Bilbo tugged his coat more tightly about his small frame and shivered, more from nerves than the chill.
It was a mere week into the journey – they had not even reached the furthermost borders of the Shire yet – and already he was beginning to feel a twinge of doubt about this quest.
The dwarves were pleasant enough. Fili and Kili’s relentless curiosity had subsided into boisterous, youthful over-familiarity. Ori had shyly made several attempts at conversation, as had Balin and Bombur. Bofur chatted freely to him as if he had known him forever, unthinkingly sharing his supplies of tobacco with the Hobbit as soon as Bilbo confessed he had forgotten his. Oin, Gloin, Dwalin and Nori more or less ignored him and Bifur contented himself by making happy mumbling noises and waving whenever he saw the hobbit.
The only one that made him uncomfortable was Thorin.
Bilbo cast an uneasy eye across the fire towards the leader of their company. The dwarf prince was sat idly whittling at a stick with his dagger, his finished bowl of Bombur’s stew discarded by his feet.
The other dwarves seemed comfortable enough around their companion, Bilbo had observed, as was Gandalf. It was just the hobbit who felt at a disadvantage around the sharp-eyed dwarf.
Thorin’s eyes flicked up from his work, as though he had known Bilbo was looking at him all along.
The hobbit hastily ducked his head, feeling his throat clench in embarrassment at being caught out, Thorin’s gaze stinging like a needle-point.
Even muscled, tattooed Dwalin – who looked like he could snap the hobbit like a twig should he so choose – did not intimidate Bilbo as much as the silent prince.
Bilbo poked at the tiny puddle of broth left in the bottom of his bowl and tried not to think how much bigger the dwarves on either side of him were. He felt quite inadequate enough.
Bilbo paused, looking up despite himself. What on earth was that noise?
The other dwarves were looking around curiously, trying to find the source of the noise. All except Thorin, who was staring at nothing with an unexpectedly bewildered expression on his face.
As Bilbo watched, the dwarf’s chest jerked and there was another Hulp! Louder this time.
Thorin groaned and dropped his head onto his hand. “Oh, for the love of . . .” Bilbo heard him mutter under his breath.
“Are you quite well, Thorin?” Gandalf’s amused voice broke through the temporary silence.
“It is nothing.” Thorin grumbled, hastily straightening up. However, his attempt to throw up a façade of indifference was rendered useless by a penetrating Hweck! which made him flinch as his entire chest-cavity spasmed.
Little Ori broke the dam of laughter first, bright giggles tumbling from his lips like jewels from a bandit’s purse. Then Fili’s shoulders began to shake, Kili snorted weakly as he attempted to contain his mirth and finally Bofur’s already-familiarly filthy laugh cackled out of him and all became hilarity.
Bilbo sat there, shuddering with repressed laughter as everyone else howled with joy.
Thorin just sat there and glowered at them all, although the effect of his intimidating expression was ruined somewhat by the increasingly frequent hiccups making him twitch and squeak in a frankly un-princely manner.
“You all are far too easily amus-HWECK!” He grumbled, inspiring a fresh bout of laughter.
“N-not our fault, Uncle.” Kili gasped, wiping away tears of laughter. “Y-you sound ridiculous!”
“You are making noises curiously reminiscent to an angry duck, Master Thorin.” Gandalf observed, eyes glittering with merriment.
The look he received in return could have etched steel, however Thorin had realised that attempting to speak only made his hiccups worse so he fumed on in silence, a muffled ulping noise bursting from him every so often.
It took a full two hours, drinking a whole skein of water, five highly inefficient attempts to startle the dwarf (one of which nearly resulted in Kili acquiring a broken nose) and eventually Thorin stomping off and dunking his head in the river to cure the dwarf of his affliction.
Rivendell was everything that Bilbo had dreamed an Elvish palace would be.
Although the meeting with Elrond had ended badly, Bilbo still find his eyes being cast about with wistful curiosity, finding everything surrounding him full of wonder and fascination.
It felt like paradise. A world of comfort and quiet and books. Oh, so many lovely books. Bilbo’s heart longed to stay, or at least to linger on just a little while longer. But Thorin had already ordered that they were to leave as soon as someone could find Bombur, who no doubt had gone to raid the kitchens for supplies.
If they were lucky, he might even bring back some for the journey.
The dwarf prince was pacing restlessly around the balcony on which the dwarves had congregated, the fire and heartier fare that they had managed to come by more comfortable for them than the Elvish feast they had been offered. Bless his soul; Bifur was still trying to roast some lettuce. No one had the heart to stop him.
