A Fair Wind Homeward – 2/3 – 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



Bilbo watched as Thorin lowered himself into the dark hole, turned ninety degrees, and stepped to one side, leaving room for Bilbo and Dwalin to join him.  Bilbo dropped down and found himself on a short flight of steps, just four of them, and he hopped down them to stand next to Thorin and looked around.  They were in a narrow tunnel and a stone door was perpendicular to the original staircase.  Dwalin appeared at his side, holding up his lantern and peering at the door.

‘A password opens it, didn’t you say?’ he asked Thorin, who nodded.

Melhekhel Shamrûnusullu,’ he said clearly.

‘King of all Kings, Protector of all,’ Dwalin translated, and Bilbo gave a short laugh.

‘The boys told you the first Thorin had a bit of an ego.’

The two dwarrow ignored him as the stone door slid slowly to one side, revealing a dark passage at the same time as the gap in the staircase closed.

‘Are we trapped?’ Bilbo demanded, trying to breathe evenly.

Thorin shook his head.  ‘I expect it’s on a pulley system.  Both can’t be open at the same time.  If we look around here, we’ll probably find the stone which will close the door and open the staircase.’

‘And if we can’t?’ Bilbo asked, beginning to feel a little uneasy.

‘Then Balin will open the stairs in four hours’ time and send Bofur after us.’

‘Then let’s get going so we’ve got something to report,’ Dwalin muttered.  ‘Less talking, more walking.’

Thorin reached over Bilbo’s head and punched his best friend, then turned back, held up his lantern and stepped into the passage.

‘The air’s fresh, so there must be some ventilation somewhere,’ Thorin murmured as they made their way along the tunnel.

Bilbo looked around but couldn’t see any obvious holes for air to enter.  ‘The walls are very smooth,’ he commented, running his hand along one side.

‘Good dwarrow work,’ Dwalin said, keeping his voice low.  ‘Quiet now, we don’t know where this opens and if Smaug might hear us.  Sound can travel.’

‘Shouldn’t I go ahead then in case he can smell you two?’ Bilbo asked quietly.  He saw Thorin glance back at him and frown.

‘I’d rather we all stay together for the moment,’ he murmured.  ‘Silence from now on.’

The trek through the passage felt unending.  Bilbo kept on looking around as they walked, but the walls and roof were exactly the same all the way along, although the floor was more uneven with occasional steps up or down.

Part of the way along, Dwalin sniffed.  ‘Smells suddenly damp,’ he said in a low voice, holding his lantern up, and then down close to the floor.

‘Here,’ Thorin murmured, pointing.  ‘The floor’s slightly damp.  Might be from the surface.’

‘Or from the spring that runs down to join the River Running?’ Dwalin suggested.

Thorin nodded but didn’t speak.  They continued on for a while when Thorin spoke again in a low voice.  ‘The tunnel’s curving, changing direction slightly.’

They continued on until Bilbo wondered if the passage would ever end.

‘There’s a door up ahead,’ Thorin whispered.  ‘Shall I open it?’

‘Is there a handle or does it need another password?’ Dwalin whispered back.

‘I can’t see a handle,’ Thorin replied, his hands running all over the stone.

‘Try the password then,’ Bilbo hissed.

‘We don’t know where it comes out and if it’s as loud as it was at Ravenhill…’

‘We’re just going to have to risk it,’ Dwalin told him.

Taking a deep breath, Thorin repeated the password in a low voice and the stone door opened silently.

*****

Bilbo had no idea how long it took them to walk to the Mountain and back to Ravenhill, but it must have been under four hours as they didn’t meet Bofur on their way back.  The stone door on the Ravenhill end was closed when they reached it, but it opened as Thorin gave the password and the three of them passed through it and squashed themselves into the gap beneath the stone steps.

Melhekhel Shamrûnusullu,’ Thorin repeated, and the stone door swung shut as the gap in the stairs opened.  Fili’s blond head appeared in the gap.

‘We wondered where you’d got to,’ he exclaimed.  ‘Bofur’s gone for another lantern to go and find you, but Balin said neither Kíli nor I could go with him.’

‘Move away, namadul,’ Thorin ordered, then picked up Bilbo and lifted him through the gap where Fíli caught his arms and took his weight, pulling him up and onto the stone steps.

‘A little warning would be nice!’ Bilbo complained, glaring between Thorin and Fíli.

‘You’d only have argued,’ Thorin grinned, pulling himself up and putting his arm around Bilbo.  ‘This was quicker.’

Bilbo stomped away to the top of the stone steps as Dwalin appeared at Thorin’s side, all three dwarrow following Bilbo up the steps and into the living room.

‘Everything alright with the passage?’ Balin asked while Dori bustled in from the dormitory with a large pot of tea and began pouring it out and handing it around.

‘Perfectly fine all the way along,’ Dwalin replied.  ‘There’s a spot of damp about half way along but nothing to worry about, and the air’s clean and fresh.’

‘Where does it open?’ Balin asked, and the others nodded, all eager to hear the answer.

Dwalin looked over to Thorin.  ‘Do you want to tell them?’

‘It opens into the large cupboard in the main guardroom.’  Thorin gave a sudden grin and glanced back at Dwalin.  ‘The number of times we’ve played in that cupboard, never realising there was a secret door and passage at the back of it!’

‘We could have made good use of it,’ Dwalin nodded, grinning back at Thorin.  ‘What a great way it would have been to escape from Frerin and Dís when they refused to leave us alone.’

They both laughed, and the others grinned.

‘Is the guardroom far enough from the treasury to allow us to move there?’ Ori asked.

Dwalin considered this.  ‘Possibly, but I’d rather we didn’t.  The biggest worry is that Smaug catches our scent and comes looking for us if what Thorin and Bilbo have said is true from last time they were here.’

‘So we’ll stay here for the moment, shall we?’ Bilbo asked, sipping his tea and giving Dori a grateful smile.

‘I think it would be wise,’ Balin nodded.  ‘We can begin planning what happens next.  Have you thought how we can kill the dragon?’ he asked, looking between Thorin and Bilbo.

‘We talked about Kíli trying to get an arrow into the gap on Smaug’s chest.’

‘We did, but we’re going to need a Black Arrow for him to fire,’ Thorin replied.  ‘A normal arrow isn’t strong enough to pierce the skin.  I had hoped to have a look for it at Bard’s house, but we never got the chance.’

‘He has it hidden somewhere safe in case the Master should find it,’ Kíli said.  ‘I remember him being asked about it last time.’

Bilbo, however, had his attention focussed on Balin, who was running his fingers through his beard absently, not paying attention to anyone else.  Bilbo nudged Thorin.  Look at Balin.  He’s thinking about something.

Thorin turned his head and watched his Seneschal for a moment.  ‘Something on your mind, Balin?’

Balin started and looked around.  ‘Sorry?’

‘I asked if there was anything on your mind,’ Thorin repeated.

‘Mmm,’ Balin nodded.  ‘I was trying to remember back when Girion asked Thrór to forge the Black Arrows.  I have an idea Thrór kept one of them for some reason.  Possibly because they took so long and were difficult to make.’

‘They’re not magical then?’ Fíli asked.  ‘Because I recall Bard saying he’d always been able to retrieve it whenever he fired it.’

‘No, there’s no magic about them.  Not that I’m aware, anyway.’

Thorin waved that away.  ‘I’m more interested in you thinking my grandfather might have kept one.  Why doesn’t matter.  The point is where he kept it.’

‘It would be somewhere in his forge, I should think,’ Balin answered, taking a sip of tea and frowning at it.  ‘Is there any more tea?  This is cold.’

‘Where’s his forge?’ Bilbo asked, pushing the teapot towards Balin.  ‘Somewhere we can get to without disturbing the dragon?’

‘It was in the royal quarters,’ Thorin nodded.  ‘Well away from the treasury, although my grandfather spent more time there than in our quarters latterly.’

‘Let’s go, then!’ Kíli said excitedly, jumping to his feet.

‘Slow down,’ Thorin ordered, his arm blocking Kili’s way.  ‘We can’t all go, we’d make far too much noise.’

‘It’d probably be best if you and Dwalin take Kíli with you,’ Glóin said.  ‘The rest of us can wait here.’

‘Thorin’s not going anywhere without me,’ Bilbo said firmly.  ‘Nowhere dangerous, at least.’

‘It won’t be dangerous,’ Kíli scoffed.  ‘We’re just going to find the Black Arrow in great-grandfather’s forge.’

‘And work out the best place for you to stand in the treasury when you shoot the bastard worm,’ Dwalin added, then scowled at Thorin.  ‘What’d you hit me for?’

Thorin sighed and shook his head.  ‘Subtle isn’t a word which applies to you, is it?’

‘Huh?’

‘I think he was trying to stop you from saying something to make me want to come with you,’ Bilbo said pleasantly.  ‘Like you going to the treasury to look for a suitable position for Kíli to fire from.  It won’t work, Thorin.  I’m coming with you whether you like it or not.’

‘Then I’m coming as well,’ Fíli announced.  ‘I’m not having my entire family disappear on me.’

‘What about me?’ Ori demanded.  ‘I’ve never seen Erebor either.  I want to go.’

*****

It was no surprise to Thorin that his entire Company joined him in his second trip to the Mountain proper.  This is exactly what I wanted to avoid, he told Bilbo crossly.

Tough, was Bilbo’s inelegant response to him.

Thorin ordered the larger part of the group to remain in the guardroom while he, Dwalin, Bilbo, and Kíli went to find Thror’s forge.

‘I’m pretty sure I can remember where it is,’ Thorin murmured as they tiptoed along the corridor leading to the royal quarters and through a door which opened with a creak.  They all stood stock-still, listening for any sound from the treasury far below.

‘I would think the Mountain is full of things that creak and groan,’ Bilbo whispered, holding tight to Thorin’s hand as he couldn’t see an inch in front of him.

‘Let’s hope so,’ Thorin whispered back.  ‘This way.’  He pointed to a side corridor leading – thankfully – away from the main part of Erebor.

They crept along, Thorin frowning as he tried to remember exactly where he needed to lead them.  ‘Left here,’ he murmured, almost to himself.  ‘Second door along…’  He opened the door to the forge, thankful it wasn’t locked, and the four of them looked around after Dwalin opened the shutters on the lanterns he and Kíli carried.

‘I didn’t think the dragon got up here,’ Kíli frowned, looking at the mess the room was in.

‘He didn’t.  This is as Thrór must have left it,’ Thorin told him, poking his boot through the mess from the upended drawers.  ‘He must have come here before he and my father left the Mountain.  No blacksmith would leave their forge in such a mess.’

‘Do you think he came for the Black Arrow?’ Kíli asked, still frowning at the disarray.

‘Possibly,’ Thorin replied, thinking back to his father and grandfather joining the rest of the escapees to the side of the Mountain.  ‘I think he and my father escaped through the secret door to the cellars, the one we originally found as they appeared pretty suddenly at the side of the mountain where we were gathering all the survivors together, but I don’t recall him carrying anything.  I always thought my father had had to force him to leave the treasury.  Now, I’m not so sure.’

‘Where do we begin?’ Bilbo asked, looking around.

‘We each take a wall and search it thoroughly,’ Dwalin suggested practically.

They searched for well over an hour, Thorin thought, before Kíli gave a sudden cry, then slapped his hand over his mouth and looked around.

‘Sorry,’ he muttered quietly, sucking his finger end.  ‘I think I’ve found it, though.  There’s something sharp behind this pile of junk, wrapped in cloth.  I tried to get it but pricked my finger on something.’

Thorin bent over the bench and saw what Kíli had seen; something wrapped in an old rug – a thick old rug.  If Kíli pricked his finger through that, it was very sharp indeed.  He reached out and pulled the end of the rug rather than the item itself, careful not to dislodge anything which might make a noise.  Dwalin came to help, and together they lifted the old rug onto an empty bench and rolled it open.

There was indeed an arrow there, but what an arrow!  Regular sized, meaning it could be fired from a normal sized bow, the shaft was made of what looked like a meld of metals, with the head of the arrow made of mithril making it exceedingly strong and sharp while still relatively light in weight.

‘It’s smaller than I expected,’ Thorin said, turning the arrow over in his hands and examining it carefully.

‘It just a regular arrow size,’ Dwalin nodded, peering at it.  ‘Can you see Thror’s mark?’

Thorin held up a lantern and pointed to the end of the shaft.  ‘Here.’  There was a tiny maker’s-mark on the very end.  ‘It’ll be heavier than the arrows you’re used to, Kíli.’

‘Will you be able to fire it from a normal bow?’ Dwalin asked, reaching out to touch the mithril tip gently.

‘I think so,’ Kíli nodded.  ‘I’d like to practise with it a few times before I have to kill Smaug, though.’

‘That won’t be a problem if we move far enough away from the Mountain,’ Thorin agreed.  ‘All we need to do now is work out the best place for you to fire it from.’

‘I think I can remember enough details about the treasury and Smaug’s position to draw a sketch,’ Bilbo said.  ‘Let’s stay away from there: waking him up before we’re ready is the last thing we need to do.  Now pass me a pencil and some paper…’

*****

The Company congregated back in the watchtower on Ravenhill as the sun began to set, everyone wanting to have a look at Kili’s arrow.

‘If Thrór made this in the way I think he did,’ Balin began, ‘it’s made of the same alloy the Elven smiths used to make Angainor.’

Bilbo and Ori looked up at him in surprise.

‘The chains of Melkor?’ Bilbo asked.  ‘They were made of the same metal?’

‘It’s a mix of metals including gold which, when used in the correct quantities with other metals, makes an incredibly strong alloy,’ Thorin explained.  ‘It was the Elven smiths who originally discovered the combination, and then the dwarrow began to use it.  I didn’t realise anyone knew the right combination in the Third Age, but obviously Thrór did.  I wonder where he got it from.’

‘Is that important?’ Bilbo asked, watching Thorin, who nodded.

‘Mahal taught me a lot about the old crafts, especially ones involving mithril, but not this.  If I can work out the amalgam of metals, it will help greatly in reviving the old methods of smithing.’

‘Do you think you can fire it?’ Nori asked Kíli.

‘I’m going to have a try tomorrow,’ Kíli replied.  ‘Uncle suggested we go back to where the door on the mountain is.  We can get down to ground level easy enough from there, and it’s pretty secluded.  He doubts Smaug will hear us from there.’

‘And have you decided where to fire it from?’ Bofur inquired.

‘Possibly,’ Bilbo nodded while Thorin scowled at him.  ‘Thorin thinks it too dangerous, but I think I can distract Smaug enough to make him rear out of the treasure, enough that Kili’ll get a good shot at his chest.’

‘It is too dangerous,’ Thorin told him sharply.

‘But it will protect Lake-town if we can kill him inside the Mountain,’ Bilbo pointed out logically.

‘Where in the treasury are you suggesting?’ Balin asked.

‘There’s a small balcony at one side of the treasury.  A viewing gallery of some sort,’ Bilbo explained.  ‘If Kíli can get in there while I distract Smaug, I can try to get him facing that way.’

Balin frowned.  ‘To the left of the main doors,’ he said thoughtfully.  ‘Thrór had it built so he could sit and look at his treasure.  It gave him a wider view than being on the ground did.’

Thorin looked away, but not before Bilbo saw him bite his lip.  In the previous timeline, Thorin had used the small gallery for the same purpose.  He reached out to grip Thorin’s shoulder and shook it a little. The gold can’t hurt you this time, my love.  Mahal made sure of that, so stop your brooding.

Still with his back to Bilbo, Thorin reached up and held the hand gripping his shoulder.  He squeezed it and nodded his head a little, making Bilbo sigh.  I do know, Lukhudel, but it still shames me to remember what I became and how I treated you.

I forgave you many years ago, stoopid.  Please don’t go all melancholy on me, on any of us.  We need you and your strength; you’re our king.  Never forget that.

Thorin turned at this, pulled Bilbo into his arms and held him tightly for a moment, causing Fíli and Kíli to groan.

‘Don’t go all mushy on us, you two,’ Fíli told them, but he was smiling.

Thorin reached out and pulled Fíli into the hug and motioned to Kíli with his chin.

‘A family huddle,’ Bilbo said gently, pushing Kili’s hair out of his eyes and stroking his cheek.  ‘That’s just what we needed, my boys.’

The rest of the Company had occupied themselves with anything that took their attention from the royal family, but Balin smiled at them as Thorin gave the boys a last squeeze and bent his head to kiss Bilbo’s cheek.

‘So, King Under the Mountain.  What do we do next?’ Balin asked.

‘Next, we have something to eat,’ Bilbo said firmly.  ‘My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut!  It must be dinnertime soon.’

‘Hobbits and their appetites!’ Fíli grinned.  ‘May they never grow less.’

At Bilbo’s words, Bombur began preparations for a meal while Bofur disappeared into the dormitory to light the fire and heat some water.  Before long Thorin’s Company were sitting around the table eating and chatting happily.  Since it was already dark outside and they couldn’t risk more than one lantern being lit in the main living room, the lighting gave an almost romantic air to the room, Bilbo decided.  It was all very pleasant.

*****

‘Try it again, Kíli,’ Thorin called as Fíli returned the Black Arrow to his brother.

‘Won’t it get blunt being fired so many times?’ Bilbo asked Thorin from the rock he’d been instructed to sit on and stay!

‘The arrow head’s made from mithril so, no,’ Thorin replied absently, his attention fixed on his youngest nephew.

Kíli released the arrow again, and it went straight through the third plank of wood they were using as a target.

‘Good shot!’ Fíli called to him, running to retrieve the arrow.

‘Everything alright, Kíli?’ Thorin asked as Kíli frowned at his bow, and he jogged over to join him.  ‘What’s happened?’

Kíli held out his bow.  ‘I’m not sure it’s going to be strong enough to use many more times.  That arrow is so powerful it could do with a stronger and heavier bow, I think.  I’m pretty certain I could give it more power with a stronger one.’

Thorin took the bow from Kili’s hands and examined it as Fíli joined them.

‘What’s wrong, bro?’

Kíli explained his concerns to Fíli, who also frowned.

‘Can we make a new one?’ he suggested.

Thorin shook his head.  ‘I doubt we’ll have the time.  The wood for a bow needs to be soaked thoroughly to get it to bend enough, and then it needs to dry out.  It took me weeks to make Kíli his first bow.  We just don’t have that amount of time.’

‘Is there likely to be a stronger bow in the Mountain?’

Again Thorin shook his head.  ‘Doubtful.  Few dwarrow become archers, and those that do use a generic bow.  I don’t recall there being any advanced wood-smiths amongst Durin’s folk.’

‘Might Balin know better?’

‘If anyone knows, it’d be Dwalin.  He spent most of his time out of lessons hanging around the guardroom before the dragon came.  It’s worth asking, but don’t get your hopes up, either of you,’ Thorin told them, then looked up as he heard his name being called.

‘Thorin Oakenshield!’ Bilbo called again, attracting Thorin’s attention.  ‘Come and get me down, you great lump!’

The boys and Thorin laughed as they jogged over to Bilbo’s rock.  Thorin had lifted him and planted him on top of a large rock at the foot of the rock spur on which stood the old watchtower, and told him firmly to stay exactly where he was.

‘We have no idea of how the arrow will fly,’ Thorin explained.  ‘You’re safe here, but do not move!’

