May It Be – 2/3 – Rogue53

Reading Time: 183 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


Chapter 7

While Bilbo was having his not so quiet blowup with Gandalf, Elladan and Elrohir were busy showing Saruman around some of the borders of their land, preset to show some of the disadvantaged points where minimal protection was. They were also supposed to show him some of the more defended areas, which was what he had expected, but he had ended up also seeing what he had thought were some of the more undefended areas, and as they rode, he had some pointed questions about them which, of course, the twins were not going to answer.

‘I thought that Rivendell was well defended from all foes, yet some of these passes could allow all sorts of forces through! I am thinking that you should all sit down with me and I could help you strengthen your problem areas. I could help by showing the areas on a map that need better defending.’ Saruman was also thinking that he could deliberately find ways that his own spies could come and go without any of these elves being the wiser, but what he didn’t know was that both Elrond and Gandalf had already prepared for that and he was being led around to just see what they wanted him to see.

‘You would have to talk to our captain about that, White Wizard, we are just border guards and don’t really get any say in where everyone is placed for guarding our land,’ Elrohir stated, which was a lie, because both of them had been planning and running their own patrols for many years at this point, but it was part of the smoke and mirrors that they and their father had planned. They had a very planned out path to take with this wizard, just to keep him occupied for the next few hours while everything was gotten ready for their visitors.

‘Hmm, yes, well, I will certainly do that when we get back. We would not want to have any problems for you here later.’ Saruman thought to himself, “But I will need to get my own into position soon to take advantage of these undefended areas.”

Elladan and Elrohir exchanged a look behind the wizard’s back, they had heard all about Saruman’s objections to fighting orcs and others that he considered ‘just passing through’, but when he looked back at them, they were ready to move on to the next place. By the time the tour was done, they had figured out all the places that they would tell their Ada the white wizard would try to slide his spies through. The decision of what to do about that would be up to him.

‘So, what did you think of our defenses here, Saruman? And before you try to convince me to let our enemies just ‘pass through’, just don’t. I don’t want to hear it.’ Elrond stood tall and just gazed at the wizard. He already knew what his sons had done, and he was quite proud of how devious they had been. He was sure that there would be a detailed report waiting on his desk when he had a chance to go to it, detailing everything they had done and seen.

‘Hmpf. I still think you could use some discretion on who you go around attacking, that’s all I mean to say. I have been trying for years to calm some of the less violent beings into being, maybe not friends, but perhaps willing to trade for food. I’m sure that even you could use more trade coming through Rivendell.’ Saruman tried to look as if he hadn’t just insulted every Elf in existence, but Elrond took a step back in disbelief.

‘Trade? What would any of those… things… have that we would trade for? Does the rest of the council know that you are doing any of this? Because I cannot image that they would support it! I think that you should just not say anything else about this for the rest of the time that you are here.’

Saruman shrugged. ‘Why would I care what they think? All of you are being very short-sighted and so yes, I will drop it. But do not come to me whinging when you finally see the advantages of having more trade going through here and are not able to do anything about it due to your poor planning.’

Elrond shook his head, he wasn’t sure what Saruman was trying to do, but trade wasn’t it. None of the fell folk made anything, and stole what they needed to survive. He would be having words with the rest of the council when they arrived and even Gandalf before he left.

‘But let me tell you some of the things that I saw while I was riding around, your guards did not seem to have any ideas for tightening up your defenses.’ Saruman was so sure that he knew he could redirect at least some of the attention off of places he thought he could get his own spies through, he never even realized that they were carefully directing his attention away from any true trouble spots while letting the white wizard think he was getting his way.

Bilbo returned to his room and just stood staring out the window for a while until he sighed and sat down. It wasn’t totally their fault that the details for his part of the journey had been left out, because Yavanna had let him keep so many memories, he had forgotten just for a while what it was that they had wanted him to do and what he had ended up doing. He really couldn’t even blame the Dwarves, they had forgotten to discuss this while at Bag End, and then the further on this journey they went, the busier they had gotten and there just hadn’t been time. And now, when they needed to have the whole ‘talk’, they were again under time constraints and had too many nosy Elves and wizards around. Bilbo just sighed, he would have to be very careful and not let any of them know what he knew. Of course, changing the course of where this journey was going would also change what would happen later on. He would have to just trust in Yavanna and know whatever happened, that he would always be in good hands. But for now, he was going to have tea with some nibbles and just try to relax.

Thorin had watched as their Burglar walked out of the room and turned to Gandalf. ‘I am not sure just what you intended, wizard, but Bilbo does not deserve this kind of disrespect! And I blame us as well, we kept meaning to have the conversation about just what his job was, but for some reason or another, it kept getting sidetracked!

We should have had this conversation in his home, or riding through the Shire or even at the Inn that first night. But for some reason, it never happened!’

Gandalf raised a hand, and then sat down slowly in the nearest chair. ‘I know. And I cannot explain it, either. Because I know that you were going to bring up what he was being hired to do, and I was going to, also. But something always seemed to derail our conversations before we could have them. So, we need to be clear and let him know just what his job is before we go any further, so that he will have time to think about how he will do it when we get to Erebor.’

Balin was glaring at the wizard, he had such a bad feeling about everything and he was remembering that fact that Gandalf had been rude from the beginning to their Hobbit. ‘Yes, but you have been the rudest one since the beginning, not telling him that we were all coming to his home, we ate all his food, he provisioned us without complaint, checked our ponies, gave us beds for the night, set up our first stopover so we could start fresh and well fed for the start of this journey. And then there’s the whole disappearing on us, sometimes for days. We need to come to a consensus, Gandalf, we are going into places now that we have never been before and facing a foe that we never thought we would have to face alone. We could all lose our lives by the end of this journey, and maybe you would survive, but we personally would prefer not to die!’

Gandalf nodded. ‘Yes, but you have to understand, I too must do things, things that I am not allowed to discuss. But,’ he held up a hand when there were growls of protest, ‘I will try and let you know when I think I’m going to have to leave. I might not be able to tell you for how long, but I will try to be with all of you by Durin’s Day to help with the dragon. I cannot say any more than that because some of what I must do, will also help in the end for what you must do.’

‘Of course you can’t! Well, perhaps you could answer Bilbo’s question as to why we didn’t do this last year, or even in stages with better provisions? Because, looking over my notes and reading some of the journeys that others have taken that I found here, I have to agree, we didn’t plan very well for this.’ Ori stood at the doorway to his room, and everyone turned to look at him, Dori opening his mouth to hush him. ‘No, Dori, this is my opinion I’m stating, I’m supposed to be chronicling this journey and I’m starting to see just what Bilbo is talking about. Last year we wouldn’t have had so much trouble with orcs, and having places to store provisions would have eased our having to carry so much food. And even starting earlier could have help us with the weather that we all know that is going to affect us by the time we get to our mountain.’

Nori gave him a thumbs up behind his older brother’s back, and Ori gave him a grateful look, at least he knew that one of his brothers supported him.

Thorin nodded. ‘Too true, we have been very lax this entire time. When Bilbo comes back, we will sit down and have the discussion we should have had while we were still back in the Shire. And no matter, by the time we are done, Bilbo will know and understand exactly what his role in this journey is, not just as our provisioner!’

Gandalf nodded in agreement, along with the rest of the Dwarves. They all knew that they had fallen short in this, someone should have remembered and made sure that Bilbo had understood exactly what he was going to do, a long time before now.

‘Well, where will we need to start? He already knows about the Heart of the Mountain, and really, that was all that was in the contract. But, knowing Bilbo and how he wants to help all the time, I think we can guarantee that he will be trying to do much more than finding the Arkenstone.’ Glóin looked around as everyone nodded. ‘We will need to make contingency plans with what to do if Smaug is still there and either in the mountain or if he’s been out and flying around. We already know what can happen if he’s out and I’m hoping that he isn’t.’

‘We need to find out if there are any descendants to the Lord of the Dale. He almost took the dragon out when he first attacked, and maybe one of his descendants could help this time. I’m pretty sure that we could figure out where and how to get a wind lance, if we can get there early enough to make that kind of plan. But it would mean that we would need to scout around and see just who is either there or at Lake-town.’ Bofur shrugged when everyone turned to him in surprise. ‘I’ve been thinking about this since you first started talking about it. My cousins and I aren’t great with the higher things, but we could definitely help with the taking down of a dragon. We’re metal workers as well as miners, you know. I’m sure that we could come up with a new wind lance to shoot at a dragon. Or repair one if it’s still there.’

Thorin and Balin exchanged surprised looks before Thorin replied. ‘Yes, I remember some of the things that you either fixed or made from scraps of iron. All of that is a good idea. We will also have to do patrols to check out the area, make sure that there is nothing that is close enough to cause any problems. Maybe check out the ruins of the Dale to see if we could shelter there if need be.’

‘So you think that anyone from the Iron Mountains would come and help if we could get a message to them? I know their council wasn’t helpful, but…’ Dwalin shrugged a bit at the glare he got from Thorin. ‘Your cousin might be able to send a few warriors to help, even if it’s after the fact. Dáin Ironfoot likes you, even if his council doesn’t and any help we get at this point is a good thing and if we have the mountain, we will be able to pay for all the things that we need, whether it’s from Lake-town or the Elves, if we have to. Also, they might be more open to coming to help if we tell them that Bolg is dead, even if it was by the Elves hands.’

There were several gasps as well as huffs, but no one made any real fuss, getting rid of Bolg had been an on-going battle for years, and it was good that he was gone. It was one less worry that they had.

‘True, we will have to see once we get there if there are any options for sending a message.’ Thorin shook his head, he really wasn’t hopeful about getting any help, but, at this point, he really wouldn’t turn down anybody at this point, even Elves, well, at least the Rivendell Elves, would be welcome!

‘Well, remember, the writing on the map did mention a thrush. If there are still birds on the Lonely Mountain, maybe there are still ravens there, then we can send a message to anyone we know.’ Fíli nodded to his uncle, he knew he had gotten it right when several of the others straightened and then nodded back at him. Kíli patted him on his back, he was proud that his brother was thinking ahead.

‘So, are we ready to sit down and have an actual conversation with Bilbo? Do we have the maps for the inside of Erebor so that we can at least show him where everything is, even if we don’t know where the secret door and the corridor that leads into the mountain is? It would give him an idea where everything is, and really, we could make some educated guesses as to where that tunnel is as it goes into the mountain, just from where the door is.’ Balin traced the door, then down to the main gate.

‘So, we are agreed, the only thing Bilbo is expected to do is find the Arkenstone, which will be a problem in itself. Because, until we get rid of the dragon, how is he going to be able to look for it? Did we even take that into consideration, or did we expect him to work around a live dragon? Because, I’m not sure how we’re going to get rid of it.’ Kíli looked around, Fíli nodding his agreement.

‘We never really said, and personally, I don’t want to lose our Burglar because we make him go hunting our ‘babble’ before we get rid of the main problem in our mountain.’ Fíli shrugged at the looks he got, he’d been listening to everything that was being said, and that was the one thing that had been talked around since the beginning. ‘I mean, maybe with the extra training we gotten from the Elves, we might have a better chance, especially with Kíli getting the extra help with his bow, but, really, just how is that going to work?’

Thorin sighed and thought, Great, more conversations with Elrond, but maybe he will have some ideas. He then looked around. ‘Well, if we are traveling with the Elves, maybe they can give some of us some more training as we go.’ He shrugged. ‘Right now, I just want to make it right with our Hobbit. Hopefully we can work out a better plan as we travel, especially after we get across the river and are going around the Forest, then either down the Forest River or around the edge of the Forest to Erebor.’

Dwalin nodded, ‘There should be time while we are traveling that we can practice and make plans. That way everyone will have a chance for input in any plan we might make.’

Nori nodded. ‘And away from here, without nosy wizards that we didn’t expect, we can actually figure out just what is going on, right, Gandalf? We won’t be in any position to tell anyone what else is going on in the world that you need to go deal with. Even if you won’t be able to tell us when you’d be back.’

Gandalf frowned a bit, but then shrugged. ‘We’ll see. There are things that I can maybe tell you…’

‘Oh, please! Your secrets might be the death of us, wizard! You hold everything you know so close to your chest that we could be in the middle of something before we know it, and then you’d be all sad because you had forgotten something that we should have known!’ Balin threw his hands into the air and then stomped around the room in a temper. ‘Either be truthful or be gone. We can’t afford anything else!’

The rest of the group were nodding, not knowing what was going to happen was bad enough, having Gandalf and his secrets threw even more problems into the mix.

‘And what if I could tell you that there were ways to incapacitate a dragon so it could be killed more easily?’

Absolutely everyone swung around at those words, and focused on Bilbo, who stood at the door, a slightly sheepish look on his face. Even Gandalf was a loss for words, as the silence dragged on.

‘Say, what?’ was all Thorin could say. Even Balin could do nothing more than look at him with his mouth open.

Bilbo shrugged. ‘I read things. Lots of things and when I heard dragons, I went hunting and in some really old texts, I found all sorts of things about dragons. It’s too bad that your elders didn’t know some of these things, like that hoarding almost always brings in dragons in any form. So, Thrór brought some of that down on himself, sorry to say. I’m not sure if there’s anything that we can use, but I’ve made notes so that we can over them here and as we go.’ He frowned at the looks he was getting and said sharply, ‘I couldn’t sleep last night and went looking for anything about dragons. Be thankful that Elrond and his archivists have been so very thorough in finding all sorts of things and keeping their libraries up to date and easy to use. They are so used to me delving into anything, that no one even looks at me when I’m there.’

Thorin slowly sat down and dropped his head into his hands. Fíli immediately went to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

Balin looked at him in horror. ‘So, you are saying that finding the Arkenstone and Thrór starting to hoard all the gold, along with everything else he could get his hands on, that it brought the dragon? If he hadn’t, then none of that would have happened?’

Bilbo shrugged. ‘I’m not sure, maybe? Because didn’t you say that Thrór already had a tendency to hoard, even before he found the stone? But, it certainly didn’t help, I’m afraid.’

Thorin shuddered and then looked up. ‘I’m starting to think that stone is a curse on my family. One that we’ll never be able to get rid of because of how it’s now intwined into how we hold Erebor.’ He reached up and clasped his nephew’s hand, ‘I don’t know that even getting rid of the dragon will help if we can’t get around our hoarding and just either attract another dragon, or just sit there and do nothing because we’ve too busy counting all our ill-gotten treasure.’

Gandalf shook his head at that statement, ‘No, there are no more dragons, Smaug is the last of his kind, and so will not be willing to go down easily. So anything that you can find to help, Bilbo, will hopefully make getting rid of him easier. I would be glad to look over the texts that you found so that we could plan something to help get rid of him.’

Bilbo frowned at the dwarves. ‘Also, have any of you ever asked Mahal for help in all of your wanderings and troubles? I don’t want to pry into anything too much, but really, I would be asking Yavanna for all the help I would need if I had such a problem. You might get help in unexpected ways, if you asked, you never know,’ he said with a shrug at the looks that he got.

‘You seem to have a closer and more personal relationship with your goddess, Bilbo. We have noticed that even through the day that you seem to give some kind of prayers to Her. Mahal is not as… approachable as She is, I think.’ Balin shrugged a bit as Bilbo startled at how they had noticed. But they didn’t seem to have noticed anything else, so he would have to make sure that he was more careful from now on.

‘Yes, well, we are very tied to Her. But, how do you know if Mahal would answer you if you don’t ask? I mean, if you asked and He didn’t answer, that’s one thing, but if there is an answer, well, you’re a step closer. Because maybe he would give you an answer that could solve your problems or at least help you solve some of your problems. But that is just me, Yavanna is much more… hands on with Hobbits, I guess.’

Thorin nodded and exchanged looks with everyone else. This was something that they would discuss later, much later. And when they had a lot more privacy. Because talking about Mahal or to Mahal, well, it just wasn’t done around anyone who wasn’t a Dwarf. Right now, though…

‘We meant to discuss your job with our group, we actually meant to figure it all out before we even left the Shire, and then when it didn’t happen while we were there, when we were in Bree. It was like something worked against us every time. So, we are going to get it done, this time.’ Balin waved at Thorin, who nodded.

‘Yes, and even though you have helped us all through this journey so far, the only thing you have to do, is… find the Arkenstone. Not fight the dragon, not find the secret door into Erebor, nothing else. But, we also know that we will probably have to rid our mountain of the worm before you can even do that. And we understand that. All the help you have given us so far, is a blessing and one that we definitely appreciate. But in the end, your only real job is finding our Heart of the Mountain so that I can claim the mountain once again, as long as we can get rid of the dragon.’

Bilbo just looked at him. ‘All I have to do, you say.’

Balin nodded. ‘Yes, that’s it. And I’m sorry that we didn’t make that perfectly clear from the beginning. Because we should have, and we didn’t. Not that we begrudge any of the help you have given us so far, but in the end, it’s your finding the Arkenstone that fulfills the contract that you signed.’ When several of the company huffed, he shrugged. It was the same contract that everyone else had signed, just each job had changed, depending on who signed the contract. It was the whole point, they would need some many different skills once they were there.

Bilbo looked at Gandalf and said softly, ‘And none of this could have been started last year? Care to answer that, Grey Wizard?’

Gandalf sighed. ‘I hate to say this, it’ll make all of you want to howl and throw things, but the signs weren’t right. It had to be now, and it has to be this Durin’s Day for any of it to work. I am not even sure that last year that the map could have been read, even if it had been found and given to you along with the key, Thorin. As I said, there are other things going on that make everything you do more important than you know. Even Elrond has things that he has to do that depends on the things that you will do. And no, I do not know what those ‘things’ are. I just know, that if events don’t happen the way they are supposed to, other events will either not happen or happen at the wrong time.’ He threw his hands into the air when he could see that there were still going to be protests. ‘I do not know. I do not know all the answers. And hounding me, trying to find out answers that I don’t know, won’t help. So don’t ask!’

Bilbo sighed. ‘Well, that’s more than you’ve said before, so I guess that we will have to take what we can get. I didn’t think we would get many answers, anyway, so this more than what I expected.’

Balin nodded at him. ‘True, Bilbo, true. But it’s more than we had before.’

Thorin and his nephews shared a long look together. ‘Well, I suppose that’s as good as it’ll get. But as long as you at least try and tell us when you have to leave us, I guess it’s what we will have to put up with. We can’t have anyone wandering off and leaving the rest of us wondering what is going on with them. So,’ he rubbed his head and frowned, ‘Just try and let us know beforehand so we aren’t so in the dark about you and your travels. Or leave a note. Just… something.’

Gandalf nodded. ‘I can do that, Thorin. And I apologize to you and the company for any inconvenience I might have caused by leaving without warning on the way here.’

Bilbo looked at him, an eyebrow raised. ‘Wow. Elrond must have really yelled at you to make you change your tune.’

Thorin snorted at that but replied to the wizard, ‘Just, if you could not do it anymore, it would be appreciated.’

The rest of the Dwarves nodded, satisfied that at least a bit of the problems they had getting there were addressed.

‘Now, Elrond is keeping Saruman busy while the rest of us can get fed and take baths. He told me to tell all of you to get a good night’s sleep and that you’ll be getting woken up before dawn. But you should be used to that after our run from the orcs and wargs, well, minus the sleep and the baths.’ Bilbo grinned a bit at the looks that he got, but some of the Dwarves laughed a bit at it.

