A Fair Wind Homeward – 1/3 – Daisy May

Title: A Fair Wind Homeward
Author: Daisy May
Fandom: The Hobbit
Genre: Action Adventure, Drama, Romance, Time Travel
Relationship(s): Bilbo Baggins/Thorin Oakenshield
Content Rating: R
Warnings: Major Character Death, Violence-Canon Level
Beta: nealany
Word Count: 90,600
Summary: ‘You stupid, stubborn dwarf!’ Bilbo bellowed. ‘I saved your arse from being warg-food, Oakenshield, so show some bloody appreciation.’ The Valar send Bilbo and Thorin back in time to fix things, but the afterlife changes people considerably. Some folk are in for a few surprises.
Artist: Kirlika



Formatting Note: Translations are provided for words not clearly defined or translated in the narrative. If you encounter an underlined word or phrase, hovering over it will give you more information.

The moment Bilbo awoke, he knew something was different.  Not wrong, per se, just…different.  He’d fallen asleep on the ship taking Frodo and himself – and several others – to Valinor, but he knew he wasn’t on the ship any longer.  He was also aware he wasn’t alone.

‘No, indeed.  You can open your eyes, though, Bilbo Baggins.  I will not hurt you.’

The voice was…melodic.  Sweet, even, but Bilbo didn’t recognise it.

‘Thank you.  I appreciate the compliment, but it would be better for us both if you opened your eyes.’

It wasn’t a command.  Even so Bilbo still found himself obeying and he opened his eyes to see a tall figure with the long blond hair reminiscent of the Lady Galadriel, but dressed in the flowing robes he associated with Gandalf.  This person, however, didn’t appear to be Elf or Wizard.

‘No, I’m not, but you have met the Maia I sent to Arda: Aiwendil.  You knew him as Radagast.’

Knew, past tense.  ‘Am I dead, or is he?’ Bilbo asked, not sure if he wanted to know.

‘Dead is such a finite word,’ the being complained.  ‘I prefer…moved on.’

‘Then have I moved on?’  Bilbo was getting a tad impatient.

‘Yes, and no.’

‘Are you a bloody wizard?’ Bilbo demanded, ‘because you’re about as bloody comprehensible as bloody Gandalf, except he couldn’t read my mind.’  He paused for a moment.  ‘Arse.  He couldn’t read it, could he?’

The being laughed: a tinkling, joyful sound that spoke of water running over stones on a summer’s day, or the light rainfall of spring that nurtured the soil.  Nurtured the soil…

‘Oh, bugger me backwards!  You’re Yavanna, aren’t you?’  Bilbo’s hand flew to his mouth as he realised what he’d said, and he could feel the colour rising on his cheeks.  ‘I’m so sorry for swearing, my Lady.’  He sat up, finding his limbs moved easily in a way they hadn’t for many years and the pain to which he was so accustomed was gone.  ‘I’m really, really sorry for both my language and for not recognising you.’

‘Why should you recognise me?’ she asked, tipping her head to one side.  ‘We have never met before.’

The comment left Bilbo struggling for words.  ‘I-I meant…’  Bereft of words, he shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

‘Put him out of his misery, my love,’ a fresh voice said, ‘it’s cruel to tease him so.’

Bilbo turned slightly to see a towering figure with long white hair and a beard Balin would have been proud to sport, and whose rugged face with its deep lines appeared etched from stone.

‘My Lord Ma- Aulë?’

‘Mahal will do, lad.’

Bilbo nodded, his mind racing through different thoughts and ideas as it hadn’t done for many years.  ‘So, I’m dead and in the company of Yavanna and Mahal.  Why am I in your company, my Lord, my Lady?’

Yavanna laughed again, and Bilbo thought he could listen to the joy and lightness imbued in her voice forever.

‘Well, listening to my wife is certainly one option,’ Mahal agreed, nodding to him.  ‘But I think you might get a little bored after a while.’

‘There are other options?’

‘Just two options,’ Yavanna told him with what looked like a glare to her husband.  ‘You can either go on to my Pastures and be with your hobbit family, or…’

‘Or?’ Bilbo prompted after a brief silence.

‘Or you can join your One,’ Mahal finished.

Bilbo blinked at him, not sure if he’d heard correctly.  ‘My One?  Like…the Ones dwarves have?’

‘Dwarrow,’ Mahal corrected a little testily, it seemed to Bilbo.  ‘The plural of Dwarf is Dwarrow, even though most people have forgotten that nowadays.’

‘Who is – or was – my One?’

Yavanna laughed again.  ‘You mean you didn’t recognise…them?’

Bilbo frowned and shook his head, trying to remember anyone he’d been close to over the years, but there wasn’t anyone.  After he’d returned to Bag End, following the quest, it’d taken him a while to settle back to his old life.  First, he’d had to recover all his property – and wasn’t he glad he’d stopped to collect the ‘long-term deposit’ Glóin had buried – then he’d tried to pick up his life from before.  And that was how life had been for him.  There was ‘before’ the quest, and ‘after’ the quest, and the two bore little resemblance to each other.  Following Thorin’s death, he’d found it—Oh.  Thorin.  Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain.  His Thorin.

‘Yes,’ Yavanna murmured.  ‘Thorin Oakenshield is your One, and if you wish, you may join him in the Halls of my husband.  Alternatively, you may go on to my Pastures and join your family.’

‘Thorin!’ Bilbo said immediately, not having to think about it at all.  ‘I want to be with Thorin, but…’

‘But?’ Yavanna asked gently.

‘Does he know he’s my One?’

‘Ah, lad, he’s been waiting for you,’ Mahal told him, and his features were now softened, kind even.

‘Then I choose Thorin.’

At the first sound of howling wargs Gandalf closed his eyes for a moment, unable to believe their run of bad luck.  First goblins, now wargs and, undoubtedly, orcs.

From behind he heard Thorin mutter, ‘Out of the fucking frying pan…’

‘…and into the fire,’ he finished under his breath.  ‘Run, run!’ he shouted aloud over the howling of the wargs.  ‘To the trees!’

Already exhausted from their exertions in Goblin Town, and with wargs on their heels, the Company ran as fast as they could manage in the falling light, towards a group of trees on the edge of a rocky outcrop which fell away abruptly to a valley far below..

‘Up!  Up!’ Gandalf yelled as loud as he could and with what breath he could spare.  ‘Up into the trees!

One of the wargs was getting dangerously close to Bilbo, trailing at the back of the group, and he drew his sword and held it in front of him, his hands wavering.  He’s going to die, thought Gandalf, pushing his way back through the dwarves to reach him.  With a snarl the warg lunged forward at the hobbit, but instead of sinking its slavering jaws into him it impaled itself on the blade he was holding, much to the shock of Gandalf and Bilbo.

‘Up into a tree, Bilbo!’ Gandalf shouted, breaking the hobbit from his stunned stillness and into movement as he tried to pull his sword free from the warg’s head, struggling to do so.

A dwarven axe went flying into the head of a second warg, killing it instantly just as Bilbo’s sword came free, causing him to fall backwards.  Bilbo got to his feet, then ran as fast as he could as the leading pack of wargs and orcs galloped towards them, the wargs howling and snarling and the orcs screaming and yelling.  Gandalf concentrated on counting heads to ensure the Company was all accounted for and safe – for a degree of safe, he amended as he raced for the last empty tree and the wargs hurled themselves against the trees filled with thirteen dwarves and a hobbit.

A sudden curse from Thorin made Gandalf swing around to look at him.  The king’s brow was furrowed as though in pain, and Gandalf followed his line of sight and his own heart clenched as he saw in the fading light a massive pale skinned orc seated upon an enormous white warg, grinning evilly at the trapped dwarven king and companions.

Trapped indeed, Gandalf thought, searching for a way to escape and spotting a moth on the branch above.  He extended his staff and brought the moth down to his hand, whispering to it to fetch help. He threw out his hand and released it to fly away as he clutched at a branch with his other hand to steady himself.

The white warg came closer to the trees, its pale rider baring his teeth in a sadistic leer.  His followers held back awaiting their orders, their mixture of blades and axes held at readiness for the moment the order came.

Kod, Toragid biriz,’ Azog ordered, pointing towards Thorin who was trying to set the pale orc on fire with his glare.  ‘Worori-da!’

The chattering of the other orcs, now licking their lips in excited anticipation, was a terrible sound to hear.  A further shouted command from Azog had the wargs leaping even further up the tree trunks, snapping at more branches and causing the Company to climb higher and higher while the trees themselves shook and trembled at each weighty assault until the tree closest to the orcs, holding Bilbo and Kíli, gave a massive creak and tipped slowly but steadily into the tree behind.  One by one the trees slipped and slid into each other, forcing the dwarves and Bilbo to leap from one to the next.  It was mere moments before they were all trapped in the swaying tree on the very edge of the outcrop where Gandalf was grimly holding on.

Surrounded by shouting dwarves, Gandalf looked wildly around for something to give them more time before the moth could summon help.  He snatched up a pine cone and, with a whispered spell, set it alight with his staff, and called out to the closest dwarf.

‘Balin!  Catch!’

Balin caught both the burning cone and Gandalf’s intent and quickly lit a second and a third pinecone before throwing the first into the mass of wargs attacking the tree, and the others to his companions.  Gandalf lit several more and passed them around the group, and soon flames were driving the wargs back.  A movement on his right made Gandalf jerk up his head from surveying the valley below.  Thorin Oakenshield drew Orcrist from its scabbard and, sword held before him and eyes fixed firmly on Azog, strode along the almost horizontal trunk, causing the others to cry out to him in shock.  The ever-rising flames appeared to create a heat haze as everything unexpectedly blurred for a moment.  Gandalf blinked, tried to clear his vision, when he saw, to his horror, Bilbo rushing after Thorin along the trunk, sword gripped firmly in hand and…wait, were they arguing?

Thorin swung around to face Bilbo, who gestured wildly to the others in the furthest tree, and possibly to the flames all around them, but Gandalf couldn’t hear anything above the surrounding din.  Both king and burglar were clearly furious, and while Gandalf tried to shout to them, his voice was lost in the surrounding din.

A further movement to the side made him look up.  Fíli and Kíli were striding down the tree trunks to join Thorin and Bilbo, and suddenly there were four of them arguing and waving their arms.

A snarl from Azog drew everyone’s attention and Bilbo appeared to be yelling at him, hands on his hips in a familiar pose.

Biriz torag khobdudol!,’ Azog shouted, making the hobbit even angrier, and now Thorin was shouting at the pale orc.  Gandalf watched in utter astonishment, as Bilbo glanced down at the sword still in his hand and he pulled back his arm and released it with unexpected force towards the pale-skinned monster.

Orcs, dwarves, wizard, and hobbit all stared in stupefaction as the sword somersaulted, almost in slow motion, until it embedded itself with a thwack deep in the middle of the pale orc’s forehead, vibrating at the impact.  Azog twitched and then tipped slowly, slowly to one side before landing on the ground with a thud which echoed in the sudden silence.

The white warg shifted in confusion at the unexpected loss of weight, but before it could launch itself forward, Kíli fired one, two arrows into its head, making it stumble and snarl.  Roars of elation came from the watching dwarves but, rather than please him, made Thorin even angrier.  Now he gesticulated wildly at Bilbo before turning and stalking towards the fallen orc while Fíli was already racing to the injured warg, twin swords in his hands.  He slit its throat with an upstroke just as Thorin reached the body of his long-time enemy and neatly beheaded him with Orcrist; the head rolling away from the force of the blow.  He stabbed his sword through the head and held it in place with his boot while he pulled out Bilbo’s letter opener, then raised the head on the end of Orcrist, black blood trickling down his sword and arm.  He brandished it towards Bilbo who marched up to the king, punched him on the arm and grabbed back his sword.

‘…stupid…you…reckless…idiotic…kill…’ were the only words Gandalf could make out, and he was puzzled at the sudden change in character of the usually polite Gentlehobbit he’d got to know over the duration of the quest.

The orcs in Azog’s pack suddenly surged towards the three dwarves and hobbit, shrieking and shouting, and their mounts howling.  The rest of the Company, cheering as they went, charged as fast as they could along the tree trunks towards their remaining enemies and fierce fighting broke out between dwarves, orcs and wargs.  Some in the now leaderless orc pack retreated into the hills behind them, but the rest stood their ground and fought back.

With remarkable timing the Great Eagles, summoned by Gandalf, swooped down to snatch at the orcs and wargs with their talons, flying them away to drop over the cliff.  Others gently grasped the members of the Company, setting them carefully onto the backs of their brethren, or landed briefly to allow them to climb aboard, and flew them away from the fiery but now almost deserted outcrop.  Gandalf dropped onto the back of the final eagle which swept underneath him and soon all that remained was the body of a white warg, the remains of a pale orc, and a fire burning brightly.

*****

Thorin and Bilbo scrambled onto the back of the same eagle, and despite their annoyance with each other, they clung together for a moment in the darkness until Bilbo drew back and punched Thorin’s arm again.

‘You stupid, stubborn dwarf!’ he bellowed.  ‘What were you thinking?  Why didn’t you stop?  Don’t you remember how badly injured you were last time?’

‘I was already walking, and I had to do something,’ Thorin retorted.  ‘The trees were falling and everywhere was on fire!  Dori and Ori were about to fall, and we didn’t have time to wait for the eagles.  I needed to act!  And what about you!?  You threw away your only means of defence!’

‘I threw it at Azog, and I killed him if you noticed!’

‘It was a lucky shot, and it left you without a weapon just as we were facing an entire company of orcs and wargs.’

‘Pfft!  I killed Azog!’

‘Yes, you killed Azog, and you knew he was mine to kill!’

‘What?  Like last time?  When he almost killed you as well?  Remember that?  I saved your arse from being warg-food, Oakenshield, and after we got to the Carrock, you’d have been dead without Gandalf.  Oh, wait a minute, you did die on me in the end!’

‘Azog was mine to kill!  I watched him kill my grandfather, and he was certainly implicit in my father’s death!’

‘Pfft!’  This time Bilbo waved his hand as he made a snort of derision.  ‘I killed Azog!

‘HE WAS MI—’

‘—yours to kill,’ Bilbo finished for him, waving his hand again.  ‘Yes, yes, I know.  Everyone east of the Misty Mountains probably knows by now, Thorin.  Give it a rest.  Azog’s dead, that‘s what matters!’

‘Are you two still arguing?’ Fíli demanded from the back of an eagle flying close to theirs – the only one which was, Thorin saw when he looked around to see if anyone could hear them – and through the darkness Thorin could just make out Kíli at his side.  Both dwarves appeared to be grinning.

Thorin glared at them.  ‘It’s none of—’

‘It is our business, indâd,’ Fíli responded.  ‘Our Lord Mahal and his Lady said they were utterly tired with you and Uncle Bilbo arguing all the time and they sent you back to try again and get it right this time instead of just arguing about it.’

‘They did,’ Kíli confirmed.  ‘So we said in which case we should go with you and make sure you did nothing too stupid and…and…’  Kili’s explanation petered out, and he swallowed hard at the expression on his dwarven-uncle’s face.

‘Aren’t you pleased?’ Fíli asked in a nervous tone.

‘We’re very pleased,’ Bilbo said firmly, and punched Thorin’s arm once more.

Ow!  Why do you keep doing that?’ Thorin demanded, rubbing his arm.

‘Oh, as if it could hurt you through all those layers you’re wearing.’  Bilbo rolled his eyes, but he reached out and rubbed the spot he’d punched.  ‘Don’t be such a baby.’

‘Yeah, why are we wearing so many clothes?’ Kíli asked, looking down at himself.  ‘Last I remember, I was wearing just breeches and a tunic.’

‘We’ve slipped into the bodies we had before, numbskull!’ Fíli told him.

‘So…’  Kíli hunted in his many pockets and eventually pulled out a shiny black stone carved with runes.

‘Is that what amad gave you?’ Fíli asked, grabbing it from his brother’s hand.

‘Hey!’ Kíli shouted and tried to grab it back, making them both tip sideways on the eagle’s back.

‘Behave yourselves!’ Thorin ordered sharply and bent forward again and called out to the eagle carrying his nephews.  ‘I apologise for the behaviour of my sister-sons.  They’re still children and often forget their manners.’

‘I’m eighty-two,’ Fíli protested.

‘Then you should start behaving like it!’ Thorin snapped.  ‘Sit down, the pair of you!  And Fíli?  Give that stone back to Kíli!’

Bilbo watched as the two princes subsided and Fíli handed the rune stone back to his brother.  ‘That’s…’

‘The stone he had for his One?  Yes.  Dís gave it to him before we left Ered Luin.’  Thorin tilted his head toward Bilbo’s waistcoat.  ‘Is the…you know?’

Bilbo patted his pocket and nodded.  ‘Mmm.’

‘Good – I think,’ Thorin murmured, then gestured towards the eagle’s head and raised his eyebrows.

At a second nod from Bilbo, Thorin bent forwards and tried to attract the eagle’s attention.

‘Where are you taking us?’

‘To the Carrock,’ the eagle replied.  ‘You will be safe there.’

‘You came at the most opportune moment,’ Thorin told him.  ‘My thanks.  May I know your name?’

‘I am Landroval.’

‘I’m Thorin Oakenshield, and this is my partner, Bilbo Baggins.  We would like to have a conversation with Lord Gwaihir if we may.’

‘How do you know the name of our Lord?’

Bilbo shuffled forward and gripped Thorin’s arm, making the dwarf smile a little.  He knew Bilbo hated flying, calling it a decidedly un-hobbity means of transportation.  ‘I…have known Lord Gwaihir in the past,’ he told Landroval.  ‘We have a proposition for him, for all the Great Eagles.  Are you willing to take us to him or bring him to us?’

There was a moment of silence while Bilbo and Thorin looked at each other nervously.  If they couldn’t speak to Gwaihir, it would make their plans much more difficult.

‘I will ask my brothers to remain with you at the Carrock while I seek our Lord,’ Landroval said eventually, ‘but I cannot promise he will speak with you.’

‘We understand,’ Thorin told him, and he and Bilbo settled back to make themselves comfortable for the journey.

‘We need to make some plans,’ Thorin sighed.  ‘If only we’d had some warning…’

Bilbo nodded.  ‘We also need to decide how much we tell the others.’

‘We tell the Company the truth,’ Thorin said firmly.  ‘I’ll not have any secrets between us.’

‘There are going to be secrets no matter what you think,’ Bilbo returned.  ‘I don’t want to say anything about…’  He patted his waistcoat pocket.  ‘Not until we’ve won back the Mountain, at least.  And what about Gandalf?’

‘Him…I don’t want him to know just yet,’ Thorin murmured.  ‘He’ll doubtless suggest we act to suit him, rather than ourselves.  We’ll maybe tell him later.’

‘But we know that he’s a good person,’ Bilbo argued.

Thorin put his arm around Bilbo and pulled him into his side, pressing a kiss on his curls.  ‘As are you, Âzyungûn.’

‘Soppy dwarf.’

‘Impertinent hobbit.’

‘This time, no Durin is setting foot near Ravenhill,’ Bilbo told him firmly.

‘But you know we might—’

‘I mean during the battle, stoopid.’

Thorin laughed.  ‘Only hobbits could come up with an insult that doubles as a term of endearment.’  He gave Bilbo a last kiss and released him.  ‘We’ll see about Ravenhill, ghivashel.’

No, Thorin Oakenshield!’  Bilbo gave him a sharp poke in the side.  ‘I mean it.  You’ll all come out of the battle fine and healthy or, Yavanna help me,  I’ll…I’ll…’

‘Scold us, perhaps?’

‘Stubborn git!’

Bunnanunê.’

‘Are you going to tell the others Bilbo’s your One, Uncle?’ Kíli called over.

‘They’ll no doubt find out eventually, but I don’t want the Wizard to know just yet,’ Thorin called back.  ‘About anything.’

‘You might want to stop cuddling him, then,’ Fíli grinned.  ‘Makes it kind of obvious, especially as it’s getting light enough for the others to see you both.’

Thorin watched the heat rise on Bilbo’s cheeks and found himself being pushed away, making the boys laugh.  The boys laughing.  It was a happy memory from the early part of the original quest; Fíli and Kíli, laughing and joking, singing even.  It was only as the quest progressed things became darker and there was little to laugh about – for any of them.

Shaking his head to clear it, Thorin looked around as the eagles flew over the landscape in the early morning light. Not realising the journey from the outcrop took so long, unconscious as he was the last time it happened.  And now I have Bilbo at my sideWhat difference will that make to events?

*****

On the Carrock and with all their passengers on solid ground once more, Landroval turned to Thorin.  ‘I will leave you with my brethren and seek my Lord Gwaihir.’  The giant eagle called to his brothers in a language neither Bilbo nor Thorin understood, then took off, the downdraft from his wings making Bilbo – the lightest of them – stagger a little.

‘Why has Landroval gone to fetch Gwaihir?’ Gandalf demanded, striding over to Thorin and Bilbo, his narrowed eyes fixed on Thorin alone.  ‘How do you know about the lord of the eagles?’

I asked him to request a conversation with Lord Gwaihir,’ Bilbo replied, stepping in front of Thorin.  ‘As for knowing his name, Lord Elrond mentioned it to me sometime or another.  I thought it would be a good idea to ask him if he’d heard or seen anything of Smaug.’

Gandalf looked at him consideringly, and Bilbo tried not to shuffle nervously.  The hand Thorin pressed against his back, unseen from Gandalf’s position, helped him, and he raised his chin a little at the wizard’s examination.

‘There’s something odd going on, ‘Gandalf murmured, his eyes still narrowed.  ‘But I can’t quite work out what.  Still,’ he continued in a normal voice, ‘the Great Eagles are not a transportation system, nor messengers for hobbits and dwarves.  I doubt very much Lord Gwaihir will come back, so we should begin making our way down from here.’

