, they set off, climbing through the ruined city. Only a few orc corpses remained: the Army of the Dead had apparently decimated everything evil in its path. Legolas nearly shuddered to think of their power.

The gates to the throne room were wide open, and they raced in, stopping at the doors. Already Legolas could hear shouts full of anger and rage, and the malice left his heart in fear. “What is it?” Kili asked, seeing the look on his face when he dismounted.

“Hatred,” Legolas said. “I would not have you go in, but I know that I cannot stop you, either.” He took Kili’s good hand in his to help him down and ignored Tauriel’s sharp gaze. “So I will go with you.”

Kili’s smile was a bright and beautiful thing indeed, and if Tauriel had not been there, he would have kissed that smile, just to know if it felt as warm as it looked. He would know later, when it was just the two of them. They stepped into the throne room, and Legolas could not go any further, so great was the fury in the room. He had thought the battle had been left behind, but it was here and now, right in front of them.

Ecthelion was standing in front of the throne, glaring at Aragorn. Aragorn, for his part, looked weary, but he still stood off to the side with determination. The dwarf named Balin and Thorin flanked him, and Gandalf appeared to be trying to speak with Ecthelion. But where he stood, so close to Aragorn, it was clear whose side he was truly on.

In between them stood Denethor. It was clear that the young man was in pain, clutching his side without attempting to hide it, but the greater pain, Legolas knew, was in his heart.

“I will not allow this…this man on the throne!” Ecthelion shouted. “You have given me nothing that proves he is rightfully king! Yes, his acts of valor on the field will be well announced to all-“

“I did not fight for valor,” Aragorn insisted, and it sounded as if this had been a statement already answered. “I fought to protect Gondor and its people!”

“And I laud you for it,” Ecthelion said. The words would have been more receptive, Legolas thought, if they had not been hissed with such malcontent. “But you claim to be king-“

“I claim nothing!”

“And yet here you stand before me, wielding the Sword of the King, bearing his ring, and holding the name of-“

“Aragorn, son of Arathorn,” Legolas said, and all eyes turned to the doorway. Thorin’s face creased into frustration upon seeing Kili, but Kili only stood all the taller. Legolas moved his gaze to Ecthelion and let his fury stand on its own. How dare Ecthelion belittle his son, threaten both Denethor and Kili, then challenge Aragorn’s rightful place? “You owe him your allegiance, you above everyone else. Was it not the Steward’s place to defend the King? And yet you stand here and insult Isildur’s heir.”

Ecthelion rose up to his full height, as if to compete with Legolas, but Legolas merely raised his eyebrow. Something he’d found himself doing more ever since he’d begun calling the dwarves his friends. It was something his father would have called an inherited flaw, and Legolas found he rather liked it.

Kili was certainly rubbing off on him, that much was certain. Though, watching his betrothed stand up to Ecthelion earlier had been something wondrous to behold indeed. Perhaps being more like a dwarf was nothing to scoff at.

Ecthelion took deep breaths and turned his furious gaze from Legolas to Denethor. He surprisingly softened his stance, and his eyes were pleading. “I know you have traveled with these companions, and so you call them friends,” Ecthelion said, and Legolas’s eyes widened at the pure manipulation that Ecthelion was addressing his son with. “But I am your father. We are Stewards of Gondor, my son. Do you believe this Ranger to be the rightful heir to the throne?”

The hall went silent. After a long moment, Denethor began to weep. But when he raised his head, Legolas saw he was not crying but laughing, and it was a bitter sound indeed. “I am not your son,” he said, shaking his head. Ecthelion stared. “And you are not my father. Not anymore. As for Aragorn, I have no doubt that he is who he says he is. Even were he not, by blood, I would name him King based on what I have seen of him, and for his deeds.” He glanced back at Aragorn with a smile. “I will follow you, my brother, my captain…my King.” He turned slowly, as his wounds allowed, and gave a deep bow.

If the hall had been silent before, it was nothing compared to the lack of anything now. Denethor’s words seemed to have put a spell on Ecthelion, for he stared at his son as if just seeing him for the first time. He stumbled back and fell to the stairs before the throne. Denethor turned and began to step towards him, but Thorin caught him by the shoulder, and Denethor stayed where he was.

Ecthelion slowly shook his head. “Have I done so wrong by you, Denethor, that you would not stand by me now?” He looked Gandalf for comfort, but Gandalf stood as a statue. He then moved his gaze to Legolas and Kili, of all people, and Legolas thought of his own father, ensnared and lost, who had pulled himself from the depths of darkness to finally save himself and his people. For the first time since he had met Ecthelion, Legolas felt his heart stir with pity for the man.

It was Kili who spoke, and his quiet words echoed through the hall. “He has not done wrong by you at all. He has stood by you and for you, when you were beyond all help. It is you who must stand by him now. If you stand by him, and stand by Aragorn, you will be the greatest Steward that Gondor has ever known.” He said nothing of being a father, but Ecthelion knew, as well as everyone else: that bond had long been severed. Perhaps it would be cut forever.

Ecthelion seemed to accept his words and ponder them. Thorin gazed at Kili with such pride that Kili ducked a little, even as he smiled. Legolas nudged Kili gently with his shoulder and offered a quick smile of his own. As young as Kili was, his dwarf was kind and wise, yet still innocent and swift to grin. Legolas thought his heart would burst just looking at Kili and his handsome face. Betrothed. This dwarf was his.

Ecthelion finally stood, pulling Legolas from his musings. The Steward took a deep breath. “I accept you, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, as King of Gondor.” He let out his breath and sank into the Steward’s chair. “In all you need, I will aid you.”

“And a wise Steward you will be, and already are, my old, dear friend,” Gandalf said warmly. Ecthelion looked up at his words, but did not seem comforted by them. “We will announce the King’s return later. For now, we must rest, all of us. We have some time, before we make our next move.”

“There are rooms, here, to be had for all,” Ecthelion said quietly. “But I would ask that you take them now and leave me alone with my son.” He looked to Denethor, and finally the young man nodded.

Before Legolas knew it, Thorin was there beside them. “How bad is your arm?” he asked Kili quietly. Up close, Thorin looked more aged than he had before. Legolas had thought that Azog’s death would have left him relieved, but perhaps the injuries of his sister-sons had left him haunted instead.

“It’ll heal, or so Arwen says,” Kili said. “I can still feel the tips of my fingers. She thinks Azog shattered something. Something small,” he hurried to add when Thorin’s face darkened. “But I can still pull my bow. Just bruised, that’s all.”

“The only thing he shattered was your head, if you think I’ll let you see battle again with your arm so injured,” Thorin growled. Kili only glared back.

“I’ll be fine-“

“In due time. But we may be out of time, laddie,” Balin said quietly as he joined them. “I don’t know what all’s happened, but I’ve only heard two mentions of Bilbo’s name, and neither was said with a great amount of joy. More importantly, I know he’s not here.”

Thorin shut his eyes, and Kili’s gaze softened. “He’ll be all right,” Kili assured him. “He’s in Mordor now.”

“How is that supposed to help me?” Thorin asked, but it came out as a plea. “He is in Mordor with only a Gondor guide-“

He stopped when Kili’s face twisted. Too late, Kili realized he’d given himself away, and he let out a sigh. “Uncle-“

“Tell me,” Thorin demanded. “Kili, I beg of you, tell me.”

“The guide sent with Bilbo…” Kili swallowed and bit his lip. “They found him dead in Osgiliath.”

Thorin went white in fear. “Gandalf says that he is in Mordor, and still alive,” Legolas assured him, when Kili could not seem to find the words. “He is alone. Whoever went with him did not harm him.” There was a great difference between ‘well’ and ‘alive’, but Legolas kept his opinions to himself. Thorin did not need them now, and after the dwarf had paid Legolas a kindness on the field in regards to his parentage, Legolas felt the need to return the favor. “He is well, Thorin. Gandalf has seen it.”

Thorin took in a ragged breath, and suddenly he pulled Kili to him, holding him fast. Legolas pulled Tauriel back as Thorin truly embraced his sister-son for the first time since Kili had fled Rohan. They needed a moment to themselves.

“You love him. I have seen it in your eyes.”

“He is kind and wise,” Legolas told Tauriel quietly, and he answered her as she had spoken, in their own tongue. “I would have no other.”

“He is a dwarf.”

“And a better being than many I have met,” Legolas said, and a small amount of his ire broke through. She would forgive him for it: it had been a long day and a longer battle beside. Was it really that morning that he had kissed Kili so sweetly on the balcony?

Footsteps drew his thoughts away from memory, and Dwalin stood before them, having just come through the gates. Behind him, on the horse, was Ori. He seemed to be all right by the small smile he gave Legolas. “Stars are out,” he said. “We’ve all in need of sleep, some more than others. Kili needs to be goin’ back down to Fili and Dernwyn, but Thorin’s needed here.”

“Kili will not go alone,” Legolas assured him. “I go with him, and Tauriel with me. I fear no attack in the night.”

“No, we’ve thoroughly sent Sauron’s rats runnin’, least for now. It’ll give us time to get Gondor to rights and give those still standin’ a rest before we make our next move.” He paused before going, then said casually, “I meant what I said. You’re a better man than your da. He should be proud of ya. And if he’s not, we certainly are.”

He felt Tauriel bristle beside him at his slur to Thranduil, but Legolas only smiled, truly touched. “Thank you.” He tried to find more words, but for once, none came. His smile broadened and he could only say again, “Thank you.”

Dwalin gave him a curt nod. “We’ll be here for the night, anythin’ happens. But I expect Lord Elrond’ll keep them safe enough.”

“Arwen is one of the best healers one could ask for, perhaps surpassing even her father’s skill. Fili and Dernwyn are in good hands indeed.” Ori, too, had benefitted from Arwen’s healing touch, of that he had no doubt, but reminding the dwarf of Ori’s leg wound, no matter how well tended to, would do Dwalin no good.

