May It Be – 1/3 – Rogue53

Reading Time: 159 Minutes

Title: May It Be
Author: Rogue53
Fandom: The Hobbit
Genre: Action Adventure, Pre-Relationship, Time Travel
Relationship(s): pre Thorin Oakenshield/Bilbo Baggins
Content Rating: PG-13
Warnings: *No Warnings Apply
Author Notes: This started out as a dare to myself, and it got written in fits and starts. I followed the book more than the movies, so be warned for that. Plus, a chance comment from some in chat pushed the story sideways. So, thank you for that, whoever you are! Any mistakes are my own.
Word Count: 96,660
Summary: Bilbo wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or not, but going against Yavanna was something no sane Hobbit ever did. Of course, given what he had learned from her, he wasn’t to sure that She was sane. But he would follow through, the thought of what could happen wasn’t to be borne.
Artist: krani

‘Shh, my love, shh.’

‘How much more time?’

‘Not long now, he’s fading fast.’

The gentle rocking didn’t stop, as the shallow breathing continued, soft kisses were pressed into his hair.

‘Shh, it’s all right, I’ve got you. You’re safe. We’re all safe.’

A tiny quirk of the lips was all the reply that they got.

And as the last breathes were taken, words formed deep in his soul, “And so it begins… again.”

Chapter 1

Bilbo sat up suddenly, his head aching. What had all of that been about!? Had it been a dream? Well, he thought, more of a nightmare, really. But, still, how very strange. He didn’t remember ever meeting dwarves, they were much too rowdy!

And how would he know that! Bilbo slowly got out of bed, looking around his bedroom and frowning slightly. Everything was as it should be, but it was like he was seeing it just a little bit off.

He did his morning washup and then trotted outside to greet the day and check the weather. It was cool and looking to be sunny, and he went back in and to the kitchen for his first breakfast.

After eating, and why did he feel as though he was forgetting something, or someone, he went about his day, tending his garden, sweeping his front porch and walk, talking to his neighbors and planning his garden with Holman Gamgee.

By evening, Bilbo was twitching and finally burst out as he finished his dinner, ‘Sweet Yavanna, what have I forgotten!’

He felt like he was in a whirlwind for a brief moment, and then a voice said, ‘Do you really wish to know, or do you wish to live out your life without this knowledge?’

Bilbo was totally floored, he never in a million years would have thought that Yavanna Herself would have answered him! But, be that as it may, if She was asking, then he should be very careful in how he answered.

‘I have felt out-of-sorts all day, and it’s as if I know something, like a word that is just on the tip of my tongue that I can’t think of. So, if it is of so much importance that You have nudged at me all day, perhaps You could explain?’ Bilbo was as straight forward as he could be, Yavanna didn’t want scraping and bowing, She wanted Her people to be honest and ask their questions, and answering Her questions as honestly as they could, just as She would answer their question as honestly as She could.

‘Ah, how I love talking with you, Bilbo, and yes, I will explain. You have a choice, Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, one that will either make or break this world. But before I tell you what that is, have you ever felt that you should be doing something more, something bigger than being here in Bag End? I know that you have helped others, that you make sure that food is distributed evenly throughout the Shire, and even to outlying villages. I know that sometimes you look at your maps and wonder what is beyond the edges of them, even when you are being called to stay by your kin. I know that even the walking trips that you have taken have not satisfied the yearning you have. I know you, Bilbo Baggins. The question is, do you know yourself?’

Bilbo’s eyes had gotten bigger and bigger as his dreams were laid bare by Yavanna. ‘Lady, I…’

‘Yes, I know. But this is your chance, Bilbo, to do something that is for you and only for you. Not the Thain, not your other relatives, but for yourself.’

Bilbo sat and thought. He had been… bored, lately. And he had been over all the old trails, and a few of the new ones he had made, so many times. But, he was still forgetting something, something important. Or was Yavanna making him forget?

He finally looked up. ‘Are you making me forget something important, Yavanna? Something that I would otherwise remember?’

‘Well, in a way, but it’s something entirely different. Yes, this is Bag End, and yes, this is the Shire, but I have taken you out of your time, or rather, you are caught in the time between one breath and the next. This is your chance to do something that we have never allowed any being to do ever. But, there are consequences for doing this, and either way, it could be hard on you and on those around you. But it will be your choice.’

Bilbo nodded. ‘So, you can’t tell me what the choices are? It’s a blind choice?’

‘Oh no, I would never do that to you! But, when I tell you the choices and you make your choice, then the other choice will fade and will never be. And it will be good or ill, but it will be that way forever, with no chance of going back or changing it again.’

Bilbo shuddered a bit. ‘You would ask so much of me? But, I’m just…’

‘Bilbo Baggins, of Bag End. A good Hobbit, an honest Hobbit. One that neighbors and relatives look to for help and council. I know who you are. And I trust you to choose wisely.’

Bilbo bit his lip, thought another moment, then nodded. ‘What can you tell me, then.’

Yavanna smiled softly at him. ‘Rather, let me show you, in this place in between.’

And Bilbo saw a life, a journey with the Dwarves, the joys and the sorrows, and what was that stupid ring?, and his return to Bag End after all was said and done. But then another life spilled out before him, one where he did not go on the journey, and for a while, all was fine and then, slowly but surely, all the bad things in the world slowly built up until everything was twisted and no one was as they had been. He shook as he watched whole peoples enslaved and worked to death, and his small part of the world slip into the depths of hell.

When he finally blinked and came out of it, he almost cried.

‘So, if I go, I come back broken and sad, but it I don’t go, the whole world is broken? This is my choice?’

‘Oh, no, I have shown you just two of the ways things could go. Because, you see, this is the thing you feel that you have forgotten, Bilbo.’

And Bilbo remembered, then. He remembered the journey, he remembered the fighting, he remembered the terrible deaths. He squeaked out, ‘Do you mean, I have already done this? And if I have, why show me all of this? I don’t understand!’

‘Because, my Bilbo, too many died at the wrong time and the wrong place, and we have decided that just this once, we would allow some things to be changed, but it doesn’t mean that the changes will be for the better. Or for the worse. It will rewrite your history as you know it, and for good or for ill, it can never be changed again. But, I will give you this, it you choose to make the change, I will allow you to remember bits and pieces to make your journey a bit easier, and maybe be able to change the worst of it. I cannot guarantee anything, however, some things will go the way they are destined to, and even I do not have any control over it. But, I can make it so that you will have hints as you go along, you making better decisions that would help all of your troop as you go. And it would start before they even get here, you would remember enough to have supplies and everything you and they would need for such an arduous task. But remember, I am not alone in this, and I cannot see what happens as this timeline changes. It could be better, but it also could be worse.’

Yavanna stopped and looked at her hobbit. She could not make him to do this, he would have to make his own decision. She could merely hope.

Bilbo walked around his kitchen, then out into his study. Looking around, he said, ‘But if I knew enough, it could make a difference, right? And that ring, what about that? Because I keep seeing a golden ring and I know that there is something wrong with it!’

Yavanna smiles. ‘Oh my Hobbit, see, even with the clouding of the road before you, you see more clearly than you know. Yes, the ring is evil and you should take great care not to fall under its spell. But it would be pushing at you all of the time you had it, and, if you cannot destroy it in the end, it will fall to your heir to get rid of it. And that will not end well for a lot of assorted reasons.’

Bilbo shuddered. ‘Well, that is not at all reassuring, my Lady. Why me? Surely there is someone else that would be better.’

Yavanna slowly shook her head no. And waited.

Bilbo walked around some more, this was important and he know that Yavanna would not push him to make such a crucial decision without due consideration.

‘I would have time to get ready, this whole journey looks to be a total disaster from beginning to end. Did they even plan anything?’

Yavanna started to laugh. ‘Yes, Bilbo, I will give you some time to plan. Not a lot, but enough for you to be ready to go, instead of just running off with nothing more than a backpack to your name. So, you have decided?’

‘Yes, even though I have a feeling that I will be regretting it more than once.’

Yavanna just smiled at him and slowly it seemed, almost like a dream, he could feel his life rewind and snap back into place.

Bilbo sat up suddenly, his head aching. What had all of that been about!? Had it been a dream? Well, he thought, more of a nightmare, really. But, still, how very strange. He didn’t remember ever meeting dwarves, they were much too rowdy!

And then he remembered. What Yavanna had shown him, the way things could go wrong or right. ‘Sweet Yavanna, I will try my best to do what I can with all of these rowdy dwarves! But I’m not making any promises about obnoxious wizards!’

He got up and stretched, it was going to be a busy few days, but he could feel Yavanna’s blessing flowing over him as he readied himself for the day. A day or two that was going to go just a bit differently than it had before. He would need supplies, and more sturdy walking clothes, some of the places She had shown him looked cold. And to talk to Drogo about living at Bag End, he wasn’t having everyone and their dog fighting over his things!

And those Dwarves! What was he going to do about them? It would absolutely break his heart to lose any of them. He would have to plan for pushing them in the correct direction and do something about the whole gold issue when they got to the Lonely Mountain. Erebor might be a wonderful place for the Dwarves to live, but really, it was so dark and gloomy from what he could remember. And why was he remembering so much!? Yavanna had said hints, these were not hints! And he wasn’t going to be letting anyone know any of this, that way just spelled trouble.

He hurried through his breakfast, really, this was so much trouble already, and then went to talk to Holman about watching the place before he went and talked to Drogo. He wanted his smial taken care, first and foremost, even if he didn’t live in it. And Drogo was young, but with a good head on his shoulders. And it would keep him away from rivers. And it would keep some of the more obnoxious relatives out of his home!

Bilbo frowned a bit, why had he thought that? With a shrug, he headed out, eager to talk to people and start ordering supplies for his coming ‘walk’. Because that was what he’d be telling people this time, none of this ‘I’m going on an adventure’ business. No, he wasn’t going to be causing any kind of scene. But he would be prepared and make sure that the Dwarves were better prepared.

‘And I need to pick up extra oilskins. Those boys probably won’t have remember them this time, either. And for the supplies as well. Wet packs are not good for anything.’ He slowed a bit and was thoughtful. ‘I didn’t ask if anyone else was involved in all of this, is it just me? Or will others have some knowledge of what is to come.’ A soothing breeze blew over him, but with the thought behind it was ‘no’. So he was it. With a nod, Bilbo just pushed off down the road, he would be the holder of all the secrets, he would just have to make sure that he didn’t give any away as they went along.

By the end of the day, he had extra gold and silver to sew into his clothes, extra food for feeding hungry Dwarves and letters to everyone he didn’t think he would have time to talk to, especially those outside of Hobbiton. He wanted everything to go smoothly while he was gone, and that took his relatives knowing all his wishes.

Drogo had almost fainted when he was asked to take over Bag End while Bilbo was away. It turned out that he was seriously thinking of marrying, so having a home, even for a brief time, where he could save money for his own place, was such a good thing for him that he practically hugged Bilbo to death. Telling Drogo he would let him know when he was going on his walking trip, and hinting that maybe it would be longer than normal, Bilbo went and talked to several of his Took cousins whom he knew would keep an eagle eye on Drogo and his new family.

Bilbo frowned, he would have to leave something special for Drogo and Primula as a wedding present, it wouldn’t do to be gone for so long and not have something for them. He would have to look around and see what struck his fancy. And he would make sure that if he didn’t return, that there would be no trouble with Drogo staying there permanently.

Meanwhile, he needed some more flour, some of the more course ground, there was that waybread the Rangers made that lasted for weeks at a time and he could work some of that with the summer fruits that he had saved from last year. There would be none of this going hungry on his watch! And he needed to check and see if he had any extra blankets. He really hated being cold on his walks at night, and an extra blanket or two could be a good thing.

Maybe he should also try and push the Dwarves to stay at least an extra day, rest and eat and be more ready for the journey. That way, when he didn’t return right away, everyone would just shake their heads and frown, but at least they would know that he had left Bag End in good hands. Especially since he had also sent a letter to the Thain letting him know that he was going on a slightly longer walk than normal and letting him know that Bag End was left in Drogo’s hands for the time being.

And while he was thinking of that, maybe he should also be planning on the whole running to Rivendell. It would be nice not to run into orcs, but if they did, if the Elves there knew that maybe he was in the area and wanted to visit as he had done before, there would be less running and more getting rid of some of those pesky things. That would be a good thing and would also maybe make the journey a bit easier. They would just have to be there in time for the reading of map, that was all. Yes, a letter to Elrond would not go amiss.

And really, Yavanna was being very naughty, this was not just vague hints She was giving him, he remembering most of the pervious journey! Not that he cared, if he could make this whole thing easier, he would. If he could keep these foolish Dwarves safe, he would. If he could keep the fool Durins from getting themselves killed, he certainly was!

But he was getting ahead of himself. Food first, then wizard, then Dwarves, then journey. Everything in its own time.

It was mid-afternoon before there was a knock on the door and Bilbo huffed a bit before he went to answer it. And just as he thought, Gandalf stood there, big as life and frowning a bit at him.

‘Yes? May I help you?’ Bilbo had decided to play a bit dumb, why should Gandalf just waltz in and do what he wanted, he was disturbing his life, and he was going to make him work for every minute of it.

‘I have been looking for you, Bilbo Baggins, for most of this day. I don’t know if you remember me…’

‘Yes, yes, Gandalf the Grey, trouble-maker and disturber of the peace. We still talk about you, you know, when we’re telling our faunts about how dangerous some of the Big People can be.’

Gandalf looked at him, affronted. ‘I am sure that…’

‘You are worse? Well, yes, but none of us want to scare the children too much. Now, how may I help you? I still have chores to do today, you know, very busy here.’

Gandalf straightened a bit, as if to try and intimidate him with his height. ‘I have come with an offer of an adventure for you. To go on a bit of a journey, meet some new people, see some new lands…’

‘Good heavens! An adventure! Such a terrible thing to do to one! Why, you might miss a meal if you were to go gallivanting around! No, no adventures here, thank you. Try over at Tookborough, there are lots of crazy, I mean, adventurous Hobbits there that would probably love to go on an adventure. Good day, sir, have a nice one!’

Bilbo shut the door on an astounded Gandalf, and stood there in silence until he heard the scratching on his door. Then he cautiously peeked around the corner through a window and watched as Gandalf strode away, offence radiating off of him. He giggled a bit, he had been practicing that whole speech as he had gone through his day, which was also why Gandalf hadn’t found him at home until then.

When he was sure that he was gone, Bilbo carefully opened the door, and frowned at the mark that was there. ‘I still don’t know where he got the idea I was a Burglar. Really, I think that wizard must be going senile. I wonder if wizards can go senile? Never mind, still too many things to get done to be standing around here chattering to myself!’

Bilbo went back to the kitchen and checked all of the food that was cooking. He had asked the Gamgees if they could take over some of the waybread baking, freeing up his ovens for meat dishes. He also had made sure to pack a variety of his baking dishes as he finished washing them, he knew if he timed everything right, there would be plenty of chances for cooking something special as they went.

It was getting close to dinnertime, and no Dwarves had appeared on his doorstep, and Bilbo was starting to think that they had all gotten lost, not just Thorin, when there was a loud knocking on the door.

‘Well, it’s about time.’ He went to the door and opened it to find more than the one Dwarf he had been expecting.

‘Dwalin at your service. This is my brother, Balin, and our cousins Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur. Gandalf sent us here.’

Bilbo bowed back and said, ‘Bilbo Baggins at yours. Yes, yes, the old busybody was here earlier in the day. Come in, come in, there is plenty of room for your cloaks, boots and weapons here in the hall. Then come through to the dining room. I’m sure that you are all hungry.’

As the Dwarves put all their things down and hung up their cloaks, then followed him through to sit at the table he had gotten ready, he wondered if there would be more changes as they went along. He was pretty sure that just Dwalin had shown up the first time, but it was easier if they came in bunches.

As he gave them drinks and some appetizers, there was another knock at the door, and he huffed a bit but went to see who it was this time, and found that it was Óin, Glóin, along with the three Ri brothers.

After introductions were done, he gave them the same instructions as he had given the others and ushered them in with the rest of the group.

‘So, just how many more am I to expect? Gandalf did not tell me any of this, you know. I just figured that there would be a bit of trouble and so planned accordingly.’

Balin looked at him, dismayed. ‘Wait, he didn’t tell you that we were all coming here? He told us that you would feed us dinner tonight and discuss our journey and to go with us!’

All of the Dwarves looked confused and slightly angry.

‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I know something was up, it was reported that he was here and I’ve been dodging him most of the day. And when it was also reported that there were Dwarves, well, I just planned for anything. No need to get upset, we’re used to the old meddler here.’

‘Even still, Mr. Baggins, that is not right. We thought we were invited, and to find out that we are not is just not right!’