‘We will wait here until Landroval returns,’ Thorin said firmly, and, ignoring the exasperated sigh from the wizard, strode over to a small group of rocks close to the edge of the Carrock.  He settled himself on one and made himself comfortable, looking out to the east across Mirkwood.  The other dwarves joined him as the sun rose, colouring the sky in hues of orange and red.

‘Erebor,’ whispered Kíli in awe from his position next to his uncle.

‘Our ancestral home,’ Fíli whispered from the other side of Thorin.

Thorin reached out and pulled his nephews in towards him.  ‘Your inheritance,’ he told them.

Our inheritance.  Of all Durin’s Folk,’ Fíli corrected him, but allowed Thorin to pull him into a hug along with his brother.

Watching from a few steps away, Bilbo felt a rush of affection run through him.  The Thorin he knew from the original quest was deeply flawed, scarred by years of hardship and the struggle to keep his people alive, and appearing cold and aloof towards all who knew him, even his own kin.  His death changed this, and especially after Bilbo joined him in the Halls of Mahal.  They were able to examine and discuss the mistakes their past selves had made, particularly during the quest for Erebor and, over time, Thorin released his previous grievances and hurts, and learned to smile again, to love, and, after Bilbo’s arrival, to love Bilbo in particular.  Bilbo mourned his King Under the Mountain for over eighty years and being granted an opportunity to spend forever with him was a gift beyond measure which he grabbed at with both hands, small though they were.

*****

‘What happens now?’ Ori asked, ink-stained fingers – as ever – gripping both pen and journal.

‘As soon as Thorin Oakenshield has finished sight-seeing, we can climb down this rock and make our way to someone who, I hope, will help us,’ Gandalf announced in rising annoyance.

‘I’m waiting to see if Lord Gwaihir will talk with us,’ Thorin replied, still gazing at the Lonely Mountain in the distance.

‘And I’m telling you it’s unlikely the Lord of the Great Eagles will want to talk to you, Thorin Oak—’

‘You’re wrong, Gandalf,’ Bilbo said in a bright tone, having turned around to look back.

‘Bilbo Baggins!  I am never wr—’  Gandalf fell silent as he followed Bilbo’s gaze westwards.  Two small shapes in the sky were growing ever larger and larger.

Within minutes, Landroval and Lord Gwaihir landed on top of the Carrock as the dwarves gathered together around the rocks to give the eagles more room.  Thorin arose from his seat and walked towards Gwaihir, but Gandalf blocked his way with his staff.

I will speak to Gwaihir first,’ he announced firmly.

Thorin’s eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth to give an angry retort when Bilbo slipped his hand into Thorin’s calloused one and squeezed it tightly.  Thorin inclined his head very slightly and allowed the wizard to stride over to the Lord of the Eagles.

‘Lord Gwaihir,’ Gandalf began, his words reaching the waiting Company.  ‘Please excuse the impertinent request of—’

‘I would speak with Thorin Oakenshield, the King Under the Mountain,’ Gwaihir told him abruptly, and Bilbo was certain that if eagles could scowl, this one would scowl at Gandalf.  ‘Step aside, Mithrandir.  This does not concern you.’

Biting his lip in frustration and annoyance, Gandalf stood to one side and allowed Thorin and Bilbo to join Gwaihir.

‘Right away, Mithrandir,’ Gwaihir instructed him.  ‘Our conversation is private.’

Muttering under his breath, Gandalf retired to the furthest point from the ten gathered eagles and turned his back on them.

‘Mithrandir helped when a poisoned arrow injured me,’ Gwaihir explained in a low voice, still watching the grey wizard.  ‘He now appears to think he has some sort of ownership over me, that he can direct who may speak to me.  He is wrong.’  He turned to Thorin and regarded him for a moment.  ‘What would you say to me, King Under the Mountain?’

‘My Mountain is still the abode of Smaug the Fire-drake,’ Thorin replied, inclining his head.  ‘I am merely a dwarf looking to reclaim his home.’

‘And you wish me to help you do that?’

‘I would have an alliance between my people and your people,’ Thorin explained, and he glanced around to make sure he and Bilbo were out of hearing range of the others.

‘Fíli is keeping their attention on him and Kíli,’ Bilbo said in a low voice.  ‘Carry on.’

‘Bilbo and I, and my nephews have—’

‘I see you and your consort have the mark of Aulë upon you, Thorin Oakenshield,’ Gwaihir murmured.

‘Wait; what?’  Thorin took a step back in surprise.  ‘We have what?’

‘You and your consort are each marked by Aulë.’  He looked over to the other dwarves and nodded.  ‘As are your sister-sons.  These marks are seen only by such as we, the messengers of Manwë, and are placed only on those who have walked the Halls of Aulë, the one you call Mahal.  His mark will protect you from curses and poisons and will identify you to such as I.  If Mithrandir looked at you properly instead of seeing only that which he expects to see, he too would notice the mark.  Now, what do you wish to ask of me, Twice-born?’

‘In just a few months there will be a terrible battle,’ Thorin explained to Gwaihir.  ‘Many innocents will die or be injured, dwarves, elves and men alike.  I would ask the Eagles of Manwë to give us help in vanquishing our foe.’

‘And why does this foe attack?’

‘They wish to prevent us from reclaiming Erebor and killing the dragon Smaug.  However, we will regain our home and will rid Middle Earth of its final Fire-drake, which will prevent Sauron from having a position in the North East of Arda from which to attack the rest of Middle Earth.  Ours is no selfish quest, although it may have begun as one.  Our Mountain is in a strategic position and will aid the great alliance of future years in their battle against our common enemy, Sauron.’

‘You are aware he is not dead?’

‘Aye, we know.  This battle will decimate his forces and make it difficult for him to mount an attack in the future.  We also…have a plan to end him for all time, but that must come later.  For the moment, we will retake our Mountain and fight the enemy he will send to attack us and who would claim our Mountain for their own.’

‘And if I agree to an alliance?’ Gwaihir asked, his eyes fixed firmly on Thorin.

‘We offer you a home at the Lonely Mountain on its highest peak.  None will reach you there, and we will make sure we have animals for your table.’

A strange noise came from the eagle, and Bilbo realised he was laughing.

‘I have no table, oh King, but an eyrie safe from harm interests me and mine.  What will you do with the body of your dragon?’

‘I, um…’ Thorin began uncertainly.

‘Do eagles eat dragon meat?’ Bilbo asked, his head tipped to one side.

‘When it is available.  We consider it a delicacy, one we have not tasted for many years.’

‘Then we will gift you the carcass of the fire-drake,’ Thorin promised.

‘In exchange for our alliance?’

‘No.’  Thorin shook his head.  ‘We will gift you a new home at the Mountain and the carcass of Smaug with no expectation of anything.  We are reclaiming our home to keep my people safe, and the gold there will keep us fed.  I can do no more than offer the same to others who are living in a dangerous situation.  I know the men from the valleys try to hunt your kin for stealing their sheep and for their pleasure.  We offer you safety, and we offer you, in time, animals we will breed to feed you.’

‘One dragon will feed my people for many months,’ Gwaihir replied consideringly.  ‘We eat infrequently, perhaps once every few days, although we always need access to clean water; something which is difficult in the Misty Mountains as the goblins and orcs foul it so.’

Bilbo felt himself go a little pale at the thought of eating so infrequently.  To be sure, meals were difficult as they travelled, and he’d often gone hungry, but to eat only once a week…  He gulped and gripped Thorin’s arm.

‘You’re concerned with how rarely they eat, aren’t you, amrâlimê?’  Thorin grinned down at him, then looked back up at Gwaihir.  ‘Clean water or snow is yours to take.  For the rest, if the dragon will feed you for some time, we will have other animals available when you need them.  Do we have an accord?’

The eagle watched him for a moment.  ‘Where do you go from here?’

‘The wizard will take us to the home of Beorn, the skin-changer in the valley.  He doesn’t know we’ve come back in time yet.  None of the others do, and we’d like to keep it to ourselves for a while if you don’t mind.  Gandalf will leave shortly to meet with the Brown Wizard, Radagast.’

‘We will take you to the skin-changer, and I will speak with my kin of your offer of a new eyrie, Thorin Oakenshield,’ Gwaihir said.  ‘We were sent to Arda to fight against the evil ones, and we will join you in your battle, that I promise.’

Thorin bowed to him.  ‘I accept your help with grateful thanks, my lord.’

With Bilbo still holding his arm, Thorin looked over to Fíli and Kíli and beckoned to them.  The brothers ran over with grins on their faces.

‘Has he agreed?’ Kíli called out, making the dwarves and Gandalf swing around and stare at him.

Kíli bit his lip.  ‘Sorry, Uncle,’ he said in a quieter voice when he reached Thorin and Bilbo.

‘You must be more careful, Namadul,’ Thorin told him.  ‘We don’t want the wizard asking too many questions.’

‘Have you agreed, sir?’ Fíli asked Gwaihir, bowing his head to the Lord of Eagles.

‘I have promised our aid in the battle,’ Gwaihir confirmed.

‘And are you coming to live with us at the Mountain?’ Kíli demanded.  ‘I don’t mind hunting every day for you if you want me to.’

‘Peace, little one.’  Gwaihir appeared to be laughing again.  ‘I will speak to my brothers and we will decide together.’

‘Are all of them your brothers, then?’ Kíli asked curiously, looking at the group of eagles surrounding Lord Gwaihir.

‘Only me, child,’ Landroval answered, stepping forward.  ‘But we call each other ‘brother’ as we live together in one eyrie.’

‘I’m not a child, I’m seventy-seven,’ Kíli muttered mulishly

‘Then you are young indeed,’ Gwaihir told him.  ‘To us, at least.  Now fetch your brother dwarrow and we will take you to the skin-changer.’

‘The skin-changer?’ Gandalf asked, surprising Bilbo and Thorin as they hadn’t heard him approach.  ‘I was going to take them there myself and ask for his aid.’

‘We will take you all,’ Gwaihir offered.

‘There’s definitely something odd going on,’ Gandalf repeated half to himself, his eyes narrowed as he looked around the Company suspiciously.  ‘Well, if I’m not needed, I’ll go off and see one of my brethren.  You obviously don’t need me around.’

‘Of course we need you, Gandalf,’ Bilbo assured him, nudging Thorin.  ‘We wouldn’t have got to this point without you.’

Gandalf hummed, looking a little appeased.

‘May I carry you to your brother wizard?’ Landroval suggested tactfully, drawing Gandalf’s attention away from Bilbo.

‘I would appreciate it, my friend,’ Gandalf told him, and turned to Thorin.  ‘I don’t know how long this will take me, but take care going through Mirkwood.  There is a darkness there, and many hidden dangers.  Do not step from the elf-path or you will be lost forever, and don’t drink from any rivers or streams: they may be enchanted.’

‘Sounds like a fun place to be,’ Bofur said, overhearing Gandalf’s warning.  ‘And we have to go through it?’

‘I forget you and your kin have never travelled to the east,’ Gandalf said to Bofur.  ‘It was once called the Greenwood, but for many years now, it is Mirkwood and evil lives amongst it.’

‘There’s no other way?’ Bombur asked nervously.

‘The Great Forest Road runs too close to Dol Guldur to be safe.  An even greater evil has made his abode there.’

‘You speak of the Necromancer,’ Gwaihir said.

‘That is one of his names, but I will speak no more of him.’  Gandalf frowned, clearly out of sorts.  ‘I accept your offer, Landroval.  Be safe, Thorin Oakenshield, Bilbo Baggins.’

‘Wait!’  Bilbo held out his hand as though to stop the wizard from leaving.  ‘Will you return to help us get into the mountain?’

‘I will.  Wait for me near the outlook to the west of Erebor.  Do not enter it without me.’

‘How long should we wait?’

‘Until I arrive, Bilbo Baggins,’ Gandalf retorted, then gave Bilbo a small smile and bent down to him.  ‘I will not leave you, my friend, but I have other work I must do.’  He straightened and climbed onto Landroval’s back.  ‘Until the outlook, my friends,’ he called as Landroval rose into the air.

‘He does like being dramatic, doesn’t he,’ Balin said wryly, watching bird and wizard get smaller and smaller.  He brushed his hands together and turned to Thorin.  ‘What do we do now?’

‘I will take you to visit the skin-changer, Beorn,’ Gwaihir explained.

‘A skin-changer?  What does his skin change into?’ Ori asked nervously, gripping his journal to his chest.

‘He can shift into a bear,’ Bilbo said with a grin.  ‘A giant black bear.’

‘Mahal save us,’ he heard Glóin mutter as they climbed up onto the eagles’ backs again.

The sun was high in the sky when Gwaihir and the eagles landed in the middle of a large meadow where bumblebees almost the size of Bilbo’s head flew between equally large flowers, buzzing happily.  This was a place of peace, Thorin remembered.  A place where troubles and worries were cast aside for a brief time.

‘Was I expecting guests?’ a deep voice asked.  The Company turned as one to see a very tall, heavily built man striding towards them.

‘My brothers and I have agreed to help these dwarrow,’ Gwaihir explained as the Company scrambled and slid from the backs of the eagles.  ‘I would appreciate your aid for them too, Beorn of the Skin-Changers.’

‘Why are they so dirty and wearing rags?’

‘We were trapped in Goblin Town,’ Thorin stepped forward to explain.  ‘We had to fight to get out, although we did kill the Goblin King.  After that, we were set upon by orcs and wargs.’

‘And did you kill them all?’

‘Many of them.  Bilbo here killed Azog, the Pale Orc, and Kíli, my sister-son, killed his white warg.’

‘I don’t like dwarrow in general, but I dislike goblins and orcs even more,’ Beorn rumbled.  ‘Stay and be welcome, especially if you are friends of Lord Gwaihir.’

Beorn bent a little to speak to Gwaihir privately while a dog, standing on its back legs, beckoned to the dwarves to follow him.

‘I hope there’s somewhere here we can clean up,’ Dori muttered as they followed the strange-looking dog.  ‘It feels like years since I took a bath.’

‘Smells like years as well,’ Nori told his brother, and laughed as he dodged out of the way of Dori’s hand.

There wasn’t much to laugh about during the first quest. Not after our encounter with Azog, Thorin thought to himself.  Things are already different.

‘That’s why we were sent back, though,’ Bilbo said to him in a quiet voice, slipping his hand into Thorin’s larger one.

‘How did—’

‘Our bond,’ Bilbo explained.  ‘If I concentrate, I can hear your thoughts.’  Thorin grinned down at him, and Bilbo blushed and slapped his arm.  ‘Certainly not!  For the moment, at least.’

Bunnanunê.’

The sheep and dogs, who looked after Beorn and his home, took away the rags Beorn was so disparaging about to wash while the company bathed, leaving them with only towels to wrap around themselves.  Nudity wasn’t a problem for dwarves, Bilbo had discovered during their journey, much to his horror, and he found an out of the way bench to sit on while waiting for his clothes to be returned.  Thorin joined him shortly after he’d made himself comfortable.

‘I lost you,’ Thorin complained, sitting down next to Bilbo and slipping his arm around Bilbo’s shoulder’s, pulling him in close.

Bilbo shifted uneasily, not comfortable being almost naked in public even though there was only Thorin to see.

‘And I’ve seen you naked enough times for it not to matter,’ Thorin told him, waggling his eyebrows in an exaggerated fashion.

Bilbo slapped the arm holding him, but it was a half-hearted slap at best

‘I wanted to talk to you about the bond we appear to have developed,’ Thorin continued.  ‘I wasn’t fully aware of it in the Halls.  Were you?’

Bilbo shook his head.  ‘I knew we had a bond there, obviously; we are soul-mates, or Ones, after all, and I felt…completed just by being with you.  I also knew we had an emotional connection.’  He gave Thorin a sudden grin.  ‘We’ve both felt that!’

Thorin returned his grin.  ‘Oh, yeah.’

‘The thoughts thing, though, I wasn’t aware of until I ‘heard’ what you were thinking as we landed on the Carrock.’

Thorin raised a questioning eyebrow.

‘You were thinking about the boys laughing, then how much our relationship might change future events over last time.’

‘Is it only hearing my thoughts that’s different?’

Bilbo tipped his head to one side.  ‘I don’t follow.’

‘I…When I came to look for you after our baths, I knew exactly where you were, even though I don’t recall seeing this bench last time we were here.’

‘Okaaay,’ Bilbo said, drawing out the word.  ‘How did you know?’

‘When I concentrated enough, I could see the apiaries you were looking at so I just followed the buzzing of the bees as it got louder.  I can see what you see if I concentrate.  And I also knew you were uncomfortable just having a towel around you.’

‘But you already knew I dislike public nudity from the early part of the quest and from the Halls.  I hated using the family bathing room there and wouldn’t even go near the larger public baths.’

‘I know, but this was different.  I actually felt your embarrassment rather than just know about it.’  Thorin shifted on the seat.  ‘I’m not explaining it very well, I know.  Maybe it’s something we’ll have to work on.’

‘And practice,’ Bilbo added and twisted to look at Thorin.  ‘Is this a common thing between couples?  Do all soulmates or Ones have this bond?’

‘I’m not sure,’ Thorin said at length.  ‘I’ve certainly never heard about it before, but it may be the sort of things couples keep to themselves.  Why?’

Bilbo shrugged.  ‘It might be useful, that’s all.  We can talk to each other over a distance.  If we can see and even feel what the other can, it might help us.  Especially if we get separated when we take the you-know-what to you-know-where to destroy it.  Frodo said they were all separated a couple of times before he and Sam went off together and left the others.’

‘Well, we won’t be separated when we go, not for a moment,’ Thorin said firmly.  ‘I won’t be leaving your side until we’re safely back in Erebor, but aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves?  We need to kill the dragon and fight the orcs before then.’

‘And we’ll do it together, won’t we?  With our boys, of course.’

‘Of course.’

*****

Several hours later the Company gathered around Beorn’s large table with hot drinks in front of them, each of them clean and pleasantly fragrant for the first time in almost a month.  The four time-travellers had refused to answer questions or make any explanations until everyone was together.

‘You said you had a tale to tell,’ Beorn said to Thorin.  ‘I enjoy a good story.’

‘This is definitely a good one!’  Kíli grinned at Beorn.  ‘I can hardly believe it myself and I’m part of it!’

Thorin and Bilbo exchanged glances.  ‘Okay, I’ll begin,’ Bilbo sighed, attracting the attention of the other dwarves.

‘Make yourselves comfortable, because we’re going to be here for a while,’ Fíli told them all, grinning as widely as his brother.

‘This isn’t the first time we’ve made this journey and rested with Beorn,’ Bilbo began.  ‘Just a few hours ago, Thorin and I were having an argument in the Halls of Mahal.’

Thorin sighed and held up his hands at the outburst Bilbo’s statement brought forth.

‘Quiet!  Quiet everyone!’ he shouted over the din surrounding him and thumped his fist on the table.

Gradually they fell silent, all eyes fixed firmly on him.

‘You should have begun a little gentler, âzyungel/,’ he told Bilbo, knowing the endearment alone would surprise the other dwarves.  He looked around the table.  ‘Bilbo speaks the truth.  This is the second time Bilbo, Fíli, Kíli, and myself have benefitted from Beorn’s hospitality.’

The outburst this time wasn’t quite as loud as before, which Thorin viewed as encouraging.

‘Quiet!’ he yelled again and glared at the members of his Company until they subsided.  ‘Thank you.’  He took a deep breath and tried again.  ‘The Valar have sent the four of us back in time to right some wrongs, take care of certain things, and prevent the deaths of my sister-sons and myself in a battle a few days after we killed Smaug…’

It took a while and more than one refill of their cups, but eventually Thorin met the eyes of each dwarf around the table.  ‘We are here to do the bidding of our Lord and his Lady and there will be certain questions we cannot answer – by their orders,’ he added pointedly as Glóin in particular looked rebellious at this information.

‘This is an awful lot to take in,’ Balin said slowly, ‘but I can see the differences in all four of you now I know what’s happened.  You look calmer and more at peace with yourself, Thorin.  The haggard look you wore only yesterday appears to have eased, and you’re smiling more.  I thought at first it was because Azog is now dead beyond doubt, but…’  He gave a little shrug.  ‘You too have changed, Bilbo.  You have so much more confidence about you than before when you tried almost to make yourself invisible to us all.’  Thorin and Bilbo exchanged a swift glance of concern before Balin continued, blithely unaware of the consternation his words momentarily gave.  ‘Why, just a day or two ago you were preparing to leave us and return home.’

‘In the trap-door cave you mean?’  When Balin nodded, Bilbo continued more confidently: ‘Yes, I wanted to leave, to go back to Rivendell, mainly because this great lummox didn’t appear to want me on his quest!’  He nodded towards Thorin and rolled his eyes when Thorin covered his small hand with his own and gave it a little squeeze.

‘I didn’t want you on the quest – at the time,’ he explained in a low voice, ‘mostly because I was terrified you were going to get hurt.  I knew you were my One and had already half fallen in love with you by then, but I didn’t know how I could protect you from everything.’

‘But why are you here?’  Glóin repeated his question.  ‘Why did Mahal decide to send you back?’

‘’Oh, me, me!  I want to tell them!’ Kíli begged, bouncing in his seat and holding up his hand.  At a nod from his two uncles, he grinned and continued.  ‘Bilbo came to live with Uncle and us, but they kept on arguing—’

‘—Arguing about what?’ Glóin interrupted, glancing at Thorin and Bilbo.

‘Oh, anything and everything!  About Uncle Thorin, mostly.  He just couldn’t forgive himself for leaving Uncle Bilbo alone and—’

Thorin cleared his throat pointedly and raised his eyebrows at his nephew.  ‘Glóin asked why Mahal sent us back, not for personal details.’