Dwalin nodded and left, off to speak with Thorin, no doubt. Legolas went back to Shadowfax to await Kili, who was greeting Balin with a smile. Somehow, amidst the despair and tragedy and death, Kili could still smile and find joy in those alive. He was a light in the darkness, and Legolas felt his heart swell with such love he had never known before Kili.

“You do love him.”

Tauriel’s voice was filled with such awe that he could not help but watch her. She looked at him and into his heart, and when she met his eyes, there was acceptance in her gaze. “I do,” Legolas said quietly. “They are all good men. Stubborn, brutal, and tricksters all.” He chuckled. “But they are good men, and I am glad to be called a dwarf-friend.” For he knew now that was what he was. Thorin had made him one on the field following the battle.

Tauriel nodded. “Then they shall be elf-friends, and the young dwarf will be bound in heart with you.”

Her loyalty and friendship nearly left his knees shaking. Until now, he had not realized how important her words were, and how much he had felt the desire for acceptance. But Tauriel’s quiet words had settled a grievance in his heart. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

“Do not expect me to be friends with them, as you are,” Tauriel warned. “Not yet. But I will respect and tolerate them, for you.”

Legolas laughed softly. “I would have expected nothing less.”

“Legolas!”

He turned at Kili’s voice as the young dwarf carefully made his way back to the horse. Thorin was beside him, not helping him, but standing as a support. The older dwarf looked so weary that Legolas wished he could aid him in some way, but it was not a physical pain that ailed him. Seeing Fili and Kili nearly felled had put a pain in him that would never quite heal. Knowing mortality was different than facing it, and much different still than facing the mortality of those you loved.

Including a small hobbit that he had not seen in too long. One who wandered Mordor alone. Legolas closed his eyes and felt his sorrow shared with the gentle breeze that blew the smell of death and smoke away from Minas Tirith. It would be a long, long time before the city was truly healed, or its people recovered.

But they would perhaps have that time, if they could strike against Sauron. The darkness in the land could perhaps be destroyed for good. Forever.

It was a dizzying thought. But one that left Legolas with a smile as the two dwarves approached. “You’re awfully cheerful,” Kili said, a matching grin on his own face.

“You are well and alive,” Legolas said. “We won and spared innocents across Middle-Earth. Your brother and Dernwyn breathe and will continue to do so for a great time.” And Kili was still smiling at him with such affection that Legolas could almost not breathe. Yes, he was cheerful.

Even Thorin managed a smile. “I will follow after you in time,” he said. “Aragorn and I would see the injured and help where we can. Aragorn has spoken of having learned the healing arts from Elrond, and there may yet be a forge where I can put my two hands to work in helping build what is needed to aid Gondor.”

Yes, Thorin would be a great king, one day, and he knew Tauriel understood this when she began to relax. “Estel is known for his prowess of healing, which is remarkable in one so young,” she said. “You both should be seen to. You cannot move forward if your wounds hinder you.”

Thorin seemed even too exhausted to take offense at her words, and Legolas rested a hand on his shoulder. “Rest, first,” he said quietly. “You have done a great thing today; you saved your sons, you saved us all. Be proud and know that Kili and Fili are well.”

He could offer no comfort about Bilbo. He knew nothing of the hobbit to give him. Legolas only wished he had been able to speak more with this incredible being who had not only volunteered to cross Mordor alone, but who had also endeared himself to so many, and had won the heart of the dwarf before him. He could only hope that he would be given the chance in the future.

But Thorin seemed to take strength from his words. “They are well, and both thanks to you. I wasn’t lying on the battlefield: you did well. Thank you.”

Legolas gave a bow, bringing a smile to Thorin’s lips. “We need rest,” Kili said. “You too, Uncle. You know where to find us.”

They were soon back up on their horses and heading down to the houses of healing. “Do you know how hard it was to not stay with you, to not take your hand in mine?” Kili asked as they took a quick turn down to another level. “I wanted to so badly.”

Oh did Legolas want it, too. But later. When they had finally had a moment to themselves. And that, Legolas intended on getting as quickly as he could. Perhaps he could send Tauriel out to find something in Gondor, or to deliver a message for him…

 

It was a long night, perhaps the longest Dernwyn had ever known. She could walk well enough on her own, now, and her wandering had led her to a small room with a balcony. Her arm was a muted pain as it healed, and she placed her hand now, gently, on the balcony rail. But her heart…her heart was another matter. The stars above seemed dimmer than they had been in Rohan, but she thought perhaps they were muted in grief, as she was.

Her eyes burned again.

“Dernwyn?”

Dernwyn gave no answer, but she tilted her head to acknowledge she’d heard him. Slowly Fili came to her side, and together they breathed in the night air. It was comforting.

“Still can’t sleep?”

“No,” she said softly. She’d never sleep again, or so she thought. Images of Thengel came to her mind, and she drew in a shuddering breath. Her king, her kin, was dead. And she alone had heard his last words, which meant she had to bear them to his queen and family. She selfishly wished someone else had heard them, that she didn’t have to carry this burden, but she quieted her thoughts as soon as they came. It was all she could do, given that it was because of her that he was gone.

“It’s not your fault.”

“You should have warned me that you could read minds,” she murmured. “It would’ve saved my voice.”

“I mean it,” Fili told her. He turned her until she faced him, and she knew he could see the grief and agony on her face. His eyes softened. “Thengel died saving you, and he would never have died any other way. He was glad to give his life for you, the same as I would be, if it came to that.”

“Don’t you dare,” she said sharply, suddenly so very angry. “Don’t you dare. It wouldn’t do you any good, I’d just follow after you-“

“Dernwyn,” he whispered, and she finally broke, ugly sobs that were ripped from her chest. She leaned into his embrace and they stood, two injured in the middle of the night, both of them grieving. His tears drifted down her skin, a silent witness to his own turmoil. Even a few days later, even now that she had healed physically enough to walk around on her own, she still felt so broken inside.

Thengel was dead. Her king. Her uncle. Her home.

“How could he? How could he, Fili?”

Fili didn’t answer, which was all the better, as she wouldn’t have taken any answer he had. Her uncle was dead, and there was nothing left. She tightened her grip on his shirt and felt him beneath her, no armor between them. It was just a single shirt between her and this beautiful man who still breathed and lived. His flesh was warm through the cloth, another reminder of his life. It was that which she clung to, now, as the stars were dim above her.

“I don’t want you to leave,” she whispered. “I can’t live without you by my side. You have to be here. Don’t you leave me, too.”

She couldn’t go back to Rohan. It would never be home again. Morwen and her children would only be painful reminders of the man lost to them. Maybe her courtship with Fili would continue as it had, and maybe she could call his mountain, Erebor, her home. She felt lost and adrift, no home or place to call her own.

He leaned back and pulled something from his pocket, and she almost wept again when she saw her handkerchief. He silently used it to wipe the tears from her cheeks with the most delicate touch. She’d watched him slaughter orcs with one blow, yet here his touch was so tender she could barely feel it.

He reached into his pocket again, and she didn’t understand what he was looking for until he went to his knees. He held up before her a simple golden band. “I had it crafted earlier,” he confessed. “I’m supposed to make this for you, not have it made, but when we’re home in Erebor, I’ll craft you a ring worthy of you, I swear it.”

“Are you,” she managed, but then the words failed her.

Fili met her gaze with trepidation and so much passion she thought she would fall over. As it was, she reached for the wall to steady herself. It didn’t seem to help the nervousness that Fili felt. “In dwarvish customs, we don’t, well, exactly get down on knees and offer rings,” he said, and if he’d had his hands free, she knew he would’ve pulled at the braids in his beard, his nervous tick she’d learned well over their time together. “We offer beads and braids so everyone knows that I’ve declared my love for you, and my intentions, but, well, you’re not a dwarf, which is perfectly fine, because I love you, but I can’t make a bead for you, not now, but I will, I’ll make you a ring and beads and-“

“Yes,” she whispered, and Fili stopped babbling.

“You…yes?”

“Yes,” she said, louder now, and through her tears she watched Fili shoot to his feet and pull her close. She wrapped her fingers in his shirt and breathed. Her heart felt as if it were going to burst, it was pounding so loudly, and she didn’t know how he’d heard it. He finally stepped back and carefully, carefully, placed the ring on her finger. It glistened like the stars should have, and Dernwyn almost couldn’t comprehend what had happened. They had courted for such a short time, but it felt right, this all felt right, and he was the only one she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

It seemed she would have a new home, after all.

“You picked a terrible time to tell me,” she said suddenly as she pulled away, and Fili frowned. “On the battlefield, you told me, you said to me-“

“I love you,” he said again, just as he had before they’d descended into the battle’s madness, and she shuddered. “I meant it then, and I mean it now. I love you, Dernwyn of Rohan.”

“And I you,” she managed to choke out, and Fili looked as if she’d hung the very stars in the sky by herself, so full of awe was he. “I love you, you impossible, thick-headed, wonderful dwarf-“

His eyes met hers, silencing her words, and she leaned in closer, watching him match her inch by inch. His breath was warm and welcoming as she closed the gap between them.

Someone banged on the door to their room, startling them both apart. “Did she say yes?” Bofur yelled from the other side. “We’re dyin’ out here!”

Dernwyn could help the high-pitched giggle she let out. She felt ridiculous, laughing like a child, but her heart was still pounding, and she felt positively giddy. She was going to be married. She was going to spend the rest of her days with the absolutely stubborn and gorgeous dwarf before her-

One she hadn’t even kissed yet. Well, that was going to change.

Before Fili responded, Dernwyn grabbed his shirt and pulled him, and finally, finally, her lips landed on his. There was an awkward moment of where noses had to go, and then she was slanting her head and he was coaxing her mouth open and his tongue, his warm and wet and wonderful tongue was there, and it slid across her lips and made her moan. He was hers, and she was his, and she let her heartache fade, for the moment. It was nothing but Fili and her with the stars the only witnesses to their private moment.