‘You should eat with us, Bilbo. We can go over what we know and look at the maps again. And you could maybe tell us more about the things you found in Elrond’s library about how to subdue a dragon. That would actually be useful!’ Dwalin frowned at him while the rest of the Dwarves nodded.

‘Actually, I have a few more things to look up before I tell you about what I found. But, yes, I’ll eat dinner with you,’ Bilbo could see some of the Dwarves relaxing at his words, ‘But then I need to go and look at a couple more texts before I go to bed. I also think that it would be a better idea to discuss this matter away from here, I would not like anyone you don’t want to hear this, to hear it and throw a fit.’

Balin looked startled and looked over at Thorin who had a considering look on his face.

‘I think you’re right about that, Bilbo. And nice dinner without upset, then the rest of us will bathe and get to bed. You should also make sure that you are getting enough sleep tonight as well.’ Balin waved at Gandalf and asked, ‘Did they say when they would be bringing dinner? We should get everything we currently have out packed and put away before they get here.’ He looked around at everyone. ‘Just leave out what you will need in the morning.’ The rest of the company nodded in agreement.

‘A good idea, and dinner should be here soon. I will probably not be leaving with you, I will be part of the distraction for Saruman and will be with the Elves that meet up with you later.’ Gandalf went to the door, ‘I will see you all sometime tomorrow.’

He opened the door and nodded at all of them as he left. Bilbo just sighed, he knew that it was his turn, even if he didn’t really want to tell them what he knew.

Kíli grinned at him, ‘So, you maybe know something that could help us with our dragon, huh? But you don’t want to talk about it here. Where have I heard that before?’

As their dinner was being delivered at that moment, Bilbo grabbed and threw a roll at his head, which Fíli caught out of the air and ate it, while everyone laughed at their antics.

Dinner was kept calm and quiet, with some discussion as to what everyone was expecting in the morning, but finally, Bilbo left for his bed as the company all went to theirs, all of them hoping for a good night’s sleep.

Chapter 8

The next morning, Bilbo got up very early and quietly stole down to his garden after he had bathed, dressed, and made sure his pack ready to go. He had no idea if he would ever have a chance to be here again, after all the startling revelations from the night before, it could very possibly be that he would never make it back home to the Shire, let alone back to Rivendell. As he walked around the garden, giving quiet murmurs of thanks for everything that Yavanna had already done for him at home and on this journey, he slowly felt himself calming and breathing slower, instead of the almost panicked breathing he had woken up to. He breathed in the lightly scented air and stoked some of his favorite flowers and plants, knowing that the Elves would tend to his garden for as long as they and it was here. As he walked, he could feel Yavanna’s peace flow over him, until at last he was calm and ready to go.

As he turned to leave the garden, he bowed one more time to the center where there was a small fountain, and softly thanked Yavanna. ‘I will remember all the things that You have taught me and I will try and keep all Your teachings in my heart. Please watch over all those I have left behind in the Shire and my friends here in Rivendell. If we are successful in this journey, I will be sure to make You a place wherever I may end up.’ He bowed one more time, and as he walked out, he felt Yavanna’s blessing flowing over him, giving him peace and strength for the coming journey. He knew that he would be able to depend on Her no matter what happened, just as he had so far. Whether or not she would continue to be as active in his life from now on, well, he would just have to see as they went.

The Elves had told him that they would be picking up the rest of his gear from his rooms so that he wouldn’t need to worry about getting it to where they had stabled the ponies. And when he had checked on the ponies earlier, they had all been contented and eating well. So that was one less worry that he had, and that was good, because he had too many others to worry about. He still checked his rooms, before he went to see how the dwarves were doing in getting ready to leave, and was glad that he had, his friends from the kitchens had left him several plates of wonderful food, which he sat down and ate as soon as he spotted all of it. They had made all of his favorites, and with a sigh of happiness, he ate with appreciation all the good things they had made.

He would have to leave a note for them, they were the best kind of friends to have, although he was still going to have to come up with a prank to get back at Alamir! Breakfast eaten, notes written, Bilbo took a deep breath and headed for the Dwarves’ rooms. He hoped that there would be no hard feelings from all the revelations the night before and how he had reacted to them. But, really, it was that dratted wizard’s fault that he had withheld and continued to withhold valuable information. He deserved all the yelling that had been aimed at him, even if it was very quiet yelling!

Besides, then he had personally blindsided them with what he had found in the library about dragons. Even if he hadn’t told them everything he knew and he wouldn’t until they got to the mountain. And he knew that part of finding the information had been Yavanna, because he would have never found any of it without Her help. In fact, he wasn’t even sure that Elrond knew what he had in the musty corner of the library, which made it even more suspect. But, hopefully, with what he had learned and some luck, maybe, just maybe, this would all work out all right in the end. Of course, with a wizard along, who knew what would happen in the meantime. But, they would just have to take each day as it came, hopefully it would all work out once they made it to Erebor.

As he quietly walked toward the Dwarves’ rooms, he could hear a great amount of noise in the distance and had to think that it was the diversion that the Elves had planned. At least, he hoped it was the diversion and not the real thing. He didn’t want anyone getting hurt as they were sneaking out of Rivendell. And as he knocked quietly on the door, he kept one ear on all the noise in the courtyard, and he thought he could hear Saruman arguing with some of the Elves about just riding out and killing whoever just happened to be passing through!

‘That wizard needs a knock on the head! As if we can trust any of the orcs and such terrible things that are just ‘passing through’! He’s an idiot and should go back to wherever he lives and just stay there. I don’t understand how he was made the head of the White Council with such outlandish ideas,’ Bilbo muttered under his breath as the noise increased, but then quieted down as it moved away from the city, along with the sound of horses.

‘Bilbo, get in here before someone sees you! You don’t know where the White Wizard might be!’ Glóin pulled the door open just enough to let him through and then shut it after a quick look around.

‘I don’t think we’ll have any trouble, I’m pretty sure I could hear him arguing out in the courtyard with everyone before they all rode out. In fact, we should pick up whatever the Elves didn’t take earlier and get ready to move. The distraction has started and they’ll want us out and to our ponies as quickly as possible so that we can do our sneaking out of Rivendell behind his back.’ Bilbo waved away any other concerns at the moment, and just a moment after he had gotten there, a quiet knock on the door sounded and one of the Elves that did patrolling poked his head in the door.

‘Quickly and quietly now. I’m your guide for the foreseeable future and we need to move. I don’t think that the White Wizard is going to be distracted for long. He was very antagonistic when they were leaving and will probably figure out too soon that it was just a distraction.’ He waved them all out the door as the last few packs were grabbed and then quickly led them down some stairs and out toward the stables. The ponies were all loaded and ready to go, and once everyone was on their favorite with the rest of their packs on, he quickly led them out and away from Rivendell, taking a little known back way.

They rode for several hours, no one really talking, as Dwalin and Nori both kept watch on their back trail, trying to make sure that no one was following them, even though it was Elven territory, it was better to be safe than sorry, while Thorin stayed at the head of the line to help keep an eye out that way.

Finally, the Elf they had been following all morning slowed down and turned into a small clearing. ‘All right, we should stop here for a while, there’s forage and drink here for the ponies and it’s a good time to stop for a break and lunch. We’re clear of just anyone catching us at this point, but if we go too much further, it’ll be harder for the rest to catch up with us. My name is Nahiran and I will be one of your guides through the secret ways. There should be a couple more to help as we go through the mountains.’ He smiled at them as he slid off his horse and led him toward the trickle of water that filled a trough before being diverted back to the small stream it started from.

‘Relax for a bit, it will probably be a while before anyone catches up with us, nobody will want to call any attention to anyone leaving until things have settled down after our fake raid this morning. we have food stored here, and later, when the rest catch up, they will have the rest of the supplies that we will need. We will only need to go a little further today before we hit a camping point for the night. Then we can start early tomorrow morning and we’ll make better time then. Plus, we have several caches along the way where we have food and fuel, so you don’t have to use anything you have packed, unless there is something special that you want to eat.’

Ori snorted and several of the Dwarves began to laugh softly, nodding to one another and Ori, who just looked satisfied that someone else had the same thought as he did.

Bilbo shook his head in despair. ‘We aren’t laughing at you, Nahiran, it’s just a point that has been brought up before that we thought might have made this whole journey easier from the beginning. And here it is, making our journey easier. I’m sure everyone, especially Ori, will be pointing it out to Gandalf, when and if he catches up with us!’

Nahiran nodded, ‘It’s harder in more open land to do this sort of thing, but it’s not impossible. And it does make traveling a lot easier when you don’t have to worry about whether or not you have food and forage at the end of the day. Of course, sometimes they are found and you end up without, but I’ve only had that happen a couple times.’ He shrugged. ‘Besides, we almost always carry extra lembas bread, and that can, for Elves, be just as satisfying. And I know that there was extra of that packed for you and that you should keep it for emergencies.’

Balin nodded. ‘Yes, we were told that there would be extras packed into our supplies. Hopefully, we will be able to get through with what we have, but after that, we will have to be able to trade or buy.’ He then sighed. ‘If we can find anyone to trade with, that is.’

Nahiran shrugged. ‘I only know this side of the Misty Mountains, and I’m pretty sure that you’re not going to want to draw attention to yourselves with the Wood Elves.’

There was a general shaking of heads to that, and everyone started unpacking their ponies.

Thorin posted a couple sentries, just because it was quiet here didn’t mean that they should let their guard down. Everyone else rotated the ponies to water and forage, and then Bombur put together a quick meal that would keep until the rest of the group arrived. Nahiran shrugged when he was asked who would be going with them.

‘I think I will let the group tell you themselves. If you can get some rest, you should get it here and tonight when we camp for the night. After that, it’ll be long days and a lot of hard riding and sometimes walking the ponies.’

‘Of course, thank you for the head’s up.’ Thorin looked around and at his nod, everyone started finding a place to lie down, with two sentries still up. ‘We will be glad to have a little more rest before the mountains and whatever is beyond that.’

Nahiran nodded. ‘Hopefully, the rest of our group will not be too much later, it just depends on how long the distraction has to be. The less time it takes, the sooner they will be able to get away.’

‘I don’t know how Gandalf thinks he’s going to just amble away from Saruman, that should be interesting.’ Bilbo shrugged at the looks he got. ‘Tell me I’m wrong.’

There were some sighs, but no one disagreed with him. And for the next while, it was quiet while those that could, slept.

Thorin and Balin walked apart from the rest of the troop and spoke quietly together, making sure that no one, especially the Elves, could hear them.

‘Have you thought about what Bilbo said last night? Do you think we could petition Mahal and get guidance at this point of our quest?’ Balin side-eyed Thorin, who shrugged a bit.

‘I don’t know. Maybe when we are further into the mountains and have more rock than trees around us? Tell the others to start the chants in their heads as we go? Because you know that each of us calls to him differently, and I’m not even sure, after all this time, that the youngest of us even know how to call.’ Thorin looked around, but no one was really paying any attention to the two of them walking around.

‘I can’t imagine that Dori hasn’t taught his brothers how to worship! And I know that you have taught your nephews. We should just put each head of house aside and remind them of what Bilbo said and to start the call as we go. At this point, it can’t hurt.’ Balin shook his head, he couldn’t believe that the one thing that could help them, they had totally ignored.

‘We should just start now, and maybe when we get further into the mountains, well, maybe we will have some sort of response. We should try, Thorin. At this point, anything we can do, can only help.’

Thorin nodded. ‘Yes, I’ll speak to the boys and Dori. If you could get with your brother and cousins, that would cover everyone. Just, don’t let that confounded wizard or Elves hear anything about it. We would never hear the end of it if they got involved!’

Balin shook his head. ‘I don’t even want to think about what could happen if that they got involved. Disaster isn’t even close to it!’

They shook their heads, and quietly wandered back to the fire circle, starting to let the others know what they needed to do.

It had been more than an hour later when the sentries heard horses coming their way and alerted the rest of the group who quickly got up and pulled their weapons so that they could fight if they needed to.

Nahiran just shook his head, ‘It’s the rest of our group, I recognize the horses. But excellent job on hearing them and getting ready.’

Thorin shook his head, ‘Better to be safe than sorry. This way we don’t fall into bad habits.’

But soon, Nahiran was proved to be right, Gandalf came riding up with three other Elves. He was frowning at something one of them was saying to him.

‘Say what you will, Gandalf, but Ada will be having words with the rest of the council over everything that Saruman is doing and saying! If there had actually been something attacking us, he could have gotten several of us hurt or killed! And then he might just get kicked right back to the Valar to be taken care of!’

Gandalf sighed, but then shrugged. ‘Yes, yes, what he did was unexpected but in the end, no one was hurt and we actually closed off a route that was troubling you. And now we’re away and hopefully Saruman will just think that I’m off pouting. He certainly yelled enough at me to think that, anyway!’

Elladan shrugged. ‘I’m sure that Ada is having words with him and when the rest of the council gets there, he’ll be having words with them, too! Starting a stampede just because you don’t like the way a battle is going is something that he will not tolerate. You know how we feel about our land and people!’

‘Good heavens, what has the crazy wizard done now?’ Bilbo looked at them, but then waved them off their horses. ‘Tell us while you get something to eat. We’ll water the horses, we should be able to hear you as you tell us what happened after we left. Though, I am surprised to see you, Elladan.’

They all swung down off of their horses as the Dwarves took the horses and led them to the trough.

Elladan huffed, ‘Saruman had left some of his ‘spies’ under cover and we didn’t know that they were there and after we flushed them out, we almost killed them in all the confusion. Fortunately for them, they were only roughed up a bit and then were escorted out of our territory, much to his dismay. I suppose he thought we wouldn’t notice them in all the confusion he was causing, he stampeded some of the herds that we have grazing in the highlands while the rest of us were trying to capture his spies but in the end, none of the herders were injured.’

Bilbo and Thorin just looked at each other.

‘Why am I not surprised by any of that. And yes, I could hear him when you all rode out this morning. If there had been any really evil things out there, they could have set up ambushes and killed anyone that rode into them.’ Bilbo shuddered a bit, he was glad no one was injured but it was probably only luck, considering how out of control Saruman was.

‘I sincerely hope that you left something for the council, also, Gandalf. Because I don’t know exactly how it all works with your council, but I don’t think that the White Wizard should be in charge of it anymore, considering that he isn’t acting very white anymore!’ Thorin frowned at Gandalf and then ignored him when he huffed.

‘Yes, I left quite the lengthy list of things that have been going wrong while Saruman has been head of the White Council. Whether they will act on it is another question. I am only an advisor to them, and while I do give advice, I also have duties that I must do, things that the council requests that I do. We will have to have a discussion about that later on.’ Gandalf shrugged at the looks that he got from most of the Dwarves.

‘If you could introduce your companions, Elladan? I think I know everyone, but I’m sure that no one else does.’

Bilbo had brought the horse he was watering over to the grassy area where the rest were and tethered him there.

‘Yes, this is Lindoran and Mahiran, they will be helping guide us over the mountains here. It shouldn’t take us too long to get through them, no one has foreseen any severe weather at the moment, which will help us getting through in good time. Ada says that we can take you as far as the Anduin and help you get across, but then we must return to Rivendell because he doesn’t want anyone to notice us missing.’ Elladan shrugged. ‘Yes, I know that I could be missed, but I wanted to make sure that Bilbo got through the mountains all right,’ as some of the Dwarves frowned at him, offended that he would think they wouldn’t take care of their Burglar!

‘Yes, yes, try and wrap me in cotton batting, just what I need.’ Bilbo gave Elladan a little push toward the fire circle. ‘Sit and eat, and tell us what will be happening next, Nahiran said we would be riding a bit further today before we camp for the night. Oh, yes, and Gandalf?’ Here Bilbo turned to Ori and waved him closer. ‘Ori, I think you have something to say?’

Ori straightened up and glared at Gandalf. ‘Remember when we were talking about planning and provisioning for going on this journey? And I asked why we couldn’t have planned some places that could have supplies for us so we didn’t have to carry all our food with us? Well, Gandalf, here we are, at the first stop that has supplies for us! And tonight, when we get to where we are going to break for the night? More supplies! So, someone had the foresight to make PLANS and put SUPPLIES in places so that we, and whoever else needs them, has enough to help through their journey!’ Ori didn’t shout, but he did emphasize, because, really, it was just stupid that Gandalf had thought that it wasn’t necessary to do this.

Everyone else in the group started snickering at the look on Gandalf’s face, and he just sighed. ‘All right, but I haven’t had to do this, and so, just because it has worked at the moment, doesn’t mean that it always works.’

Elladan just looked at him. ‘So, you didn’t notice anytime you rode with us, that we never had to carry much? And that we seemed to stop at preplanned places?’ He turned and looked at Bilbo. ‘I think that you’re right, my friend, wizards are either senile, or just inattentive.’ He looked back over at the wizard. ‘Or both.’

With that, all of the Dwarves started to laugh softly and even the Elves were grinning.

‘If you have had enough fun at my expense, could we give you a rundown on what happened this morning and what we think will happen here on out,’ Gandalf huffed in irritation.

This just made them all laugh a little bit harder but Balin just waved them toward the fire and told Bombur to dish up some of the stew that he had made. ‘It’s your own fault, I’m afraid. Because if you’ve been traveling with Elves and haven’t noticed how they manage their supplies, that’s not our fault.’

Several of the Dwarves slapped Ori on the back, congratulating him on his catching Gandalf off guard.

After they had all eaten, Gandalf and Elladan told them everything that had gone on during their distraction, and Bilbo just shook his head in dismay at how Saruman had acted through it all.

‘Maybe the rest of the Council can make him return to his home? Or at least, shut him up?’ Bilbo didn’t know how anyone could even listen to Saruman, let alone trust him, at this point.

Elladan sighed. ‘Well, there will be a council soon, so who knows. He keeps up doing the things he’s doing, and he’s libel to get kicked totally off, and I don’t know if that’s any better. At least this way, everyone knows what he’s up to. Not everything, of course, but at least some of it.’

Gandalf shook his head. ‘I am hoping cooler heads will prevail and talk him out of whatever it is he is thinking. He is the head of our order and I do not know what would happen if he were to be taken off the council. But, that is a concern for another day, as we have our own journeys at the moment.’

They packed up the few things they had gotten out, and were back on the trail with the site put back to rights and other than the trough, it didn’t look like anyone had been there. They now had Elladan leading the way, with Thorin and Nori with him, with the rest of the Elves and Dwalin keeping an eye out behind them.

They had been traveling for some time, and Elladan suddenly raised his hand, motioning everyone to stop and be quiet. Mahiran quickly caught up with him and the two conferred almost silently before they quietly moved forward, with their weapons drawn. This put everyone else on alert, and soon everyone had their weapons out, even Bilbo with his sling.

Elladan let loose first one arrow and then another. Mahiran quickly moved in front of him and swung down off his horse, moving forward to look around for anyone else. Everyone waited and finally he waved them all forward. Around the turn of the path, two bandits lay dead, their spoils around them on the ground.

‘Well, not what we were expecting here.’ Elladan shook his head sadly. ‘But we knew that there was some chance of this, we were just hoping that it would be clear all the way through.’

Lindoran nodded. ‘I’m thinking these are some of the bandits that made it through a few weeks ago. We didn’t find them then, and with the fighting of the orcs and wargs, we didn’t have time to hunt for them.’

‘We’ll have to keep an eye out, we were never sure how many made it through and we don’t need them slowing us down.’ Mahiran nodded.