‘Okay, spoilsport.’  Kíli mumbled the sobriquet, probably in the hope Thorin wouldn’t hear.  ‘Our Lord and his Lady got tired of the pair of them arguing about—’  Thorin’s cough had Kíli nodding hurriedly, and he continued, ‘so one day, Lord Mahal decided he’d had enough, and they just disappeared!  Right in front of mine and Fili’s eyes!  We asked where they’d gone, and Lord Mahal said he’d granted them their second chance, so we said we wanted to come back as well and make sure they got everything right and not get us killed again.’  He motioned between himself and Fíli.

‘He didn’t get you killed,’ Bilbo told Kíli sharply, wagging his finger at the lad.  ‘This is what I’ve been trying to get into his and your thick dwarven heads!  Azog killed Fíli and Bolg killed you after you fell into his trap.  Thorin set off for Ravenhill and you followed him.  I saw you follow him and Dwalin, but he has difficulty accepting he isn’t to blame.’  Bilbo looked around at the other dwarves and Beorn, his chin jutting out stubbornly.  ‘The battle will happen, but this time I’m going to make sure Thorin and Fíli and Kíli don’t die.  Make sure none of you silly sods die!’ he added, glaring at them through narrowed eyes.

‘We’ll go over the details later,’ Thorin continued, holding up his hand to halt the outbursts from the other dwarves.  ‘For the moment, know this.  Our Company began this journey to kill the dragon and recover our home – or at least to find the Arkenstone and persuade the other dwarf Lords to send armies to help us kill Smaug.

‘We’ll kill Smaug and recover our home with no one else’s help, but that’s just a small part of a much bigger picture, one none of us, myself included, fully understood before.  Gandalf has gone off to do his part in it, and by killing Smaug and reclaiming Erebor, we will play our part – for now.

‘Sauron is still alive, however, and he’s on the move; he’s already building up his armies, but Azog being killed will force him to alter his plans.  There’ll be an even bigger battle in the future where thousands of souls will die unless we can make some changes now, and while only the Longbeards were part of the Last Alliance at the end of the Second Age, we’ll need all the Clans to work together to defeat the servant of Morgoth.  Reclaiming our birthright is just a part of the whole.  A big part, to be sure, but other changes we intend to make will have far wider repercussions.’

A silence fell around the large table as the dwarves and Beorn absorbed Thorin’s words.

‘Do I have a part to play in your picture?’ Beorn asked at length.

‘You do indeed, my friend,’ Thorin said, smiling at the skin-changer.  ‘And I hope you will help us again.  Last time you and the Great Eagles arrived at the battleground before the Mountain after many hours of fighting.  I—we hope you’ll agree to join us at the start of the battle this time.  Lord Gwaihir has promised the participation of the eagles from the beginning, too.  Last time they, and you, turned the tide of the battle and we were victorious, but many on our side still died.

‘We hope to prevent that as much as possible by being better prepared.  Azog is already dead, but we expect his son, Bolg, to step into his place as leader of the enemy forces and to keep his father’s vow to end the line of Durin.  If he keeps the same plans as Azog made originally, we have forewarning and can disrupt and counter them, but it’s still going to be an arduous battle and many will still die.  Are you willing to help us?’

Beorn considered this.  ‘I keep myself away from people usually; men, elves, and dwarrow alike,’ he rumbled.  ‘They don’t bother me and I don’t bother with them, but this fight sounds like an important one so I’ll play my part.  Did I…’  He broke off, uncertainly.

‘You lived through the battle,’ Bilbo confirmed, resting his hand on the giant one on the table next to him.  ‘In fact, you not only lived, but you eventually found your own One.  No, no.’  Bilbo held up his hands as Beorn turned towards him eagerly.  ‘I’ll not tell you any more because things might happen differently, but you live, my friend, and you have a happy future ahead of you.’  He looked around the table at the faces watching him.  ‘Now, if you don’t mind, I’m full of food and ready for my bed – a proper one, not a rug on a pile of rocks!’

The others laughed and the party broke up, some dwarves going outside to smoke and others to the communal sleeping space Beorn offered them.

‘You go to bed,’ Thorin told Bilbo softly, patting his shoulder.  ‘I’m going to smoke a pipe with Balin and Dwalin before I turn in.’

Bilbo stretched up on his tiptoes and pressed a kiss against Thorin’s lips.  ‘Don’t stay up talking for too long.  I sleep better with you at my side.’

‘Blerg!’ Kíli muttered to Ori.  ‘They are so soppy sometimes.’

Ori giggled as Thorin glared at his nephew.  ‘You just wait, my lad.  I know what’s going to happen and unless you want me to tease—’

Kíli yelped and ran outside after his brother, Ori following on behind him.

Bilbo sighed.  ‘You’re never going to change, are you?’

Thorin grinned down at him.  ‘I haven’t in all the years you’ve known me.’

‘Not changed in that way, at least,’ Bilbo told him, and stole another kiss.

Thorin watched as he wound his way between the dwarves, stopping and speaking to them individually.

‘He’ll make a good consort for you and your people,’ Beorn said to Thorin quietly.

‘We’ve got to get through the next few months, first,’ Thorin sighed, and then smiled.  ‘But he will, won’t he?’

*****

At breakfast the following morning, the rest of the Company couldn’t help watching Thorin and Bilbo, and Fíli and Kíli.

‘I wondered if I dreamt it all,’ Balin admitted, sipping milk mixed with a spoonful of honey made for them all by the sheep.  ‘But since I can now see a braid in Bilbo’s curls, I’m pretty certain I didn’t.’

His words made the others turn and stare at Bilbo’s hair, causing the hobbit to flush.  There was a complicated braid falling just in front of Bilbo’s left ear, and Thorin had clearly twisted and secured it with his own gold bead since one of his braids was missing its fastening and was unravelling.

‘I’ll make a proper bead for you when we’re back in the Mountain,’ Thorin promised, reaching out a finger to touch the braid in his One’s hair.  ‘For the moment, though, this will suffice.’

Balin watched as Bilbo also touched the bead gently, clearly taking pleasure in its presence.

‘Do hobbits not braid their hair?’ Ori asked, notebook and pen in hand as usual.

‘Goodness, no,’ Bilbo laughed.  ‘My neighbours would think me strange indeed if they saw my braid and how long my hair has grown.  We hobbits keep it cut quite short.  It’s grown during the quest, and I think the first time we travelled I once asked Dori to cut it for me, but—’  He broke off and laughed at the shouts and exclamations from the dwarves.  ‘Yep, that’s exactly the same reaction as before!’

‘We don’t cut our hair or our beards unless in mourning,’ Dori explained, shuddering a little at the very thought.

‘Bilbo knows that I’ve kept my beard short since Azanulbizar,’ Thorin nodded.

‘Did you not let it grow after…in the Halls?’ Bofur asked curiously.

Thorin shook his head.  ‘No, our appearances don’t change in the Halls.  We appeared there as we were at our happiest time on Arda, but we don’t age, so my hair, for example, didn’t grow anymore.’

‘At what age did you appear?’ Dori asked.  ‘If that’s not too personal a question.’

Thorin smiled.  ‘It is personal, but I don’t mind telling the Company.’  His eyes swept over them all and for a moment Balin thought he saw Thorin’s eyes mist a little.  ‘I appeared as I was during the quest, as I was on the Carrock, Bilbo told me.’  He smiled at his One.

‘As did I,’ Bilbo admitted.  ‘I passed away as an old, old hobbit, 131 years old, older than any other hobbit – any hobbit who aged naturally,’ he amended, ‘although—’

Thorin cut him off with a touch to his arm, shaking his head.  ‘Later, amrâlimê,’ he whispered.

‘That was the happiest time for both of you?’ Dwalin asked, looking shocked.

‘My One had just saved my life,’ Thorin said simply, grasping Bilbo’s hand on the table and taking it to his lips to kiss lightly.

‘Silly old dwarf.’

Sanâzyung.’

‘This is so strange for us to see, Thorin,’ Glóin said abruptly.  ‘The last I remember you were complaining about Bilbo having no place amongst us.  Now you’re being all lovey-dovey with him.’

‘I was wrong,’ Thorin said simply.  ‘Bilbo saved my life on the outcrop, and he more than earned his place in the Company when we got to Mirkwood.’

‘How?’ Glóin demanded.

‘Elves captured us on our way through Mirkwood and Thranduil locked us in his dungeons.  Only Bilbo remained free and he was able, eventually, to free us and get us to Lake-town.’

Balin realised there was more to the episode than the simple explanation Thorin gave.  Much more, and he determined to get the full story later.  For now, he tucked into his breakfast while keeping an eye on Glóin.  Their cousin was unhappy with Thorin for some reason.  He would bear watching.

Silence fell over the Company while they ate their breakfast and once everyone had finished eating those who smoked pipes pulled them out while the sheep and dogs, all on their hind legs, cleared the table, although Bilbo hung onto the bread and honey explaining to the animals he might want a snack.  It was most unnerving to see animals doing the chores usually done by a person and Balin marvelled at the power Beorn wielded in his small, protected corner of Arda.

‘Is everyone comfortable?’ Bilbo was asking, looking around.  Just a few days ago he had almost left the Company and returned home.  Now, here he was, gathering the attention of thirteen dwarves, as confident as he would have been back in his hobbit hole serving afternoon tea.  ‘We want to discuss the next part of our journey.’

‘That means Mirkwood, doesn’t it?’ Balin asked with a frown.  ‘While I have no desire to be locked in Thranduil’s dungeons, what other way is there, as Gandalf said the Old Forest Road was too dangerous?’

‘It is too dangerous,’ Thorin agreed.  ‘It’s almost impassable in parts, and it runs close to Dol Guldur where, right at this moment, an Orc Army is gathering.’

‘The army which will come to the Mountain?’ Dwalin asked, sitting up straight.  ‘Then why don’t we take advantage of that and go kill a few of them now?’

‘With only fourteen of us?  They’d massacre us before we got two steps inside,’ Thorin told him.  ‘Besides, that’s where Tharkûn and Radagast are heading, along with others on the White Council.  They have a task to accomplish there and we can’t go disturbing or distracting them.’

Bilbo nodded.  ‘There’s nothing we can do about the armies at the moment so—’

‘Wait!’  Dwalin held up a hand.  ‘Did you say ‘armies‘?  More than one?’

‘Ooops,’ Fíli murmured, grinning at his brother, who grinned back at him.

‘There are two armies that will march on Erebor,’ Thorin explained.  ‘Two enemy armies, that is.  There’ll also be three armies of allies – or at least we hope so.  Let’s focus on the next stage first, hmm?  Carry on, sanâzyung,’ he told Bilbo, who smiled at him.

‘Thorin and I have gone over this many, many times,’ he explained.  ‘Fíli and Kíli too, and Thrór, Thráin, and Frerin.  We—’

‘Frerin?’ Glóin asked in surprise

Bilbo’s eyes moved sideways to Thorin.  ‘Thorin’s younger brother, Frerin, yes.’  He surveyed Glóin for a moment, then nodded.  ‘Frerin’s your cousin too, isn’t he?’

Glóin nodded, his eyes on the tabletop.  ‘I was just five years older than him.  We were very close.  As close as Thorin and Dwalin, possibly.’

Bilbo stretched out a hand, but the table was too wide for him to reach across to Glóin.  ‘I’m sorry.’

‘How is h—’  Glóin broke off.  ‘Stupid question, forget it.’

‘If it’s any comfort, cousin,’ Fíli began, ‘from what we learned, Frerin is just as you remember him.  Cheeky, mischievous and up to plenty of pranks.’  His eyes lit up as he grinned.  ‘He didn’t like that Kíli and I wouldn’t call him uncle.’

Glóin gave a snort of laughter.  ‘No, he wouldn’t like that at all.’  He took a deep breath and nodded to Bilbo.  ‘I’m sorry.  I interrupted you.’

Bilbo shook his head.  ‘No matter.  I’d forgotten Frerin telling me how close the two of you were.’  He looked around the table again.  ‘We were sent back to make a difference, and while some things will happen as they did as before, we want to make changes for the better where we can.  Last time, we struggled to get through Mirkwood.  The forest is riddled with giant spiders and strange enchantments.  The spiders attacked us last time and, as Thorin said, you all ended up locked in Thranduil’s dungeons.  I got you out eventually, but many of our subsequent problems stemmed from that moment.’

‘Who is Thranduil?’ Bofur asked, looking at the others.  ‘Apart from being an elf, that is.  Don’t forget we’re Broadbeams from Ered Luin.’

‘He’s the King of the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood,’ explained Bilbo.

‘He’s also the bastard that let hundreds of our people die after Smaug attacked Erebor,’ Glóin growled.  ‘Bloody tree-shagger!’

‘He had his reasons,’ Thorin allowed, although it was clear he wasn’t happy with the reasons.

‘What reason could there possibly be to excuse what he did!’ Glóin demanded angrily.  ‘We asked him for help and he refused, Thorin.  People died because of him!  Members of our own family!’

‘People died because of Smaug!’ Thorin retorted.  ‘Let’s put the blame where it should be!’

‘And Thranduil wasn’t asked to give help,’ Bilbo added quietly.  ‘We only found this out later.’

‘My grandfather didn’t ask him for refuge,’ Thorin explained with some bitterness.  ‘He asked for an army to attack the worm instead.  Thranduil, unsurprisingly, turned him down.  He offered refuge, supplies, and access to his healers.  Thrór refused.  He wanted an elven army or nothing, and nothing was precisely what he got.’

Everything stilled for a moment before the dwarves began shouting at Thorin and at each other.  Thorin let them have their heads for a moment, then banged his fist on the table.

‘Quiet!’ he shouted over their noise.  ‘Quiet!’  It took a while, but the others quieted down at last and fixed their eyes on Thorin.  ‘It’s the truth,’ he said with a shrug of helplessness.  ‘Thráin confessed it to me and, eventually, Thrór confirmed it.  The truth is, my grandfather was far more interested in getting back his gold than he was in preventing our people from dying.  My father did little to help either.  Perhaps he was also under the thrall of the treasure, I don’t know.  Neither Thrór nor Thráin were ever willing to talk about it much, so I never got a proper explanation.’

‘Then we’ve been wrong all this time?’ Balin asked, very shaken by this additional information.  ‘Thranduil would have helped us?’

‘Yes, from what we gather,’ Fíli nodded.  ‘The dragon killed or injured many of his own people when it flew over Mirkwood, but it doesn’t excuse him entirely.’  Fili’s voice hardened.  ‘He may have offered help back then, but he did nothing but try to prevent us from reaching Erebor last time.  He demanded Thorin promise to return some gems he claimed Thrór stole before he would attempt to help us.  Naturally, Thorin refused.  He was being treated as though he had stolen the jewels.  And Thranduil then came to the Mountain with an army of elves after Smaug was dead to force Thorin to hand over the jewels.  His army—

‘Calm down, namadul!‘ Thorin ordered, reaching for his arm and squeezing it.  ‘I’ve come to understand there were faults on both sides, but we hope not to have to deal with Thranduil this time, rather with his son, Legolas.’

‘Who’s to say his son will be any better?’ Glóin demanded.  ‘He’s still a tree-shagger, isn’t he?

His comment made Thorin and Bilbo smile at each other while Fíli and Kíli laughed, making Balin wonder why.  They were keeping something secret, that was certain.

‘Legolas is much more amenable than his father,’ Bilbo said firmly.  ‘I got to know him quite well in the last timeline.  He’s also very concerned with the state of Mirkwood, but Thranduil refuses to do anything about it, retreating further and further into his Halls and ignoring everything else.’

‘Our plan is to ask for Legolas’ help in passing through Mirkwood in exchange for the diamonds Thrór stole from his father,’ Thorin explained.

‘Why should we give that pointy-eared bastard any of our treasure?’ Glóin demanded.

‘Because it’s his treasure, not ours,’ Bilbo said patiently.  ‘And unless you’ve not noticed, Glóin, I have pointed ears too!’

Glóin gave Thorin a horrified glance, then dropped his head.  ‘Sorry, Bilbo,’ he muttered, only just loud enough for Balin to hear, and he was seated next to his cousin.

Bilbo gave a firm nod, showing he had heard the apology.  ‘From what we gathered, Thranduil gave the diamonds to Thrór to make into a necklace as a present for his wife when Thrór moved his people back to Erebor after their years in the Grey Mountains.’

‘When Thranduil went to Erebor to collect them, though, Thrór refused to hand them over,’ Thorin continued.  ‘Thranduil’s anger was because they were all he had left of his wife, apart from Legolas, of course.  Orcs from Mount Gundabad killed her, and the elves never recovered her body.  Thranduil’s mourned her ever since.’

‘That puts a different slant on his actions,’ Balin said in quiet tones.  ‘I recall my father speaking of when Thranduil came to welcome Thrór back from our time in the Grey Mountains, but I was too young at the time to understand what it was all about.’

Thorin nodded.  ‘I think my grandfather was already deep in his gold-sickness by then and simply refused to part with any of his treasure, even the items which belonged to someone else.  Giving back the White Gems of Lasgalen now should go some way to healing the rifts between ourselves and the Woodland Realm.’

If the son will help us without his father’s permission,’ Glóin argued.  ‘How likely is that?’

‘Going on the help he gave us last time, I should say pretty good.’  Kíli spoke for the first time in the meeting.  ‘But how are we then going to get to Esgaroth?’

‘How did you get there last time?’ Balin asked curiously and was surprised at the grins his question brought forth from the four time-travellers.

‘I shouldn’t be so amused as the journey was mightily uncomfortable and Kíli was injured,’ Thorin explained, ‘but, in hindsight, we must have looked comical to anyone watching.’

‘But what actually happened?’ Bombur asked, and Ori nodded, his pen paused for the moment from making notes on what Thorin and Bilbo were saying.

‘We needed a way to escape from Thranduil’s dungeons,’ Thorin explained, still smiling at the memory.  ‘Bilbo had been searching for a way for us to escape without notice and he found some empty wine barrels which needed to be sent downriver to Esgaroth.’

‘Wine barrels?’ Dwalin asked.  ‘What—’

‘We climbed inside them and floated down the river in them,’ Fíli told him with a wide grin, then he sobered a little.  ‘The trouble was that Bolg and a group of orcs were waiting along the river bank.  One of them injured Kíli, although Legolas helped us by killing as many of them as possible.’

‘Poor Bilbo was clinging onto the edge of a barrel,’ Thorin said, and Balin saw him squeeze his hobbit’s hand.  ‘He couldn’t get them into the water if he was in one, so he let them drop into the water and jumped in after them.’

‘I really, really don’t want to do that again,’ Bilbo muttered, half to himself, then sighed.  ‘We’re hoping Legolas may suggest something, and also, with Azog dead, we hope Bolg will be too busy to send scouts out to look for us.’

‘The group of orcs Azog had with him in the Misty Mountains were no scouting party,’ Balin said thoughtfully, staring unseeingly at the table.  ‘And nor were the ones who chased you down the river if Bolg was with them.’

Thorin remained silent, watching Balin, and he held up his hand as Kíli opened his mouth to speak.

‘That was no fortunate rabble chasing us, was it?’ Balin finally asked, looking at Thorin who shook his head.

‘No.  They had an organisation rarely seen in packs of orcs.  They knew exactly what they were there to do: prevent my Company from reaching Erebor and kill the line of Durin.  We were held in Thranduil’s dungeons for almost a month last time, and it had already taken us a month to get as far in Mirkwood as we did.  That gave the orcs enough time to receive their orders and to get to the other side of Mirkwood, where they knew we’d have to emerge.  By taking out his vengeance on us, Thranduil gave the orcs time to regroup.

‘We hope to avoid that this time, and with Azog now dead – which wasn’t part of the plan,’ Thorin glared at Bilbo who calmly ignored him in favour of his bread and honey, ‘things will probably be very different.’

‘Who’s the one giving the orders, though?’ Balin asked.  ‘Who’s behind it all, and why?  Is it really Sauron?’

‘Unfortunately, yes,’ Thorin nodded, and sighed.  ‘For reasons we’ll discuss much later, Sauron isn’t dead, but tied to Arda and has been since the Last Alliance between Elves and Men at the end of the Second Age.’

‘But why is he coming after us?’ Glóin demanded.  ‘Those battles involved hardly any dwarves!  It has nothing to do with us!’

‘It has to do with the whole of Middle Earth!’ Thorin retorted.  ‘The Dwarves of Durin’s Line were involved in the Last Alliance, and we’re at the centre of the battle against Sauron now!  Don’t you see?  Smaug attacking Erebor wasn’t some unlucky off-chance, he was directed to us!  The treasure Thrór accumulated didn’t help and was likely used to tempt the dragon, but Smaug was deliberately sent to take Erebor for the enemy.

‘Our Mountain is in a strategic position in the East of Arda.  Control of Erebor gives Sauron a mighty advantage as it gives him a position in the north from which to launch attacks on places too difficult to reach directly from Mordor.  From a combination of Erebor and Mordor, nowhere is too difficult to reach, perhaps not even the Shire!’

‘This puts a fresh perspective on our quest,’ Balin said, more than a little pale at Thorin’s explanation.

‘Can’t we, I don’t know, just hide away from what’s to come?’ Bombur asked uncertainly.  ‘Does it have to affect us if we don’t want it to?’

Bilbo gave the cook and toy maker a sympathetic smile.  ‘I wish it could, Bombur, but life isn’t like that, I’m afraid.  The Shire has been a place of peace and tranquillity for hundreds of years, but was dragged into the fight against Sauron eventually, albeit indirectly.  There’s no escape, not for anyone on Arda.  Taking back the Mountain from Smaug is but our first step.’

Balin wasn’t the only one who noticed Bilbo’s continued use of ‘our’, and he smiled as Thorin rested his own large hand over Bilbo’s much smaller one and squeezed it.

‘It is, bunnanunê,’ Thorin said to him.  ‘It is indeed.’