Bilbo threw back his head and laughed, noticing as he did that they were relaxing. ‘As I said, we all knew something was up. And so, how many more are we expecting to show up?’

Balin relaxed a bit more, but still sighed. This was not a good start to this journey, and who knew how Thorin would take it. It was a slight to Mr. Baggins, no matter what he said. ‘Three more, plus the wizard. And they should be here soon.’

‘Excellent. Just in time to serve dinner.’

Everyone nibbled on the food at hand as they waited for the rest of their group to show up. They talked about where they had been over the last few weeks, making Bilbo exclaim in dismay. And when there was a knock at the door, Balin went with Bilbo to answer the door, since he was sure that the rest of the troop would be there.

‘Ah, look, the troublemaker himself is here. Gandalf, you seemed to have forgotten to mention that there would be a bunch of Dwarves coming for dinner tonight! Did you expect me to feed them at the drop of a hat?’

Gandalf blinked down at Bilbo until Balin took over and introduced Thorin and his two nephews. He frowned at them and managed to keep the two boys in line and soon they were all at the table and eating.

Balin had a quick word with Thorin to let him know just what was going on and pretty soon, everyone was frowning at the old wizard who just sat back in his corner smoking as if he had no idea what was going on.

‘Well, Bilbo, if you weren’t expecting this many, how is it that you have all of this food?’ the wizard finally asked, looking at him with brows raised.

‘Because everyone was talking about the wizard and all of the Dwarves that were at the inn, of course. And this afternoon, when you were here, trying to convince me to go on an adventure! We Hobbits are not that stupid, you know.’

Thorin frowned and ask politely, for a change, ‘You did not agree to this, Master Baggins? The wizard said that you would be willing to go with us as our Burglar. Are you not willing?’

At this point, every Dwarf was frowning and suspicious, making sure to glare at the wizard.

‘Oh, please, like you were going to take no for an answer! Gandalf, I’ve read my mother’s journals, how you were always pushing her to go on journeys and such things. I have done some walking tours and been to Bree many times, but probably nothing like you and this troop is going to attempt, am I not right?’ Bilbo sat back in his chair, laughing a bit at the dumbfounded look on Gandalf’s face. It was nice to have this little bit of revenge on him, even if it would be short-lived.

Gandalf just sighed. ‘He is the best for this job, Thorin, don’t worry. And if I say that he will be our Burglar, then he will be our Burglar.’

Balin leaned forward and added in his opinion, ‘I don’t think you understand, Gandalf, this is not just an adventure, and it’s pretty important that everyone knows what is going on from the very beginning. Not to tell Mr. Baggins here what was going on is just not right.’

Bilbo laughed softly and everyone at the table turned and looked at him. ‘Don’t worry, I have already planned a lot for this little jaunt. But it would help if you could maybe rest up an extra day before leaving as there are some things that I must finish up before leaving for any length of time.’

‘Of course, Master Baggins. Is there anything that we can help you with, packing or gathering supplies?’ Balin looked around, he had not noticed anything out of place, but maybe there was other rooms that held things that the Hobbit would need for the journey.

‘I would like to make an inventory of all the things you have, just to make sure there is enough for everyone. And it’s not raining at the moment, but it is late spring and there will be rain.’ Bilbo looked slyly at the two princes. ‘It wouldn’t do to get wet and have to stay that way, you know.’ And from the look on their faces, no, they had not remembered their oil slicks this time, either. A chuckle shook him briefly. ‘Also, my neighbors are making some bread supplies like what the Rangers use, it’s not as good as lembas bread, but better than the cram you use. I will need to see how they is coming along with that. And we should see just how much we can pack on the ponies without overloading them.’

‘Good points all, Master Baggins. As soon as we clean up here, we will get out all the packs and see exactly where we stand.’ Thorin looked at his nephews who were sheepishly shaking their heads, so he knew that they had forgotten their rain gear, at least. He would have to check their gear carefully with them to see if there were any other glaring issues.

Bilbo shook his head at them. ‘If we are to do this, then my name is Bilbo, no need to stand on formality during this trip. We won’t have time for the Master and Mistering that would go on!’

As each Dwarf finished their meal, they took their dishes to the sink and did a quick wash. Bilbo had managed to get all the pots and pans he had used soaking, so each of them washed a few before going and getting their packs and starting to inventory them.

By the time everyone was done, there were only a few things that were needed, most of the group had been traveling before and so knew to bring the right sort of things with them, the younger members were lacking just a few things which were easy to replace. By the time everyone was done repacking and sorted to a room for sleeping, Bilbo was yawning. It had been a long day, and this was just the beginning of it all.

The next morning, the Dwarves that were first up were surprised to find Bilbo up before them. He had sausages and eggs and pancakes ready to eat and more that were in the process of being made. Soon, everyone was done and Thorin sent several Dwarves on missions to find all the things that had been forgotten in the hurry to get on the move. They knew that the market in town would have everything that they would need, and hopefully, no one would demand more than the going rate for the items they needed.

‘I meant to ask, do you need to send any messages back to the Mountain before we start out? I can have the Rangers take them as they do their patrol. I have already sent all of my messages, so…’

Thorin nodded. ‘If you could, that would be good. I would like to let my sister know that we have gotten this far safely. And I’m sure that others would appreciate that.’

In the end, it was only Thorin, Fíli, Kíli and Glóin that sent letters back to the mountain. The boys to reassure their mother that they were fine and obeying their uncle, Glóin because he already missed his wife and child, and Thorin to let his sister know just how everything was going so far. He did not have many good things to say about the wizard and praised the Hobbit for all the foresight he was bringing to the quest. Even though he knew this would surprise her.

Thorin was not going to let Bilbo know that, but he would be needling Gandalf every chance he got. There really had been no reason not to make sure that their new Burglar knew what was going on. It was not only short-sighted, it was bad politics. The more they found out about their host, the more they realized that they had gotten a more than just a good bargain. Bilbo had made sure that they ate well all day, topped up their supplies and had checked over all of their ponies to make sure that they were sturdy enough for the trip. As it turned out, one of them was pregnant and he was able to trade her for one that was not with one of the local farmers and even get some extra coin out of the deal. Glóin had appreciated that.

In turn, the Dwarves had talked to Bilbo and explained things about the quest that they had thought about but hadn’t considered for someone that wasn’t a Dwarf. Of course, Thorin and Balin had not yet explained just what they wanted Bilbo to do, but since he was ahead of the whole situation because of Yavanna, he was biding his time for all of that. So, by the time supper rolled around, they were all pleased with each other, except for maybe Gandalf, who felt like he was missing out on something but never getting even close to what it was. And that was deliberate on Bilbo’s part.

‘So, we start tomorrow early. There will be food and do not worry about cleanup, Holman will be in with his son Hamfast to do all of that and then my cousin Drogo will be moving in and taking care of Bag End while I’m gone.’ Bilbo smiled around at everyone and took in all the nods. ‘And see, an extra day has made all the difference, we are ready to go and there won’t be any rushing around to get going in the morning, missing breakfast and such things.’

‘You have done us a great service, Bilbo, and I’m glad that we will have you with us.’ Balin smiled around his pipe, they had gotten extra pipeweed at the market and so everyone was content.

‘Well, until I start complaining about being achy from sitting on a pony for hours at a time!’ Bilbo stretched a hand out and grabbed another cookie from the plate on the table. They were some that his great aunt had made and who knew when he would get such a delicious thing again.

‘I’m sure all of us will be doing that, most of us are not used to riding all that much.’ Kíli grinned and then, one by one, everyone headed off to bed, knowing that comfortable sleeping would soon be a thing of the past. Even though Bilbo had made sure to pad all the bedrolls, it still would be not as comfortable as sleeping in a bed.

Chapter 2

The first day on the road went smoothly, just for a change it was sunny and riding out of the Shire toward Bree was an unchallenging ride, with the Dwarves telling tales from previous journeys they had taken, making Bilbo shake his head at some of the shenanigans that the Dwarves had gotten into, especially the younger ones, even if the three youngest hadn’t been involved in anything of quite this importance. They had greeted several Hobbits as they rode out of the Shire and Bilbo had gotten some frowns from several of his less liked relatives. He had just grinned at them as they went by, acknowledging them with a wave, sure that they would be running back up to Bag End to see if there was anyone there, the snoops that they were. They wouldn’t be happy as Drogo gotten there earlier before they had even left, and was firmly in charge with the help of the Gamgees as backup, and he would send them off with a flea in their ear. Bilbo had also sent a note the day before to the better inn in Bree and had reserved rooms with dinner and breakfast so that they would have one more good night’s sleep and filling meals before the true rigors of the road. He wasn’t looking forward to any of that, thank you very much! On ponies they would be able to get there without overnighting on the road and tiring themselves out so early in the journey.

And the look of surprise on the Dwarves’ faces was priceless when they got there and were welcomed by the innkeeper, as was Gandalf’s snort of exasperation. He was still trying to find fault, but he couldn’t, not with Bilbo making sure that he had his ducks in a row, and decent rooms for all of them, as well as the well-appointed dinner, baths and decently sized breakfast, even by Bilbo’s standards. It hadn’t hurt that he had stayed there a few times before and so knew the innkeeper and most of the staff. He had just waved off everyone’s surprise and thanks after the dinner that had been better than the troop would have gotten if they had just showed up unannounced. Food was very important, and he knew that anything they could get now would help later.

The next morning, after breakfast was over, although it was the second breakfast for Bilbo as he had been up for a few hours before the rest and had gotten his normal pre-breakfast fare, Thorin looked at him and smiled slightly. ‘Any more surprises, Master Burglar? You seem to have even put Gandalf off-step, not that we aren’t all enjoying that,’ as he smirked a bit at the wizard, who had a sour look on his face.

Bilbo grinned and shrugged, as he patted his full stomach. ‘I like my creature comforts, what can I say. They have always taken good care of me when I’ve been here before. Besides, after this, we will be heading out and off the road, correct? So, one last night doesn’t hurt with tasty and plentiful food and soft beds before we take off for parts unknown. This way, everyone is ready and in good spirits for the start of the journey, not grumpy because they got the leftovers and lumpy beds.’

‘No, and I thank you for it, Bilbo, I have to say, that this is the easiest start on a journey that we’ve had in quite a while.’ Balin nodded in approval and the rest grunted in agreement. ‘And there is a market here, I would like to check and see if there is anything we might need that we have forgotten or have found a need for. It does happen,’ he said with a sly look at the princes.

Both the boys flushed, because they were young, they were being ribbed just a bit on some of the things that they had forgotten, such as the oil skins. But so far, it had been good natured and they were learning from their mistakes. Fíli had even come up with some ideas that had been adopted after due consideration by the company, much to his surprise and pleasure.

Kíli nodded. ‘We should check their weapons dealers and see if there is anything of interest. Comparing weapons is always a good thing to do. I’ve learned a few new things doing that at other markets that have come to our home. And I could always use a few more good arrow shafts, if I can find any that are of any use.’

Fíli nodded, ‘You never know what you might find in a market. Hopefully get something for all of us, one way or another.’

‘There might be some of those berry hand pies here also, there were the last time I was here working. Should we split up and do a quick run through and then meet back at the inn? That way we can pack anything that we pick up and be ready to go.’

‘Good idea, Glóin. It shouldn’t take too long to check it out, we already have just about everything we need.’

Balin quickly sorted them, sending everyone to various parts of the market and within the hour, everyone was back and showing what they had bought. Bilbo, to no one’s surprise, had found some more food to supplement what they already had, as he had found an excellent selection of dried meats along with more of the waybread he liked, and Ori had found a couple of bound blank journals for himself for recording their journey. Even Kíli had gotten lucky and picked up some arrow blanks that he thought he could modify for himself. Fili talked about some of the swords and knives he had seen but rated them not as good as dwarven made and what they already carried. It didn’t take long to finish packing up and once again they were off and once out of sight of the town, Thorin pulled up and waited for everyone to round up around him.

‘Anyone following us?’ At a shake of a head from Dwalin and Nori, who had just caught up with them, Thorin relaxed a bit. ‘Good. From here on, we’re off the track and heading for the Misty Mountains. If we can maintain a steady pace, we should be able to be over them in good time, which would be to our advantage. Getting over them before there is a major weather change would be good. Trying to cross in rain or snow would slow us down and we need all the time we can get once we’re over them.’

‘Ah, if I could make a suggestion?’ Bilbo shrugged a bit at the looks he received, especially from Gandalf, but he went on. ‘I have a few obligations that I must discharge at Rivendell, both for me and for others. The Thain gave me some letters to deliver, since we were going that way, and I couldn’t in good conscious say no, since it is something I have done before, especially since he was so helpful with helping to arrange my absence. If we could stop there for even just a night, it would allow me to do so and then we could be off again. This would also help to stretch our food supplies, as I am sure that Lord Elrond would be willing to help in resupplying us. Even with hunting from the road, I know that lembas bread is not your favorite, but would certainly help in stretching our supplies going over the mountains because I think that we will not be hunting for too much food there.’

Before anyone could object, most especially Thorin, Gandalf nodded and stated, ‘It would also be helpful to you, Thorin. You have your father’s map, but neither you nor I can read it, and it maybe needs a steadier eye such as an elf to do so. Lord Elrond would be able to help you there, especially if we are there for the full moon, which is the only time it can be read, as far as I can tell. And if it’s not, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it but we should put in the effort anyway.’

Thorin struggled for a moment, trying to come up with a reason not to go there, while the rest of the company muttered a bit because Elves were not their favorite race. But after a grumble, he replied, ‘Yes, as much as I do not want to involve them, I suppose it could be for the best. And then our Burglar can stock up again on all the food that he insists that we need.’ He mock frowned at Bilbo, who for his part, just grinned a bit and then shook his head at the frown. Thorin sighed but knew that it was the best course of action. ‘All right, let’s get on the move, the faster we get there, the sooner we will be able to get back on the road and over the Misty Mountains.’

There were several snorts at that point, but Bilbo just shrugged it off. As long as he was getting everyone fed decently, he really didn’t care. There was no reason, as far as he could see, for being hungry just because they on the road. And really, it would be helpful in the long run. More food would stretch their resources as the journey went on, keeping them for making mistakes because they were hungry at the wrong times, with no resources to turn to.

Later that week, which was mostly uneventful with some hunting as they wanted to stretch their food supplies as much as possible and the younger ones were showing off their skills, they came upon a ruined farmstead as they were moving through a small woods and cleared fields, following a faint trail that went through the area. Bilbo stayed on his pony, if he had anything to say about it, they would not be spending any time here.

And then Thorin opened his mouth.

‘We can make camp in the woods here, there’s enough of an open area for a cookfire and for our bedrolls and we could shelter the ponies under those trees, there’s plenty of forage…’ Thorin was pointing out where he wanted everything to go as he spoke.

‘I don’t think so. Are you willing to court whatever did this?’ Bilbo pointed at the buildings, pointing out at how they were broken into as well as burned out. ‘We need to get to the other side of that escarpment and make sure that we are careful even then.’ Bilbo pointed forward as he shook his head, if Yavanna was right, these people had died horribly and he wasn’t risking his or the Dwarves’ lives on trolls! ‘And why do you think we should be lighting any fires? Whomever or whatever did this could still be in the area, it doesn’t look like it was done all that long ago! The fires might have burned out, but it’s still smoky smelling here. And it might be a large enough force to take us all on and you don’t really want any pitched battles at the moment, do you? This early in the journey? You really want to chance it?’

Dwalin nodded slowly. ‘I have to agree, Thorin. I have never seen prints quite as large as these and if I had to guess, I would say that it’s the work of trolls. Big ones. And several of them. We should get further away and then scout back to see if there is anything stirring. It’ll be dark soon, and if we need to fortify wherever we end up, we will need time to do that as well.’

Thorin frowned, he hated to have his plans changed, but most of the troop were now nodding and giving the woods and the burned farmstead sideways looks full of distrust. ‘All right, Dwalin, head out and see what is ahead of us. Look for a defensible place. Nori, can you track alongside and behind us and make sure that nothing is following this trail behind us? Then meet up with us on the other side of the escarpment. We will leave trail sign to lead you to us.’

Nori gave a quick nod, handed his pony’s reins to one of his brothers and faded back into the woods and then they were back on the move, as Dwalin forged on ahead of them. It didn’t take long to get around and over the escarpment and they all spread out to check out and try to find some place sheltered and defensible, which turned out to be a small partial cave midway down toward a small stream. They might not have a fire, but it was sheltered enough that they would be out of the wind and the ponies would be mostly out of sight, making it a good place for the night. They could get water and take turns grazing the ponies, while the rest took turns eating and resting.

‘Our Burglar was right,’ Nori reported when he caught up with them a while later. ‘There are places in the woods where something really big has crashed through and some of it was done recently. And a trail that goes to a clearing with a big fire circle not too far from a main road. Definitely looks like trolls. But we’re good here, as long as we keep low, don’t light any fires and don’t go wandering off anywhere during the night.’

