Dwarves couldn’t swim, Bilbo had been surprised to discover.
There were a great many things which, although they seemed quite natural to the dwarves, initially mystified the little Hobbit. Their method of greeting each other by smashing their skulls together was only the first incident in which he became aware of their unfamiliar customs. He quickly discovered more over the next few days of travelling and, in the privacy of his head; he wryly conceded that Gandalf had been right. The world was most certainly not in his books. To be entirely truthful, he learned more about the peoples of Middle Earth from one talk with the well-educated and surprisingly chatty Dori, than he had done in his entire life up until that point.
Needless to say, Dwalin’s nipple-ring had been a major eye-opener and even now the company liked to do impressions of Bilbo’s squeak of surprise upon noticing it. Bifur’s injury too had alarmed him, although in truth the axe firmly lodged in his skull didn’t seem to pain the dwarf at all. In fact, he sometimes hooked things onto it which he did not want to lose.
However, it was Bofur’s confession that not one among the company could swim which confused Bilbo the most.
“I mean, we can paddle well enough.” The dwarf conceded. “But, if the water gets above neck deep then we’re in a wee bit of a bother.”
“Really?” Bilbo asked, curiously. “I mean, I know dwarves prefer to remain below ground as much as possible, but do you not even have underground springs to bathe in?”
Bofur wrinkled his nose. “Aye, some do brave the mountain springs but, by and large the wretched things are simply too cold to linger in. I mean, it takes a lot for a dwarf to catch a chill but Bombur fell in the Fall at Erebor once and he was in bed with the sniffles for months! So no, ‘tis rare to find a dwarf that can swim with so few opportunities for practice. Also . . .“ He broke off with a faint laugh. “Look at us! We’re hardly the most buoyant of creatures now, are we?”
Bilbo shook his head, amazed. “It's not common to find Hobbits that can swim either. I'm quite rare in being able to. But we’ve so many lovely rivers and creeks; it would be a crying shame not to. My relatives all thought I was addled in the head for loving water so much. I spent most of my summers as a child in the Brandywine River. I don't know, I just assumed that . . . well, you're all very outdoorsy. I just assumed swimming would be something you'd all be able to do.”
“Well, tell you what.” Bofur said, gamely. “When we get to Erebor, if you’re Hobbit enough to brave the chill, you can teach us all to swim in the Gilding Pool.”
The conversation ended on a laugh from Bofur and a shudder from Bilbo at the thought of all that cold water.
Nevertheless, it was a mere matter of weeks later when the dwarves’ inability to swim became a real and pressing handicap.
The mountain range surrounding the Eagle’s Eyrie was split down the centre by a gargantuan ravine through which every noise echoed back to infinity. The cleft had been carved out many aeons ago by a raging torrent of ice and water cast down from the mountain peak. The deluge had dwindled over the centuries to a spidery river which, whilst sizeable, was not even close to the scale it had previously been. The water split and wound in tendrils around rocky outcrops before the tributaries formed a thick tumbling wash which coursed round and down past the mountains towards the sea. Even now, the distant crashing of a great body of water echoed thunderously behind the closer gurgling of the near river.
The company, in their attempt to traverse the mountain, had stuck close to the ravine edge and were making their treacherous way along a slender ledge. Gandalf, having been granted another ride from one of the magnificent birds, had informed them that he was going to scout behind and see if the Orcs were attempting to follow them and, if so, to see if he could put them off their track.
Bilbo cast a nervous eye downwards, his left hand brushing lightly against the mountainside in order to give him at least a tenuous sense of balance. To his right was a sheer drop – not a particularly long one, only about two or three feet – into one of the smaller tendrils of water. To fall now would be most dangerous. Not because this stretch was particularly overwhelming, but because after two more bends it joined into the main surge of the river. If you happened to drift that far then there was very little hope for you, as the current screamed wrathfully and there were a great many rocks to be broken against.
The Hobbit shivered and edged as close as possible to the rock face, the going was slippery with flecks of water leaping up from the river below and he really didn’t want to risk falling.
A sudden shout made him look up, just in time to see Dwalin deflecting a rock off one massive forearm and into the water.
“Rock slide!” The dwarf yelled, bracing himself against another flurry of rocks which were crashing down a gully directly above his head. “Back up!”
Bilbo’s eyes widened as Bofur’s back connected with his chest, making him to shuffle backwards. “Wait-!” He protested, feeling someone colliding with his back as they too were forced to retreat.