Once again, Bilbo checked that his sword was safely tied to his belt. It had been days since he had acquired the weapon but he still felt uncomfortable wielding it. Never in his entire existence in this world had he ever met a hobbit who carried a sword before. They were peaceful folk! They rarely went to war, and when they were not in conflict then swords were put in cupboards and chests as keepsakes or the metal was melted down for farming equipment.
He felt entirely unworthy of the weapon. Still, he was getting used to the feeling of being unworthy. Eru knows he felt it most of the time now anyway.
“Here, Mr. Bilbo?” The hobbit looked up to find Bofur eying his sword inquisitively. “Would you mind if I took a look at that.”
“N-not at all.” Bilbo fumbled the scabbard from his belt and passed it over.
The dwarf took it and looked at it with a professional eye, inspecting the hilt before drawing it. “It’s been very well forged, for saying it’s of Elvish make.” He admitted, begrudgingly. Bofur examined the blade before tapping the edge smartly on the floor, creating a spark.
Bilbo didn’t know much about swords but he knew they had to be sharp to be useful and so the words were out of him before he could restrain himself. “Careful, you’ll blunt it!”
There was a long pause as Bofur slowly swung his head round to look at the hobbit, a wicked grin on his face.
Bilbo knew what was coming and hastily through up his hands. “No, no, no, no, no!”
But Bofur was already starting to sing.
Blunt the knives,
Bend the forks.
Fili and Kili, catching on, started drumming their hands eagerly on the floor, the young dwarves also raising their voices to the tune.
Smash the glasses,
And crack the plates!
And then a dozen voices broke out in chorus a chorus of bellows:
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!
Bilbo sat there, finding that he was smiling despite himself as the dwarves reprised their earlier chant. The mocking was tempered with no small amount of affection for the subject of their song and it relieved some of the tension in the room.
He shook his head indulgently when they all finished. “You’re all bastards.” He grinned, provoking a cheer at the unexpected profanity.
But then Ori made a faint squeaking noise and they all turned to look.
Thorin had stopped dead in his pacing, staring wide-eyed at his company as though they had all grown an extra set of heads.
Too late they all remembered that he had been absent the first time the dwarves had teased Bilbo this way.
Finally, the dwarf broke eye contact and ducked his head, one hand coming up to cover his eyes in an expression of absolute defeat.
Balin cleared his throat weakly. “Thorin?”
The prince shook his head, his posture not changing.
Bilbo gnawed on his lip, worrying that their mirth had offended the dwarf who was still seething with rage from their previous meeting. Worrying that this would lessen him still further in the dwarf’s eyes.
Then he noticed that the dwarf’s shoulders were shaking.
Balin had clearly noticed it too as he repeated the prince’s name again, confused.
Then, to their amazement a faint breathy laugh reached their ears, Thorin’s hand sliding down to cover his smiling mouth even as his eyes crinkled with merriment.
“Uncle!” Kili yelped, amazed and causing the prince to let out another stifled giggle.
“You are all quite utterly mad.” The dwarf choked. “Quite, quite mad.”
Then he dissolved utterly into musical baritone laughter, having to lean against a column to remain upright, just managing to gasp out ‘your faces!’ as explanation for this sudden fit.
He could not have looked less like a king in that minute, clinging to the wall to remain on his feet, tears of laughter sparkling on his lashes and, frankly, not one member of his company could have cared less.
So contagious was the his laugh that everyone found themselves grinning along, with Oin whipping out a teapot and a reprise of the song beginning once again.
Just as the final applause and raucous cheers were dying away from the encore, Bombur returned to the group with supplies and they quickly prepared themselves to leave.
Nevertheless, they set off on the second leg of their journey with a smile. Even if only for five minutes.
The next leg of their journey did not go well.
The going up to the mountain pass was tough, with the rocks too small to climb over but too big and unevenly shaped to comfortably place your feet on. The soles of Bilbo’s feet were leathery enough not to blister or crack under the strain but the bones seemed to shift and mould uncomfortably about the protruding stones.
The dwarves were faring even worse as their feet slipped and slid inside their huge boots, the friction of their socks slowly and painfully flaying the skin from their feet as they struggled uphill.
Every night the dwarves would throw themselves down around the fire and, hissing with the pain, peel their boots off. Sometimes the blood seeped so thickly from their blistered feet that it crusted and they had to yank the sticky material away. Bilbo would do what little he could to help, assisting Oin in preparing the soothing salve which they would smear thickly on their feet every night, but it was a futile attempt. They slept poorly on the rocky ground and, as quickly as dwarves healed, the next day’s walk would simply worsen the previous day’s wounds.