Thorin looked at them, pointing with his chin at the spoils on the ground. ‘What will you do with all of this?’

‘We have places that we supply with food and housing. Many are ones that have been preyed upon by people like this. This will help with that.’

They made quick work of getting everything off the path and hidden, with the two bandits pushed over a small cliff. Lindoran told them that it wasn’t much further to where they would be spending the night but they were going to have scout ahead because of having the bandits on the trail so close to the beginning.

‘Is this the trail we’ll be taking through the mountains?’ Dori asked, thinking that having bandits on this trail could be a problem.

‘No, but we go from this one to several others, some which do go through. So, we want to make sure that there isn’t anyone out there watching us or ahead of us,’ Mahiran said. ‘I will take lead and make sure that there isn’t anyone ahead of us for now.’

With that, they were on their way, still wary and their weapons held close.

After another couple of hours, as it was getting toward dusk, the lead elf finally motioned everyone through a stand of trees and into a grotto with a small stream.

‘Here we are. And it doesn’t look like anyone has been here since we reprovisioned it. But we’ll keep the fire low and the horses muzzled after they’ve been fed and watered. That way, if there’s anyone else out there we should be able to escape notice.’

It was busy for a while as everyone got their mounts ready for the night. The same kind of trough was in use there, and several of the dwarves were finally taking note of it, and Ori even sketched it after asking permission.

Elladan looked surprised, but nodded. ‘Of course, we have used this in the wild for a long time. It keeps the horses from making a mess, and once they are done, we can wash up if needed. Over here, young Dwarf, see how we have taken a reed, which can be replaced when necessary or taken down if we aren’t going to be here for a while, and run it from higher up the stream. Then, all we do is make a small trench, which is lined with small stones, so that the water goes back to the stream and that there isn’t a muddy mess from the runoff.’

Ori nodded. ‘This is very efficient. And I can see other purposes than just watering horses and cattle.’

While Ori was getting his drawing done, everyone else was setting up bedrolls, putting the packs in one area, and getting the small campfire started. They would have hot food again tonight, and use the supplies that were there to save on what they were carrying. Plus, the three that had caught up with them had also brought more things that the cooks back at Rivendell had sent with them.

‘Ah, I see Alamir has sent some of his special dessert with you! That was very nice of him! And Elladan, remind me to talk to you before you leave. I have something I want to plan with you.’ Bilbo smiled. He hadn’t forgotten that he needed to have Alamir get a good pranking, and since Elladan was here, they could talk it over and then when he went back, the twins could do whatever they had planned. Plus, he was sure that the two could come up with more pranks than he could. Being bribed with dessert wasn’t going to keep Alamir from being pranked, even if the dessert was one of his favorites!

Everyone ate well and once everything was cleaned up and sentries posted, the rest went to sleep. Bilbo had demanded that he be added to the watch, but Thorin and Elladan decided that he should just get his sleep for now. There would be plenty of time once through the mountains for him to take his turns.

Early the next morning, Bilbo was up and had gotten breakfast started before everyone else was up. He nodded to the sentries and also managed a short walk where he had asked Yavanna to watch over his friends as they traveled and to also take the poor bandits into her care. Really, there had been no warning for them, just arrows that had taken their lives, and although he understood the reasoning behind it all, it was still sad. At least their spoils would go to good use, maybe even helping those that had been robbed by those same bandits.

With a good breakfast and the horses and ponies fed and watered at the same time, they were soon back on the trail and moving quicker than they had the day before. It was not long before they came to a narrow entrance into the side of the mountain, one that they could see rising gently until it turned and disappeared into the distance.

‘We will be going into the mountains now, and we would ask you not to speak to anyone about this.’ Elladan looked at each Dwarf, Gandalf and Bilbo in turn. ‘We use these trails only when we need to, and try to keep them hidden. There is not much that we need on the other side of here, and the Wood Elves have not been very hospitable for many years, but it might be needed at some point and we would rather it not be too well known.’

Thorin nodded. ‘Of course, we understand and will abide by this. We can understand the need to have hidden secret ways, you never know when you will need them and it would make them useless if everyone knew where they were. You have our word.’ All the Dwarves bowed toward Elladan as did Bilbo and Gandalf.

Elladan bowed back. ‘I and my clan thank you.’

With that, they were off and into the mountains that had separated the Dwarves from their home that they had longed for, for so very long.

Chapter 9

As they started up the narrow trail, Bilbo looked up and realized that the hills they had started with were rapidly rising up into mountains. He had never been in mountains, at least, not like these, and he was a bit uneasy at being so surrounded by so much rock and not as much sky, grass and trees. It was totally different from anywhere he had ever been. He gave a shiver, and Bombur noticed it.

‘Are you all right, Bilbo? Do you need a heavier coat since we’re going to be going higher up and there won’t be as much sun and it’ll cool off quick. We will all have to make sure to stay warm enough as we go through here so that no one gets sick.’

Bilbo knew that Bombur was mostly referring to him, but he shook his head as he answered, ‘No, I just haven’t ever been in anything like this. There aren’t any mountains of this size around the Shire or anywhere I have ever traveled so far. But I’m sure I’ll get used to it, eventually,’ he said with a shrug.

Bombur nodded, ‘Yes, I can understand that, we always feel too exposed when we’re on the plains. When we first came to the Blue Mountains, having all the open spaces around us was really daunting.’

‘I hadn’t really thought about that,’ Bilbo said in a surprised tone. ‘I can’t imagine how you all thought as you traveled after you were forced to leave Erebor.’

‘It was terrible from the very beginning. And the fact that we didn’t get any help from any of our then neighbors just added to it all. Thorin still has a lot of bad feeling toward the Elves of Mirkwood.’ Bombur frowned. ‘Not that I can blame him, it would have made our journey so much easier if they had helped us at the time. But that is ancient history now and evidently Thorin is willing to give everyone a chance. How much of one, I’m not sure, but at least he’s willing to listen, which is more than when we started.’

For most of the day, there was quiet conversation about their surroundings as they climbed up and down on the trail, moving further and further into the mountains. Bilbo did notice that sometimes one or more of the dwarves would seem to be a little bit absent-minded, but it was never for very long, nor was it always the same one. Then lunch was eaten in the saddle as Lindoran had decided that getting through the first part of the trail was more important than stopping for a hot meal, mostly because the weather was good and he didn’t want to get caught out later. He did point out where the first provision stockpile was, just in case they needed to double back to the head of the trail for some reason. Bilbo was still uneasy, but the longer they rode on, the better he felt about it. He also began to notice that there were some plants that he was pretty sure that were not native to the mountains until he saw a plant that he knew only grew in the Shire. Then he knew that Yavanna had definitely put Her hand on this part of the mountain and he was wondering if it was going to continue. Not that he would complain, knowing that She was still with him was a comfort that he was not willing to lose. He was also not going to point any of it out, as he was still making sure that he was the only one that realized that She was there and still keeping track of them.

Pushing through the first part of the day on the trail without a break seemed to make a real difference in how their guides felt, as it was just late afternoon when they decided it would be better to stop for the night. So at the next provision point, they turned off the main path and went into a small clearing backed with a cave and a streamlet.

Thorin got down off his pony and motioned the rest to spread out and check the area. He and Mahiran checked out the cave to make sure there had been no animals nesting in it. All they found there was the fodder and firewood stored up on the walls away from water and animals that might get into it. Soon, the ponies and horses were fed and watered, while their packs were stored in the back of the cave away from any weather that they might have overnight. Fíli and Kíli had gone out to see if there was any fresh game and explore a bit, while Bombur started the cookfire and started a basic stew for their dinner and three of the elves were huddled over a map, making sure of where they were and just how long it should take to get through to the other side. Dwalin also was with them, trying to see where this trail would bring them out of the mountains and just how close to the Great River they would be. The rest spread out and collected more firewood so that there would still be plenty when they left in the morning, because that way there would be something for the next people plus if they had to come back there, at least there would be something there already.

Bilbo and Elladan stood aside from all the hustle of setting up the rest of the camp going on and talked softly, while keeping an eye on everyone else.

‘So, what was it you wanted to talked to me about, I noticed that little smirk you had, you must be thinking of something very devious.’ Elladan cocked an eyebrow at him.

Bilbo smirked again and nodded. ‘Yes, Alamir pulled a fast one on me, and he needs some serious pranking when you go back to Rivendell. I’m thinking that you and Elrohir can work some of your magic but anything you do, should be spaced out, he doesn’t need to be thinking that it’s all done after just one prank.’

Elladan looked at him, his eyes wide. ‘What did he do to make you so fierce? You don’t usually have that kind of reaction to something he does as far as cooking is concerned. And yes, I’m pretty sure that we’ll be able to come up with something, along with whatever we think of as we travel together. My twin will be able to come up with other things to do, after I get back.’

Bilbo shook his head. ‘Not usually, but he fed me some special kind of spicy food and it practically took the top of my head off, let alone making me sweat. And he didn’t warn me at all! And then he just smirked at me! Plus, he never even told me what this spice was called, so there’s also that.’ Bilbo frowned at the last, Alamir really hadn’t told him much about the spice, and that was just not going to be good for anyone, especially him when the twins got done with him.

Elladan started to laugh. ‘Oh, I know what he gave you! And yes, that’s exactly what’s it’s supposed to do, and we’ve used it, very sparingly, I must admit, but you’re right, he shouldn’t have snuck it in on you. It’s an extremely hot pepper that we traded for a while back from some Men who were traveling through and needed reprovisioning. It’s also what they use it for, especially if they’ve been in a battle or under some kind of stressful situation. So, what would you like to start with? Losing some spices?’

Bilbo looked startled at that. ‘Nothing that interferes with his cooking, please. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone else, you know, just him.’

A quick head shake reassured him. ‘No, we’ll hit the special stash that he keeps separate, the things that he experiments with to make new dishes for us to try. And we would never destroy anything of his, but a little inconvenience never hurt anybody. If he complains, I’ll just remind him what he did to you and that giving something without warning is never a good thing to do. In fact, I’m afraid that I’ll have to talk to Ada about this, what if he had given you too much or if you couldn’t handle it! Since this has never been tried on anyone other than Men and Elves, who knows what could happen. So I’m sure that between the three of us, we can come up with a lot of different things to tease him with!’

Bilbo started to laugh, ‘Alamir won’t know what hit him! And really, it’ll serve him right. He really should have explained what I was going to eat, not that I think he would ever give me, or anyone else, something to deliberately hurt them. But, still! And really, he didn’t explain very well about how to use this spice. Have you used it? Did you like it? Do you just put it in food? And what kind? Would it work better in stew or soup than sprinkled on meat or eggs? And how much? He didn’t say anything about that, either! This could have been a total disaster!’ Bilbo waved his hands around as he walked over to dig for his pack in the pile in the back of the cave.

‘Hmm, Yes, stew would be good or soup, but make sure that you’re using as little as possible, as a little goes a very long way. And I’m really not sure how it will work on Dwarves. So, you might want to talk to Óin about it before using it. In fact,’ Elladan looked around until he saw where Óin was and motioned him over. It didn’t take long to explain what Bilbo had and how it was supposed to work. Óin was more than a bit frowny about the whole thing, but wanted to see just how this spice was supposed to work, especially since Elladan had no idea what it would do to Dwarves, even if Alamir hadn’t seemed to feel that it would do anything different from them, although how he would know that without actually trying it on Dwarves was another question.

‘I agree with you, Bilbo, we need to use just a little to see how it works on us, since we know that it doesn’t seem to hurt you or the Elves, but I wouldn’t want to just do this blindly and then find out too late that it’s something that we react badly to. In fact, I want to try it on just one of our party before I try it on everyone.’ Óin shook his head. ‘And yes, I think pranking your friend is a very good idea. Please add an extra prank just from me. I hate being surprised, especially with something like this. What if it had gone totally wrong and made all of us sick? It could have been a disaster!’

‘Should I get it out of my pack? Alamir told me that he would put it my pack, so it’s in here somewhere. Then you could test it and make the decision whether or not to use it and when. I really am not wanting to be in charge of it, not anymore.’ Bilbo frowned and then dug for his pack that contained some of the extra food. He actually wasn’t even sure where the bag containing it was, and not knowing what it even looked like was troubling. Fortunately, it was in its own package separate from everything else and Elladan was quick to point it out. He handed it to Óin, who took it with a sniff.

‘Yes, well, at least it’s in its own package. But still, what if you had forgotten what it was and just used it whenever or were in a hurry, and used too much, it could have caused all sorts of problems. Let me study this, you’re right about wondering if it would be all right for us. I’m not even sure what it is exactly.’

Elladan quickly explained just what kind of spice it was and where it was from, none of which make Óin very happy, as he had never heard anything like it. Still frowning slightly, Óin wandered off, sniffing at the package, holding it up to the fading light, and studying it as he went.

The boys came back with hares that they had already dressed out and were ready to be put on the spit. Bombur smiled at them and added the hares to the dinner he was cooking with thanks. Fresh meat was always a good thing and who knew if they would find something each time they stopped.

‘I’m not sure how well we’re going to be able to hunt from here on out, we had to really look to hard to find these, and there didn’t seem to be much of anything larger in the area. But, we’ll keep hunting because we know that it’ll help us later on. And we’ll be able to see if there is anyone in the area, too.’ Fíli looked around at everyone nodding at both him and Kíli.

When they all sat down to eat, the Elves were asked if they knew where they were on the map.

Nahiran nodded, ‘Yes, and we’re making good time at the moment. We’d like to continue the same way through tomorrow, just to try and get through the first half of this as fast as we can. The next stop, we’ll reconsider how we are doing at that point. Weather can be chancy here, it’s still the Misty Mountains, even if it’s not as exposed here as the regular trail. But as long as we can ride through the day like we did today, I think we should do it. It’ll cut down on how long it takes to get through, as long as we don’t hit any bad weather, which would slow us down considerably.’

Thorin nodded. ‘And I agree with your reasoning. I would rather get through to the other side without any problems, if possible. Especially since we won’t know what will face us when we get to the river, or afterwards.’

Gandalf sighed. ‘And here’s where I have to let you know what I will have to do once we are out of the mountains, not that I think any of you will be happy about it.’

Absolutely everyone turned and looked at Gandalf where he was sitting. Bilbo sighed and just bowed his head.

‘I knew it. I just knew it. It’s been going so well, and then you opened your mouth.’ He sighed again and waved a hand at him. ‘Just tell us, don’t talk around it. That will just set us all off, one way or another.’

Gandalf huffed at him. ‘I told you I had to do some things for the council, this is one of them. I need to go down to Dol Guldur and see if there is anything there. We have had reports of fell creatures in that area, and there is no way that we can just let it go. Even Galadriel has had some visions about the old fortress. But I will return as soon as I can, hopefully before you get to Erebor. But I am starting much further north than I had planned, so it might take me a bit longer to get there and back again and that won’t be counting if I run into any problems either along the way or there.’

Everyone was just staring at him, making him flinch a bit but no one was saying anything.

‘Yes, I know, not what any of you wanted to hear, but it is a situation that has to be taken care of, and I’m the only one that is close enough to do it. And like I said, I will be as quick as I can, the rest of you still will be either going around the Forest or down the River to Long Lake. Have you decided which of those options you are taking, Thorin? Because if I know which way you’re going, then I’ll be able to catch up with you easier.’

Thorin just frowned harder at him. ‘No, because we decided that until we have seen the area, we aren’t going to make any firm plans. If the River looks to be the better option, we’ll go that way. But right now, most of us are thinking that coming up on Erebor from the north is a better idea.’

‘That is true. No one would expect travelers from the north, with the Withered Heath right there to have to watch for anything.’ Mahiran nodded his agreement. ‘But I’m not sure about water supplies in that area, so you might need to carry some extra if at all possible, just to be safe.’

‘Ah, I think there are extra waterskins in one of the extra packs, if it looks like we will need them, at least before we leave the Forest River, we can fill them, since we won’t know what we will be able to find when we get there.’ Bilbo wrinkled his forehead in thought.

Dori looked at him. ‘Bilbo, did you plan for every eventuality? Because this isn’t the first time you’ve had something that we could either use at that moment or later.’

Bilbo shuffled his feet a bit. ‘Well, I just brought everything I thought I would need. I have been on short walking tours where I have forgotten one thing or another, and I have always hated that. So, I’ve made lists that had things that I have either needed or wanted.’

Bofur looked at him and then grinned. ‘But it’s coming in right handy here. So, let’s hope nothing comes up that you haven’t planned for! We should start keeping those kinds of lists, they would come in handy.’

Ori nodded. ‘I’ve noticed that and have made the beginnings of lists for different situations that we might need materials that we don’t normally use. When I have time, I’ll make sure that anything needed on the lists, is on one or another. Because, I don’t know what we might need if we were going to war as compared to a trading trip, I don’t have as much experience with one or the other.’

Once again, the sentries were set and Bilbo sat with Óin for a while as they discussed the spice, who still hadn’t thought of a good way to test it to make sure it wouldn’t make anyone ill.

‘I think, in the end, I will just have to try it one night on myself, and it would have to be while we are with the Elves so they could help me if something went wrong. I don’t want to wait too long, right now we have clear weather and no other problems.’ Óin nodded toward Elladan, who wandered over to where they were sitting.

Óin explained his reasoning to the Elf and Elladan nodded his agreement. ‘Although I really don’t think that there will be anything to go wrong, it would be better if we were controlling how it is eaten. So, maybe tomorrow night? Or would it be better if we did it in the morning? If the day goes as well as this one, then we could see if you have any side effects other than the sweating and energy boost that we usually get from it. I would hate for you to have any bad side effects, and if we did it in the morning, we could keep an eye on you all day and you could work the boost off during the same time.’

‘Oh, that’s a really good idea, Elladan, I had forgotten the whole energy boost thing.’ Bilbo nodded. ‘We usually have some porridge in the morning, could it go in that? Or do we have any leftover stew from dinner? Would that be better?’

‘Yes, either, and if you put just the barest pinch in, it shouldn’t affect you too much.’ Elladan mimed a smallest pinch between two fingers.

Óin looked at them both. ‘I think one of you should put the pinch in, that way I can document it as it’s all done. Let me go talk to Thorin about all of this, and make sure he agrees before we go jumping into it, otherwise we’ll never hear the end of it, even if it all works out well and we find that we all can use it.’

Thorin stomped over after hearing about Alamir’s shenanigans, frowning at Bilbo in particular. ‘Why didn’t you tell us about this before now, Bilbo, this could have been more dangerous than you knew. And I’m tempted to just send it back with the Elves when they return. This is really not the time to be trying new ‘spices’ when we are in the middle of a journey, especially one that could have such an effect on all of us.’

‘Because with all the other things that have been going on, I forgot. Be thankful that I remembered when I did!’ Bilbo snarked at him. ‘It’s only been a couple of days, and I was too busy doing other things and it wasn’t on the top of my list of things to do.’

Elladan shrugged when Thorin turned and glared at him. ‘It has never been a problem for us, or the Men that traded it with us. But it is up to you, but it would be a shame if it does work and you could have used it at some point.’

Thorin shook his head, but looked to Óin. ‘What do you think? Is it worth the risk? Because you said that you would try it in the morning.’

‘From what I have been told so far, maybe? The Elves and Men seem to think it’s worth the short term effect that they get from it, so if it works the same way for us, it might be a benefit, especially if we run into trouble. But I will want to try it sooner than later, in that case. So, tomorrow, as long as the weather stays clear and we don’t run into anything… untoward. And as small a sample as possible.’