“Oi! Tell us or we’ll pound down the door!”

Perhaps not just the stars. Fili finally broke away, muttering about ‘stubbornness of dwarves” that sounded suspiciously how Gandalf would say it, and he yelled out to Gimli and the rest, “She said yes! Leave us be!”

“Oh, we’ll leave you alone, all right,” Kili said, and he sounded ecstatic. Fili turned red up to his ears as the others laughed from beyond the door.

Then he kissed her again, and both seemed to forget that there were others listening and waiting on the other side of the door. Her ring was warm against her skin, and Fili warmer still against her lips. If their kisses were salty and their cheeks tearstained with happiness and grief, too entwined to tell the difference between them, neither said a thing.

Chapter Text

“Thorin?”

Thorin raised his eyes from the floor. Gandalf gazed down at him with sympathy in his eyes. “You have done a kind deed,” he said quietly.

It had been a moment of happiness, if just for a short time, that much was certain. When Fili had come to him, asking for his blessing to wed Dernwyn before everyone, he had seen no braid in her hair, no clasp or bead to signify Fili’s decision. Then his gaze had been drawn to where Fili had held her hand, and to the small golden band around her finger. Fili had accepted and embraced the culture of men to honor her and her family, and Thorin had granted the blessing before his mind had caught up to the significance. But the happiness on Fili’s face, the quiet joy they’d shared with the company there, it had been all worth it.

Even Kili had been pleased, though he’d hung back, uncharacteristically subdued. Legolas had stood beside him, nearly close enough to touch, but neither had looked at the other. It was the first time that Thorin had actually chuckled since the battle, and it had caught their attention. “What?” Kili had asked.

“Are you going to ask me for a blessing?” Thorin has asked. The surprise on their faces had been amusing, and even Denethor had grinned.

“A-ask you…why would I ask you?” he remembered Kili sputtering.

Fortunately, Bofur had cut him short. “We know you’re hangin’ on Legolas, lad. Give it up.”

Kili’s face had gone alarmingly white, while Legolas had blinked. “But…but we, I mean, you, we didn’t tell anyone!”

Dwalin had roared with laughter. “Mahal, you two thought you were keepin’ it a secret?” Kili had nearly tripped over his own two feet, staring as everyone had started laughing. But he’d finally braved coming forward to Thorin, eyes bright but hopeful, and Thorin had graced him with a happy smile.

“You don’t…mind?” Kili had asked quietly.

“I’m in love with a hobbit, Kili,” he’d said with a wry grin. “I cannot mind, even if I wanted to.” It had been strange to admit that he did not mind, and he’d blessed Kili a moment later. Legolas had given him a deep bow and the company had gone on to tease the both of them mercilessly about being “less than subtle” in their courting.

But among the happiness, Thorin had found himself grieving at his own words, and he’d excused himself from their joyful fray. His nephews were alive and in love, Dwalin had Ori, and even Aragorn had found his queen. But Thorin…

He hung his head again. “Granting Kili a chance to be with Legolas was more than any of your ancestors would have done, in your place,” Gandalf continued. He paused for a moment. “But I know why it is you have hidden here, now, when you could be with your kin and with cheer.”

“Tell me you see him now,” Thorin found himself begging. “Tell me you can still see Bilbo.”

Gandalf said nothing, and Thorin shut his eyes tightly. Every day brought a new challenge, but none of it brought him any closer to Bilbo. There was nothing he could do, nothing, to help the one he held closest in his heart.

The pin sat heavy in his pouch, a guilty stone that haunted his thoughts. His mind kept taking him back to their journey together, of how he’d treated Bilbo at the start, how he’d finally seen the worth of the man before him, how they’d shared breaths and held close and been so in love that Thorin didn’t know how he’d missed it. But he’d missed it and ignored it, until it had been too late to take it for his own.

It’s but a trinket.

The look in Bilbo’s eyes, the pain, the hurt, the dimming of the light that seemed to be a constant spark inside the hobbit, and he’d put it out like stomping on a flame.

“You will cease those thoughts at once, Thorin Oakenshield,” Gandalf said sharply. Thorin whipped his gaze up, startled, and Gandalf sighed. “Thinking of the past will do you no good when you seek the future.”

“I will have no future with him unless I can find him,” Thorin insisted. “I have to find him.”

“And we will, of that I am certain.” Gandalf looked out over Minas Tirith. It was raining, a good rain that would wipe the blood from the soil. He thought that the dead had finally been removed from the field, but he didn’t know. He’d been too focused on helping where he could the past few days, forging steel and iron braces to support the broken walls and archways until they could be rebuilt. He’d aided in the houses of the healing, helping the elves and the men as he could.

“You are well received here, in Gondor. You have made a powerful ally that will serve you as you rule.”

He knew. He’d heard the murmurings, the awe and almost worship he’d received. He was Thorin of the Forge, Thorin the Strong, Thorin the Orc-Slayer. Thorin the Aide of Gondor. They were all good titles. Many of the others had earned songs and names for themselves as well, but none had earned the praise like Aragorn and Arwen had. Whispers of her kindness and skill, of his tender hands and patience, had spread like wildfire through the city. When Aragorn was announced as king, he would be well received, and Arwen too. Gondor would hail Erebor as a strong ally, and Thorin would do well to have his name beloved here in the white citadel.

Beloved. There was only one person he wanted to call him by that title, and he cast his eyes to Mordor with a trembling heart. Bilbo was gone from him, somewhere out there, and just thinking of his kind hobbit there amidst the storm and vileness left fear in his breast.

Gandalf sighed and rested a hand on his shoulder. Thorin couldn’t tear his gaze from Mordor. “I could speak for hours of the great deeds you have done, of the political goodness that has been achieved by your hands, of the kindness you have given to kin and strangers…but there’s only one person you want by your side right now, and it isn’t me, so I will leave you in peace. When you’re ready, we meet in the throne room to discuss our next move. And that, I can assure you, will aid the one you love.” With that, Gandalf left him.

His fingers went to the pouch of their own accord, and he plucked the pin from it. It gleamed, even in the rain, and he gently ran a finger over it. He remembered the night he’d given it to Bilbo, of the smile he’d put on his beloved’s face. He remembered Bilbo proudly wearing it with his new coat and the embroidered edge that marked him as part of the Durin family. Thorin had been so close, so close, to true happiness, and now…

His eyes drifted to his wrist. It was tattered and worn and stiff from washing it clean from battle, but the long strand of cloth still remained. If they never found Bilbo, if Bilbo didn’t return to him, this was all he’d have left of the one he loved. This was all he’d have to remember his beautiful, brave hobbit by.

He thought of the wispy curls of hair, the gently pointed ears that had turned red at the slightest provocation, the bright eyes that had gazed at him with such love-

It was some time before Thorin went back inside to find the throne room. His thoughts were dark and dismal by the time he made it there, and only a few of the company were waiting. The others had not yet arrived. He took a seat in one of the chairs and tried to breathe.

When Balin came beside him, Thorin gave his old friend his full attention. Balin looked him over, as if searching for something, before shaking his head. “I did tell you that you might not catch up with him, did I not?” the older dwarf said, but there was no humor in his smile.

Thorin thought back to so long ago, when they’d departed from Erebor, and he shook his head, a helpless, grief-stricken laugh falling from his lips like a sob. “I should have trusted you then,” he managed, and somehow, the thought of what he’d set out to do, of what he’d failed to do, crested over him like a drowning wave. He hung his head and wept silently. Bilbo, his Bilbo, was out somewhere in Mordor, alone, Mahal, so alone, with no one to defend him while he traveled through the most vile of places. Kili had nearly been lost to him from the enchanted seeing-orb, and both he and Fili had been wounded in the last battle, and they were as far from peace as they’d ever been before. This battle was nowhere near over. Bilbo was nowhere near safe. And he was nowhere near to where Thorin could hold him and whisper apologies and words of love.

“Ah, laddie,” Balin whispered, and strong arms wrapped around him. Thorin clung to Balin as he had after Erebor had fallen: clutching at his robes, allowing himself to sob and grieve for what they had lost. And just as he had done that day when Smaug had desolated the lands, Balin held him and comforted him.

When his eyes were sore and his heart could take no more sadness, Thorin finally pulled himself to standing. His cheeks were damp, but he didn’t wipe them dry. “Are there any others following to join with us?” he asked. He needed to be strong. He had to be. For Fili, for Kili, for Dernwyn now, too. She was kin in all rights save for an official one. Perhaps she already had been, the day she’d fought alongside Fili in Isengard. And now, now she had no one. Holdwine might never recover, and Thengel-

More grief struck him like a well-placed blow, and he forced himself to take a steady breath. He was needed. He could not falter now.

Balin waited until Thorin was completely composed before he spoke. “Too far away to aid us. Dain is lending his aid, but his goal was to reach Erebor and reinforce it, lest more orcs attempt to attack it.”

As much as Dain’s refusal to aid Thorin in his quest for Erebor still rankled, he knew better than to think that Dain would try to overthrow him for Erebor. Dain was content in the Iron Hills. He loved his people, and they in turn loved him. His stepping out from his kingdom to help preserve Thorin’s was a gift and an apology for having not loaned strength for the quest. Thorin knew a peace offering when he saw one, and he would take it.

By now, the others had entered the room, the cheer of earlier gone. Fili and Dernwyn went off to one corner, Fili’s head still wounded but healing, his hand held tightly in Dernwyn’s. Kili entered with Legolas, and both immediately strode over to join them. The two brothers rested their foreheads together for a long moment, clutching at each other, and Thorin hated that he’d brought this pain on them, this fear of mortality. They had known it, on the quest, but never before had they been forced to see their brother brought so low. He could only thank Mahal that they were still there, still alive to be afraid for one another. Legolas caught his eyes from across the room, and Thorin gave him a low nod of thanks.