The pain and frustration and anger came to a head one morning a few weeks after their departure from Rivendell.
Kili and Thorin had been sleeping close together – the dwarves’ habit of sleeping spread out rendered impractical by the increasingly cold weather – and Bilbo found himself waking just as the prince and his nephew were rousing themselves.
Thorin stifled a yawn behind one massive hand and attempted to sit up but found himself jerked back with a yelp, which was echoed by his sister’s son.
Somehow, during the night their hair had gotten tangled.
Thorin exploded. “KILI!”
The two dwarves awkwardly attempted to scrabble to their knees, their hands pawing at the scruffy mess that joined them.
“WHAT HAVE I TOLD YOU ABOUT BRAIDING YOUR HAIR PROPERLY SO THINGS LIKE THIS DO NOT HAPPEN?” Thorin bellowed, yanking on Kili’s admittedly bedraggled hair. “YOU ARE A PRINCE OF EREBOR, NOT A COMMON SCRAP METAL COLLECTER! YOU-“
A heavy hand on Thorin’s shoulder cut short his rage.
“Leave him be, laddie.” Balin said, quietly. “You’ll bring every orc in the mountain down on us with that noise.”
Thorin breathed hard through his nostrils, his fury restrained by Balin’s sensible observation.
Kili slumped wretchedly. Bilbo felt sorry for him. The young dwarf was brave, kind, loyal and welcoming. His scruffiness and impulsivity were clearly an ingrained part of his personality but Bilbo found it hard to resent him for it. To be honest, the young dwarf reminded him of one of his Tookish relatives. Little Peregrine. Or Pippin as he insisted on being called.
Everyone knew that it was more than just the hair that had provoked the prince’s ire. The going was getting harder, their rations were already beginning to run low and every step up the mountain felt like a punishment, not an achievement. Poor Kili had just been chosen as a target which Thorin could vent at.
Quietly, Bofur – who had the cleverest fingers – picked at the mess. After a few minutes he winced.
“Speak, Bofur.” Thorin ordered, sharply.
“I . . . I don’ t think even I can sort this mess.” The toymaker admitted. “I hate to say it but we might have to cut you both free.”
There was an uneasy shuffling throughout the group and tears sprang to Kili’s eyes.
Bilbo sucked in a breath. He had long since learned that dwarfish hair and beards held special significance. They prided themselves on their length and luxuriousness and a common punishment for their criminals was the cutting off of hair and beards, symbolically rendering them less of a dwarf.
For a prince to undergo such a thing . . .
Thorin’s expression fell very slightly but he rallied. “So be it.” He said, his voice curt but hoarse.
“Uncle-“ Kili began, weakly but Thorin cut through him.
“We cannot walk up the mountain joined as we are. Bofur, make the cut.”
Reluctantly, Bofur reached for his knife, Thorin and Kili both closing their eyes in shame.
“Wait!” Bilbo scrambled forwards, staying Bofur’s hand on the hilt of his blade.
Thorin growled. “This does not concern you, Halfling!”
“I-I know! But please, let me try first!” He said, stumbling forwards over the rocks. “I have smaller, nimbler fingers. I might have better luck.” He held up his hands and wiggled them as though to prove himself.
They all considered him for a long moment, as though doubting his sincerity.
Bilbo swallowed, feeling dizzy with nerves, before he voiced what none dared say. “The king of Erebor cannot have his head shorn like a criminal. At least let me try.”
The company flinched at this brutal truth but said nothing.
Thorin’s jaw tightened as he considered but finally he gave a swift, sharp nod. “Do what you can. Everyone else, break camp. We leave as soon as Kili and I are separated.”
Bilbo hurried over and set to work, trying to ignore the anger radiating off Thorin. The dwarf was muttering under his breath and Bilbo thought he caught something about Kili being an ‘imbecilic little cockgoblin.’
The hobbit grabbed hold of one of Thorin’s thick beaded braids and worked out from there. He had untangled many a kite string in his day and knew how best to reverse a knot and relieve tension in a thread.
He moved, foot sliding on a loose rock and stumbling.
Two pairs of hands shot out to steady him.
“Thank you.” He stuttered, flushing, fingers fumbling with embarrassment.
After a few minutes he managed to free the plait. One more was entangled but not as severely, and the final section was just a few ensnared locks. A gentle tug would probably clear them.
Kili’s posture changed as he began to let himself hope that the situation could be fixed after all.
“Stay still.” Bilbo chided him gently, relaxing the tension in a knot and slipping the loop free.
Finally, finally, the braid came free and, upon hearing Bilbo’s cry of triumph, the two dwarves jerked up and the final hairs yanked themselves separate.