Elladan nodded to him. ‘We could do that. And really, other than some wild animals, we have had very little trouble here. But, I will have one of us scout ahead before first light to make sure, and that way, we would have some warning if there are any problems ahead of us. We should also make sure that we’re going out with whomever is hunting that day, I would hate for us to get caught short there, too.’ With that, he walked over and started a conversation with the rest of the Elves on the plans for the next day.

Thorin just shook his head. ‘For someone who is just supposed to be our Burglar, you get into the strangest mishaps. Although, this one was not really your fault, even if you didn’t tell us about it until we were out here.’

‘Well, I don’t consider this a mishap, but more of a possibility for a good thing. And, since we already know that the Elves with us, plus myself, can eat it, I don’t see a great problem at the moment. And if Óin doesn’t have any problems tomorrow, well, then it could be a very good thing. You need to see some of the positives, Thorin, instead of all the negatives.’

Thorin just stared at him. ‘I can’t see any positives with someone giving others spices that no one else knows about. But that is discussion for another day. You and Óin need to get some sleep, I want both of you to be clear headed and rested for this experiment tomorrow.’ He looked at Óin, ‘And I hope you know how you might have to counter this, if need be. And let us know what we will need to do after you take it.’

Óin shrugged a bit. ‘No, not really, because I’ve never heard of this spice, but if nothing else, a simple purging should handle it well enough. It’s not the first time I’ve had to try something without knowing how it was going to turn out and having to make some last minute adjustments. Plus, if it works for me, then we will have to test it out on some of the rest of us, just to make sure that it’s not going to react badly to others. And we might not ever give it to the younger members of our group, I would have to have a lot more testing before I would let any of them try it. Especially without any real way to counteract whatever it does.’

Thorin shuddered just a bit. ‘Right. Get some sleep, the both of you. Tomorrow might be rougher on you than today was and I’d rather both of you be as clear headed as possible. And I agree, can you image the boys being more hyper than they already are? No. I don’t think so.’

Bilbo and Óin both grinned as they walked back to where all the bedrolls were laid out around the fire circle.

‘Who knew he was squeamish over something as simple as a purging!’ Bilbo grinned at Óin, who just shrugged.

‘Even with the two boys, I’m not sure he had to worry about anything like that. Dís, for the most part, took care of that sort of thing when they were young. He’s done well with them since they have grown up, but he’s always been good at training and discipline. And the boys have always responded well to him for those things, when he was home, he was always very attentive to them both, knowing that they needed a father figure in their life. Beside, he’s more used to blood and gore and such things.’ Óin grinned. ‘One of these days, you’ll have to see it yourself.’

With a few more words to those who weren’t on sentry duty yet, the group slowly settled down into sleep, knowing that their time would come to be up and needing to get as much sleep as they could. Thorin was still keeping his nephews apart on sentry duty, he wanted them working with others, not just with each other. It had been a hole that he hadn’t realized he’d allowed for so long. He was also not allowing Dori to dictate when Ori was standing guard, Dori wasn’t happy about it, but both Thorin and Balin had finally taken him aside and told him that they couldn’t afford to have Dwarves that weren’t pulling their own weight, and that he would either have to abide by it, or they would be sending them back with the Elves. Dori hadn’t been happy, but Ori quietly pointed out that he had signed to contract just like everyone else, and if he didn’t abide by it, he could be considered an oath breaker, as would Dori if they left.

This had calmed him down almost immediately, but only for the moment everyone was sure, and Thorin was also sure that there would be more words that he wasn’t going to want to have over this whole situation. He and Balin would have to come up with something before it happened again, especially after the elves headed back to Rivendell, when Dori thought he could push back about his youngest brother doing anything that he thought was too dangerous. How everyone back at the settlement had let this problem get so far out of hand, well, there would have to be some words about letting weapons practice go, no matter who they were. Thorin frowned a bit, he wondered why Dori didn’t have the same concerns for Nori, but then shrugged, he didn’t need any more problems than he already had, and Nori was shaping up to be on par with Dwalin, although he would need more seasoning before he was as good. Dwalin had told him he would be further training Nori, that since this journey had started, that he was very pleasantly surprised at how good Nori was at tracking and trailing.

He would have to remind himself to make sure that Nori knew he was appreciated and to let Dwalin do as much training as possible.

Later that night, after everyone had finally settled down, Bilbo reached into his backpack and pulled the last sheets he had been able to copy during the last night in Rivendell. He had thought that he’d remembered something as he had been frantically scribbling down as much as possible about dragons and all their vulnerable points. And there weren’t that many of them! But he did remember something… he just needed to find where he had written it down. He finally had to quit, it was too hard to read by firelight, especially since it was really a small one that didn’t throw much light. He would just have to look for it in the morning, after their experiment.

Bilbo said a soft prayer to Yavanna, he was really hoping that this would work, or at the very least, not hurt Óin. Not getting a reply from Her was a bit disturbing, but he couldn’t depend on Her for every little thing. Some things would just have to play out as they would. He looked around again before lying down with a sigh, he would also have to keep a lookout on the dwarves as they traveled, he was noticing more and more that they were taking turns in making murmurs and small gestures at odd times. He was hoping that this had something to do with his questioning them on whether or not any of them had ever asked Mahal for help or guidance, and that hopefully, it that was what it was, that there would be some good things that came out of it all. After all, Yavanna would almost always help if asked correctly, She very seldom punished. But, of course, he didn’t know how Mahal would react, and all he could do was to ask Her to intercede if He didn’t look as favorably on this group of dwarves as Yavanna did on Her hobbits. He would just have to keep an eye and an ear out and see what happened.

Chapter 10

The next morning, one of the Elves as well as Bifur and Kíli took off before first light to check the path ahead to see if anyone was there and to see if there was any game to be had for later meals. They would only scout ahead so far, there was no need go too far before heading back.

‘Fíli, don’t think that I don’t see you pouting over there. I told you two that I was splitting you two up and I meant it. You and Bofur need to go out and see if there is anyone coming from the direction of Rivendell on the trail, we don’t need someone sneaking up behind us. Nori, if you would go with them, too, that would be good. You all might also see if you can find any game on the way.’ Thorin frowned at his oldest nephew, he was definitely going to shake up everyone and not let anyone fall into any more bad habits. He knew that some of his company worked better with others, but there weren’t enough of them at the moment to let that slow them down.

Dwalin nodded at Nori, and made some hand signal that Thorin didn’t recognize but it was evident that Nori did. He figured that it was something the two of them were putting together for the guards that would hopefully someday guard Erebor. He remembered some of the hand signals, but then put it aside as Bilbo, Óin and Elladan approached him.

‘What have you decided? Are you still going for this morning or do you want to try it tonight?’ Thorin was still not confident about testing this spice and the more he thought about it, the less he liked it, even if it might be a good thing to have in case of an emergency.

‘Bilbo is going to put just the barest pinch of this super spice in my porridge. Then he and Elladan will watch and take notes on my reaction after eating it, while I also write down how I am feeling. If all goes well, we’ll talk about having someone else try it later on.’ Óin motioned the other two to follow him over to where Bombur was dishing out breakfast. He would have preferred a larger meal to start the day, but didn’t want anything to interfere with the test.

Bombur dished up a bowl of porridge and Bilbo, after getting the very grudging go-ahead nod from Thorin, reached into the package of spice that Elladan held and took out the smallest pinch he could. He sprinkled it over the porridge and then handed it to Óin. Bilbo also sniffed his fingers after he was done, frowning a bit.

‘I think I recognize the smell of this spice. But it smells just a little different from the one I remember. And I don’t think that it had the same kind of effect as this one is supposed to have.’

Thorin motioned him over to the trough to wash his hands. ‘We don’t know what could happen if you have that on your fingers for too long. Let’s not take any changes with this. One experiment at a time, please.’

‘Hmm, you are probably right about that, I’ve already had my dosing with this, I don’t think I need any more.’

Bilbo suddenly stopped and thought for a moment. ‘And you know, I didn’t get all ‘hyper’ when I was fed this the other day, it did make me sweat a bit, but that was it. And, let me tell you, there was a lot more spice in the food that I ate than what we put in Óin’s food just now, because it really made me sweat a lot! So, it might hit each of us differently. Elladan, you will need to write down how it affected you and any Men that you saw using it.’

Óin nodded, ‘Write down anything you can remember about how you felt when you were given this, Bilbo. That way we can see just how it effects the two of us. Right now, I’m feeling a little bit of heat, but we’ll give it some time to see just how much. I’m not feeling any of the hyper you talked about, however, Elladan.’

Bilbo nodded. ‘Your face is a bit red, but that’s all. Do you feel like you should be running around or anything like that?’

‘No, just feel a little warm. But it wasn’t a big pinch, or maybe I would have to have a larger amount to actually have a greater effect. That’s the problem with these kind of experiments, you need to be able to do them in controlled circumstances, and this is anything but.’

Thorin shook his head. ‘I’m not having you dosing yourself with more of this spice. If it doesn’t work the way it does for Men and Elves, then it doesn’t work. I wasn’t in favor of this to begin with, and I’m not really caring if it just gets stored away and not used at all.’ He frowned at Óin, who just shrugged a bit and went back to eating his porridge.

‘Yes, yes, I know you were against this from the first. And Elladan is laughing at you, you great worrywart.’

Elladan shrugged at the looks he was getting. ‘If it doesn’t work for you, well, then it doesn’t work for you. All I can tell you is how it works for the Men who traded it to us and how it works for us. We should be getting ready to go on, however, everyone will be back here soon and we still need to see if we can make as much time through here as possible.’

Even as he said that, the party Thorin had sent to check their back trail showed back up, all carrying field-dressed hares. They quickly handed them off and got their breakfast from Bombur while telling Thorin everything they had seen as they had backtracked, which wasn’t much.

‘There was no sign of anything or anyone around, we went as far back as we could and still get back here before it was time to leave,’ Fíli reported between bites of his breakfast.

‘All we saw were these hares and we knew that they would come in handy for dinner. But Fíli is right, nothing stirring anywhere, and we even sat in silence for a while to see if we could hear anything. We should get ready and back on the road as soon as our advance scouts get back.’ Nori was also eating as he gave his report, but he was also signing to Dwalin as he talked.

Thorin nodded thoughtfully. ‘Good. I was hoping for as much, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Finish your food, the rest will finish packing up everything else. As soon as the others get back and eat, we can be on the road.’

Just as everyone still in the camp had finished up eating and cleaning up their dishes, the first group came back into camp.

‘So, anything ahead of us?’ Elladan looked at Mahiran and got a shake of the head at his question.

Kíli shrugged, ‘Not even a sniff of anything out there. There might be some game, but it becomes narrower as we went further along, so I’m not holding up much hope for that. But I see someone got some game, so that’ll help with dinner, right?’

‘Yes, go get your food, Bombur has it dished up, and the rest of us will get the ponies and horses ready to go.’ Thorin looked over at Óin, who just shrugged and shook his head no. Thorin wasn’t sure if he was glad that there didn’t seem to be any effects of the spice on him, or not. But they could talk it all over that night, he wanted to be moving out soon, if the elves wanted to ride through the day again, they needed to move out as soon as possible, before it got any later.

Bilbo finished writing up how he had felt after eating the food with the spice, and noticed that both Óin and Elladan had gotten theirs written, too. It was then he remembered his scribbled pages on dragons.

‘Oh, bother! Here, Óin, take this, I need to look up some things in my notes that I made that last night in the library. I seem to remember something…’ Bilbo grabbed his pack and pulled out all of his notes, and started going through each page, looking for the brief note he had made about someone using a spice that was almost like a poison for any kind of reptile, Óin helping him as he discarded each page.

‘Óin, what would you classify a dragon as? Also, Gandalf? I know everyone calls them big worms and such, but what are they really? Because they have to be something, and it would be helpful to know what.’

Gandalf looked startled. ‘I don’t know if anyone has ever asked that, Bilbo, I would suppose it would be a sort of very large lizard, if anything. Let me think on this, you’re right, this could be important. I didn’t know that Elrond had anything about that in his library, it’s good that you found it.’

Óin shook his head, ‘I don’t know that anyone has ever called them anything in particular,’ he looked over at Thorin and Balin, who also looked perplexed, ‘I know we didn’t.’

‘Ah, I don’t know, either. And I don’t remember anything in the archives in Erebor. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t something there.’ Balin looked interested, and came over to see what Bilbo was talking about and to help Óin go through Bilbo’s discarded notes.

‘There was a mention of this spice Moruga that was deadly to certain types of lizards and I was wondering if Smaug was a lizard, not a worm like everyone wants to call him.’ Bilbo continued to scan his notes, he had been in such a hurry that some of it was practically illegible. ‘Ah, here it is. It was said that Moruga mixed with a herbal infusion would cause the lizards of Umbar to avoid the houses and barns as it was very poisonous to them and even getting it on a foot or tail would cause them great pain. If they ate it, it would kill them very quickly, no matter how much or little they ate, especially if mixed with a herbal infusion. Well, that’s quite interesting. You did call this spice Moruga, didn’t you, Elladan?’

Everyone’s mouth dropped open.

Thorin whirled on Elladan, hissing. ‘Could this hurt us, Elf!? Have your poisoned Óin and Bilbo with this spice?’

Elladan shook his head, ‘Of course not! We have used it, as have the Men we traded for it. And Bilbo is perfectly fine as well and he ate it even before Óin did! We would never give anyone something like this, especially our friends!’

Óin shook his head, ‘And I’m fine, I think it might affect each of us differently, that’s all. Lizards are cold-blooded, that could be the difference in all of this, Thorin, and we will have to look into this as we travel. See if we can get any of the herbal infusion they talk about.’

Thorin took a deep breath, his eyes shut but his hands still fisted. After a moment, he opened his eyes and said more calmly, ‘All right. But no more experiments with this. Not until we can figure out if this spice is the one in your notes, Bilbo.’

‘I’m not sure how we’re going to figure that out, it’s not like I have the book with me, just the bit of notes that I scribbled in the night,’ Bilbo huffed.

Lindoran came up behind them and said quietly, ‘Bilbo, do you remember which book you got that out of? We are not so far in our journey that I couldn’t go back and then catch up with you. I’m the best rider here, and my horse would do well with the run.’

Elladan nodded. ‘This is true, and even if you didn’t catch up today, you probably would by tomorrow night. You know where all the provision points are, unless something dire would happen, we will stop at every other one until we are closer to the end of the mountains.’

Thorin frowned at them both, but all the Elves seemed to be in agreement.

‘If you are sure? I don’t want you running into anything or one if you go back.’ Bilbo looked worriedly at him. ‘We could just try and figure this out…’

‘No, I don’t think that this is a case where we can figure something like this out. Do you remember the name of the book or where it was in the library?’ Gandalf shook his head, really, this was not the time for guesswork, and for a change, it would seem that Thorin agreed with him.

‘No, if you think you can do with without getting caught by anyone, then I think it’s best for us all.’ Thorin gave a dip of his head, and Lindoran nodded back to him.

‘I will be fine. Bilbo, do you remember…’

Bilbo frowned at them all. ‘I don’t agree with this, but I seem to be overruled. It was a very thin book in the very back of the library on the third level, somewhere on the bottom shelf, against the north wall. It had some sort of title like, ‘Pests of the Southern Climes’ or something like it. It was dim and I was getting very tired by that point. I’m not even sure why I wrote down what I did.’ Bilbo shrugged a bit, he actually felt that Yavanna had guided him then, even if he hadn’t recognized it at the time. He had stumbled to bed shortly after that, and had just shoved all his notes into his pack to look at later.

‘I will ask when I get there, the Archivist will probably know, as long as I can give him some sort of clue to the book.’ Lindoran turned and raced for his horse, who seemed to know that something was going on and was ready for him. Mahiran tossed him a sack as he went by, and then he was gone, hoofbeats fading into the distance.

‘Don’t worry, Bilbo, he really is one of our fastest riders and his horse is very fast, too. He might even catch up to us before we reach our next stop.’ Elladan patted Bilbo on the back, which earned him a wrinkled nose and a frown. ‘I gave him lembas bread, so he will be fine and he can give Seva some as well.’

‘Nonsense, we should have just gone with what I had. I don’t like this splitting up at this point, there’s too much room for error!’

Thorin shook his head at that. ‘Needs must, I’m afraid. We need to get moving ourselves.’

With that, the last of the supplies were reloaded and everyone swung into line. Since Lindoran wasn’t there, Mahiran took lead while Nahiran went to the back of the line for the start of the day.

The day went much the same as the last, Mahiran pointing out the next provision point as they passed it, but once again lunch was in the saddle. Thorin knew that they weren’t making great time, but he knew that they couldn’t go too much faster, the trail was becoming more and more rocky as they went along. He had given everyone another talk about asking Mahal for His blessing, and he noticed that they were all getting into a routine so that not everyone was doing it at the same time. He also had noticed that Bilbo would sometimes look at something as if he recognized it, but since he wasn’t sure what all the plants around were, he couldn’t be sure why it would make a difference.

Bilbo reined up for a moment and got off his pony, going over to the side of the trail, he carefully dug up a plant and brought it back and put it in a bag, then remounted before the last rider came by.

‘Find something interesting?’ Bombur looked over at him as he swung back up onto his pony.

‘Yes, this is a good herb for us since we’re traveling. Helps with the aches and pains of riding all day. And for me, since there’s not as much sunshine as I’m used to. And it’ll stretch what I’ve got stored away.’ Bilbo dusted his hands off, as Bombur grinned at him.

‘Of course it will. Point out anything you know that we might need and we can all take turns digging things up for you. If it helps the meals, that’s all good.’

They had been traveling for most of the day when Thorin held up his hand and everyone pulled to a stop.

‘What’s that up ahead? I can hear something… Just not clearly,’ he said softly to Elladan who had taken up the lead.

‘Not sure, everyone stay here, let me see what there is…’ He got down and carefully moved up and peered around the bend that they had been coming to. Then he quietly walked around it, motioning everyone to stay where they were. Dwalin swung down off his pony and followed him, moving just as quietly, pulling his sword.

There was the thwap of an arrow, and then Dwalin straightened and motioned everyone to move forward. ‘It would seem that our King has the ears of a fox, Elladan just got us a deer. I hope we’re close to a provision point, we’ll need to field dress that in a hurry so that it doesn’t go bad.’

‘Deer for dinner! And we could smoke it over the fire, so what we don’t eat tonight or in the morning will last longer.’ Glóin was excited, having fresh meat was always a good thing, and they hadn’t had enough of it, even while in Rivendell. And deer was always better than rabbit!

‘And don’t forget the hares we got last night! We can really feast tonight! And breakfast will be good, too!’ Ori smiled at Dori, who nodded back at him. Even Nori was grinning, and Thorin could tell that the mood of the troop was lightened by having all the fresh meat.

He made sure to look at all of the Dwarves and made sure that they make eye contact to remind them of what they also needed to do. There were a few nods but he was pleased that they were all of a mind. Mahal might not have sent this deer to them, but it was better to be safe than sorry. An extra prayer wouldn’t go astray at this point, especially being in mountains for the first time in so long. It felt good, and with decent weather, they would continue to make good time.

They all moved around the bend to where Elladan stood over a small buck. ‘Well, not what I was expecting, but it’s a good size for us. And it’s late enough in the day that we can field dress it here and by the time we get to our next stopping point, it’ll be ready to cook without us having to do much to it. We don’t see much game on this trail, we’re lucky that it was here.’