*****

Following his invitation, the Company remained with Beorn for seven days during which they rested and ate, and in Bilbo’s case, bathed a couple of times a day.  Most dwarves didn’t actually object to being clean, they simply saw grime as more a badge of honour, a sign of hard work completed.  Dori bathed almost as frequently as Bilbo, as did Thorin and Balin, but the younger dwarves, once clean, saw no reason to keep on cleaning themselves.  Bilbo tried in vain to explain to Fíli, Kíli, and Ori that a hot bath was more about relaxation, but since Thorin was twice spotted emerging alongside Bilbo from Beorn’s enormous bathroom, the relaxation part was in doubt.  The young princes teased both of their uncles incessantly until Thorin threatened to throw them in the large pond Beorn kept primarily for his ducks.  After that they both made sure there was as good a distance between them, Thorin, and the pond as possible.

For Bilbo and Thorin, it was a time of peace and a time to enjoy being back in a world of full colour and sound.

‘It’s not that the Halls of Mahal are gloomy,’ Thorin tried to explain to Dwalin and Balin, his closest companions aside from Bilbo and his nephews.  ‘It’s more…they lack life.’  He grinned as his cousins burst out laughing.

The three dwarves were relaxing in Beorn’s garden, enjoying a pipe, the sunshine, the colourful flowers surrounding them, and the distinct lack of running for their lives.

‘What did you do there?’ Dwalin asked curiously.

‘Worked in my forge, took walks in Bilbo’s garden, spent time with my family, ate.’  Thorin gave a sudden grin.  ‘There was a lot of eating.  And drinking.’

‘Thank Mahal for that,’ Dwalin said fervently.  ‘It is what we’re promised after all.’

‘Now you’re back on Arda you’ll find those who know you’re twice-born will ask what happened to them,’ Balin said, watching Thorin.  ‘Have you decided what you’ll tell them?’

‘Nothing,’ Thorin said promptly.  ‘Apart from anything else, we’re here to change things, so what we remember from the Halls might not happen now.’

‘That’s your task, then?  To change things?’

‘It’s one of them, certainly,’ Thorin agreed.  ‘Although Bilbo prefers ‘fix’ things.  He’s still pissed that I died.’

‘Can you tell us more of what else you need to fix?’ Dwalin asked.

Thorin shook his head.  ‘Not at the moment.  It’s a…delicate affair and I don’t – we don’t – want it to distract us from saving the Mountain and fighting the orc army.’

‘Well, is there anything you can tell us?’

Thorin thought for a moment.  ‘Our Lord Mahal taught me skills and techniques which have been lost to our people over the ages,’ he offered.

‘What kind of skills and techniques?’ Balin asked.

‘Our ability to craft for one.  To craft weapons specifically.  We lost much of this knowledge after the First Age, when dwarves such as Telchar and his teacher, Gamil Zirak, worked their forges in Nogrod.  More still were lost after Sauron gifted the seven rings to the Dwarf Lords.  We lost knowledge of the oldest and finest crafts, an effect of the rings we didn’t recognise.  They did far more than simply make the wearer lust for gold and precious treasures.’

‘And you can bring that lost knowledge back?’ Dwalin demanded.

‘Yes,’ said Thorin simply.  ‘Bilbo, the boys, and I.  More than that, Mahal gifted us with the ancient knowledge of Stone Craft: the gift of creating babes from stone.’  He sat back on the bench and drew on his pipe, waiting for the reactions from his cousins.

Mahalu-me turg!‘ Dwalin swore, while his brother almost snapped his pipe in two.

‘I thought that was merely a legend,’ Balin murmured.  ‘If true, it is a gift beyond measure!’

Thorin smiled at him, pleased with the reaction his words brought forth, and happier now with the direction of their discussion.  ‘It’s no legend.  Hobbits birth their babes similarly, but using earth rather than stone.’

‘They carve their children from soil?’ Dwalin asked, a little sceptical.  ‘How does it—’

‘They bury a seed and tend it,’ Thorin interrupted.  ‘Honestly, Dwalin, has my return driven away all your common sense?’

‘Since for us, you never left, cousin, no!  I only asked—’

‘If this is how you and Master Baggins argued, then I’m not surprised Mahal sent you back,’ Balin told Thorin, shaking his head in resignation.  ‘And you’re no better, nadadith, rising to him like that!’ he told Dwalin.  ‘You both act like our young princes!’

‘That’s just rude,’ Thorin muttered, and Dwalin nodded vigorously.

‘I have one other question,’ Balin said.  ‘It’s not about the Halls or anything to do with them, though – at least I don’t think so.  Both Lord Gwaihir and Beorn called us Dwarrow, not Dwarves.  Do you know anything about that?’

Frowning again, Thorin tried to think where he’d heard it before Gwaihir used it, which he was certain he had.  ‘I…I think I heard the Lord Mahal use it to describe us and…’  He paused for a moment, then gave a firm nod.  ‘Dwarrow is His name for us which, like many of our skills, was lost.’  He smiled at Dwalin and Balin.  ‘Maybe it’s time for us to reclaim His name for us as well as our mountain.’

‘I agree, laddie,’ Balin nodded.  ‘If we’re going to be changing what we’re accustomed to in terms of crafts and bairns, then let’s get them all out in the open. It’s time we began calling ourselves by the name our Lord intended us to use.’

*****

The hospitality of Beorn and his animals was extraordinary, Thorin decided.  On their previous visit Beorn’s pronouncement that he thought dwarves greedy and blind to those they decided were inferior annoyed him, but reflecting on the skin changer’s opinion now, he had to agree there were many dwarves – dwarrow; he reminded himself – who would fit that description perfectly.

There were also those who refused to believe anything outside their own experiences, and, sadly, Thorin was beginning to think Glóin fell into this category.  He refused to entertain any thought that Thranduil had his reasons for behaving as he did when Smaug attacked Erebor – or that any elf might actually be predisposed to helping the dwarrow.

Before they finally left his Halls, Beorn took Thorin aside and confirmed his aid in the up-coming battle.

‘I’ll contact Lord Gwaihir and ensure we’re all with you by what you call Durin’s Day,’ Beorn promised.  ‘With luck and the Valar on our side, we will be victorious.’

Thorin reached up and grasped Beorn’s massive forearm.  ‘Thank you, my friend.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you.’

Beorn inclined his head.  ‘You are welcome, Thorin Oakenshield.  Your cause is just and I will help all I can.’

‘I can’t explain everything yet,’ Thorin replied, ‘but this will be only the beginning of the fight for the whole of Arda.’

‘In which case, I shall be proud to fight at the side of the dwarrow of Durin.’

Beorn sent them off with heavy packs made by the animals and filled with provisions for the trek through Mirkwood, including ‘energy bars’ made by Bombur and Bilbo containing honey, nuts, and dried fruits.  Thorin was hoping their plan to request help from Legolas was successful, but if it wasn’t, and if they were careful, they should have enough supplies to traverse the forest – always supposing they didn’t get captured, of course.

Dwalin wrapped a length of rope around his waist, which would help in crossing the enchanted river, and would also tie them to each other in the forest, if needed, to prevent anyone leaving the path accidentally.  They were as well prepared for their journey as they could be.

It took four days to ride to the edge of Mirkwood, and Thorin posted sentries each night as they made camp.  ‘We’re travelling later than we did last time,’ he explained to his Company.  ‘We’ve stayed longer at Beorn’s than we did before.’

‘Will that change things significantly?’  Balin asked Thorin, aware the others wanted to know.  ‘We need to be at the Mountain by Durin’s Day, which gives us only three months.’

‘It shouldn’t change things too significantly,’ Bilbo answered, cutting into the discussion.  ‘Azog is dead and Bolg will have to regroup, but in any case, we didn’t come across the orcs again until we were in the barrels in the river.’

The others grinned at his remark, the entire Company now having heard the story of the wine barrels several times, Beorn requesting it each evening they spent with him.

‘We’re definitely going to avoid that this time, aren’t we?’ Dori asked.  ‘I have no wish to try it for myself.’

‘I dunno,’ Nori said thoughtfully.  ‘I thought it sounded like fun!’

‘You have a strange concept of fun,’ Dwalin muttered, earning himself a glare from the Company thief.

‘We’ll try our best,’ Kíli promised Dori.  ‘I have no desire to get myself injured a second time.’

‘No, because your elf might not be willing to help you this time,’ Fíli teased, and Thorin was happy to see his nephews regaining much of their previous good humour.

Staying a week with Beorn was definitely a good idea, he thought to himself.  It gave us all an opportunity to recover and regroup.  Outwardly, however, he simply smiled at his companions and strode towards the forest proper.  Dwalin, Fíli, and Kíli followed close behind him and Dwalin handed him one end of the rope from around his waist.  Thorin tied it around his belt, to make sure he didn’t accidentally drop it, and walked a short way along the path inside the forest proper.

Once inside the darkness was almost overwhelming, and if Dwalin hadn’t been holding his end of the rope taut he may well have become disorientated just a step from the light of the day.  Mirkwood lived up to both its name and reputation.  Little to no light penetrated the tree canopy and even here on the edge spider webs hung thickly in the trees which themselves, now he examined them, had leaves furled with disease.  Was it this bad before or did I just not notice everything is so sick?

Taking a deep breath, he called out as loud as he could.  ‘Legolas!  Legolas Greenleaf!’  He looked around for any sign of movement but couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead, and nor could he hear anything.  Even the usual sounds of a forest appeared to be absent.  He called again, then turned and gripped the rope to escape from the almost suffocating pressure of the forest.

‘Is he coming?’ Kíli asked.

‘Give him time!’ his brother told him, thumping him on the arm.

‘Hey!’  Kíli responded with a kick to Fili’s shin, and as Fíli lifted his arm to retaliate, Thorin, his eyes still fixed on the forest, reached over and slapped them both on the backs of their heads, making them grin rather than frown.

Thorin was just about to go back into the forest to call again when there was a sudden rustle of leaves and Legolas dropped out of a tree right in front of him.

‘Who calls for the son of the Greenwood?’ a second elf asked, dropping at the side of Legolas, making Kíli take a deep breath.

Thorin opened his mouth to respond when Bilbo pushed in front of him and smiled up at the two elves.

‘A party who wishes to cross your forest,’ he told them, reaching behind him to grip Thorin’s hand.

Legolas, however, hadn’t taken his eyes off Thorin.  ‘And why should we permit a rabble of dwarves access to our lands?’

‘Because it’s the right thing to do,’ Bilbo replied quietly.  ‘Come, will you sit with us and share a meal?’

If Legolas was taken aback at the friendly offer, he didn’t reveal it, though Tauriel was certainly shocked if her expression was anything to go by.

‘Eat with dwarves?’ Legolas asked with a sneer.

‘Eat with a hobbit and future friends,’ Bilbo offered, squeezing Thorin’s fingers to remind him to remain silent – for the moment.  ‘Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, at your service.’  Bilbo bowed the upper part of his body, but not too deeply, Thorin noticed before being tugged forward.

‘This is—’

‘Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór,’ Legolas finished, his lip still curled.  ‘I have made his acquaintance before.’

‘Many years before,’ Bilbo agreed.  ‘And at a troublesome time for everyone, I believe.  Why not sit and eat with us, and hear what we have to say?’  His eyes moved to Tauriel, standing behind Legolas, and Bilbo smiled.  ‘And then your friend can meet with my friends.’

Legolas spun around in time to see a flush rising on Tauriel’s cheeks, and she glanced away from Kíli, the object of her attention.  Legolas narrowed his eyes slightly and turned back to Bilbo.  ‘I’m willing to sit with you, and listen to what you have to say, but I doubt you can change my opinion of dwarves.’

‘Dwarrow,’ Bilbo said with a polite smile.  ‘The plural of dwarf is dwarrow.’

His lip curling again, Legolas opened his mouth to speak as Bilbo continued;

‘That’s what Lord Gwaihir of the Great Eagles told us.  And Beorn the skin changer.  The name was lost over time, which is sad.  Don’t you agree?’

Thorin bit the inside of his cheek to prevent himself from grinning at Legolas’ look of confusion.  Bilbo often had that effect on people.  Thank the Green Lady, he’s on my side!

While Bilbo was talking to the elves, Balin and Dori had set about arranging rugs – given to them by Beorn – on the ground for them to sit upon, while Bombur, Bofur, and Bifur set out provisions and water.  All was ready when Bilbo led their guests over to share the meal, although Thorin couldn’t help the frown on his face, which was mirrored on the faces of Glóin, Óin, and Dwalin.  Bilbo narrowed his eyes pointedly at Óin and Glóin, then swung round to nip both Thorin’s and Dwalin’s arms unseen by their guests.  Reminded thus of their previous instructions, Óin, Glóin and Thorin tried to straighten their faces while Dwalin attempted a smile which was honestly terrifying, making Kíli yelp in surprise when he first caught sight of it.

Unsure of how to seat themselves, the dwarrow ended up sitting in a row facing Legolas and Tauriel and making Bilbo sigh.  He pushed Thorin, Dwalin, and the princes over to sit closer to their guests – Kíli shifting happily to sit by Tauriel – and seated himself between Legolas and Thorin.

‘Please, help yourselves,’ Bilbo invited, waving his hand towards the fruit, bread, and cheese spread out before them.  ‘We can only offer water to drink, but it is delicious, I can assure you.’  He smiled at the two elves and nodded slightly.  ‘If you would introduce Captain Tauriel, please, Prince Legolas?  Most of my friends don’t know her, and then we can all introduce ourselves.’

Legolas jerked back in shock, then narrowed his eyes.  ‘How do you know her name?  Or her rank?  Or mine?’

‘It’s part of the story we want to tell you,’ Bilbo said simply, and waited for Legolas to make the introductions.

Legolas glanced around the group of dwarrow and took a deep breath.  He motioned with his hand to his right.  ‘Tauriel of the Greenwood, Captain of the Guard of the Greenwood realm.’

Thorin couldn’t help the quiet gasp of shock he emitted.  Legolas, in his introduction of Tauriel, claimed her as belonging to the forest, something which hadn’t happened in his previous time, and which would make banishment by Thranduil much more difficult.  He wondered why this was different, since none of the changes they’d already made should have affected anything to do with Mirkwood and the elves who dwelt there.

Hearing his gasp, Legolas glanced at Thorin, a little puzzled. But as Bilbo introduced the Company, he had no time to press Thorin for an explanation.  Thank Mahal!

‘…and finally, Fíli and Kíli, sons of Dís, daughter of Thráin and Rhis, heirs of Thorin Oakenshield.’

‘Oakenshield?’ Legolas asked, glancing at Thorin again.  ‘How did you come by your earned name?’

‘I used this oak branch to protect me from the Pale Orc during the Battle of Azanulbizar,’ Thorin explained, motioning to the shield attached to his left arm.  ‘I’ve carried it ever since.’

Legolas stared at the branch of wood, a look of awe crossing his face, and he reached out a hand, only to draw it swiftly back.  ‘I have never seen such a beautiful piece of wood,’ he breathed, and lifted his eyes to meet Thorin’s.  ‘Might I touch it?’

Thorin frowned but could see no harm in letting the elf examine it.  He knew how strong it was and how difficult it would be to damage, having taken his own axe to the wood not long after Azanulbizar, just to see if its protection was a fluke.  His experiment damaged the axe, not the wood.

For now, however, he unfastened the leather attachment and handed the shield to the elven prince, who took it reverently, stroking his fingers along the surface.  Thorin had forged the ends of the shield in iron carved with runes of protection.  Although he said it himself, it was a work of art which also had an important purpose: protection.

‘It is stunning,’ Legolas whispered, still stroking the wood.  ‘It must be all of ten thousand years old and yet it still speaks to me, just a little.’  He looked up and smiled at Thorin, shocking the dwarf so much he reared back.  ‘The tree from which it comes fell into a wetland during the Years of the Trees,’ he explained, then paused, frowning slightly, his head tipped to one side as though listening to something, then his fingers drifted over the wood again.  ‘Over many thousands of years the water drained away, leaving the matter within it almost perfectly preserved.  Somehow, this piece broke away from the main trunk…’  He looked up and gazed at Thorin in wonderment.  ‘You were meant to find this piece of wood, Thorin, King under the Mountain.  Ones far beyond our knowledge and understanding placed this bough to protect you.’

Still holding the oak shield, Legolas stumbled to his feet and, much to everyone’s astonishment, bowed deeply to Thorin.  Tauriel, after looking at her prince in astonishment for a moment, followed his actions, and Thorin struggled to his feet, his face a mixture of shock and disbelief .  He found himself bowing – albeit only slightly in return – and then, much to his relief, Bilbo bounced to his feet, grinning happily.

‘Does this mean you’ll help us, Prince Legolas?’

Legolas nodded, his eyes still fixed on Thorin.  ‘I will do whatever is in my power to help you, Master Baggins.  You have my word.’

‘Thank you,’ Thorin said quietly, aware something monumental had happened but not quite understanding it.  ‘Then please, sit and eat with us while we tell you our story.’

Whether to share their circumstances with Legolas was a discussion had between the four time travellers and also between Thorin, Balin and Dwalin: his most trusted advisor and his closest friend.  Dwalin was against giving the elves anything, least of all their full story, but Balin had considered the matter deeply and, finally, had agreed with Bilbo and the princes that offering Legolas the truth was in the best interest of a long-term alliance.

Thus, Bilbo explained their return and the importance of their quest: to reclaim Erebor and save Arda, the former being but the first step in the latter aim.

‘But can’t you tell us any more about how this will help save Arda?’ Tauriel asked again.

Bilbo regarded her with a frown.  ‘As I explained before, no!  Too much knowledge of the future could be very dangerous.  We simply can’t risk it.’

‘But surely, if we know what you’re going to do, that can only help the future.  We can make sure—’

‘No!’  Thorin raised his eyebrows as Tauriel swung around to remonstrate with him and Legolas laid his hand on Tauriel’s arm to silence her – incidentally, causing Kíli to narrow his eyes.

‘We won’t tell anyone until we’re good and ready to do so,’ Thorin said in a matter-of-fact voice.  ‘It’s no slight to you or to Prince Legolas, as none of my Company know either.’

‘Then we won’t ask again, will we, Tauriel?’  Legolas’ tone caused Tauriel to drop her gaze.

‘No, and I beg your pardon, your majesty.’  Tauriel didn’t look up until Kíli nudged her.

‘Just ‘Thorin’ is fine, Captain,’ he said, smiling at her.

‘She’s to call uncle ‘Just Thorin’?’ Fíli teased.

Being closer to the princes than Thorin, Dwalin slapped the backs of their heads for him, and shrugged when Legolas and Tauriel looked at him in surprise.  ‘Best to nip it in the bud before they start,’ Dwalin explained.

‘Dwalin and his brother Balin are the tutors of my nephews,’ Thorin told Legolas, including Tauriel by glancing at her as he spoke.

‘I taught ‘em how to fight,’ Dwalin nodded.  ‘Makes me their task master and gives me slapping privileges.’

‘It does not!’ Fíli protested, but Thorin was already agreeing with Dwalin’s explanation, making the others laugh or grin and lowering the slight tension which had developed during Bilbo’s explanation.

Legolas reached for an apple and bit into it with evident enjoyment.  ‘With the blight that’s taken over the forest, fresh fruit is a luxury,’ he admitted, then turned to look at Thorin.  ‘You said you want to cross the forest.  Was there anything else you wished to ask of me or my father?’

Thorin couldn’t stop his grimace at the mention of Thranduil, making Legolas look at him curiously as they hadn’t told him what happened in Mirkwood in the first timeline.

‘Did my father do you some harm before?’ Legolas asked carefully.

‘He imprisoned us in his dungeons, apparently,’ Bofur told him brightly.  ‘Bilbo helped us to escape in wine barrels.’

This time it was Bifur slapping Bofur on the back of his head, rebuking him in Khuzdul.  The elves might not have understood the meaning of the words, but their intent was apparent and Bilbo began to laugh.  It was contagious.  Before long all present were laughing or chuckling, especially at the look of outrage on Bofur’s face.

‘He’s not wrong,’ Bilbo admitted at length when he could speak again.  ‘But he could have worded better.’

‘My father,’ Legolas began carefully, ‘rarely leaves his palace and hasn’t for a long while, so he hasn’t seen how infected the Greenwood has become.  It is now well named as Mirkwood.’

‘Spiders cause the blight,’ Tauriel added.  ‘But we don’t know where the spiders came from.’

‘They originate from Ungoliant, who was an ally of Melkor,’ Bilbo informed her.  ‘The Necromancer in Dol Guldur has attracted them.  And no,’ he held up his hand as both Legolas and Tauriel exchanged glances and opened their mouths to speak.  ‘It’s too dangerous for you to go to Dol Guldur yourselves.  Gandalf the Grey, Lord Elrond, and the Lady Galadriel will confront him there.  You mustn’t prevent them from fulfilling their roles in this, but you can begin clearing the forest, if you wish, once they have emptied the old fortress, and after the battle.’

‘Tell us more of the battle,’ Legolas asked.  ‘You mentioned it before.  What part do we play in it?’

‘We hope you’re willing to bring your army,’ Thorin said bluntly.  ‘Last time five armies faced each other across the battlefield: Orcs, goblins, and other fell beasts from Dol Guldur and Mount Gundabad, an army of Elves, an army of Men, and an army of dwarrow from the Iron Hills.  Plus the fourteen of us.’

‘Don’t forget the Great Eagles and Beorn,’ Fíli reminded his uncle, causing Thorin to nod.

‘Did you prevail?’ Tauriel asked in a low voice.

‘Yes and no,’ Thorin admitted.  ‘We won the battle, but many people, myself and my nephews included, lost their lives.’

‘Things will be different this time,’ Bilbo said, trying for a brighter tone.  ‘That’s one matter we’ve been sent back to fix.’