A faint cheer rose behind the hobbit who grinned down at the two dwarves. Kili was rubbing his head and sighing with relief but Thorin was already getting to his feet.
“We have lingered too long. We must move out.”
Bilbo’s face fell, anger and no small amount of contempt rising in his heart.
Was it completely beyond the wretched dwarf to say thank you?
Hearing no gratitude forthcoming, the hobbit limped back to his bedding bundle, which Ori had kindly wrapped for him in preparation for the days travel, inwardly cursing that he hadn’t just let the cursed dwarves shave their heads completely and good riddance to them!
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder, making him jump.
It was Thorin, dark blue eyes regarding him closely.
Up close, Bilbo was surprised to see just how exhausted the dwarf looked.
“Thank you, Master Hobbit.” The dwarf said, quietly. “The alternative would have been humiliation.”
Bilbo relaxed slightly. “You’re welcome.”
Thorin nodded shortly and moved away, the matter clearly closed.
Sighing at the prospect of the day’s climb, Bilbo shrugged his bag onto his back and set off after the others. He didn’t think he could take many more days like this, particularly when tensions were running so high.
However, for once luck was smiling on them.
Kili’s quick eyes spotted a thin, winding pass which allowed them to bypass the rocky peak and brought them out onto the table-top surface of the mountain side, thus redeeming himself in the eyes of the thoroughly relieved group. Here the walk was flat and gentle mosses grew under foot, soothing beneath their weary limbs.
For the first time in many days Bilbo felt tension seep out of his shoulders, his pack sitting more comfortably on his back for it and, whilst they were all still exhausted when they stopped to camp for the night, at least they slept on soft, yielding ground. It was still cold up there but, a fire went some way to taking the edge off the chill, and they all sat there yawning into their bowls during the meal.
Kili went up to receive his portion before walking back to his place, carefully not meeting his uncle’s gaze as he passed him.
However, as he did so a hand shot out and grabbed him by the hair, yanking him down to sit on the ground.
“Wha-!” He yelped as his uncle grabbed his shoulders and swivelled him around to sit with his back to him.
“Shut up and sit still.” Thorin ordered. “Dori?”
Dori fumbled in a pocket and retrieved a comb which he passed to the prince.
Kili opened his mouth to protest but a heavy hand landed on the crown of his head.
“What did I just say?” Thorin said, warningly.
Realising resistance was futile, Kili closed his mouth again. Thorin then proceeded to tear every last knot from his protesting nephew’s head. When he was done, Kili’s previously wispy mess of dark hair shone in the firelight.
The young dwarf gasped at the echoing sting in his scalp and made to rise but his uncle’s hand on his shoulder made him stay put.
“We’re not done yet.” Thorin said, firmly.
Bilbo watched, eyebrows raised, as Thorin quickly and efficiently braided his nephew’s hair so that it was held tight, secure and neat back off his face. Such paternal behaviour seemed out of place and yet oddly right for the prince. Strange . . .
Kili just sat there and took it, knowing better than to argue and, secretly, enjoying the feeling of Thorin rendering him suitably presentable. It reminded him of similar occasions when he had been a young dwarfling. “I am 87 you know, uncle.” He said, faintly petulantly, protesting purely for the sake of appearance.
“And yet, you seem incapable of doing this for yourself.” Thorin pointed out drily, sliding the final bead into place.
He nudged his nephew in the back with his foot, indicating he could move. “Don’t let it happen again, Kili.” He said, warningly. “Or I’ll shave you bald and get Dwalin to tattoo your head.”
The young dwarf hastily scurried back to his brother.
Joy at escaping from Azog more-or-less unscathed made their first camp following the eagle’s flight a wonderfully merry gathering.
Bilbo, full of residual adrenaline from the fight and deep, heart-felt gratification at Thorin’s newfound respect, watched interestedly as Oin and Gandalf finished bandaging up their leader.
Thorin’s wounds were mercifully not as severe as first believed. He was battered and bruised several interesting colours and he had a slight gash in his torso but it was not as serious as first feared. Dwarf armour was made to withstand a lot and it had served him well.
Oin helped the wincing dwarf into his shirt before fumbling in his pocket and drawing out a vial.
“I would recommend drinking this.” The healer said, calmly. “It will lessen the pain, ensure you sleep well and aid the healing process.”
Thorin looked at it doubtfully. “Is this the same concoction you gave Ori when he got attacked by the Wargs last year?”
Oin hesitated. “Yes.”
Thorin raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you quite certain that’s wise? You remember how Ori was on it.”
The youngest of their company blushed and huddled closer to his brother.