Bifur and Bofur quickly got to work and with everyone’s help, it was soon ready to transport with the hide being the carry bag for it. They had to calm the pony they put it on, it wasn’t too pleased to have anything that bloody on its back.

It wasn’t too long when Elladan was turning into another small grotto, and everyone swung into action. Three of them went ahead to scout out the next bit of trail, while three went back and made sure that they hadn’t left too much of a trail with the blood from the deer. Everyone else wiped down the ponies and hunted up more firewood, since they would be using a lot more than usual that night.

‘Óin, did you feel any differently today after eating the spice? I forgot to ask, with everything that went on this morning and then getting the deer.’

Bilbo looked over at him, but Óin was shaking his head. ‘No, just the bit of heat that I had first thing. I might have been a bit more alert, but that was really it. So, I think it just works differently for us, and you, Bilbo, because I don’t remember you saying anything about feeling any different after eating your helping in the kitchens.’

‘True, but then I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time. Although, I did do some yelling at Gandalf afterward, but I don’t know that that counts.’ He looked over at the wizard and grinned at him. ‘Of course, maybe that was why I yelled at him, who knows!’

Everyone laughed a bit, but went about getting the campsite set up and dinner ready.

They all enjoyed the deer meat that night, along with the stew Bombur made with the hares, and Bilbo dug into his packs and found the cookies he had wrapped and stashed. Then, with strips of meat hanging around the fire to smoke, they settled down to discuss the spice.

‘So, we really didn’t have any issues with this, did we. Óin had even less of a reaction than I did, although part of that was because I was given a bigger dose in a hotter dish. Elladan, how does this normally affect you and the Men you get it from?’ Bilbo got ready to take notes on what the Elf had to say.

‘As I’ve said before, it starts with a bit of heat, and then you feel like you can take on anything you encounter. It does seem to make us a little faster, with Men, it’s more like a berserker but without the rage that they can get. The coming down can be bad, depending on how much is consumed, we don’t seem to have that problem, but I’ve heard Men complain of headaches and the like. But maybe that’s all tied to how much they take.’ Elladan looked over at his fellow Elves and they nodded.

‘I only remember one Man having any problems, and they said that he had eaten too much of it and so had a harder time of coming down from the high it caused him. Their leader wouldn’t let him have any more, so maybe it can be addicting as well?’ Nahiran shrugged at the looks he got from the dwarves. ‘I don’t like taking it, so I’m maybe not the right person to talk about it. Even a little gives me a headache, and I don’t like not being in control. So.’

‘Excellent reasoning.’ Óin nodded as he thought a bit. ‘So, I’m thinking that it does affect everyone differently, and it could also be the situation each finds themselves in. We aren’t in a terrible situation here, it’s not like we’re expecting to be attacked at any moment, not like before we got to Rivendell. It would have been interesting to see how the spice would have affected us then.’

Thorin just shook his head, ‘No, I’m glad that we’re done with this. If it makes Men have a type of berserker rage, well, we don’t need that! I’ve seen dwarves in that kind of situation, and we’re too small a group to have that kind of fight response. And if this is something that could work on Smaug, we should just save it for that. Although, where we’re going to get this herbal mixture to mix it in, I don’t know.’

Gandalf pursed his lips. ‘Isn’t that a type of tisane, Óin? I seem to remember it being used after a battle once.’

He perked up. ‘You’re right! I was thinking I recognized it, but wasn’t making the connection. We probably already have part of the herbs and hopefully could find the rest as we travel.’

Bilbo nodded. ‘You’re right! And there might even be more of the ingredients we need in these mountains! Some of the plants grow better in rocky soil and limited sunlight, which is what we’ve got going on at the moment. We’ll have to keep a lookout while we’re riding and see if we can find more of the herbs as we ride along. I’m thinking that we won’t need much of it, just enough to mix with the spice.’

‘You will have to sketch what everything looks like for the rest of us, you and Óin are the ones that know what we need.’ Fíli shook his head, he really had no idea what he was looking for and didn’t want to end up poisoning anyone by mistake. Well, other than a dragon, of course!

Kíli nodded. ‘Yeah, for some of us, it’s point and pick. Which we can do. Then it’s up to you two to make whatever is needed.’

Balin sighed. ‘Yes, yes, we all know that plants are not your forte, in fact, we mostly don’t want you around them at all!’

All of the dwarves laughed softly, the last time Kíli had been told to help weed a garden, he had practically killed all of the food plants, and left the weeds.

‘Not my fault,’ he squawked, he still wasn’t over the whole embarrassment he had suffered over that!

Thorin just smiled fondly at him, he wasn’t much better, and they had learned not to leave him unattended in any garden after that.

Bilbo sighed. ‘Yes, I’m sure that Óin and I can point out anything we think will be of use as we go. And I’ll check and see if I have anything in my packs. I’m sure that Óin will be doing the same thing.’

Óin nodded. ‘And the rest of you need to bring anything that the elves packed in yours. We had them split up some of the medical supplies so that if we lost some, we wouldn’t lose all. We’ll put back what we need, but if we can get a good start on this, it’ll be easier on us later.’

They slowly went through all the herbs that they were carrying while the rest made sure that the venison was drying evenly and the rest of the chores of a campsite were done. The boys were even able to climb up a bit and found where a tree had been blown over and so resupplied what they were using.

‘I do hope Lindoran isn’t having any problems. And we would never know what has happened, just that he didn’t come back to us, which would be horrible.’ Bilbo nibbled on his last cookie and then looked around at the others. ‘But, I guess this is also part of the whole ‘adventure’ that we’re on. Not that I really like that part of it.’

‘Yes, well, it is part of it, I suppose. Hopefully, there aren’t any problems and he get through all right and then back safe to us. With the wee book that you were reading.’ Óin shrugged, after a while, even though no one liked it, losses happened and you simply had to move on. ‘Hopefully, we’ll find everything we need for this tisane and it’ll be what we need.’

Gandalf nodded and Nahiran grinned a bit.

‘Lindoran is very good at this. I wouldn’t worry too much. And we see better at night than you, so he can start out much earlier and be back here sooner than you think.’

‘I imagine that we will see him back before we camp for the night tomorrow. And then we can finish planning what you two will need for all of this.’ Elladan looked around, everything had been tidied away and half of the group had already turned in so that they would be ready for their shift. ‘You two should get some sleep, I know you’ve been up in the night, Bilbo, and you need to sleep more.’

‘Tattletale! And here I thought you were my friend!’ Bilbo grinned and then yawned. ‘Yes, I’m more tired tonight than I was last, too much excitement, even if we’re just riding. I won’t mind getting some extra sleep tonight.’

Sentries set, with one keeping an eye on the venison drying, and the camp quietly settled into sleep.

Bilbo settled quickly, but even as he did, he had a feeling that something was happening, something he had no control over. And as he slept, he saw a small misshapen being that he recognized from ‘before’ as it scuttled around in its bit of cave and lake, lamenting the loss of its precious, as it hunted desperately for it. But even as it did, Yavanna came and softly drew him up, soothing him into sleep and then Sméagol was gone, not even a trace of his body was left behind. Yavanna seemed to look at him, reminding him that he had another task to do, not just ridding the world of a dragon. Bilbo nodded, glad that Sméagol was at rest, and knew that he would have to keep a keen eye out for the glint of a gold ring from now on. He just hoped that the ‘special’ sack would also appear in one of his packs before that happened, he didn’t want to have to handle it any more than he had to.

The next morning, he woke slowly, remembering what he had dreamed the night before and couldn’t but be glad that one part of the quest was finished, even if it meant that he still had his jobs to do. At least poor Sméagol was at rest, and he wouldn’t have to worry about meeting him. He rolled over and then opened his eyes, everyone was sitting and watching him for some reason.

He blinked at them and then asked, ‘Is something wrong?’

Gandalf pursed his lips and then gazed over at Thorin, who just shrugged back at him. ‘Well, considering we couldn’t wake you this morning, maybe?’

Bilbo sat up in a hurry and looked around, it was almost noon since the sun was almost directly overhead.

‘What! What do you mean, you couldn’t wake me! You should have just packed me up on my pony and gone on, for Yavanna’s sake!’

‘You were sleeping really soundly and dreaming pretty heavily about something. You kept muttering ‘poor soul’ and we finally gave up and just let you sleep.’ Óin looked at him closely, then asked, ‘Do you remember what you were dreaming about? It seemed to make you very concerned, whatever it was.’

Bilbo just sat there, thinking back to what he had seen. And he wasn’t all that sure that he should be sharing much of it, Yavanna’s business was Her own and he would have to be careful about what he told everyone.

Chapter 11

‘Ummm, well, I do remember dreaming something about a hunched over being, I’m not really sure who or what it was, but it was all incredibly sad, it was so beaten down. Maybe that was what I was mumbling? I’m not really sure.’ Bilbo scratched his head, he wasn’t going to tell them everything, but would have to tell enough so that there wouldn’t be too many suspicions. He was just glad that he would never have to deal with the poor soul.

Gandalf hummed a bit and then nodded. ‘But you remember nothing else, you said something about plants as well? Hunting them, maybe? You were muttering so much all night long.’

‘That’s not a surprise, Gandalf, it was the last thing we were talking about before we went to bed last night! I even tried to look it up in my notes! I still can’t believe you let us get a day behind because of this!’ Bilbo huffed as he got up and stretched, anything to get the attention off of his dreams. ‘But, I suppose it’ll be easier for Lindoran to catch up with us.’

Everyone nodded at that, although he noticed that Elladan and Thorin were still studying him pretty closely and he wasn’t having that.

Pointing a finger at them, Bilbo ordered, ‘Stop it, you two, I can see you and your machinations! Are we eating lunch here or are we going to move on so we don’t get too far behind?’

Thorin shook his head, ‘Mahiran has already left a sign for him saying we’re here, so we’ll have a rest day and hopefully Lindoran will catch up and we can move on tomorrow. A day of rest won’t hurt us. Plus, maybe you and Óin can hunt for some of the plants that you might need later on for whatever this stuff is.’

Óin nodded, ‘We can see what we have so far, and then if we can find some of the ingredients fresh, that might be better. And the rest of you should sort out your belongs and make sure everything is back where it belongs, including the medical supplies that we split up between everyone.’

Elladan had already sent out Nahiran along with Ori and Bifur to see if they could find any more game since they were staying in one place for so long. They could smoke whatever they caught, since they really weren’t sure just how much hunting they would be doing after they got out of the mountains. Besides, this way they would have extra once they got to Erabor.

Óin and Bilbo searched up and down the trail from where they were staying under the watchful eye of Gandalf, who every once in a while would throw out a question that he wanted Bilbo to answer. For the most part, he was being ignored and between the two of them, they actually found several of the herbs they thought they might need. They were very careful in harvesting all of it, taking it root and all so that it would stay fresh as long as possible. Once they were back, they planted everything they found, with Gandalf questioning why.

‘Because, this way, it all stays fresh and if we don’t need it, it will grow here and maybe be used by someone else who needs it. Why are you being so nosey, Gandalf? You know that Hobbits know their plants!’ Bilbo huffed at him, and pointedly looked away from him. His patience was rapidly running out and he wasn’t sure what he would say if Gandalf kept pushing at him. Fortunately, he was saved from the rest of his nosiness when hoofbeats sounded from the trail and Lindoran came riding up, Nori perched behind him.

‘Look who I found coming up the trail!’ Nori grinned as he slid off of Seva, giving her a pat as he did. ‘It’s too bad horses are so tall, she has a very easy gait!’

Lindoran looked around and then gazed at Elladan. ‘I expected to have to ride much further to catch up with you. Did something happen that held you up here?’ He swung down off his horse and handed Bilbo the book he had last seen in Rivendell. ‘Elrond hopes that this will help, he also sent some more of the spice just in case you’ve used too much in your experiments.’

Thorin shook his head, they didn’t need any more of that but when he looked over at Óin and Bilbo, they both were nodding as they looked in the pack he had carried.

‘This will do quite nicely. We didn’t think about how much of this we might need, and Óin thought later that maybe having more would be a good idea. So, this is all good. If and when we figure this out, we can make extra.’ Bilbo nodded and handed it to Óin who smiled.

‘Yes, this is one time that having too much will probably be a good thing. If for no other reason than we can practice with it.’ Óin smiled as he took the bag and tucked it away with the other one. He and Bilbo wandered away to read the book. They had the time at the moment, and needed to figure out just what they were doing.

So while they did that, the rest of the troop did all the camp chores, and when Ori, Bifur and Nahiran came back with some hares and squirrels, they got busy and started smoking all of it. Lindoran also had brought more food with him, the cooks had been still cooking extra due to having the White Council showing up.

Gandalf, Thorin and Balin all sat down with him to find out just what was going on with that, and if Saruman had gotten kicked off the Council yet, Elladan wandering over to hear what he was saying.

‘No, but it’s close to happening. No one is happy with him and he’s not helping with his posturing. He hasn’t figured out that you’re gone yet, Gandalf. But I think that he’ll probably blow up when he finally figures it out.’ Lindoran shrugged a bit at the look Gandalf gave him.

‘At that point, I think he’ll be told that I’m off checking Dol Guldur. And since it was an order from part of the White Council, there isn’t much he can say about it.’ Gandalf leaned back and puffed on his pipe. ‘He’ll just have to mad about it, but he’ll have to argue with the rest of the council and not me. And hopefully, at that point, he’ll lose being the head of the council. Of course, that’ll mean a whole bunch more drama from him.’

‘Will you have to return to Rivendell and report on what you find when you go to Dol Guldur? Because that would mean going back over the mountains before you come to Erebor.’ Balin looked over at Gandalf who was shaking his head no as he blew smoke rings.

‘I don’t need to report, unless there is something horribly wrong there. And if there’s something wrong, it’ll probably impact the whole region, not just there. And I can get in contact with Galadriel and Celeborn and no, no one else needs to know how I do that.’ He huffed a bit at the looks he was getting, but refused to say anything further about it. ‘I fully intend to be at Erebor before Durin’s Day, so that I can help with whatever is still there. And have you decided which way you’re going to go yet?’ Gandalf needed the attention off of himself and back on the reason why the Dwarves were going. Plus, the more he knew, the better the chance he would have in catching up with them.

Thorin and Balin just looked at each other, Balin raising an eyebrow and Thorin shaking his head, then looked back Gandalf. ‘Fine, we’ll just have to hope that nothing is going on there and that you can get back with us. But we have decided that we are definitely not going through Mirkwood, and we’ve almost decided that we are going to go around the wood. No one wants to worry about dealing with anyone in or around Lake-town, since we don’t know anything about them. So, going around the north end of the wood just seems to be the best idea.’ Balin nodded at Gandalf’s raised eyebrow. ‘Of course, Bilbo would have extra water sacks, just because he said that he had needed some one time he was on one of his walks. So, that would not be such a concern, just in case we can’t find enough water after we leave the river.’

Gandalf just sighed. ‘Of course, he does. Bilbo is showing himself to have more talents than expected.’ At the looks he got, he added, ‘Not that it’s bad, just unexpected. Even his mother wasn’t as resourceful as he has turned out to be. It’s just surprising, that’s all.’

The other two nodded in agreement. ‘Nothing you told us about Hobbits and what we knew from our trading with them ever made us think that as well. But, we are extremely glad that we have him here with us, he has proved his worth over and over again.’ Thorin looked around, his gaze settling on Bilbo and Óin as they huddled over the book and notes that had been made. ‘And he has made an enormous difference in how my company interacts with each other, we are all from different social groups and he has done nothing but treat everyone the same. Although he did throw a bit of a fit about Bifur, he gave him something early on that has helped with his headaches. Óin was upset that he’d never heard of the herb that Bilbo used, but was pleased to find out about it. And he brought enough for quite a while because he didn’t want him hurting when he knew he could help.’

Balin nodded. ‘Hmm, he’s shared so much, and it makes all of us working together so much easier. You’re just lucky, Gandalf, I’m fairly sure that he had all sort of nastiness planned for you had you kept on with how you were going. I don’t think our Burglar likes all the secrets that you keep and continually thinks of ways to make you tell them.’

Gandalf huffed in irritation. ‘It’s not like I have any control over some of what I know and have to do. We all have our jobs to do, and it’s fortunate that we were able to have alternatives to some of the choices that we’ve had to make. Such as coming this way, instead of through the mountains on the main route. Nahiran said that there had been some bad storms further south over that part of the mountains. We could have been in a lot of trouble if we’d gone that way, not the least of which would have been how wet we would have been for most of it.’

‘Which we would had have, but for Bilbo.’ Thorin just shook his head as Bombur called everyone to lunch.

After lunch was finished and everyone gathered around as the news from Rivendell was shared, including the fact that storms over the southern end of the Misty Mountains were making them practically impassable. Several of the dwarves patted Bilbo in thanks, and then Nahiran told them he thought that they were much closer to the end of the trail due to the fact they had pushed so far early on and that the weather had been so mild.

‘Why didn’t you know before this?’ Thorin frowned a bit, this could have been important.

‘Because we don’t use this trail very often, and some of us have never even been on it. Be thankful that we can read the signs from before to see exactly where we are. Nahiran saw them while exploring ahead of us and told Mahiran who told me. If we push tomorrow, we should be at the edge of the mountains and you can make more decisions then. We can only escort you as far as the River and help you get over it, then we must return. I know that we told you this, and unfortunately, it hasn’t changed.’ Elladan shrugged at the looks he got.

There were nods at that, they had expected it, plus everyone was remembering that Gandalf was also leaving.

‘Bilbo and I are going to finish looking through this book and seeing if we can figure out if it’s workable against Smaug. If it is, we’re going to try and mix some up to see what it looks like.’ Óin nodded at the group as he and Bilbo moved back to where they had left everything laid out.

Thorin sighed, all this inactivity was getting on his nerves, he had hoped to be further along but at least they were all well-rested and in good spirits.

‘All right, I want everything put back together and ready to leave early in the morning. Also, Kíli and Nori, backtrack and see if there’s any game that we can smoke for later. Glóin, you and Ori see what you can find ahead of us, once we are out of the mountains, I think we’re going to need to move as quickly as we can which will cut into our hunting. I would like to be at the river within the next day or so, and over it.’ He turned and looked at Gandalf, ‘Will you be leaving us before we go across the river or after?’

‘After, I think. I can help you get across, and then head out south. And since it’s slightly further for me than before, I will probably leave right after that we are across.’ Gandalf nodded, he would be able to move faster without them, not that he was going to make a big deal about it. He just hoped that he could make it back before they got to Erebor.

Elladan sent Mahiran to scout out past the next two provision spots, he wanted to make sure that there would nothing there that might slow them down. Lindoran brushed down his horse and then went to help find more wood with several of the dwarves as they finished with everything they were doing. This push would put them out of the mountains and into uncharted territory in just a day or two, and everyone wanted to be ready for it.

By nightfall, they were glad they had gotten everything done earlier in the day as the weather started to close in but they were able to get everything under cover before it started to rain.

‘Well, we knew it wouldn’t last forever, we were just lucky that we haven’t had rain before this.’ Bombur dished out the last of the stew and set the pot out in the rain so they didn’t have to go to the streamlet for water to wash it. ‘Just put your dishes out, we’ll let the rain do some of the work for us.’