Thorin nodded. ‘All right, one night of cold rations at this point isn’t going to hurt us. In fact, it’ll be good practice for everyone who hasn’t had to do much of it before. I want two on watch at all times, one high and one low. Plus two others keeping an eye on our ponies. And no one is to go wandering.’ Here he turned and looked at his nephews, ‘And don’t you think that I haven’t noticed you two wandering off by yourselves, there will be none of that any more. Too much rests on us getting through for you two to get up to your usual antics. You each will stand watch with someone other than your brother. If it is trolls, I would rather not have to fight them, if at all possible. There’s no guarantee that we could win against something that big and dangerous, besides the chance of injury so early in our quest.’

It was at this point that they all realized that, once again, the wizard had wandered off. And because they had been so busy finding a place to stay for the night, Thorin wasn’t even sure exactly when he had disappeared, or even in what direction he had gone. So with very little discussion, they decided that Gandalf could take care of himself and that he would catch up with the group when he wanted to. Not that Thorin was happy about it, this was not the first time the wizard had done this since he had met up with the troop.

‘Have you noticed he’s always wandering off at the most inopportune times? I mean, he was gone one entire day at the start of our trip and we weren’t even to Hobbiton yet.’ Balin frowned as everyone nodded. ‘And now, with maybe trolls around? Not at all helpful and what if he gets us into trouble by wandering back with someone following him? Not that I don’t think that he wouldn’t notice trolls, but there are other things out here as well that we don’t want seeing us this early on our journey.’

‘If he’s not back by morning, he’ll just have to catch up. He’s seems to be able to do that whenever he wants and wherever he wants.’ Thorin was frowning, he had noticed but hadn’t said anything, but if the wizard had other things to do, he could at least let them know when he was going to be gone, and where he could meet back up with the main group. It was a good thing that they weren’t relying on him for much. Maybe it was time to have a discussion with him as to what he had going on. Thorin and Balin shared a look, both on the same page with Gandalf being unhelpful and unavailable. There would be serious discussions with the wizard when he got back.

It was a chilly night without a fire, but the extra blankets he’d packed back at Bag End and the all food Bilbo had picked up in Bree so many days ago now came in handy. The dried meat he had gotten didn’t require cooking, and while it might not have been the best meal they had ever had, with some of the bread he had made, it wasn’t the worse and it was filling. Hopefully away from this area, they would be able to have a warm meal again.

The night passed without incident, although they had heard some roaring and there had been a great beam of light in the distance, back toward the burned farm that flared up even over the top of the escarpment that had startled them but nothing else happened after that. Bilbo got more respect after that, since it would seem that whatever had attacked the buildings in the first place was still around and at least they weren’t getting involved with whatever it was.

It was just after daybreak and Thorin was awake along with most of the troop when Gandalf came riding up and looked around, a bit surprised at their campsite.

‘Ah, so this is where you ended up. Whose idea was this? Excellent choice as well. I was thinking that you would still be by the burned out farmhouse where I left you yesterday.’ Gandalf nodded in appreciation at their action, their skills were starting to show.

Thorin nodded toward Bilbo. ‘Our Burglar is coming in handy already. He didn’t like the look of the area where I thought to stop and camp at and with all the noise in the night, he was right. You weren’t around, so we made the best decision we could and camped here where there was some shelter and cover, instead of by the burned out farm. Why? Was it you making all the racket and the light? Or something or someone else? And just where did you wander off to this time?’

Gandalf grinned a bit and nodded. ‘Well, come with me, you might want to see what you missed out on.’ He refused to say anything else, no matter how they prodded him and since they hadn’t unpacked much of anything other than bedrolls and blankets, it only took a bit to get their belongs loaded back onto their ponies and following him back to the clearing Nori had found the previous evening.

The sight they came upon was like nothing they had ever seen before. Three big trolls, frozen in the sunlight, grappling with each other around a burned out and tossed campfire with a giant cookpot overturned by it!

‘Good heavens! Is this what was making all the noise last night?’ Bilbo shook his head, he knew it wouldn’t have gone well if they had been there. Yavanna had been right to warn him about this! All of the Dwarves wandered around the three statues, poking at them to see how strong the stone was, shaking their heads at the size of them, the younger boys going so far as to try climbing up on them to see how far they could see and to measure themselves against the stone.

‘Yes, I came upon the trolls late in the evening while looking for all of you and was afraid that they had found you. But listening to them complain about not having anything to eat but mutton for their last few meals relieved me, to be sure. They were also complaining about being so far out of their home range, too. And then, I… distracted them until the morning light hit them, freezing them into place. We should spread out and do some searching, I am sure that there is a troll hoard somewhere around here, they also talked about robbing and killing people on a road not far from here. At least with them gone, the area will be a little bit safer, considering how close to the main road they were.’

Bilbo sighed at the nodding heads, but everyone was soon down and searching. A troll hoard could have many wonderful things, as well as horrible, but the money alone was tantalizing to them. And it wasn’t long before Ori called out, ‘I think I’ve found it! There’s a cave here, it smells right terrible, though!’

‘Probably. Trolls aren’t very clean and they have the habit of just dumping everything into their hoard, including things that they plan on eating.’ Gandalf hurried over and the rest followed. They all peered into the cave that Ori was standing in front of and there was a lot of wrinkling of noses. ‘We will need a light, one of you see if the campfire has anything left to start a brand.’

Bifur hurried back and shortly returned with a burning brand.

‘Ori, you found it, you should go in first. It’s only fair that you should have first look.’ Bilbo nodded at the young dwarf, who looked startled. But after looking around, his brothers nodding encouragingly, along with the rest of the troop, he took the brand and started in.

The rest of the group quickly followed, eager to see if there was anything of interest or value left in it. None of them had any idea on how long these trolls had been in the area, attacking travelers, probably until the word had gotten out and people were detouring around to avoid them.

Bilbo barely made it inside before he was so horrified at what he could see and smell that he couldn’t go any further. The jumble of bones and clothing thrown around, this was nothing he wanted to see ever again. Leaning against a nearby tree that he had stumbled to, keeping an eye out for any trouble, he took deep breaths, waiting for his stomach to stop turning. He had not remember this, and now he was glad that he had only ventured in a little way. He muttered a soft prayer to Yavanna, hoping that whoever had perished at the trolls hands were safe and at peace in Her presence.

Soon the company came out, sad-eyed but carrying some swords and a couple bags of gold and jewels and a chest with more of the same.

Thorin walked over to him and offered him a long knife. ‘Here, Bilbo. I’m sorry, I didn’t think about what could have been in there. We’re going to bury the dead, at least now nothing will bother the remains.’

‘That’s a good idea. And I see that everyone got something out of the hoard? Beside the gold and jewels?’

‘Yes, this sword is Orcrist and Gandalf has one called Glamdring. You should have this long knife, it has the same marker’s mark and is made with the same expertise. But it would be good for you, just about the right length for your arms. We will help you learn how to use it, it’ll be better protection for you, just in case. I finally noticed that you didn’t have any weapon and I’m sorry that it took so long to notice the lack of one.’ Thorin sighed. ‘I’m pretty sure that if you hadn’t raised your objections yesterday, that we could have been injured or killed last night if these trolls had come upon while we were unprepared. Even guarding our campsite would have been… problematic, let alone what could have happened to our ponies. We all owe you our thanks.’

‘Yes, well, it just made sense, you know. Not that I knew there were trolls, I was thinking more about bandits, after looking at the homestead, until Dwalin said something about troll tracks, but still. And I’m sorry for the farmers. They were just trying to make a living out here and look what happened to them.’ Bilbo looked sadly back at the cave, shaking his head.

Gandalf glanced over at the statues of the trolls and nodded. ‘There shouldn’t be trolls this far down. I will have to send word to the Rangers about this and hopefully, it’ll be an isolated incident. They can keep track of the area now that they would know that there has been a problem.’

‘But you don’t think that it was isolated,’ Balin said. ‘And later, you will have to tell us about how you kept them… distracted, I think you said? It might be helpful sometime to know what you did and if any of us could do the same.’

Gandalf nodded. ‘Yes, when we have more time, I will tell you. Although I’m not sure that you could do what I did. And no, I don’t think it’s isolated. And I don’t like it. It might be a coincidence, but I never trust coincidence. Something made these trolls come down this low and, remember, I heard them complaining about being out of their home territory, so there is the question as to who or what drove them down here. We’ll need to keep a keen eye out from now on, I think. Just in case there are more things like this out here.’

Thorin nodded. ‘Less noise from here on out, everyone. And I want a rider ahead and behind us at all times. We’ll switch out mid-day. We’ve been a bit lax on that front, but now that this has happened, we need to take a lot more care. Let’s get finished up and get back on the road.’ Thorin nodded to Bilbo, and within a few candlemarks, they were back on the road, having buried their treasure outside the cave with special marking so they could find it again. They also buried the remains of the family and others that the trolls had killed. No one was hungry, that would have to wait for later. Hopefully they would find a place with a stream to clean up at, they had buried a lot of the loot that had been taken from a multitude of different people and so were a bit more sweaty and dirty.

Bilbo had looked back briefly, muttering a short prayer as they left, and his eyes had widened a bit as the cave slowly vanished, caving in in total silence until there was nothing left but a few scattered rocks in front of where the entrance had been. Since the Dwarves had buried their loot outside of the cave, leaving signs that only Dwarves could read, it was safe. He was pretty sure that Yavanna had just made sure that no one was ever going to disturb the final resting place of all that had died there. He made a soft murmur of sorrow to Yavanna in remembrance for all that were lost, hoping that no others would meet the same fate as these poor souls.

The next day, it started to rain and everyone was glad that Bilbo had made them check their supplies back at Bag End. There was extra rain gear to put over their packs to keep them dry, also, something no one had thought of until he had mentioned it. Things were still getting damp, that couldn’t be helped, but at least nothing was soaked. Kíli and Fíli, in particular, were thankful that they had gotten their own rain gear with their uncle while in the Shire, otherwise they would have been very wet and miserable.

‘Uncle, is it always like this when you travel? Hot and dry one day, cold and rainy the next? And can’t Gandalf do something about this rain?’ Fíli griped from the front of the line, forgetting for the moment that they were supposed to be traveling quietly.

Gandalf snorted. ‘Be thankful, young Dwarf, that someone was smarter than you and made sure that you had rain gear at all,’ raising an eyebrow at Bilbo. ‘You could be wet and miserable right now. You should be thanking Master Bilbo for his forethought. And no, I am not that kind of wizard!’ Fíli snorted back at him, making a few of the dwarves chuckle at his antics.

Kíli grinned. ‘Thank you, Master Bilbo, I am glad that you made sure that we had all of this,’ waving at the covered packs and his own rain gear, dodging the hit from Balin at his cheek.

Thorin just sighed, he knew that this was the way the entire journey was going to go, with too smart for their own good nephews, making quips when they were most inappropriate. At least, for now, it would keep all of their moods lighter.

Chapter 3

They had been travelling steadily, becoming more and more concerned as there were more signs around them of someone or something hunting them. They had been able to dodge whoever it was so far, and they were afraid that it would be orcs, but every day, whoever they were, were getting closer. Even though Rivendell was almost within reach, it was still too far away to just run for it, not without losing all of their packs, and maybe their ponies, which Bilbo had objected to, loudly, before being hushed. They had been cold camping for almost a week and though the rain had finally quit, they hadn’t had a chance to really dry out except on horseback or have a decent hot meal as they were not able to light any fires. They were lucky if anyone got more than a couple of hours of sleep at night, especially when they had to move when their enemies got too close, which had happened on more than one occasion. Nori and Dwalin both had been out backtracking and setting up false trails, trying to keep the orcs off of their trail, since they had finally had spied enough to see what was chasing them. And knowing that it was orcs was not helpful, not in the least. And finding out that it was Bolg leading them, the son of Azog who had been killed by Dáin Ironfoot, was not a happy thing.

They had finally managed to get the story of how Gandalf had distracted the trolls, but no one was sure they would be able to duplicate what he had done. None of them were any good at projecting their voices, although the three youngest had tried repeatedly until told to stop. But making the trolls fight among themselves, arguing whose turn it was to cook was very entertaining and at least for a little while, it kept their spirits up.

Bilbo hadn’t exactly asked Yavanna for any special help, but he started each early morning with a quick prayer for safe passage into the Elven lands and had noticed a couple times that there had been some ‘unaccounted’ safe trails that they had just ‘happened’ upon. And so far, no one else seemed to have figured out that anything special had occurred. But each time they did, he had a quiet thank you ready. He wasn’t going to ignore any help that he got, no matter who might notice, which would make others wonder at what was going on.

Thorin and Gandalf were trying to come up with a strategy, along with Dwalin and Nori, but so far all they could do was to keep moving and inching closer to their goal. Although at this point, Thorin was starting to think that they should just circle around Rivendell, since it seemed the concentration of their foes was all there, and trying to get through them was becoming less and less of a chance, and being caught was becoming more probable. He wondered if they could just come back from another direction, since coming this way was not working. It wasn’t as if he really wanted to see the place and he certainly could do without being beholden to the Elves, even if he needed the map read so they would know where the secret entrance into Erebor was or whatever else had been hidden on the map. Besides, there had to be more than one entrance into the mountain, even if a secret one might be easier to use.

Any argument for or against their getting to Rivendell Bilbo was ignoring at the moment, he knew that the only chance they had for getting over the mountains depended on how long they were in Rivendell getting the map read, no matter what Thorin thought. But every time they thought they had found a way all the way through, an obstacle seemed to appear. And Bilbo was starting to think that something or someone else was hindering their progress. He was pushing for just getting as close as possible to Rivendell, he knew that as soon as Lord Elrond and the rest of the Elves realized he was here, that they would ride out and help them get away from the orcs and wargs. The message he had sent had given them a tentative date, and he was sure that they were probably past it. And hopefully, if the Elves did ride out, they would kill off some, if not all of the orcs at the same time, which might make the next part of their journey easier. They didn’t need all of these nasty things trailing them up into the mountains and beyond.

He really wasn’t cut out for this, and even though everyone was helping him with learning how to use his knife, he wasn’t comfortable using it for anything more than cleaning rabbits and such. Of course, he’d only done that once and then had to endure a lecture on proper use of fighting tools. Dwalin, especially, had started paying more attention to him and making sure that they practiced every time they could, even though he still wasn’t comfortable at all about trying to kill anyone with it. But under the eagle eye of several of the Dwarves, both he and the youngest members of the troop were getting lessons, even with enemies practically on their doorstep.

They had been riding steadily, seeming to be making some progress toward Rivendell for once, when suddenly there were horns and cries and howls all around them, and Gandalf was shouting for them to ride as fast and as hard as they could. As they sped down the path that had appeared in front of them, there was fighting all around them, with the company getting some licks in as they went. Kíli, in particular, was able to hit several orcs and wargs with his arrows, while the rest were able to hold them off, between swords and staffs, Gandalf and Thorin getting in more of their share with their new swords. Bilbo just hung on and prayed to Yavanna that he didn’t fall off his pony, that would be certain injury or even death, and he wasn’t ready for any of that, thank you very much!

Then, there were more elves and fewer orcs as the battle moved away from them, until the fighting was completely past them, and soon they heard hoofbeats coming back toward them, making them hopeful that the fighting for now was over, as they slowed their ponies down and were able to take stock of their surroundings.

Thorin looked around quickly to make sure they had all come through all right, and other than a few nicks, and Dwalin holding another sword stolen from somewhere, it looked like they had come through without any serious wounds. ‘Is everyone all right? No major wounds? Boys?’ Thorin knew that his sister would have his guts for garters if her sons were injured, no matter if it was in battle or not. He was met with shaking heads, even as everyone checked themselves and each other.

‘We’re fine, Uncle. Just a couple of scratches. Ori even got some good licks in with that warhammer he’s been training with!’ Kíli grinned at Ori as he stuttered that he had just gotten lucky while Dori frowned at his youngest brother, unsure how he felt about him fighting, even in the middle of a battle. And with a warhammer, at that! Nori just shook his head, he knew that he and Dori were going to have words later, Dori with probably all of them! Maybe he could point out that Dwalin was the one that had taken over their youngest brother’s training and that it was better that he knew how to use the weapon, it wasn’t just for show! And they were on a journey that would have even more fighting, the further along they went. So training would needed, no matter how Dori felt about it. It was his fault that Ori had the bare minimum lessons for fighting, he had pushed their younger brother toward the scribes instead of letting him do both as so many young dwarves did.

‘Oh, I don’t think so. That was some fine fighting that you did! You’re going to have to do more training, Ori, however, so expect Dwalin to be after you again once we’re a little rested up.’ Balin nodded as Glóin shook his finger at the younger dwarf. ‘I know that you don’t have as much training as the rest of us, but you show some good promise, not everyone can use a warhammer!’