“What is it?” Bilbo asked, curiously.
“It’s a fusion of plants with pain-killing and healing properties.” Oin explained, rattling off a brief list of ingredients as he cleared his medical supplies away.
Thorin regarded the bottle ruefully. “It is a rather potent drug. When last Ori was given some he thought he could fly.”
“Ah, that was the Salvia Divinorum.” Oin said, hastily over Bilbo’s muffled chuckle. “I’ve altered the formula since then.”
“Are you quite sure it is wise for me to take this, Oin?” Thorin asked, seriously. “I trust your judgement of course, but if it has a stronger effect than intended then our progress tomorrow will be lessened and our supplies are running low as it is. We cannot afford a lost day’s travel.”
Oin chewed on his lip, fingers dancing agitatedly on his ear horn. “It’s your decision of course but I would certainly recommend it. Your body is still partially operating on adrenaline and it is dulling the pain. If you don’t take it then the risk of infection triples and chances are the pain would be such that you could barely move by morn and even less progress would be made.”
“Fear not. I know some tricks to lessen any unwanted effects if it comes to that.” Gandalf interjected finally.
Thorin nodded and sighed. With no further ado, he tugged out the cork and chugged back the contents of the vial.
“Let us see what happens.” He sighed, handing the empty vial back to Oin.
To begin with, very little effect was visible. The dwarves sat around the fire, talking quietly but happily, contained in a seemingly impenetrable bubble of contentment. Bilbo, Gandalf and Bofur amused themselves by having a smoke-ring contest however; the fairness of the competition was lessened slightly by Gandalf’s use of magic.
Out of the corner of his eye, Bilbo kept a faint watch on Thorin.
It was very gradual. But slowly, slowly, his posture slackened so that he was slumped in on himself. His pupils grew large in his head and a slow, vague smile came onto his face as he watched the dancing flames.
This was good. Before, tension and pain had kept his posture rigid. Obviously the drug was having a beneficial effect if he could relax so much.
Suddenly, Bilbo felt a tingling sensation and bucked, yelping.
A small spider had been crawling over his hand but his sharp movement had flicked it away.
The others stared at him but he was now comfortable enough around them not to blush and stutter so he shrugged. “There was a spider. It tickled.”
They nodded, vaguely.
“You always were ticklish even as a child.” Gandalf observed. “Your brothers used to torment you mercilessly if I recall.”
Bilbo nodded, smiling as memories returned.
“Dwalin’s very ticklish.” Balin broke in smugly.
The enormous, muscled dwarf flushed, strongly. “Am not!” He protested.
“Don’t bother Dwalin, everyone knows.” Gloin grinned.
“You’re not though.” Kili observed.
“True.” Gloin admitted. “Although it was amusing watching you try.”
Kili inclined his head to concede the point.
“I’m not either.” Oin admitted. “Maybe it runs in families.”
“Me neither.” Ori said.
“Me neither.” Nori and Dori chorused.
“Me neither.” Fili mumbled, carefully replaiting one of his braids.
Bilbo noticed Thorin rousing a bit at that. His bleary eyes swung round, blinking at the young dwarf. Slowly, he brought up one of his hands, fingers splayed spider-like.
Then, with surprising speed, he darted his hand out and tickled Fili’s neck.
Fili let out a noise that could only be described as a shriek, jerking off the log on which he was sat and nearly landing in the fire.
Thorin chuckled at that, pointing with an unsteady finger. “You’re a lying little toad, Fili.” He grinned, his words slurred slightly. “You’ve been ticklish since the day you were born. Everyone of the line of Durin is ticklish.”
Everyone laughed at the discomfited young dwarf’s reaction, with the exception of Bilbo.
Something had just occurred to him.
The hobbit leaned forward, a slow evil smile forming on his lips. “Everyone of the line of Durin?” He asked.
“Yes.” Thorin nodded.
Then, he frowned, his brain struggling through the haze of the drug. What in Eru’s name had made them all go quiet like that?
And, why were they looking at him and grinning?
Then, he realised.
He flung up a warning hand. “No!”
But Dwalin had grabbed one shoulder and Bifur the other and they were bearing him backwards to the ground and then his nephews were on him in a heartbeat.
Bilbo clapped a hand over his mouth as Thorin’s bellow of ‘BAGGINS!’ rose through the scales to become a howl of laughter.
Gandalf snorted as Thorin’s various limbs flailed uselessly against the onslaught. How the mighty do fall . . .
Oin however, was on them in a heartbeat, coming to the prince’s aid. He thwacked Thorin’s assailants hard with his ear-pipe, making them yowl in protest. He may have been one of the elder dwarves but his blows certainly did not lack heft.