‘I can’t get down by myself, you idiot dwarf!’ Bilbo told him.  ‘Fancy walking off and leaving me here.  You should be ashamed!’

‘Ashamed of keeping you safe, amrâlimê?  Never.’

The two princes helped Bilbo to climb down to ground level where he stood, hands on his hips, glaring at their uncle.

‘For two pins I’d—’

‘I’m struggling with my bow,’ Kíli interrupted, and Thorin covered his face with his hand to hide the smile at the blatant attempt to change the subject.  It worked.

‘Struggling how?’ Bilbo asked.

‘I’m worried my bow isn’t strong enough to give enough tension for the arrow,’ Kíli explained.  ‘Any ideas?’

Bilbo tapped his lip with his finger.  ‘I…might have?’

Thorin’s eyebrows disappeared into his hair.  He hadn’t expected Bilbo to have an answer.  Hobbit’s weren’t militaristic at all.

‘I’ve seen the Rangers who protect the Shire using what they call a crossbow.  Instead of being vertical like yours, it’s used horizontally, as I doubt the Rangers are as strong as dwarrow or elves.  It gives them a greater tension, so I understand.’

‘But we don’t have a crossbow or time for Kíli to learn to use one,’ Fíli objected.

‘No, I know,’ Bilbo agreed.  ‘But I think if I can explain the method the Rangers use, we may be able to adapt how Kíli uses his bow.’

Thorin raised a single brow.  Bilbo astonished him every single day.

‘Come on,’ Bilbo was saying.  ‘Let’s get back to the watchtower.  I’ll draw a sketch so you can see what I mean.’

They headed back together and found the entire Company waiting for them.  Thorin had asked them to remain in the tower to prevent too much noise being made.  He knew how excited dwarrow could get, especially over weapons!

‘What’s happened?’ Dwalin demanded as soon as they entered the main room.

Kíli explained about his bow again, and Bilbo sketched out a picture of a crossbow while Thorin and Dwalin had a quiet conversation.

‘Having the bow itself held firm to the main body but still able to bend gives a much more powerful thrust to the arrow,’ Bilbo explained.  ‘The bowstring is pulled back but is kept in place by a sort of clockwork mechanism.  I don’t know exactly how it works, but I do know the Rangers can keep a crossbow armed ready to fire at any moment, unlike an ordinary bow where the string needs to be pulled back and released at the same time.  Does that make sense?’

Thorin, along with a few of the other dwarrow, nodded.  ‘It’s pretty basic engineering for us,’ he explained.  ‘I dare say we would have got to this point if more dwarrow had been interested in archery.  I can see how such a method would give the string more tension, giving more velocity to the fired arrow, which is what archery is all about.  I’m not sure how we can adapt this to a hand held bow, though, and we don’t have enough time to make one and for Kíli to learn to use it.’

‘What’s your bowstring made from?’ Bilbo asked Kíli.

‘From several fibres all braided together,’ Kíli replied.  ‘It’s the kind of string we use for trying anything up.  It’s pretty strong.’

At his words Dori looked up from where he was busy repairing various items of clothing belonging to the Company, including Bilbo’s original jacket, Thorin noticed.  Most of them were wearing clothes given to them in Lake-town because of the state of their own clothes, which even in Ered Luin were only fit for rags.

‘Can I look at the bowstring you’re using?’ Dori asked Kíli.

Kíli shrugged and passed over one of the spare bowstrings he kept on him at all times.  Dori examined it carefully, turning it over in his hands and pulling at it gently.

‘When you fire the bow, the speed of the arrow comes from the amount of bend the bow can give, doesn’t it?’ Dori asked, looking up at Kíli who nodded to him.  ‘There’s very little stretch in the string, then.’

Kíli nodded again.  ‘If it stretches too far, it snaps.  Why?’

‘Because, as a tailor, I use several different yarns for stitching different things,’ Dori explained.  ‘Some articles of clothing need more stretch in them than others.  Trousers, for example, need to be able to stretch when a person bends over because if they’re too tight, they’ll split.  Likewise, they can’t be too baggy or they won’t fit properly.’

‘What’s your point, Dori?’ Thorin asked impatiently.

‘My point, your majesty, is that I may have a yarn which will stretch slightly,’ Dori told Thorin severely.

‘Then I apologise, Master Dori,’ Thorin told him with a bow of his head.  ‘Please, continue.’

Dori rummaged in the bag he’d carried on his person from the very start of the Quest and pulled out a reel of extremely thin green yarn.  ‘I think if you braid enough of this together it might give you enough tension to fire your arrow, Kíli.’

‘But it’s green,’ Kíli protested.

‘Who cares what it looks like as long as it works?’ Fíli demanded.  ‘Come on, let’s try it out.  How many strands do you suggest, Master Dori?’

‘Try with a couple, then increase until you find the right combination,’ Dori replied, picking up his sewing once more.  ‘I’m a tailor, not an archer.’

*****

Unbelievably, the braided bowstring worked.  The entire Company had trooped out to watch Kíli test one of the several different thicknesses of string they’d produced – Kíli and Fíli being joined initially by Thorin, Bilbo, and Dwalin, and later by Óin, Glóin, and Nori.

‘Did you see how far that arrow went?’ Kíli demanded of his audience ranged behind him in the small valley created by the spur of Ravenhill and the spur to the east of it.

‘Now try the Black Arrow,’ Thorin suggested, standing with Bilbo at his side, having suggested Kíli practice with a normal arrow to begin with to get used to the difference in bowstrings.  His first couple of shots careered wildly off course, but the final two were on the right trajectory, but much further than Kíli had ever fired an arrow before.

Fíli handed the precious Black Arrow to his brother while Dwalin set up a plank of wood a good 50 yards further than earlier in the day.  The result was astounding.  The Black Arrow smashed right through the plank and far beyond meaning Fíli had to run a good distance to find exactly where it landed.

‘That was around 500 yards!’ Fíli yelled, causing the dwarrow and Bilbo to shush him, and Thorin to frown at him.

‘Sorry,’ Fíli grinned as he returned with the arrow, not in the least repentant.

‘You will be if Smaug heard you,’ Thorin told him, then reached out a hand to ruffle his nephew’s hair, making Fíli duck away, still laughing.

‘Are we going to try it on Smaug now?’ Kíli demanded.

‘Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait until tomorrow?’ Balin suggested.

‘Why?’

It was a good question, Thorin decided.  Why wait?  Nothing was gained by waiting.  If Kíli were to miss his shot, he’d miss it – today or tomorrow.  In fact, waiting for the following day only gave Kíli more time to worry and himself to brood: something he’d been ordered not to do!  If he were honest with himself, Thorin knew he was more concerned with Bilbo facing Smaug than whether Kíli made his shot.  Bilbo was going to be in far more danger than any of the dwarrow were, although all of them were in danger if Kíli missed.  Would Mahal send them back again if they died facing Smaug?

I doubt it, Bilbo’s voice in his head said.  This is our one chance.

‘We’ll try now,’ he announced, then glanced at Fíli.  ‘I’d much rather you stay in the watchtower with Balin, Fíli.  Someone—’

‘No,’ Fíli replied, simply.  ‘No.  You split us all up last time when Kíli was injured.  We live or die together now.’

Thorin sighed but nodded.  He’d expected that response from his heir as last time things began to go downhill for them after Fíli, Kíli, and Bofur were left behind in Lake-town.  ‘Then let’s go plan what we need to do,’ he told his Company.

In the end, it was the following morning before Thorin and his Company made their way back to Erebor through the secret tunnel.  Planning exactly what they had to do and where took most of the previous evening, especially since Bilbo and Thorin had argued about who would be the one to face Smaug.

‘This is why I came on the quest!’ Bilbo told Thorin firmly.  ‘I’m your burglar, remember?’

To be honest, Thorin had almost forgotten.  It was – quite literally – a lifetime since he and his Company set off from Bag End on their quest to reclaim Erebor.

‘I’m not having you face that worm alone,’ he snapped.  ‘Especially as you can’t—’  He broke off, aware he had almost revealed too much.

‘Especially as he can’t what?’ Dwalin demanded.

Thorin knew someone would ask, and he wasn’t surprised it was Dwalin.  ‘I can’t say,’ he sighed.  ‘I shouldn’t have said anything, not yet.’

‘Is this to do with the next part of why you were returned?’ Balin asked shrewdly, and Thorin nodded.  ‘Then we won’t ask anymore questions,’ Balin continued, speaking over Thorin’s apologies.  ‘Will we, lads?’

On the whole, Balin was considered an easy-going dwarf who would rather make peace than argue, but when he spoke in such a firm tone, no one would argue with him.

‘Then let’s continue,’ Balin said, nodding to the others and turning back to Thorin.  ‘As Bilbo said, he signed a contract as our burglar and we don’t want him to break his contact, do we, Thorin?’

‘No, Balin,’ Thorin found himself muttering, his head bowed.  Between Bilbo and Balin I must be the most hen-pecked king in Arda, damn it!

Suck it up, buttercup, Bilbo ordered, and then grinned cheekily at his partner.

‘Then Bilbo will enter the treasury and confront Smaug alone,’ Balin continued.  ‘Meanwhile, Kíli will get himself in place on Thror’s balcony along with Fíli, who’ll stay hidden, but will be ready to defend if necessary.  Of the rest of us, half will remain in the hall leading from the treasury and the others at the forges, ready to put your plan into action, Thorin.  Are you sure it’ll work?’

‘No,’ Thorin admitted.  ‘But it worked last time – until Smaug took off for Lake-town—’

‘Which we’re trying our best to avoid this time,’ Bilbo added firmly.

‘If we increase the amount of gold to melt on top of the furnaces we might succeed in actually trapping him this time,’ Thorin agreed.  ‘And it will give Fíli and Kíli enough time to retrieve the Black Arrow to try again.  I don’t think it’ll come to that, though.  I have full confidence Kíli will hit his mark.’

Kíli nodded to him and mouthed ‘thank you’.

Bilbo meanwhile sagged in his seat.  ‘Then it’s up to me to make sure Kíli can take his shot.’

‘No pressure,’ Bofur told him with a grin.

‘Dori, Nori, and Ori, go with Balin and Óin to prepare some flash-flame in case it’s needed,’ Thorin ordered.  ‘Bombur, Bofur, and Bifur are going to check the forges and make sure there’s enough gold on top of the furnaces to cover the dragon if we can melt enough of it.  Dwalin and Glóin will be with me in the hall outside the treasury to lead Smaug to the furnaces if Kíli misses his shot.  Do we all now know what we need to do?’

‘Aye.’

‘Yes.’

‘Yup.’

‘Please don’t use all the sulphur, Balin,’ Bilbo asked.  ‘I have an idea how we can use it in the battle.’

‘Don’t worry, there’s plenty of it,’ Glóin told him.  ‘Most of it’s stored well away from the furnaces – for obvious reasons.  If we get rid of the dragon, we can get to it.  What do you want it for?’

‘I’ll explain later.  But we’re going to need lots of it.’

They headed back into Erebor through the secret tunnel, and while Bilbo would never admit it, he was feeling more than a little nervous.

I knew it! Thorin told him from the front of the group.

You can’t see me, but I’m sticking my tongue out at you! Bilbo told him.

Khajimel.

‘How will you make sure Kíli can get his shot?’ Ori asked Bilbo, and for once, his journal wasn’t in his hand.

‘I just need to get him to open his wings while facing the balcony,’ Bilbo sighed.  ‘Easy peasy!’

‘What does that mean?’ Fíli asked, dropping back to walk with Bilbo and Ori.

Bilbo chuckled.  ‘It’s from a Shire rhyme that doesn’t really mean anything.  “Rosie Posie pudding and pie” is the first line, but it gets changed to “easy peasy pudding and pie”, or just easy peasy when talking about something which is either very easy or, alternatively, extremely difficult.’

‘Will you tell me the whole rhyme later?’ Ori asked Bilbo, dragging out a scrap of paper to scribble on while walking.

‘If I can remember it all.  As I said, it’s all nonsense, really.’

‘I’d still like to write it down.’  Ori gave Bilbo and Fíli a bright smile.  ‘It all adds to the richness of the tale of our quest.’

It all helps me keep my mind off facing a fire-breathing dragon!

*****

Funny how memory made Smaug much smaller, Bilbo thought, gulping at the immensity of the fire-drake whose body was spread across the mountain of gold and precious gems in the treasury, curled almost into a full circle, nose to tail.

He was under the gold last time.  What else might be different?

‘I can smell you, little thief,’ Smaug said, opening one large golden eye.  ‘I hear your breath.  I feel your air.  Where are you?  What are you?’

Bilbo trembled where he hid behind one of the massive pillars at the foot of the dragon’s horde, surrounded by a sea of gold which slipped and slid when Smaug moved even just a little.

‘You’re not a dwarf, nor an Elf, those I know.  What are you?  Have you come to steal my treasure?’

‘N- no, your mightiness.  I come simply to gaze upon your splendour,’ Bilbo stammered, not having to try very hard to sound both awestruck and nervous.  He’s facing the wrong way!

‘And from where do you come, little thief?  I know not your scent.’

‘I-I come from over dale and under hill.  Past mountains tall and caverns deep.’

‘A poet, then,’ Smaug said lazily, swishing his long tail through the treasure.  ‘Make poetry for me, little thief!’

‘I-um-Rosie Posie pudding and pie, plucked the gold which made Smaug cry,’ Bilbo began absently looking around and trying to work out how to make Smaug turn.

‘Is that it?’ Smaug demanded.  ‘A poor sort of poet you turn out to be.  Maybe I should just eat you and move on to eat your dwarven friends.’

‘There, um, there are no dwarves with me,’ Bilbo managed to say and, taking a deep breath, raced for the pillar directly under Thror’s balcony, ploughing through knee deep treasure as he ran.

Smaug didn’t react and for a moment Bilbo wondered if he’d put on his ring by mistake, although Smaug must have seen him run, must have heard him at the very least, and he rubbed his hands together to make sure there was no ring.  If I lost it in here, we might never find it again.

‘Hmm.  I taste the truth from you,’ Smaug said, flicking his tongue in and out of his mouth.  He turned his body to face the pillar from where Bilbo was peeking.  ‘Yet, they smell as the ones I feasted upon long ago.  Longbeards, I suspect.  Durins, I hope.  I enjoyed the taste of the Durin Queen and Princess I ate.’

Through the bond, Bilbo felt Thorin’s sudden anguish.  Knowing, abstractly, your grandmother and mother died when the dragon attacked Erebor is very different to listening to the dragon describe how they tasted when he ate them.

‘I have their crowns somewhere,’ Smaug continued conversationally, and Bilbo watched as one long talon scrabbled around, coming up with a golden crown studded with diamonds and emeralds, and a smaller circlet of what Bilbo believed to be mithril.

‘I-I—’  Bilbo paused.  Thorin, I’m sorry for what I’m about to say.  Please know I really don’t mean to hurt you.  ‘I doubt I’m as t-tasty as a Queen.  I’m just a lad f-from the country.’

‘Ah, my little poet, but you have the scent of a Durin about you.  I’m sure you’ll taste just as good.  I’ll make sure I tell your Durin Prince before I eat him!’

‘King!’ Bilbo said in a stronger voice, his back against the stone pillar facing away from the dragon.  ‘M-my Durin is my King!  The rightful King Under the Mountain!’  He crossed his fingers and prayed to Mahal and Yavanna, and anyone else who might be listening, that he was right in what he suspected would happen.

Smaug roared and, as Bilbo peered around the edge of the pillar, he saw the dragon rear up on his massive hind legs and spread his wings.  ‘There is no King Under the Mountain but me!’ he bellowed.

The Black Arrow flew from the area above Bilbo, directly into the dragon’s breast just where a scale was missing, deep into his chest until Bilbo could see only the shining metal stub protruding.   A trickle of a black viscous liquid – blood, his brain supplied – seeped from the wound as Smaug continued to spread his wings ever wider, and Bilbo stood, transfixed, as the dragon took a deep, shuddering breath.  He forced himself to move and yelled out as loudly as he could.  ‘Kíli!  Fíli!  Watch out!’

His words were still echoing around the vast chamber as Smaug opened his mouth to rain fire down on them all.  Bilbo felt every beat of his heart as he turned to escape imminent fiery death.  He took a step, then another, slipping and sliding on the golden mountain. He moved through it as fast as he was able, trying his utmost to crouch as he moved, making his body as small as he could, the better to survive the rush of flames he knew were coming any second.

He was almost onto the stone flagged floor of the Treasury when he heard Smaug wheeze, choking on his own fiery breath, and Bilbo twisted his head to see what was happening.  The dragon gave a sudden gasp.  Golden coins, and precious jewels and metals started to slip down from the peak of the mountain, slowly at first but gathering momentum as Smaug’s convulsions displaced more and more treasure. Bilbo turned around to watch Smaug tip very slowly on to his own treasure horde, and he felt the heat of expelled breath, rather than the fire he feared, as the treasure took the full weight of the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities.

The last of the fire drakes of Middle Earth was dead.

*****

Thorin entered the treasury at speed just in time to see his One drop to his hands and knees at the foot of a mountain of treasure down which rivers of gold and gems were pouring.  He grasped Bilbo around the waist, squeezing the breath from him, and hauled him roughly from the chamber just as the gold slipped and slithered down to where Bilbo was crouching just a moment before.  Thorin set his hobbit down, but kept his arms around him and buried his face in Bilbo’s shoulder, breathing heavily.  He felt Bilbo gently pat his back, then begin to shuffle them sideways towards a stone bench on one side of the anteroom which they then collapsed upon.  Thorin felt tears prickle his eyes, and he released the breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.

‘You did it!’ he mumbled weakly into Bilbo’s shoulder.

‘No, we did it,’ Bilbo said in the most gentle voice Thorin had ever heard him use.  ‘We all did it together.’

‘I can accept that,’ Thorin managed, his voice a little stronger.  ‘I think Kíli has just earned himself his given-name.’

‘He certainly has,’ Bilbo whispered to him, pressing a kiss to his head.  ‘Now, buck up because the boys are here.’

Thorin took a deep breath and wiped his eyes surreptitiously before turning round and pulling the pair to him.  ‘I’m so proud of you, my boys,’ he murmured, hugging them and pulling in Bilbo as well.  ‘My family.  Our family.’

Bilbo gave a shaky laugh and pressed kisses to the cheeks of the princes.

‘Kíli Dragonslayer has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?’ Bilbo asked, stroking Kili’s cheek.

‘And what do I get?’ Fíli demanded.  ‘Fíli Held-the-arrow?’

‘I think Fíli, the Crown Prince of Erebor, sounds much better,’ Thorin told him, now grinning widely.

And suddenly the entire Company was upon them, shouting, cheering, and hugging each other.  Fíli joined hands with Ori and danced across the hallway with him, while Balin and Dwalin cracked their heads together in joy.  Bofur began to sing Bilbo’s ‘Man in the Moon’ song and soon they were all singing and dancing and cheering while a dragon lay dead in the room next door.

*****

By late afternoon the Company had moved into the main Guard room where the tunnel entrance to Ravenhill began, and close to the King’s Gates at the entrance to Erebor.

‘I’ve no doubt the people in Lake-town either felt or heard Smaug,’ Thorin explained.  ‘And Mirkwood, too.  They did last time, and it wasn’t long before an army of Men and an army of Elves marched on the city to claim the treasure for themselves, believing we were all dead.  I’d prefer to avoid such a confrontation if possible.’