Dori sighed. He had been talking to Ori since they had gotten into the mountains and today, he had been told in no uncertain terms that Ori wasn’t going to listen to him any more about not learning how to fight better. He had been startled to learn that his little brother was starting to think that he wanted him to get seriously injured, if not right out killed on this journey, and when he had flatly denied it, Ori asked him what he was to think when that was all Dori had done. After thinking it over, he couldn’t blame him, especially with Nori looking at him in such disbelief when he’d tried to make him understand that he just didn’t want him in danger. He looked around the cave, everyone was busy, between packing, cleaning up, putting firewood up on one of the side walls, checking weapons and just general maintenance that had to be done, he realized that he’d done Ori a disservice. The fact the Dwalin had taken him in hand was probably the only reason why he hadn’t gotten hurt so far.

‘Ori, could I speak to you for just a minute?’ Dori motioned him over to one side, nothing was truly private, but he would make do. With a frown, Ori came over, expecting to have to argue once again with his older brother and he was getting very tired of it.

‘Ori,’ Dori sighed. ‘I’m sorry.’ Ori’s mouth dropped open, as well as several of the others. ‘I am holding you back. I just can’t get passed that you’re my baby brother, even though I know that you’ve gone through your majority. But I’m going to do better, I promise. And it I go back to how I was before, you have my permission to smack me upside my head and tell me to remember where we are and what we’re doing.’

Ori ginned and gave him a hug, ‘Thank you, Dori, I’m so glad that you’ve come around! Of course, I forgive you and if I don’t smack you, Nori probably will!’

The whole company began to laugh, but the tension between the brothers was gone for the moment and Thorin and Balin shared a sigh of relief. They had started to think a bigger intervention was going to happen, and no one needed that.

‘Óin, have you and Bilbo come to any conclusions?’ Thorin turned away from the quiet celebration going on and looked at them.

‘Not really, we’ve made the tisane, but we’re not sure if we have it right or not. We’re going to leave it for now, we have more of everything and will make it again when we’re closer to Erabor. But, either it will work or it won’t.’ Óin shrugged and Bilbo nodded in agreement.

‘We’ve tasted a bit of it, it’s a lot stronger like this, so there is that. And we’re thinking that the longer we let it all seep, the stronger it will get. I don’t know if there are any lizards around but it would be nice to try just a bit on something.’ Bilbo shrugged at the looks he was getting, they had wanted to make sure that they had the right amounts when they were mixing it, and the only way to know that was to taste it. And really, it still wasn’t as spicy as when Alamir had made it.

Bilbo suddenly perked up. ‘What did Alamir mix with this while we were at Rivendell? I knew there was something I meant to ask!’

Elladan knew that the batch made that day were going to a party of Men going back to their homes. ‘It’s a combination with a type of stew the Men eat as they travel. Why?’

‘Because even this didn’t have the kick that the spoonful he gave me had. So I was wondering what else was in it to make it so spicy.’

‘Ah, I can answer that, he adds the hot chilis from his garden. You should have some in one of the packs with all the herbs. Do you think you’ll need that to make it stronger?’ Lindoran looked over at them, and then at the packs, he was pretty sure they had packed some in one of them.

‘Maybe? We’ll see with the next batch we do. For now, this can just rest and hopefully get stronger over time.’ Bilbo gazed back at Óin, who nodded in agreement.

‘Yes, adding those, if we can find them, might be a good idea.’

‘But that’s for another day.’ Bilbo stretched up, they had been hunched over most of the day, chopping and mixing before combining everything into the liquid they had made first.

Thorin just sighed.

The next morning everyone was up early, breakfast eaten on the fly as they got everything loaded and headed out. The scouts had left before it had even gotten light, and unless something went wrong, they were planning to be out of the mountains by nightfall. Fortunately, the rain had cleared out during the night and it wasn’t too slippery on the trail, and after a glance at their guides, the dwarves knew that the path was designed to be that way, there was no way it would drain that way naturally.

It was a long hard day, but by late afternoon, with only minimal stops for everyone to stretch out sore muscles, they came to the edge of the mountains and looked down into the valley that held the Anduin River. In the distance they could also see the green of the Mirkwood forest, but there seemed to be a blight on it, even the Dwarves could tell that there was something wrong with it. The Elves were also dismayed, looking at each other, agreeing that this was something that would have to be addressed as soon as they got back to Rivendell. If the council was still there, Elrond would have to let them know that there was something very wrong here, and someone would have to go the Woodland Elves to find out what was going on with the kingdom. They just glad it wasn’t one of them that would have to deal with Thrandúil, it would be up to one of the other leaders.

Thorin touched the rock he was standing next to, he would be sad to leave these mountains, even though they weren’t his, they had protected them and given them safe passage through, and he gave them what thanks he could. He knew the rest of the company was doing the same thing, and thanking Mahal at the same time. It would be a race to Erebor from now on, and although he and the rest would continue to ask for Mahal’s help, it wouldn’t be the same as it had been in the mountains. There was just more connection here, and when they got to Erebor, he would make sure that the proper celebrations would be done, and that they didn’t slip back into the laziness of worship that they had before.

‘How long do you think it’ll take to get down to the valley and then to the Great River?’ Thorin looked over at Elladan who shrugged a bit.

‘I’m thinking that we should stay here for the night, it’s going to get dark quickly and the trail is faint since we don’t use it often. Just below here is a good stopping point, and the last provision spot that we have. It’s not as big as most, mostly just a waystation, but we have more than enough with us to get through the night. In the morning, we would all be rested and able to get to and over the river, hopefully without any problems.’

Thorin considered it for all of two seconds and then agreed. It would be better to sleep one more night in the mountains, they could get a better start in the morning with it. The rest of the Dwarves relaxed, none of them had realize just how much they missed being surrounded by all the rock that a sturdy mountain had. And even if they weren’t inside in tunnels, rooms and great halls, at least it was mountains. And these mountains were still alive, unlike the Blue Hills, so it was much more comfortable to be traveling through.

Elladan carefully maneuvered them down the rest of the trail until he came to the smallest open space they had been in so far.

‘Yes, it’s very small, we will have to tether the horses and ponies along the trail and feed them there. It’ll be barely big for all of us, and I would suggest that we do not light a fire tonight, it would stand out on the side of this mountain, alerting anyone out in the valley to our presence. And depending who’s out there, it could be good or bad.’

They all quickly settled down for the night, setting sentries and making sure that everyone had some of the smoked meat, along with a drink from the streamlet there.

‘These streamlets aren’t natural, are they? They’re just a little too perfect to be true.’ Bofur looked at the Elves who all grinned.

‘No, they are very carefully drilled and, if need be, can be cut off without too much problem. It’s just linking to an underground stream but only by a very thin tube so that we aren’t wasting it. Besides, there have been years when the rains are heavier and we can block it off so we don’t flood the path.’ Lindoran shrugged, he didn’t know all the ins and outs of it, he just knew that it worked.

‘Well, it’s an excellent use of resources, so that’s good.’ Several of the Dwarves nodded in agreement, just because there was a lot of something, it didn’t mean that it should wasted.

The night was quiet, sentries changed out without any problems and soon it was dawn, with the sun rising over Mirkwood Forest.

‘Well, that’s a sight, isn’t it.’

‘Yes, Bilbo, it’s quite beautiful. It even makes me a little more hopeful, to see something so very peaceful.’

‘Gandalf, you old softy!’ Bilbo laughed softly, and nudged at the sitting wizard.

Elladan and Mahiran came up behind them, soundless as usual. ‘We should get everyone up and moving. If we can get to the River by mid-morning, it’ll give all of you more time to move away from it to a more protected area before nightfall.’ Elladan pointed north, ‘That way, you’ll get a better feeling of your surroundings and will be able to decide what you want to do.’

It didn’t take long until everyone else was up and breakfast was eaten as the packs were put back on their ponies. Soon they were moving down the last part of the trail into the valley.

‘There’s no real trail here, but we’ll just ride for the River and hopefully there hasn’t been any big rains that’s raised the level of the water. There should be a ford, but we won’t know until we get there.’ Elladan looked out over everyone’s heads and pointed. ‘If you can see it, there is a tree that is a little higher than the others around it. Try to keep an eye on it, if we can keep moving, we should be at the River at least by noon.’

As they set out, once more there were two Elves in the rear to make sure no one was left behind for any reason. Dwalin also was behind with them, Thorin wanted him there for safety reasons. And they started out on a trot, settling into a rhythm that ate up the distance to the River.

For the first time in a long time, Bilbo could relax and breathe deeply, the smell of green and growing things was a blessing to him, and he sent a thank you to Yavanna for it.

And it didn’t seem to take very long and they were at the river, and fortunately for them, there had not been any hard rains so as they scoured the banks for a good place to cross, it didn’t take very long to find the perfect place, where even the ponies wouldn’t have to struggle to get over. But just to be safe, all the Elves and Gandalf first took all the packs over and then each Elf paired with a Dwarf, with Gandalf taking Bilbo across on his horse.

Bilbo didn’t even argue, as he told them all, ‘Hobbits don’t swim, we sink! Why do you think there are such sturdy bridges in the Shire! Only a few of us are even any good with boats. No, riding with Gandalf is quite all right with me!’

Soon, they were all across, and getting the ponies reloaded took very little time.

‘We must return now, Bilbo. I am still not all that sure about you going with these rowdy Dwarves,’ several of them flashed their teeth at him, ‘But I understand how you feel that you must go since you signed a contract. But take care of yourself and hopefully one day you’ll be coming back through Rivendell on the way home. Then you can tell us all the tales of your adventures.’

‘You are such a worrywart, Elladan. I’m sure that we will take care of each other on our journey. You take care of yourself and your brother, and remember the list I gave you!’

Elladan knelt down and patted him gently before he mounted his horse and with one last wave, the Elves went back across the River and were soon racing back across the valley back to the mountains.

Gandalf cleared his throat, ‘Here is where I take leave of you, also. Hopefully, the weather stays clear for all of you as well as me.’

‘Yes, you old meddler, go and try not to get yourself in too much trouble!’ Bilbo shook his head at him and the rest of the troop grumbled.

‘We will hope to see you before Durin’s Day, Gandalf, so do try not to be too late!’ Balin grumped at him, but this really was just more of the same thing that he had pulled even before they had gotten on the road.

‘Yes, yes, so you have said before. And my answer is still the same, I will make every effort to be there to help. All of you stay out of trouble and try not to lose my Hobbit!’ With that, he mounted his horse and, with a wave and a final farewell, set off to the south and Dol Guldur.

Thorin took a deep breath and looked around at everyone, ‘Well, let’s head north and see how far we can get before we stop for the night.’ And then led out, aiming for closer to the forest than the river, with Dwalin and Nori staying back to keep a lookout for anything that might track them from behind.

Chapter 12

They kept a steady pace through the afternoon and it wasn’t until almost dusk that Thorin finally called a halt.

‘We’ll set up camp here for the night, pull wood from the forest but do not go into it, I don’t like the look of it at all. See if there are any rocks that we can use to make a fire circle, we don’t need a grass fire here.’ Thorin looked around, it was the best place to stop, but it was on a rise and so they could see around them, but they could shelter the ponies in the slight dip just behind it.

Everyone swung into action, and soon there was a fire going, small, but enough to cook on.

‘You’re right about the forest, when we were getting the wood, it felt like there was something there, not really staring at us, just… there.’ Kíli shuddered a bit, he didn’t normally mind forests that much, but this one was just creepy. Fíli nodded in agreement. ‘We’ll go get water, I know that some of the water skins are empty and we’ll need more by tomorrow.’

Balin agreed, ‘I’ll go with you. We should fill up as many as possible and everyone, give us anything that is empty, we need to make sure that we have all that we need.’

‘How far do you think we are from the Grey Mountains? I mean, I think I can see something up north, but it’s not very distinct, so…’ Glóin stood and looked around, and then frowned at the woods. ‘Maybe we should have camped further away from that. The boys are right, that isn’t at all inviting and it feels like it’s brooding.’

‘Tomorrow we’ll camp further away from it. I’m just hoping for decent weather while we’re stuck on these plains.’ Thorin pulled out the maps he had gotten in Rivendell and he and Dwalin hovered over them, trying to see if they could tell just how far they had come.

‘It’s hard to tell, we’re north of the Old Forest Road, but other than that, we probably have a couple of days of hard riding before we get to the northern edge of the woods.’ Dwalin traced the edge, then the river that flowed down from the Grey Mountains. ‘I’m more worried about getting across that, we won’t have nice tall horses to help us this time. Hopefully, our luck will hold and there will be a ford that we can use. I’m just hoping that the weather holds.’

‘I think we’ll have to ride the same way we’ve been doing when we came through the mountains. Bombur, if you could make up something we could eat as we ride, that would be good. If we can make good time while the weather is clear, we should.’ Thorin just wanted to get through to the river, because then they could plan the next part.

Sentries set, everyone was fed, and soon it was quiet. Dwalin and Nori made plans in the sign language that they planned to use when and if they got Erebor back, and kept a lookout on the forest. Fortunately, it was a quiet night, and by first light, everyone was up and repacked as soon as they had all eaten.

Bilbo and Óin checked their herbal mix, carefully tasting it under Thorin’s watchful eyes.

‘Hmm, it seems to be a bit stronger today. A little more burn, if you will.’ Óin pursed his lips as he thought. ‘I think tonight we should make another batch and see what happens with it. Mix up some of the herbs that it says we can substitute.’

Bilbo nodded. ‘I think you’re right. And we have plenty of herbs we need to make at least two more batches after the one tonight, that way we can let them all seep and see what we get by the end of the trip. I’m thinking that the stronger the better with this.’

Thorin and Balin traded a look, but Óin was their healer for a reason, and Bilbo knew more about plants than any of them. Even if they didn’t like it, they would just have to go along with it, but there would be no more testing on anyone here.

Bombur handed out meat pies he had baked overnight in the fire circle, and Bilbo, with a grin, brought out small packets of mixed fruit and nuts that he’d been saving. Thorin just looked at him and shook his head, Bilbo shrugged, they might need the extra energy since they were riding as far as possible, as long as the light held.

Several days passed, mostly just like the first they had had, but Thorin and Dwalin weren’t letting anyone become complacent, fighting on ponies could happen and so there were training sessions every day as they rode. And Bilbo taught the boys how to use their slings as they went, it was totally different from standing, balance became more important.

‘Who knew that this would be so much harder!’ Kíli complained. ‘I’m missing more than I’m hitting at the moment, and I know I could hit what I was aiming for with my arrows!’

‘Ah, but if you’re trying to be quiet, your bow and arrows make more noise than your sling.’ Bilbo readied and then shot, hitting the tree branch that stuck out of the forest ahead of them.

Fíli huffed at him. ‘You make it look so easy, though. And we know it isn’t!’

Bilbo just chuckled at them. ‘Yes, well, all of you make using swords and war hammers look easy, too. And I’ve not been trained in any of them, and really, at this point, I’ll never catch up. I might, and I say might, become good enough to defend myself, but I’m never going to be really good with a sword. It’s just not in my nature to use one.’

Dwalin nodded from where he had Ori practicing swings with his warhammer as they rode. ‘True, Master Baggins, it’s good to know your limitations, but you still need to practice with your knife, it’s something no one would expect from you.’

Bilbo made a face as everyone chuckled around him. ‘Yes, yes, practice deception. Because I fit that part, too!’

Fíli and Kíli almost fell of their ponies at that, laughing at the look on Bilbo’s face.

‘You have improved, Bilbo, that’s all that counts, and the more you practice, the better you get.’ Nori nodded at him, he could understand where he was coming from, he remembered all the trials he had, trying to learn how to use his own weapons.

Each night was a repeat of the first, but Thorin made sure that they were further away from the forest, but not too close to the river. He wasn’t comfortable with either place, and just wished that they could get to the Lonely Mountain.

‘So, what do you think? Another day or two to get around all of that,’ Dwalin waved at the forest, ‘So about a week until the Forest River? And we haven’t seen anything to hunt so far, either, which is strange. There should at least be hares around.’

Thorin nodded. ‘I had noticed that. But I don’t want any of you going into the forest to do any hunting. I don’t trust it at all. And remember, Gandalf was quite emphatic about not getting off the path if we had gone through Mirkwood, and this is about as far off as we can get.’

Everyone nodded, they all had the same feeling about it and still had plenty of food and all the dried meat from hunting in the mountains.

‘It does seem strange, but maybe we’re making too much noise. Tomorrow, we should send Kíli and Bofur further ahead of us and see if they can’t get some game.’

Bilbo asked quietly, ‘Do you ever do any fishing? We could angle over and stock back up on water and see if anyone could catch some fish. We’re going to need more water, just for the ponies, let alone us, especially once we’re around the edge of the wood and headed west.’

Thorin and Dwalin exchanged a long look. ‘Maybe we’re staying too close to the forest, we could move over closer to the river and still have driftwood for a fire. Then we wouldn’t have to carry quite so much water and could stock up easier.’

Thorin nodded in agreement. ‘I’m not sure why I thought we should be closer to the wood than the river, other than the fact I don’t like either. We’ll do that. I know a couple of you fish, and at least it would be something fresh to eat.’

‘And I know that there are some seasonings in the packs that would go well on the fish. I’m sure that Bombur knows recipes for them, too. Plus, if we could get enough to smoke over the fire for later, that would stretch our supplies.’

Bombur drifted over. ‘Yes, there are several ways I could cook them.’ His eyes got dreamy and he sighed. ‘Fresh fish would be a welcome change, I could fry them, roast them in the fire, make a stew…’

‘Stop, stop, you’re making us all hungry!’ Dori laughed softly as Bombur started numbering off the things he could make. ‘But you’re right, fish would be a welcome change, as long as we could get some more game later.’

‘We could make a sweep in the morning. And I think there are snares somewhere in a pack, in the evening, we could set them and see what we can get.’ Kíli nodded at Bifur, who nodded back at him before going to the packs to see if he could find them, no one could figure out why they hadn’t been doing that all along.

‘All right, tomorrow we go back closer to the river, see if we can get some fish and whatever else is out here. For now, everyone get some sleep who isn’t standing watch.’ Thorin patted his nephews as they went to lay down, and then jerked his head at Dwalin.

‘Walk with me for a minute.’ They headed out, making a big circle to check to see if anything was stirring. ‘Are we going too fast for anyone?’ Thorin kept a lookout, he really hated the forest, it seemed as if it were brooding and watching them all the time, he would be glad to get some distance from it.

‘Are you talking about Bilbo? Or Dori? He still isn’t too comfortable with his ‘baby’ brother using a war hammer. I’m pretty sure I’m permanently in his black books, not that I care.’ Dwalin shrugged a bit at the look he got. ‘Eh, the kid has to be trained, and we’ll need to do better, we ever get back to the mountain. All dwarves should have training, not just the ones out hunting or fighting. We could lose dwarves to common accidents in the field if they haven’t been trained.’

Thorin nodded. ‘I’m quite sure that Balin is making lists already of things we should do differently, should we ever get home. And it seems like the Grey Mountains are getting a little taller, we just need to make sure we don’t go too far back west. But running by the river is a better choice at the moment, I think. We don’t know what our water sources will be when we start back east.’

‘Well, not until we get to the Forest River. I’m just hoping for a ford somewhere when we get there. Never thought I would be missing those horses and their riders.’ Dwalin shook his head sadly.