“Are you all malformed in the head?” The aged healer snapped. “He is injured! You run the risk of tearing his stitches or worsening his injuries!”
Slowly, shame-facedly, they released Thorin who still gasped out a few breathless, reflexive little laughs, his stomach muscles twitching faintly with the movement.
Noticing that the dwarf’s eyelids were fluttering heavily, Gandalf nudged Bilbo and passed him Thorin’s pack.
Realising that he was closest, Bilbo got to his feet and went over to where Oin was checking that none of his bandages had loosened. Finding nothing, he shook his head and Bilbo helped him tug Thorin’s rucked-up shirt back into place.
The prince’s eyes wandered vaguely but he saw nothing now. “Why can’t I move?” He asked, his voice barely more than a murmur.
“The drug is taking effect now.” Oin said, his words calm and reassuring as he and Bilbo fumbled Thorin’s blanket from his pack. “You will sleep very deeply. When you wake your injuries will have begun to heal and the pain will have lessened dramatically.”
Thorin licked his dry lips, sightless eyes blinking. “But everyone is safe?” He slurred, his brain growing groggy and confused.
“Aye, Gloin’s here.”
“We’re both here, Uncle.” Kili said gently.
“Balin, Dwalin, Dori, Nori, Ori, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur are only a few feet away as well. Do not worry yourself.” Oin soothed.
It was clearly a struggle now for Thorin to keep his eyes open and when he finally forced his voice out, it was barely audible. “Gandalf?”
“I’m here and well, Thorin.” Gandalf’s rich voice echoed comfortingly through the gloom. “Sleep peacefully.”
Thorin’s eyes were naught but the faintest gleam between his dark lashes. “The . . . Bilbo?” He whispered.
Bilbo looked down at the prone, vulnerable figure, remembering how his welfare had been the dwarf’s first concern upon his awakening earlier.
Balin had been right.
This was a man he could call King.
Thorin struggled to open his eyes, tension creeping back into his limbs. “Bilbo?” He whispered again, his clouded brain agitated by the lack of a response.
“I’m here.” Bilbo said softly.
Thorin sagged back down, relief rendering him utterly boneless.
Bilbo could have sworn his saw his lips form the words ‘all safe’ before the dwarf’s breathing deepened and healing sleep gently took him beyond the reach of pain.
Beorn’s Carrock truly was an amazing place, Bilbo mused as he watched a sheep go stepping neatly past him, a bucket of water held in its mouth.
Due to Thorin’s injuries and their need to replenish their supplies, Gandalf had taken the risk of introducing them to the enormous man, a gamble which thankfully had paid off. They had been in the man’s home for a day and a half and they were all feeling better for a few proper meals and a decent bed to sleep in.
Beorn himself was sat with Gandalf at the far end of the massive hall, watching curiously as the dwarves amused themselves.
Oin had just removed Thorin’s bandages, his injuries more-or-less fully healed already. The others were playing some indecipherable game involving cards and small round stones. So far, Bombur seemed to be winning.
Fili, Kili, Bofur and Ori however were behaving like complete menaces, all of them seemingly afflicted with a surplus of energy now they were no longer hiking all day.
Bilbo leapt back with a laugh as they went stumbling past him, Kili on Fili’s shoulders, Ori on Bofur’s, hacking at each other with some wooden spoons in lieu of their swords.
He felt Thorin and Oin take their places next to him, all of them chuckling at the sight of Kili using his brother’s hair like reins to direct him as he stumbled.
“Come on brother!” Kili cried. “The honour of the line of Durin rests on our shoulders!”
“Maybe on yours!” Fili gasped. “I’ve only got your fat arse on mine!”
“Take him out, Ori! Take him out!” Bofur cried, sensing victory.
Shoving his spoon between his teeth, Ori whipped out his slingshot and nailed Kili exactly between the eyes.
With a squawk, Thorin’s nephew fell backwards, he and his big brother collapsing in a tangled, cursing heap of irritation and profanity.
Bofur threw up his arms and cheered, forgetting about his passenger who was dumped unceremoniously to the floor himself.
Up at the far end of the room, Beorn and Gandalf burst into peals of laughter. Beside Bilbo, Thorin shook his head in fond resignation.
“Ori cheated!” Fili protested, kicking himself apart from his brother. “No ranged weapons!”
Ori just let out a low whine and massaged his lower back which had connected painfully with the ground.
“You were losing even before Ori used his slingshot,” Bofur taunted, relishing his position as the only dwarf still standing.
“A race then.” Kili choked, spitting out a mouthful of hair as he struggled to his feet. “Then weapons do not matter.”