Dwalin nodded, the young dwarf was in for some more serious training, and soon. Just as Bilbo was going to have more, he too needed to be able to better defend himself. Maybe there was another weapon that Bilbo could use, a long knife was fine for close work, but he needed something that could be used at a distance, too.

They circled up as they checked each other for wounds and watched for whomever was coming toward them, weapons still at the ready, even knowing it was probably the Elves from Rivendell. Bilbo could only be thankful that they had made it through this battle without any serious injury and he was hoping the same thing for the Elves.

‘Master Bilbo, are you all right, Ada sent us out to meet you, we didn’t expect to find you being pursued by orcs! That’s not how you usually get here, at all!’ Elrohir called out as they rode closer to them and Thorin just sighed again. Elves would never be on his favorites list, but it was good that they had been worried about Bilbo.

‘I am fine, Elladan, Elrohir, but this is nothing I was expecting, although I suppose I should have been. It’s what happen when you go ‘adventuring’, I guess.’ Bilbo let out an exasperated sigh. ‘I hope no one was injured here in our rescue, but we couldn’t shake them and I was starting to get worried as to whether or not we would be able to get to Rivendell at all.’

The other twin son of Elrond laughed. ‘No, everyone is fine, and Father has had us out scouting for the last several weeks, practically since we received your letter, since we weren’t sure how long it would be before you got here. We were hoping to find you before the orcs got too close, but… We knew there would be trouble, so we’ve been keeping an eye out to make sure we were where we needed to be when you finally got closer to home. And then you bring all sorts of nasty things for us to kill! So, we have to thank you for that, thinning the ranks of orcs is always a good thing, it helps any other travelers in the area, as well.’

Gandalf nodded. ‘And we thank you. Perhaps getting into the city would be a good idea, and I need to speak to your father as soon as possible. And I am sure that the rest of the group would appreciate a hot meal, since we have been on cold rations for a while, and even better, a hot bath as well!’

Thorin gritted his teeth, this was going to be a terrible idea, he just knew it. But looking over his company, he also knew that they all needed a good night’s rest, without having to worry about wolves or orcs or wargs or trolls or thieves, just for a change. And looking at Bilbo, he knew that he needed to have a good rest and some proper food, he wasn’t used to any of this, even though they all had been trying to make sure he was eating regularly, especially since he was the one to make sure that they had most of their food supplies, but even with that, everyone had been going on short rations just to make it through to Rivendell, cold camping was always more chancy than any other kind.

‘I would like to thank you in advance for the food and shelter, and especially for the rescue.’ Thorin didn’t want to say any of it, but to keep in their good graces until they could get away, he would do this. ‘We are tired and would appreciate the rest and a hot meal, as well as a bath,’ making a small face at the thought. He would just have to hope that the food would be decent, he remembered some of the feasts in the past where there had been minimal meat when eating with Elves. He would have to make sure that no one raised a fuss when they were fed later, no matter what was served.

Balin looked at Thorin, brows raised. Thorin just shrugged a bit, he knew he was gruff at times, well, most of the time, but he could also be pleasant when he needed to be. Plus, there was still the map to be read. Then they could get away from here and on with their journey, without worrying about what was on their trail. And with some resupply so they could, at least, hopefully get over the mountains without too much trouble.

‘This way, Master Dwarf, you are also expected. Bilbo said that he was travelling with your company. There will be hot baths waiting and food later for all of you.’ Elrohir smiled as he motioned them on, riding beside Bilbo and asking how he was and if he needed anything special once he was in the city.

‘No, just a bath and a rest, to start, although a snack would not go amiss. I’m not used to having so much… excitement in my life!’ Bilbo chuckled at the looks he received from the rest of the company with that remark.

‘This is not the type of excitement I think that you need, Bilbo! At least, it’s not the kind that we’re used to you having!’

Elladan nodded. ‘I think you should just stay here for a while, Bilbo, get rested up. You know that you are always welcome here!’

‘Ah, well, that is a story for later, I’m afraid. Right now, I think we should just all get off this trail and into safer territory.’ Bilbo shook his head at them, he knew that they were going to be a problem, and that he would need to get them under control before anything happened. The twins had always looked after him when he was here, and he knew that traveling with Dwarves was going to make both of them more than twitchy.

With that, the company was escorted into Rivendell and after unloading the ponies and after making sure that they would be cared for, they were shown to rooms where they could rest and then shown to the bathing rooms as well. Bilbo had his own suite, much to everyone’s surprise, including Gandalf, even though he had made it known from the very beginning that he had travelled here before.

‘What, I’ve been here several times, you know. I know that I told you that.’ Bilbo shrugged and then frowned at some of the looks he was getting, not really caring what they all thought. ‘I’m getting a bath and maybe a nap and I’ll meet all of you later for dinner. I suggest you all do the same.’

With that, everyone went their separate ways until it was time for dinner.

The Dwarves slowly returned to their communal area, their rooms were spacious and the baths well-appointed and they had make good use of all of them after Thorin had told them, rather pointedly, that he wanted everyone on their best behavior while they were there.

‘I will not have our Burglar embarrassed by any shenanigans, and yes, I am looking at you two scamps, as well as you, Nori. Óin, perhaps you could see if the healers here would talk to you about some extra supplies for you. I’m not sure if we really planned well enough there. See if they know of anything that our hobbit might need that we wouldn’t think of. Otherwise, best behavior, everyone.’

Fíli and Kíli both frowned at their uncle. ‘Bilbo said he’d been here before, and we noticed that all the Elves that were in the skirmish seemed to know him, especially the princes. We can behave, Uncle.’ Kíli stood straight and looked Thorin in the eye. Fíli nodded as Thorin looked at him.

‘This is just like being in court. We know how important this is.’ Fíli frowned at his uncle, he knew that they were young, but they had been taught the rules of the court and knew when to behave like the princes they were.

‘But of course, Thorin. I might ask around and see if anyone has any reports of the area that they are will to share, it might be helpful to know if there are any other problems around.’ Nori had been proud that he had been chosen to help Dwalin, he wasn’t about to mess that up, he wanted to be an asset now, not just a hanger-on like some back in the settlement were.

Óin nodded, ‘I was thinking about that as well. And maybe splitting up some of the medical supplies as well, like we’ve split up the food, so that everyone has something in cases of emergencies.’

‘Excellent. And no stealing of anything, not even for sport. We might be in need of their good will, but I would still like to be out of here quickly and without any problems following us.’ Thorin looked at Dwalin, who nodded. He would keep an eye on everyone that needed it. ‘Everyone bathe, put on your cleanest clothes and we’ll meet here later.’ With that, Thorin strode out of the room into one of the more centrally located bedrooms.

He knew that everyone would divide up, the Ri brothers would room together, as would his nephews. Just as long as everyone was clean and presentable, he didn’t care. He just wanted a minute to sit and not think. To let everything just settle in his mind, instead of the frantic push of the last few hours and the long days before. Getting this far had been more of a battle than he had anticipated or wanted. But, at least no one was injured and a good night’s rest and decent food would set most of them to rights. ‘Not that I’m expecting decent food here. Mahal only knows what sort of rabbit food they will serve us.’ Thorin leaned back in his chair and sighed. But, for now, a rest would be helpful and he would see if they could get the map read as soon as possible so that they could leave.

Bilbo moaned softly he leaned back in his bath, this is what he had been longing for! The chance to get warm and clean, both at the same time. And later, food to eat he didn’t have to cook or even help prepare and then a wonderful soft bed! He wasn’t sure that Yavanna was still watching him as closely as She had been at the beginning of the trip, as She wasn’t so much for war or battle, so that was understandable. He had felt nudged a couple of times, especially during this last bit of battle. And he was pretty sure that that the hole in the line of orcs hadn’t been natural, even if it had been handy at the time! At least, with the help of the Elves, they were able to get through the last bit without anyone being injured.

He hadn’t had time to really thank Her lately, not properly, but he would take care of that in the morning, he knew that no one would be up as early as he would. He would also have to talk to the cooks, and see if he could replenish their supplies. They would need so much more to get through this journey, and getting resupplied from the Elves would certainly go a long way in helping to tide them over.

Bilbo sighed, he hoped that all the Dwarves were taking advantage of the bathing facilities and getting themselves into some sort of order. Maybe he should have stayed with them and made sure that they got clean and decently dressed. But he had needed some alone time, he was a Hobbit and enjoyed company with the best of them, but Dwarves were so very loud and around all the time. Whoever had thought this little jaunt up was absolutely… Well, he couldn’t fault Yavanna, really, but Dwarves! Gandalf, he thought, had a lot to answer for!

After his bath, he ate a snack that had been left on his bedside table, bless the Elves!, and had a nice lie-down on the most comfortable bed he’d been on in weeks, not since the inn in Bree. Bilbo sighed as he finished dressing. He was hoping for good behavior from his Dwarves, but knew that it all depended on how they decided to act at the dinner being held for them. And what was actually on the menu. He knew that the Elves could be just as standoffish as his friends, but he was hoping for good behavior from all of them, as impossible as that could be.

Detouring through the kitchens to talk to the cooks had been a good idea, he was pretty sure that the twins had been there to stir things up, telling the cooks all sorts of tales, both about the Dwarves and himself and the battle. Besides, he had several recipes to share that he had promised the head cook the last time he had been here that he hadn’t had time to send. With a more balanced meal now being planned and cooked, geared more to the Dwarves appetite, and even his own, he could hope that tempers would be more equitable. He would have to have a word with Elladan and Elrohir, and try to keep them from pranking the Dwarves any more than they already tried to do. They all needed a bit of downtime, and this would be their only chance for quite a long time. The cooks were also agreeable in helping resupply them with better food than they were currently carrying. Lembas might not be what the Dwarves were expecting, but it would certainly extend their supplies. It was also much lighter and therefore easier to carry, which would be a plus for their ponies.

‘Bilbo, how are you doing? I’m sorry I wasn’t here to greet you, but…’ Elrond rose from his seat and pulled Bilbo close as he knelt by him, patting him gently on his back. ‘Are you really all right, the boys said you were but I wanted to make sure. Since when do you go riding around with a bunch of Dwarves and carrying a long knife? Yes, they saw that when you were riding in,’ eying Bilbo and getting a huff in return.

‘Nonsense, you were very busy chasing after nasty orcs and such! I should be thanking you for doing that, instead!’ Bilbo just shook his head as he stepped back from him. ‘I must say, I was hoping that you be there when we got close enough! As for the Dwarves, well, I had been feeling like I had been everywhere around the Shire and such and this didn’t seem like such a hard thing to do. Of course, I have been proven wrong about that so far!’

‘Your letter was pretty clear as to when you ‘might’ be here. We were hoping that it would be calmer around here when your merry band came through, but it was not to be. We had upped all the patrols for just this reason.’ Elrond smiled down at Bilbo as he ushered him into a seat by his.

‘Yes, well, it’s been one thing after another. We almost had a run-in with trolls, but Gandalf was actually a help with that. Trolls, can you imagine! That’s where we got my knife and the blades that Gandalf and Thorin are carrying. You might want to check all of them and make sure we aren’t abusing the weapons that we’re carrying. But I’ve been trying to keep to more civilized lands, such as they were.’

Elrond laughed softly. ‘I’m afraid that there will be no more ‘civilized’ lands, Bilbo. And you will have to tell me more about these trolls! And it only gets worse with the Mountains ahead of you. I’m not sure that you will be able to keep this up or even why you must. And of course, I would like to see these ‘new’ weapons that you all carry. Where exactly did you find them?’

‘That would be part of the troll story, I’m afraid. And where they were found, well, the rest will have to tell you that. I wasn’t going into a troll hoard any further than I already had, it was quite awful, the little bit that I did see. I’ve signed onto this quest, my friend, and we do have Gandalf along. Although, he does have the most disconcerting habit of disappearing at times, usually when we need him.’ Bilbo slumped a bit. ‘But I need to do this. Thorin evidentially needs to be able to claim his throne and that means getting rid of a most inconvenient dragon.’ Bilbo grinned a bit at his old friend. ‘Do you have any ideas about how we should go about doing that?’

Elrond sat with his mouth hanging open. ‘Bilbo! Tell me you are not along to get rid of it! That’s madness! How do you even think that you can go up against such a beast! You are not a warrior, my friend, not in any sense of the word, no matter what others might say! This is just nonsense!’

Bilbo shrugged a little and then nodded. ‘I’m afraid so. I’ve signed on as their ‘Burglar’ and now I have to figure out how to find whatever it is that Thorin needs found and then help get rid of the dragon. Or something like that. Or steal something else. I’m not sure that it was ever really said what I’m supposed to do once we get there. Madness, indeed!’

Elrond sat back with a huff. ‘Do you even know anything about dragons? Or how to kill or get rid of them? Because I’m pretty sure that I don’t! And what would there be there that needs to be “stolen”? And what is Gandalf thinking, having you along with this group! You are no way prepared to do any of this, my friend! I’m not even sure that these Dwarves are ready for it!’

‘Ah, but it was Gandalf’s idea for me to be their Burglar. So, I am hoping that there will be more information later on, and Thorin has some map with markings that neither he nor Gandalf can read. Evidently it needs a certain moon and Elf eyes or something like that. I didn’t hear everything the two of them were saying, the rest of the troop were being very loud at the time.’ Bilbo shrugged a little self-consciously, he wasn’t going to tell Elrond that he was getting help from Yavanna, he knew that it would just cause more problems than he already had.

Elrond frowned down at him. ‘We will be sitting down and discussing this whole mess with Gandalf and Thorin. There needs to be a clear understanding about all of this! I’m not having you traipsing off into the wilderness, getting killed by who-knows-what as you travel or eaten by a dragon at the end! I like you too much and I wouldn’t want to be the one to explain to the Thain if something did happen to you! Or your relatives! There would probably be a war! We would have Hobbits of all sorts camping out on our land, getting in trouble!’

‘Well, maybe not a war, we aren’t very warlike, you know, but I would appreciate some help on the whole dragon thing, I know it’s huge, but no one has said anything else about it. And they are trying to give me some lessons for defending myself, although with the orcs chasing us lately, it’s been a bit hit and miss. And it would also help if I knew some of the layout of Erebor itself. Kind of hard to be a Burglar if I don’t know anything about the place I’m supposed to burgle.’

‘We will be having a lot more discussion than that. But first, dinner and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow will be soon enough for all of this nonsense. I want cooler and calmer heads, that means everyone, not just those Dwarves! I cannot believe you’ve been dragged into all of this!’

Bilbo chuckled. ‘Why, Elrond, you act as if I would allow the Dwarves to riot in your dining room! I’m sure everyone will be too busy eating the excellent food the cooks are preparing to do anything like that!’

Elrond just looked at him for a moment, and then sighed. ‘Do I need to corral my two errant children? Or have you already talked to the cooks?’

‘Yes, I have already talked to the cooks. There was… a miscommunication with them, I’m sure.’ He grinned at the face his friend made at that. ‘It’s all good now, and besides, I wanted to ask about supplies. And I made sure that there will be plenty of food for everyone, Elves and Dwarves alike. And me, of course!’

‘You know we will supply you with anything you need. But that is also a discussion for tomorrow. Right now, let’s see if your Dwarves are ready for dinner. And make sure that everyone is still being civil to one another before we eat.’

Chapter 4

Dinner had gone well, even if the mischievous twin Elves were disappointed that their prank of feeding the Dwarves only vegetable dishes and salads had fallen through. But too much rode on how the Dwarves perceived the Elves and the help that they could get from them. And feeding them a more traditional Elven dinner would not have endeared them to them at all. The thought of a fight over food with the uneven tempers of the Dwarves was just too horrible to contemplate, especially as more than food might have gotten thrown and Bilbo had shuddered to think what else. A stern talking to the two of them before dinner had even started had put paid to anything else they might have planned for the night. Their quiet apology to Bilbo had been much appreciated, but he knew that it probably wasn’t the end of it. He and Elrond had just sighed when the two boys, in Elrond’s eyes, anyway, had just naturally drifted over to the three youngest dwarves and started a conversation after everyone had finished dinner.

‘Well, this could be either very good or very very bad.’ Elrond looked down at Bilbo who just nodded as he watched the group drift out of the room, his eyebrow twitching at the sight. ‘And I’m afraid that if we say anything, it might make it worse. It might just spur all of them to further mischief that we don’t need at the moment. Please tell me that those three are not as bad as my two, even if it doesn’t look that way at the moment.’