Bard came not long after, long hair pulled away from his face to help it dry from the rain. His sleeves were rolled up, and his clothes were damp. Thorin knew he had been aiding Gondor where he could as well, but when Bard looked to him, he gave Thorin a deep bow. Thorin returned it with a quick nod, and he knew Balin had not asked the man for aid. Bard had given it, and willingly. Somehow, Thorin had made an ally of the man. Perhaps even…a friend.

When everyone had arrived, Gandalf stepped forward, his feet making not a sound. “I can no longer see our hobbit,” he said. “Bilbo is beyond my sight, now. He is deep, deep into Mordor.”

Thorin stared, stunned into silence. These weren’t the words he’d hoped for. These were an unwelcome surprise. “What does that mean?” Denethor asked quietly. “For us, for him?”

“For him, it means there is nothing I can do,” Gandalf admitted with regret. “I cannot see if he needs aid, or if he comes to harm. He is beyond where I can reach.”

Any more of this, and Thorin’s heart was going to tear apart. He stood, unable to sit any longer, only to lean against a column, forcing himself to breathe steadily. He had to stand strong, he had to.

Bilbo, my beloved, please, please be well, you have to come back, you have to…

“For us…that is to be decided.” Gandalf moved his gaze throughout the group. “I do not know how we can aid him. Mordor is filled with orcs and more Uruk-hai than even Saruman could call to aid. Trolls and wargs also await our hobbit, but worst of all is Sauron’s Eye.” From the corner, Kili gave a long shudder. Without a word the others were there, Fili holding tightly to his brother, Legolas curling a strong hand around Kili’s shoulders.

“If Sauron finds Bilbo, then all is lost. Bilbo will never be able to escape that gaze, or the fate that follows it. Sauron’s gaze has not drifted from Mordor. Bilbo can’t cross the plains to Mount Doom while Sauron is watching, unless he were to somehow hide with orcs.” And the likelihood of that was slim indeed.

“Then we move his gaze.”

All eyes turned to Aragorn. “Just ‘move his gaze’,” Dwalin deadpanned. “Right. We’ll ask ‘im to look somewhere else for a minute or two.”

Aragorn gave a short grin. “I’ve something even better than that.”

“’Course you do.” Still, Dwalin looked more amused than worried.

“We can draw out the forces of Mordor and ensnare Sauron’s gaze ourselves.”

Dwalin choked on his next breath. Fili and Kili stared with open mouths. Even Gandalf looked startled. “Draw them out?” Gimli asked incredulously. “You mean-“

“He searches for me now, just as much as he seeks Bilbo,” Aragorn insisted. “You know this to be true. The Army of the Dead could only be called by the King of Gondor, and he must know of what happened. He knows that I live, and he fears me. I can use this to our advantage, draw out his army, empty his lands.”

Thorin stood up straighter, and his next breath was strong and deep. “We will take the brunt of Sauron’s gaze and give Bilbo the chance he needs.” Aragorn gave a nod, approval in his eyes. “We can help Bilbo this way.” Finally, finally, there was something Thorin could do. He could do some good, he could help Bilbo. He suddenly felt so light, he was afraid he’d start to float.

“By taking on all of Mordor’s forces,” Bofur said, raising his eyebrows so high his hat lifted. He waited, then shrugged. “Why not?”

“A diversion,” Legolas said with a nod. “I agree.”

“Certainty of death, small chance of success,” Gimli said, shaking his head. “What are we waiting for?”

“My men stand ready to aid,” Bard said, and Tauriel stated the same for the elves who had come with her. Thorin felt his head almost pound with the sheer amount of gratitude he felt to them.

Gandalf gave a smile briefly before it fell. “Sauron will suspect a trap,” he warned. “Unless you give him a true reason to fear, he will not answer.”

Aragorn paused, but Thorin could see he already had his answer. “Have you the Palantír?” he asked quietly. Kili inhaled sharply.

“Aragorn, no.”

“It’s the only way I can reach him,” Aragorn said quietly. “I have to. For Bilbo’s sake, for our sakes.”

“You don’t understand,” Kili insisted. “That, that Eye, you don’t understand what it’s like. He’ll burn through you. It’s…” He swallowed hard and tightened his shaking fists. “It’s unlike anything you’ve ever fought against, and you’ll have to fight, and you’ll have to fight hard.”

Never before had Thorin felt such pain or so much pride for his nephew. The words visibly pained Kili to even say, but he barreled through them despite that, determined to stand strong and not let the memory of the Eye pull him down. Legolas and Fili stood strong beside him, refusing to let him stand alone. When Kili’s eyes finally dared to lift, Thorin gave him as proud a smile as he could. Kili offered a wavering smile in return.

Aragorn gave him a grateful nod. “I will. Thank you. I do not want to do this, but I have to. If we’re to give Bilbo any chance, if we’re to end Sauron’s reign, then this must be done.”

They could do this. They could help protect Bilbo.

“I…hate to be the bearer of gloom,” Ori said hesitantly, looking none too pleased about what he was about to say, “but if Bilbo makes a run for it, what’s to say the army won’t turn around? What’s to say Sauron won’t move his Eye?”

Dwalin began to reply, then stopped. Aragorn drew breath, then let it out. Even Gandalf chewed on his lip, unable to answer. Thorin felt his heart sink. So close. They’d been so close, and yet-

“We cut them off.”

All eyes turned to Kili. “Cut them off?” Dernwyn asked incredulously. “I thought Fili was the one with the head wound, not you.” Fili made a face at her but couldn’t keep the grin from his face.

“Gandalf can do it,” Kili continued. “In fact, that’ll be the easiest part about this whole idea.”

Gandalf leveled him with a very un-amused look. “Kili, as much as your faith in me is kind, there are things even beyond my skill. How do you expect me to ‘cut them off’, as you so phrased it? What means do you think I have with which to halt an army?”

Kili shrugged, but it was a triumphant movement, as if Gandalf had said exactly what he’d wanted him to say. “You know how to summon the Eagles, right?”

Slowly Gandalf began to smile. “It is rare that I can say this, but that is a wonderful idea you have.”

Kili beamed at the praise, then paused, as if ascertaining that there’d been an insult as well. Bofur snickered.

As amusing as it was to poke at Kili – and even better still to see him responding in such a carefree Kili fashion – Thorin had to agree with Gandalf.

It was a good plan.

 

The first time he’d woken up, it’d been to orcs above him, laughing as he’d tried to scramble out of his bindings to get away.

The second time he’d woken up, it’d been to the orc who’d knocked him out twice now, and he’d been told to start walking, because he had legs.

The third time he woke up, it was to something cold against his wrist, and his lungs heavy in his chest. Bilbo struggled and heard clinking chains around him. With a sinking feeling in his gut he turned to look around him.

He was shackled from the ceiling by his arms and suspended in midair. He felt stretched too thin, his body hanging painfully, and his feet nowhere near the ground. He was in an alcove of some sort, and he could only hear other beings moving around, but he had no clue where they were specifically, or how many there were. And that, combined with his lungs, which weren’t working right for some terrible reason, frightened him.

His sword. His sword was gone. His pack was somewhere else, and even his phial of light was missing from his pocket. His shirt was missing, too. His trousers were still there, but everything else was gone. Including…

Bilbo flailed frantically but couldn’t feel the swing of the chain around his neck. The Ring. The Ring was gone. The manacles rattled above him and he coughed, long and hard, his lungs heaving for breath. When he managed to get air back, he found that an orc had stepped around the corner. “Oi, it’s awake,” it said. He recognized it from the walk the past several days. He hadn’t spent a lot of it aware, but he remembered this one. Hard not to recognize the orc that kept beating him about the head to knock him out.

It wandered over to him, licking its black lips, and Bilbo shuddered and tried to lean away. “You’re a tasty treat,” it said. “But I like my meals to fight me.”

It leaned forward, as if to bite his ear, and Bilbo cried out and tried to throw himself away. The chains wouldn’t give, not an single inch. His wrists burned and slid around in the metal cuffs.

Fortunately, the orc was stopped by the larger orc that had caught Bilbo. “You don’t touch ‘im!” it bellowed. The orc jumped away, glaring at the larger one. “He goes to the Master, same with everythin’ else!”

“But we found him,” the small orc whined. “Why can’t we eat him? You and me, sharin’ a meal. Wouldn’t you do that for me?”

“He goes to Sauron,” the larger orc insisted. It eyed Bilbo suspiciously, and Bilbo leaned away from it. “I want to know why it was wanderin’ around, all on its own.”

“Got lost, don’t care,” the small orc said. It stared up at Bilbo with its dark and beady eyes. “Not a lot of fat on ‘im, but I don’t care. I’ll eat it anyway. It’s fresh meat.”

“It goes to Sauron!” the large orc yelled. “You go near him again and I’ll gut you!”

The small orc hissed but finally left Bilbo alone. Soon they were just shadows on the wall, and Bilbo began to panic.

If they were taking him and the Ring to Sauron, it was all over. Even now, he was lucky that they hadn’t tried the Ring on or figured it out for what it was. But it wasn’t there, and neither were the beads next to it, or the horse pendant that Thengel had given him. Gone, it was all gone.

Bilbo shut his eyes tight but felt the burn of tears all the same. He was so tired, and now he was hanging in a small alcove who knew where, prisoner of the orcs, tired and filthy and numb. And now the Ring was gone.

“Bilbo.”

Bilbo raised his head at the sweet, sweet voice. Suddenly he wasn’t in the dark alcove but in a grassy field, and before him was the Lady Galadriel. She smiled kindly at him, a smile he hadn’t seen in so long. “Help me,” he whispered. “Please, help me.”

She seemed to gaze right through him, and he wondered if she saw the darkness creeping into his heart, if the Ring had begun to fester inside of him. He knew it had. Its voice had taunted him as he’d marched with the orcs to wherever they were now. It had begged him to put it on, to escape the orcs when they kicked and hurt him. It had whispered of how easy it would be to kill them all, to rule over them, to bring them down as they had to him. It was pulling at him now to find it, to place it on his finger. He hung his head in shame. So close, so very close…and he’d failed them all.