‘How did you get rid of them?’ Ori asked, journal, as ever, at the ready.

Thorin remained silent, but Bilbo cleared his throat.  ‘I think we need to tell them, Thorin.’

‘No, we don’t.’

‘Yes!  We do!  Tell them, or I’ll tell them myself,’ Bilbo threatened, making the others look puzzled, and Fíli and Kíli move to flank their uncles.

‘Whatever it was, can’t have been that bad, surely,’ Bofur said, trying to smooth things over with his usual smile.

‘No, it was worse,’ Bilbo said bluntly.

‘All right, but before I tell you, I need you all to realise that we’ve dealt with this,’ Thorin began.  ‘I’ve dealt with it and my part in it, and so has Bilbo, and in any case it didn’t happen in this timeline, and nor will it happen.  The changes we’ve already made make it impossible and, besides, Mahal ensured I…well…’

‘I stole the Arkenstone and gave it to Thranduil and Bard to use to persuade Thorin to treat with him,’ Bilbo told the Company, all in a rush.

There were several gasps, a couple of the dwarrow swore.

‘Did you know what it was when you took it?’ Balin asked at length.

Bilbo nodded.  ‘I knew exactly what it was and what I was doing.  I betrayed Thorin and the entire Company.  The entire clan of Durin’s Folk, if you like.’

‘There were extreme circumstances,’ Thorin protested, frowning at Bilbo.  ‘Not least that the same gold-sickness which drove my grandfather to madness affected me deeply too.  And Lake-town still stands so, other than payment for a few items of clothing and some supplies, we owe the Lake-towners nothing.’

‘And if Bard came to demand the gold you offered him to rebuild Dale?’ Fíli asked carefully.

‘Then I’d give him what he asked for and more besides,’ Thorin replied immediately.

‘You mentioned Mahal,’ Dwalin began.  ‘What did—’

‘He gave the boys and me protection against the curse which lays upon our family line.’

‘But Balin and I are from the same line, as are Óin and Glóin.  Aren’t we at risk?’

‘Possibly, though we suspect the curse was originally placed on Thrór,’ Bilbo explained after glancing at Thorin.  ‘And was probably enhanced by the Dwarf-ring he wore.  That ring is now lost, and in any case, you four aren’t of Thror’s direct line.  Princess Dís may be affected, but it’s unlikely, and we can worry about her when she arrives.  In the meantime, I’d advise you all to spend as little time as possible in the treasury, and to tell someone the moment you feel something is wrong or has changed.’

‘Do you know who placed the curse?’ Balin asked, looking between Thorin and Bilbo.

They both hesitated and exchanged glances.

‘We know,’ Thorin said, inclining his head, ‘but we’re keeping it a secret for the moment.  There may be repercussions we aren’t aware of if we reveal the person concerned now.  The less anyone knows, the better.’

‘Neither Kíli nor I know either,’ Fíli added.  ‘We both have Mahal’s protection from the curse, but we don’t know who placed it.’

‘Still,’ Glóin grumbled.  ‘The Arkenstone.  To steal such an important symbol of our line is—’

‘—is nothing!’ Thorin snapped.  ‘I refused to honour my oaths, and I threatened the very life of my One, Glóin.  Stealing the Arkenstone is nothing compared to that!’  He looked around the room and met each pair of eyes.  ‘When I am crowned, I will ask that my people and the leaders of the other clans swear their allegiance to me, not a cursed lump of rock!  Furthermore, I will take steps to ensure I am removed from the throne if I show any signs of gold-sickness.’  He swept his hand across his forehead, then looked up again.  ‘I am beyond fortunate that my One forgave me for my actions.  I want to make certain I can never harm him in the same way again.’

‘Oh, Thorin, you great…idiot!  I’m as much to blame as you are.  If I hadn’t stolen the bloody thing…’  Bilbo grabbed hold of the two braids hanging on either side of Thorin’s head to tug him down and pressed his own forehead against his.  ‘You would never harm me without the influence of an evil, evil—’

‘Careful, uzfakuh,’ Thorin mumbled against his lips.  ‘You almost gave the name away.’

‘Stoopid dwarf.’

Bunnanunê.’

*****

The hard work began the following morning.

‘Did anyone see if the ravens were still on Ravenhill?’ Thorin asked over breakfast – a hot breakfast with scalding hot tea prepared on the stove in the kitchen adjacent to the guardroom.  Now Smaug was dead, they no longer had to worry about him seeing or hearing them.

‘I saw some birds flying to and from the top of the watchtower,’ Bofur answered and shrugged.  ‘Not sure what sort they were.  Why?’

‘The ravens of Erebor are a special species loyal to the line of Durin,’ Balin explained.  ‘No one knows where they came from – or no one remembers.  Some of them speak Westron and all of them speak Khuzdul, and they carry messages for and on behalf of the King Under the Mountain.’

‘What do you want the ravens for, Thorin?’ Glóin asked, returning them to the original subject.

‘I want to send out a few messages and, if they agree, ask a few ravens to spy on the orcs for us.’

‘And what shall the rest of us do today?’ Bofur asked, looking around the table.

‘The King’s Gate needs making secure.’  Thorin pulled a scrap of paper from one of his many pockets.  ‘The city needs to be secure if we hope to protect the women and children of Lake-town during the battle.’

‘Then the treasury also needs making secure,’ Glóin added.  ‘It’s too much of a temptation as it is.’

‘Won’t the dead dragon keep them out?’ Ori asked.  ‘It would me,’ he added with a shiver.

Bilbo grinned at him.  ‘Probably not if human children are anything like hobbits, and my cousins in particular.  They’re into anything and everything you particularly want to keep them out of, especially if it’s what we would consider gruesome.’

‘We need to do something with the dragon itself,’ Dori said practically.  ‘Strip it of the gold and gems across its chest for a start.  I’m not sure how to get rid of the body, but it’ll begin to stink if we leave it where it is.’

‘I promised the carcass to the Great Eagles,’ Thorin told him.  ‘I’m hoping they’ll move to Erebor, and I promised them the carcass of the dragon and to provide other animals as food for them as they need it.  Lord Gwaihir said if we can preserve the dragon meat, it’ll feed them all for months.  I hoped you might have some ideas of how to preserve it, Bombur.’

Bombur frowned as he thought about it.  ‘The easiest thing would be to keep it above the snow-line as we wouldn’t have enough salt to keep it in brine,’ he suggested.  ‘The temperature up there should freeze it sufficiently to preserve it, and we could create a sort of stone larder to keep any other animals away.  I assume the Eagles will make their nest somewhere up there?’

‘Eyrie,’ Ori corrected him absently, eyes deep in his journal.  He looked up at the sudden silence.  ‘What?’

‘How on earth do you know the name of an eagle’s nest?’ Nori demanded.

‘Umm, from a book?’  Ori gave his brother an impudent grin.  ‘You should try it sometime!’

‘Why, you cheeky—’

‘Not at the table!’ ordered Dori catching hold of Nori as he tried to reach for his brother.

‘I’m 130 years old!’ Nori protested while Ori outright laughed at him.

Someone’s growing more confident, Bilbo said to Thorin through their bond, making the king grin and Fíli to look at him suspiciously.

‘How damaged were the royal quarters, Thorin?’ Balin asked with a sudden change of subject.

‘Not damaged at all that we could see.  Why?’

‘Because my father’s office was there, next to Thror’s study.  It would be a good place for us to work from, on the messages and on general plans.’

‘Why?’ Thorin asked again.  ‘I just need a scrap of paper to work out what I want to tell the ravens and I can do that from here.’

‘We’ve recovered the Mountain,’ Balin replied.  ‘We now need to get things back to normal.  Working from a proper office will help us do that.’

‘Nothing will be normal until the battle is over,’ Thorin argued.  ‘And I want to remain close to the entrance to the city.  We have any number of things to do, and working from an office hidden away in the royal apartments is surely the least of them.  By all means gather what you need from Fundin’s or Thror’s office, but I would prefer we remain together as much as we can, and here is as good a place as any for now.’

Balin sighed but nodded his head.  ‘Very well.  I’ll take Ori and show him the way and retrieve what we need.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ Bilbo announced.  ‘So will Dori.  We need to find clothing for everyone and even stuff that’s almost a hundred and fifty years old is better than what we’re wearing and what Dori’s been mending.’

‘Can I come as well?’ Fíli demanded.  ‘I didn’t get to see them when you went hunting for the Black Arrow.’

‘I didn’t see anything except Thror’s forge,’ Kíli protested.  ‘I want to come as well.’

Unsurprisingly, most of the Company accompanied Bilbo and Thorin to the royal quarters.  Bombur, Bifur and Bofur remained where they were to look at what they could do to make the city secure.  None of the trio were born to or descended from Durin’s line, so had little interest in visiting a particular area, not when there was work to do.

‘Besides,’ Bofur explained to Thorin and Bilbo before they left the guardroom, ‘someone needs to stay here to keep an eye on what’s happening out there.’  He jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the King’s Gates.

Bilbo had taken little notice of his surroundings on his way to Thror’s forge two days ago, more concerned with the dragon he was about to face.  This time, however, he could take in the beauty surrounding him: the sheer expanse of the spaces created within the mountain; the rich hues of the marble lining the walls, ceilings, and floors of the principal areas they passed through; and the elegant carvings everywhere he could see.  Some were as fine as lace and others larger than a dozen hobbits standing on each other’s shoulders.

This was all new to him, and probably to the younger dwarrow too.  In the previous timeline, Thorin forced his Company to spend their time searching through the treasure horde to find the Arkenstone, which was hidden in Bilbo’s pocket all the time.  Some suggestion of his thoughts must have leaked through their bond as Thorin placed his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder and squeezed.

‘Forgive me for my actions back then,’ he murmured, low enough for the others not to hear.

‘I forgave you before I even left the city.  Almost before you finished speaking.  There is nothing left to forgive, my love.  I did you as much wrong as you did me.’

‘And yet I still beg for your absolution.’

‘Then you should stop immediately, before you make me cross,’ Bilbo told him firmly.  ‘We have other things to worry about.  Fresh vegetables and fruit for one.’

‘I think that counts as two things,’ Fíli grinned as he overheard his uncles’ bickering.  ‘Besides, you know dwarrow don’t eat anything green.’

‘Bifur does!’

‘Bifur’s got an axe embedded in his skull,’ Thorin said dryly.  ‘I’m pretty sure he doesn’t count.’

*****

The royal quarters were undamaged, other than by time.

‘When dwarrow build, they certainly build to last,’ Bilbo commented, looking around the drawing room of the royal family.

‘Bed and bathing chambers, and other offices lead from this room,’ Thorin explained with a sweep of his hand.  ‘We used to gather here in an evening after dinner, unless someone had duties still to perform.  Amad would read to Dís and sometimes Frerin, although he liked to pretend he was too old for stories.’

‘How old was he when Erebor fell?’

‘He was eleven, almost twelve, and Dís had just turned ten.  It was the anniversary of her birth the week before Smaug came.  We were still eating her birthday cake.’  Thorin’s brow was furrowed with pain at the memory.  ‘She’s preferred we ignore her anniversary since then.  Says it doesn’t feel right to receive presents and celebrate around that date.’

‘Hmmm.  We hobbits probably have it best.  We give presents on our birthdays, not receive them.’

‘When do hobbits receive presents, then?’ Kíli asked.  He was standing just a few feet away and was simply gazing around the room, as though trying to memorise every part.

‘At Yule, and we also receive gifts on certain special occasions or anniversaries.  My parents exchanged gifts on the anniversary of their wedding, and, of course, giving and receiving presents is an important part of courtship.  What about dwarrow?’

‘On the anniversaries of our birth, as do most races,’ Thorin answered.  ‘And my parents exchanged presents on the anniversary of their marriage, too.  We Longbeards also give and receive gifts on Durin’s Day rather than at Yule, as the other dwarrow clans do.  Then for courtship we give three gifts: a gift from our hearts, a gift from our hands, and a gift from our families.’

Bilbo frowned at him.  ‘How does that work?  What counts as a gift from…the things you said?’

‘A gift from our hands is something we create ourselves,’ Fíli explained.  ‘Amad made Adad a beautiful coat lined with calves’ skin for one of her courting gifts.  She made it herself as leatherwork is her craft.  She has a mastery in it,’ he added proudly.

The sadness on Thorin’s face told Bilbo something was wrong with Fili’s explanation.  What is it, my love?

‘Dís should have been able to study any craft she wanted,’ Thorin said, his voice tinged with sorrow.  ‘As it was, we couldn’t afford for her to do anything which would either take money we didn’t have, or take too much time until she had her mastery.  We needed her to earn money as soon as possible.’

‘I think you cared more about it than she did,’ Dwalin commented, having overheard Thorin’s words.  ‘Dís loves her leather work and had no desire to create jewellery or craft gold.’

‘She should have had the option,’ Thorin replied shortly, and Bilbo sensed this was an old argument.

‘What sort of things would be a gift from the family?’ he asked, trying to divert Thorin from his regret over events he couldn’t change.

‘It’s something which shows your family accepts your One into their ranks,’ Kíli said.  ‘Not all dwarrow give this, but those of a noble rank do.’

Bilbo nodded thoughtfully, making himself comfortable on a sofa next to Thorin’s position on the arm, and leaning against him.  ‘My father built Bag End himself as a gift for my mother to prove to her family he could take care of her.  It’s not compulsory, but he was…marrying into a wealthy family and wanted to show he had the means to support her.’

‘That would fit with our traditions perfectly,’ Balin nodded, having joined their small group.  ‘Especially as your mother was a princess.’

‘She wasn’t a—Oh!’  Bilbo threw up his hands.  ‘Why do I bother?  You’ve made your minds up my grandfather is a king.  What’s the point in telling you he isn’t!’

‘No point at all,’ Kíli grinned.  ‘Prince Bilbo.’

‘Watch it, Kíli Dragonslayer.  I may have my revenge when you least expect it!’

The members of the Company who had accompanied the Durins and Bilbo to the royal apartments settled themselves around the room.

‘My father’s family gave my mother a set of silver cutlery and a fine porcelain dinner service,’ Glóin said.  ‘And my mother’s family gave him a pocket timepiece.’

‘A very fine gift,’ Balin agreed.  ‘And so very rare.’

‘It was their family craft,’ Glóin boasted, his chest puffed out a little.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver timepiece.  ‘It came to me after he died, as Óin knew he would never marry.  In time it will go to my own wee Gimli.’

‘What about the gift from the heart?’ Bilbo asked.  ‘What might that be?’

‘For a gift to a dwarrowdam, it’s often jewellery,’ Óin said, having heard the entire conversation, for once.  ‘Our mother received a string of fine pearls from our father as the gift from his heart.’

‘Pearls have great meaning in our culture,’ Balin explained.  ‘And since we cannot mine for them and are, therefore, forced to purchase them, they also have great value.  A pearl necklace is indeed a valuable gift from the heart and would not be out of place as a family gift, either.’

‘Our mother’s pearls are white,’ Glóin added.  ‘They represent truth, innocence, and protection: all important meanings in a courtship.’

‘Like hobbits use flowers,’ Bilbo nodded.  ‘That makes sense.  You value gems and we value flowers.  In our flower language, a daisy represents innocence, which is why young hobbit lasses often wear them or carry them.  We also add them to the flower crowns we wear at a wedding.’

‘As interesting as this is,’ Thorin commented, getting to his feet, ‘it’s not getting anything done.  I need to send out the ravens with messages and, as far as I can see, no one else has got the things they came here for,’ he added with a pointed look at Bilbo.

‘Come on, Dori,’ Bilbo sighed, standing up now he had no one to lean against.  ‘Our king has spoken!’

*****

‘Who do you want to send messages to, Thorin?’ Balin asked as they entered what had once been Fundin’s office and looked around.

‘To Dáin, for a start, to ask for his aid with both supplies and the battle.’

‘Will he come?  He refused to give us aid regarding the quest.’  Balin was a little dubious.

‘I suspect his refusal had more to do with his Council than his own wishes,’ Thorin replied while opening cupboards and drawers and stuffing back the bits of paper which cascaded out.  ‘Did your father keep every single message Thrór ever sent him?’

Balin laughed and peered under Thorin’s arm at the drawer stuffed full with paper covered in Thror’s distinctive script; some on scraps torn from something else; some on a mostly empty sheet of fine parchment.  ‘It certainly looks that way.’

‘Do you keep everything from me?’

Balin grinned at him.  ‘There’s nothing to keep.  Most of your messages when you were away from Ered Luin were brief and to the point: “Enclosed, money for supplies” was the gist of most of them.’

‘Thankfully, those days are now gone,’ Thorin said, recalling the years when money was scarce and food for the table even more so.

‘Aye, thankfully, but you did a fine job of keeping everyone safe and fed, Thorin.  You succeeded where your father and grandfather failed, both in keeping our people alive, and in claiming back our home.  Never forget that.’

Thorin gave a slight smile.  Balin was very good at giving him encouragement, along with his many other talents.  Thorin knew their success in retaking Erebor was due to far more than his own leadership and was determined his Company would have their share of any accolades given by anyone: they more than deserved them.  For now, however, he simply nodded to Balin.  ‘If we’re unable to defeat the army now marching upon us, there will be no success for Durin’s Folk, or any other Dwarrow Clan.  Smaug may be dead, but we are far from making our homeland safe.’

‘Then let’s get on with sending your messages.  Who, other than Dáin, is likely to give us aid?’

‘I hope Lord Elrond can help us, with both warriors and healers for after the battle, and Beorn and the Great Eagles both promised to help us if we won back Erebor.  I’d also like to send out a few ravens to spy on the orc armies.  See what their preparations are, and how close to us they’ve come.’

‘I thought you said they used were-worms to dig tunnels for them,’ Balin said with a frown.

‘Mmm.  But they mustered at Dol Guldur and Mount Gundabad.  Azog is dead this time so his son, Bolg, will probably command both armies instead of just the one from Gundabad, although I expect one of his Lieutenants will lead them here.  We need to know their preparedness and numbers if at all possible.  Carc led the ravens when we were forced out of Erebor.  We need to know who leads them now.’

There were still ravens on Ravenhill, though Carc was long dead.

‘He always maintained that Durins would return to Erebor,’ Roäc, son of Carc, explained to Thorin and Balin.  ‘I am saddened he did not live to see you return and vanquish the dragon.’

‘As are we,’ Thorin replied, inclining his head.  ‘Are you and your people still willing to serve the line of Durin?’

‘Indeed.  My father continued to train the fledglings, and I have followed his example.  We are ready and willing to serve, my King.’

‘Then I have messages to deliver and spying to undertake, Roäc, son of Carc.  In return, we will prepare both food and precious metals for your people.’

‘And gemstones?’

Thorin gave him a slight grin.  ‘And gemstones, if that is your desire.’

‘And will you rebuild the old fortress here on Ravenhill?’

‘In time, yes, but not immediately.  I need my people to return here before much of the repair work can be carried out.’

Roäc bowed his head.  ‘Your word is sufficient, King Under the Mountain.  I will gather my strongest messengers and those who speak and understand best.  As with dwarves and men, some are more able than others.’

It took less than an hour to send off the spy and messenger ravens, and Thorin leaned on the broken wall at the top of the watchtower on Ravenhill and watched them fly away.  All their hopes for victory in the forthcoming battle rested upon several feathered agents.