“Aye, a race.” Bofur said, eagerly. Reaching down, he hauled Ori back onto his feet.
Fili glared at his brother. “I’m going on your shoulders this time!”
“Holy mother of Durin, what have you been eating?” Kili groaned as his brother settled on his back.
“Stop whining, you’re heavier than me.” Fili grumbled, lacing his fingers through his brother’s hair for grip.
“One length of the hall?” Oin suggested. “I’ll say go.”
The card players paused, realising something was happening and turning to watch.
“Go for it.” Ori said, determinedly, his fingers clenched around the ear flaps of Bofur’s hat.
“Three, two, one, go!”
A great cheer rose as they began to run, Bilbo jumping up eagerly to watch their progress.
But then a hand grabbed at his arm and his waist and the world suddenly swung sideways.
“WHAT?” He shrieked, finding himself alarmingly high off the floor. Then, he realised that he had been thrown over Thorin’s shoulder, the dwarf’s arm on the back of his knees anchoring him in place.
There was a brief cry of ‘begging your pardon, Master Hobbit!’ and then Thorin took off at a sprint.
The howls of encouragement rose in pitch as the race took a new and interesting turn.
Bilbo yelped and gripped hard on Thorin’s ribcage, attempting to brace himself from banging his face on the dwarf’s back with every step.
Ahead of them, one of Beorn’s sheep stepped out unexpectedly, causing Kili to halt rather rapidly and sending the two brothers smashing face-first into the ground, thus eliminating them from the race. Thorin went pounding up the hall, a massive grin on his face as he leapt over his nephews, barely stumbling upon landing.
Turning his head, Bilbo realised that they were gaining ground on Bofur and Ori and gleeful adrenaline took over.
“Come on, Thorin!” He yelled, attempting to hold himself steady so his weight would not be a hindrance.
And then - wondrous luck! - a chicken exploded out from under a table making the duo ahead of them shriek and slip. Thorin and Bilbo tore past, Thorin’s outstretched hand slapping against Beorn’s proffered one, thus marking their victory. The roof of the hall resounded with howls of elation and applause, even from Fili and Kili who still hadn’t managed to pry themselves off the floor.
Enormous hands reached out and Thorin and Bilbo found themselves separated, each of them placed on one of Beorn’s massive shoulders.
“You’ve got an impressive turn of speed in those stumpy little legs, master dwarf.” The man chuckled. “Last person I saw run that fast had just stolen one of my sheep.”
“Oi.” Bofur said, grinning up at them as he staggered up to the finish line, allowing Ori to slip from his shoulders. “How could that possibly have been fair? Little Bilbo weighs about a third of a dwarf’s weight.”
Thorin held up a finger, smirking. “True indeed but we gave you quite a head start and you have not been recently injured. Accept it, master toymaker. Bilbo and I beat you fairly.”
“Hmm.” Bofur inclined his head to show his concession to Thorin’s argument and the smile dancing on his lips showed he was only teasing. “Very well. But next time you’re carrying Bombur!”
Mirkwood was nothing like Rivendell, Bilbo reflected nervously as he crept after the captured dwarves.
Even at night, Rivendell felt paradoxically sunny. The burnished embers of the setting sun being replaced by the warm glow of faint fires, as though the Elves had softly coaxed some daylight into remaining on earth for the duration of the night. A thousand delicate tints of bronze, gold and amber gentling the shadows and removing all fear from the night.
Mirkwood felt cold, the forest canopy too thick to let the warmth of the day penetrate its blanket of shadow, and Thranduil’s palace was as imposing as Elrond’s was welcoming. The shadows crept out as though they intended to seize Bilbo’s ankles and drag him into the darkness.
Ahead, Bilbo saw the dwarves stumbling and he hastened to catch up. Luckily, their forced march ceased soon after as they were brought into an enormous hall, Thranduil standing at the far end, his back to the newcomers.
The Elf did not turn to look at them, his gaze seemingly arrested by something on the table in front of him. Creeping forwards, the Ring ensuring his stealth, Bilbo managed to catch a glimpse of what was on the desk.
His stomach lurched. It was a map of Middle Earth, and the route which they had thus far taken was picked out in red. The Elf-King had good spies indeed. The Hobbit looked fearfully up at the fall of silver-blonde hair which cascaded down Thranduil’s back. The king may well be of Elvish blood, but at this juncture Bilbo didn’t feel particularly inclined to trust the man in front of him.
Eventually, Thranduil spoke, his voice soft and low. “Never did I think to see you willingly setting foot within my realm, Thorin Oakenshield.”