‘Well, I’m not saying that you’re wrong about that, well, the mischief at least. The nephews haven’t been as bad as the twins from what I’ve seen so far, and Ori has been kept in check by his older brothers, especially Dori, but given what we’ve been through, I’m not making any bets. And all of them together? I’m sure that some of that pent up energy will have to go somewhere.’ Bilbo shrugged, they were all young and it was safe enough here for them to burn off some of the mischievousness that he knew was in all of them. ‘Has Thorin said anything about his map? I know he’s going to want to get it read as soon as possible and then get on the move as fast as he can. Especially since he has to ask you for the help. He’ll not want to be any more beholden than he absolutely has to be.’ Bilbo sighed, it would be so much easier if everyone could just get along, but even in the Shire, tempers could get hot and feelings hurt. Here, with such diverse groups, it could be worse.

‘Hmm, we’ll have to see what’s written on the map before I make any pronouncements. And if it all depends on what phase moon it has to be? Makes it all that much harder. Let’s hope that it’s the moon phase we are in now, and not a different one.’ Elrond shrugged a bit and then turned as both Gandalf and Thorin came toward him. ‘I think I need to have some words with you, old friend,’ looking rather pointedly at the wizard. ‘What were you thinking of, dragging Bilbo along on this foolishness? And no, Bilbo, I don’t care what they told you, you are not ready for any of the rest of this trip, even if you have done better than I could imagine so far.’ He just looked at the other two, frowning a bit with a glare at Gandalf in particular.

‘Yes, yes, I know, and I will explain later. First, could we go somewhere and look at Thorin’s map? That would be the most helpful thing at the moment, and keep us from saying anything else that we don’t want others to know at the moment.’ Gandalf huffed, but nodded at Thorin, who was still standing stiff and still at his side, who just nodded in agreement, not wanting to bet pulled into an argument between Gandalf and Elrond.

‘Oh, stuff and nonsense! I knew, mostly, what I was getting into! Now, let’s take this map and see what is on it that needs a special moon to become visible.’ Bilbo was becoming a bit put out, he felt that he had done a much better job than he was being credited with so far. Food and the proper supplies were very important. And he had provided both. Along with the help from Yavanna, even if no one else knew about it!

Elrond nodded. ‘Is that all right with you, King Thorin, if Gandalf and Bilbo both come and see what is written on it? If not, we could be more private and then you could decide later what and who you wanted to share the information with.’

Thorin slowly shook his head. ‘Gandalf has already seen the map as he is the one who found it, and we tried together to find a way to read it when he brought it to me. Bilbo has more than earned my trust with all the things he has already done for us. Let us see if there is anything written on it in secret that will help with this quest. We can then make better plans with more and better information, which is what we need.’

Bilbo straightened up at that, pleased that he had made some sort of impression with the surly dwarf. Maybe there was some hope there, after all, for both of their sakes.

Elrond waved them all onto a balcony that had no overhang or plants, where the moon was shining brightly down on it but was still private, with no balconies around it. There was a round table that they could put the map on so that everyone could see it without having to crane their heads around anyone else.

Thorin slowly pulled the rolled up map out and reluctantly handed it to Elrond, who accepted it with a bow and carefully rolled it out so that the moonlight sparkled over it as he laid it down, moving to make sure the moon could light it in its entirety.

As they watched, letters began to form on it, moon-letters that had both Gandalf and Elrond gasping a bit. ‘It would seem that you are in luck, tonight seems be that night that shows what is written here. See, there is also a hidden entrance into Erebor, with runes which say “five feet high the door and three may walk abreast”, but it will only open on Durin’s Day, among other things. Let me write the rest of this down, I do not know if the words will fade when taken out of the moonlight. There is also a mark on the mountain itself, maybe where the secret entrance could be. Perhaps you should mark it with a darker ink in case it fades when out of the moonlight.’ Elrond moved back so that Thorin could hold the map down, who just looked in wonder at the writing that had appeared.

He read it slowly, ‘Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the keyhole.’ Thorin shook his head slowly, this was confusing and he had been hoping for less confusion and more information that he could use. He pulled a small charcoal pencil from his pocket, carefully remarking where the door was, it wouldn’t do to miss it due to misremembering the wrong place later.

‘I recognize some of this from my studies from so very long ago. It’s writing that was used during Durin II’s reign, I think. It fell out of favor and not many remember it now. And I even think I know who first drew Erebor and its surrounding area.’ Thorin’s voice was quiet as he gently touched the writing that had appeared. ‘I think I also know where this secret entrance is on the mountain, but it would have to be there on the mountain near it to be sure. My father and grandfather came from this direction when we were fleeing the dragon.’ He pointed toward the mark and then traced a line down from it toward the river.

Bilbo gazed in awe at the writing that had appeared. ‘It almost sparkles, doesn’t it? And now it makes sense that it would have to be read under certain circumstances. And a secret door! That would be a help in getting in without being seen. Especially by a dragon, let alone whatever else might be around. Because there will probably be watchers of some sort, things that we won’t want to see us.’

‘I think that there won’t be too many around, dragons are very territorial and what they don’t run off, they kill and eat.’ Gandalf sighed as he looked over the map and shook his head. ‘This will still be very dangerous for all of us. We will not know if anyone else is watching over this land until we actually get there, if there are any at all.’

Bilbo hummed a bit, this was a very rich area with the dragon hoard and he couldn’t image that someone wasn’t watching it, just to make sure no one was trying to get something that they couldn’t. And he would be watching even if no one else was doing it.

Elrond came back out and checked the notes he had made against what was written on the map. ‘Yes, whomever wrote this was very powerful, and we were just lucky that we were reading it at the right time and moon phase.’ He handed his notes to Thorin, bowing a bit. ‘Hopefully, this will help on your journey, and at least now you will have a definite day that you know you will have to be there.’

Bilbo sighed to himself, yes, but now there were even more questions he needed answered besides dragons, now he needed to know when this Durin’s Day actually was! As well as how long it would take to get over those confounded mountains! He was going to have to start making a list, and keep track of the answers as well. All of this was becoming more and more complicated! Yavanna hadn’t let him remember much of this part!

‘Could we wait for any more conversations until tomorrow? I’m pretty sure that Thorin would like some time to think about what’s been shown to him tonight, and a good night’s sleep would be most beneficial to all of us.’ Bilbo rubbed his head, he really needed to have a decent night’s sleep and another good meal or two to actually feel better.

‘I must agree with Bilbo, I need to talk to my council, also, about what we have discovered here. And a night without any alarms would be nice. Thank you for your help, Lord Elrond.’ With a short bow and a nod to Gandalf and Bilbo, Thorin left the balcony, head bowed in thought of what he would be telling the rest of the troop, especially those he considered his closest friends and council.

‘And you, old friend, will come and talk with me. I know that you don’t need to have as much sleep as the rest and I’ve got a lot of questions that I want answered.’ Elrond waved Gandalf back into the building and pointedly stared at him when he thought he could sneak away.

Gandalf huffed a bit but sat down at a table where a pair of glasses and a bottle were already sitting, knowing that he would have to talk fast to keep in Elrond’s good graces, not that it would change the plan that the Dwarves had to stick to in order to take back Erebor at the right time.

‘Go and have a nice rest, Bilbo. I’m sure that there will be some extra nibbles just for you in your rooms from the cooks. We will all talk tomorrow after breakfast. There will be time to decide what and where you all are going. But you should get some real rest first.’ Elrond gave him a gentle push, he knew that Bilbo’s friends would have more food for him waiting in his room as well as Bilbo did.

Bilbo nodded and waved as he turned, ‘Yes, that sounds like a wonderful idea. Have a nice chat, you two!’ With a grin, he was off for his nibbles and bed.

The next morning, Bilbo got up before any of the rest of the Dwarves even thought of stirring, before the sun had even thought of coming up over the horizon, and quietly went into his special part of the gardens. It had been set aside for him after he had asked for it the second time he had stayed with the Elves. Elrond had been very accommodating and now he could thank Yavanna without hiding it as he had been doing on the road.

He wasn’t sure that She would be able to help him from now on as much as She had been so far. They were going to be very far from home when they left here, and so he wanted to be able to thank Her properly now while he still had the chance. He was still amazed that She had been helping him as much as She had, considering what She had told him before.

‘I just want to thank you again, Yavanna, for all the help you have given me and these silly Dwarves so far in this quest and I will quite understand if you can’t help as much from here on out. As we go further and further from our home, I am sure that it will be harder and harder for me to have these conversations with you. I am not sure of our exact route yet, we only got the map read last night. But it would seem that we will be going over the mountains…’

Bilbo stopped. There was a definite no in the air with his words. ‘We shouldn’t go over the mountains? But I’m not sure that there is any other way to go, Yavanna. The only trail on the map was through the mountain range… Do You mean there’s more that isn’t on this particular map? Should we be looking for other maps?’

‘Ask your friends the Elves, Bilbo, there are secret hidden ways that they can tell you. I would not have you chance the same things that went on before and you should avoid the regular path through the mountains.’ Yavanna shimmered into view but was still very transparent. Bilbo bowed even lower.

‘Are you sure, I do remember that part, but maybe we could avoid the cave? Surely there are other places to huddle into on the mountainside. Plus, maybe we could leave sooner or later? Wouldn’t that change everything?’ Bilbo hadn’t been looking forward to any of that part, falling down the shaft, losing their ponies, the goblins, getting hit on the head and then the whole riddles in the dark really had no appeal at all, maybe especially with all the riddles in the dark with that poor mad sad creature he had met while down there, he wouldn’t mind avoiding all of that, at all.

‘Perhaps, but there are still the stone giants and their games. It would be hard to avoid that. And it would also take some time off of your journey if you went a different way and that would be good. I think you will find that you will need all that extra time at the end of your journey.’ Yavanna strolled around the garden, smelling some of the flowers that were there, gently stroking some that were not as healthy as the others, strengthening them as She went. ‘Do not worry about the ring, I think you will find that it will be somewhere along your way.’

Bilbo made a face. ‘From what I remember about it, I wish I didn’t have to have anything to do with it at all. And what about the sad creature that has it now? Will it be a problem as well? And how am I to carry it? And get rid of it? You haven’t said anything about that yet.’

‘No, I think that his time will be over now. He was once one of mine, I will give him rest and peace.’ Yavanna shook her head sadly, but if Sméagol wasn’t there to bother anyone, well, that would be good. ‘Now, go and see to your supplies. I am sure that Lord Elrond will want to talk to you this morning and I’m sure that you would like a second breakfast before that. And there might be something extra in your bag, something no one else will see. Do not worry about the ring for now, getting through this part of your adventure will be enough at the moment. I think, in the end, there will be enough explanations that you will know what must be done.’

Bilbo nodded. ‘Thank you again, my Lady.’ Yavanna waved him off as She slowly faded out of sight. Bilbo took a deep breath and looked around. The garden seemed to glow for a moment longer before settling down to a more normal look. He shook his head, too many thoughts already running through his head at Her words.

Bilbo continued to wandered around the garden as the sun slowly rose over the horizon, thinking of how he was going to get not only stubborn Dwarves but also canny Elves to change all of their plans. Because he was sure that there had been lots of plans being made while he was asleep and he would probably not like any of them, at all. And he still had to be so careful so that he didn’t give away having so much of Yavanna’s help, plus he wasn’t sure how the Dwarves would take having Yavanna helping them instead of their own spirit god, Mahal. Of course, if He would help them, maybe things would go easier for them. Not that he was sure that they would even listen to Him, the silly things. But, it would not do to go against anything that She had planned. No, going against Yavanna’s plans was just silly.

After another plate of nibbles, and much shorter bath, because who knew when he would have such luxury again, Bilbo went hunting his Dwarves to see how they were getting along. He was hoping that everyone had slept well and gotten all the clothes that were dirty clean so that they could get on the road again without any problem. His had been practically snatched out of his hands and then returned just after he had gotten up. The cooks and the outfitters had already made sure that his personal supplies were packed and ready to go. They had talked over everything he thought the troop would need, and they had added things that they knew they would need. He could always add things to it, but having everything ready was just a lot easier than running around playing catch-up. And knowing his friends, he was sure that all the clothes the dwarves had not been wearing had probably also been taken, washed and given back without anyone being the wiser. It had happened to him on occasion when he had been there before.

‘Ah, good morning, boys, and where to you think you are going, hmmm? Does Thorin know that you are sneaking out of your quarters this early in the day?’ Bilbo tapped his foot as he looked at three very guilty looking dwarves who were currently sliding out of the common room for the Dwarves, and actually doing an excellent job of being quiet, even with their weapons in hand.

‘Bilbo! Ah, well… it’s like this…’ Ori looked at the other two, red faced and stuttering.

‘We’re going to get some practice in, the twins offered to help us on some of our training last night. They really are good with their bows, did you see what they did with the attack of the orcs?’ Kíli was enthusiastic about that, even if his fellow sneakers weren’t. ‘We’ll be back for breakfast later. We ate some more after the dinner last night, so we’re not too hungry right now.’ He patted Bilbo as the three slid by him, taking off running a minute later, laughing as they went, the two older pulling Ori along as they went.

‘Sure, practice, I’m so not buying that, boys, not at all.’ Bilbo grinned after them, it was good to see that the trip so far hadn’t dampened their spirits. He sighed, he needed to talk to the rest of the party and see how everyone else was doing. At least it sounded like the cooks had followed through with extra food a couple hours after the dinner had ended, since he was pretty sure that his Dwarves would be hungry again a couple hours, there probably hadn’t been quite enough meat at dinner to satisfy their hunger. Short rations had a tendency to do that to one. And he had made sure to have plenty of meat in their snacks, so hopefully no one had any complaints.

He tapped on the door and waited a moment until he heard someone moving around inside. Peeking around as he opened the door wider, he asked, ‘Is anyone else up? I just saw the boys heading out to the practice fields, or so they said. Although, they were carrying weapons, so maybe…’

Thorin snorted. ‘Is that what they’re calling it now? I call it, off to wreck mayhem on someone other than us at the moment. And we’re all up. Our clothes seem to have magically cleaned themselves in the night as well. I’m sure you don’t know anything about that, though. Or the reason why there seemed to be extra food here last night, either.’

Bilbo grinned and shrugged at him as Dwalin started to talk.

Dwalin laughed softly. ‘Yeah, that’s not what they wanted us to know, but it’s exactly what will happen. Mischief makers, all of them! I just hope it all stays away from here. And that they don’t torment the Elves too much,’ he smirked at Thorin who also snickered just a bit before he looked over at Bilbo.

‘I’m sure that Elrond will have watchers as well, he still protective of his sons, no matter their age. But how are all of you doing? Did you have a restful night? And there will be breakfast in just a bit, so I hope everyone is ready for it. There should be plenty of food this morning, the cooks know that all of us need a bit more food than everyone here.’ Bilbo grinned a bit more, but then sobered when he met Thorin’s gaze.

‘I have talked to some of my advisors about what the map had on it. And they know that Lord Elrond is not happy about you going further with us. So, is there anything that you want us to know?’ Thorin was still unsettled by Elrond’s words from the night before.

‘Gandalf is an idiot. Or maybe going senile.’ Everyone within earshot started to laugh, even Thorin gave a chuckle. ‘No, really, I don’t even know why anyone ever listens to him. He never really thinks things through, disappears without warning, never apologizes when he turns back up, thinks he’s always right, even when he’s wrong… I could go on. Evidently he didn’t warn Elrond he was pulling this new stunt with me being involved with all of you. Because I’m pretty sure he was here talking to Elrond before he got started with you and then me. All of my friends here seem to have known we were coming even before I wrote to them.’ Bilbo looked around, that had gotten everyone’s attention.

‘Wait, what?’ Thorin stood up and started frowning even more than he usually did. ‘You said something about that while we were in Hobbiton, but then we started traveling and I didn’t think to ask more about it with everything that was going on.’

‘Having the Elves help on any adventure means a better chance of getting through without getting killed or captured or whatever. Or starving to death. Especially when going through part of their lands. And Gandalf just waltzes in and is all “by-the-way, I’m sending your friend on some dangerous journey but don’t worry, I’ll be there. Well, some of the time. Maybe.” He’s an idiot and I’m sure that Elrond grilled him like a trout last night. So, after breakfast, I expect to hear all about how this is singularly a bad idea.’ Bilbo huffed and then sat down in a chair by the table in the middle room. ‘So, I would appreciate it if all of you didn’t start yelling before we hear what he has to say, because Lord Elrond has been around a lot longer than any of us, except maybe Gandalf.’

‘Bilbo, this is too important to…’

‘No, breakfast first. Then the whole conversation. Although it will be my second breakfast, I’ve already been up and busy getting things done for our journey.’ He glared at Thorin when it looked like he would start up again, making him shut his mouth with a snap.

‘Fine. After breakfast.’ Thorin sighed, the wizard was beginning to be more of a bother than anything else. But it wasn’t like they could just get rid of him, there were things going on that they needed the old meddler for. ‘But the conversation is going to happen this time, I don’t want to be on the road and find out that there was something important that was left out from before!’