‘To quote Bofur,’ he muttered to himself, ‘no pressure!’

‘I’m exhausted,’ Bilbo muttered to Thorin one evening a week or so after Smaug was killed.  ‘I spent the whole day ripping jewelled armour from Smaug’s body.  My fingers are so sore.  I’m the only one with small enough hands to get underneath some of the really embedded gemstones.’

‘Can’t you wear gloves?’ Thorin asked, lifting one of Bilbo’s battered hands to his lips and kissing each finger individually.

‘Not really.  All the ones we’ve found are far too big for me, and in any case, it’s difficult to feel through them as the fabric they’re made from is too thick.’

‘Then help Bombur with the cooking tomorrow.  That’s where I thought you’d be, anyway.  You shouldn’t be working on the dragon.’

Bilbo drew back from Thorin and frowned at him.  ‘I’m not taking a simple job just because we’re…’  He trailed off.

‘Lovers?’ suggested Thorin wickedly.

‘I prefer partners, thank you, and besides, I told you I have the smallest hands.  Anyway, what have you discovered today?’

He and Dwalin had been busy searching for weapons and armour to use in the battle.  Thorin wanted to ensure each member of the Company was both fully protected and armed as well as could be managed.  What they couldn’t find, they’d try to make, and while he and Dwalin had been busy, Fíli had undertaken the task of finding and clearing out a forge large enough for himself and Thorin to work in once they knew what was needed.

‘We’ve found enough weapons for ourselves and the men I’m hoping Bard will bring.  Some of the swords may be a little short for them, but will be far better than the farm and kitchen implements they had last time.’

‘Some farming tools are more dangerous than Orcrist, I’ll have you know,’ Bilbo told him seriously.  ‘Still, I expect you’re relieved you’ll have Orcrist in your hand this time.’

‘I am,’ Thorin nodded, scowling at the reminder of events in the previous timeline.

‘There’s no point in getting angry at Thranduil for something that never even happened this time.’

‘Maybe not, but it makes me feel better!’

They continued to wander through the old market place, appreciating the opportunity to be both alone and awake.  Thorin was showing Bilbo around Erebor himself.  It had a dual purpose: he wanted to show Bilbo his home, and he wanted to see the damage done to his city for himself, at least superficially, for now.  He would then be in a better position to determine the sequence of repairs to be made once they won the battle.  Most of the rest of the Company were also exploring the city at the odd times they could manage.  Some, such as Balin and Dwalin to remind themselves of their long-lost home, and others, like the Urs and Ris, to explore their new home, as only Dori had the vaguest memories of Erebor before the arrival of Smaug.

‘There’s still so much to do before Durin’s Day,’ Thorin grumbled to Bilbo as they walked.

‘We have a month, and it’s all in hand.’

‘We have just under than a month now,’ Thorin returned.  ‘And we’ve yet to butcher the dragon for the Eagles, let alone find someway of storing it above the snow line.’

‘Mmm.  I’ve been thinking about that.  What about the lowest or deepest parts of the city?  Isn’t there somewhere cold enough down there to put it for the moment?’

‘Mines get warmer the deeper you dig, not colder.’

‘Huh.  I didn’t know that.  How did your people keep their perishable goods chilled before?’

Thorin shrugged his shoulders.  ‘I have no idea.  Would they have to?’

‘Of course they’d have to.’

‘How do hobbits manage?’

‘Most of us have pantries in underground cellars which are cold.  That’s why I asked about somewhere deep,’ Bilbo explained.  ‘Though I know some people who don’t have a cellar will put the things which need to be kept cool, like raw meat and milk, in buckets of cold water.  Anything to keep down the temperature.  What did you do in Ered Luin?’

Thorin gave a humourless laugh.  ‘It wasn’t a problem there.  We had little food at all, let alone enough to store for long periods of time.’

He felt Bilbo squeeze his hand in a silent demonstration of sympathy.  They’d talked for hours in the Halls about the conditions Thorin’s people suffered under in the Blue Mountains, and the sheer lack of anyone willing to give them aid.  Their talks and discussions, and what Bilbo explained about what happened after his death pushed Thorin, above anything else, into his more benevolent view of other races, Elves in particular.  The past was exactly that: past.  He would now seek alliances for his people and bite his tongue, if necessary, to forge them, well aware both he and Arda needed those alliances if Sauron was to be defeated without the tragic loss of life in the past timeline, and he was glad he’d have Bilbo at his side to help create them.

‘I love you, you know,’ he told Bilbo suddenly, stopping and pulling his burglar around to face him.  ‘I know I’m bad with words, and as sensitive as a rock, as you frequently tell me, but I love you, and I appreciate the sacrifices you’ve made for me, although this time I do hope to prevent your wretched relatives from auctioning off your belongings.’

Lifting a hand, Bilbo stroked his cheek, Thorin leaning into the touch.  ‘Thank you, you daft, soppy dwarf.  I love you too.’  He rose on his tiptoes and kissed Thorin’s lips softly.  ‘I’m not sure what you can do about my Baggins relatives, though.’

‘I’ve already done it.  I sent a raven to your Grandfather explaining what’s happened, and what we hope will happen, and I’ve asked him to make sure your home is safe from those greedy Sackville-Baggins.  I’ve also asked him for help to heal the land around Erebor.’

‘What?’

‘I’ve asked him to either lend us help in healing our land, or, preferably, see if any hobbits are willing to move out here and join our people.  I’d like nothing more than to see your cousins Drogo and Primula come and make their homes here, well away from the Brandywine River!’

‘I…I’m not sure what to say.’  Bilbo shook his head, truly lost for words.

‘Oh, and I also asked your Grandfather for permission to court you,’ Thorin said as he tucked Bilbo’s arm into the crook of his elbow, and resumed their walk.

Bilbo came to a sudden halt.  ‘You’ve done what now?’

‘Asked for permission to court you.  Why?  Don’t you want to court me?’

Bilbo spun around and threw his arms around Thorin, who had to take a step backwards to steady himself.  ‘Of course I want to court you, you idiot!  I want nothing more, unless it’s us all coming out of the battle in one piece.  But why didn’t you ask me first?’

‘Because that’s not how Dwarrow do things.  We ask permission from the head of the family of our suitor.’

‘So who should I ask for permission to court you?  Dís?  Fíli?’

‘Stoopid hobbit!’ Thorin told him, kissing him on the end of his nose, and using the gentle insult himself, for once.  ‘I’m the head of my family, and in any case, it’s the senior of the couple who asks permission.’

‘I’m not sure I agree about you being the senior one of us.  Older, certainly, but I’m by far the wisest of us, and I’m a Prince!’

‘And I’m a King.  What did you say to me the other day?  Suck it up, Buttercup!’

‘Arse!’ Bilbo muttered, then changed the subject.  ‘What about the gifts you spoke of?  What do I need to do to court you?’

‘Why don’t you speak to Balin about it all?’ he suggested, pulling Bilbo’s head in against his shoulder.  ‘He’ll tell you everything you need to know, and it’ll also take his mind off things.  I know he’s concerned about what’s going to happen.’

He felt rather than saw Bilbo nod and smiled to himself.  That should be enough to divert both Balin and Bilbo from worrying.  Dís would be proud of him: she always claimed he had the emotional maturity of a doorpost.  She couldn’t say that now!

*****

It took five days to strip the dragon carcass of its jewelled armour and butcher it for the Great Eagles.  Bombur suggested they submerge it in the River Running for preservation until they had time to create a stone larder above the snow line.  Work then resumed on repairing the King’s Gates and sealing the treasury from curious eyes and fingers once the three armies were gathered.  Balin, meanwhile, with the aid of the ravens, sent off a thrush to inform Bard privately that Smaug was dead, and to let him know he and Ori intended to pay a visit to Lake-town in the next week to ask officially for aid, and to offer protection to those in Lake-town who couldn’t fight.

Thorin and Fíli, with Dwalin’s help, began to forge the new weapons and armour they anticipated the Lake-town men would need for the battle, deciding any weapon and armour would be better than none, while Kíli was busy making more arrows for himself and some longer ones for the elves and men.  Legolas had assured him he and Tauriel would use them, even if the other elves looked upon them with disdain.

Kíli also went out every couple of days to see what small animals were around and which could go in the pot, while Bilbo spent a day seeing if he could scavenge any fruit or vegetables to add to their meals.  It was – literally – a fruitless errand.  The Desolation of Smaug, as Bard informed them the area was known, was absolute.  Nothing grew around the Mountain for a few miles in any direction, and even beyond that distance there was precious little vegetation to feed the few animals which remained in the area.

‘Asking my Grandpa for help in healing the land was a good idea,’ Bilbo remarked to Thorin as the Company gathered for dinner one evening.  ‘There’s absolutely nothing growing here and the land itself feels sick beneath my feet!’

‘What’s that?’ Kíli asked from across the table.

‘Thorin sent a letter to my Grandpa to ask him if any of my kin will come and help heal the land around Erebor,’ Bilbo explained.

‘To your Grandpa, the King?’ teased Fíli.

‘To my Grandpa, the Thain!’

‘And how would that work?’ Balin asked Bilbo, ignoring Fili’s teasing.

‘One of our gifts from Yavanna is…healing magic, I suppose it’s called.  We can grow almost anything almost anywhere.’

Anything?’ Kíli asked, a gleam in his eye Bilbo recognised as usually leading to mischief.

‘Well, not anything, of course.  But we can grow most kinds of plant life, even if the conditions would normally mean something wouldn’t grow there,’ Bilbo explained.  A sea of uncomprehending faces looked back at him and he sighed.  It was clear he was speaking an unknown language to his dwarrow.  ‘Certain plants grow better in some areas of Arda than in others,’ he tried to explain.  ‘And some need a particular type of soil, location, or condition in which to grow.  Hobbits, however, can generally grow any plant in their gardens, regardless of where it came from.’

‘So you can’t grow anything?’ Kíli confirmed, looking a little disappointed.

‘What sort of things do you mean?’ Bilbo asked him, not really understanding what Kíli meant.

‘If I asked you to grow more Black Arrows, for example, you can’t grow them?’

Bilbo stared at Kíli, his mouth hanging open, then turned to look at Thorin.  ‘Did you drop him on his head when he was a baby, or something?’

‘He did,’ Fíli nodded, grinning widely.  ‘I just about remember how angry Amad was with him.’

‘Aye.  He moved into our quarters for a while after that,’ Dwalin agreed, smirking at the glowering King.

‘That’s because Dís is bloody terrifying when she’s angry,’ Thorin muttered.  ‘And I’ve seen you turn tail and run when she was mad at you about something, Dwalin Fundinson, so don’t get all sneery with me!’

The members of the Company close enough to hear Thorin burst out in delighted laughter at the grumpy expression on both Thorin’s and Dwalin’s faces, and those who didn’t hear demanded an explanation, while Kíli simply pouted.  All in all, it was one of the cheeriest evenings they’d spent recently, Bilbo decided as he changed into a cotton nightshirt Dori had discovered and passed to him, although Bilbo suspected it had previously belonged to a dwarfling.  He and Thorin were now sleeping in the bedroom intended for the Captain of the Guard, which contained just one enormous bed.  Balin and Dori had insisted they take it despite Thorin’s protests.  He was now King Under the Mountain; he was informed, and should therefore being behaving like it.

The others still slept in the main dormitory of the Guardroom for the time being, as there wasn’t time to find and prepare other rooms.  As it was, the mattresses and blankets they found, and which were in good enough condition, were being laid out in Oin’s makeshift Infirmary, or in the King’s Halls, both of which were far enough away from the main entrance to afford some protection to the women and children of Lake-town, and the injured.

Plans are coming together nicely, Bilbo thought to himself as he cuddled up against Thorin.

Indeed, they are, my love, Thorin replied through their bond.  Indeed, they are.

*****

Ten days after they were sent out to spy on the Orcs armies, four ravens returned to Erebor with their news.  The Orcs were indeed gathering at Mount Gundabad and Dol Guldur, with those at Dol Guldur under a powerful spell of concealment which, fortunately, the ravens of Erebor could see through.  Furthermore, many Orcs were also marching from Moria to join the army at Dol Guldur.

‘Was there any sign of the wizard, Tharkûn?’ Thorin asked Roäc, who had led the spying mission himself.

‘None, but I could sense traces of a wizard’s magic there,’ Roäc replied.  ‘It was perhaps his.’

‘And could you see who will lead the armies?’

‘The orc named Bolg will lead the army from Dol Guldur and be in overall command.  The other army will be led by one of his lieutenants by name of Vrogak, I understand, although Black Speech is difficult for us to understand and none have heard it spoken since Smaug first came.’

‘My thanks, Roäc, son of Carc.’  Thorin bowed his head to the raven.  ‘Now, I believe Bombur has kept some dragon meat for you and your kin if you wish to find him, and Dori has selected some jewels he thinks will please you.’

Roäc croaked his thanks and flew off to find Dori and Bombur while Thorin turned to Bilbo and Balin, and sighed.  ‘It is as we expected, then.  Bolg has taken up his father’s mantle and will lead the main army.  Doubtless he also intends to finish his father’s self-assigned mission to end the line of Durin.’

‘I doubt Bolg is as respected by the Orcs as Azog was,’ Bilbo said thoughtfully.  ‘His entire army followed every instruction Azog gave, even when it led to their deaths.  They may not do the same for Bolg.’

‘We must assume they will,’ Balin said.  ‘We can’t make plans for every single eventuality: it’s not possible or sensible.  We should continue with the plans we have and stop trying to second guess ourselves.  There’s still much to be done.’

Bilbo nodded.  ‘Then I’ll get back to helping Dori find enough blankets that aren’t too moth eaten.    We’ve managed to get into the store rooms you mentioned, Balin.  The ones belonging to the Weavers’ Guild.  We’ll bring whatever’s still usable back to the Guardroom and go through it.  I think Óin was looking for some fabric which might make bandages.  I’ll see you both later.’

Thorin pulled him in for a quick kiss, then settled back down with Balin to go over yet more lists.  A little later, Glóin approached them, frowning.

‘I’m concerned that in all the preparations we’re making there’s been no suggestion of searching for the Arkenstone,’ he said, and Thorin froze in his chair.  ‘We’re going to need it soon, especially if Dain’s on his way,’ Glóin continued.  ‘I can’t understand why we’ve not been looking for it although I’ve—’

‘No!’ Thorin snapped, his hand making a cutting motion.  ‘There’ll be no searching for the Arkenstone by anyone.’

Clearly taken aback by Thorin’s vehemence, Glóin frowned at him.  ‘Why not?  It’s an imp—’

NoIt won’t defeat the enemy in the upcoming battle, nor will it put food on the table or keep our people warm.’

‘I don’t understa—’

No, Glóin.  Leave it be.  That’s an order!’

‘But—’

Thorin lurched to his feet and grabbed Gloin’s shoulder, shaking his cousin to make his point.  ‘I believe the curse that affects our family has something to do with the Arkenstone.  That wretched rock can stay where it is until we have time to deal with it.’

‘But I thought Mahal gave you protection against the curse, and Dáin will—’

‘Dáin will nothing, Glóin!  I’ve already said they will swear allegiance to me, and not to some fancy rock!  Leave the damn thing where it is and don’t go into the treasury more than you have to.  I told you that before.  The curse on our line may affect you as well.  I’d hate for you to hurt Ramli or Gimli when they get here.’

‘I would never hurt them!’ Glóin said, outraged at the suggestion.

‘Just as I would never hurt my One.  And yet I did.’

Glóin looked at him, almost examining his expression, and Thorin waited, silently, until Glóin eventually nodded.  ‘Very well.  But you need to warn my brother and Dwalin as well.  They’re as much at risk as I am.’

‘I doubt Dwalin would notice anything that wasn’t connected with the battle at the moment,’ Balin said, his lips twitching a little.  ‘My brother cares nothing for gold or precious stones, cousin.  Never has, but I’ll warn him all the same.’  He regarded Glóin for a moment, his face now serious.  ‘I need to pay a visit to Lake-town soon.  I was going to ask Ori to go with me, but why don’t you and Óin join me instead, cousin?  It will get us all away from the treasure for a while.  I’ve noticed you spending more time in there recently.’

Flushing slightly at the mild reprimand, Glóin took a deep breath and released it slowly.  ‘Good idea, Balin.  Thank you.  When do we leave?’

‘In a couple of days.  You know about the celebration for Bilbo tomorrow?’

Glóin grinned, something Thorin was pleased to see.  He remembered how nothing other than the treasure, and the Arkenstone in particular, had mattered to him when under the influence of the gold-sickness, or curse, or whatever it was.  Clearly, Glóin wasn’t anywhere near that point.  Yet.

‘—can’t tell you how excited Bofur is about it,’ Glóin was telling Balin.  ‘He and Bifur have been practicing with their flutes so they can play for some dancing tomorrow night.’

‘I believe Fíli and Kíli have found a violin apiece for the same thing,’ Thorin added, smiling.  ‘Bilbo suspects nothing.  I don’t even think he’s even aware we know his birthday is tomorrow.’

‘I’m surprised the princes have kept the secret,’ Balin admitted.  ‘Mahal knows, Kíli keeps very little else he knows to himself.’

‘Ah, but this is for Bilbo.  That’s the difference,’ Thorin pointed out.  ‘And I’m happy to see them both laugh again.  There was nothing to laugh about at this point before.’

*****

Bilbo had spent several days helping Dori in the storerooms, and Óin to set up a makeshift Infirmary in the hope Lord Elrond would send Healers to help them in the battle’s aftermath.  He didn’t think there was a single bed in the whole of Erebor which still had a mattress on it outside of the main Guardroom as they were all laid out for the refugees from Lake-town or for casualties from the battle.  One problem they’d faced previously was the worsening weather outside the Mountain as winter drew in.  Too many of the injured died because of what Óin called hypothermia when Bilbo described the condition to him.

‘It’s when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, and is particularly dangerous when the body is already weakened by another injury,’ Óin explained when Bilbo mentioned it happening before.  ‘I’m not at all surprised many died.  Still, with beds prepared in rooms we can heat, we’re better prepared than you evidently were before.  The biggest problem I foresee is the Elves refusing to allow us to bring their injured into the Mountain.  That’s their problem, though, and if Lord Elrond sends additional healers, they might agree.’

‘How do we heat the inside of the Mountain, anyway?’ Bilbo asked curiously, having left Erebor so soon after the battle previously.

‘Bifur and Bofur are trying to get one of the great forges lit, I believe.  They used to heat the whole Mountain at one time, and they’ll also give us plenty of hot water we can use to clean any wounds.’  Óin paused for a moment and looked at Bilbo.  ‘It’s likely to get bad, isn’t it?’

Bilbo gave a single nod.  ‘It is, but we’re doing everything we can to minimise the injuries, and with the help of Lord Elrond’s healers we all have a chance of surviving in one piece.  Now, if we’re finished here, I promised Kíli I’d help him with some fletching, I think he called it.  The ravens have given him some feathers, and he says my small hands will help.’

‘Then, off with you, laddie.  All that’s left to do here, I can do myself.  Thank you for your help, Bilbo.’

‘You’re very welcome.’

*****

He hurried away from the Throne Room, keeping his eyes fixed firmly ahead of him as he crossed the open-sided walkways.  Confusticate and bebother!  Why would anyone build these wretched things, I have no idea!

What is it, âzyungel/? Thorin asked through their bond.