‘We already have some plans,’ Thorin added.  ‘We’ll work them out properly when we’ve taken back the Mountain.  First, however, we need to cross Mirkwood.’

*****

Their second journey through the forest was very different to their first, Bilbo decided.  For a start, Legolas led them along an elf path they would never have discovered on their own despite their original path being designated as such by Gandalf.  This alternative path followed no discernible ground markings and, Bilbo thought a little uneasily, they would be lost if Legolas or Tauriel were to abandon them at any point, possibly forever.

Still, he reminded himself, Legolas accepted the Valar were guiding them and would have accepted it even without the explanation of their return because of Thorin’s shield.  Gwaihir mentioned the mark of Mahal on the three of us, Bilbo thought to himself.  Maybe there are different signs for different peopleMahal’s sign for Beorn and the Great Eagles, and Thorin’s shield for the Elves.

Kíli made sure he walked beside Tauriel for some of each day while they travelled through Mirkwood, determined to give them both an opportunity to get to know each other again.

‘We were friends when you were…?’  Tauriel waved a hand, clearly uncertain how to refer to the previous timeline.

‘…here last time?’ Kíli finished for her, grinning.  ‘Yes, we were…friends.’

‘More than friends?’

Opting for seriousness – for once – Kíli nodded, but added hurriedly, ‘not that I’m assuming we will be this time.  Some things will change.  We’re here to make sure some things change and this might be one of those things.  I’d like the opportunity to get to know you again, though.’

‘I think I’d like that too,’ Tauriel replied, glancing down at Kíli, a little colour on her usually pale cheeks.  ‘You’re quite tall for a dwarf.  You and your uncle, and your brother isn’t much shorter.’

‘It’s a trait of our line,’ Kíli explained.  ‘We’re Durins, which means we’re taller than the average dwarf, and we also live longer.’

‘You live longer?’ Tauriel repeated.  ‘How long is longer?’

‘Three hundred and fifty to four hundred years sometimes, although that was way back in history.  Nowadays it’s more like two hundred and fifty to three hundred years, but some changes we mean to make and the return of old methods and other stuff might make us live longer,’ Kíli finished a little vaguely.

‘What sort of other stuff?’

‘Things like Stone Craft, which is carving babies out of stone like the hobbits do, except theirs is in the earth.’

Kíli could see Tauriel didn’t understand him.  ‘To be honest, I didn’t really follow what Thorin and Bilbo told us about the knowledge Mahal offered, so you’ll have to ask them, but I do know it will help us have more dwarflings and…hobbitlings.  Are there many elflings?’

‘We call them elf-children, and no, there aren’t many, but we cherish those we have.’

Usually cherished,’ Legolas, falling into step next to Kíli, amended.  ‘As to why?  We’re immortal.’  He shrugged his shoulders.  ‘Who needs a child if one is immortal?’

Kíli knew he frequently missed the subtext of a conversation.  It meant concentrating and thinking rather than doing, and he was much more of a doer, but even he heard the underlying resentment of Legolas’ words and vowed to ask Fíli about it later.  Or Bilbo.  Bilbo won’t tease me like Fíli would.

His chance came the following day as they were packing up after breakfast.

‘I was talking to Tauriel and Legolas yesterday and Legolas said there weren’t many elflings because they were immortal,’ Kíli told Bilbo as they rolled up their bedding.  ‘He sounded really…upset about it.  Why would that be, do you think?’

‘Upset?’ Bilbo asked, looking up at Kíli.  ‘D’you mean angry upset or worried upset?

‘Neither.  More…bitter upset, I think.’

‘Why would Legolas be bitter about being immortal?’ Bilbo asked with a frown.  ‘I certainly didn’t think he was bitter when he was with…you know.’

‘You know what?’ Thorin demanded, appearing at Bilbo’s side.  ‘We’re all ready to leave except you two.  What’s the hold up?’

Bilbo and Kíli hurried to tie their bedding onto their packs and haul them onto their shoulders, but Thorin took Bilbo’s pack away from his hands.  ‘I’ll carry this for you.  Give you a break.’

‘I can carry my own pack,’ Bilbo objected, resting his hands on his hips.  ‘I’ve no need for special treatment.’

‘Oh, no!’ Kíli muttered, and beckoned to his brother who was waiting for him.

‘Oh no, what?’ Bilbo demanded, turning round to glare at Kíli and seeing Fíli jogging over.

‘What’s up, Kee?’ Fíli asked.

Nothing is up,’ Bilbo snapped, and tugged on his pack still in Thorin’s hands.  ‘Your uncle seems to think I can’t keep up!’

‘I didn’t say that, I just offered—’

Fíli and Kíli exchanged glances, nodded to each other, then picked up Bilbo under his arms and carried him away from Thorin.  Bilbo struggled and demanded they put him down, but the boys kept hold of him until they were at the front of the group with Legolas and Tauriel, who looked at the three of them in astonishment.

‘What’s—’ Legolas began.

‘They were about to have one of their famous arguments,’ Kíli replied, setting Bilbo onto his feet and brushing him down for some reason.

‘It’s best to just split them up before they get into it,’ Fíli added.  ‘You know we’re right, Uncle Bilbo, so don’t look like that.  We need to press on, not fight amongst ourselves.’  He reached around to grope in his own pack and handed Bilbo one of the hobbit energy bars.  ‘Here.  You’ll feel better after you’ve eaten something.’

The group was already moving forward and Fíli waggled the bar as they walked along the path.  ‘Come on, Uncle Bilbo.  You didn’t eat much breakfast.’

Bilbo had eaten plenty of breakfast, but it was clear Fíli was trying to be diplomatic, so he gave a nod and took the bar.  ‘Thank you, lad.’

‘And you won’t punch Uncle Thorin, will you?’

‘Not right at this moment,’ Bilbo replied and took a large bite of the bar.

*****

One morning as they made their way along the narrow elven path Balin found his cousin, Glóin, deliberately walking with him, which was a little odd. While they were on amicable terms, Glóin rarely sought him out over Dwalin as the two were much closer in age than Balin and Glóin.

‘Something on your mind, cousin?’ Balin asked politely.

They continued on for a while before Glóin finally spoke.  ‘I’m…having some…difficulty believing our cousin’s tale.’

Balin’s bushy eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.  ‘Then shouldn’t you direct your questions to him?’

‘No!’  Glóin fell silent again and Balin let the silence hang between them, knowing it would draw Glóin out.  ‘I…Do you believe him?’

Once again, Balin allowed the silence to hang until he eventually replied.  ‘Yes.  Yes, I do.  He’s a very different dwarf to the one who cursed our burglar for never having ridden a pony and falling over the edge of the mountain during a battle between the stone giants.’

‘But he even likes elves now!’ Glóin complained.

‘And he explained why.’

‘But…They’re elves!’

Balin stared at him for a moment.  ‘Is your disbelief because of Thorin now seeking an alliance with the elves, or is there something else?’

‘It’s just…I seem to be the only one asking questions about what they’re claiming.  Everyone else just accepts it.’

‘Are you wanting some kind of proof?’ Balin asked, a little incredulous.

‘Yes!’

‘Isn’t the fact he’s so changed proof enough?  That the Lord of the Eagles accepted what he said without question?  How much proof do you really need?’

Glóin scowled at him and increased his pace, leaving Balin shaking his head and walking alone, his eyes on the ground, until Dwalin fell into step beside him.

‘Whatever’s causing you to frown so?’ he demanded.

‘Nothing at all,’ Balin replied dismissively.

‘Try again, brother-mine.  Something is bothering you.  What is it?  This forest?  The weed eaters?  Not sure I like having to depend on an elf to get me through a forest.’

‘If what Thorin says is true, we wouldn’t get through the forest without them.’

Dwalin gave him a shrewd look.  ‘If what he says is true?  Don’t you believe him?’  Without waiting for an answer, he continued: ‘Have you been listening to our nodcock of a cousin?  He’s wrong, you know.’

‘How can you be so sure?’

‘Because I know Thorin.  I’ve been by his side for my entire life, over a hundred and sixty years, and—’’

‘—but you haven’t!’ Balin exclaimed.  ‘That’s the point.  If what he says is true, then he spent years, decades, in the Halls of Waiting without you!’

Dwalin’s grin was surprisingly gentle, and the hand he put on Balin’s shoulder gentler still.  ‘He might have gone to our Maker’s Halls without me, but it doesn’t mean I don’t know him as well as I know myself.  He’s my king, brother.  He’s always been my king and always will be.’

‘It’s that simple for you?’ Balin asked, looking at his brother and feeling his unease slip away.

‘It’s that simple.’

*****

The water the Company carried didn’t last the entire journey, but Legolas and Tauriel were on hand to show them where several springs were hidden away in areas protected by Elven magic.

‘The guards sometimes spend weeks away from the Palace,’ Tauriel explained to Fíli, Kíli, and Bilbo who were walking with her.  ‘We need a source of fresh water as much as any living thing.’

‘So if you’re able to protect some parts of the forest from spider infestation, not to mention other kinds of evil,’ Fíli asked, ‘why can’t you protect the entire forest?’

‘Because it takes too much energy,’ Legolas answered.  ‘My father can only protect so much.’

‘And he’s the only one who can protect it?’ Bilbo asked curiously.

To the surprise of Bilbo and the Princes, Legolas flushed, and shared a glance with Tauriel, who looked away.

‘Only the…ruler of the land can protect it from evil,’ Legolas said eventually, but he was unable to meet Bilbo’s eyes.

‘Is that the same for all Elves?’ Bilbo continued.  ‘Only, I don’t recall Lord Elrond struggling to protect Rivendell, and that has powerful protections on it.’  He noted Legolas’ stiffness in posture and his reluctance to meet anyone’s eyes.  He’s lyingI wonder why.

Fortunately for Legolas, Thorin called for a halt for the night at that point and Bilbo’s question went unanswered, although later that evening Fíli raised the question of protective magic again.

‘Do hobbits have the same magic as the elves?’ Fíli asked Bilbo as they settled down in their sleeping rolls after dinner, Thorin on one side of Bilbo and Fíli on the other with Kíli next to him.  ‘To keep a place safe, I mean.’

‘To a certain degree, although nowhere near as much as Elves do,’ Bilbo told him.  ‘We’re able to put protections on parts of our own gardens, if we’re nurturing a faunt, for example, and members of the Took family jointly protect the Westfarthing while the Brandybucks do the same for the Eastfarthing.’

‘Members of the family.’  Balin, who slept on Thorin’s other side beyond Dwalin, repeated.  ‘You said your mother was a Took, Bilbo.  Does that mean you help protect the Shire?’

‘Just the Westfarthing,’ Bilbo corrected.

‘But surely,’ Balin began slowly, ‘if you are part of protecting the Westfarthing, you cannot simply leave for an extended amount of time as your family depends on you.  What did your family say when you informed them you’d be leaving for so long?’

‘I didn’t make any plans as I didn’t know about the quest before you all arrived for supper,’ Bilbo replied.  ‘I didn’t even know you were coming.  Bloody Gandalf didn’t tell me anything other than he was looking for someone to go on an adventure.’

What?!’ Dwalin demanded, sitting upright.  ‘You mean you hadn’t prepared to feed us all?’

Dwalin’s shout attracted the attention of the rest of the Company as well as Legolas and Tauriel.  Only Thorin appeared to understand Bilbo’s explanation.

‘Tharkûn didn’t bother explaining anything to Bilbo,’ Thorin said bitterly.  ‘And you wonder why I’m sometimes reluctant to trust him.’

‘But…but…’ Ori began.  ‘All the food you had, Bilbo.  The full pantry…’

‘Was to see me through the rest of that week.  Hobbits usually eat up to seven meals a day.’

‘Seven!’ Dori exclaimed.  ‘But we’ve only been eating two or three meals on the journey, sometimes just one.’

‘I knew you were thinner than when we began,’ Óin said crossly.  ‘I thought you simply needed to lose a little weight.’

‘I was the perfect weight for a Hobbit,’ Bilbo replied, a little cross.  Did everyone think me fat?

Not at all, bunnanunê.  Just…cuddly.

Bilbo glared at Thorin, who ducked his head slightly and grinned at him.

‘So if Tharkûn explained nothing, you weren’t trying to wriggle out of signing the contract,’ Balin mused aloud.  ‘You were just shocked at what we wanted you to do?’

Nodding his head even though Balin couldn’t see him around Thorin’s bulk, Bilbo scowled at the other dwarrow, all of whom were now sitting up and watching him.  ‘I don’t usually go around fainting at the slightest thing, you know, but all Bofur could do was describe, in detail, just how many ways Smaug could kill me!’

All eyes turned to Bofur, who had the grace to look a little contrite.

‘We have done you a great disservice, Master Baggins,’ Balin said formally, but before he could say anything more, Bilbo interrupted.

‘Yes.  Yes, you did.  But that was long ago, for Thorin and I at least.’

‘And us!’ Kíli added indignantly.

‘And the boys,’ Bilbo added with a fond look at Kíli.  ‘Everything has changed now, and besides, the Took family is very large and can easily cover my absence.’

‘But they’ll expect you back, won’t they?’ Glóin asked, his expression difficult to make out in the shadows of the fire.

Thorin cleared his throat.  ‘Let me make one thing quite clear.  While Bilbo may well go back to the Shire for a visit, his place is at my side as my Consort.  We will marry as soon as possible, and I prefer we are crowned together.’

‘My home is with Thorin now,’ Bilbo agreed.  ‘Thorin and our boys.  You’re not getting rid of me now, you know!’

Thorin put his arm around Bilbo’s shoulders and pulled him in close to press a kiss against his curls, causing Fíli and Kíli to make gagging noises and the others to laugh.

‘There’s nowhere else I want to be,’ Bilbo told Thorin simply.

*****

Unlike the first journey, the Company and the two elves stopped and lit fires each night to cook a meal and keep them warm, and it surprised all of them to learn that Elves did, in fact, eat meat.

‘I thought you ate nothing but greens,’ Balin commented.

Legolas smiled at him, then laughed at the faces some dwarrow were pulling.  ‘Yes, I know ‘weed-eater’ is a term of insult from the dw—dwarrow,’ he said, still chuckling.

‘Tree-licker’s another one,’ Dwalin offered helpfully, but his next comment ended before it began as Balin thumped him soundly.  ‘There’s far too much violence on this quest,’ Dwalin muttered, making the others laugh – apart from Fíli and Kíli, who nodded firmly in agreement, glaring at Thorin and making the others laugh even harder.

No one laughed in Mirkwood last time, Bilbo thought idly.

There was nothing to laugh about, he heard Thorin say through their bond, making him jump.  We had to fight hunger and thirst as well as spiders, if you recall.  At least we’re spared that this time.

You’ve been practising?

Indeed, sanghivasha.  Practise makes perfect, I believe the saying goes.

Idiot!

My ghivashel.

Bilbo turned to look back at Thorin who was a few yards behind him and they grinned at each other, and Bilbo sent a surge of affection through their bond, then frowned as a surge of fear and anger came back from Thorin, and he saw Kíli and Tauriel, walking with Thorin, reach for their bows.

You silly sod, you bloody well cursed us, Bilbo told Thorin a few minutes later as he stabbed and slashed at the giant spiders which surrounded them.  I think I hate—A massive claw was coming towards him.  Sting was stuck in the shell of another spider and he couldn’t get it free.  He closed his eyes and turned away, trying to shelter his face from the attack, and felt a small breeze pass over his cheek.  He opened his eyes to see Thorin completing an upward swing with Orcrist, which chopped off the pincer and made the spider emit a high-pitched wail.  Two arrows entered its eye almost simultaneously, making it collapse on the ground where the downward swing of Orcrist cut off the head.

Thorin tugged Sting free and handed it back to Bilbo with the hint of a smile.  Another spider took the place of the dead one, though, and Bilbo continued to stab and slash at Thorin’s side.  They soon fell into a rhythm; Thorin attacked the upper part of the beast while Bilbo stayed low and used Sting to attack the underbelly of the spider.  Even with eight legs and eyes, the spiders could not fight the two of them working together.  After seeing their success, Fíli and Legolas, and Kíli and Tauriel began to work together, one going high and the other low since arrows were no longer of any use in such close quarter fighting.

As more and more spiders poured onto the path, though, they became harder to kill,  The sheer number of them left little space to swing a sword or axe, and Bilbo wondered for a moment if history would repeat itself.

No, he heard Thorin say.  Not if I’ve got anything to do with it!

A spider dropped from the trees right behind Ori.  Bilbo was too far away to do anything other than shout a warning to him.  Ori swung around, but before he could even raise the war hammer he was wielding, several arrows pierced the spider’s head, and a group of elves landed on the path alongside the Company, while arrows continued to rain down on the spiders from above.

Within a few minutes the spiders still alive retreated, and the dwarrow, Bilbo, Legolas and Tauriel sank to the ground panting.

‘Well met, Folmer,’ Legolas called out to a dark-haired elf who dropped onto the path just where Legolas was sitting.  ‘You came just at the right time.’

‘We heard their chattering through the webs,’ Folmer replied, eyeing the members of the Company.  ‘We knew they’d found something to attack, but I didn’t expect it to be a pack of dwarves.  Nor that you’d be fighting with them.’

‘And now you know?’ Legolas asked, getting to his feet, and there was a sudden rise in tension.

‘Your father was asking for you,’ Folmer told him instead of answering the question.

As the two elves stared at each other, Bilbo considered their apparent saviour.  He was older than Legolas and Tauriel, and his air of authority, and the way the other elves watched him, made Bilbo suspect he was used to holding command.  But if Tauriel’s the Captain of the Guard…

‘Thorin, Bilbo,’ Legolas called to them, keeping his eyes on Folmer.  ‘May I introduce the leader of my father’s Palace Guard, Folmer?  Folmer, this is King Thorin of Erebor and his consort Bilbo Baggins.’

Bilbo and Thorin struggled to their feet and nodded to Folmer, who simply looked at them until Legolas cleared his throat, when he bowed his head.

‘My Prince.’  Folmer turned his attention again to Legolas.  ‘Your father was concerned about you as you’ve been away from the Palace for several weeks now.’

‘Was he?’ Legolas asked, now standing with Tauriel at his side and gazing at Folmer, who returned the gaze momentarily then dropped his eyes, and Legolas gave a bitter laugh.  ‘I thought not.  When has my father ever asked about me?’

‘But, my Prince,’ Folmer began, then closed his mouth as Legolas waved a hand to cut him off.

If, and I do stress if, my father really asks after me, tell him I’m helping forge an alliance with our new neighbours.  I rather doubt he will ask, though, don’t you?’

Folmer turned his face away.  ‘He does love you, Prince Legolas,’ he murmured.

Legolas watched him for a few seconds.  ‘Thank you for your aid in fighting off the spiders, Folmer.  You and your section.  Now, however, we must continue our journey.’

Thorin nodded to the other dwarrow, and they got to their feet, ignoring the elves with Folmer, and stowed away their weapons.  Bilbo looked at Sting in disgust.  The blade and handle were both caked with dried blood and bits of spider, and he looked around for something to wipe it on.

‘Here.’  Folmer held out a stained piece of fabric he’d obviously used for a similar purpose.

Bilbo smiled as he accepted it and proceeded to clean Sting.

‘You’re not a dwarf.  How can you be Consort to th—to King Thorin?’ Folmer asked curiously.

‘I’m a hobbit and—’

‘—and he is my Consort, that’s all you need to know,’ Thorin replied, glancing at Folmer, then back down to Bilbo.  He took the fabric from Bilbo’s hands and used it to clean Orcrist, then handed it back to the startled elf.  ‘Thank you for your help.’

He nodded to Folmer and tucked Bilbo’s hand through his arm.  ‘Shall we go, amrâlimê?

*****

It wasn’t until they stopped for the night that Thorin and Bilbo could talk to Legolas in private about Folmer and his surprising comments.

‘Should we be concerned he’ll try to prevent us from crossing the forest?’ Thorin asked.  ‘Or force you and us to return to your father’s palace?’

‘He won’t,’ Legolas assured him.  ‘I’m only doing my job.  My father gave me command of his army a long time ago after I challenged him about the state of the forest and the incursion of the spiders.  He said if I was so invested in it being cleared, I should do it myself.’

‘That’s not quite the same as giving you command of the army, though,’ Thorin pointed out.  ‘I’ve spent enough time locked in Thranduil’s dungeon, thank you.  None of us want to repeat it.’

Legolas gave a humourless laugh.  ‘I’ve had command of the army for over a century as my father claims he’s seen enough battle, and that his own personal guard was sufficient to keep him and his palace safe.  Tauriel is Captain of the Guard, but I have…operational control, if you like.’

‘This is very different to the last time,’ Bilbo frowned.  ‘Why, I don’t know, but it worries me.  Thranduil’s guards captured the Company and threw them in the dungeons, like we said, but you were with them, as was Tauriel.’

Thranduil’s Guard captured the Company,’ Legolas emphasised.  ‘There’s your reason.’

‘But I’d swear he had over a thousand elves with him when he marched on Erebor,’ Thorin said, frowning.  ‘And if they’re his Guard, why did they just come to our rescue against the spiders?’

‘The Palace Guard is about a thousand strong as they’re responsible for the defence of my father and his palace, and the people within it.  Tauriel’s Guard, the Elven Guard, protects everything outside the palace, and is at least three times that.  As for coming to our rescue, they were probably close to us as we’re near to the Palace here.  We’re all used to fighting the spiders and help each other when and where we can.’

‘I didn’t know so many elves lived in Mir—the Greenwood,’ Bilbo commented.

‘Between ten and fifteen thousand in total.  Legolas sighed.  ‘It’s one reason he offered me command of the Elven Guard.’  At the puzzlement on Thorin and Bilbo’s faces, he continued: ‘Thranduil’s Guard is the…elite guard, if you like.  The sons and daughters of the Sindar elves.  The nobles,’ he added with a curl of his lip.  ‘The Elven Guard is mainly Silvan elves, and I’m certain my father didn’t think I’d want to command them.’