‘Yes, yes, but really, let’s all go to breakfast first.’

Bilbo got everyone back to the same room that the dinner had been, it really was the only one big enough to hold all of them without issue. He wasn’t sure if anyone was going to be eating with them, he was sure that Elrond was probably still livid with Gandalf and wouldn’t want anyone to see him like that. Even Elves had standards that they tried to keep to. He would have to get the rest of the Dwarves in to eat as well. They didn’t need to miss any more meals before they were back on the road. Food were just too important.

‘Ah, I see practice has ended for the moment.’ Balin smirked at the three sheepish boys as they slid into the room. ‘I do hope you learned something, you know, besides pranks. Because I’m sure the twins shared some ideas with you. I just hope you didn’t share too many of yours with them! Lord Elrond might not be as appreciative of your antics as we are.’

Ori blushed at that, but the other two just grinned back them all, totally unrepentant.

‘Kíli worked with his bow and Elrohir showed him some things that would help him in a battle. They traded tips on keeping their weapons in order before, during and after a battle. There was another elf there who asked what weapon Ori used and then had him throwing an ax at a target. No one had a warhammer, so he’ll just have to keep practicing with Dwalin for that. I also talked with some of the ones there that were practicing. It was pretty interesting. I got a bit of sword practice in as well, even though they have a much longer reach than I do.’ Fíli shrugged a bit, pretending not to notice Dori huffing about his baby brother learning to use a weapon, which was just stupid, considering the battle they had just gone through.

‘Yes, but then an Elf came and said that you were all going to breakfast and that we could come back later and practice some more before we leave.’ Kíli bounced to a seat and served himself a large helping of eggs and the breakfast steak that was near him.

Thorin just looked at the three of them and sighed. ‘Well, practice is good, even if it’s with Elves, I suppose. And I do hope that you actually learned something, which it sounds like you did.’

Dwalin nodded. ‘I will come with you after breakfast and see what you have learned from these teachers. It will be a good use of our time while the rest finish talking with the Elves. I wouldn’t want any of you getting any bad habits from them.’

The looks on the three faces made everyone laugh, they were pretty sure that they weren’t sure whether to be surprised or worried, even though worried seemed to be winning out.

Dori started to say something, but Nori leaned over to him and hissed a few words into his ear that made him pause and then subside with another huff. Everyone knew that Dori would just bide his time and would be making the argument that his baby brother should not be learning any more war tactics. Even if they seemed to be in the middle of a conflict. And headed for more.

Thorin nodded. ‘Yes, Bilbo and I have an appointment with Lord Elrond after this. The rest of you should make sure that we have everything we need to take off when we are all done. That includes checking the ponies and making sure that all the packs are ready to go. Depending on what we can discover, we should be ready to leave no later than tomorrow, but hopefully before then.’

Chapter 5

Breakfast had been mostly uninterrupted except for Elves bringing more food as the bowls and platters on the table emptied, and tidbits of special nibbles just for Bilbo. He knew that it was driving several of the Dwarves mad with wanting to know what the extras were for, but since some of it was just tasting for the supplies for the next leg of their journey, he just smiled at the rest of the troop and thanked the servers, not really indicating what he thought of each new food they brought him, but keeping a mental note of what he thought would work better for both him and the Dwarves.

‘All right, Bilbo, why are you getting all the little extras? Do we need to worry about how much you’re getting to eat as we travel?’ Balin finally had had enough of all the secrets that seemed to be centered around their Burglar, and the extra food he was getting was making all of them a little bit paranoid, really making them wonder if they were actually feeding him enough as they traveled.

Bilbo grinned, he had wondered who would be the first to break. But he had thought that one of the boys would have been the first to crack, although he had a feeling, sneaking a look around the table, that several of the other dwarves had been very close to breaking.

‘No, these little bits are just samples of things that the cooks think we might like as we travel. They can package things so that they stay fresh, at least for a little while. I think that they are having fun teasing the rest of you, but they know that I will be making most of the decisions on what we need and how much we can actually take, although I would like to include you, Bombur, in some of these decisions, since you seem to be the one that cooks the most. And I am sure that the servers are also having some fun with the looks on your faces!’ Bilbo chuckled as there was some wrinkling of noses and frowning at the Elves tactics. ‘If you are wanting to have a taste of some of the things they are thinking of sending with us, if you go and ask politely,’ he sent a pointed looked at the three youngest, ‘I’m sure that the cooks would be glad to let you try some of it. And, if you and Balin are ready, Thorin, we could go and talk to Lord Elrond and see what council they came up with in the night. And I’m pretty sure that the rest of you are wanting to go to the practice fields while you can, just to see what the boys were learning this morning.’

The three youngest perked up at that and would have left to see just what they could get out of the cooks, but

Dori frowned at that the last thing Bilbo had said, and started talking before Nori could stop him. ‘No, I think Ori should come back to the rooms with me and work on his journals. I’m sure that they need updating and I don’t think that he needs to be putting in training with warhammers and the like.’ He huffed at the looks that he got from the rest, not caring at all. This was his youngest brother, and he wasn’t impressed with everyone trying to make him into a warrior, not after all the work he had done to get him apprenticed to the scribes, and at such a young age, as well.

‘Dori, I hate to contradict you, but this journey is just going to get harder and probably more dangerous as we go on, and we need everyone to be able to pull their own weight, especially as far as being able to defend themselves in a fight.’ Balin shook his head, he knew he should have had this conversation before this, and now it was going to be in front of everyone and that was never a good idea. ‘I want Bilbo to take some time also, and maybe try some other weapons if his long knife isn’t going to be good enough for him. But, we all need some practice, just to keep up our skills, and that includes you.’

Dori started to cloud up and everyone knew that there were going to be words. But then Bilbo started talking.

‘Yes, I think, no, I know that I need some more practice with that knife you gave me. And I should see if anyone has a good sling that I could use, or I could make a couple. With some good shot or pebbles, I could take down small prey and even stun someone. And it’s easy to carry and pebbles are everywhere. And I’m a pretty fair shot. I always did some hunting when I travelled around and out of the Shire, you know. I couldn’t carry all the food I needed on my walks or when I was going to Bree to trade, and a good fried rabbit was always tasty at night.’

Dori glared at him, but Thorin quietly said, ‘Good idea. After our talk with Lord Elrond, we will see what we can find. And Dori, everyone, not just the boys, should go to the practice fields and see if there is anything that needs to be improved upon. We are going further into the wild, we will all need to be prepared for any eventuality. We can’t have anyone going with us that can’t at least defend themselves, because expecting someone else to defend another in battle would just both of them killed.’ Dori really couldn’t argue against Thorin, even though everyone knew that he wanted to, and they all knew that they would be hearing more from him later, Dori was nothing if not tenacious.

Nori leaned back in his chair as everyone got up to go, and exchanged a look with Dwalin, they would both be having a longer conversation with his brother before long. Until then, ‘Ok, boys, let’s go see what the cooks will give us to eat and then head out for the practice fields. And remember, if you over-eat, it’ll slow you down or leave you sick on the sidelines! And there won’t be time for that sort of thing in a real battle!’ Since this was something that had been taught to them all, they just nodded and trouped out together, heading for the kitchens and some tasty treats, trying to guess what some of the treats were, based on what they had seen Bilbo eating. Bombur wanted to talk to the cooks as well, to see what kind of food they had that would last longer on journeys.

Dori huffed again, but headed out with the rest of them, and Nori was hoping there might be something that the Elves could feed him that might sweeten his disposition.

Bilbo, along with Thorin, Dwalin, and Balin, went back to the small library they had left Elrond and Gandalf the night before, Thorin had brought the map, thinking that he could compare it to ones that the Elves had. And Bilbo was wanting to find out if there were any other way around or through the mountains to avoid all the problems he could see coming! He just had to figure out a way to ask without giving away anything he already knew.

‘Bilbo, I was just going to send for you. And Thorin, have you had enough time to see how and where you need to go? Do you have any extra maps from your travels before? Maps of the area around your home?’ Elrond waved them all to seats, Gandalf already sitting out of the way in a corner and smoking his pipe. Bilbo smirked a bit, he wondered if either of them had gotten any sleep, not that you could tell with them, with Elves not needing as much sleep and Gandalf, well, who knew if and when wizards slept.

‘Also, I need to talk to you about the orcs that were following you that we had the battle with yesterday.’

Dwalin nodded and asked, ‘Did you get all of them? Or will we have to watch out for more attacks when we leave?’

‘No, I think that we got all of them, we don’t want that sort of vermin running around our lands. Our last patrols haven’t come back in, but we haven’t heard anything bad from them. And that includes Bolg, if you were wondering.’ Elrond looked over at Thorin, who had visibly relaxed at his words. ‘So, the son of your grandfather’s murderer is now gone as well.’

‘And for that, I thank you. It has always been a concern, we never knew when he would pop up and now, it’s no longer a thing that we have to think about. Once we can tell others this, there will be rejoicing!’ Thorin sat back in his seat and gazed back at Elrond, a grateful look on his face.

‘And now for your travel away from here. Do you have any extra maps?’ Elrond tapped his fingers on a small pile of paper on the table in front of him.

Thorin sighed. ‘We went over the map several times, and we’ve made a copy or two, just to be on the safe side. But since we know when we have to be there, we just need to plan a route that will get us there, hopefully avoiding all the hot spots between here and there. And if we could get there earlier than Durin’s Day, that would also be helpful as far as planning what we might need to do once inside the mountain. I know that the map shows a way through the mountains, but the question came up while we were studying it, is there a better way? Or safer? We can’t afford to lose anybody, and going through goblin infested mountains is a good way to do that. And then through Mirkwood? Is the Old Forest Road in good condition or should we avoid it? Plus, if we could also avoid Thrandúil, that would be good. I am not sure just how he would react to us coming through his land.’

Bilbo was a bit relieved, he should have known that Thorin, of all people, would have some of the same concerns that he did! It was close to his home territory, after all! Well, that just made his questions easier to ask!

Elrond frowned a bit, but nodded. ‘Yes, there are some different ways through the mountains that are not known to everyone.’ He looked over at Gandalf and shrugged. ‘I’m not even sure that you know any of the other ways, old friend, since you have a tendency to avoid going over the mountains from here.’

Gandalf sat up a little straighter. ‘No, at least I don’t think I do. Just the one that is detailed on Thorin’s map which is the main trail, though. Looking at different ways through would be a good idea.’

Bilbo sighed. ‘Well, I, for one, would like a slightly easier way than the one that is shown on the map. I don’t imagine that the Dwarves and Elves are the only ones that know that route. I know that there isn’t any good way through, because, mountains, but really, a less travelled by everyone trail would be better. And maybe fewer enemies?’

Elrond sighed a bit. ‘Yes, there is. But some of us would have to guide your troop, you could not go by yourselves.’ He shook his head at the almost protests he could see forming on the Dwarves’ faces. ‘You could not find your way, not without us. There are reasons why they are hidden.’

Thorin and Balin exchanged looks and then Thorin pulled out the map and laid it out on the table. ‘As you can see, the words did fade once out of the moonlight, which can only be good if this should fall into the wrong hands. But the mark I made for the hidden door is still there, also the route through the mountains. Would going a different way be longer? Or any less dangerous?’

Elrond shrugged. ‘Longer? Maybe, but with our help, you would be able to move a bit faster and not have to worry quite so much about your attracting notice that you don’t want. It would take you out of your way, Gandalf, but I’m sure that won’t be too much of a problem.’

‘Wait, what? Or should I say, again? If you aren’t going to be actually travelling with us, Gandalf, perhaps some warning this time would be good!’ Thorin growled a bit as he looked at him, Gandalf shrugging a little at the looks everyone was giving him. ‘We are becoming tired of you just taking off, leaving us wondering if and when we’re going to see you next!’

‘I do have an errand that I must attend to, but I will be at your mountain in time for Durin’s Day, Thorin. I will be able to go partway with you, depending on where Elrond’s route goes, and then when I’m done with what I must do, I will meet back up with you.’ Gandalf sighed a bit, he had hoped to put this conversation off for a while longer, but it looked like he was going to have to do it now.

Balin traced the route on their map and then looked up at Elrond. ‘Just where is this route that you would have us take? Because if it takes too long, or comes out in a place that we have to travel longer to get to Erebor, then maybe staying on the original path is a better idea.’

Bilbo sighed internally. Why were these silly Dwarves being so contrary. You would think that they would be jumping at having an easier, safer way to go, but no. Let’s stick to the route that could get us all killed. Even if they didn’t know that!

‘If you could show us on the map where we would be going, Elrond? Perhaps that would help us as to what would change as far as how much further we would have to go?’ Bilbo looked at the map, but really, maybe this wasn’t detailed enough to help them, since it been drawn for Dwarves. ‘Or a different map, maybe?’

Elrond nodded and turned to the shelves. ‘We send patrols out and try to make sure that the trouble spots are not too bad. Weeding out our enemies is always a good thing to do.’ He pulled a book out and spread out its pages, letting them fold out until a much more detailed map could be seen. ‘This is where your map has you going, this is where we could show you through. As I said, maybe slightly longer, but you would be with a patrol and there is safety in numbers.’ He gently drew a long finger along a not very clearly marked path north of the more plainly marked route.

Dwalin and Balin both started comparing where the map would bring them out. It was apparent that they were going to actually come out more north outside the Woodland Elves territory, but much nearer the Forest River and they both glanced at each other in relief. If they could somehow get on a boat of some sort, they could pass by without any notice of the Woodland Elves and that would a better trip altogether. They might not like having to rely on Elrond, but Thrandúil was another thing altogether! They would probably have to deal with him later, but right now, they just wanted to get to Erebor without attracting any more attention than they absolutely had to.

‘Well, this does make a difference, we would come out much further north and would have to cross the Anduin in a totally different place. Are there fords there or would we have to have boats of some sort? And once we were across, we would have to go around to the north to get to the Forest River and then go on from there.’ Balin then traced the river through Mirkwood and back up toward Lake-town and frowned. ‘Do you know anything about this town? I’m going to assume that it’s the remnants of the Men that lived in Dale. Should we avoid them, or could they help us?’

Dwalin shook his head in disagreement. ‘No, how much longer would it take us to just skirt around the north of Mirkwood and then come to Erebor from the north.’ His blunt finger traced around and then to the mountain. ‘This way, we could stay away from both Elves and Men. We might have to watch out for whatever is around the Grey Mountains and definitely stay away from the Withered Heath, but… it might be worth it.’

Elrond nodded his head. ‘We can get you across the Anduin, after that, you would be on your own, and as far as the Men of Lake-town, I don’t know if they would be any help or not. We have not had any real contact with them, but I know that Thrandúil does trade with them and then trades with us. But I know that you will not want to have anything to do with him, so I’m not sure whether or not you should chance them. That, I’m afraid, would be up to you. As far as getting across the lake is concerned, you might have to see if you could flag down any barges or fishing boats going out across it, once you get to the mouth of Long Lake. Going around it would definitely take you too long, even with us helping you getting across the mountains. As far as going around Mirkwood, well, that would also be up to you. I am not sure just what is up there anymore, we don’t go there, so I have no idea what you might run into other than goblins or orcs if you get too close to the mountains.’

The Dwarves mumbled to one another, getting across the lake would be almost impossible if they couldn’t get transportation. Without a clear road around the lake, they couldn’t chance walking, plus they didn’t have enough time for that. And they definitely didn’t want to have any attention from any Elves in the area. Dwalin’s idea was new and would have to have some more thought put into it.

‘Well, that might be a problem for when we get over the Anduin. Right now, getting through the mountains without attracting any attention must be our goal.’ Thorin straightened up and gazed at Elrond. ‘I would appreciate any help that you could give us, and when,’ he sighed, ‘Or if I come into my own, I will repay this debt to you.’

The other two Dwarves all gaped a bit before closing their mouths with a snap, but then nodded as well. If Thorin could do this, then they would support him any way they could. Bilbo even got a little misty-eyed, this was a Dwarf that anyone with any sense could follow!

‘Let there be no talk of debt between us, Thorin. If you can win your throne back, it will be to the good of us all.’

Thorin bowed in reply, but Bilbo knew that some kind of reparation would have to be made, Thorin was too proud to let such a debt stand between them. But that was for another day, right now, he wanted some more answers to his own questions.

‘So, when exactly is this Durin’s Day? I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it, and so it would be helpful to me, anyway, to know what kind of time limit we’re working with. And is there actually enough time to get to the mountain?’ Bilbo had wanted to know this answer for some time, but there just hadn’t been enough time to actually ask the questions he had. He thought he remember a bit from before, but it was hazy and he really wanted to know the correct times, so that they could plan better.