These bloody walkways over a hundred foot drop!  Whose idea were they?

That would be my namesake, Thorin I.  They make perfect sense if seen as a defensive measure.  We can easily see anyone approaching the Throne Room.

They make perfect sense to a dwarf, maybe.  If the bloody dwarrow didn’t fall out with every other race in Arda, you wouldn’t need them!

Noted, amrâlimê.  Where are you going?

To help Kíli make arrows.  What are you doing?

I’m still going over the new weapons with Dwalin in the Armoury.  I’ll be here sometime, I think.  I advise you to stay away from the guardroom, though.  I understand Bombur is in a temper over something Bofur said or did.

Thanks for the warning.  I’ll be in the Royal Quarters.  For some reason, Kili’s making his arrows up there.  It would have been much easier if he’d used the Guardroom.  And I forgot to ask you earlier, did you make…the thing for the thing?

What?

The thing you said you’d make of mithril to keep the thing we don’t talk about in.

Bilbo, I have…Oh.  The thing.

You said you’d either make a box for it, to encase it in mithril so it can’t…influence anyone.  Can you do it?

I did and I will.  We’ll talk about it later, alright?

Okay.  I’ll see you later, my love.

And I you, sanghivasha.

‘He’s going to the Royal Apartments,’ Thorin announced to the members of the Company with him in the Guardroom.  ‘Kíli will keep him busy for the next hour or so.’

‘Thank Mahal for that,’ Fíli said feelingly.  ‘I was sure he’d come here and demand to know what we’re all doing.’

‘How did you stop him from coming here?’ Balin asked curiously.

Thorin grinned.  ‘Told him Bombur’s in a snit with Bofur.’

‘Hey!’ Bofur complained, while Bombur laughed.

‘Just to keep Bilbo away,’ Thorin assured Bofur.  ‘We have an hour to get everything ready.’

*****

‘My dratted fingers are aching again,’ Bilbo complained to Kíli as they made their way back to the Guard room.  ‘And I’m cold as well.  What on Arda made you chose somewhere so out of the way to make your arrows?’

‘Thror’s forge is up there and has the tools I needed,’ Kíli replied vaguely.

‘We’ll need help from some of the others to get them all down to the gates,’ Bilbo continued as if Kíli hadn’t spoken.  ‘Brrr!  I hope someone’s lit the fire in the Guardroom.’.

Kíli gave him a look of concern.  ‘It wasn’t so cold up there.  Are you sickening for something, Bilbo?’

‘I hope not.’  Bilbo stuffed his fingers under his arms to warm them.  ‘I don’t fancy being sick, not at the moment.  There’s still lots to do before the battle.’

They continued on in companionable silence until they drew close to the Guardroom, when Bilbo looked around in puzzlement.

‘Where is everyone?  Has something happened, do you think?’

‘What?  Why d’you think that?’

‘Because there’s always some kind of noise close to the Entrance and Guardroom,’ Bilbo told him in a low voice, still looking around warily.  ‘Bombur or Bofur singing, or someone talking, at least.’  He closed his eyes and focussed on Thorin.  It wasn’t always easy to contact each other through their bond deliberately if one of them was concentrating on something else.

Thorin?  Where are you?  Everywhere’s too quiet and I’m worried.

A feeling of reassurance from Thorin passed through Bilbo.  I’m fine, ghivashel.  There’s nothing to worry about.  Come on into the Guard room.  Everything’s alright.

No, it isn’t.  What’s going on?

The Guard room door opened as Bilbo and Kíli drew near and Thorin appeared, closing the door behind him.

‘I should have known we couldn’t keep anything from you, âzyungel,’ Thorin said with a grin, walking towards Bilbo who narrowed his eyes.

‘Keep what from me?’

‘Arse!’  Kíli used one of Bilbo’s favourite expressions.  ‘And I kept the secret as well!  Fíli said I wouldn’t manage it, but I did!’

‘What secret?’ Bilbo demanded, stopping.  ‘Kíli!  Thorin!  What secret?’

In response, Thorin swept up Bilbo into his arms and grinned down at him.  ‘Open the door, namadul.’

Bilbo wriggled and tried to free his hands, which Thorin was keeping trapped to his sides.  ‘Thorin, you great lump!  Put me down!’

Thorin kissed Bilbo’s cheek and strode forward, still grinning.  ‘Nope!’

Kíli hurried to fling open the door to the Guardroom and bowed with a flourish as Thorin strode past him, Bilbo still trying to get free from the tight hold on him.  The sound of eleven dwarrow shouting ‘Happy Birthday, Bilbo’ hit the hobbit with full force and he gasped at the sight before him.

They had pushed the table and chairs, which were usually in the middle of the room to the sides, and the table itself was filled with a variety of food.  Paper chains were hanging around the room and a large banner pinned to one wall proclaimed ‘Happy Birthday to our Burglar’.  Thorin carefully set Bilbo down and the Company immediately engulfed him, all wanting to pat any part of him they could reach and wishing him a Happy Birthday.

‘Oh my,’ Bilbo managed to say, a grin almost splitting his face as he gazed around at his friends, at his family.  ‘Oh my.  You shouldn’t have bothered, really.  Oh, my goodness.’

It took a few minutes, but Thorin eventually reached his hobbit, pulled him into his arms, and kissed him soundly.  ‘Happy Birthday, amrâlimê.  And I hope it’s the first of many we spend together.’

‘Oh, you great, silly, stoopid dwarf,’ Bilbo mumbled into Thorin’s neck.  ‘I hope it is too.’

‘Bilbo!’ Kíli called.  ‘Put my uncle down and come over here!  We’ve got presents for you!’

Bilbo laughed as Thorin let him go.  ‘But this is all wrong,’ he exclaimed, as Kíli pointed to a pile of gifts on a small table next to the food.  ‘Hobbits give gifts on our birthdays, not receive them.’

‘Ah, but you’re in a dwarrow mountain and surrounded by dwarrow at the moment, and far from the Shire,’ Balin told him, smiling at him.  ‘That means you do it our way for once.  Come on.  Come and open them.’

Bombur pressed a glass of something alcoholic into his hand as Bilbo passed him, and he sniffed it.

‘What is it?  I didn’t know we had any alcohol.’

‘Sip it, don’t gulp it,’ Dwalin suggested.  ‘We call it Firewater.  We found several bottles of it in a storeroom.’

Bilbo looked at the glass warily.  ‘Is it safe to drink after so many years?’

‘Oh, yes, perfectly safe,’ Bofur assured him, taking a gulp from his own glass.  ‘It’s matured, you might say.’

Bilbo took a hesitant sip, swallowed it, and then gasped.  ‘Wow!  It’s g-got a, um, a powerful kick,’ he croaked, making the others laugh.

‘Just a small amount for now, I think,’ Thorin told him, taking the glass from Bilbo’s hand and pushing him gently towards the gifts.

Bilbo sank into a chair Bifur pulled forward for him, signing ‘thank you,’ to him in Iglishmêk.  He grasped the package on the top of the pile and opened it.  It was a red silken waistcoat, and he gasped at its beauty.  ‘Who…?’

‘It’s from me with the best of wishes,’ Dori said with a smile, holding up a hand and wiggling his fingers.  ‘I know the one you set out in is almost in rags now.’

‘It is,’ Bilbo agreed.  ‘I can’t thank you enough, Dori.  It’s gorgeous.’

‘My gift to you is the feast,’ Bombur told him with a shy smile.  ‘I kept back some of the food from Lake-town in the hope we could celebrate after the battle, but when Thorin told us it was your birthday…’

‘It all looks wonderful, Bombur,’ Bilbo said, looking over the loaded table.  ‘I can’t wait to tuck into it!’

He continued opening gifts, exclaiming over each one and thanking the person who gifted it, stunned both at the gifts and at the sentiment behind each one.  He’d always known, objectively, that the Company counted him as their own, but to see it demonstrated in this manner was…humbling, and he couldn’t help the tears that sprang to his eyes.  He took a hasty gulp of his drink to calm himself and gasped again at its strength.

There was one gift left and from the look on Thorin’s face, it was from him.  It was too small to be the mithril tunic Thorin gave him before, and he glanced up to meet Thorin’s eyes.  Thorin smiled at him and nodded to the package.

‘Open it,’ he said gently.

Bilbo picked it up, finding it was an odd shape and surprisingly heavy.  His eyes flew up to Thorin’s face again, not knowing what he expected to see.

‘Open it,’ Thorin repeated.

Whatever it was, it was wrapped around with a fine blue cloth which looked rather like a shawl.  He eventually got to the gift itself and he gasped in surprise and not a little shock.  Three deep red roses lay on his lap and Bilbo touched one gently, uncertain if it was a real rose, so realistic they were.  The petals, however, were cold to the touch but as smooth as the ones on a real rose, and Bilbo had to stop himself from holding it to his nose to sniff.  The stem of each rose was a dull silver instead of green, and Bilbo immediately recognised the metal as mithril, and he looked up at Thorin in astonishment.

‘Thorin, this is…I don’t know what to say.  They’re beautiful.  No, beyond beautiful.  They’re exquisite, but I don’t understand.  Where did you find them?’

‘I made them for you, âzyungel.  I hoped you would understand the meaning of them.’

‘Well, yes, of course.  Red roses mean perfect love, but I didn’t know you understood the meaning of them.’

‘I didn’t, but I found a book in my mother’s rooms which described some of the more important flowers.’  Thorin knelt down in front of him and took Bilbo’s right hand.  ‘I…Will you allow me to court you, Bilbo, son of Bungo and Belladonna, grandson of Gerontius Took, Thain of the Shire?’

‘Is…Is this a courting gift, then?’

Thorin nodded.  ‘It is the gift from my heart, bunnanunê, traditionally the first gift we offer.’

The surrounding room had fallen silent, and the tension was palpable, all eyes on Bilbo and Thorin.

‘Then, yes, yes, of course I will, Thorin, King Under the Mountain, called the Oakenshield, s-son of Thráin, son of Thrór,’ Bilbo told him, repeating the titles as Balin had instructed him.

Thorin’s face broke into a smile, dazzling in its intensity, and, as the rest of the Company broke into cheers and laughter, Bilbo carefully set aside the roses and all but threw himself forward into Thorin’s arms, hugging him tightly while Thorin, now laughing, pressed kiss after kiss to any part of Bilbo’s head he could reach.

Bofur, Bifur and the princes brought out their flutes and violins and played a merry tune which soon had the rest of the Company tapping their feet.  Before long they were all dancing, even the musicians, pausing for the odd song and, more frequently, for the refreshments Bombur had prepared.  Late into the night as the singing and dancing continued, Bilbo took a moment to rest, and he looked around the room at the happy and contented faces of the dwarrow who had become his family and knew he’d remember this moment for the rest of his life.

There were a few sore heads the morning following Bilbo’s party, including the birthday boy himself.

‘Urg!  I think Dwalin’s Firewater was off,’ Bilbo groaned to his fiancé when he awoke.  ‘Several miners appear to have taken up residence in my head and they all have hammers!’

‘Don’t worry, my love.’  Thorin kissed Bilbo’s left ear – the only part of him not burrowed beneath the blanket on the bed.  ‘Óin makes the best pick-me-up there is, and he told me he was preparing a batch for today.’

‘Thank Yavanna for that!’ Bilbo mumbled.  ‘How’s your head?’

‘It’s fine.  I had only a small glass of the Firewater.  I learned long ago not to indulge too much.  Shall I fetch you a glass of Oin’s potion, amrâlimê?’

‘Mmm.’  Bilbo’s voice was muffled as he burrowed deeper into the blankets.  ‘I hope there isn’t much to do today.’

Thorin laughed and slipped out of bed to pull on his breeches.  ‘Shall I see if Bombur’s made breakfast yet?’

‘Blergh!  Don’t mention breakfast!  A cup of tea might be alright, I suppose.’

Thorin emerged into the main living room of the guard’s quarters to find a few of his Company looking rather frail.  Bofur in particular looked a little green and was sitting at the table propping up his head with one hand, his eyes closed.

‘I’m never touching alcohol again,’ he promised his brother in a voice not much above a whisper.  ‘And if I look as though I might, stop me, Bombur, won’t you please?’  He opened his eyes and noticed Thorin smirking at him.  ‘How come you’re looking so chirpy, your royal bastardness?’

‘I’m pretty certain I can have your beard for such insults,’ Thorin told Bofur slightly louder than necessary and making him flinch.  ‘Can’t I, Dwa—Where is Dwalin?’ he asked, looking around the room.

‘Trying to sleep off his overindulgence,’ Óin answered, appearing from the kitchen with a large jug and a glass.  He set both items down on the table next to Bofur, poured a small amount into the glass and pushed it towards him.  ‘Drink it all up, laddie, and you’ll feel much better.’

‘I certainly can’t feel worse,’ Bofur moaned and swallowed the liquid in one gulp.  ‘Blergh!  This is worse than the bloody headache!’

‘Can I take a dose for Bilbo?’ Thorin asked his cousin.  ‘He appears to be a little under the weather too.  He thinks there was something wrong with the Firewater.’

‘The only thing wrong with it was the amount they drank!’ Óin returned gruffly.  ‘They’re all under the weather apart from you, Balin, and myself.  Wash some of those glasses, Thorin, and I’ll dose everyone, though it’d serve them all right if we left them to suffer.  Might teach `em a lesson in moderation.’

‘Moderation and alcohol are things rarely found together,’ Thorin commented, his lips twitching, ‘and even more rarely in dwarrow!’  He took the glasses they’d used the night before through to the kitchen to rinse, wondering when he became a general dogsbody.

Stop thinking so hard, Bilbo told him through their bond.  You’re making my head hurt even more.

I’m about to bring something to help with that.  You’ll be up and about in no time.

I don’t want to be up and about.  Just leave me here to die.

How’re those miners doing?

I think they’ve all taken on apprentices.

*****

The Lake-town ponies given to the Company were housed in the Erebor stables once they were cleaned out, and Balin, Glóin, and Óin rode down to Lake-town in a few hours, arriving just before the town gates were closed at dusk.  They went directly to the town’s single Inn, reserved a room for themselves, and stabling for the ponies.  The Innkeeper, Mr Brady, was surprised to see them back, and even more surprised when Glóin pulled out a coin bag and handed him three silver coins in payment for their rooms and the stabling.

‘I heard as you was all going travelling,’ Brady commented, picking up the coins and examining them carefully, even biting one.

‘We have done a fair amount of it,’ Balin said, noncommittally.  ‘We’ll be staying for two nights, if that’s convenient.  Also, we’ve been travelling for sometime and we’d appreciate a hot meal this evening, please.’

‘There’s only fish,’ Brady replied, apparently satisfied that the coins were real.  ‘There’s always fish in Lake-town.’

‘Fish will be fine, thank you.  Now, if you could show us to our rooms?’

Brady shuffled around the bar and motioned for the dwarrow to follow him.  ‘There’s just the one room so you’ll have to share.  Won’t be a problem, will it?’

‘Not for us,’ Glóin said with a shrug.  ‘It won’t be the first time we’ve shared.’

‘So, what’s you back here for, eh?’

The three dwarrow exchanged glances.  ‘We have some business to transact,’ Balin said eventually, and as Brady opened his mouth to ask another question, added, ‘Private business.’

With a sigh, Brady nodded and opened a door on the upper landing.  ‘This is you then, la—um, sirs.’

Balin nodded and gave him a quick smile before ushering his cousins into the room and closing the door firmly behind himself.

‘You realise he’s going straight to the Master with the news that we’re back,’ Glóin said, scowling at the door as though it had done him an injury.

‘I suspect the Master already knows,’ Balin returned.  ‘Didn’t you notice the Lickspiller man dodging behind some barrels as we came through the gates?’

‘Lickspittle,’ Óin corrected him.  ‘Alfrid Lickspittle, if my memory serves me.’

Glóin stared at his brother.  ‘How do you learn these things when you’re half deaf?’

Óin shrugged and grinned at Glóin.  ‘I have my ways, laddie.’

‘Didn’t you—’

‘Peace, cousins,’ Balin said, holding up his hands.  ‘Let’s not argue amongst ourselves.’

‘No, leave that to Thorin and Bilbo,’ Glóin muttered, then nodded his head.  ‘Sorry, Balin.  Carry on.’

‘I was only going to add that we can’t keep our visit here a secret in any case.  The Master has too many spies around the town for that, and we’re doing nothing wrong.’

‘Just three dwarrow doing a little sightseeing, are we?’ Glóin asked with a grin.

‘Something like that,’ Balin sighed.

*****

Standing alone on the battlements of his city, Thorin watched his cousins disappear around the spur of Ravenhill.  He hoped Balin could convince the men of Lake-town to fight alongside them, and bring their vulnerable people to the city for safety, but a part of his mind was busy remembering the lead up to the battle in his past life.  A blend of guilt and shame still ran through him when he recalled his behaviour whilst under the influence of the gold sickness, and his failure to throw it off.

‘But you did throw it off,’ Bilbo said softly as he slipped his arm around Thorin’s waist.

‘How long have you been here?’ Thorin asked instead of responding to Bilbo’s comment.

‘Just a couple of minutes, but you’ve been here for almost two hours.  We were worried about you.’

‘I’ve not been here for two hours,’ Thorin denied.  ‘More like a few minutes.  You exaggerate, my love.’

‘Your love I may be,’ Bilbo retorted, ‘but look at the position of the sun.  It’s almost noon.  Your cousins left a couple of hours ago and you’ve been up here worrying about what happened before, haven’t you?’

‘It’s difficult to forget,’ Thorin admitted bitterly.  ‘I did so—’

‘For the last time, Thorin, you weren’t responsible for your actions!  Saruman laid the curse on your line, not you.  If you want to blame anyone, blame him!’

‘But—’

‘But nothing!  Fíli, Kíli and I are the only ones who saw you under the influence of the curse, and you know it can’t happen again: Mahal made certain it couldn’t.’  Bilbo paused to breathe, and pulled Thorin around to face him, gripping his arms and shaking them to make his point.  ‘I love you, you stupid, thickheaded, stubborn fool of a dwarf!  You and I made our peace as you lay dying, having won back your Mountain and avenged your grandfather and your father’s deaths.  We’ve been given a second chance to do all that again and more, because you and your wretched nephews are going to bloody well live this time, alright?’

‘Alright,’ Thorin agreed, smiling down at his hobbit’s determined face.

‘Then say it!’

‘I’m going to bloody well live and so are my nephews,’ Thorin repeated obediently.

‘Now say it as though you mean it.’

Taking a deep breath, Thorin actually thought about the words Bilbo instructed him to say.  ‘We’re going to chop the head off that bastard Bolg and end his line, and Fíli, Kíli, you and me are going to get our happy-ever-after because we bloody well deserve it!’

A burst of clapping and cheering came from just inside the mountain and Fíli, Kíli, and Dwalin appeared.

‘Damn right you’ll live,’ Dwalin told Thorin, pulling him into a hug and thumping his back energetically while Fíli picked up Bilbo and swung him around, grinning widely all the time even while Bilbo complained vociferously.

‘We do bloody well deserve it,’ Kíli assured his uncle.  ‘You’ve got your One, and I’ve found mine.  We just need to have a look for Fili’s now then we can all be happy.’

‘Leave me alone, Kíli!’ Fíli told his brother and flicked his ear to make his point.

‘No fighting up here!’ Thorin ordered, knowing how quickly trouble could escalate between his sister-sons.  ‘I want you both in one piece when your mother gets here.’