“Take courage,” she said to him, and he slowly lifted his head again. It hurt his lungs when he did that, and he didn’t understand. All he knew was that breathing was hard, but he was somewhere else, somewhere good. Somewhere with sunshine and warm grass and a sweet, calm breeze.

She reached out to him, and he found himself still bound. “Please,” he begged. “Please.”

“If you cannot do this, no one else can,” she said to him, and he stilled. “You must do this.” She reached for him again, offering her hand just out of reach. Bilbo shut his eyes tight and tried so hard to reach her, but his hand wouldn’t come free.

When he opened his eyes, it wasn’t the Lady before him, but Thorin, with outstretched hand. “Come with me,” Thorin urged him as the grass whispered around them. “Bilbo, come.”

Bilbo pursed his lips and pulled, and his hand reached out straight for Thorin’s hand. Grass and sun disappeared, and Thorin with them, and the last thing he saw was Galadriel’s broadening smile before he was back in the alcove, all alone.

But his hand was still stretched out before him. Bilbo blinked, stunned. His wrist looked raw and torn, blood streaming down his arm, but his fingers were all there, and somehow, he’d gotten out. He tilted his head back as far as it would go and found an empty manacle swinging gently above him. He was too small for them, he realized with a start. He wasn’t the right size for the manacle, he was too small. All he’d needed was the blood to ease his getting out. And that meant he could get out, he could get free, he could get his other hand and run-

The small orc moved into his line of vision, and Bilbo frantically dove for the manacle above to hang onto it. When the orc glanced his way, Bilbo was hanging just as he was supposed to. His fingers burned as they gripped the empty manacle, but after a moment, the orc muttered something under its breath and settled onto a small stool beside the alcove. The large orc was nowhere to be seen.

They turn upon each other just as easily as they would a brand new babe.

Mablang’s words suddenly echoed in his ears, and Bilbo hesitantly spoke. “What are you going to do with me?”

“Take you to our Master, the Dark Lord,” the orc said, grinning. Its teeth were dark and shone with grime, and Bilbo shuddered. “He’ll get you to talk, soon enough.”

“And my things?” he asked, unable to help himself.

The orc chuckled. “Keepin’ some of it for myself. Don’t all need to go to the Lord, and what would he do with spoils, anyway?”

The Ring wasn’t mentioned. Bilbo sucked in a breath and felt his lungs burn. “Well, I’m glad I ate before you captured me, then,” he said. At the word ‘ate’, the orc suddenly dropped its grin and leaned forward. Bilbo swallowed and kept going as evenly as he could. “Was a delicious meal, better than the gruel you fed me on the journey.” The foulest of gruel, and he’d choked it down to keep up his strength. He was almost grateful he hadn’t been awake for much of the time, sparing him from eating it but twice. “Gravy and meat, mm. Delicious.”

The orc looked as if it were drooling. Encouraged, Bilbo kept going. “I don’t remember the type of meat, but it was fresh, as if just taken to market that day. What I wouldn’t give for some juicy…fresh…meat.”

The orc slowly stalked towards him, and Bilbo almost let go of the manacle with his free hand as his heart began to pound. Almost. He’d never get away if he did, though. Not when it was eyeing him as if he were a rare feast. He swallowed and tried not to lean away. “Don’t suppose you have any fresh meat nearby, do you?”

The orc snarled and leaned in, teeth bared, and Bilbo shut his eyes. “Don’t eat me!” he yelled as loudly as he could.

All he felt was the hot breath on his neck, and then the orc was hauled off of him. “I warned you!” the tall orc roared, and it threw a punch that made the small orc draw a crooked blade. Bilbo could hear the clang of metal and the grunts of battle even as he tugged and pulled at his other wrist. He caught the chain with his free hand and hauled himself up to better work at his wrist. It was bleeding, he knew that much, and with a harsh tug he finally came loose. He hit the ground, not able to keep his feet beneath him. The fight still went on.

Hesitantly he ducked his head outside of the alcove. It was a circular room, wide and full of other orcs he hadn’t known about. Stairs in the opposite corner held more orcs that were coming up to join in the fray. The wall to his right was empty, and Bilbo slowly began to move around it. A table wasn’t far away, and he found all of his things right there in front of him. The chain with the Ring and beads he pulled quickly over his head, and he tried to ignore how good it felt to have the Ring back where it belonged. His sword and the phial were there, too, and his shirt, along with the button from his coat. When the cloth felt odd against his skin, he realized he was missing something. The mithril chainmail. But there was nothing left on the table.

The orc had taken it. And his pack was gone. Bilbo tried to search around the room for it, but it was nowhere to be found. The fight was starting to get deadly, and two bodies hit the floor. If they found him now, he’d be dead. He crept for the stairs and began to descend.

He didn’t breathe until he made it out of the structure. Outside, it looked like a tower, and he could still hear the fight through the open windows above. He rubbed at his wrists and shuddered.

Then froze. His wrists. His bare wrists. The embroidered cloth was gone.

The pin. The mithril chainmail. The embroidered piece of his coat, the last thing he’d had of Thorin, and they were all gone. It was enough to make him stumble to his knees, and he almost wept. There was nothing left of Thorin, now. Nothing but a memory of his bright blue eyes, his dark beard, his pleased smile-

Angry, raging eyes, hands dangling him over the wall, roars of fury, only a trinket and nothing more.

Bilbo shook himself from the memory, a hand to his head. He had to keep moving. They’d find him missing soon enough. He could still feel the breath of the orc on his neck, feel their hands clutching at him, hitting him, shoving him down onto the ground, and tears pooled in his eyes. He wanted to be home, he wanted to be home.

He shoved himself up and gritted his teeth. He couldn’t stop now, he couldn’t falter now. He tried to look around through his tears. There, Mount Doom. Closer now than ever before, and he was nearly on its doorstep. They’d brought him closer, then. Not further away. That was a blessing, wasn’t it?

He coughed, a terrible long cough that he tried to cover with his hands. It seemed so loud, and suddenly Bilbo was terrified. He’d barely escaped them and the death they’d planned for him, and now, now his lungs decided to rebel against him as they had in the White Mountains with such volume?

He didn’t look back: he just ran. And he knew they were going to be right behind him.

Mount Doom, he was almost at Mount Doom, he could climb, he could do this.

He put torn foot ahead of torn foot and kept running with energy he didn’t have. He had to keep going. If you cannot do this, no one else can.

From behind him, the shouts of the orcs grew louder.

He pressed on.

Chapter Text

It seemed surreal, almost, to be riding along the same battlefield where they had been not a week before. The ground was still stained from their fighting, though the rain had washed most of it away. Today, Middle-Earth would bear witness to another battle.

Aragorn forced himself to grip Andúril with his hand, making the skin burn against the handle. It took out the sting that seemed to have begun residing under his skin. Ever since…

Well. He’d done what he’d needed to. He could afford no doubts now. And somewhere, somewhere only Gandalf knew, two Palantíri rested beside each other, safe from anyone using them again.

Kili kept glancing at him, though, his concern obvious. Even with his hair pulled back in a half-hold, a style that spoke of his older age, he seemed terribly innocent and young in years. Fili, too, kept looking to him with worry, as did Legolas. And Thorin. And Dwalin.

According to Gandalf, he had given them reason to worry. He had faced Sauron’s terrible Eye alone, and he had shown Andúril to him, and given his oath. In that moment, he had felt tall and strong, like a tree with deep roots, and he had felt the victory that they would take. He had held the Palantír in his hand, and he had not feared the fire or the Eye.

Then Sauron had retaliated. Swiftly, silently, but horribly. He had spoken not a word as he’d shown Aragorn what he feared the most: Gondor, crumbling and becoming nothing but a hollow ghost city. His companions and friends, dead upon the field. Arwen, breathing her last as her mortality was taken from her.

Only then had Sauron spoken. I will end everything you hold dear, and you will never see the throne. The Ring will be mine, and I will see your heart fall before your own life is taken.

When they had found him, Gandalf said the Palantír had been on the floor, silent and cold. They said he had been simply sitting on the floor and gazing at nothing. They had called for an hour, or so he’d been told, and only then had Ori come up with his idea.

Aragorn remembered none of it. All he remembered was slowly finding the world pieced back together in front of him, his hand burning from where Sauron had touched him, and Arwen’s beautiful, living face in front of him, whispering to him in Sindarin. She had brought him back, her touch and her love, and she had stayed with him as he had slowly come back from the nightmare Sauron had plunged him into.

She was back in Gondor, now. Her father rode with them as they crossed the plains and headed for the Black Gate. They were close enough now that he could see it, jutting high into the sky. It looked like a jagged tooth, an infection that had to be plucked from the earth before healing could begin.

A horse rode close to him, and Aragorn kept his sigh to himself. “I am well,” he insisted to Elrond. “As is Kili. And Fili. And Dernwyn.” Though that had been an argument indeed, and nearly the end of a marriage before it had begun.

In the end, Fili had spoken his fears plainly, of losing her when he had just found her, and Dernwyn had spoken hers, of Thengel dying before her, of having been beside Fili for two battles now. “Do not try and protect me, I will not stay,” she had insisted. “You can protect me best if I am beside you. I need to be there with you, I have to.

He’d agreed, at last, swearing he would not leave her side. He rode now, his forehead still red and healing from the last wound. But neither Fili nor Kili had allowed themselves to be left behind, and when Thorin had told them in no uncertain terms that they were not fit for battle, Klii had drawn his bow and shot an arrow straight through the biscuit Dwalin had been about to eat from across the room. Dwalin had glared at Kili, then told Thorin, “Let him fight, and get me another biscuit. He shoots another one, and no one here’ll be happy with what I do.”