But, there was no room to turn on that narrow path and so they had to stagger sightlessly back along the ledge. Bilbo’s foot slipped off the edge, making his heart leap in his chest before he caught himself. Hands scrabbled at his shoulders from behind, catching and yanking as though to push him away.
Then, the hands were torn away with a panic-stricken cry and there was empty air at Bilbo’s back.
“ORI!” Dori screamed from the very back of the group and Bilbo’s heart stopped dead in his chest.
Never before did so many thoughts flash through the Hobbit’s mind in so short a time.
Sweet little Ori. Slingshot. Mittens. Harmless.
Ori who can’t swim. Who hates water.
He must be so scared.
Even before Ori had hit the water, Bilbo was tearing his pack from his back and flinging it into Bofur’s arms.
There was a splash and Ori sank out of sight.
“Bilbo! What-! NO!”
But, it was too late. Bilbo’s eyes were fixed on Ori’s flailing hand, all that was visible above the surface.
Even as Thorin’s voice from the head of the column bellowed for someone to stop him, Bilbo hauled in the biggest lungful of air he could hold. Then, with a flying leap, he hurled himself out into the river.
Colliding with the water felt like being smashed with blocks of ice and precious air bubbled out of the Hobbit in a pained noise before he could stop himself.
Disorientation swarmed his senses momentarily as Bilbo thudded against a rock before being swirled away again.
His feet brushed the rocky riverbed at a hitherto undetected shallow point. Before the current could snatch this point of leverage away once more, Bilbo summoned his strength and kicked.
Wind tore at his face as he broke the surface with a gasping heave of air. Even as the dwarves’ yells echoed over the roar of the water, Bilbo gritted his teeth and began to swim.
The current was strong enough to propel him even had he fought the pressure but, with short, tight strokes following the direction of the water, Bilbo swiftly drew level with Ori.
The dwarf was a huddled shape bobbing just below the water. Sickeningly inactive.
Panic swelling in his chest, Bilbo sucked in another breath and dived again.
He fumbled with unresponsive fingers, his limbs numbing warningly with the cold.
Reached again, brushing Ori’s leg.
Smacked against a rock.
Air bursting out of him due to the force of the blow, he lunged once more and . . .
Bilbo’s head surged out of the water again, sobbing up water even as he sought to breathe air in. Straining at the effort, he hauled Ori’s dead weight upwards so that the dwarf’s head was above the waterline.
Then, he passed round a turn in the river and his stomach plunged with horrified realisation.
One more bend and they would be out on the rocky rapids.
The banks were too steep to climb and Bilbo wouldn’t have been able to swim against the current even if he didn’t have Ori’s limp bulk to support.
Mortality loomed ominously before him. Terror took over and Bilbo began to flail wildly, anything to delay the inevitable.
He was smashed against a rock again, blood swelling in his mouth as the impact made him bite his tongue. The taste of it made it all seem more real somehow. As though he could feel his life’s blood more obviously now his body was soon to be broken and his heart dashed upon the rocks.
No. No. No. Do not want to die.
They were ducked beneath the surface, water surging in a burning rush up Bilbo’s nose.
Bursting up, he lost his grip on Ori briefly and had to scrabble desperately in order to reclaim the dwarf.
My adventure’s not finished!
Bilbo’s hands dragged weakly along the side, searching for a handhold, a reed, anything!
. . .There!
Bilbo’s hand snagged on a rock jutting from the ledge above, the sharp edges slicing into his flesh and spilling more blood into the water. The river, no longer able to propel them, battered them mercilessly, forcing Bilbo down once more even as the rock anchored him still.
The water closed over him, the rushing dimmed in his ears as he struggled in a deathly cold embrace.
It was no good.
He was too exhausted. The water too brutal.
He could clamp Ori possessively to his side against the greedy tug of the river and he could grip the rock like a child would its mother’s hand. But, he could do no more.
He had not the strength to pull himself up to breathe.
This was it.
He’d never contemplated when he’d set out on this journey that his death could be by drowning.
Bilbo’s lungs were screaming, throat working, muscles locking, even as his heart numbed with acceptance.
And so, the adventure ends . . .
Darkness curling tendrils across his vision, his eyes drifted closed . . .
Then, there was a deafening, gurgling splash and four strong hands surged through the water to clench around his arm and his shoulders.
Whimpering at the painful grip, Bilbo choked out his last scraps of air, water rushing in to fill the void.
He bucked, vomiting air and water into, out of his body, then the hands got a firm enough hold and he was rocketing upwards.