‘She’s already set off?’ Dwalin asked.

‘Not yet, winter’s too close.  She’ll bring the first caravan next spring if she sticks to the original plan.  I sent a raven to her a couple of weeks ago, but I doubt he’ll have reached her yet.  I told her we’d killed the dragon, but not about the battle.  Time enough for that when it’s won.’

‘That’s right, indâd.  We mustn’t close the door before letting our chickens count,’ Kíli nodded, then frowned as the others stared at him open-mouthed.  ‘What?  It’s an expression.  I’ve heard Bilbo say it before.’

‘You’ve never heard me say that!’ Bilbo told him, then glanced at Thorin.  ‘It’s your fault for dropping him on his head, isn’t it?’

‘I think it’s more that he bounced a couple of times before I could pick him up,’ Thorin admitted while Fíli and Dwalin burst into laughter.

Kíli, for his part, still looked confused, but Thorin patted him on the head kindly.  ‘Never mind, namadul, we still love you.’

*****

The cousins paid their visit to Bard after their dinner – a watery fish stew with lumps of potatoes and other things they didn’t recognise swimming in it, although they enjoyed the taste of the fresh bread which went with it.  They left the one backpack they’d brought with them in their room, aware Brady would no doubt search through it while they were gone.

‘I’ve got our coin bag in here,’ Glóin informed Balin as they left their room, patting the pocket in his breeches.  ‘If Brady wants to steal our underwear, he’s welcome to it.’

They made their way through the town to Bard’s home, using the narrow alleys where possible to keep them away from the main walkways, not wanting to bring trouble on Bard and his children should anyone see or ask what they were doing.  Much like the last time Balin visited him, Bard groaned when he saw them.

‘No, no.  You can’t possibly want anything more from me.  People already think I’m brain-addled for saying a dragon might fall on the town.  Which it obviously didn’t.’

‘And yet if it had, you’d be hailed as a hero,’ Balin countered, as they entered Bard’s home.  He looked around, but there was no sign of the children.

‘I don’t want to be a hero!  Just being Bard the Bowman with his three children is fine for me.’

‘And the children are where?’

‘In bed upstairs, so I’ll thank you to keep your voices down.’

‘Did the thrush bring my message?’ Balin asked, changing the subject as they sat around the table as before.

‘Yes, but how did you know I’d understand what it was saying to me?  Even I didn’t know I could understand them.’

‘It’s a gift of your line, laddie,’ Óin told him with a smile.  ‘We of the line of Durin can talk to the ravens of Erebor, and the line of Girion can talk to thrushes.’

‘It’s true then?  The dragon is dead?’

‘Aye, dead and chopped into pieces,’ Glóin said with relish.

‘What…?  No, no, don’t tell me, I don’t think I want to know.’  Bard shook his head, all but putting his fingers in his ears.

‘We wish to offer your people refuge from the battle in Erebor,’ Balin said carefully, aware he needed to tread lightly with Bard.  It wouldn’t be as easy as Thorin and Bilbo thought.

‘Refuge from what?’ Bard demanded.  ‘Another dragon?’

‘As Thorin told you a few weeks ago, a battle is coming and it will engulf Lake-town as much as Ereb—’

‘But we don’t have any quarrel with your enemies, with anyone,’ Bard protested.  ‘Won’t they leave us alone?’

‘Orcs don’t leave anyone alone,’ Glóin said flatly.  ‘They’re merciless, vicious killers who enjoy inflicting pain.  The more pain, the better for them.  They’ll set fire to this town and everyone in it and laugh while they watch your people burn!  You’ll all end up fighting them, men, women, and children, whether you want to fight or not .  Better to keep your vulnerable ones safe in our Mountain – your animals as well if you like – and fight at our side.’

And there goes my plan to tread lightly! Balin thought to himself as Bard buried his head in his hands at Gloin’s speech.

‘It’s not up to me,’ he groaned.  ‘I’ve no idea why you’re telling me this.  I don’t lead the town, whatever you and your king might think.  It’s not me you have to convince, it’s the Master.’

‘And we will talk to him tomorrow,’ Balin said gently.  ‘But, like it or not, the people of Lake-town will follow your lead, not the Master’s.’

‘What?  Like they followed me when I told them a dragon was coming?’ Bard asked him bitterly.

Balin sighed and exchanged glances with his cousins.  ‘And if we hadn’t warned you about the dragon and it had destroyed the town?  What would you think of us then, eh?  We don’t regret giving you warning of what might come to pass, but the battle is very different.  That most definitely will happen.  We’ve already heard from ravens we sent out to spy for us.  Two armies are amassing: one at Dol Guldur and one at Mount Gundabad.  They are coming, Bard.  We estimate the main army will be here in about four weeks, although you need to be prepared before then because they’ll likely send out scouts.  All we ask is that you bring your own supplies.  We can provide mattresses and blankets, but you must bring whatever you can carry, including food, because I doubt you’ll ever come back here.  Not for a long time at least.’

Bard still didn’t look up at them and only grunted what might have been acknowledgement or not, but Balin gestured to Óin and Glóin to get ready to leave, and he rested his hand on Bard’s shoulder for a moment.

‘We’ll be at the Inn for a couple of days, so come and see us if you have more questions, laddie.  We’ll see ourselves out.’

As Balin closed the door behind himself, he took a last glance at their unwilling host.  Bard’s shoulders were now shaking slightly.  ‘Ah, laddie.  Let us help you,’ he murmured to himself.

*****

Thorin called a meeting of the remaining members of his Company the morning following Balin, Óin, and Gloin’s departure.

‘Regarding the battle,’ Thorin began, ‘we have some ideas for digging traps out in the Long Valley.  As Bilbo explained, the were-worms burrowed through the Eastern Spur for Azog’s army to launch a surprise attack, and it worked.  This time, however, we know pretty much what’s coming and approximately when it’s coming and can plan accordingly.  The flash-flames Bilbo mentioned are to bring down the tunnels on top of the orc army, but they might not work, and even if they do, I expect a certain number will get through them.  My idea is to dig a few traps along the foot of the ridge which, hopefully, they’ll fall into.  We can cover them with branches and soil to hide them as well.’

‘I’ve seen that tactic used before,’ Dwalin nodded.  ‘We both have, while we were looking for work in the south.’

‘I heard of something similar during the Fell Winter,’ Bilbo added.  ‘I was only just turned twenty-one so wasn’t allowed to join the fight, but the Bounders dug trenches in Buckland and on North Moor and filled them with anything which would burn quickly: straw, wood, dried leaves, anything they could find.  The Bounders waited until the wolves, or even orcs on the odd occasion, drew close, then set fire to the traps from somewhere safe.  The trouble is, once fired, they’re useless.’

‘Doesn’t matter if they’ve served their purpose,’ Dwalin told Bilbo.  ‘And that’s certainly doable.’

‘Especially if we add in some flash-flame,’ Bofur suggested.  ‘The only downside I can see is having someone close enough to fire them.’

‘Fíli?’ Thorin asked as he noticed his nephew tapping a finger against his lip and staring ahead unblinkingly.

‘What about a flaming arrow shot from somewhere high?’ Fíli said slowly.  ‘Being high enough to make an accurate shot is the key to it, I think.’

‘Could you make such a shot?’ Thorin asked Kíli.

‘It depends how long a distance I’d have to shoot.  I can manage 500 yards with my new bowstring, but Legolas or Tauriel might be a better choice as they have a longer range than me.’

‘We can practise later if you want,’ Fíli said to Kíli, who nodded.  ‘We don’t have to try not to wake the dragon this time, either.’

‘What about Dale?’ Bilbo asked, looking at Thorin.  ‘There was a lot of fighting there before, particularly from the Trolls carrying catapults, and while it’ll help not to have the folk from Lake-town there, it means the forces who attacked Dale last time will be focused on us instead.’

‘Protecting Dale split our forces to a certain extent, though,’ Fíli pointed out.  ‘Particularly when Thranduil took most of the Elven army there.’

Thorin scowled at the mention of the Elven King, but Bilbo just rolled his eyes, while Bifur was explaining something to his cousin, Bofur, who nodded as Bifur spoke.

‘Bifur suggests setting up some diversions or decoys in Dale,’ Bofur said eventually.  ‘Maybe some minor explosions or noises from within the town.’

‘Decoys are a good idea,’ Thorin agreed, ‘but there was so much noise anyway, I doubt anything from within Dale would be heard outside it.’

‘Are the bell towers in Dale still intact?’ Dwalin asked suddenly.  ‘If they are, ringing some of them as though giving a warning might be loud enough to be heard above the battle.’

‘Another good idea,’ Thorin nodded.  ‘We can take a look at the town and see what we can do, and where.’

‘Could you make me some small metal balls?’ Bilbo asked suddenly, staring fixedly at the wall.

‘Thorin’s not good en—urg!’  Thorin’s hand swiped the side of Dwalin’s head before he could finish speaking.

‘I used to be a fair shot with a catapult,’ Bilbo told Dwalin.  ‘And keep your mind out of the gutter and my bed!’

‘What’s a catapult?’ Nori asked.

‘A sort of slingshot, I think.’  Thorin glanced at Bilbo with raised eyebrows.

Bilbo nodded.  ‘Not dissimilar to the one Ori uses, but we use a forked stick with twine attached.’

‘How far can you throw with one?’  Fíli was clearly trying to imagine what it looked like, judging by his frown.

‘Come outside with me when we’re done here and I’ll show you,’ Bilbo replied.  ‘It’ll be far easier than all these questions.’

From the interested looks on the surrounding faces, Thorin guessed they’d all be heading outside after the meeting, and he glanced around the room.  ‘Thank you, everyone.  We’ve got some good ideas to get on with.’

‘When are we expecting Dáin and his people?’ Dori asked suddenly.  ‘Will we need to prepare somewhere for them to sleep?’

‘I’m not sure there’s anywhere left to put them in the mountain,’ Bilbo sighed.  ‘Not that we’ve checked over to make sure it’s safe.  Besides, he brought several hundred men with him last time.  Where could we put all of them?’

‘Where did they sleep last time?’

‘In tents they brought with them.  We used them for the injured as well,’ Bilbo replied sadly.  ‘I remember how cold it was.’

‘What about the main dining room?’ Ori suggested, glancing through his notes.  ‘We’ve not put anyone there yet.  If they’re not too fussy about mattresses, it wouldn’t take too long to clear.’

‘I’d think they’ll just be glad not to be outside in tents,’ Thorin offered, then pressed his palms to the tabletop.  ‘If that’s all, then I think we’re done here.  Thank you, everyone.  Dwalin?  Want to ride out to Dale with me after Bilbo’s demonstration?  Do you want to join us, Bilbo?’

Bilbo smiled at him.  ‘Not if it means riding a damn pony again.  I swear my bum’s only just recovered!’

There was a sudden silence, then Kíli gave a snort of laughter, making the others laugh too.  Bilbo shook his head in resignation while Thorin reached over to smack his nephew’s head soundly.

It was business as usual, it would appear.

*****

Early in the morning, following their discussion with Bard, a knock on the bedroom door woke the three cousins.

‘Who’s that at this time?’ Glóin muttered.

‘Open the door and you’ll find out,’ Balin grumbled.  ‘You’re nearest.  What time is it?’

A second knock sounded before Glóin could answer.

‘There’s a young lady asking for you downstairs,’ Brady’s voice called through the door.  ‘What shall I tell her?’

‘That we’ll be down in a few minutes,’ Balin called back.  ‘Can you prepare some tea for us, please?’

‘Aye,’ came the reply, and they heard Brady’s footsteps fade away as he went back downstairs.

‘Who do you think it is?’ Glóin asked again as the three dwarrow splashed water on their faces and pulled on their clothes.

Balin stared at him for a moment, then shook his head.  ‘How can I know?’

‘Just thought you might have an idea.’

They entered the bar a few minutes later to find Bard’s eldest daughter, Sigrid, pacing back and forth, her shoulders hunched and a thin coat clutched around her.

‘What are you doing here?’ Glóin demanded, hurrying over to her.  ‘This is no place for a lassie.’

‘I-I needed to talk to you,’ Sigrid replied.  ‘I thought if I came now I-I wouldn’t miss you.’

Brady appeared with a teapot and four cups before Balin could ask what she wanted to discuss, and the four of them remained silent while Brady arranged the table.  When it became obvious the Innkeeper was lingering deliberately, Balin nodded to him.

‘Thank you, Mr Brady.  We can look after ourselves now.’  He waited until the man left the room, then turned back to Sigrid.  ‘Sit down, lass.  How can we help you?’  He sat in the chair opposite to Sigrid, his cousins flanking him.

It took a moment, but eventually Sigrid gave him a hesitant smile.  ‘I…I overheard some of what you said to my father last night,’ she admitted, lowering her eyes to stare at the table.  ‘My father…He worries about us, you see.  Since Mother died…well, we’re all he has, and he worries about not looking after us properly.  As well as our mother would have done.  It’s all nonsense, of course,’ she said firmly.  ‘He’s a wonderful father, the best, but…’  She trailed off and sighed.

‘Does he know you’re here?’ Glóin asked gently.

Sigrid shook her head.  ‘No, no, he doesn’t.  He went on duty at dawn, though, so I thought I’d come and see you early.  Before too many people are about who might ask questions about me visiting the Inn.’

‘And what do you want to ask us?’ Balin asked.

‘This battle you talked about,’ she began.  ‘Is it really going to happen?’

Balin nodded and waited for her to continue.

‘And Lake-town will be attacked?’

Again, Balin nodded.

‘I…umm…What will happen if we come to Erebor as you suggested?  Will you allow us to leave again?’

‘Why would we stop you?’ Glóin asked, frowning.  ‘We’re not intending to keep you prisoners!’

Suddenly, Balin understood why she was there.  ‘Did you hear our entire conversation with your father?’ he asked carefully.

Sigrid shook her head.  ‘Not from the beginning, no.  I-I woke up when one of you said what orcs would do to the town.  It scared me, and I couldn’t get back to sleep for ages after you left.  Neither could my father.  In fact, I’m not sure if he went to bed at all.’  She met Balin’s eyes and bit her lip.  ‘I-I don’t want that to happen, of course I don’t…but I don’t know what will happen after the battle either.  If we’re still in the mountain, I mean  What…what if the orcs defeat you and everyone’s killed?  What’ll happen to us if we’re inside the mountain?  What can we do?’

Her voice broke on the last word and she buried her face in her hands, much as Bard had done the previous evening.  Balin glanced at his cousins, unsure of what to do with a weeping girl.  Glóin moved to the seat next to Sigrid, slipped his arm around her shoulders and patted her back.  ‘I wouldn’t have said what I did if I’d known you were listening, lass,’ he told her quietly.

‘Then it isn’t true?’ she said, lowering her hands and looking at him, tears still trickling down her cheeks.

‘Yes, I’m afraid it is true,’ Glóin nodded, pulling a scrap of linen from his pocket and dabbing at her cheeks.  ‘But scaring you was the last thing I wanted.  I have a young lad, Gimli, who’s around your age in dwarrow terms, and he thinks he’s old enough to hear difficult things, but he’s not old enough to deal with them.  That’s what your Da’s for, lass.  And as for your questions, the orcs won’t defeat us.  With the help of your Da and the men of Lake-town, and all the other people who’ve offered aid, we will defeat the orc army and, hopefully, drive them out of the area forever.  Then we’ll help you rebuild Dale.  We’ll help you with anything and everything, lass, and you’ll be free to come and go from the mountain anytime you like.  Alright?’

Sigrid nodded and gave him a watery smile, which took in Óin and Balin too.  ‘I’m sorry I woke you all up, sirs, and thank you for taking the time to talk to me.’

‘You’re very welcome.’  Balin smiled at her.  ‘I’m glad we could set your mind at rest, Miss Sigrid.’

‘Now,’ Glóin said firmly, removing his arm to look at her.  ‘You need to get off home and take care of your brother and sister which, I’m guessing, is what you should be doing right now.’

Sigrid smiled at him again and got to her feet.  She was a few inches taller than Glóin when they were both standing, Balin noticed idly, especially now she was standing straight, unlike earlier, and she looked much happier in herself.

‘I’ll try to persuade my father to help you, and I’ll talk to the other women in the town about your offer,’ she told them.  ‘And don’t worry, I’ll tell Da I came to see you.’  She bent suddenly and kissed Gloin’s cheek.  ‘Thank you, Mr Glóin.  For everything, and I look forward to meeting your son.’

‘Good lass.’  Glóin smiled at her as she closed the door to the room behind her, then sighed and glanced at his companions.  ‘It’s a lot to put on such a young girl, but I believe she’ll help us.  There’s a strength in her I recognise from my own Gimli.  She’ll do fine.’

*****

The three cousins breakfasted then set out to pay their visit to the Master.  None of them particularly wanted to see him again, but he was the route to persuading the town folk to act: Bard may be their true leader, but the Master had all the power.

‘Do you know his name?’ Glóin asked his brother as they made their way through the town.

‘The name of the Master?  No.  Why should I?’

Glóin shrugged.  ‘You know the name of his sidekick.  I just thought you might know the fat bastard’s name as well, that’s all.’

‘I’m not sure if that’s an insult or a compliment,’ Óin muttered as they arrived at the steps to the Town Hall.  Two men in armour, each wearing a conical helm and carrying a pike with a pennant attached, barred their way.

‘Whaddya want?’ one of them demanded.

‘We want to see the Master,’ Glóin demanded, scowling at him.

‘Well, he don’t wanna see you, short arse,’ the other guard said, grinning at them nastily.

Shaking his head, Balin pushed Glóin out of the way and stepped forward.  ‘We’re here to speak to the Master on behalf of Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain.  I am his seneschal and chief councillor, Balin son of Fundin.’

It was clear neither of the men knew what a seneschal was, but Balin’s confident and determined manner impressed them enough to draw back their pikes and allow them to pass.  One of the guards held the door open for them and even bowed slightly as the dwarrow passed through, only for a belligerent Alfrid Lickspittle to meet them in the entrance hall.

‘What do you want?’ Lickspittle demanded rudely.  ‘Haven’t you had enough from us?’

‘We’re here to speak to the Master,’ Balin explained – again.  ‘And to give him warning of an army already marching on Lake-town.’

It wasn’t strictly true, but the orc army posed a serious threat to the town, and Balin wasn’t above using subterfuge.

‘An army?’ Lickspittle repeated, his eyes darting from side to side.  ‘And they’re coming here?’

‘That’s why we need to speak with the Master,’ Glóin snapped.  ‘And all you’re doing is giving them time to get closer and closer.’

‘I’ll…follow me,’ Lickspittle said, his face now pale.  ‘He’s still abed, but he’ll want to hear this.’

The three cousins exchanged looks of puzzlement.

‘Is he ill?’ Óin asked.  ‘I’m a healer so—’

‘Why?  D’you think he’s ill?’  Alfrid halted and blinked.  ‘Is there some sort of illness in the town?  Is that why you’re here?  Will I catch it?  Is the Master going to die?  What should I do?  I need—’

Balin stared at him, wondering how they’d gone from them wanting to speak to the Master, to the Master being sick and dying.  What’s he so scared of?  ‘We need to see the Master now,’ he said firmly, cutting off Lickspittle’s nervous babble.