Aragorn glanced at the dwarf in question and found him riding in front of Legolas. Fili and Dernwyn also shared a horse. It seemed none of the company had thought well of staying behind for this final battle. Though he knew none of them rode for glory or valor. They all rode for a small being that had endeared himself to them, who was willing to give his life to save them all.

“You are right in that they fight for Bilbo. But I know you fight for another reason, besides.”

Aragorn turned to Elrond, surprised. “Is it wrong to fight for more than one purpose?”

“No,  not at all,” Elrond agreed smoothly. But when he looked to Aragorn, there was a ferocity in his eyes the likes of which Aragorn had never seen. “I will tell you now: I did not agree with Arwen’s choice. She should be with her people, so she might one day sail to the Undying Lands. I cannot bear the very thought of her remaining here to wither away.”

Aragorn only clutched the handle of his blade tighter. The memory of Arwen dying from Sauron’s vision was still too near for him. He felt the pain as if she had truly died, that she was not waiting for him back in Gondor.

Elrond sighed. “But I am not her. And, for my love, I would also have stayed and faced the ages, rather than be forever alone. It is not my choice to make, but hers. And she has made it.” He glanced at Aragorn, who stared, stunned, at his words. “I must confess that I am glad it was you she chose,” he said. “You are a good man. You have become more than I could ever have hoped you would be. And though you are young, I know that this path, this crown, would always have been yours, in the end. Fate twists and turns as it pleases, but some things will always come to pass. Including Arwen’s decision.”

He gave a nod to Aragorn, who returned it mutely. Elrond moved away to lead his troops again, leaving Aragorn staring ahead, dumbstruck. A blessing. Elrond had given his blessing. It was more than Aragorn had ever hoped to have before.

It only made him that much more determined to fight this fight.

When they reached the Black Gate, no one moved for quite some time. They all stared in silent fear at the sheer mass of the gate, of the vileness that seemed to radiate from its very stature. It felt like poison, and the stench was that of death. For a moment, fear took his heart, and he could not move.

It was Thorin who spoke first. “You lead, King of the White City,”  he said lowly. Aragorn remembered a time when he had offered the same words to Thorin, when they had chased after the orcs in the wake of Fili and Kili being taken. Now, it was Aragorn’s turn to make the decision, to lead them forward.

He took a deep breath and pursed his lips. “Let us meet him,” he said, only loud enough that those near him could hear, and as one the company rode to the gate.

They stopped right before it, and Aragorn called out, “It is I, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Isildur’s heir! Let Sauron come forward to defend what he claims is his!”

Nothing happened. “Did the Eye move?” Gimli whispered. No one said anything, giving the young dwarf his answer.

Aragorn raised his voice even louder. “Will Sauron not come forward? Or will he give up his lands so readily?”

There was a loud creaking as the gate began to open. Everyone immediately backed their horses away, hands on their weapons. But the gates only opened far enough to let out one figure atop a small creature. The creature was not nearly as impressive or eye-catching as the figure it carried: it was oddly proportioned and dressed all in black. Half of its face was covered with a black helmet, and the other half was all teeth. It bared a grin, displaying yellowed bones and gums.

Then it spoke to them, its voice low and wretched. “My Master bids thee welcome,” it said, and its head cocked to the side so swiftly Aragorn did not see it move. “What message may I deliver for thee?”

Aragorn led his horse forward, seeing Gandalf and Thorin move to flank him. “Tell Sauron that if he leaves these lands immediately, he will suffer no losses, and we will allow him to depart in peace,” he said firmly.

Already the figure was chortling. “There is no negotiating with my Master,” it said. “But my Master is not entirely an ungracious host: he offers to thee a gift for coming to his lands.” It pulled forth something shining and bright, so bright that Aragorn could almost not look at it. It appeared to be chainmail of some kind, the likes of which Aragorn had never seen. He blinked, not understanding.

The choked wail from behind him made him whip his head around. Fili and Kili stared with horror at the chainmail, and Thorin looked as if he’d been struck. “Bilbo,” Balin murmured, eyes wide and distressed, even as Gandalf hushed him. But the figure had gotten what it wanted, and it chuckled.

“If it pleases you to know, he suffered greatly under my master’s hand,” it said, and Thorin let out a shuddered breath of grief. “One would not think it, given his size, but he lasted for a long time. A very, very, very long time.”

It tossed the chainmail at Kili, who fumbled to catch it and clutch it to him. The dwarf glared at the figure through the tears welling in his eyes, and the figure tutted. “Such hostility, and we have offered you gifts,” it said. It cocked its head again. “What answer should I give my Master?”

Aragorn moved his horse forward, and suddenly his hand on his blade had a purpose. With a yell and speed of his own he wrenched his sword from its sheath and cut through the figure’s neck. The head tumbled off into the dirt, and the creature snarled and fled back behind the gate. When Aragorn glanced back at the company, all of them stared in shock.

“I do not believe it,” Aragorn said. “I will not believe it! Bilbo is alive, or else we would be lost already!”

Hope began to bloom on their faces, though it took the form of fury on Thorin’s. Too long had the dwarf been parted from Bilbo, and been told too many pains about the journey of his beloved. There was only so much one could bear before it was simply too much. It would be rage and rage alone that carried Thorin through to his hobbit. And Aragorn would give him his path.

He rode back to their army even as the Black Gate began to open wider. The sound of orcs marching seemed to echo everywhere, and the sheer number behind the gate was terrifying. Aragorn looked out at the men, the elves, and the dwarves, and he saw fear in all of them. Fear that would take their hearts. Fear that would take his heart, and he knew then that the gaze of Sauron had settled upon them.

Let it be enough. Please let it be enough.

Aragorn raised his blade high. “I see in you the same fear that would take me,” he said, and that caught their attention. “But do not let it! We have come so far and battled many a fight together. We have done what they said could not be done: we stand together! Elves of Imladris and Mirkwood, Dwarves of Erebor, Men of Rohan and Gondor, we will not fight alone, but stand united to protect our lands, our people, our family and kin.”

Orcs continued to march. Everything that Sauron had was here against them, now, and the world as they knew it could end today. Only if they let it, he swore, and they would not let it happen.

“Today, we decide the fate of Middle-Earth! Today we free our lands of the darkness that has haunted us for too long! One day, we may fall to our fears. But today is not that day! Beings of the free world, I bid you stand and fight united! Fight with me and for each other!”

The roar that went up drowned out the sound of the approaching army, and Aragorn raised his sword high. He felt as if Sauron himself was staring straight at him, watching him, and Aragorn gave a wide grin. He would not be afraid, not now, not ever again. Not when they had a chance to be free of fear and darkness.

A large howl made them halt, and Aragorn suddenly saw a multitude of trolls coming forward. “Now there’s a challenge,” Dwalin said, and Aragorn breathed again. He was not alone, there were others beside him. Good friends who would fight for him and with him.

“Never thought I’d fight and die alongside an elf,” Gimli said, and Dwalin gave a grunt. Legolas only smiled.

“What about fighting and living beside a friend?”

Gimli began to smile, and it was Dwalin who answered. “Aye. We could do that.” He grinned at Legolas.

More orcs began to pour out. “You take the three thousand on the left, I’ll take the three thousand and one on the right,” Kili said, as if unable to help himself, and Aragorn dismounted. Horses would be of no use against trolls. Or against the pale orc that had stepped forward in front of them, his bone armor still stained with blood. Bolg. He knew then that the orc would be Thorin’s fight. Already the dwarf was pulling his blade out and sliding down from his horse. His golden armor that Balin had brought him moved well with him, as if crafted for him and this fight. Aragorn’s own silver armor felt light and fluid, and he had to look down at the silver tree to remind himself that he wore it.

Aragorn stepped forward, the first to break the line that had formed against the approaching orc army. He glanced back at his companions, his friends, who had traveled with him across Middle-Earth to fight alongside him against Sauron. He thought of those who had fallen to aid their fight, of the army who had given their everything to stand here today against Sauron. Of the kind and gentle king who had fought and died alongside them to give them this chance.

All for a small hobbit who, if he could see them now, would be astonished and embarrassed at the attention. Aragorn could almost see the look on the smaller man’s face as Bilbo would fuss and argue that they couldn’t all be here for him, could they?

Aragorn smiled, tears in his eyes. “For Bilbo,” he said, an oath and promise. Then he turned and began to run.

Not a second later, the roar of their army went up, and they were running behind him for the orc army line. Bolg growled and led his army with a charge, and Aragorn could see the trolls in the distance, moving as swiftly as they could. The cloud over them kept the sunlight at bay, and there would be no reprieve. This battle would decide everything.

He breathed in and thought of the small hobbit who had spoken to him, that night in Lorien. He’d barely known Aragorn, but he’d sworn that he would be a good king. The hobbit had seen the good in everyone, and to think of him alone, behind the army of orcs…

Aragorn raised his blade with a shout and brought it down on the first orc who reached him. He twisted and heaved his blade up, catching through the armor of another orc and felling it. Two more orcs hit the ground before one of them met his blade with its own, but an arrow through its eye brought it down. Aragorn gave a swift nod to Kili, who returned it and kept firing. Fili was at his brother’s back, both of his blades singing through the air, and beside him were Dernwyn and Legolas. They made a small circle of pain to all who approached, and no orc was left alive.

He slashed through another orc and turned in time to see the troll advancing on him. Well, that had worked out well. He hefted his sword and ran forward, dodging the troll’s reach for him and pulling his blade across the troll’s side. It bellowed and moved swiftly to catch him, but missed him. It left heavy footfalls upon the earth, each one jarring Aragorn’s very bones. He steadied his stance and waited for the right move.

This troll was his.

 

Thorin nearly didn’t pay attention to any of the orcs around him. A few of them tried to cut him down, and Orcrist informed them otherwise. He had no time for them. To him, there was only one orc standing between him and his hobbit.

Bolg.