‘There’s such a hierarchy amongst Elves?’ Bilbo asked, looking shocked.

‘Only in the Greenwood,’ Legolas said bitterly.  ‘I don’t share my father’s views.  There’s little I do share with him, actually, and I’m certain he feels the same.’

Thorin reached out and pressed his hand to Legolas’ shoulder.  ‘Ah, lad.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned between living and dying, it’s that a father never stops loving his children.  Fíli and Kíli might only be my sister-sons, but they’re mine in every way that matters and I’ll never stop loving them.  Fathers are like that.  We love unconditionally.’

‘I don’t think Thranduil loves anyone but himself!’ Legolas snapped, then  his cheeks coloured and he looked away from Thorin and Bilbo.  ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.  I apologise.  I—’

‘Legolas.’  Bilbo interrupted him.  ‘I’m certain your father loves you. No, no, let me finish,’ he said as Legolas opened his mouth.  ‘You’re all he has left of your mother and he loved her dearly.  Don’t forget we spoke to many of the Erebor dwarrow in the Halls of Mahal.  Some of them remembered her and how distraught your father was when she was killed.  He might struggle with saying it, but I’m absolutely certain that when push comes to shove, he’ll be there for you when you need him.  Don’t shut him out when he is.’

‘When push comes to shove?’ Thorin repeated.  ‘Is this another one of your Shire-isms?’

Just as he had intended, Bilbo frowned at him and narrowed his eyes.  ‘If you’re trying to be insulting, Thorin Oakenshield…’

As Bilbo continued to rant at him, Thorin winked at Legolas surreptitiously, making the elf grin.  ‘Yes, amrâlimê; whatever you say, Mim razdith…’

It took them seventeen days to cross Mirkwood, unlike the fifty-six it took before, even though they spent almost a month of that in Thranduil’s dungeons.  It was still a relief, however, to emerge from Mirkwood even though the presence of Tauriel and Legolas made the journey easier and safer than before and the entire Company took deep breaths of fresh air.

‘Best thing you could do with that place is set fire to it,’ Dwalin muttered to Legolas, glowering at the forest behind him.  ‘Now,’ he continued at a normal volume, ‘how do we get to Lake-town?  And don’t anybody suggest bloody barrels!’

Even Legolas laughed at Dwalin’s aggrieved expression and Balin poked him in the side.  ‘Stop sulking!’

‘I’m not sulking.  Just stating a fact.  No.  Barrels.’

‘How are you intending to get to Esgaroth?’ Legolas asked Thorin, who looked anywhere but at the elf.

‘We, ahem, hadn’t quite got that far,’ he admitted, and yelped at the poke Bilbo gave him.  ‘What was that for?’

‘Dwarves!’ Bilbo exclaimed in exasperation.

‘Dwarrow!’ several of the others returned, making Bilbo grin.  The name was fast catching on.

‘We didn’t know if the road from Mirkwood to Esgaroth was in good repair or not,’ he explained to Legolas and Tauriel.

‘It’s not too bad if you’re mounted,’ Legolas replied with a grimace.  ‘But if you’re walking, it’s not good at all, and even disappears in some places.  We use boats to transport anything to and from the town – or float barrels, of course,’ he added wickedly, making the others laugh.

‘Well, we have neither mounts nor a boat,’ Glóin pointed out.  ‘And I’m with Dwalin.  No barrels!’

‘Could we hire a boat from you?’ Thorin asked Legolas.  ‘We can’t pay you now, but we can as soon as the dragon is dead.’

Legolas looked conflicted.  ‘Escorting you through the forest was one thing.  Giving you a boat is something else entirely.  I’m not sure how I could explain it to my father if he asks, and we can’t rely on him not being told.  Some elves hate dw—dwarrow as much as dwarrow usually hate elves.’

‘What if you could tell him you negotiated for something we desperately didn’t want to give you?’ Bilbo asked thoughtfully.  ‘That you gave us no other option, but to accept your terms?’

Legolas frowned.  ‘I don’t understand.’

Thorin suddenly realised where Bilbo was going with this.  ‘What if you “persuaded” us to give you the Lasgalen Diamonds in exchange for our passage?’

‘The White Gems?’ Legolas breathed.  ‘You would return them just for a boat?’

‘We will return them because it’s the right thing to do,’ Thorin corrected.  ‘However, if you think it will help you explain the loan of a boat to your father, then by all means do so.’

‘But your grandfather refused to return them to us.  Even knowing how much they meant to my father, he refused.’

‘And just as you are not your father, I am not my grandfather.  We now know he initially intended the gems as a gift for your mother, Legolas.  My mother explained it to us, but my grandfather was sunk deep in his madness by then and nothing could persuade him to part with a single coin or gem of his treasure.  As far as I am concerned, the White Gems will return to the Mirkwood, and the Emeralds of Girion will return to his descendants.’

‘And if my uncle should perish before he does this, as his heir, I will see to their return,’ Fíli said formally.  ‘This I swear.’

‘Course, we hope Uncle Thorin’ll be around forever,’ Kíli said cheekily, dispelling the sudden tension.  ‘Even if he is a pain in th—’

The sentence was never completed as Thorin lunged for his youngest nephew, tucked him under one arm and whacked his backside, but as Kíli continued to laugh, it was doubtful he even felt it.  Once order was restored and Thorin had pressed a kiss to Kili’s forehead, Legolas bowed to Thorin.

‘I accept your offer, and while I can’t promise my father will understand, I thank you for your consideration, especially as you know…’ He broke off and looked away.

‘I never knew my father,’ Kíli confided to Legolas, ‘but Uncle Thorin has been father to me and Fíli.  We don’t mind sharing him with you, if you want.’  He grinned suddenly and continued, ‘I’d offer to share our amad, but she’s a scary, scary dwarrowdam.  Uncle Thorin’s a much easier target—I mean person,’ he hastily corrected, giving Thorin a sly grin.

‘I’m telling Dís as soon as I meet her,’ Bilbo pronounced, his hands on his hips.  ‘Now, about this boat…’

It was easy enough to persuade Legolas to journey with the Company to Lake-town while Tauriel returned to the Palace to see to some of her duties.  Kíli pouted as she left, even though they’d had several conversations together and even exchanged a parting embrace when Kíli gave her the runestone he’d previously given to her in the palace dungeons.

‘…and as you know the Master of Lake-town, it would help us greatly if you came with us to perform introductions,’ Balin told Legolas, who pulled a face.

‘I’ve no objection to coming with you – I’m happy to – but the Master…’

‘We know all about him,’ Bilbo agreed.  ‘Greedy, scheming, selfish—’

‘I thought hobbits were a polite race?’ Thorin said, gently flicking Bilbo’s pointed ear.

‘We are,’ Bilbo acknowledged.  ‘We’re also good at calling out greedy, scheming, selfish people when they need it.  We’re the best, in fact!’  The others laughed while Bilbo grinned.

‘Well, if you’re prepared to meet—’ Legolas began.

‘—the greedy, scheming, selfish Master,’ Kíli chipped in.

‘—then I’m happy to join you,’ Legolas finished, grinning at Kíli.  ‘I can also introduce you to Bard, Captain of the Lake-town Archers.’

*****

It was a squeeze, but the entire Company fitted in a pair of small Elven boats meant for just two Elves and a cargo.  Bifur, it transpired, knew how to guide a boat and keep it from crashing into the rocky banks of the river while the dwarrow rowed when necessary.

‘Where d’you learn that?’ Bofur demanded of his cousin, who grinned and tapped his nose.

Legolas guided the other boat, and when Bilbo asked how he would get the two boats back to Mirkwood, pointed to iron hoops attached to the boats fore and aft.  ‘We tie them together,’ he explained.  ‘I’ll row one with the other tied to it.’

‘Can you row two boats up river?’ Bilbo asked doubtfully, making Legolas laugh.

‘I’m grateful for your concern, Bilbo, but it won’t be the first time I’ve done it.  We often take several boats of goods down to Esgaroth and back again.’

‘But you’re a prince!’ Dori exclaimed.  ‘Surely you don’t have to labour like a common elf?’

‘I hate to disabuse you, Master Dori, but even princes have to pull their weight,’ Legolas told Dori with a grin.

‘Or pull even more than your weight at times,’ Nori chipped in, glancing at the boats and grinning.

‘There are no advantages to being a prince, Dori,’ added Kíli dolefully.  ‘Ever.  If there’s labour to be done, we’ll be ordered to the front of the queue.’

‘How d’you like to float downriver without a barrel, namadul?’ Thorin asked pleasantly from where he was seated at an oar.  ‘I can arrange it if you wish.  With or without a sore arse.’

Kíli gulped, shook his head, and crawled between the Company to the other end of the boat, as far away from his uncle as he could manage, and kept very quiet.

Gliding gently, rather than careering madly, down river would take them a day and a half, it surprised Thorin to learn but when he considered the distance, it made sense.  Forty-six miles was a significant distance to travel along a river, and he was now amazed they’d all reached Lake-town in the barrels without serious injury.  ‘This is really rather pleasant, isn’t it?’ he said to Bilbo, letting his fingers trail in the water as the flow of the river carried them along.

‘It may be for you,’ Bilbo told him, his arms around himself protectively while he sat in the very middle of the boat.  ‘But hobbits don’t go on or in water – not unless they’re crazy Brandybucks who like doing that sort of thing!’

‘Can’t you swim?’ Fíli demanded from his seat near Thorin.

‘Why should I want to swim?’ Bilbo asked in confusion.  ‘I’ve already said, hobbits don’t go in water – other than in our bathtubs.’

Thorin pulled his hand out of the water, sat hurriedly upright, and glared at Bilbo.  ‘Do you mean to say that when we came down the river with you clinging to the side of a barrel, you couldn’t swim?’

‘Umm, yes?’  Bilbo looked everywhere than at his partner.

Thorin forced himself to remain calm when all he wanted to do was to grab his One and shake him, or, alternatively, to hug him and never let him go.  When he considered the sheer number of sacrifices Bilbo had made for the Company and the Quest, he was beyond humbled.  I can never repay the debt I owe you.

‘Don’t be stupid, you don’t owe me anything!’ Bilbo snapped, making the others stare at him.

‘Who are you talking to, Bilbo?’ Fíli asked in puzzlement.

A flush rose up the hobbit’s cheeks.  ‘I…um…’

‘He was responding to me,’ Thorin explained, much to Bilbo’s obvious relief.

‘But you didn’t say anything,’ Fíli objected.

‘I mouthed the words at him,’ was the best Thorin could come up with, and it was clear no one believed him but equally, none wanted to question him.  Being King has some benefits!

As soon as he was able, Thorin shifted to the middle of the boat to sit next to his One, almost pulling him into his lap in his urge to offer both protection and gratitude.

‘Stoopid.  I don’t want or need your gratitude,’ Bilbo mumbled in his ear.  ‘I don’t mind the protection bit, though.’

They enjoyed their closeness for a while until Bilbo raised his head from Thorin’s shoulder, almost cracking his head on Thorin’s chin.  ‘No, I’m wrong.  I do want your gratitude and payment of the debt you owe me.’

‘Go on,’ Thorin said carefully.

‘You have to promise not to get killed.’

‘I…’

‘Have to promise to stay alive, for me.’

‘Bilbo, you know I can’t—’

‘You owe me, Thorin Oakenshield!’ Bilbo said a little louder.

‘Shhh,’ Thorin hissed, pulling Bilbo’s head back down onto his shoulder.  ‘Not so loud.’

‘I want your promise, Thorin.  Stay out of trouble and stay alive.  No going off to fight Bolg on your own – or with anyone else,’ he added as Thorin opened his mouth.  ‘Do not die on me again.’

‘I would never leave you of my own volition,’ Thorin told him quietly.  ‘I can’t promise not to die, in or out of battle, but I will do my very best not to take any stupid chances.  Will that do?’

‘Hmm,’ Bilbo muttered, burrowing into his shoulder.  ‘It’ll have to, won’t it?’

*****

Their arrival in Lake-town with Prince Legolas of the Greenwood was so very different to their last arrival, Thorin mused to himself.  Being with the elf and having him speak for them made all the difference – for themselves and for Bard.  Despite being captain of the town archers, Bard was just another face among the crowd of people surrounding them as Legolas tied up his boat to a mooring post at the side of the wooden walkway with Bifur doing the same for the second boat.  By the time all the Company were on what amounted to dry land, the Master of Lake-town, accompanied by his weasel Alfrid Lickspittle, had arrived.

‘To what do we owe this pleasure, Prince Legolas?’ the Master asked regally.

‘I have friends I wish to introduce to you,’ Legolas replied with a forced smile.  ‘May I present Thorin Oakenshield, King of Durin’s Folk, and his heir, Crown Prince Fíli, also of Durin’s Folk.’

As Thorin gave the Master a slight bow of his head, he smiled inwardly at the manner in which Legolas announced them.

The Master could do nothing but give Thorin and Fíli a low bow.  Royalty trumped Master at every turn.

‘I am most pleased to welcome you to my little town,’ the Master replied – possibly between clenched teeth, Thorin decided.  ‘How can we assist you?’

‘The Woodland Realm would consider it a great boon if you would accommodate our friends during their stay in your fine town, and supply them with provisions and ponies for their onward journey,’ Legolas continued, surprising the entire Company as they hadn’t discussed this at all.

‘And where, ahem, are they travelling to?’ the Master asked, his eyes shifting from side to side, looking anywhere but at Thorin.

Legolas gave a secretive smile and leaned in close to the Master, who also leaned forward.  ‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you that, but His Majesty is travelling on an urgent matter concerning the safety of the whole of Arda.  He also travels with the confidence of the Shire, of Rivendell, and of the Maiar, and under the instruction of the Aratar.’

Aside from having an eye on the Master, Thorin was also watching Bard, who stood close to them, and could clearly hear what Legolas was saying as he narrowed his eyes as he listened.  The Master’s eyes widened at the mention of Rivendell, although it was clear he had no idea who most of the others were.  Alfrid, however, stepped forward.

‘Mare is another name for a Wizard,’ he told the Master in what he clearly thought was an undertone but which Thorin, the Company, Legolas, and Bard could hear clearly.  ‘And the other names are titles of the King of Arda.’

‘Such important pe—dwarves in our little town,’ the Master breathed in awe.  ‘Should we help them?’

‘I think we have to,’ Alfrid nodded.  ‘It can only bring greatness to Lake-town.’

A greatness such as a dragon, Thorin thought irreverently, making Bilbo choke on suppressed laughter and poke him in his side.

The Master drew himself up and bowed again to Thorin – a much deeper bow this time.  ‘Then, in the name of Lake-town, I greet you, King Thorin, ambassador of the—’ he glanced at Alfrid urgently.

‘The Mayor and the Aravatar,’ Alfrid hissed.

‘—the Mayor and the Avaraties,’ the Master finished causing Legolas to choke.

‘No, no, I’m fine,’ he assured Alfrid, who slapped him firmly on the back.

‘If you would come this way, I can show you to your accommodation, your Majesty,’ the Master said to Thorin in an obsequious tone which vanished as he noticed the people still surrounding them.  ‘Shoo!  Shoo!  Go on, go away!  Shoo!’

*****

The house to which they were shown was very comfortable, Bilbo decided; the beds in particular.  So much so, he spent his first full day in Esgaroth in his comfortable bed while Thorin brought his meals to him.  That Thorin also brought his own meals, climbed back in the comfortable bed to eat, and then cuddled up with Bilbo with the door firmly locked, was purely coincidental, Bilbo tried to convince himself.  And if there was rather less sleeping than…other things that happened in that comfortable bed, why, that was no one’s business but his and Thorin’s!

They emerged from their room on the second morning to cheers and whistles from the rest of the Company, but after a couple of well-aimed boots hit their targets, courtesy of Thorin, the cheers gave way to laughter.

‘Legolas went back yesterday afternoon,’ Fíli informed Thorin as they ate breakfast.  ‘He said not to be surprised if he comes to Erebor before Durin’s Day.’

‘Oh, he did, did he?’  Thorin narrowed his eyes at Fíli.  ‘Am I about to welcome two Elves into the family?’

Fíli flushed but didn’t react.  ‘Would you object?’

‘Not at all,’ Bilbo said firmly, slapping Thorin’s arm.  ‘He’s just a grumpy bear this morning!  We will be delighted to welcome whoever you choose, although you’ll do well to remember who Legolas chose last time.’

‘Who did he choose?’ Ori asked, pulling out the journal for the Quest which differed from his own personal journal, and the journal he used to make notes and sketches which appealed to him.

‘No, we’re not going there,’ Thorin said firmly.  ‘Some things have to play out in their own time.’

‘But it was someone from the Company?’ Ori pressed.

‘We’re not saying anymore,’ Bilbo told him, ‘so it’s no use speculating.  For all you know, it could be one of my many cousins.’

Swiftly changing the subject, Thorin turned to Balin.  ‘Bilbo and I are going to see Bard today.  Would you care to join us?’

Balin considered the invitation.  ‘What will you be discussing aside from the battle?’

‘We want to persuade him to repopulate Dale,’ Bilbo answered.  ‘To become their leader, as his ancestor was.’

‘And tell him I’ll grant the gold to rebuild the city,’ Thorin added.

Balin tapped his finger against his chin thoughtfully, but Glóin frowned at Thorin.

‘You’ll just give away Thror’s treasure to anyone who asks?  You’ve already promised away the White Gems to the tree-shaggers, and Girion’s Emeralds to his descendants.  If you’re not careful, there’ll be nothing left for us dwarves.’

‘Dwarrow,’ Fíli corrected him.  ‘We’re dwarrow, remember?  And it’s highly likely that Smaug’s sitting on more than just the dwarrow treasure, cousin.  From what Uncle Thorin’s said, Lord Girion had a pretty full treasury himself, and it’s almost certainly part of the dragon’s hoard now as well as treasure from all over Arda, most likely.’

‘Aye, but it’s in our Mountain now,’ Glóin told him.  ‘And there it should stay!’

Shaking his head, Bilbo glared at Glóin.  ‘And that’s exactly how the Dwarrow got a reputation for being greedy and selfish.  It needs to end now!’  He slapped the table firmly, surprising those at the other end who weren’t following the conversation.

‘What ends now?’ Bombur asked, a puzzled look on his face.  ‘Do you need some more toast or something?’

Bilbo was on his feet, breathing hard and still glaring at Glóin, but Bombur’s question eased the tension a little.

‘We’re talking about treasure, not toast,’ Dwalin said in a loud enough voice that even Óin heard him.

‘What treasure?’ he asked, holding up his ear trumpet and looking around as if he’d missed seeing a treasure in the borrowed Lake-town house.  ‘Is the Master giving us some treasure?  Surely there’s enough in the Mountain for us?’

Glóin gave a reluctant smile and bowed his head at Bilbo.  ‘Aye, you’re right, you’re both right,’ he added, nodding at his brother.  ‘I’ve been a banker for too long, I’m afraid, and old habits die hard.  My apologies, Master Baggins.’

Bilbo huffed and retook his seat.  ‘Well then.  As long as it’s understood.’

‘Don’t worry, ghivashel,’ Thorin told him, patting his arm.  ‘I think you’ve put the fear of Mahal into everyone and they’ll do anything so as not to make you angry again.’

‘Calling me “treasure of treasures” isn’t helpful, Thorin Oakenshield,’ Bilbo told him crossly.

‘Oh dear.’  Kíli wasn’t bothering to hide his grin.  ‘You’ve made Uncle Bilbo bring out Uncle’s full name.  Now we’re all in for it!’

‘Impertinent youth,’ Bilbo scolded – but he was smiling.  ‘Can’t you make your gimizh namadul a little more respectful, Melhekhel!’

There was a hushed silence around the table.

‘You—you speak Khuzdul?’ Balin stammered.  ‘How—’

‘I’m the One of a dwarrow King,’ Bilbo said gently.  ‘I have to speak and understand Khuzdul.’  He glanced at his One as Thorin’s hand covered his.  ‘We thought it was time you all knew.’

‘But how did you learn it?’ Glóin pressed him.  ‘It is forbidden to teach other races.’

‘Really?’ Thorin drawled.  ‘Hmm.  It’s possible Bilbo’s teacher wasn’t aware of that.’

‘Who was his teacher?  How could he not know?’

Bilbo, Thorin, Fíli and Kíli were all sporting wide smirks.

Balin covered his eyes with his fingers and sighed.  ‘I think I can guess.’

‘Can you?’  Glóin swung his head to frown at Ori.  ‘Was it you?’

‘No!’ Ori protested while Dori puffed himself up, ready to defend his baby brother if necessary.

Glóin growled, unconvinced.  ‘If it wasn’t you, then who taught him?’  His eyes roved over the other members of the Company suspiciously.

‘Oh my,’ Balin sighed again, uncovering his eyes to look at the three Durins and their hobbit.  ‘It was Our Maker, wasn’t it?’

There was an immediate outcry from the rest of the Company, but the four time-travellers remained unmoved amidst the turmoil in the dining room until Ori climbed onto his chair and whistled loudly.

‘There must be an explanation or Bilbo wouldn’t have revealed that he knows Khuzdul,’ he told them, wobbling a little on his chair.  ‘But until you all shut up, no-one can hear anything!’  He gave a firm nod to add emphasis to his statement and Dori caught him as he wobbled right off the chair, scolding him for doing such a dangerous thing.

‘We signed up to cross half of Arda and to rid Erebor of a fire-breathing dragon!’ Nori told his brother in incredulity.  ‘We’ve faced off orcs, wargs, and spiders, and you’re now telling him off for dangerous chair climbing?’