‘I know. They were so helpful, and after all the tales that my father and grandfather told, it was a total surprise! Although, I still think there will be too much enmity between us and the Woodland Elves to get anywhere. At least, not until we are in Erebor and we can find the jewels my grandfather refused to give back.’

‘His gold sickness and hoarding didn’t help us at all, I’m afraid.’

‘No. But, we’ll be spending a lot off whatever is left in there just to get through the winter. And we should probably see if we can send messages to the clans to see if anyone would be willing to send us food and warriors.’ Thorin sighed and pinched his nose.

‘Of course, that’s if we can get there, get in, and get rid of the dragon.’

Dwalin slapped him on his back. ‘One step at a time, first we get around to the Forest River, then across it. Then, who knows.’

‘Yes, and we should get back before Balin has a conniption at us.’

The next morning after a quick breakfast, they started out and angled toward the river while Kíli and Bofur headed out ahead of them to see if they could find any game. There had to be a reason why they hadn’t seen anything.

By evening when they all met up again, Bofur showed off the hares they had shot and in turn, Fíli showed off the fish they had caught.

‘Well, we’ll be eating good tonight! Get everything dressed out and we’ll smoke some of it. And save some of the guts from everything because we can use it for bait tomorrow.’ Bombur was getting everything set up, he wanted more food stockpiled before they got to Erebor. And the more they had, the longer they would be able to last, especially if they were there during the winter with not enough supplies.

‘We’re going to keep pushing, everyone. I want to be to the Forest River as soon as possible.’ Thorin looked around to make sure that everyone was listening and got nods. ‘The sooner we get there, the sooner we see which way we are going to go. I know that some of us are leaning toward going further around the Mirkwood and come in from the north, but we need to make sure it’s the right way.’

‘What about Gandalf? If we’re moving that fast, how will he be able to catch up?’ Nori looked up from where he was cleaning the last hare.

‘At the moment, I don’t care. If he catches up, he catches up. Otherwise, he’ll be there to help or not.’ Thorin shrugged, he really didn’t care at the moment, he just wanted to get to his mountain. Once they got there, then they would have to find a way to get rid of a dragon.

Bilbo nodded in agreement. ‘He’ll turn up and be all ‘yes, I made it in time’, whether or not he is. I’m not counting on him at all. I figure that we’ll get everything done and he’ll show up and give us the sad eyes because he didn’t get to play. Ppfftt.’

Soft laughter was his response and his quick grin as he strung up pieces of meat to smoke made them continue to laugh.

‘But remember, Thorin, I need a drawing of whatever it is I’m supposed to be finding before we get there. I’m not going in blind!’ Bilbo pointed at him and he nodded back in reply.

‘Yes, I remember, we’ll get it done. Let’s get this done tonight, tomorrow will be just as hard as today was.’

The next morning, Nori and Dwalin were the lead to find more hares and whatever else was out in front of them. The rest of the group continued along the river, catching fish as they went, until they met up with Dwalin who pointed toward the now curving forest.

‘We’ve come to the end of following the river. We scouted a bit ahead, and it just looks like more of the same that we’ve been going through.’

‘Ok, so we’ve got some fish, but we’ll need to catch some more before we move away from here.’ Bombur started another fire so that they could get more of the fish smoked. ‘Were you two able to get anything? We’ll smoke it here before we move on.’

Nori came up from behind them, ‘I think the game in this area is smarter than average, or it gets hunted a lot. But yes, we got four more hares. We’ve already field dressed them.’ He handed them to Bombur who quickly got them cut up and then hung them over the fire.

Bilbo and Óin sat down and started to make a new batch of the tisane that they had made before, making sure to add in the hot peppers that they had found in their packs.

‘If we’re going to be away from a river for a while, we need to make at least one more of these. And maybe two.’ Óin just shook his head at Thorin’s look. ‘No, if this stuff works the way the books says it does, we need to make sure we have enough of it to take out the dragon.’

Bilbo nodded in agreement. ‘This makes three, and maybe another when we reach the next river. We definitely don’t want to be caught short.’

The next morning, Bilbo made sure that every water sack he had was full and carefully packed onto the ponies, they still weren’t sure how far away the next river was, and so far, streamlets had been few and far between. Anyone who had any sort of container had also made sure to rinse them well and fill them up. With a last look around the mostly covered up campsite, the troop started off east around the northern edge of the forest.

Again they rode all day, switching out front and rear guards, trying to get a feel of this part of the land. The forest was the same, but this time they really didn’t have a choice on not following along the edge of it, although they were still keeping a careful distance from it.

‘Bilbo, how are you doing, really, this has to be harder on you than us.’ Thorin looked over at him, Bilbo had been riding for a while, clearly thinking about something as they went. But he noticed that even in the worst of the times they had had, that Bilbo hadn’t complain even half as much as some of the Dwarves, and most of them were used to traveling to find work to support their little colony in the Blue Hills. Even his nephews had done some extended hunting trips as they had gotten older.

‘Hmm, yes, but so far since Rivendell we haven’t been chased by orcs and wargs. So there is that. And some of our sleeping quarters could be better, but have definitely been worse!’

Thorin choked a bit at that, and Bilbo grinned at him.

‘If I start to have real problems, I’ll tell you, how’s that. I have gotten used to riding, and really, I’ve been camping out for quite some time now. I have had a better diet, however, but all of you really are more meat eaters than I am. I do miss a good roast potato and a better variety of vegetables, but I’m not hurting there, either. It’s amazing what is out here growing wild. I have been able to find and get into the cookpot at night all sorts of good things to improve all of our diets.’

Bombur grunted. ‘Yes, the first time he dropped things into my pot, I almost brained him until I realized he was just adding variety to my stews. At least, nothing has killed us yet,’ he grinned as he rode by, it was his turn to scout ahead. And he might not have all of Bilbo’s knowledge of growing vegetables, he was starting the recognize different things in the wild that could go into a stew pot, and had a sack just for that purpose.

Thorin just looked at him, perplexed. ‘It’s like you’re determined to mother us, and I don’t know why because from the beginning, that’s what you did.’

Bilbo shrugged. ‘It’s probably a Hobbit thing. We’re all about comfort, you know, and food. And really, your whole troop has kind of grown on me, even if you insist on teaching me how to use horribly sharp things.’ Bilbo almost smiled sadly, he had become fond of all of the dwarves, and if at all possible, he didn’t want anything bad to happen to any of them. Even if he and Thorin…

Bilbo cut that thought off short. Thorin was totally different from what little he remembered and what Yavanna had told him. He would take what he could get, and if that was friendship, well, that would be good enough.

He hadn’t really had any contact with Yavanna since they had gone through the mountains, or even here in the valley. But, he had noticed that the dwarves were still giving little signs of some sort of worship to Mahal, so he’d just continue to do his part for Yavanna and hope that everything would come out all right in the end.

‘Also, remember, I need to know what this rock looks like that I’m supposed to find in the inside of a huge mountain with a rampaging dragon running around in it.’ Bilbo just gave Thorin a look when he snorted.

‘I haven’t forgotten, we’ve been drawing it at night, but we all have biased views of it and it’s proving difficult. It’s like none of us see it in quite the same way. But it glows with a fire from within, and my grandfather had it mounted in the throne after it was carved. Unfortunately, Smaug has probably pried it out and carried it to the treasury, along with everything else he could find. That’s what dragons usually do.’

That night, once again, snares were set out to see if anything would be caught, as they hadn’t found anything during the day. They wouldn’t starve at the moment, but they wanted to know if they could still find sources of food.

The next morning, Bilbo got up and stretched, for some reason he had dreamt some truly strange things, and felt that he needed to stretch out and walk around before everyone else was up. He nodded at Bifur and Ori, and then went on, looking around and trying to find anything new to add to their diet. He also softly murmured prayers, because he felt that he had not been as attentive as he could have been since they had gotten out of the mountains.

As he wandered, he caught a glint of something in his path. Suddenly he remembered something Yavanna had said so long ago in Bag End. ‘Oh, is this the next thing that I should be concerned with? Because I don’t think that I’ve found any special bags in my pack lately!’

There was a soft breath, and suddenly, in his pocket was a weight that hadn’t been there before. Bilbo sighed and looked up, shaking his head. He continued on, and soon came upon a ring lying on the ground. ‘So, should I actually be touching this, or should I pick it up with the pouch? Because, really, I don’t want to ever touch this thing, it caused so much trouble and misery. And couldn’t you just have put it in the pouch so I wouldn’t have to even look at it?’

There was almost a smack of air that grazed over his head, and he sighed and walked over to where the ring lay. Pulling the porch out of his pocket, he carefully turned it inside out and picked the ring up. After turning it right side out, he tied it tightly and shoved it back into his pocket.

‘I hope that you give me more direction what I should be doing with this thing. And should I keep it in my pocket, or bury it in my pack?’ Bilbo shuddered a bit, he knew that Yavanna had blurred a lot of his memory and even with what She had given back to him, he really didn’t want to know what he had forgotten.

As he went back to the campsite, he wondered what he should do, and decided to just leave it in Yavanna’s hands at the moment, and that if he could get it into his pack without anyone noticing, he would.

Once he was back, everyone else was up and finishing breakfast.

‘Did you have a nice walk? We noticed that you hadn’t been able to since we started this, and we decided to wait and let you come back on your own, since we knew that you hadn’t had any chance to do that.’ Thorin looked over at him from where he was packing up his pony.

‘Yes, thank you, being in the mountains for so long, I have missed walking in more open spaces. But I know that all of you are more at home in the mountains, and I mean that literally!’ Bilbo grinned as he was handed his breakfast and lunch. ‘But, thank you, I did enjoy my walk, even if I didn’t really see anything like a water source, which is what I was looking for.’

‘Hmm, well, we’ll just have to keep an eye out as we go, otherwise we might miss one as we go along.’

Thorin swung up onto his pony, ‘Let’s get going, the faster we start moving, the further along we’ll get.’

As they moved out, Bilbo sighed and took up his position in the middle of the group, and then ducked as Dwalin took a swing at him and Bilbo kicked out at him, surprising him and almost knocking him off his pony.

Kíli gave a laugh from behind him, ‘He almost got you there, Dwalin! I’m not surprised, Bilbo has been learning!’ A second later, his pony started and almost bucked him off, as Bilbo tapped the pony with rock that hit him on the pack.

Dwalin laughed back at him. ‘I’m not the only one that’s been taken in by him, I see!’

Thorin just sighed, again.

The rest of the day went on, trading out who was riding point and who was training, with Dori frowning as Ori had more training on the warhammer, as well as with a sword. Dwalin also kept working with Fíli, as he needed to keep his skills up.

By early evening, they were ready to stop and fortunately for them, they came upon on small streamlet that went into the forest, which made them more willing to use it.

‘If we come upon on any stream coming out of the forest, I think that we should avoid it if at all possible. Remember, Gandalf seemed to feel that anything in the forest should be avoided as far as eating and drinking is concerned.’ Thorin gave the forest a look, and motioned them to build their campsite further away from the it.

Bombur nodded as he took the hares that had been shot during their ride. ‘I would have to agree, the only thing I see coming out of there is nothing good for us. I would say to make sure any game we get isn’t coming out of the forest, just to be safe.’

The night passed as quietly as they had done since they had gotten out of the mountains, and in the morning, Bilbo got up and frowned as he looked around.

‘Does anyone else find it strange that we’ve seen nothing and nobody since we got across the river? I mean, doesn’t anyone live here? Or animals, they’ve been few and far between. Really, it’s not normal, not for anywhere!’

Glóin nodded. ‘We were discussing that during watch. It’s almost too quiet, and it makes me just a bit nervous, to be honest. I keep thinking that something is going to happen that none of us will like.’

Thorin and Balin exchanged a look and Thorin nodded.

‘There could be a reason for the quiet, if you all just would think for a minute.’ Balin looked at each of the dwarves and then gazed in the direction of Erebor. ‘We haven’t had much chance to make any mention of it, but I think that since we have all started doing something, each in our own way, that our journey has become smoother. And maybe less chancy.’

All of the Dwarves jerked at his words, eyes going wide.

‘Oh. Of course.’ Fíli bit his lip and then glanced over at Bilbo. ‘And I think I’ve see you doing your ‘thing’ as well. That probably didn’t hurt.’

‘Hmm, well, that could definitely play a part in it. Which probably means that we should keep a better lookout, because, well, just because.’ Bilbo shuffled his feet a bit, embarrassed that he hadn’t really thought about it on his own.

‘Yes, continuing to keep a lookout is a good idea. So, let’s get everything done and back on the ponies. I just wish we knew how much longer it’ll be before we find the next river.’ Balin sighed and everyone got busy, Nori and Kíli coming back with the snares they had put out, a hare in each of them.

They had been back in the saddle for just over half of the day when the lead riders came back with news.

Bofur was grinning as he announced, ‘We can see the Forest River, the land starts going down a bit and it really isn’t that far to it. Riding the way we have has really cut down on our travel time.’

Everyone gave a quiet cheer, just because they hadn’t seen anyone, didn’t mean that there wasn’t someone out there and they didn’t want any attention at this point.

‘All right, let’s get to this river and see if we can get across without any trouble.’

Ori just hung his head. ‘You had to say that, didn’t you, Dori.’ There were several shaking heads as they all headed out, pushing their ponies who seemed to know that there was something up ahead of them that they would like.

And when they got to the river, Thorin let out a sigh of relief, the water was low, and it was obvious that someone had made a bit of a ford just upstream from where they were.

‘Let’s go north and see if we can get across there, it looks very promising and I rather be across now, then wake up tomorrow and find out that there was rain up in the Mountains that raised the water.’ Thorin motioned everyone to start off, the ponies snatching grass as they went, it was much greener here due to the river.

It wasn’t long and they were looking at a very small ford, it wasn’t five feet deep even if it was a little wide, and Thorin looked at Bilbo. ‘So, how do you want to do this? I mean, the last time the Elves took you over, we don’t have that option this time.’

Dwalin shook his head, ‘No, we tie his pony to mine, it’s taller and we should be able to get over just fine. One of you trail us, just to make sure.’

They made sure that everything was tight, and Bombur followed right behind them as they went.

Bilbo just gulped and nodded, this was never going to be anything that he was going to be good at, Hobbits just weren’t comfortable around water.

Dwalin looked at him, nodded, and a tense ten minutes later, they were across and back on dry ground. ‘Let’s get uphill from here, I think both of us would be more comfortable.’

‘Oh, yes, that is an excellent idea. And we can start a campfire while everyone else gets across.’ Bilbo sent a short but sincere pray to Yavanna, he knew she had a hand in all of this, but he was truly thankful.

Chapter 13

That night they poured over the map, and finally decided that there was no real reason to go back south, even though it was slightly east, just to go north again, especially since they weren’t sure about what would happen with Lake-town, since not even the Elves had been able to tell them anything. Continuing the way they were going was just a better way to go.

‘All right, with that decided, we need to figure out how to get rid of the dragon.’

Bilbo looked at Thorin and just shook his head. ‘And you said that like someone saying they were going to the local pub to get a pint. Wow. And, am I supposed to find your Arkenstone before or after you get rid of said dragon?’ He cocked an eyebrow at him and Thorin huffed back.

Of course, that caused several of the group, including the youngest, to have a fit of giggles while Thorin and Balin just rolled their eyes at all of them.

‘Yes, it was a totally funny statement, I get it. Nevertheless, we do need to figure this out. What does your handy little book tell us, Bilbo?’ Thorin gazed across the fire at him, and Bilbo just grinned back at him before sobering up.

‘Yes, we’ve made another one of the tisanes so it can seep, even if it won’t be for as long as the others. And I saw and picked some more herbs as we travelled today, used them in it and hopefully that will also help.’

Óin nodded. ‘We’re taking everything into consideration, but we still won’t know if it will work until we get there.’

Balin looked at them both, frown lines on his forehead. ‘Do you know, I have never even asked, what do we do with this stuff, throw it on him? Get him to swallow it some way?’ Everyone just looked at the two who had been in charge of this since the beginning.

‘From what we can figure out, he either swallows it or it has to be poured over him. So whether we throw it at him and trick him into swallowing it out of midair, we don’t really know.’

Bilbo nodded his agreement. ‘It doesn’t really say in the book. Anywhere. Which is a little disappointing, to say the least. Just that it can be swallowed, but nothing about how much.’

‘Disappointing! I would say so! So we’ll have a dragon and a potion but we won’t know what to do about getting it into or onto said dragon!?’ Dwalin just looked at them, dismayed. ‘I don’t think we’ll have time to practice when we get there, either! Not with Smaug rushing around, blowing fire at us!’

Bilbo and Óin just gazed back at the rest. ‘Well, you did tell me that I didn’t have to do anything other than find your rock.’ He shrugged at the horrified looks he got from most of the dwarves. ‘Which I still don’t know what it looks like. Because none of you seem to be able to agree on what it actually looks like. Which I think is pretty strange, to say the least.’

Thorin opened his mouth, and then shut it. ‘Now that you’ve said it that way, why can’t we all remember what it looks like? Balin, you were there as an advisor, you saw it every day you were in the throne room. Even you can’t give us a good drawing of it.’

‘So, you’re thinking that there is something else going on here? Because, remember, when Thrór found the Arkenstone, he shaped it and had it mounted in the throne room and then the hoarding started to ramp up.’ Balin looked back at Thorin, a slight frown on his face.

‘And then the dragon came.’ Dwalin sighed. ‘You are thinking that this is all connected, aren’t you, because that’s what I’m thinking.’

Thorin rubbed his head, ‘It’s not like we can get rid of it, it’s part of the whole ceremony when we have a new king. And the only reason we don’t have it now, is because Smaug came in through the gate and no one could get back in there to get it.’

‘And I’m pretty sure that my grandfather and father both tried to get it.’

Balin nodded, ‘Remember when they caught up with us, they had burns and were covered in soot. They never did explain how they got all of them, not even when pressed.’

‘It would have been better if they had grabbed more gold and jewels. It would have helped in our resettling if we had had more money during the journey away from Erebor. We could have paid for food and lodging, especially for the children.’ A look of sorrow crossed his face. ‘We lost so many in just the first months of the trek away from there, let alone before we got to the Blue Mountains.’

Dwalin shook his head, ‘Still not your fault, Thorin. You did what you could, with hunting parties and the like, but we were all in shock, and no one was well. We lost dwarves just because. And if you’re going to blame someone, blame the dragon and Thrór and Thrain.’

‘Yes, well, this is not getting us any closer to what the Arkenstone looks like.’ It was obvious that this whole discussion was making Thorin uncomfortable. ‘I want everyone to draw what they remember of it, and we’ll see what we come up with in the end. For now, sentries up, someone throw a line or two into the river to see if there are any fish, the rest of you, get some sleep.’

Kíli and Fíli huddled close to their uncle, feeling the need of close family that night, as did the others who also sat closer together. Bilbo sadly shook his head, this was the same way Hobbits felt when the Fell Winter came up.

The next morning, Bombur came back from checking the lines they had left in the river overnight, and motioned for Thorin and Dwalin to come with him, a very disturbed look on his face.

‘You have to see this! I couldn’t believe it when I went to see if we had caught any fish!’ Bombur gestured toward the river, which seemed to have magically grown in the night, the ford they had traversed was gone, and it was running much faster, white water in some of the places they had crossed.

‘Cloud burst in the mountains?’ Dwalin looked toward the Grey Mountains, he knew that it could happen, but they had heard nothing in the night that would cause this sort of thing to happen and it was clear as a bell.