He suffered greatly…

He let his fear and his grief turn into rage, and his lips curled into a snarl as he advanced on the pale orc. Bolg was waiting for him, his massive bone club heaved high into the air, the pause before the strike. Thorin raised his own arms and swung against the orc with a yell.

Club met blade and held. Thorin gritted his teeth and pressed harder with Orcrist. He dug his feet deep into the dirt to maintain his ground. Bolg was strong, maybe even stronger than Azog had been. His wild eyes seemed bright and horrible underneath his long, matted hair, a stark contrast to Azog’s empty scalp, and Bolg began to chuckled. “What’s the matter, Oakenshield?” he mocked, his voice like that of one who’d had their throat ripped raw. He ran his tongue over his teeth and only pressed harder with his club. “Do you weep for a Halfling so?”

Thorin shoved, sending Bolg off balance. Bolg stumbled backwards, but still managed to pull his club up in time to block Thorin’s straight attack. “He is no Halfling,” Thorin growled.

Bolg danced away, letting Thorin’s blade fall heavily to the ground. Before Thorin knew it, Bolg had hefted his bone club up and was swinging it high at head level. Thorin ducked and came back up with his blade already pulled to strike. It was met with the club, Bolg’s hands twisted to hold it near his face. It didn’t stop the orc from taunting him. “Then what is he?”

Thorin caught Bolg’s leg with one of his and swiftly put the orc on his back. “Mine,” Thorin growled, and swung Orcrist up and down-

Into the dirt. Bolg continued to roll away until there was a safe distance. He stumbled back but kept hold of his club, and with a shout Thorin gave chase.

 

One minute, Ori was beside him, and the next, he was gone.

“Ori!” Dwalin bellowed over the rush of the battle. An orc came up at him, and Dwalin put him down with an easy swing of his hammer. He’d given his other hammer, his best one, to Ori. No one could swing so swiftly as his Ori.

Ori!

All he could hear were the snarls and howls from the orcs, the yells and shouts from the men and elves, the clanging of metal, the soaring of arrows. Not a single sound was the light-hearted laugh of the dwarf he’d met and, Mahal help him, fallen in love with on their quest for Erebor. Not a single sight held the bright eyes that watched him from that young but wise, soft, gentle face-

In desperation, Dwalin began swinging his hammer at every orc around him, trying to clear the swath of orcs. They went flying in multiple directions, shrieking and flailing as they flew. Dwalin didn’t care where they landed, or how they landed, so long as they got out of his way.

Two orcs fell in front of him, and Bofur stood there with his bloody mattock in hand, his hat still somehow on his head. “What’s wrong?” Bofur asked immediately.

“Ori,” Dwalin said, and that was all he needed to say. Bofur’s brow went flat and his teeth clenched together. An orc came forward and met the sharp end of his mattock without Bofur even looking.

Together they began to cut their way through the orcs. It seemed like they never ended, and Dwalin suddenly realized that this was how Thorin had felt, all this time: knowing there were hundreds, thousands of orcs between him and Bilbo, and never knowing where the hobbit was. He had newfound respect for his friend and leader, and immense sympathy, because he didn’t think he could stand the next five minutes if he couldn’t find Ori, and Thorin’d been doing this for so long-

It was by chance that the next orc he saw fell in an odd way, and Dwalin realized it had knocked against something. Someone, and Dwalin immediately dropped his hammer and fell to his knees, pulling the figure up against him. “Ori,” he murmured, cradling the dwarf in his arms. Bofur slid behind him and began wielding his mattock with deadly efficiency to protect them. “Ori, wake up, open yer eyes, now.”

Ori didn’t move. Dwalin began searching all over for a wound that was Ori’s own. He was covered in dirt and mud and orc blood, but only a few scrapes and bruises were his own. “Ori,” Dwalin begged, his voice betraying his fear. “Ye can’t leave me here, not after ye told me I can’t go off without ye. S’not fair, that’s what it is, and you’re the nice one.”

“You’re nice,” Ori slurred, but his eyes were opening now, and they were blessedly focusing on him. “When you wan’ta be.”

Dwalin huffed out a laugh. “Can you stand?”

In response, Ori began to sit up. “Easy, easy,” Dwalin cautioned. Still, Ori began to move more fluidly, and when he spoke again, he’d lost the slur.

“Think I just…just got hit in the head for a bit, that’s all. Got knocked down and trampled a bit. Crawled away. M’all right,” he promised, and what part of that was ‘all right’ Dwalin would never understand. He didn’t really want to. But Ori was awake and looking at him and alive, and Dwalin couldn’t ask for anything more than that, ever.

An orc got past Bofur as the toymaker dealt with two orcs at once, and with devastating speed Ori grabbed the hammer beside him and swung it at the orc one-handed. The orc toppled to the ground, chest caved in, and Ori gave Dwalin a look. “Ready,” he said.

Dwalin couldn’t help it: he caught Ori’s face between his hands and kissed him, plundering his sweet mouth with his tongue. He pulled away, leaving Ori blinking, dazed. “You’re stayin’ with me,” Dwalin said. “By my side and nowhere else.”

“Nowhere else I’d rather be,” Ori said, and Mahal, he loved his dwarf. He pulled Ori to standing and watched Bofur give them both a relieved salute.

Together the three waded back into the fray.

 

They stood tall together, as one being, delivering blows and protecting the others.

When a sword came down towards Kili, Dernwyn was there to knock it away. When a spear headed for Legolas, Fili had it broken in two before the elf was even aware. Sword and arrow met flesh and blood, and the pile of orcs became so much that they had to move to a clearer spot.

Each of them fought not for themselves, but for the others. For those they cared for, for those they loved, for those whose side they stood by now.

Kili fought for his brother and the wound still red and angry across his forehead, for the woman he would one day call sister, and the elf who had taken his heart and carried it with him, even now. It was that love that brought his next arrow swiftly to his bow, loosing it to remove the two orcs coming at them.

Dernwyn fought for the dwarf whose ring she now bore, for his brother who had welcomed her with open arms and counted her family, and for the elf prince who even now fired arrow after arrow at the enemies approaching her. She swung her blade hard across the neck of the orc who dared come too close to them, and she fought again.

Legolas fought for Fili because he was a friend, one he would not lose. He fought for Dernwyn because she was a friend, one who knew what it meant to lose a father. And he fought for Kili, who had gone from being a light in the darkness to Legolas’s shining ray of hope that he would never see taken from him, ever.

Fili fought for Kili, for Dernwyn, for Legolas all. For the little brother who nearly died beside him, whose eyes he swore he’d never see fill with that amount of fear again. For the elf who’d saved Kili, who’d fought off orcs to save them all, yet had helped bear him into the houses of healing with a gentle hand and smile.

For the woman who had insulted him, goaded him into being his best, had nearly died protecting him, who loved him with everything that she was. She made him better than he could ever have hoped to be, and he would not let her down now. Not now, and not ever.

When the first troll came at them, then, not a single one flinched. Dernwyn brought her blade high while Kili fired an arrow to keep it focused on them. Fili swung his blades low enough for Legolas to step up on them, then wrenched them high and sent the elf soaring through the air and up onto the troll. Before the troll could heave Legolas off, Dernwyn was there, cutting at its legs, and Kili circled around it one way, Fili the other, their blades keeping it off guard. Legolas placed two arrows deep into its skull, and the troll fell. The earth rocked under its weight, and orcs and men alike staggered at the movement.

The four didn’t notice: already they were moving on, blades and arrows flying as they fought as one.

 

With a yell Thorin cast Bolg off and onto the ground. The orc rolled for a time, shaking himself when he finally came to a stop. Thorin could feel his own lungs gasping for air beneath his armor, but he wouldn’t fall now. He couldn’t. Not when Bilbo was ahead of him, not when he was this close, finally. He could feel blood running down his neck from where one of the bones on the club had gotten too close for comfort. Bolg also bore a mark from Thorin: Orcrist had pulled blood from his thigh, but the orc still managed to stand now, his smile grim and disgusting. Thorin tightened his grip on his blade, gritting his teeth.

The next blow he expected. The one after that, too, and it was parried and met with a thrust of Thorin’s own blade. The next strike was so slow that Thorin easily went past his defenses and cut through Bolg’s armor. He shouted and tumbled back, blood already sliding down his armor. Was it enough for a kill? Was it-

Suddenly Bolg swung up so hard that Thorin could only throw his arm up to try and block it. It struck the armor, but the blow sent him recoiling in pain, and he was sure his arm had to be shattered. He staggered back, clutching at his arm, hitting the ground hard. He could move it, he could feel it, it would be bruised but it would be fine-

Orcrist. He’d dropped Orcrist. He scrambled forward, only to find Bolg already moving towards him, bone club hanging almost casually by his side. But it wasn’t Orcrist he moved to. He moved to something else on the ground, something so small it almost seemed insignificant.

But when Bolg picked it up, Thorin stared, his heart racing in his chest. The embroidered cloth. The only thing he had left of Bilbo. It was tattered and torn: Bolg’s strike must have taken it from him. “No,” he found himself saying before he could stop himself.

Bolg began to laugh. “Care you so much for clothes, Dwarf?” he taunted, and before Thorin could stop him, Bolg had tossed the cloth behind him. It disappeared into the battle, gone forever, and Thorin swallowed hard.

Bolg shook his head, as if chiding him. “Perhaps if you cared less for things, you would not worry so for a Halfling,” he said, and the club was up and swinging down in an instant.

Then it stopped. Bolg choked on his blood, staring down in shock at Orcrist’s blue blade pierced through his chest. Thorin’s hand was tightly wrapped around the handle, panting as he fought to stay balanced in his lunge. “His name is Bilbo,” Thorin growled. He twisted the blade, and Bolg gurgled once, then fell, Orcrist releasing him into death.

Thorin winced and rolled his wrist. His arm still didn’t feel right, but there’d been no permanent damage. The armor had taken the brunt of it. He could still fight. He could still find Bilbo.