“Believe me, Elf.” Thorin said, every word bitten from his mouth. “This audience was anything but willingly sought.”
“And yet surely you were reconciled to its possibility the second your foot crossed the borders of my realm.” Thranduil said, calmly, turning at last to view his prisoners.
The dwarves quailed under his cold, passionless scrutiny. The Elf had ancient eyes, empathy worn away by too many years of life. To meet his gaze was to feel time itself was standing in judgement over you.
However, one amongst their company remained unmoved. Abject hatred had rendered him immune to the Elf’s intimidation and Thorin Oakenshield stood unflinchingly beneath the penetrating stare, every inch of him a king. “We kept to the path until safety necessitated we leave it. We were forced into trespassing by circumstance, as I am sure your spies have already informed you. Were we anyone other than who were are, you would aid us in our misfortune, not imprison us.”
Thranduil’s eyes narrowed slightly at the implication of tyranny. “You are indeed correct, dwarf.” He responded, softly. “My spies have told me much, but there is much still yet that they have not been able to reveal.”
A faint smirk crossed Thorin’s lips. “My, such dedicated agents you have in your employ, Elf-King.” He murmured. The sarcasm nearly burned the air.
There was a faint titter from the mass of dwarves behind him, reassured by their leader’s dignity under duress.
Hidden to one side, Bilbo watched avidly as Thorin folded his arms, standing as easily as if he were in his own hall, not that of the man who had just taken him prisoner.
The very palest flush of rose tinted Thranduil’s cheeks, the only reaction visible to his prisoner’s irreverence. “What brought you to my woods, Master dwarf? What was so important to you that you would risk falling into my grasp?”
Bilbo froze. Surely Thorin was not going to tell the truth? Thranduil’s halls were richly decorated and yet there was no evidence of mining or artisanship about this place. The Elf had a taste for wealth and, if he knew of their purpose, surely he would refuse to release them without guaranteeing himself a tithe first.
To have to give part of his hard-won heritage to the Elf would tear Thorin’s heart asunder.
Luckily, Thorin had wit enough not to hesitate and he responded coolly, “Your spies are poor indeed if they cannot discover something as simple as that. Why should I make up for their failures?”
A muscle in Thranduil’s jaw clenched and the Elf slowly advanced. “Know this, dwarf.” The Elf said, every word dripping contempt. “My men witnessed your entrance to this realm. They saw the spell-caster Gandalf leave you and they watched as you wandered lost as babes through these woods, starving day by day and getting further and further from freedom. Useless. Dying. Hopeless.”
He stopped in front of Thorin, so close that the dwarf was forced to raise his head to look him in the eye.
“They also had wit enough to note that there were fourteen among your number. And yet only thirteen stand before me. At what point was your accomplice lost?”
The rest of the dwarves looked about them eagerly as they suddenly realised that, once again, Bilbo was absent.
“I did not lose one of my party.” Thorin said, archly. “We fourteen were all together when your soldiers took us prisoner. It would appear they are as incompetent as your spies if they let one of us escape.”
Unseen to all but Bilbo, Thranduil’s fists balled inside his capacious sleeves. “You and your company will languish in our cells until you learn manners enough to tell the truth. And your friend will be captured dwarf, and he will know little mercy for his concealment within my borders.” Thranduil said, trying to retain his façade of indifference.
At that, Thorin tipped back his head and laughed out loud. “Oh, Master Elf, I do applaud your enthusiasm.” He said, smirking like the prince that he was. “But you know nothing of our companion.”
Bilbo’s heart leapt at the praise.
“You do not believe we will find him?” Thranduil demanded.
“Not if you had a thousand Elf lifetimes in which to search.” Thorin said, with absolute sincerity.
Thranduil’s dark brows furrowed and finally he snapped. “Take them to the cells!” He snapped at the Elf-guards by the door. “And redouble the search for the fourteenth dwarf!”
Bilbo stood concealed in the shadows as the back-most dwarves were grabbed and hauled from the room.
Thranduil glared down at Thorin, increasingly infuriated by the now calm expression on the dwarf’s face. Thorin had won the encounter and they both knew it.
“This is not over, son of Thrain.” The Elf hissed.
“I should very much hope not.” Thorin said evenly before surprising his captors by turning swiftly on his heel and marching out after his companions, the Elf-guards having to jog to catch up with him.
Little did they know that they had picked up an extra-shadow. Because the fourteenth member knew he had and would evade capture. And that he would release the Prince under the Mountain and his men at any cost. Erebor’s king would not rot in this shadowy prison.
Bilbo squared his jaw and ran swift and silent after his friends.
He had work to do.