‘Bilbo getting special treatment from his Goddess?’ Bombur shrugged at the looks he got from the other two.

‘Mahal granting us a reprieve? All of us have been actively praying since before the mountains.’ Thorin helped Bombur pull in the fishing line, and really, they weren’t surprised to have several fish on it. ‘Well, that’s make a good breakfast for us today. And leftovers for lunch on the ponies, as well, I think.’

The other two nodded and after gutting them, they returned to the campsite to find that Ori and Bifur cleaning two hares that had been snared.

‘We’ll need to smoke those a bit, the fish won’t keep as well, so we’ll eat them now and I’m make something for lunch with the leftovers. The hares will keep until tonight.’ Bombur got busy and soon they were eating and making sure that all the waterskins were full after they had fed and watered the ponies.

‘Bilbo, stay away from the river, it’s come way up, there might have been a cloud burst up in the mountains.’ Thorin didn’t mention any of the other theories they had, because it could have been just that. ‘The last thing we need is you getting swept away.’

Bilbo looked startled and handed off the skins he had been holding. ‘Ah, I’ll just let the rest of you fill these up. I’ll believe you about the river rising, the Brandywine does occasionally, but that’s why our bridges are so high and so sturdy.’

As they were eating, Bilbo looked around and asked, ‘Has anyone looked at what the twins gave you back in Rivendell? I forgot all about it with all the extra excitement being caused by stupid wizards.’

The Dwarves all looked at one another and made a bee-line to their packs.

‘I hate to say it, but no, I think we all forgot about our presents. I’m kind of embarrassed that we forgot and so missed our chance to thank Elladan.’ Thorin looked down at the wrapped bundle in his hands, and then opened it.

‘Oh.’ The sighs seemed to come from everyone as they looked at their opened bundles. They were all different, yet alike. In each was a wooden dagger, with glyphs carved into them and polished to a high sheen, personalized to each Dwarf holding it.

‘How did… I mean… These are beautiful! And…’ Everyone just gazed at their present, they had never seen such beautiful work. Thorin couldn’t get over that they had gotten something so personal, and in the short amount of time that they had been there.

‘Ah, but there were at least two of them working on these, maybe more. And I’m going to say that the twins probably started working on them the moment they knew we were coming. They do that, you know.’ Bilbo carefully wrapped his back up, and then putting it carefully away in his most water proof pack.

‘Yes, we will have to send something back to them, I know that they don’t do this just for anyone, it’s quite priceless.’ Balin was following Bilbo’s actions, and soon everyone had packed their daggers away, but still looked shell-shocked over it.

‘Amazing, just amazing.’ Dori was the last to put his away, so lost in the complexity of it.

But soon everything was packed and ready to go, the routine of travel had become commonplace, and everyone was used to sorting themselves out quickly, even if they were still shaken by their presents.

Thorin seemed to shake himself out of the haze he had found himself in, and said, ‘From what we can tell on these maps, it looks like we have about the same amount of travel as where we came out of the Misty Mountains to here. So, hopefully, we won’t run into anything, but stay watchful as we travel. We have no idea what we will be getting into the closer we get to Erebor.’ Thorin nodded to everyone and they set off once more.

The day went the same way as most of the others, just with no river in the distance. The woods hadn’t changed, and that night, they camped a little bit further away from it.

‘Why does the forest feel worse here than before? It’s the same forest…’ Glóin gave it a sideways look, and frowned. ‘I mean, it is the same forest, right? Because it feels totally different.’

Thorin and Dwalin both turned and looked at it.

‘Well, it is separated by the river so… Maybe it’s a bit different from the rest?’ Dwalin walked toward it, staying out from under any overhanging branches. ‘We should just treat it the same way we did the other side, only harvest dead wood and stay out of it. And no drinking any water that comes out of it, hopefully we’ll find some streams that go into it.’

Balin nodded. ‘I agree, let’s not change anything now. It’s been working so far.’

After their dinner, Bilbo and Óin looked over the book again, but there still was nothing to tell them how to dose the dragon. Everyone else looked over their daggers before once again putting them away. They didn’t want them to be damaged.

‘There’s nothing here, we just need to think about how we can get Smaug to eat this stuff. I mean, we could just leave it lying around and hope that he takes the bait. Maybe it smells enticing to him as a dragon?’ Óin just shrugged and exchanged a look with Bilbo.

‘Well, the stuff that they used to keep small lizards out of houses and outbuildings was dried and sprinkled around the buildings. We’re using the liquid formula, that might make the difference. And it doesn’t smell bad at all.’ Bilbo poked at the batch they had made the night before. ‘And I do have to say, it does smell good, not at all what I was expecting. With all the mix of herbs we put in it, I was thinking it wouldn’t smell so good.’

‘And each one smells different, did you notice, Bilbo?’

‘Yes, and I’m not sure if that’s because of how long they have been seeping, and of course, each batch is not exactly the same, we added new ingredients and different ones, depending on what we had on hand.’ Bilbo nodded and then frowned. ‘Plus, it would also depend on how much heat each got during the day from the sun, and how cool at night. We haven’t been keeping track of that at all.’

Bombur shook his head, ‘Let me have a smell, just to make sure that it’s not going off.’

The other two handed him the bags one at a time, and Bombur sniffed each on. He sniffed the oldest and then down the line. ‘Well, I don’t smell anything bad, the second one smells more spicy, but that could just be what you used.’

Bilbo nodded. ‘Yes, I added more hot peppers that I had in a pack. I don’t know if it’ll help or hinder, but at the time, it seemed like a good idea.’

‘Well, we’ll just have to see. Let’s settle down and get some sleep.’

The next day was a repeat of the last, and Bombur started immediately rationing the water. Ponies got theirs first and everyone was told to drink as little as possible. Hopefully there would be a stream before they got to the last of their water, but taking precautions now might save them later.

By evening, everyone was giving the forest more than doubtful looks, and they moved even further away from it. Dwalin and Nori set a trip line to make sure that nothing came at them from that way.

The next morning, it started to cloud up and everyone just sighed and got all their packs covered as well as they could.

Bilbo fashioned a piece of oil slick that fed into one of the more empty water sacks, and attached it to his pony. He wasn’t sure he would get much water, but every little bit would help at this point. A couple of the company copied what he did, and he just grinned a bit at them.

By mid-morning, it was raining so hard that they were having trouble seeing anything around them, and Thorin called a halt.

‘We can’t go on like this, let’s see if we can make some sort of shelter and get a fire going, if possible. This isn’t getting any better and we’re not going to wait until dark and try to set up then.’ He then sent two to meet up with their outriders, bringing everyone back together.

With some effort, they managed to get a lean-to set up using the packs as a back. The ponies were wet and not very happy, but were able to eat and get some water that way. And between Bombur and Bilbo, they did get a small fire going so that they got a hot meal, which was very welcome.

‘I feel like I jinxed us, making the comment about the river this morning,’ Bombur murmured softly to Thorin.

‘Really, we’ve had better weather than I was anticipating. So, as long as we can make this work for us, by collecting what water we can, we’ve had worse.’ Thorin shrugged a bit, it was warm enough and there was hot food.

Bombur hummed a bit, but then banked the fire as they settled down.

Thorin thought there might be some problem in the night due to the weather, but to everyone’s surprise, it was quiet. And then the next day was clear and cloud free.

‘Well, that was a bit of a fast mover, I was expecting it to still be raining.’ Bilbo looked around and then gestured toward the forest, a look of surprise crossing his face. ‘Am I seeing something…’

Dori gasped in surprise, and grabbed his sword. Everyone swung around and looked in the same direction, those who didn’t already have their weapon in hand, grabbed one, Dwalin and Nori angry that they hadn’t noticed him first.

Standing in the shadows of the forest was an Elf. And it wasn’t one from Rivendell, as it was dressed with more leaves and greenery, along with leather, it was obviously one of the Woodland Elves.

He gave them a very unimpressed look, and then walked out toward them.

Thorin stepped forward and called out, ‘Who are you and what do you want?’

Everyone spread out and kept an eye out, not only on this Elf, but also around them and as far as they could see into the trees.

‘All you need to know at the moment, Dwarf, is that Gandalf sent me a message that he will be longer at his mission than he thought he would be. But,’ he looked around, ‘I don’t think he realized how far you all have traveled since he left you.’

Thorin frowned. ‘And we should trust you with this message, why?’

‘I care not. Believe me or not, but I have delivered the message and that’s all I needed to do.’ The Elf turned and started to return to the forest.

‘Wait!’ Bilbo frowned at everyone, ‘Did he say how long he would be? And would you like some breakfast?’

At the murmurs from the rest of the troop, he frowned again and waved a hand. ‘Stop it, all of you. I’m not listening to you! Not every Elf is a danger to you, so just quit.’

The Elf looked at him in surprise. ‘Well met, Bilbo of the Shire, Gandalf said that you might be the politest one of the group here. I am Viridan of the Woodland Forest, and Thrandúil does not know about this, Thorin, maybe-King Under the Mountain.’ There was a distinct curl of lip as he spoke, and an answering rumble from the Dwarves.

‘Ah! You all deserved that, so just stop it now!’ Bilbo stamped a foot, and then turned back to Viridan, ‘Ignore them, they are grumpy at the drop of a hat.’

Thorin took a deep breath, and tried to say as calmly as he could, ‘Could I speak to you for just a minute, Bilbo.

Balin, if… our guest… would like some breakfast…’

Bilbo glared at him and then followed as Thorin walked away from their campsite.

Thorin sighed and sat down on a rock, dropping his head into his hands. ‘Bilbo, really. Must you?’

Bilbo murmured a bit to himself as he stomped around, and then said, ‘Yes, actually, I do! For Yavanna’s sake, how have all of you survived all this time! Really! Making enemies right and left doesn’t help your cause, you know. We could find out all sorts of things if we asked politely! But no, let’s make an enemy of someone who knows the area!’ Bilbo waved his hands in the air as he stalked back and forth. ‘We need more water, and finding out if there’s anything around here that we don’t want to run into, that’s just two questions I can think of just off the top of my head!’ He glared at Thorin who glared back at him.

‘You, on the other hand, and let me repeat this, want to make him an enemy and send him away as soon as you can.’ Bilbo sighed. ‘Thorin, really, stop thinking every Elf is an enemy, I know that you haven’t been treated well in the past, but…’

‘Treated well!’ Thorin reared back from him in outrage. ‘I know that my grandfather and father had trouble with the Woodland elves all the time, and it wasn’t all our fault!’

‘No, I’m sure it wasn’t, but it’s not helping at the moment that none of you can let it go now! That was then, this is now!’ Bilbo shook his head and sat down beside him. ‘Why must you always lead with distrust instead of waiting to see if what they have to say or do.’ He patted the knee nearest to him. ‘You need to calm down, think about what will help us right now.’

Thorin looked at him a bit strangely, but then relaxed. ‘All right. But, I still don’t like any of them!’

Bilbo sighed. ‘Fine, now let’s find out if he has any more information that we need to know, and find out if there’s water anywhere near here.’

The two returned to a rather tense camp, Viridan had declined breakfast, and so they had just mostly stood around glaring, waiting for the other two to return.

Thorin nodded to Balin, who stepped back as he came into the fire circle. And even though he didn’t really want to, Thorin gestured toward a seat. ‘If you could share anything about this area, it would be appreciated. And did Gandalf the Grey not have anything else to say? Just that it would take longer?’

After a look at him, Viridan shrugged. ‘The message was very short. Just that he would be delayed. Other than that, I don’t know. It’s interesting that you chose this way to go, I’m sure that he thought you would be going down river to the Lake. I had checked there first and only came up here when I realized that there no sign of you anywhere around there.’

Dwalin snorted. ‘Bilbo is not fond of water.’

‘That’s one way of looking at it,’ Balin murmured.

Bilbo frowned at all of them. ‘Hobbits don’t swim. We do not like deep or fast moving water at all, thank you very much!’

He then turned to Viridan and asked, ‘Are there any streams coming from the mountains? We are not willing to use anything coming out of these woods, they look very chancy.’

‘Well, it looks like you do have some sense, you are correct, you shouldn’t drink anything coming out of these woods. Thrandúil has charmed many things in the woods, whether on this side of the Forest River or the other. You should trust nothing coming out of the woods. But, another day’s ride will put you very near a small stream coming from the Grey Mountains that is safe to drink from. And at that point, you will be within just a couple days ride to Erebor.’ He nodded at the gasps he got with that pronouncement. ‘As I said, you have made very good time on your journey.’

‘So, we shouldn’t trust anything coming out of the woods. Does that include you, Viridan?’ Glóin wasn’t willing to be as trustful as some of the others, he’d had run ins with Elves before when having to bargain for food and basic supplies.

‘Glóin! Politeness counts here!’ Bilbo suddenly had had all he could take and just let loose.

‘You lot need to just settle down and be polite! Really! If you hold onto grudges that last millenia, who do you think you’re going to trade with if you can get into your mountain? It would seem that there are Elves and Men closer to you here than more of your kin!’ Bilbo sighed and rubbed his face. ‘I don’t know why I bother, you all seem to want to be on a path to destruction.’

Everyone just froze for a minute, eyes and mouths hanging open as Bilbo stomped around.

‘No, I don’t want any comments about how all of your history is filled with angst and turmoil and bad feeling between you and everyone else you’ve ever encountered. Everyone has a bad history at one time or another. For Hobbits, it’s the Fell Winter, but we’ve grown and made better plans for the whole ‘just in case’ that could happen. But you,’ he waved his hand around, ‘Can’t get passed ‘Oh, Elves are bad and can’t be trusted and we must be bad back before they do something to us first’.’ Bilbo glared around and all of the Dwarves shuffled their feet, rubbed the back of their heads and didn’t seem to want to look him in the eyes. Even Thorin had a bit of a blush at the tirade.

Viridan started to laugh softly. ‘Oh, Gandalf said that you were a spitfire and were probably be running the Dwarves ragged, well, in this case, making them behave whether they want to or not.’ He relaxed and sat down by the fire circle. ‘Let me tell you about the area you are going into. There aren’t many water sources between here and Erebor, so you’ll have to make sure to carry as much as you can. There is some game, but don’t go too far toward the Grey Mountains and as I said before, stay out of the forest. Then, the land around the mountain is in terrible shape, it hasn’t come back from the attack of Smaug. It’ll take a long time to make it usable again.’ Here he cocked an eye at Bilbo, who blushed just a bit.

‘Yes, well, if we can get everything to go our way, I can always get some Hobbits to come with supplies that would help with that.’ He looked around at the troop, and sighed. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to blow up at all of you…’

‘Don’t apologize for something that has been brewing for a while, Bilbo. Because, you’re pretty much right, we do have a tendency to hold a grudge past its time.’ Balin shrugged a bit at some of the glares he got in return, but they all knew that he was right.

Kíli looked sideways at Thorin, then bounced over to Viridan and asked, ‘What kind of bow it that? Did you make it yourself? What kind of distance can you get?’

Viridan looked startled and suddenly Nori, Ori and Fíli started to laugh.

‘Only you, Kíli, only you!’ Dori just shook his head, but it wasn’t like they didn’t know that Kíli’s obsession with his bow and how he could improve himself with it.

Dwalin pulled out their maps and soon was conferring over them with him, marking the approximant places for water and Viridan was able to give them a much better timeline in getting to the mountain.

‘You will need to be very careful once you are there. There have not been any sightings of Smaug for quite a while, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of what is going around him. I don’t know how you plan to get rid of him, but just know, it probably won’t be as easy as you think. He has had many more years to brood and plan and he won’t be willing to move out with any grace.’ He looked around at them. ‘You do realize it’ll be a battle to the finish, right?’

He got nods and sighs.

‘Yes, we know that it won’t be easy but we have been making some plans and hopefully, one of them with work. We do have better than a month to work on it as well.’ Thorin shrugged at the look of disbelieve he got from Viridan. ‘Plans, lots of plans, some of which Bilbo started quite a while ago, it would seem from what he has said. And if we have time to plan even more, that’s even better. And give Gandalf time to make it here, if he can.’

Bilbo snorted. ‘And then he’ll give us all the reasons why he’s late, not that he’d call it that, ‘cause he will, you know.’

They were finally all packed back up, and Viridan nodded to them all as he faded back into the trees. He had explained that he could be out for only so long before being questioned about just what he was doing. And he would be able to get a message back to Gandalf, which got him a lot of snorts from everyone.

‘Yes, please let him know that we’ll be waiting for him, like not at all. Things to do, dragons to get rid of.’ Bilbo made a face as he waved a hand. ‘Senile, all of those wizards are senile, I swear.’

As they mounted up, there were chuckles from everyone, and then they were on their way once again. At least this time, they had a better idea of where the next water source would be, plus the lead riders would hopefully be able to find more game as they ranged out front.

It was mid-morning when they found the first little streamlet and it was with relief that they got the ponies watered and all the waterskins rinsed and refilled. They could tell that the lead riders had also been there, so they knew that they had also gotten a good drink.

By that evening, everyone was ready to stop, the night before hadn’t been the greatest night, and this time they could stop and get comfortable without having to hurry because of rain. And when Kíli and Nori came back from hunting, there was plenty of fresh meat to eat.

‘There’s plenty of game out there, I don’t think anything has hunted this area in quite a while, which is good for us. It’s within easy reach of Erebor, so we would have an easier source of meat, at any rate.’ Nori handed off his dressed hares, and Kíli nodded beside him.

‘We even saw deer tracks, so there is bigger game out there.’

Thorin looked over at Dwalin, ‘Your suggestion to go this way is turning out to have been an excellent idea. We got water sources, game, and it really doesn’t look like anyone has been here for quite a while. Maybe even Bilbo’s Hobbit friends could make something here that could help us and them.’

Bilbo nodded. ‘Yes, we could grow wonderful things here. Of course, it all depends on what’s in those mountains over there,’ gesturing toward the Grey Mountains. ‘I wouldn’t want anyone here be within reach of something that might hurt them. And I couldn’t say that anyone would want to stay here, but they could at least get a good garden started and teach whomever how to tend it.’

The rest of the group wrinkled their noses and then Ori giggled, thinking of how offended Dwarves would be to be farmers. It just wasn’t something anyone did willingly, although most back in the Blue Hill had small kitchen gardens that helped feed their families.

‘We could make everyone rotate out here and grow our food, and feed for our animals, but I could also see a total rebellion if you put it into practice. It’s definitely something that we should think about, there could be guards if need be.’ Balin looked around. ‘Was this area ever used before? I don’t remember anyone using it. And I would have thought we were doing something with all of this being so close to Erebor.’

Bilbo walked out into the grass, scuffing his feet along the ground, plucking up stems of grass and sniffing the air.

‘If this land was ever cultivated, it’s been a very long time ago. I can’t tell that anything has been done here ever. It would take a lot of work to get it ready for crops, although there’s enough grass to feed herds of cows, goats, and ponies. Which would be a good thing, it would cut down on how much you would have to trade for except during hard times like drought or a long winter or bad spring. Of course, that might be all over and hard to deal with anyway, but… We’re getting ahead of ourselves.’ Bilbo shook his head and came back to the rest. ‘Anyway, we need to get moving again, if you’ve finished marking this little stream.’

‘Yes, let’s see how much further we can get today, everyone keep an eye out for game and water.’

With that they started out again, switching out leaders and Dwalin holding back with Ori, much to Dori’s displeasure.


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