Unintentional or not, the tension – once again – was broken as the others laughed.  Dwalin put away Grasper, and Glóin his war hammer while the Company took their seats again.

‘Finished?’ Thorin asked pleasantly, looking around the table, having not shifted from his seat during the commotion.  ‘Good.  Now shut up and listen to what Bilbo has to tell you.’

‘I picked up a few words of Khuzdul on the previous quest,’ Bilbo explained.  ‘It was difficult not to, really, after six months in the company of thirteen dwarrow.  I also picked up enough Iglishmêk to hold a conversation with Bifur and by the time I reached the Halls of Mahal I wanted to learn more.  I’ve always enjoyed learning a new language, and I seem to pick them up fairly easily.  Being in the Halls gave me the perfect opportunity, but I also knew you considered it a secret language, so I approached Lord Mahal with a request to learn it.’

‘Imagine our surprise when we learned our Lord had never meant it to be a secret language at all,’ Fíli added.

‘The dwarrow of the First Age initially shared it with friends from other races, particularly Men,’ Bilbo continued.  ‘The men, however, found it difficult both to pronounce and remember, so the dwarrow instead spoke Westron with them and the other races with whom they had contact, and only used Khuzdul amongst other dwarrow.  It’s easy, in hindsight, to see how it became viewed as a secret language.’

‘Are you proposing we now share our language?’ Dori asked, frowning.

‘I’m not proposing anything.’  Bilbo gave him a pleasant smile.  ‘I’m not a Dwarf, so my opinion is just that.  My own.’

‘I’m not proposing it either,’ Thorin agreed.  ‘However, I do think we need to discuss it further, perhaps in Council when we’re settled back in the Mountain, and maybe even with the other Clans.  As Bilbo said earlier, the other races perceive us as being secretive and greedy.  Perhaps it’s time to change that perception.’

*****

‘I’ve said it before, I know, but you’re considerably changed,’ Balin told Thorin as they made their way to Bard’s home along with Bilbo and Dwalin.  ‘No, no, not in a bad way,’ he assured his king as Thorin frowned at him.  ‘The Thorin I knew just a few weeks ago was full of pride and harboured a dislike of other races, particularly where it concerned their interactions with Durin’s Folk.  I’d even go so far as to say your drive to reclaim Erebor was motivated more by a desire to become King Under the Mountain than by reclaiming a homeland for your people.’

Thorin halted, causing Bilbo and Dwalin, who were walking behind, to crash into him and stumble.

‘Give some warning if y’re gonna do that,’ Dwalin snapped as he kept Bilbo on his feet.  ‘Y’nearly put Bilbo in the drink and y’know he hates water!’

‘Especially dirty, smelly water like this,’ Bilbo muttered, looking down into the lake, lapping against the wooden pillars which supported the walkways in the town and gripping the handrail which edged the walkways.  ‘Why d’you stop, Thorin?’

‘I…’  Thorin paused, unable to find the words to explain his reaction to Balin’s comment.

‘T’was my fault,’ Balin admitted, pulling the other three into a small alley leading off the main walkway where they were preventing anyone from passing.  ‘I told Thorin he’s changed.’

‘And that made him stop walking?’ Dwalin asked.

‘Umm.’  Uncharacteristically, Balin hesitated.  ‘I might also have said…umm…that he cared more for the title of king than for his people?’

‘Balin!’ his brother exclaimed, appalled.

‘No, no, he’s not wrong,’ Thorin admitted, holding up his hands.  ‘Unfortunately.’  He sighed and looked around.  ‘Look, this is a terrible place to be having this conversation.  Can we save it for later?  When we’re back at the house?’

‘Good idea,’ Bilbo said firmly, and linked his arm with Thorin’s.  ‘Now, come on, before Bard goes out or something.’

Bard hadn’t gone out, but his expression said he wished he had when his eldest daughter admitted the four members of Thorin’s Company.

‘What on Arda could you possibly want from me?’ he demanded.  ‘The Master’s given you everything he possibly could, which is a damn sight more than he’s ever given anyone else in this godforsaken town.’

‘You are a descendant of Lord Girion of Dale, I believe,’ Balin told him, ignoring his outburst.  ‘I remember the birth of his eldest son, your great grandfather, I think, and the festivities which were held in Dale.’

‘You knew my Grandpa?’ the youngest girl asked, looking up at Balin.  ‘I didn’t.  He died before I was born.’

‘Hush, Tilda,’ the other girl hissed from where she appeared to be preparing a meal.  ‘Father is having a private conversation, and it was our many greats grandpa, in any case.  Come over here and help me with dinner!’

The little girl scowled at her sister, but did as Sigrid instructed with ill grace.  Bilbo smiled at her as she crossed the room to where Sigrid was cooking, then looked up at Bard.  ‘How old are your daughters?’

It was apparent Bard didn’t want to speak with any of the four, but he sighed and made the relevant introductions.  ‘Sigrid, my eldest, is sixteen, my son, Bain, is fifteen, and our baby is Tilda—’

‘And I’m eleven!’ Tilda announced eagerly, turning back to smile at Bilbo.  ‘You’re not much taller than I am and you don’t have a beard like the others.’

‘No, I don’t,’ Bilbo agreed.  ‘I have hair on my feet instead.  Look.’  He leaned on Thorin and lifted one foot to show Tilda.  ‘That’s because I’m a Hobbit, not a Dwarf.  My people live in the Shire, far to the west of here.’

‘In that case, why are you here?’ Bain asked, looking up from the table where he was carving a lump of wood.

‘I’m here as part of the Company of Thorin Oakenshield, and this is Thorin himself, King of Durin’s Folk,’ Bilbo replied, waving to Thorin.  ‘And this is Balin, Thorin’s Sen—Chief Advisor, and his brother Dwalin, Captain of the King’s Guard.  I’m Bilbo Baggins.’

‘My Da’s the Captain of the Town Archers,’ Tilda explained, very seriously.

‘And I’m sure he does a very fine job,’ Thorin rumbled, smiling down at the little girl.  He vaguely remembered her from the previous timeline and, like most dwarrow, he adored children and was looking forward to creating children with Bilbo – both in the dwarrow and in the hobbit way, if possible.

‘I’m pretty sure you didn’t come here to chat with my children,’ Bard said to Thorin, still leaning on the door frame.  ‘So I’ll ask again, what do you want?’

Thorin glanced around.  They were in a multipurpose room with a sink and stove, chairs and a table, and a narrow bed up against the wall which served as a sofa.  Their arrival at Bard’s home last time had been somewhat…unusual, and he hadn’t had time to look around the room before it was full of wet dwarrow – and a wet hobbit.  ‘I don’t want anything from you.  I’m here to ask you to do something instead.’

Bard eyed him carefully.  ‘What do you want me to do for you, your majesty?’

Thorin was pretty certain that neither the mode of address nor the tone were ones of respect, but before he could speak, Balin interrupted.

‘We wish to be allies with the people of Lake-town, nothing more.’

‘Allies, you say,’ Bard repeated, turning to look at Balin.  ‘I’m just the Captain of the Town Archers.  You need to speak to the Master, Mister Balin.’

‘Just Balin is fine, laddie.  And I prefer to speak with the one who has the loyalty of the people of Lake-town, not the one who grinds them into dust.’

‘How can you know anything about me?  You’ve never met me before.’

Thorin couldn’t help the chuckle rising in his throat, which he quickly turned into a cough, and he noticed Bilbo having the same problem.

‘One doesn’t need to be long in this town to know where the loyalty of its populace lies, Bard, son of Harbard,’ Thorin told him.  ‘I saw you with the Lady Sigrid yesterday giving out food.’  He bowed his head to Sigrid in acknowledgement.  ‘You give out food to those less fortunate than yourself, yet you live in one room and an attic with your three children.  As leader of a people myself, I recognise the actions of another and I wish to help you.’

Bard watched him silently and Thorin met his eyes, all signs of levity now gone.  After a while, Bard nodded and gestured to the chairs around the table.  ‘Then sit, and I’ll listen to what you have to say.  I’m promising nothing, though.’  He made a sign to Bain to clear himself and his carving out of the way, and the boy took himself off up to the attic.

With a further bow of his head, Thorin took a seat opposite Bard while Bilbo sat to one side of him and Balin to the other.  Dwalin remained standing, ever on guard, but leaned against a wall close enough to the table to hear everything said.

Bard folded his arms and waited for Thorin to speak, but he did nod when Sigrid offered refreshments, and she hurried over with a pot of weak tea and enough cups for everyone.

‘I’m aware you didn’t believe a word spoken by Prince Legolas,’ Thorin began, and smiled at Bard’s snort.

I didn’t but the Master and his well-named lickspittle did.  Idiots, the pair of them!’

‘All of what Legolas said is true, however,’ Thorin continued, ‘although perhaps a little…overstated.’

‘You mean you don’t have the confidence of the Maiar?’

‘That part is true,’ Thorin nodded.  ‘Gandalf the Grey accompanies us, but has gone off for a while to take care of some business.  Radagast the Brown is also aware of our task, as is Lord Elrond of Rivendell.’

‘And the Aratar?’

Thorin paused for a moment, unsure of how to explain to Bard without giving away anything regarding time travel.

‘They are guiding our mission,’ Bilbo said carefully.  ‘But we can’t tell you any more than that at present.  Perhaps later we can, but not right now.’

To Thorin’s surprise, this explanation appeared to satisfy Bard, who nodded and relaxed a little.

‘And what exactly is your task?’ he asked, taking a sip of his tea.

‘We are here to kill the dragon, Smaug, and reclaim Erebor,’ Thorin said bluntly, causing Bard to choke on his tea.

‘Kill the dragon?’ He repeated when he could speak.  ‘You’re going into the mountain?  You must be mad!  You do that and you’ll wake him, putting the whole of Lake-town in danger, to say nothing of Mirkwood.’

‘There is a danger, yes,’ Thorin agreed, his voice still calm.  ‘Which is why we want to warn you.  If Smaug escapes from the Mountain – and we plan on doing our best to prevent that – he’s likely to come to Lake-town in retaliation.  If you can get the people away from the town, you can probably save them.’

‘And what about their homes?  We have very little here to begin with.  None of us can afford to lose anything, except the Master, Valar rot his soul!’

‘I think you can count on that!’ Bilbo muttered sourly.

‘There’s a good chance you’ll lose everything in any case,’ Thorin said in a serious tone.  ‘In a few weeks an army of orcs will march on Erebor to claim our Mountain and everything within it, including the dragon if he’s still alive.  There’s little doubt they’ll sack Lake-town while they’re here.’

Stunned into silence, Bard didn’t speak but simply stared at Thorin.  ‘How…Why…?’ he croaked.

‘War is coming to Middle Earth and none will escape its clutches,’ Thorin sighed.  ‘By retaking Erebor, we hope to keep this part of Arda free from evil influence, but be in no doubt: war is coming.  If my Company can retake Erebor, then we wish to bring the people of Lake-town into the Mountain for safety during the battle.  We hope you’ll agree to fight at our side, Bard, descendant of Girion, and as many of your people as you can bring with you.  We can arm them, don’t worry about that, but we need everyone who can fight to stand with us.’

‘How do you know this?  How can you know what’s going to happen?  And if you know it, why can’t you stop it?’

‘I can’t tell you how we know,’ Thorin said regretfully.  ‘And it’s impossible to prevent it from happening, but please believe what we’re telling you.  We’re willing to protect your women and children, and your elderly, but we ask that your men fight at our sides.’

‘But there’s only a few of you,’ Bard said, his distress evident.  ‘How can you possibly face an army of orcs and hope to prevail?’

‘We’ll have help from Mirkwood and from the Iron Hills,’ Thorin explained.  ‘We also hope for help from Rivendell, but that’s by no means certain.  The Great Eagles of Manwë will also fight with us and Beorn, the skin changer.’

‘That’s still not enough!’  Bard’s voice broke, and he buried his head in his hands, attracting the attention of his daughters who hurried over to see their father.

‘Are you ill, Da?’ Tilda asked, leaning on her father’s shoulder.

‘Of course he’s not ill,’ Sigrid snapped.  ‘Something’s upset him.  What did you say to him?’ she demanded of Thorin.  ‘What did you tell him?’

‘Something no father ever wants to hear.’

They left Esgaroth at the end of the eighth month.  Two boats took them across Long Lake and left them close to the road to the south east where the ponies were waiting, having come by land around the lake.  Nothing was said to the Master regarding their ultimate destination, but neither was anything said to disabuse him of the idea they were heading towards Rhun.  The Master was kind enough – read ‘pressured enough’ – to provide supplies and ponies for the Company while, for his part, Thorin thanked him sincerely and made no promises of any kind.  To Bard, however, Thorin did make a promise of future payment.  Payment with which to rebuild Dale and make it, once again, a prosperous city and trading hub.  Bard responded with a disbelieving snort and vowed to hold him to his promise if the dragon didn’t kill him first.

That, however, was for later.  For now, the Company needed to get inside the Mountain, preferably before Durin’s Day, which was six weeks away, and the battle which would be three days later if everything remained the same.  There was also the minor matter of the dragon.

It sounds so easy, Thorin thought to himself.  Jobs to do.  1. Get into mountain 2. Slay the dragon.

3. Don’t die, Bilbo added, not even looking at Thorin, but instead watching the ever closer shoreline.  Do you have a plan?

No.  Do you?

Nope.

Good.  Excellent.  No problem.

‘D’you have a plan, Thorin?’ Dwalin asked, and frowned as Bilbo gave a sudden snort of laughter.

‘Sorry, sorry, Dwalin,’ Bilbo apologised, still chuckling.  ‘I’m not laughing at you.’

‘Then what are you laughing at?’

‘I…umm…something funny just occurred to me, that’s all.’  Bilbo stuck his fist into his mouth to stop himself from laughing and tried for a straight face.

‘Hmm.’  Dwalin regarded him for a moment then turned back to Thorin.  ‘So?  What’s the plan?’

Bilbo collapsed into giggles again, this time infecting the others on his boat until everyone except Dwalin was creased in laughter.  Dwalin looked around and found even the two men who accompanied them – in order to return the boat to Lake-town – were grinning while not understanding what was so amusing.

‘What is wrong with you people?’ Dwalin demanded.  ‘I asked a simple question!’

They had barely recovered when the boat reached the shore where the fourteen ponies were waiting.  The Company got themselves ashore and sorted through their supplies while the men boarded the boats and set off for Lake-town, two of them still chuckling to themselves.

‘Now what?’ Glóin asked, looking around.

‘Now we walk down the road a short way and we make camp,’ Thorin told him.

‘But it’s only mid afternoon.  We could reach the Mountain tonight if we set off now,’ Glóin protested.

‘And the four men in the boats would watch us every step of the way,’ Bilbo said pleasantly.  ‘Just what we want.’

‘Y’know, I think I preferred it when you were too nervous to even speak to any of us,’ Glóin grumbled.  ‘Since you came back in time, you’ve become a bloody cheeky—!’

Óin clouted his brother.  ‘Stop being rude to our burglar!’

‘You choose now to hear everything said?’ Glóin complained, rubbing his shoulder.  ‘And, by the way, ow!’

‘Less arguing and more walking!’ Thorin ordered, but he grinned as he said it, taking any heat out of the words.  ‘Fíli, Kíli, go find something to burn: it’s getting cold in the evenings.’

The Company walked for a mile or so then settled into their usual evening routine even though it lacked a few hours until nightfall.  There was an undercurrent of anticipation at being so close to their destination and Fíli, Kíli, and Ori were almost feverish with excitement to be within range of the homeland they’d only ever heard about in songs and stories.  Thorin vowed to keep a close eye on his sister-sons, as these were the type of conditions which resulted in practical jokes.

Dinner was eaten accompanied by lively chatter and it was no surprise when the younger dwarrow begged for more stories about Erebor and several hours passed by in pleasant companionship.  The singing was, unsurprisingly, begun by Bofur and he was also the one to press Bilbo for a hobbitish song.  Bilbo laughed and said he didn’t know any, but Fíli nudged his brother and protested.

‘You sang one for me and Kíli one time, Uncle Bilbo.  Something about the Man in the Moon, I think.  I’m sure the others would like to hear it.’  He looked around at the dwarrow surrounding the fire.  ‘Bilbo wrote it himself, you know.’

‘Come on then, Bilbo,’ Bofur told him, rubbing his hands together in expectation.  ‘Let’s hear it!’

‘I’ll deal with you later!’ Bilbo promised Fíli, wagging his finger at him and laughed as the others begged him to sing to them.  ‘Alright, alright.  But only if you sing the Misty Mountains song for me.  It’s a such a long time since I’ve heard it and I can think of nowhere more appropriate than here.’

‘It’s a deal,’ Bofur nodded.  ‘Now, come on.  Let’s hear it!’

Bilbo struggled to his feet from where he was cuddled up next to Thorin and cleared his throat, but he paused for a moment before he began.  ‘It has thirteen verses, you know.’

‘Then hurry up and start!’ Bofur ordered.

Bilbo nodded to him, then took a deep breath and began:

There is an inn, a merry old inn

beneath an old grey hill…

Bofur and Bifur got to their feet after the first couple of verses and began to dance to the merry tune.  Fíli, Kíli, and Ori quickly joined them, and before long all the dwarrow were on their feet, unable to keep still, the liveness of both the words and the tune infecting them, and when Bilbo finally ended there was a chorus of cheers and calls for him to sing it again!

‘Goodness me!’ Bilbo laughed from where he was clutching Thorin’s hands.  ‘You can’t possibly want to listen to my nonsense again!  And besides, you promised to sing to me.’

‘And so we shall, amrâlimê,’ Thorin told him, pressing a kiss against his hair.  ‘After which we will go to sleep.  Tomorrow will be a long day, and who knows what it will bring.’

The Company settled themselves around the fire again, Bilbo sitting between Thorin’s legs with his dwarf’s arms around him, keeping him close and warming his back.  An air of gravity replaced the laughter with even Fíli and Kíli feeling it: tomorrow would see the Company returning to the Mountain from which their people were forced almost a hundred and fifty years before, and to the place where hundreds and hundreds of their people died.  Tomorrow would bring Durin’s Folk full circle, and yet the battle against Smaug was still to come.

The older dwarrow began with the deep hum which opened the song, and Bilbo found his eyes already prickling with tears.  This was the song which originally convinced him to join the Company of Thorin Oakenshield, to begin a journey across Arda to the mountain home of a dragon.  To begin a journey where he found friendship amongst strangers, loyalty such as he’d never experienced in the Shire, and the love of his life.

He felt Thorin take a deep breath and begin to sing in his deep and powerful baritone.

Far over the misty mountains cold,

To dungeons deep and caverns old…

By unspoken mutual consent no one said a word after the last notes faded and the Company found their way into their sleeping rolls in silence.  Just a single word would have shattered the atmosphere enveloping the camp, and Bilbo suspected his weren’t the only cheeks damp with emotion that night.  For himself, he snuggled up to his soulmate, basking in the heat the dwarf emitted, and rested his head upon Thorin’s shoulder after gently kissing his cheek and lips.

Sleep eluded Bilbo for a long while, however, and his thoughts ranged from the past to the present and back again to the past; from the final days of their previous journey to Erebor when Thorin became ever more silent and serious the closer they drew to the Lonely Mountain; to the current laughter and gaiety which might have a more serious undercurrent, but, equally, couldn’t eclipse the sheer joy of almost reaching the Mountain.  This time was a glorious second chance; unsought but far from unwanted, and this time Thorin and the boys would not die.

*****

The mood of celebration carried them all the way to the hidden staircase and the secret entrance, but while most of the Company was disappointed to find no keyhole, the Durins and Bilbo were more sanguine.

‘We already suspected we’d have to wait for Durin’s Day before the keyhole was revealed,’ Thorin told the dejected dwarrow.  ‘This is no surprise.’

‘Maybe, but what do you suggest we do now?’ Dwalin demanded.  ‘Camp here for the next six weeks?’

The twitch of Thorin’s lips gave away the secret.

‘You knew we couldn’t get in from here!’ Balin exclaimed.

‘I didn’t know,’ Thorin protested, ‘but, as I said, I suspected we couldn’t.’

‘And?’

‘And what?’ Thorin asked, trying hard to keep from laughing.

‘And what do we do now, you stubborn bastard!?’ Dwalin demanded again, this time accompanied by a fist to Thorin’s shoulder.

‘There’s another secret entrance!’ Kíli burst out, unable to keep silent any longer.

‘Where?’

‘Ravenhill,’ Thorin admitted.  ‘We’re not exactly sure where the door is, but we know the general vicinity.’

‘Who built it?’ Balin asked curiously.

Thorin laughed.  ‘My illustrious ancestor, after whom I’m named.  It was built before they left Erebor for Ered Mithrin in 2210.  He said Erebor should have more than one way in and out in case of an accident or a catastrophe within the city.’  He gave a dry laugh.  ‘Ironic, really, given so many of our people died because they couldn’t get out of the mountain when the damn worm came.’  He shook his head, then gave a crooked smile.  ‘It was strange to meet my great-however-many-times-grandfather in the Halls, but he told me about the door and gave me the password.’

‘So what are we waiting for?’ Glóin demanded, looking around.  ‘Let’s go!’

‘Can we get from here to Ravenhill over the mountain?’  Ori was scribbling away in his journal and not looking up.

Thorin and Dwalin exchanged looks and shared a private grin while Balin tried for a stern expression.

‘We’ll take that as a yes, shall we?’ Bilbo said dryly.  ‘Well?  Are you going to share the tale?’

‘There is no tale,’ Thorin began only to be interrupted by a snort of laughter from Balin.

‘Of course there’s a tale, laddie.  These two miscreants here, neither of them above fifteen and neither of them old enough to be out of the mountain on their own, gave their tutor the slip and decided to go on an adventure one day.’