Thorin smiled a bit. ‘Durin’s Day is when the last moon of Autumn and the sun are in the sky together, which is also the first day of our new year, and we should have enough time to get there. Since we now have what we need to know about how to find the secret door, that will help a lot. But, so many things will depend on how quickly we can get over the mountains here, across the river and then around Mirkwood Forest before finding and then going down the Forest River, well, if we choose that way. Or around the outside of the Mirkwood. Even with help, it still might be a very tight timeline, one that could be thrown off by what we might run into.’

‘And whether or not we can get any help from the Men of Lake-town after we get to the mountain. We will have to see if any of the descendants of Girion are still around and if they could help.’ Balin shook his head. ‘We will need to be on the move soon.’

Elrond nodded. ‘Tomorrow we could be ready and have you provisioned enough to at least make it to Erebor. Hopefully, that will help. But there is still the question of why you feel that Bilbo is needed and just what part he is playing in all of this.’

Gandalf sighed and stood up to walk over to the maps that were laid out. ‘He will have a part to play in all of this, it has been seen by others. And I cannot tell you all of it, as I don’t know it all, just what I’ve been told. But, I am afraid, that if Bilbo does not go, there will be no good ending to any of this. You will just have to trust me on this.’

Elrond just looked at him in disbelief. ‘Really, Gandalf, that is all you can tell us? I know that you wouldn’t tell me much last night, but now this? Really? And look at Thorin and the rest? I don’t know that I’m going to be allowing anyone passage at this point!’

Bilbo slapped a hand to his forehead. ‘Oh, by all that’s good and great, what are any of you thinking at the moment! Gandalf has never been upfront with anything he does, now you’re going to call him on it? I’m sure that there have been secret councils that none of us have been involved in, I don’t know why you’re even questioning any of this. And, Elrond, old friend, everyone so far seems to feel that this trip is a necessary thing, not something that can be put off and done later. Am I right about that, Gandalf?’

‘I am afraid so, Bilbo, if Thorin does not win and claim his throne, worse things will happen. We need the strong arms of the Dwarves back in Erebor, or there could be more and worse war that will spread faster than can be contained. I don’t know why, I was not told, just that it would be that way.’ Gandalf looked bowed down under the weight of his years and knowledge, making everyone else stop for the moment.

‘And these secret councils? Will they send aid to us? Help us in our quest to retake our mountain? Or just stand at the sidelines like everyone has always done, ready to profit but not provide!’ Thorin was almost incensed, this is what he had encountered at every turn, not only from outsiders, but even his own people.

Balin and Dwalin stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to spring in to aid him, and Bilbo just shook his head in dismay.

‘I just don’t know about all of you. Really. I think a break is in order for the moment, Thorin, you three should go check to see how the rest are doing at the practice fields, I will catch up with you before lunch.’ Bilbo watched as the three glowered at the other two, then they turned and marched out of the room, making it clear that Bilbo was the only reason why they were leaving.

‘I cannot even imagine what is going on in either of your minds at the moment.’ Bilbo just shook his head at them and then hoisted himself into the seat by the table. ‘Sit down, both of you, I hate being loomed over. We are going to come to some kind of agreement here before I see all of those silly Dwarves before lunch, otherwise I have the feeling we will be disappearing and going through the mountains on the regular route. Which you, Elrond, seem to have some reservations about.’ Bilbo sat back, he really needed answers to all of his questions, and just for once, he needed both of these big people to actually trust him enough to give him answers.

Gandalf sighed and sat back down, ‘Bilbo, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but there are…’

‘Do NOT start with the whole “I can’t trust anyone with what I know” crap, Gandalf! Everyone is tired of it. I even told everyone this morning that I was starting to think that you were senile!”

Gandalf huffed a bit at that, but Elrond outright laughed. ‘Oh, that’s just so amusing! And you know what, old friend? I would not be surprised if others didn’t think the same thing. And being all secretive isn’t helping at all.’

‘Exactly! You don’t even know how upset Thorin is with all of your coming and going and not letting anyone know what is going on. Even if it was just, ‘hey, I’m going to be gone for a few days but I’ll be back’ and then that’s what you do. But this disappearing and reappearing without warning has really got to stop.’ Bilbo rubbed his head and frowned. ‘You know that Thorin is really close to just making his own way without you at all.’

‘Which would be a terrible thing for him to do. He doesn’t understand…’

‘And he won’t, at this rate.’

It was quiet for a while, Elrond looking between the two of them.

‘You are going to have to tell them what you have going on, old friend. Too many secrets, no matter how good or bad, are going to derail everything you are trying to accomplish.’ Elrond shook his head, and sat down, still looking at Gandalf. ‘If you can’t tell them everything, at the very least you need to tell them enough so that they don’t feel like they can’t trust or count on you at all. I know that the White Council has you going and doing things that you can’t tell anyone else, but they can’t run you everywhere and not have others notice.’

Gandalf shrugged a bit, but then nodded. ‘All right, yes, there are some things that I can tell everyone, just not right now. But I will definitely be able to stay with the troop until we are across the Misty Mountains at least. But there I will have to part with you, there are things that I must do in the south before I return to you.’

Bilbo sighed and shook his head. ‘And you couldn’t just tell us that? You had to be all mysterious and come and go on our journey? I don’t even know what to say to you! And besides, that doesn’t explain where you kept going before we even got here.’

‘Well,’ Elrond said when it seemed that Gandalf wasn’t going to say anything more, ‘I can say that we should go and find your Dwarves, Bilbo. Hopefully between the food and practice field, they won’t be too mad at us or Gandalf. And I heard that you were needing a sling. I think there are several there that you can try out and see if they would work for you. Gandalf can stay here and hopefully by the time for lunch, he will be able to tell the rest at least some of the things he’s been hiding.’

Bilbo and Elrond stopped briefly and talked to the cooks, Bilbo told them the best of the nibbles that he had eaten earlier and they agreed that most could be packaged up and were good for travel. They also were told what some of the Dwarves had enjoyed when they were there sampling, plus the fact that Bombur was still there and cooking along with the rest. He shook a pan at them but wasn’t inclined to follow. They then went on to the practice field, where they found all of the Dwarves paired off and practicing hard, Thorin and Dwalin trading blow after blow while others showed Ori some more things to improve his fighting ability. Dori was still pouting a bit, but even he was practicing his sword work.

‘Well, everyone is being very energetic here! So, slings?’ Bilbo grinned a bit, he was pretty sure that he was going to be surprising several Dwarves and maybe even a couple of Elves.

‘Yes, let’s just see how good you are with some of ours. I know what you’ve said, but…’ Elrond smirked with one of range masters who just shrugged and turned and went to one of salle and returned with several different sizes of slingshots.

‘Here you go, Master Bilbo, would you like shot or would you like to have pebbles? We have both here, you could see what works for you.’

‘Hmm, let’s start with the shot, that way I can see which of these will work for me. Then I can branch out.’

Bilbo took each of the slings and tried each in turn, twirling each string around, seeing which one would work the best. He finally went with two that seemed to fit him the best and handing back the rest of them, he went over to the piece of land that had some targets. He tried a few shots as practice, and then let loose with a rapid fire that put holes in each of the targets. With every shot he took, the noise from the other areas slowly decreased. By the time he got done and turned around, everyone was standing and staring him.

He smirked and said, ‘I told you that I went hunting with slings. Did none of you believe me?’

‘Not so much that we didn’t believe you, Bilbo, but you were not very good with the knife we gave you, so we were just not sure. I am sorry that we didn’t find this out sooner, you could have been more protected if you had your own weapon. Although, you are still going to have to practice with the knife.’ Thorin was looking at him, amazed at just how good he was with a weapon he had never considered.

Dwalin nodded. ‘Yes, you won’t be getting out of practicing with me, Master Burglar. But maybe you could also show some of us how to use your weapon of choice as well.’

Kíli and Fíli both nodded in excitement. ‘Who knew that a piece of string and pouch could be so accurate or powerful!’ Fíli wanted to try it out right away, he could see how he could incorporate something so simple into his own weaponry. ‘We can practice on the road, Bilbo, because pebbles are everywhere! It’s always good to learn a new weapon, and this is a stealth weapon that could be very handy. With a little luck, maybe several of us could learn to use it, it would be helpful in getting fresh meat as we go as well as an offensive weapon!’

‘Yes, boys, but you will need to have a length that will work for you. If you ask, the armorer will help you figure out just how much you need.’ Bilbo just shook his head as the boys took off to talk to the Elf in charge. He exchanged a look with Thorin along with a shrug, at least this was a useful thing for the boys to learn, and it could come in handy. Kíli with his bow training would probably be good at using the sling, as he was used to aiming, it was a toss-up how Fíli would do. Enthusiasm only took a learner so far.

‘So, would you like this conversation with Elrond and Gandalf before or after lunch.’ Bilbo looked around, everyone was back practicing or watching the two boys learning the basics of using the sling from the range master.

Thorin sighed. ‘Or not, as the case may be. But,’ he waved his hand at both Balin and Dwalin, ‘I suppose that it won’t get any easier the longer we wait. And that gives us the afternoon to decide just what we are going to do, based on what Gandalf decides to tell us.’ He made a face, but being able to practice and then seeing that Bilbo actually had weapon he could use, he was willing to talk to the aggravating wizard. ‘I can’t guarantee that I won’t lose my temper again, however.’

Balin rolled his eyes and smirked. ‘So, business as usual, eh?’ And even Dwalin chuckled at that.

‘Yes, yes, laugh all you want, but I didn’t see you pulling your blows out there!’ Thorin huffed.

‘True, true. Well, your majesty, let’s do this and then we can do some real planning afterward.’ Balin bowed and waved his hand, letting Thorin go first, but Bilbo wasn’t sure that it wasn’t so that he and Dwalin could snicker behind his back. And by the look on Thorin’s face, Bilbo was pretty sure that he knew it.

Chapter 6

As they made their way back toward the small library they had been in, Elrond met them on the path, a slightly worried look on his face. Bilbo hadn’t noticed him leaving the practice area, but he must have while they were watching the boys learning to use their slings, which been all sorts of fun.

‘Ah, good, I was hoping to meet you before you got back to the library. Perhaps a walk would be a better idea.’

Bilbo looked at him sharply, Elrond was being evasive and now was not a good time for that to be happening. Even the three Dwarves were looking concerned and they didn’t know him as well as Bilbo did.

‘Yes, well, perhaps a walk in my garden would be a better idea, there are seats there to sit if we need to do that.’ Bilbo turned and lead the others into his garden, not missing Elrond’s almost gasp when they went in. He sided-eyed him, hoping that Yavanna’s visits weren’t too apparent, but knowing how sensitive Elves were, Elrond was probably seeing a lot more than Bilbo wanted him to.

‘This is my garden where I talk to Yavanna when I am here, but all I ask is that we keep our words kind and try to be reasonable.’ Bilbo shrugged a bit at the wild-eyed look the other three gave him, he had invited them here, they could deal with it, or not. Elrond just bowed his head a bit and took a seat with a sigh.

‘Gandalf has a visitor and I really am not sure if he should know that any of you are here, but most of all, you, Bilbo. I have a feeling that he could be trouble and try to either stop all of you from going on, or at least slow you down, which I know you can’t afford to do. Plus, I’m not even sure what he would do if he found out that a Hobbit was here.’ Elrond looked around at them all, Thorin starting to glower and Dwalin was fingering his warhammer.

‘Oh, for… Are you telling me we have another interfering wizard here? Because one wasn’t enough?’ Bilbo threw his hands up in the air, Yavanna save him from interfering wizards who really needed new hobbies that didn’t involve this quest. He almost felt a tremor in the air, but then it subsided, but Elrond gave him a look just the same. He would have to remember not to call on Her while Elrond was in the garden or nearby. He wasn’t sure just how Elrond would react, or if Yavanna would have words for both of them about the stupidity that was currently going on and getting in the way of the quest, even if She was changing more with Her suggestions to him than he had thought She would.

‘Yes, that would be it exactly. I have already sent someone to let the rest of your group know and have them going back to their rooms in a roundabout way so that Saruman won’t see them. Lunch will probably have to be served in your rooms, but everyone here knows to keep it all from him. Gandalf is not happy about this, and is worried that it could mean that he won’t be able to go with you when you leave.’

‘Of course not, but why is the head of the White Council here, and can we expect the rest of them to show up now? Because, that would just about be the end of it, right? This whole group could keep us from leaving and/or mess up any plans we have in place! And why now? Or is he following Gandalf around to interfere in whatever it is that he’s supposed to be doing? Because, doesn’t he already know what that is?’ Bilbo waved his hands in the air, while the Dwarves went from glowering to growling.

‘This is not the business of the Council! They can keep their noses out of our business! Lord Elrond, can we still count on you to take us through a safer path, as long as they don’t know of it? Even if we need to leave now and not in the morning, not getting caught by any of them seems to be the best idea. Even if we would have to camp out and wait for the rest of our party to find us, we would be out of sight.’ Thorin took a deep breath, he didn’t want to shout or cause too much of a fuss if this was where Bilbo talked to his goddess, but his temper was being sorely tempted.

Elrond shook his head. ‘Leaving now would be a bad idea, tomorrow we would all be more ready and could leave quite early when it is mostly quiet. Even if wizards don’t sleep as much as regular folk, they do have to sleep sometimes and with all the yelling and waving of staffs between the two, I’m pretty sure he will be tired enough to sleep for a while. And we can keep nosy wizards away from your area until we’re ready to leave. Then we would send you out one way while two of our patrols went out as decoys. One would circle around to meet and guide you through on our trail, while the other would make sure Saruman was focused on them. Gandalf would just have to catch up while we keep Saruman busy.’

Thorin nodded as he considered the options. He didn’t really want to go through these mountains on the regular trail, it was sounding like there were more and more reasons not to take it. Plus, too many were taking an interest in what they were doing, and that wasn’t good for any of them. And if Saruman was also taking an interest? That made him even more uneasy.

Bilbo just sat and watched as the three Dwarves walked around and talked to each other quietly. This had to be their decision, it really couldn’t be something others decided for them. Win or lose, it was their decision and the rest of them would have to abide by it.

Thorin turned to Elrond and said, ‘If you can keep him away from us and we can get away without any notice, I think that would be the best for everyone. Bilbo already seems to have most of our supplies already set up and for the most part packed, and Óin hopefully has been able to talk with your healers about different types of medicines than what we use but that we might need as we go forward on our journey.’

Elrond nodded. ‘An afternoon of rest and food isn’t a terrible thing. I will send extra maps for you to study while you’re waiting so that you can do some more planning. And my suggestion to you?’ Thorin cocked his head at him. ‘Don’t tell any of us what you plan to do. What we don’t know, we can’t tell. And you never know what a wizard can find out.’

They all nodded, nothing would surprise them at this point. Wizards pulling plans out of thin air would not be a surprise at this point.

Thorin looked at Bilbo, ‘Do we need to do anything before we leave here? Since this is your place, we don’t want to offend.’

Bilbo grinned a bit. ‘Yavanna is easy going, as long as you are respectful and don’t make a mess here, it’s all good.’

Elrond just looked at him, one brow raised as he then gazed around the garden. ‘Yes, easy going. I can tell that.’

Bilbo just frowned at him. He didn’t need nosy Elves in his garden, either. ‘Yes, well, Yavanna is easy going until you make her angry, then like anyone else, She will protect her own.’ Bilbo knew that he would be having a conversation with Elrond sooner or later about his garden. He just hoped that he would be content with a very limited explanation, because he knew a longer one would just make him unhappy.

Getting back to the Dwarves rooms was fairly simple, Bilbo just took them on the back path to his rooms which were not all that far from theirs, and then they met up with the rest of their group. There was some grouching, the boys especially had wanted to do some more practicing but after Thorin explained what had happened, they all knew that keeping low and out of sight could only help them. Bilbo slipped out when their lunch was delivered, had a bath, ate his lunch and then did what any good hobbit would do, he had a nap.

Bilbo got up and, after washing up from his nap, he quietly snuck out and went to see some of his friends to find out just what was going on.

‘Nothing good, I tell you, nothing good, Bilbo. That wizard is way worse than Gandalf ever thought of being! He wants to nose about in business that doesn’t pertain to him, and then gets all offended when he’s told to get out!’ Alamir, one of the cooks, complained to Bilbo. ‘And we were having a good time with Bombur, we were all learning new recipes and showing him some of ours that would be easy to make on the trail. We’re trying to get some of them written out in time to give them to you so that you can take them along with you when you leave. We’ll have what we have written already packed into his pack for him. It’s just a shame that wizards stick their noses into everything, especially when it’s none of their business!’

‘Don’t get yourself into trouble, now! No one, especially Bombur, would want you to do that.’ Bilbo looked a little alarmed, he hadn’t thought that anyone would have become so friendly so quickly, although he should have known that their cook would become friends with the cooks here.