The swift sound of a blade singing through the air was all the warning he got before he found the Uruk-hai’s sword inches from his neck. Then it was falling, Thorin barely having breathed in a gasp for air. When he looked up, Gandalf stood, his own blade in hand. “We are not finished,” Gandalf said over the roar of battle. “We must press on to the Gates!”

Thorin nodded and accepted the hand up Gandalf offered. “Remind me not to anger you, as swiftly as you move with a blade,” he said.

Gandalf smirked. “You hold your own prowess with a sword: perhaps it is I who should fear you?”

As if the wizard had ever feared anyone that wasn’t a wizard greater than he. Still, he accepted the compliment with a nod of his head. “Where are my sons?” he asked. An orc approached, and Thorin cut it down swiftly.

“Still together, still with their beloveds. Any orc that has come near them has had their life swiftly ended. I feel as if we could have left the whole battle to them.”

An axe tore through two orcs near them, and Thorin watched as Gimli immediately cut down another one. “That’s fifty-five,” he called proudly. “Tell me where the elf is, so I might boast!”

“The battle’s not done, Gimli!” Thorin shouted back to him.

“I don’t care! He’s to be told!” Another orc mistook Gimli for an easy target, and Gimli showed it how wrong it was. “Fifty-six! Aye, there’s a number to behold!”

A piercing shriek through the air startled Thorin into backing away, his hands immediately seeking his ears to cover them. Moments later, the Nazgûl were seen in the sky, all of them flying those terrible winged creatures. There were eight that Thorin could count, eight that he had never seen before, and he stared in horror. Eight, and it had taken Thengel’s life and nearly Dernwyn’s to end one. How were they to counter it? How was he supposed to get past into Mordor when-

A shrill cry echoed from behind him, and Thorin spun around so quickly he nearly lost his balance. Gandalf was smiling beside him, and Thorin would have wept if he’d had the time or the tears. They were here. They were here.

“The Eagles! The Eagles!

Ori’s cry was the rally their army needed. For there in the sky were the Eagles, flying high above the carnage. The Nazgûl shrieked and flew straight at them, claws extended, but the Eagles didn't waver. With a speed Thorin couldn't have imagined they attacked, catching the Nazgûl in their mighty claws. They ripped and spun and sent the Nazgûl falling to the earth. One by one they fell, and the sky began to empty.

One of the Eagles came back, sweeping down towards Thorin. He had but a moment to turn and find Balin to shout, “Finish it!” before he was caught up and soaring.

He'd been told by his sister-sons what a rush he'd missed, when he'd been unconscious and wounded. The wind through their hair, the incredible speed unmatched by even horse, the very height they'd reached as the Eagles had flown higher and higher through the sun-kissed sky. “It was amazing,” Fili had admitted. “I wish you could do it, to experience what it really feels like, Uncle.”

Soaring through the sky, Thorin wasn't feeling amazed or enthralled. He was terrified. He was dropped from the claws of one Eagle to the back of another, and he managed to find his balance before they were over the Black Gate and into Mordor.

Other Eagles flew beside him, and Thorin made out the shapes of his sons, of Dwalin, of Gandalf. He briefly saw the others on the ground, still fighting back against the army of orcs. Above Mordor now, he could also see that there were more reserves still fighting to get through the gate. So many more, but none paid them the slightest bit of attention. They were nothing to the orcs.

“Uncle!” Fili shouted, and Thorin followed his pointed finger.

There, ahead, far separated from the other army, was a group of orcs charging up the bottom of a great and fiery mountain. And ahead of them, a small figure raced higher and higher. Even as they flew closer, Mordor sweeping beneath them, Thorin knew who it was.

Bilbo.

Thorin dug his fingers into the feathers and kept his eyes on the hobbit being pursued. He was alive, he was alive, but wouldn’t be for long if they couldn’t keep the orcs off of him. “Hold on,” he whispered. “Bilbo, hold on.”

Chapter Text

The Eagle dove so suddenly that Thorin nearly tumbled, and he clung to the one he rode. Thankfully, the majestic bird didn’t seem to mind his desperate grasp of feathers. He tried to keep his eyes on Bilbo, but all he could see were the orcs still running up the slopes. That meant they were still chasing after Bilbo.

On the Eagles, they were soaring over Morder so swiftly that they were nearly there. How long had it taken Bilbo to make the same distance? Walking all alone across that wretched rocky terrain? The further down they flew, the worse the air got. It was hot, so hot that even the wind that flew past them offered no relief. Mahal, how long had Bilbo been in this heat?

They were close enough now that Thorin could count out individual orcs. Orcs that Orcrist was begging to cut down. Dwalin had his war hammer at the ready, and both Fili and Kili looked ready to slaughter. Thorin gave them the nod, and Kili notched an arrow and let it fly.

It struck home in the back of an orc’s head, near the front of the group, and the orcs turned, startled at the attack from behind. Thorin held on until they were in front of the orcs, then he slid down the wing of the Eagle and landed hard on the ground. He didn’t hesitate; he sliced through one of the orcs with a bellow of rage and went for a second. All he could see were the orcs who’d chased after Bilbo, his Bilbo-

A hand dragged him back, and Thorin stumbled in surprise when Dwalin raced ahead of him. “Go!” Dwalin yelled. “We’ve got ‘em! Go find Bilbo!”

Bilbo.

He didn’t argue: he left the orcs and charged up the mountain. The rocks were hard and treacherous, and every step seemed to want to send him back down. His boots pressed hard, and his determination kept him going up and up. His eyes looked everywhere, scanning every crevice, and Bilbo couldn’t have gotten that far ahead of them, could he?

Where was he?

“Bilbo!” he shouted, wildly searching the rocky terrain for any hint of a small, so beloved hobbit. “Bilbo!

It was still so hot, all around him, choking the very life from him. Behind him, he could hear the others yelling battle cries and keeping the small host of orcs away. It’d be a great deal more orcs if the army by the Gates caught on to the invaders who’d swept over the borders. And none of that mattered, because he’d lost sight of Bilbo, his first sight of Bilbo in so long, and there-

There.

Up in the rocks, a glint of something pale finally caught his eye. Thorin scrambled up the rocks and fought to keep his footing. The incline of the mountain had started getting steeper, so far up they were now, and he kept going, desperate to find the one his heart longed for. His heart seemed to pound a message with every quick beat: He’s here, he’s here, he’s here.

When he finally stumbled up to where he’d seen something pale against the dark rock, he nearly fell back down the mountain. His heart stopped in his chest, and he couldn’t find the breath to breathe with.

Then he was scrambling over to Bilbo, Bilbo, who had fallen across the rocks and wasn’t moving. “Bilbo,” he whispered, and he was almost afraid to touch, for a sudden fear that Bilbo wouldn’t be there, that the hobbit would fade into a mirage when he tried.

But when his hands reached out, they brushed against hot skin and cloth. When his fingers finally clasped Bilbo, he nearly wept. Bilbo was really here and in his arms at last. “Bilbo.”

Gently he turned the hobbit onto his back. Bilbo was a mess of bruises and cuts, of filth and grime and bloodstains. This was not the hobbit he’d met that fateful day in the Shire. This wasn’t the hobbit he’d shouted hateful words at as he’d torn Bilbo’s heart in two. This wasn’t even the hobbit he’d seen last, vanishing into the Wold.

This was a hobbit who looked near death. His lips were cracked and his hands were torn. His curls tumbled everywhere, sweat and dust leaving them greasy and limp. Even still, the harsh winds lifted them up, as if they wanted to haul all of Bilbo away, and it wouldn’t be hard. Thorin swore he could count bones beneath the wan skin, and his clothes hung limply about him. Suddenly fearing the worst, Thorin raised a trembling hand to hover over Bilbo’s face, and let out a shaky sigh when he felt a hot, short breath against his hand. Bilbo was alive.

And when he pulled his hand away, the most beautiful sight was there right in front of him. Bilbo’s eyelids were parted, and there were the bright and shining eyes that Thorin had missed so much. Thorin felt tears spill from his eyes and down his face. “Bilbo,” he choked, and when he smiled, he could feel his tears slide into his beard. “Bilbo, Bilbo.” It was the only word he could speak, the only one that mattered.

Bilbo gazed up at him with no surprise on his face, something that made no sense, but it was all lost when Bilbo spoke. “I can’t,” he whispered.

Thorin frowned. “Can’t what? Bilbo, what-“

Bilbo choked out a sob, and Thorin couldn’t help but tighten his grasp on Bilbo’s shoulders because he could. “I can’t…I can’t carry it anymore,” Bilbo whimpered. “Thorin, I can’t, I…”

Thorin watched, his heart cracking in his chest, as Bilbo shut his eyes and sobbed into the rocks. “Thorin, I can’t.”

“You’re almost there,” Thorin encouraged, looking up. The wind blew his hair across his face, but he could still see through his own locks to the entrance up above. “You’re almost there, Bilbo, it’s just-“

“I can’t, I can’t,” Bilbo gasped. “It’s so heavy. I can’t, I can’t move at all.” His hand reached for his chest, and Thorin caught a glimpse of a silver chain underneath Bilbo’s shirt. The Ring. He caught Bilbo’s hand in time to keep it from its destination. Bilbo keened and shook and shook, and Thorin felt his eyes burn again.

This should never have happened. He wished he’d never left Bilbo alone, never let his eyes settle on the gold of Erebor, never let the Arkenstone matter more than the hobbit in his hands.

He wished he’d never taken Bilbo from his Shire.

He could see it now, that bright glint of gold beneath Bilbo’s shirt, hanging on a slim silver chain. Beside it were two familiar beads, and on the other side of the Ring was a horse medallion. This was all he’d had with him, to carry him through, and somehow he’d still gotten this far. A surge of pride coursed through him for his hobbit, his brave, beautiful Bilbo, who’d gotten this far