Thorin buried his head in his hands and Dwalin scowled while Fíli and Kíli looked on joyfully, eager to hear about their uncle engaging in mischief.

Amad’s never mentioned this,’ Kíli breathed, hardly able to contain his excitement.

‘That’s because she was still a babe in the nursery,’ Balin explained.  ‘Frerin too.  She’s probably never heard this story before.’

‘Ori!’ Fíli called to the scribe.  ‘Make sure you write down every word Balin says.  We must be able to tell amad when she gets here!’

Thorin lifted his head and scowled at his nephew.  ‘You are not tell—’

He broke off as Bilbo slapped his hand over Thorin’s mouth.  ‘Shut up!  I want to hear this as much as the boys do!’

Balin joined the others in laughing at Thorin’s outraged expression, then took up his tale.  ‘The two of them dared each other to climb from the terrace of the royal apartments to the top of the King’s Gate where the lookout is.  The entrance to it is by a staircase leading from the main guard room and as that room is never empty they stood no chance of accessing it from there.’  He pulled Thror’s map from his pocket, spread it out over the locked door and pointed to the two southerly rock projections then tapped his finger on the cross marked on the map.  The others crowded round him to look while Thorin and Dwalin stood off to one side and sulked.

‘We’re here on the map, and the royal quarters are over here, on the far side facing east,’ Balin continued tapping the map again, ‘in the uppermost level of the city with terraces open to the air.  They’re the only quarters in the mountain to have open terraces, although a few of the rooms in the upper areas have windows which open and an occasional balcony.  The wee laddies climbed up the side of the right hand spur and made their way to this ledge here above the lookout, and kept far enough back not to be seen by the guards on duty.  Not satisfied with having achieved their objective, they then decided to go to Ravenhill to see the ravens who lived on the top of the watchtower and guard post.

‘They almost made it as well, even though it’s a good two hours walk for an adult dwarf at ground level from the main gate to the stairs cut into the rock leading up to the watchtower.  As you can imagine, once their tutor realised they were missing there was a great hue and cry with all the guards searching for them.  It was Carc, chief of the Ravens, who eventually brought word they were safe and on the pathway running along the ridge of the spur no one knew or remembered was there.’

‘Snitch,’ Thorin muttered.

‘Got us into deep trouble,’ Dwalin agreed.

‘What happened to you,’ Kíli asked, agog with curiosity.

‘None of your business,’ Thorin told him and clapped his hands to draw his Company’s attention.  ‘Now Balin has kindly explained the existence of the path over the mountain to Ravenhill we should get going.  Come on, stir yourselves.’

‘Hang on a moment,’ Bilbo said, holding up a hand.  ‘I want to know what happened to you as well.  We all want to know what happened to you.’

‘Let’s just say they both ate their dinner standing up that night, shall we?’ Balin said mischievously, causing Fíli and Kíli to burst into delighted laughter.

‘Oh, I can’t wait to tell amad,’ Fíli gasped, holding his side and leaning on his brother for support.

‘Like she never got into trouble,’ Dwalin muttered.  ‘Or got us into trouble for not stopping her or Frerin whenever she had an idea for mischief.  There is no stopping Dís when she gets an idea into her head and we can both tell you enough tales about her to curl your hair!’

‘We must have story time again,’ Kíli pleaded.  ‘Why did we never hear these tales before?’

Thorin looked at his nephews with a sad smile and ran his hand over Kili’s dark hair.  ‘Because there wasn’t much to find amusing about our lives after we lost Erebor.  Even less to smile about after Azanulbizar.  Smaug took not only our home: he took our happiness as well.’

*****

Thorin’s words meant it was a more sombre group who followed him and Dwalin as they climbed up the rock spur above the entrance to Thror’s secret door, and towards the main part of the mountain.  Their path continued south as soon as they reached the main body of the mountain and night was falling by the time they reached the old watchtower on Ravenhill.

‘No fire tonight,’ Thorin said as they searched the former guard post for the best place to make camp.  ‘It might be seen from inside the mountain.’

‘We should be sheltered enough in here,’ Dwalin added, looking around the former living quarters.

The tower had three levels with the uppermost level being partially open to the elements and where the ravens of Erebor made their home.  The bottom level had mostly been used for storage of armaments and supplies for the guards stationed there with a natural spring, while the middle level held the living quarters of the guard post with one large living room and a slightly smaller dormitory.  There were also a couple of smaller rooms, now empty of anything except rubble and old bits of wood which might once have been shelving.  Much to Thorin’s surprise and gratitude, there were no physical remains.  There’ll be enough of them inside the Mountain.

‘We kept a detachment of twenty guards here at all times,’ Balin explained to those who hadn’t known Erebor before Smaug.  ‘There used to be a beacon on the battlements up top which was only lit when danger threatened the mountain.  The guards barely had time to light it the day the dragon came.  We didn’t anticipate a winged enemy.’

‘We didn’t anticipate a lot of things,’ Thorin muttered, staring out of what was once a glazed window at the King’s Gates marking the front door of Erebor which were now in pieces.  One of them was hanging half open while the other was destroyed when Smaug entered the Mountain.

‘Looks like the lookout’s still in one piece,’ Dwalin commented, joining Thorin at the window.  ‘If we can’t find the secret entrance, we can always climb over to it and enter through the main guard room.’

‘We’d have to be very careful not to make any noise,’ Thorin nodded.  ‘Sound will carry deep inside from there and there won’t be any other noise inside to cover us like there was when we climbed there.’

Dwalin gave a sudden grin.  ‘It was fun doing that, wasn’t it?  Well worth the hiding we both got.’

‘Your adad had a powerful swing,’ Thorin said, grinning at the memory.  ‘It was worth it though.’

He turned his head as Bilbo joined them at the window and tugged the hobbit in front of him, wrapping his arms around him from the back.

‘Are we going to be safe here?’ Bilbo asked, leaning back against Thorin’s chest.

‘I think so,’ Dwalin replied.  ‘We’re far enough away for any sounds we make to be muffled.  My guess is that Smaug made his nest in the treasury, which is much deeper in the Mountain.  It’s the most obvious place for him to be.’

‘It is where he is,’ Bilbo nodded.  ‘Thror’s secret door came out in a cellar near to the treasury.  It was much closer to the inside than we are now, but the entrance to it was in a much more secluded place.  We’re pretty exposed here.’

‘I think we’ll be fine for a couple of nights as long as we don’t light a fire and keep our voices down,’ Thorin told him.  ‘Have you worked out where we’ll sleep yet?’

‘The main dormitory is the best place as it’s on the other side of the tower facing east, and is in the best repair,’ Bilbo explained.  ‘Dori’s got a few of the Company clearing it out and Bombur’s getting on with preparing a cold meal.  Fortunately, it’s quite warm in here so we should be fine without a fire.’

‘And we’ll get started on searching for the secret door tomorrow morning,’ Thorin agreed.  ‘We know the entrance is somewhere on the ground floor.  We just need to find it.’

*****

Finding the secret door was much harder than expected.

‘We should have known it would be,’ Thorin muttered, his hands on his hips much like Bilbo was wont to do when irritated.  ‘Nothing ever goes to plan on this quest.’

‘Are you certain the entrance is down here?’ Balin asked him – for the fourth or fifth time.

‘Yes, that’s what Thorin the First told me.  He just couldn’t remember where!’

‘Fíli, Kíli?’ Balin asked a little louder, none of them wanting to shout and risk being heard by the dragon.

The two princes came over to join their uncles by the window embrasure, the gap now covered with a moth-eaten rug.

‘Can either of you two remember what King Thorin said?’ Balin asked.

‘We didn’t actually meet him,’ Fíli admitted.  ‘He wasn’t very interested in talking to anyone outside of his own circle of friends that weren’t kings themselves.  None of the older ones were.’

I thought they were all stuck-up snobs,’ Kíli muttered.  ‘Wouldn’t have hurt them to talk to us.  ‘It’s not like we’re not Durins as well.’

Bilbo nodded.  He’d never even bothered approaching any of the older Longbeards.  If they wouldn’t talk to their own descendants, they’d never talk to a Hobbit.

‘I’m certain I was told the entrance was on the ground floor,’ Thorin repeated.

‘But we’ve searched every inch of this place,’ Glóin argued, joining the ever-growing group around Thorin.  ‘We’ve been at it since early this morning and it’s getting dark now.  We’ll have to either give it up for today or light some of the lanterns we found.’

‘No, no lights,’ Thorin ordered.  ‘Not down here, they’re too easily seen.  We can use them in the dormitory if we block the windows again.  Smaug won’t see them there unless he actually leaves the Mountain.’

‘And he’s not done that for sixty years,’ Balin nodded.  ‘I suggest we leave the search for today and start again tomorrow morning.’

‘But we’ve searched everywhere down here!’ Glóin objected.

‘Then we search it all again!’ Thorin snapped, then sighed and rubbed his temples.  ‘Sorry.  I’m sorry, Glóin.  I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that.  I’m just tired and irritated.’

‘We’re all getting tired and irritated,’ Bilbo said, pushing between the dwarrow around Thorin and slipping his arm around Thorin’s waist.  ‘We need to eat.  Bombur’s gone back upstairs to prepare a meal and Bofur thinks he can light a small fire in the dormitory to heat water for hot drinks, which won’t be seen from inside the Mountain.  Dinner and a hot drink will make us all feel better, then we can have story time again as long as we keep our voices down.’

Thorin gave Bilbo a tired smile and pulled him close.  ‘You have the best ideas, mim razdith.  Let’s get back upstairs and leave this until tomorrow.  It’s not going anywhere.’

The Company followed their leader up the stone steps and into the common room where Bombur was busy preparing a third cold meal.  As Bilbo had said the previous day, the room was perfectly warm without a fire, its immensely thick walls preventing the cold from outside getting in, especially since the hole where the window used to be was now covered with a thick rug – keeping the cold out and muffling any noise they might make.

From the dormitory came the scent of something spicy and when Bilbo poked his head around the door he found Bofur had created a stone hearth underneath the open window space rather than in the enormous fireplace as the chimney from the fireplace was in the centre of the roof where it could be easily spotted by anyone or anything inside the Mountain.

‘Won’t this room be rather smokey tonight?’ Bilbo asked Bofur a little uncertainly.

‘Nah, it shouldn’t be.  Most of the smoke’s going outside and besides, we’ve slept with worse.’

We have indeed, Bilbo thought to himself.  Especially last time in Mirkwood.  He stopped suddenly and tilted his head to one side, making Bofur give him a curious look.

‘What’s—’ he began to say, but Bilbo held up his hand.

‘Shh.  I’m listening.’

Bofur frowned and squeezed his eyes together.  ‘I can’t hear—’

Bilbo paid no attention to him, though, and stomped off towards the common room.  ‘Glóin!  Stop pestering Thorin!  He’s told you he can’t remember any more than he’s told you and you harassing him won’t give him any further information!’

Bofur had followed Bilbo into the main room and he gave Bilbo a curious look.  ‘How did you hear what Glóin said, Bilbo?  We were by the window in the dormitory.  I’ve got very good hearing and I heard nothing, even when I concentrated after I saw you listening to something.  Is this something else Mahal gave you?’

Bilbo glanced at Thorin, who sighed and nodded to him.

‘The bond Bilbo and I share allows us to hear the other’s thoughts,’ Thorin explained.  ‘We can exchange messages without speaking to each other and we’ve been able to hear what the other one is hearing and even share what we’re feeling too.’

‘I felt Thorin’s horror when the spider’s attacked us in Mirkwood,’ Bilbo added.  ‘I didn’t see them myself until they were upon us, but I realised we were in some kind of danger.’

The other dwarrow stared at Thorin and Bilbo.

‘I’ve only ever heard of such a thing once,’ Balin said after a while.  ‘According to some legends, there was a bond such as you describe between Durin I and his wife.’

There were gasps as the other dwarrow turned to look at Thorin who scowled back at them.

‘I’m not Durin the bloody Deathless, if that’s what you’re all thinking.  Other dwarrow might have had similar bonds to us and just never told anyone.’

‘Which is what we intended to do,’ Bilbo added.  ‘I just stupidly forgot when I heard Glóin pestering Thorin when he’s tired.’

The rest of the Company appeared to accept this, although some continued to give Thorin and Bilbo curious stares whenever they thought they weren’t being observed.

‘If I was Durin reborn, you’d think I’d know about it,’ Thorin grumbled to Bilbo later that night as they cuddled up together in their sleeping rolls.  ‘Wouldn’t I?’

‘Mmm,’ Bilbo breathed, pulling the shared blanket further over his shoulder.  Now shut up.  I’m tired! he said through their link, making Thorin laugh quietly and kiss the tip of his ear, the only part of him not covered by blankets.

*****

‘I had a thought in the night,’ Nori announced over breakfast the following morning.

‘Make a note of that, Ori,’ Dwalin ordered the scribe.  ‘It must be a first.’

‘Fuck off, Dwalin,’ Nori retorted.  ‘I’m being serious.’

‘So was I.’

‘What’s your thought?’ Thorin asked, his eyes on Nori even as he swiped at Dwalin with his fist, who dodged it and laughed.

‘We’ve been searching the ground floor for the secret door because that’s what you think you were told.’

‘Go on,’ Thorin said.  ‘And ignore this lot.’  He waved a hand to Dwalin, Fíli, and Kíli sniggering about ‘stating the bleeding obvious’.

‘It’s just that, “ground floor” can sometimes mean different things,’ Nori explained.  ‘I’ve heard it mean the floor on ground level or the floor under the ground.’

Fíli slapped his forehead and groaned.  ‘Nori’s absolutely right.  And the floor we’ve been searching is partially underground.  This is the level you enter from outside unless you go down some steps to the supply rooms.  We should have been looking at this level!’

‘Wait a minute,’ Dori said, holding up a hand.  ‘I think Fíli and Nori are right, but look around.’  The Company did as they were told and looked around the living room they were eating in.

‘What are we looking at?’ Ori asked his brother.

‘We’re searching for a secret door, right?’ Dori asked, ignoring Ori’s question.

The others nodded.

‘But a door, secret or not, leads somewhere, right?’

Thorin grasped his meaning straight away.  ‘There’s nowhere wide enough for a passage from this floor, even with these thick walls.’

‘Exactly,’ Dori smiled at his king.

‘But what if the door led to a staircase down to a lower area?’ Nori suggested.

‘Not enough head room,’ Bofur said immediately.  ‘Dori’s right.  The walls are pretty thick but not thick enough to give sufficient headroom, unless it’s a sheer drop.’

‘And that’s unlikely,’ Dwalin nodded in agreement.  ‘So, any ideas, anyone?  Or should we plan on using the path Thorin and I used to get to the lookout?’

‘I don’t want to use that unless we absolutely have to,’ Thorin said, shaking his head.  ‘We’re too exposed should Smaug wake up, and there’s quite a bit of scrambling required.’  He didn’t voice his concern that Bombur was unlikely to manage the difficult route without causing a lot of noise.  He glanced at Bilbo at his side, pushing a slice of fruit around his bowl.  ‘You’ve been very quiet, amrâlimê.  Nothing to say?’

‘Mmm?’  Bilbo looked up and around the table.  ‘Did I miss something?’

‘You were deep in thought,’ Kíli teased.  ‘You haven’t even finished your apple.’

Bilbo glanced down at his bowl and picked up the remaining slice of apple, but instead of putting it in his mouth he turned it over and over between his fingers.

‘Bilbo?’ Thorin asked quietly.

‘I was thinking about what Nori and Dori said.  And Bofur.  We should look for a place that’s deep enough to allow a door to open.  The map said that Thror’s secret door was five feet high and four may walk abreast.’

‘Three,’ Ori corrected, flicking back through his journal.  ‘Five feet high and three may walk abreast.’

Bilbo smiled at him.  ‘Thank you, Ori, but three or four, we’re possibly looking for quite a large door.’

‘Why?’ Fíli demanded.  ‘Different people built the doors at different times.  They’re also likely to be different in size.’

‘Mmm,’ Bilbo nodded.  ‘But I was trying to think of anywhere here that was big enough for a large opening.’

‘And?’ Thorin asked.  ‘Did you think of somewhere?’

‘I…possibly.’

‘Where?’ demanded several of the Company.

Bilbo popped the slice of apple into his mouth and pushed away from the table.  He headed for the door to the lower level, the rest of the Company following him curiously.

‘But we’ve searched everywhere down there,’ Glóin protested.  ‘More than once.’

Bilbo gave him a cheeky little grin.  ‘We didn’t search where I’m thinking of.’

He opened the door and made his way down the staircase, beckoning to the others to come down as well.

‘I remembered a secret place in the Great Smials in Tookborough, where my grandparents, my mother’s parents, live.  No-one can remember what it was originally for, but as children, my cousins and I used to play in it – it was large enough to hold several of us – and now my younger cousins use it in their games.’

‘Doesn’t the Thain live in the Great Smials?’ Ori asked, leafing back through his journal again.

‘Mmm,’ Bilbo agreed, staring at the stone staircase.  ‘My grandfather.’

There was a sudden silence.

‘Your grandfather is the Thain of the Shire?’ Balin asked, eventually.

Bilbo glanced at him and nodded, then pointed back at the staircase.  ‘I think—’

‘Your grandfather is King of the Shire,’ Balin stated, interrupting him.

‘No, he’s the Thain,’ Bilbo corrected.  ‘Hobbits don’t have kings.’

‘But he rules the Shire?’ Balin pressed.

‘Well, not really, hobbits—’

‘He makes sure the laws are kept?’ Glóin asked, and Bilbo nodded.  ‘And he organises the military?’

Bilbo frowned.  ‘Not really.  We don’t have a military, just the Hobbitry-in-Arms, when it’s needed.’

‘Who are they and what do they do?’

Bilbo sighed.  ‘They’re…adult hobbits who’re called out in an emergency.’

‘To do what?’

‘…Defend the Shire if needed.’

‘And who commands them?’

‘…my grandfather.’

‘And who will take over when he passes?’ Balin asked.

‘…my mother’s eldest brother.’

‘So it’s a hereditary position, like a monarchy.’

‘Well, I suppose so, but we don’t call them Kings in the Shire.’

‘But you are the grandson of the present Thain, and nephew to the next one,’ Balin clarified.  ‘You’re a member of the royal family of the Shire, Bilbo.  Your position is equal to that of Fíli or Kíli.  You’re a prince.’

‘Except that I’m not,’ Bilbo objected. ‘I’m…just me.’

‘We can talk about this later,’ Thorin interjected.  ‘For now, what are you trying to show us, Bilbo?’

Bilbo sighed again and pointed to the stone staircase.  ‘The entrance to our hidden-hole in the Great Smials is accessed through the second stair in one of the staircases.  It might be the same here, although probably not the second stair, it’s not deep enough.’

‘It would certainly match the dimensions Dori and Bofur talked about,’ Glóin nodded.  ‘How do you get into the one you know, Bilbo?’

‘We press a stone in the wall next to the staircase,’ he replied, running his hands over the lower part of the wall, all he could reach.

‘Right.’  Thorin clapped his hands.  ‘Everyone take a step and examine every part of the wall.  If you can’t reach the top of the wall, tell me or Dwalin and we’ll help.  Well?’  He looked around at his Company.  ‘Get on with it!’

The Company scurried up the staircase, which had sixteen deep steps, and they began running their hands over the wall to the side, pressing and gripping each stone they could reach.  It took a while, but eventually Bifur called to them from the tenth stair.

Ganagîn!’

The others crowded onto the stairs above and below the one on which he was standing while Thorin pushed his way through.

‘Where?’ he asked Bifur and peered at the stone to which Bifur was pointing.  ‘Mmm.  If I press…’  Matching action to word, he rested his fingers on the slightly protruding rock and pressed firmly.

Ori screeched in surprise, then looked abashed, as one of the steps in the stone staircase began to move, sliding back and disappearing beneath the step immediately above it, slowly, inch by inch, grinding as it went.  Bifur, who was standing on the moving stair, leapt down to the foot of the staircase to get out of the way, and the others on the lower steps joined him as a second, then a third step began to slide back.  It took a couple of minutes, but, eventually, there was a wide three-step gap in the centre of the staircase, big enough for even Bombur to fit through.

‘Bofur, get a lantern,’ Thorin ordered, looking at the group of dwarrow on the upper part of the staircase.

Bofur disappeared and reappeared with three lanterns, which he passed around as Glóin lit them with his tinderbox.  Bilbo pushed his way through to Thorin’s side.

‘I’m going with you.’

‘I’d prefer it if you stayed here while Dwalin and I look, amrâlimê,’ Thorin told him, hopeful that Bilbo would do as he asked, but fully expecting him to refuse.

‘Yeah, like that’ll happen,’ Fíli muttered.

‘I’m going with you,’ Bilbo repeated, his lips twitching.

Thorin sighed but nodded.  ‘You keep between us, though.  Understand?  No wandering off or pushing ahead.’

Bilbo hummed and nodded, but made no promises, Thorin realised, and shook his head.  He knew his hobbit well enough by now, however, to know this was as good as he was going to get.

Once each of the explorers were holding a lantern, Thorin peered into the exposed hole, then looked back up and searched for Balin.  ‘You’re in charge, Balin.  Remember what I told you if we’re not back in four hours.’

‘Aye, laddie, but I doubt I’ll need to.  Good luck, and we’ll see you soon.’

Thorin nodded, then lowered himself into the gap.  Here goes.


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Daisy May

I'm a fifty-something woman and live in the North of England in what's known as God's Own Country - Yorkshire. I've written all my life - both fiction and as an historian but have only come to fan-fiction in the last few years. I love the community we have on Discord and can’t thank Keira and Jilly enough for setting it up and keeping it running. I can truly say it’s saved by sanity at times in this past year.

One Comment:

  1. Oh this is so fun. I love the tension breakers. And the fact that Fili and Kili managed to charm their way back. So excited to read this through!

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