‘Eh, no one is going to pay any mind to us. Besides, it’s not like they eat all that much, anyway. Wizards really are a breed apart!’ Alamir waved a hand, and some more food was set down in front of Bilbo. ‘Here, try this, it’s one of the last things we’re making for you to take along on your journey. I think you’ll like it,’ he said with a slight smirk.

Bilbo put one bite in his mouth and almost moaned. The explosion of spices in the food was almost too much, even for him. ‘What is this?! I don’t think I’ve ever had anything so delicious in my life!’ He fanned himself, it was even making him sweat a bit, and he had to wonder if it was a side effect of whatever this was.

Alamir grinned a little and then said, ‘Yeah, if you feel like you’re sweating a bit, it’s supposed to do that. Keep this separate, if your group is down or needs a pick-me-up, just feed a couple of bites of this to them in some of their food. It’ll stir up their blood and keep them moving if needed. But just a bite or two, too much will make some a little too hyper and that is just as bad.’

Bilbo looked at him in dismay. ‘And you fed me this without warning! Alamir, I will so have to prank you the next time I pass through. Or, better yet, I’ll tell the twins to do something, you’ll never know when it’s coming!’

Alamir just laughed. ‘You’ll be ok, my friend. Here, have a drink and then you better get back to your Dwarves and see what they’re up to. Make sure that they’re eating and drinking everything we send them, and let them know we’ve got all their packs of supplies done and ready to go.’

Bilbo just finger-wagged at his friend as he left, he knew that there would be no side effects of this dish, but still, he could have warned him, and should have warned him! What if he’d had a bad reaction to it, well, whatever it was. Bilbo almost turned back, he needed to know what the name of this was. At least he knew that it would only be in his pack so he could keep an eye on it.

He got back to his room to check and make sure no one had been there, and found a bad tempered wizard had invaded his quarters and was pacing around, growling to himself.

‘Bilbo, where have you been? You are supposed to be lying low so that Saruman doesn’t find out that any of you are here!’ Gandalf waved his staff around, Bilbo dodging around it in a huff.

‘Listen, it would take a better person than that old bounder to find or catch a Hobbit! Really, how many of us Hobbits did you see when we were leaving the Shire at the beginning of this mess? And don’t count the ones on the road, they were just the obvious ones.’

Gandalf stopped and got an odd look on his face, clearly thinking back upon their leisurely ride out of the Shire. ‘You are a more sneaky group than I thought, aren’t you? That’s how you knew where and who all the Dwarves were before we even got to Bag End in the first place.’

Bilbo snorted. ‘Of course, just because we’re small, doesn’t mean we’re stupid. Anyway, why are you here, and where is the other stupid and noisy wizard? Do I have to worry about him following you and finding me here?’

‘He’s currently talking to Elrond and trying to find out why Elven forces were out killing a bunch of orcs and wargs. Elrond has already told him that it’s none of his business and that anytime some of those foul things are on his land, he’s going to go out and get rid of as many as possible. Saruman seems to feel that if they are just passing through, that he should just do let them do that.’ Gandalf looked grumpy and like he would like to curse someone.

Bilbo just looked at him, his mouth hanging open. ‘Really? Really? He wants to just let orcs and wargs and maybe even goblins just run around killing everything in their path? Because they are just going from one place to another? Has he totally lost his mind!? Wizards do get senile, because that proves it!’

‘I’m not sure what his problem is, I have already sent messages to the rest of the council letting them know what he has been saying here. But it means that they will all probably show up, and maybe sooner than later. They will have to decide what to do with him, there are too many things that I need to be doing, and staying here and listening to him rant is not one of them!’ Gandalf waved his staff around again and then finally sat down with a put upon sigh. ‘Anyway, Elrond is keeping him occupied while you and the Dwarves get some rest and eat. At least, that was the plan.’ He glared at Bilbo, who just grinned at him.

‘And I already have had lunch, another bath and a nap. Then I had a nice chat with one of my friends and got some recipes for Bombur who made friends with all of them and was trading with them. Also, I got fed again while I was there. So, now I’m going to go and see how everyone else is doing, and hopefully they have some more of their planning done. Elrond said he was going to give them some different maps. Hopefully they will have more details on where we are going.’

Gandalf shrugged. ‘I know that they have good maps for this side of the Misty Mountains, and maybe to the Anduin but after that? I’m not sure. And you might tell Thorin that going on the Old Forest Road might not be the best idea. Mirkwood has become even darker over the last few years, and I’m not sure just how passable it now is. But if you end up going that way, remember to stay on the road no matter what. I cannot stress that too much. Fell things are in the Wood nowadays, and the Woodland Elves are not as attentive to their area as they used to be.’

‘Oh, that just sounds lovely. Yeah, I’ll be voting no on that one. Good grief, it’s like the whole world has gone mad while no one was looking!’ Bilbo threw his hands up in the air, and then grabbed a pack off of the floor. ‘I’m going over to see how everyone else is coming along. Are you staying here, coming with me or going back to your crazy fellow wizard?’

Gandalf rubbed his face and sighed, ‘I’ll go back and make sure Saruman isn’t doing anything too outrageous. I don’t want him blowing anything up or Elrond deciding to see if he can chop a wizard into tiny pieces. Go and make sure no one is being foolish. Saruman is doing enough of that for all of us.’

Bilbo huffed and left for the Dwarves’ rooms, he didn’t need this aggravation, but it looked like not only did he have it, he got to spread it around! He stopped outside his quarters for a minute, and realized that whatever the spice had done to him was gone. He would have to think about that, after he talked to the Dwarves.

When he slipped into the middle room, most of the group was either taking a nap, working on their weapons, or in the case Thorin and Balin, looking over some maps on the main table.

‘Bilbo, aren’t you supposed to be lying low with the extra wizard being around?! I thought that was part of what Elrond said we should all do!’ Balin looked at him, a little perturbed, but Bilbo just shrugged.

‘Our rooms aren’t that far apart, and Elrond is currently keeping him busy, plus Gandalf was going back to throw some more snark at him. Oh yes, Gandalf also says, that if we decide to go the Old Forest Road, we need to stay on it the entire way and to not stray off it at all. I guess the Woodland Elves aren’t doing a good job of either keeping it up or keeping the forest clean of undesirables. At least, that’s the way it sounded to me.’

The two just looked at him and then each other. ‘Just when you don’t think it could get worse…’ Balin sighed and scratched a line off of his list. ‘That’s all I need to hear about that. We won’t be chancing that route.’

Thorin nodded slowly. ‘Yes, the further away we stay from that bit of trouble, the better. If we got lost there, we would get a poor welcome from any of those Elves if or when they found us.’

‘Dear Yavanna, did you make everyone mad at you over the years? And is there any way to make amends or friends or something? Because, looking at that map, there aren’t many groups around and you’re going to need some help at some point, no matter what happens after we get there!’ Bilbo just shook his head and sat down in one of the chairs at the table.

Glóin laughed a bit, ‘Ah, and that would be it. Our old King didn’t meet an Elf he couldn’t make an enemy of. And no, Thorin, you know it’s true. Once the gold sickness took him, nothing and no one meant anything to him. Thrór started out a good king, but he didn’t end as one.’

Thorin sighed, but then nodded in agreement. ‘I know, and then some of the decisions that he made later after the dragon came, were even worse. But that is for later. If we can get back the mountain, then yes, I know that we can make reparations to the different folk that Thrór made enemies of.’

Balin looked startled, as did most of the rest of the group. ‘When did you become so reasonable? Who are you and what have you done with our bull-headed king? The one that was going to keep everything for his own people and nothing for anyone else? I do remember that conversation before we even left the Blue Mountains.’

Thorin sighed again. ‘I was lying in bed last night, and I was thinking back over all the years that we spent wandering and then settled in the Blue Mountains. And all the craziness that my grandfather and then father put us all through. How many died because of their decisions. And it just seemed that it just wasn’t worth it. And then all of this with wizards who are haunting our path.’ He looked around sadly at the group hanging on his words and waved his hand at them all. ‘I mean, look at us. I would trust any of you with my life, but really? Going up against a dragon with this few Dwarves and expecting to come out alive? And the gold sickness that seems to haunt my family line? Will it continue through me? What about my nephews? And really, half of you are related to me, will it hit you, too?’

Everyone just gazed back at him, startled and a bit dismayed that he was having such dark thoughts this far into their journey.

‘Well, you seem to have had more deep thoughts last night than you did sleep! What brought this on, Thorin? You have always been a fair leader, sharing out everything we have, so that none go short. But now, you seem to have taken that extra step, and I really need to understand, why now?’ Balin sat back in his chair, he was astounded by Thorin’s speech.

‘Would it surprise you to know that I have no idea? It just seems, that since we met up with Bilbo, things seem to have changed. I always thought that I should make all the decisions and not to listen to anyone else when I thought I was right. I know that I have listened to my council,’ holding up a hand when Balin started to protest, ‘But even after listening, so many times I have gone my own way, hmmm?’ He gave a half shrug, and continued. ‘I know I can’t be right all of the time, Balin, you and Dwalin have had me on the practice field, beating some of that out of me. But now, it just seems… so much more, I think.’

Everyone was sitting around with their mouths hanging open. Bilbo, on the other hand, was smiling gently at him, happy that some of the peace that Yavanna gave to those who had been touched by Her, had been bestowed upon him. Because he recognized this state, and knew that if Thorin allowed it to continue, even if he didn’t really hear Her, he might never have the gold-sickness like the rest of his family had. He was pretty sure that no one there recognized what had happened, and that none of it would probably ever be spoken of again, especially not around strangers, so he didn’t feel that anyone would ever make the connection between his change and Yavanna, since She wasn’t their goddess, which really was all for the better. He did wonder just what Yavanna had said to Mahal to get him to help change one of his children and if he could get Her to help with any of the others.

‘Well,’ Balin said with a shake of his head, ‘That’s all well and good, but let’s get back to planning. I know that we can’t really tell how long it’s going to take us to get through the mountains on this new track with the Elves, but we need to decide what we’re going to do once we are out and across The Great River. Especially since the Old Forest Road seems to be totally out of the question.’

Dwalin got up from where he had been cleaning some of his weapons and looked down at the map. ‘I still say that we need to see just how the land is when we get to the Forest River, and if it isn’t too bad, and we stick somewhat close to the forest’s edge, but not in it, we could avoid Elves and Lake-town both. I can’t imagine that anyone is thinking that Dwarves would be so crazy as to come from the north and west to Erebor.’

Óin nodded from where he was checking some medical supplies. ‘I have to agree. It’s not a way anyone usually goes and it might keep nosy wizards off us long enough for us to get there and see what we need to do.’

Bilbo suddenly straightened up. ‘Speaking of ‘what we need to do’, what is it exactly you need me to do? I don’t think I have ever heard just what it is that I need to Burgle.’

‘Ah, well…’ Thorin took a breath and exchanged a look with Balin, who just shrugged.

‘Yes? I can’t image you want me to kill the dragon, that wasn’t in the contract at all!’ Bilbo huffed a bit, and glared even harder at Thorin.

‘No, you don’t need to kill the dragon, I’m not even sure at this point how we’re going to manage that. There is a carved gem called the Arkenstone, and I need it, so that I can prove that I deserve to rule over Erebor.’

Bilbo just looked at him. ‘You are kidding, right?’

Balin shook his head sadly. ‘No, I’m afraid it’s true, it’s another one of those things that is still haunting us from Thrór’s rule. He found it deep in a mine shaft, polished it, called it ‘The Heart of the Mountain’ and set it above the throne. He said that it proved that the Durin’s should rule over Erebor for all time and then each king has had to pledge on it and if Thorin doesn’t have it…’

Bilbo just dropped his face in his hands and moaned. ‘Just when you think things couldn’t get worse, they tell you a rock, a ROCK, for Yavanna’s sake, somewhere in a mountain with a live, fire-breathing dragon, is the item that you are supposed to steal.’ He looked up briefly, and said flatly, ‘You are all crazy, every last one of you.’

He got several shrugs, and a nod from Nori who grinned at him in sympathy.

‘So, I suppose that no one has any idea where this stupid rock even is, right? And someone is going to have to make a drawing so that I know what I’m looking for.’

Thorin and Balin looked at each other and then at Bilbo. ‘Well, I’m pretty sure it was still mounted over the throne when Smaug invaded us, but dragons usually drag all the loot they collect into one central place, so I imagine, unfortunately, that it’s probably mixed in with everything in the Great Treasury Room.’ Balin flushed a bit when Bilbo gave him another look of total disbelief. ‘And I’m sure we can give you some kind of drawing by the time we get there.’

‘Really. The Great Treasury Room. And what little I know about dragons, Smaug will be parked right on top of it, right?’ This got him a bunch of nodding heads. ‘I think I’ll just go home. All of you are totally, without a doubt, crazy. And giving me an impossible task just proves it!’

‘Now, Bilbo, no one thinks it’s impossible. And we’re not sure where the dragon is all the time. Or it could be dead, for all we know.’ This got Thorin a look of total disbelief from practically every Dwarf and Bilbo.

‘Thorin, I’m pretty sure that if that dragon was dead, Erebor would be plucked clean. No, I really doubt that there’s a dead dragon. Sleeping, yes, dead, no.’ Gandalf leaned into the room, making everyone jump.

‘Why are you here?! Aren’t you supposed to be wrangling a crazy wizard? I seem to remember you saying that, not all that long ago.’ Bilbo frowned at him, Gandalf’s wandering could very well get them in trouble if Saruman happened to be following him around.

‘Elrond has him following the twins around at the moment. He was interested in some of the defenses of Rivendell and so they are showing him some of them. Not that he’ll learn anything from them, but it’ll keep him busy for the moment.’ Gandalf came in and sat down. ‘Elrond sent me to let you know everything is packed, including the extra medical supplies and all the extra food. So, you all just have to sit tight and get some sleep. Someone will wake you early and then we will be on our way. Saruman will be out chasing supposed orcs and wargs in the morning, I’ve been told, making it easier for us to leave with being noticed.’

‘Hmmppff. What I would like to know, Gandalf, is if you knew exactly what it was I was supposed to steal back in the Shire? You know, just as a point of interest.’ Bilbo leaned back in his chair and gave the wizard a very pointed look.

And it was at that point, every Dwarf knew, without a doubt, that when Mr. Bilbo Baggins got that polite and calm, that they all needed to take cover and hope that nothing too bad happened to whomever that tone was being addressed to.

‘Why, yes, Thorin and I had discussed the whole issue of taking back Erebor in the Blue Mountains and finding his inheritance and right to rule. Why?’

‘Oh, I don’t know, perhaps because it would have been nice to know this before I got halfway across the world to find out that I’m supposed to literally beard a dragon in his den over some ‘trinket’ that everyone is assigning ‘mythical’ properties to.’

All of the dwarves started frowning at this, but Bilbo waved them all silent. ‘You told me, Thorin, that your grandfather, who was king at the time, ‘found’ some stone that he assigned the status of ‘Heart of the Mountain’, and that started the whole hoarding issue, I’ll bet.’ Thorin had to nod in agreement at that, Bilbo was right, hoarding could be and had been an issue for all Dwarves, but it had been worse after his grandfather had found that stone, especially for him. Bilbo leaned back in his chair, pinching his nose. ‘Dear Yavanna, do you Dwarves ever talk to Mahal, or do you just make stuff up as you go along? To see if He would have anything to say about such an idiotic practice. And no, that wasn’t really a question.’

He turned back to Gandalf and frowned at him. ‘I think, like Elrond, that we need to have a serious and honest conversation, one where you actually answer some questions. Because, at the moment, I’m not sure I care whether or not I go any further on this ‘quest’ you seem so hot on pushing all of us on, not just me. And one of the first questions would be, why now? Why not last spring, when there wasn’t so much unrest in the world. And when proper plans could have been made, provisions made, supplies stockpiled at appropriate points. You know, PLANNING!’

Bilbo sat back and took a breath in the silence that followed his rant. Even Gandalf didn’t seem to have anything to say at the moment.

‘I’m going to go back to my room for a while. Maybe if I’m not here, listening to some of the outlandish things that Gandalf is currently trying to think up to placate all of us, and that I would, in the end, think of trying to end him, I could get some of my calm back that I had after my nap. I just don’t even want to deal with any of this at the moment.’

Bilbo got up and turned to leave.

‘Umm, Bilbo? You’re forgetting your pack…’ Nori said very quietly.

‘Oh, I forgot. Each of you should take one of the packages in it and pack it into your own things. It’s something that the twins made and they wanted to surprise all of you with. But they are not to be opened until we have gotten through the Misty Mountains. I hope I can trust all of you to do that. If not, keep it to yourself because I don’t want to know.’ Bilbo slid out of the silent room, leaving everyone either staring at each other in dismay, or at the wizard in anger.

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