‘Yes, yes, of course.  This way.’  Lickspittle scurried along a passage and flung open a door.  ‘He’s in there.  I’ll…I’m…’ He pushed Balin forward, then turned and ran back down the passage without finishing his sentence.

The Master of Lake-town was sitting up in bed eating from a large tray filled with assorted fruits, breads, and meats.  Compared with their meagre breakfast of the previous day’s bread and some green tinged, unidentifiable meat, along with weak tea, it was a feast.

‘What are you doing here?’ the Master demanded thickly through a mouth stuffed with food.  ‘I’ve nothing else to give you, despite what King Thranduil has to say.  You’ve beggared me already!’

Balin glanced at his cousins, who appeared to be as stunned as he was at the sight of the obese man dressed in a stained white night shirt, hair hanging limply from under a skewed nightcap, and the sight made him unnaturally tongue-tied.  ‘We, umm.  We come with a message for you from Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain.’ he began, and cleared his throat.  ‘We, that is…An orc army is on the march towards Erebor and Lake-town is under th—’

At the mention of the orc army, the Master gave a start, tipping the tray to one side and spilling a cup of steaming liquid over the bedclothes.  He yelled and flung the tray off the bed, scattering the food upon it, and treated the three cousins to the sight of his large naked backside as he stumbled out of the bed and grabbed the clothes laying over a garment rail.  Balin covered his eyes and turned his head away, hearing Glóin give a grunt of distaste.

‘Guards!  Guards!’ the Master yelled, pulling on his breeches over his nightshirt and trying to force his still-slippered feet into a pair of boots.  ‘Where are those bedamned guards?’ he muttered to himself.  ‘They’ll get me killed in my bed!’

Three guardsmen dashed into the room, pikes held ready for an attack, then stopped and looked around.

‘Master?’ one of them asked.  ‘What’s—’

‘Orc army!’ the Master panted, now hurriedly filling a bag with items of clothing from a chest, and heaping the small stacks of gold coins and jewellery around the room, in on top, nightcap still askew.  ‘Empty treasury!  Collect valuables!  Now, damn you!’

‘The army won’t be here for another four weeks,’ Balin tried to explain.  ‘And King Thorin has offered refuge in Erebor—’

‘In Erebor?!  What about the dragon?!’ the Master demanded, pausing from his frantic packing to look at Balin.  ‘I don’t want it to kill me either!’

‘The dragon is dead,’ Balin said enunciating clearly to stem the panic of the man.  ‘And the orc army will not be here for a further four weeks.’

The Master dropped his overflowing bag and sank onto the end of his bed.  ‘Four weeks?  Then why are you forcing me to flee now?’

Balin stared at him, speechless for once, but fortunately, Glóin wasn’t.

‘We’re here to ask you to prepare a force to join King Thorin and his allies in battle against the orcs,’ Glóin told the Master.  ‘And he offers refuge within the mountain for the vulnerable from the town.’

‘I can take refuge inside the mountain?’ the Master asked, a cunning look crossing his face.  ‘That is most acceptable to—’

‘Refuge for the elderly who can’t fight!’ Glóin clarified.  ‘And for the town’s women and children.  We’ll need all able-bodied men to join the battle.’

‘But your king can’t intend me to fight, surely.  As the ruler of Lake-town, it’s vital that I am protected.’

‘A-and as your d-deputy I must be protected as well,’ Alfrid added, stepping into the room.

Gloin’s lip curled, but before he could speak, Balin laid a hand on his arm and stepped forward.  ‘Of course,’ he nodded.  ‘We can make sure you’re both safe, but the men of the town will need someone to lead them, surely?  Would you not rather lead your men out into battle, Master?’

If Balin hoped to coerce the man into acting honourably, he was mistaken.

‘Why would I do that?’ the Master asked, his brow furrowed.  ‘Soury can lead them, or Bard, I don’t care.’  He paused and gave an oily smile.  ‘I won’t need a large chamber in the mountain.  Just a small room for the town treasury, and the furniture from my rooms here.  Not for me, you understand.  Not for my own comfort.  These things belong to the people of Lake-town, of course, and I must preserve them at all costs.

‘Perhaps it would be best if I return with you to Erebor to make sure the rooms you’ve allocated to me will be suitable.  A small apartment within the Royal chambers will be perfectly fine.  I’m not one to make a fuss, you realise, but I am the elected leader of the town so you’ll no doubt want to give me a place of honour, but I assure you, you don’t have to do that.  Just treat me like any other king or ruler and I’ll be perfectly fine in the royal apartments, although your king might wish to move out as I dislike being too crowded.  I’m sure he’ll understand and will want to make room for such an honoured guest.’

It took a moment for Balin to close his open mouth, and he had to use all the skill he’d learned over the years to prevent himself from laughing or shouting at the man.  Instead, he gritted his teeth, forced a smile onto his face and nodded, not trusting himself to speak.  Glóin, however, had no such restraint.

‘Why you—’

It was Óin who slapped his hand over his brother’s mouth and dragged him from the room, leaving Balin to swallow his emotion and remain calm.

‘No, that’s not possible, I’m afraid.  We still need to make parts of the city habitable again.’  And that’s not a lie.  ‘It’s best if you remain here until we can prepare suitable quarters for you, and you can make sure the men of the town are armed and ready to protect you and the vulnerable on your way to Erebor.  We’ve prepared weapons for those of your men who don’t have them, but I don’t need to bother you with that.  Shall I speak with the head of the town guard, instead?’

The Master had scowled when Balin began speaking, but understanding gradually crossed his face, and by the time Balin had finished, the Master was beaming and nodding.  ‘Yes, yes, of course.  You need to speak with Captain Soury of the town guard and Captain Bard of the town archers.  Alfrid will take you to them and I’ll…finish my breakfast.’

As they retreated from the room, Balin heard the Master shouting for a fresh breakfast tray and his physician to give him something to calm his shattered nerves, and Balin tried to hide his grimace of distaste.

‘H-how long do we have before the orc army gets here?’ Alfrid demanded, his voice still shaking a little.

‘About four weeks,’ Balin answered curtly, not wanting to get into further conversation with the vile man.

‘Four weeks,’ Alfrid repeated.  ‘But it could be sooner, couldn’t it?’

Balin ignored him, catching sight of his cousins, and shook his head as Glóin opened his mouth to speak.

‘Alfrid is taking us to meet the Captains of the town guard and the town archers,’ he informed his cousins.  ‘Then we must get back to the Mountain to help the Company with all the arrangements which we still need to complete, don’t we?’

‘Do we?’ Glóin frowned.  ‘What—Ow!’  He broke off and glared at his brother.  ‘What—’

‘Arrangements,’ Óin nodded as though he hadn’t just kicked his brother,  ‘Indeed.  Very important.  Yes.’

Balin sighed.  Mahal protect me from dim-witted Men and slow-witted relatives.

‘Thorin?’ Bofur yelled from the Lookout down to the guardroom.  ‘You might want to see this!’

‘See what?’ Bilbo demanded, appearing suddenly and making Bofur jump.

‘Sweet Yavanna, Bilbo!’  Bofur placed his hand over his chest.  ‘We need to fit you with a bell!’

‘What are you shouting about?’  Bilbo ignored him and stared through an arrow slit in the direction Bofur had been facing, not being tall enough to see over the wall of the Lookout.  ‘Wait…Is that…That’s Elladan and Elrohir, Lord Elrond’s sons leading—’

‘—hundreds of Elves,’ Bofur finished, then glanced at Bilbo.  ‘How do you know Elrond’s sons?’

‘Mm?  Oh, I spent my last twenty years or so in Rivendell so became well acquainted with them.’  He gave a sudden laugh.  ‘We’ll have to keep them away from Fíli and Kíli.  Erebor isn’t ready for four mischief makers, that’s for certain.’

‘What’s that about mischief makers?’ Thorin asked, stepping onto the battlements, Fíli and Kíli at his heels.  ‘Have you two been playing pranks again?’ he demanded, looking back at his nephews.

‘It depends on what you mean by “again”, uncle,’ Kíli said carefully.

‘We haven’t played any pranks for oh, three or four days at least,’ Fíli added, unable to meet Thorin’s eyes.

‘Thorin, look,’ Bilbo pointed, distracting his partner from his guilty-as-all-hell nephews.  ‘Elves.’

‘Thank Mahal,’ Thorin murmured, his shoulders relaxing a little.  ‘Is that—’

‘Tauriel’s with them!’ Kíli cheered right in his uncle’s ear, making Thorin swat at him.

‘And there’s Legolas,’ Fíli added.  ‘How…how many elves are with them?’

‘Hundreds,’ Bofur repeated in satisfaction.  ‘Hundreds of them.’

By the time they got down to the King’s Gates, the rest of the Company had joined them, and they crowded out onto the narrow ledge before the entrance.  As a part of the original city defences, the front doorstep – as Bilbo insisted on calling it – was narrow and Thorin’s Company had built a drawbridge to create a movable walkway across the River Running – the original bridge being destroyed during Smaug’s occupation of the city – which acted as a natural moat and flowed from beneath the mountain.  Scaling ladders – frequently used by orcs to climb a wall – would be of little use now unless used with care – a word rarely used when describing a battle.

For now, the Company watched as the army appeared around the western spur of the Mountain called Ravenwing End, and into the Long Valley.  Most of the Company returned to their previous work after a while, knowing it would take over an hour for the leaders to get close to the entrance of Erebor, but Thorin and Bilbo remained side by side watching the Elven army march towards them.

It was difficult for Thorin not to think of the previous time this happened, and he thanked his Maker once again for both the opportunity to get it right, and for ensuring he wouldn’t – couldn’t – fall to the gold sickness again.  He felt a small hand slip into his own and he smiled down at his One.

‘Stop having stupid and pointless thoughts, you great daft lump,’ Bilbo murmured, and when Thorin glanced around, he realised most of the Company were back on the doorstep ready to greet their allies, who were now almost close enough to hail.

The four Elves at the front rode forward to greet Thorin and his Company, and it was Bilbo who first ran forward to greet them.  Elladan and Elrohir appeared surprised as the hobbit called out their names, although Legolas was grinning widely.  Nothing loath, however, they quickly dismounted and returned the hugs he gave them while Legolas laughed loudly.

‘Elladan—’

‘And Elrohir—’

‘At your service,’ they said together and bowed at Bilbo, who chuckled at the memory of two other brothers greeting him in the same way at their initial meeting.

‘Goodness, you must think I’m addled,’ he grinned at them.

‘Or possibly drunk,’ one twin agreed.

‘I take it Legolas hasn’t told you.’  Bilbo glanced at Legolas who had finally dismounted and was shaking hands with Thorin and the two princes, Kíli then quickly moving to greet Tauriel.

‘No, he hasn’t,’ the other twin said, glancing at the prince.  ‘What should Legolas have told us?’

Bilbo looked around and saw that the front rank of Elves had come to a halt twenty yards or so away, but he lowered his voice, anyway.  ‘In short, Thorin, Fíli, Kíli,’ Bilbo waved a hand as he named them, ‘and myself have been sent back in time to—’

‘To fulfil a number of tasks for the Lord Mahal and his wife, the Green Lady,’ Thorin finished for him, holding out his hand to the twins.  ‘I am Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, King Under the Mountain.’

The twins introduced themselves again, making Thorin smile.  ‘Bilbo told us you are much like my two nephews who now appear to have forgotten their manners.’  Thorin’s voice increased as he spoke, finishing almost at a shout and making his nephews jump and hurry over.

‘But how do you know us, as you obviously do?’ Elrohir – or it may have been Elladan – asked Bilbo.

‘I spent my last years as a guest of your father at Imladris in my first life.  The three of us spent much time together when you weren’t busy chasing your little brother around Arda.’  Bilbo met the eyes of the two Elves and gave a slight nod.  Understanding flowed across their faces.

‘Indeed.  Estel can be…’ one twin began.

‘…tiring,’ finished the other.

‘Then we understand each other,’ Thorin murmured with a nod.

‘How many elves have you brought with you?’ Fíli asked politely as he joined them, leaving Kíli to rejoin Tauriel and converse quietly with her.

‘We come with five hundred warriors from Imladris along with fifty healers,’ Elladan replied, smiling at him.  ‘Our father hopes to join us, but he has other business of which to take care first.’

‘I’ve brought two thousand Elves from Mirkwood,’ Legolas added, then appeared to fold in on himself.  ‘And I doubt my father will even bother to leave his halls.’

‘But you have come,’ Bilbo said gently, patting Legolas’ arm.

‘And you will lead your people into battle,’ Thorin added.  ‘It is you they will look to for leadership, Legolas Greenleaf.’  He turned back to the twins.  ‘Come, we have cleared an area within the Mountain for your people, although it’s likely to be cramped with so many of you.  It’s not luxurious, but it’s warm and dry and there’s fresh water.’

The twins and Legolas called forward their Captains and explained about the accommodation prepared in the mountain.  As the alternative was using tents in the Long Valley, they quickly agreed to Thorin’s proposal, and left to organise their men, Kíli accompanying Tauriel.

‘Who else can we expect?’ Elladan asked as the six of them, accompanied by Balin, entered the mountain, leaving Dwalin, Glóin, and Bombur to sort out the Elves.  Glóin looked none too happy, and Thorin and Bilbo exchanged smirks at the thought of what was likely to come in the future.

‘My cousin, Lord Dáin, from the Iron Hills.  And we hope to have a company of men from Lake-town.  You’ll have passed the town on your way here,’ Thorin added.

‘A wooden town on the lake,’ Elrohir nodded.  ‘Yes.  It will be in great danger no matter from which direction the orc army comes.  Are they aware of this?’

‘We’ve tried to warn them,’ Bilbo sighed.  ‘The Master, their…leader, was more concerned about his own hide and his treasure than the wellbeing of his people.  And a man named Bard – a descendent of the last Lord of Dale and the man who became King of Dale last time – suspects our motives in asking for their help, and isn’t convinced about there being a battle at all.’

‘I suspect we might have persuaded him as we passed the town.’  Legolas grinned mischievously.  ‘He can’t have missed the sight of two and a half thousand armed elves passing his town.’

Thorin and Bilbo led their guests to a suite of rooms to which the Company had moved only a few days previously.  Their intention was to return the guardroom back to its previous use of housing those on guard duty – which at the moment the Company was undertaking.  Their new home was the former apartment of a senior guild member two levels above the guardroom, but still close enough to get to the gate quickly if required.  Its main advantage was having two apertures, originally glazed but now covered with thick rugs, which, when moved aside, allowed them to look down on the river Running and Dale, and also allowed them to hear any calls from the lookout just below, and whatever might happen outside the mountain.  There was a large living room, and enough other rooms to sleep the Company and several more as well, besides the usual offices.

‘You’re welcome to stay here with us if you wish,’ Bilbo told the four elves, ‘but we fully understand if you’d rather be with your people.  We’re billeting them in the former marketplace, and I hope you’ve brought your own supplies as we can’t possibly even begin to feed you all.’

Elrohir laughed.  ‘I was beginning to wonder, but now I know you’re a hobbit, Mr Baggins!’

‘Oh, call me Bilbo, please.  You always used to,’ he added, grinning back at him.

‘Thank you, Bilbo, and we have indeed brought supplies.  Our quartermaster should be handing them over to your people right now.’

‘And I’ve brought all the Greenwood could spare,’ Legolas added.  ‘Both for you and for my people.’

‘Then you have our grateful thanks.’  Thorin bowed to them, thinking of how much his life had altered that he was now welcoming Elves into his city and thanking them as well.  He noticed Bilbo smirking at him and he held his hand to his mouth so no one but Bilbo could see it, and he stuck out his tongue.  ‘Now,’ he continued smoothly, while Bilbo choked.  ‘I’d like to go over our plans with you.’

*****

The Company hadn’t had time to dig the traps they’d discussed making, but the arrival of so many elves three weeks before the battle made digging and filling them with flammable material a much easier task.  Dori and Bilbo, when searching through the city, had collected together any fabric they found for various uses, clothing and bandages amongst them.  The remaining fabric – rags, Dori called them – which couldn’t be utilised, was perfect for lining the fire-trenches, and on the twins’ suggestion Thorin returned to his forge to create a number of iron balls with metal spikes extending from the centre to toss into the traps they hoped the orcs would fall into.

‘There’ll come a point when the pits will be full enough with bodies that the other orcs can just step over them,’ Elladan said one evening a few days later, his lip curled in disgust.  ‘It’s just their way.  Where we would try to help our fellow warriors, an orc will kill another orc as fast as he would an enemy.  Faster if it would help him survive.’

‘Urg!,’ Bilbo muttered from his seat next to Thorin on the sofa, causing Thorin to glance at him and note the look of disgust on his face.

Thorin slipped his arm around Bilbo’s shoulder.  ‘As Elladan said, amrâlimê, it’s just their way.’

‘I heard Orcs were originally Elves, mutilated and corrupted by Melkor,’ Bilbo said quietly, glancing up at the twins.

Elrohir nodded.  ‘Our father told us of the first time he saw them in battle.  He said fear ran through his body as though his blood had suddenly frozen.  He also says he’s never forgotten the stink of them.  They hate everyone – even themselves – and everything, creating nothing of beauty but only of hate.  They’re worse than a crow seeking carrion as a crow wishes to feed itself while an orc is happy to feast on any flesh, even of his own kind.’

Bilbo shivered and Thorin pulled him closer.  ‘Peace, ibinê.  I will not let them hurt you.  None of us will.’

Elladan inclined his head.  ‘Indeed, we won’t, son of the Shire.’

‘You don’t understand,’ Bilbo mumbled, his head buried in Thorin’s shoulder.  ‘During the battle last time I-I was so frightened I h-hid away.’  The others watched him silently.  ‘I was a coward!’

‘Were you a coward when you followed me down the tree trunks to face the Pale Orc?’ Thorin demanded, turning and gripping Bilbo’s shoulders to gaze intently at his One.  ‘Were you a coward when you killed Azog?  Or last time when you came to warn me about the second army Bolg was leading?’

‘Well, no, but—’ Bilbo began, but Thorin wouldn’t let him finish his sentence.

‘You are no coward, Bilbo Baggins.  Why, you have more courage than a hundred warriors!  Being afraid isn’t the same as being a coward.  A coward would do none of those things, and nor would he face a dragon!  Now, please, no more talk of cowardice.’

Bilbo nodded, his head still drooping.  Thorin pressed a finger to his chin and raised it, smiling down at him for a moment, then bent and kissed him lightly.  ‘As you keep telling me, amrâlimê, the past is the past and we’re making new, better memories.’

With a sigh, Bilbo straightened himself, and Thorin saw the brightness return to his eyes.  ‘Is anyone hungry, because I am.  I prepared a meal here for us earlier and it’s ready to serve.  Bombur’s been busy in the guardroom kitchen with food for the others, so shall we eat?’

Dwarrow and Elves alike laughed and grinned at him.

‘As I said once before,’ Elrohir murmured.  ‘Now I know you’re a Hobbit!’

*****

Preparations for the battle progressed quickly with so many hands to help, and it also provided something to occupy the current residents of Erebor while they waited for the Orc armies to arrive.  Initially, Thorin worried about having so many elves and so few dwarrow in his reclaimed city, but, surprisingly – to him at least – the elves proved considerate and entertaining companions, and he experienced a stab of guilt at the memory of his companions’ behaviour at Imladris.

The Company spent a couple of evenings as guests of the elves down in the old Marketplace, and while it was strange to see so many bedrolls and weapons where there had once been a busy commercial area, only six of the Company remembered Erebor as it was before Smaug.  On one or two occasions Thorin was disturbed by thoughts of how his grandfather would have reacted to elves in the Mountain, especially as they outnumbered the dwarrow by a considerable number, but he quickly pushed them aside, especially when he saw how happy Bilbo was when the evenings ended with music and singing as they so frequently did.  Seeing warriors from Imladris join Bofur in one of his dwarrow drinking songs was downright hilarious.

Less hilarious was the blossoming friendship between Elrond’s sons and his nephews: Bilbo was right to be fearful.  The twins, and Legolas, joined the Company in the old Guild Master’s quarters, and while Tauriel remained with the elven army, Thorin still kept a very close eye on where she and Kíli each spent the night.  The twins and princes quickly formed a close friendship, inevitably including Tauriel, and occasionally Legolas.  It became a regular practice for the Company to check their beds before climbing in as items diverse as a warming pan filled with cold water, or one of Thorin’s newly forged spiked balls might somehow find their way under the bedclothes waiting for bare feet to land upon them.

One particular evening Thorin and Bilbo entered their bedchamber to find string and rope tied to everything and anything, crisscrossing the room from high to low.  Bilbo stared at it in horror, trying to work out how to untie and unravel it all, but Thorin did no more than march into his nephew’s room and tip them out of their beds for Bilbo and himself to use.  As all the bedrooms in the quarters were now occupied, the boys had the choice of spending the night in the living room with no blankets, or disentangling Thorin and Bilbo’s room.

They chose the living room and buried themselves under a pile of jackets and coats to keep warm, but were disturbed from their sleep just before dawn by their disgruntled uncle, irritated by having to spend the night in one of his nephews smaller beds and without Bilbo in his arms, and Dwalin, whose night was disturbed by angry monarchs and unruly princes.  They dragged the boys from the sofa on which they’d cuddled together and hustled them out of the mountain to endure a long and tiring exercise drill.  Even Bilbo, usually so gentle-hearted, particularly with Fíli and Kíli, was grouchy enough to have no sympathy for them when they finally crawled into the living room just before midday, their legs and feet unable to support them any longer.

‘You brought it all on yourselves,’ Bilbo told them crossly, ‘and you can stop with those puppy-dog eyes, Kíli Durinson.  I wanted to take my wooden spoon to you both.’

‘But Uncle Bilbo,’ Fíli whimpered.  ‘Uncle Thorin wouldn’t let us have any breakfast.  He and Dwalin stood there eating while they forced us to run and jump and do press-ups and—’

‘Then don’t do anything so silly again,’ Bilbo retorted.  ‘Especially not when it affects your uncle.  You know how much he needs his sleep and how grouchy he is without it.  What on Arda inspired you to do it?’

Elrohir waved his hand.  ‘Erm, me.  I did.  I, um, I inspired them.  We had it played on us, and I happened to mention it to Fee and Kee.  I didn’t tell them to play it on Thorin, though, I promise.’

Thorin, who had followed his nephews into the room, gave the twins a steady look, then turned to Dwalin.  ‘Two extra for drill tomorrow morning, it would appear.’

Dwalin’s grin could only be described as sadistic.

*****

The following morning’s drill was interrupted halfway through when Glóin, on guard duty on the Lookout, yelled down to Thorin to get his arse up there immediately.  A glance down the valley beyond Dale gave him the reason.  Figures appeared around Ravenwing End.  Many, many figures.

Followed closely by Dwalin, the princes, and the twins, Thorin raced up to the lookout, panting as he arrived at Gloin’s side.

‘Who are they?’ he asked his cousin.

‘They look like elves,’ Glóin told him, still looking down the valley with a furrowed brow.  ‘They’re certainly not orcs.  Orcs don’t march as smartly as they’re doing.’

‘And orcs are shorter bastards,’ Dwalin added.

Elladan and Elrohir gazed down the valley.

‘They’re certainly elves,’ Elladan confirmed, ‘but I can’t work out…’

‘That’s Glorfindel and Ada at the front!’ Elrohir suddenly shouted in excitement, making the others jump

‘But where’re they coming fr—’ Elladan began, only to be interrupted by another shout from his brother.

‘There’s Marchwarden Haldir from Lothlórien riding by Ada and Glorfindel!’

‘Lothlórien?’ Thorin asked.  ‘What on Arda are they—’

‘We knew Ada’s business included our grandmother, the Lady Galadriel from Lothlórien, so…’

‘But we didn’t ask for help from Lothlórien,’ Thorin objected.  ‘Not that it’s not welcome, of course, but…’

Ada may have mentioned your plight to the Lady Galadriel,’ Elrohir explained.  ‘Or it’s possible she foresaw the forthcoming battle and sent Haldir to give aid.  Our grandmother has the gift of divination through a mirror she possesses, you see.’

‘Either way, the help of Lothlórien is much appreciated,’ Thorin nodded.  ‘And the elf whom you mentioned first?  I recognise his name…’

‘Glorfindel?’  Elrohir grinned.  ‘You’ll no doubt have heard of him as the Balrog-Slayer.’  As Thorin’s eyes widened, Elrohir’s grin turned into a smirk.  ‘He’s also the one who tied up our bedchamber in rope.’

Thorin gave a groan.  ‘Eru help us all.’

‘King Thorin of Erebor, I bring an army of eight hundred warriors along with twenty-five healers, by order of the Lord and Lady of Lothlórien,’ Haldir announced formally when the elves reached the main entrance to the city.

Thorin bowed to him.  ‘I give my thanks both to you, Haldir, Marchwarden of Lothlórien, and to your Lord and Lady.’  He peered sideways to Elladan who gave a slight nod, and Thorin sighed in relief at getting the greeting right.

The twins had explained that Haldir, although a fine fellow, was rather distrustful of other races, and even of other divisions of Elves.  When both Thorin and Bilbo looked a little confused, Elladan thought for a moment.  ‘I believe the Dwarrow call them Clans.  Is that correct?’

‘The other dwarrow clans?  Yes.  There are six clans, all with unique characteristics and attributes, but the clan of Durin is the most senior.’

‘There’s also a hierarchy of sorts within our race,’ Elladan tried to explain, and Thorin nodded.  ‘It’s very complicated and most of us ignore it, particularly those of us from Imladris.  Our father and many of our people are Peredhil or Half-elven: we don’t care where or how someone was born, or what their title might be.  Haldir, however, is a Marchwarden of Lothlórien, a position of leadership and trust, and he rarely forgets it.  He has two brothers who don’t even speak Common as they rarely, if ever, leave Lothlórien.  He puts great emphasis on manners and formality.’

‘In other words, Thorin,’ Bilbo told him, ‘be on your best behaviour!’  He turned to Fíli and Kíli.  ‘You two…’

‘…You two don’t even speak to him!’  Thorin pointed his finger at them.  ‘Just smile, nod, and keep away.’

‘I’m the Crown Prince!’ Fíli protested, while his brother thrust out his bottom lip.

‘Only when you choose to remember it.  And for the love of Mahal, no more pranks, jokes, or tricks of any sort or I’ll be borrowing Bilbo’s wooden spoon myself!’

For the moment, however, Thorin and Bilbo welcomed Haldir and Glorfindel while his sons greeted Elrond eagerly.  When Thorin stepped forward to greet Elrond, Bilbo gave him a beaming smile, leaving the elf somewhat bemused.  The two princes, meanwhile, waited politely while Thorin and Bilbo greeted their new allies, and only stepped forward when Thorin nodded to them, and Thorin felt a rush of satisfaction at seeing them on their best behaviour.

‘We have much to discuss with you,’ Thorin told Elrond, and his gaze included both Haldir and Glorfindel.  ‘Will you join us for a meal?’

‘Gladly,’ Glorfindel replied, speaking for his companions.  ‘But I believe our arrival interrupted you.  We’ll gladly wait until you are ready.’

There was a spark of mischief in Glorfindel’s eyes which Thorin didn’t miss and, despite himself, his lips twitched.  ‘I think my nephews and Lord Elrond’s sons will happily forgo their drill in favour of a meal.’

‘Drill?’ Elrond asked, his eyebrows raised.

‘A…misunderstanding, shall we call it, regarding rope, string, and my bedchamber,’ Thorin explained, unsurprised when Glorfindel gave a snort of laughter.  Elrond, however, glanced immediately to his sons, his brow now furrowed.

‘If my sons—’

‘Peace, my Lord.  My nephews alone were responsible, but since the idea came from a story told by your sons, I decided they could share my boys…exercise.’

‘For how many more days will they…exercise?’ Elrond asked, glancing at the grinning elf next to him.  ‘I believe my Lord Glorfindel might benefit from joining them!’

*****

‘There was a time when Dwarves and Elves fought side by side as friends and allies,’ Elrond told Thorin over a late breakfast – or possibly an early lunch.  ‘Both the Lady Galadriel and myself believe it is time to rekindle those old alliances.  I am curious, however, how and why you sent your request to me so soon.  When you departed from Imladris, I believed it would take you several weeks to reach Erebor, and, according to your grandfather’s map, the secret door couldn’t be opened until Durin’s Day, and yet here we are with Durin’s Day yet two weeks away.’

Thorin glanced at Bilbo and his nephews, both of whom nodded to him.  ‘There is an explanation, Lord Elrond, which I will gladly give you, but I must stress that we didn’t mislead you.  We believed the same as you when we left Imladris, but…things changed.’

Elrond watched him for a moment, his eyes searching Thorin’s face, then his frown cleared and he nodded.  ‘Much of your pain and anger has disappeared, Thorin, King under the Mountain.  You have released many of the burdens you carried for so many years and you are free from the shadow of your line which I saw upon you in Imladris.’

He looked at Fíli and Kíli and Bilbo.  ‘Your sister-sons are also clear of the shadow while you and Master Baggins are now linked through soul-magic, Twice-born.’

Thorin smirked at Elrond’s words, then grinned as Bilbo slapped his arm.  ‘Bilbo has a theory that Mahal and Yavanna placed different signs on us for different people to see, and I guessed you would see our bond and our protection against the curse on our line.’

‘What were the other signs?’ Elrond asked, raising a single brow.

‘Beorn and Gwaihir said they saw a mark on us only seen on those who have walked the Halls of Waiting,’ Bilbo replied, smiling at Elrond.

‘And Legolas said the Valar placed my oak shield for me to find and use,’ Thorin added.  ‘It was as though he could…hear it.’

‘May I see your shield?’

Thorin had anticipated the request and had already unbuckled the fastenings.  Elrond took it from him carefully, and examined it closely, turning it back and forth.

‘It doesn’t speak to me as such, but I can tell the Valar intended you to find it.’  Elrond stroked the wood much as Legolas had, and at a nod from Thorin, passed it on to Glorfindel who examined it much as Elrond had done, then handed it to Haldir.

‘My…spirit recognises you as returned from the Halls,’ Glorfindel told Thorin, including Fíli, Kíli, and Bilbo in his comment.  ‘And I can also see the mark Mahal placed upon you.  To my eyes it looks like a ring of light around your heads, but others may see it differently.’

‘Lord Gwaihir and Beorn didn’t say what they saw,’ Fíli replied, ‘just that they saw a mark.’

‘The wood speaks to me,’ Haldir said slowly, his head tilted and his eyes closed.  ‘Your future was laid out by Eru Ilúvatar in the music of the Ainur, Thorin son of Thráin, son of Thrór.  You were never meant to die when you did and have been returned to fulfil your destiny.’  He straightened and opened his eyes, staring right at Thorin.  ‘You have a task beyond the claiming of Erebor, and I will help you with it when the time is right.’

Thorin and Bilbo exchanged glances of concern, but as Bilbo opened his mouth to speak, Haldir held up a hand.

‘I will speak no more of it until much later, but you have my vow.’

A silence followed Haldir’s vow, then Elrond cleared his throat.  ‘Is Mithrandir aware of what happened?’ he asked.

Thorin shook his head.  ‘No.  We decided not to tell him of our return as…’

‘He has a tendency to be rather blinkered,’ Fíli explained at Thorin’s pause.  ‘When he first encouraged us to set out on our quest to reclaim Erebor, we had no idea he had other motives.  After we entered our Maker’s Halls of Waiting, it all became clear.  And the Smith is not happy with the way Tharkûn manipulated Thorin, the way he manipulates anyone to achieve his aims.’

Elrond gave a rueful nod.  ‘It is a failing of all the Maiar to an extent, but of Mithrandir in particular.’

‘Incidentally,’ Bilbo added.  ‘Don’t trust Saruman.  He’s a bad lot and entirely untrustworthy.  Remind me later to tell you what he’ll do in the future unless stopped.’

Elrond’s eyebrows were once again disappearing into his hairline.  ‘I…Very well, but if he is untrustworthy, it will affect more than just me.  He is the leader of the White Council.’

‘Oh, he’s untrustworthy alright.’  Kíli spoke for the first time.  ‘Don’t make the mistake of underestimating him.  Tharkûn did and was imprisoned for his effort.’

‘Will you tell us what happened last time and how you came to be returned,’ Glorfindel asked, changing the subject.  ‘We sort of missed out that part when Elrond got all metaphysical.’  He laughed and dodged as Elrond reached out to grab him.

As I said before, Eru help us all, Thorin told Bilbo with a sigh.

*****

‘Remind me when you expect the Orc armies?’ Haldir asked Thorin as they leaned on the outer wall of the lookout together during their period of watch following lunch, his initial haughty manner now entirely gone.  They’d begun a tentative friendship after Haldir made known his intention to join them in their second task for the Valar.

‘They came four days after Durin’s Day, which is tomorrow.’

‘In five days’ time, then?’

Thorin’s stomach roiled as the reality of the date hit him.  He’d known academically, when the battle would be fought, but he’d tried to put it out of his mind and concentrate instead on the preparations.  Since the arrival of the armies from Mirkwood and Imladris, he’d formed the habit of staying up late discussing various matters with the elven leaders, and convinced himself he was doing it to foster an alliance with the Elves – just as Bilbo had instructed him.  The truth now revealed itself: he’d done everything he could to avoid thinking about the battle, and a possible repeat of history.

‘Are you well, Thorin?’ Haldir asked in concern, laying a hand on his arm.  ‘Shall I fetch—’

‘—No, no.  I’m fine, thank you.  Just…’

‘Just reality making itself known?’

Thorin took a sharp inward breath and felt heat colour his cheeks.  ‘Was it so obvious?’

Haldir gave him a sad smile.  ‘Only to someone who’s experienced it for themselves.’

Thorin watched him for a moment, surprised at the empathy between them, and when Haldir didn’t continue, he warred with himself internally, wanting to ask about the hinted at experience, but equally, hesitant to poke at what he assumed were hidden wounds.  Eventually, curiosity won out, and he raised his eyebrows in enquiry, giving Haldir the option to ignore him if he wished.  They had only known each there for a couple of weeks, after all.

‘I-I was escorting the Lady Celebrían back to Lothlórien when orcs  attacked us,’ Haldir began, staring down the valley before them, and when Thorin made a noise of enquiry at the name, Haldir hastened to explain.  ‘Celebrían is the daughter of the Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn, wife of Lord Elrond and mother to the twins and the Lady Arwen.’

Thorin noticed Haldir’s expression morphing into a small smile as he spoke the lady’s name and stored away the knowledge to discuss with Bilbo at a later date.  From what he recalled Bilbo telling him, Arwen wed Aragorn, heir of Isildur, and Haldir was killed at the Battle of Helm’s Deep during the Wars of the Ring, something else they were hoping to avoid this time.

‘Some of the orcs carried Celebrían away while we – her escort – were occupied with fighting the rest.  It was some time before we realised she was gone, and by then it was too late to find them.  I sent the two least injured guards in my party to take the news to Lord Elrond while we searched for her, and Elrond and the twins joined us as soon as they could.’

Haldir paused to catch his breath.  Recounting the tale was clearly affecting him deeply, and Thorin wondered how long he’d kept his guilt and distress hidden away.  Thorin had personal experience of how such knowledge could eat away at one unless shared with another.  It would appear Haldir, like himself, was using guilt to punish himself.

‘The twins were the ones who found her.  Lord Elrond and I were close behind them, but I will never forget the sheer…torment on their faces as we arrived.’  Haldir glanced at him, just for a moment, but Thorin saw how glazed his eyes were at the memory.  ‘She’d been…tortured, you see.  She…’  He broke off and covered his eyes, taking deep gulps of breath, and Thorin found himself putting his hand on the elf’s shoulder and offering what comfort he could while remaining silent.  Some things needed to be said aloud.

‘Lord Elrond did what he could to heal her, physically and mentally,’ Haldir continued, at length, ‘but it was no use.  She sailed for Valinor the following year, leaving Elrond and her children behind.  I…I sometimes think Lord Elrond remained behind to punish himself for allowing her to be injured, even though he had nothing for which to blame himself.  The blame lies with me and me alone.’

Now Thorin couldn’t stop himself from speaking.  ‘It wasn’t your fault, Haldir.  You had nothing to do with the orc attack, unless you’re telling me you arranged for it to happen?’

Haldir pulled himself away from Thorin, his face tightening and his eyes narrowing.  ‘How dare you!  How—’

‘Then if you didn’t arrange it, how can you blame yourself?’  Thorin deliberately kept his tone even.  ‘You can’t have it both ways, my friend.’  He gave a wry chuckle after a moment or two when he realised his words to Haldir repeated the many assurances Bilbo had given to him.  ‘I think we’ve both spent far too long blaming ourselves for things that aren’t our fault and trying to shoulder the weight of the world alone when there are others eager to help us.’

Haldir’s face relaxed somewhat, and he nodded.  ‘You’re right, of course.  I’ve told no one, not even my brothers, how much I blame myself for what happened, even when others who have more cause to blame me, refrain from doing so.’

They stood for a while in silence, but it was a companionable silence such as Thorin had thought impossible to have between an elf and a dwarf, and he smiled to himself at the notion, then frowned as…

‘Can you hear that?’ Haldir asked suddenly.  ‘It sounds like hundreds of small drumbeats, and it’s getting louder.’

Thorin’s stomach clenched, and he reached out to ring the bell they’d repaired and which would warn those inside of approaching danger when he realised the noise wasn’t coming from within the earth, but from across it.  His hand still on the bell in case he was mistaken, and his head tipped to one side listening, he waited for a moment, looking across the Eastern Spur to Razorback Ridge and smiled in relief as a ginger coloured plume atop an iron helm appeared over the ridge.

‘It’s Dáin,’ he told Haldir with a breathy chuckle.  ‘My cousin, Dáin Ironfoot, Lord of the Iron Hills.’

‘Is he riding…’

‘A boar?  Yes.  He calls it “Petal” would you believe,’ Thorin confirmed, and laughed at the expression on Haldir’s face.  ‘Yeah, I know.  That’s Dáin for you.’  He clanged the bell twice to inform those inside something was approaching which wasn’t dangerous, although he knew Dáin could be extremely dangerous in the right circumstances, and nodded to Dwalin who appeared at the door to the lookout.

‘Dain’s arrived.  Call the Company and warn our guests.’

‘Warn us?’ Haldir asked.

‘It’s Dáin,’ Dwalin said brusquely.  ‘Everyone needs warning when that daft bugger’s about!’


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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. Your stories are such fun. And this one is also full of healing.
    Thank you

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