The air bludgeoned his over-sensitised skin, and he let out a bubbling howl, the reddened river spilling out of his lungs.
He was deposited on the ground, struggling weakly against those who held him even as he choked gobbets of bloody water out of his aching lungs.
Above the echo of the water reverberating through his ears, a hurried voice was trying to get his attention.
“-t him go!”
Bilbo blinked, a distant, fuzzy part of his brain realising hands were prying at his arm.
No. Had to hold on.
“Bilbo, it’s alright. You saved him!”
No. Mustn’t let Ori go. Ori can’t swim.
Finally, a face loomed in front of his distorted vision and he recognised Dwalin. “Bilbo, we need to get to Ori. You have to let him go!”
Realising too late that he still had a death grip on the young dwarf, Bilbo allowed Dwalin to pull his cramped arm away and drag Ori from his grasp.
Finding himself momentarily abandoned, Bilbo curled his shaking limbs into a kneeling foetal position, his head resting against the slick, mossy rock as the last chokes of water dribbled from between his lips. Rolling his head sideways, he watched the perpendicular figures darting about the prone figure of Ori.
The panicking Nori and Dori were grimly elbowed aside by Oin. The healer thrust his ear horn at his brother and set to work, shoving his fingers into Ori’s mouth and feeling about before leaning forwards, clamping his lips around the young dwarf’s and blowing hard, pinching Ori’s nostrils tightly.
Sickening fear roiled through Bilbo’s soggy stomach. Had he been too slow?
Telling fear rising in his eyes, taking another deep breath, Oin forced it into Ori’s lungs.
Then, with alarming suddenness, the young dwarf contorted and Oin leapt backwards as Ori expelled a great gush of water, his hands grasping helplessly at nothing.
Relief blossomed in Bilbo’s heart and he laughed weakly, blood bubbling on his lips, as Dori and Nori seized their relative’s hands, nearly sobbing with joy as they did so. Little Ori just wheezed, his eyes darting about in confusion.
All of a sudden, rough hands seized Bilbo by the shoulders and he was yanked upwards with a yelp of pained protest.
It was Thorin. And his blue eyes were flaming with livid savagery in his white face as he held Bilbo suspended off the ground by his lapels.
“What in Durin’s name were you thinking?” He bellowed, his dry breath harsh on Bilbo’s damp skin, ignoring the Hobbit’s feeble attempts to push him away. “You could have gotten yourself killed!”
“O-only one . . . who c . . . could . . . swim!” Bilbo defended himself breathlessly, blood spilling down his chin. “O-Ori-!”
“We have no time for you to indulge your newfound fancy for playing the hero, Halfling!” Thorin was so enraged that he actually shook the Hobbit, Bilbo’s moaning in agony as his head rolled on his neck. “You nearly cost me two of my company, not just one!”
Fury bubbled up Bilbo’s throat. Only days before he had saved the dwarf’s life. They had embraced as equals! And, now he was back to treating him like a hindrance!
“You would have p-preferred I had let him die?” Bilbo snarled thickly, choking on a bubble of scarlet.
“I would have preferred you had given us chance to enact a plan that did not risk endangering the rest of company. Do you have any idea as to how close we all came to falling to our deaths chasing you down river? Had you not been such a reckless imbecile we could have gotten him out together without half-drowning anyone els-“
“We had no time to-!” Bilbo interrupted, but once again Thorin cut across him dismissively.
“-things we could have done if only you’d not been so foolish-“
But, Bilbo had had enough.
Anger twisting his face into something ugly and spiteful, he spat a mouthful of blood in Thorin’s face. As the dwarf reeled with shock, Bilbo snapped his head forwards to crack sharply against the dwarf’s nose.
Howling, the dwarf released Bilbo, the Hobbit dropping to the floor and scrambling away. Striking the bloody spittle from his face, Thorin lunged forwards, intent on seizing the Hobbit once more with violent intent.
But, Bilbo had drawn his sword and, half-drowned and wobbly-legged as he was, was poised ready to fight.
His scream echoed up the mountain pass, making even the Eagles on the distant eyrie raise their heads.
“You’re not my king!”
Everyone froze, the echoes of the Hobbits declaration circling back to them. Like wisps on the wind.
Never, ever had Bilbo Baggins hated anyone in his life as much as he hated Thorin Oakenshield in that moment. His face was terrible to behold as he viewed the prince, fluid rage searing his veins.
“You’re not my king.” He repeated, his voice hoarse from the strain of the last few minutes. “You have no authority over me. No right to order me. And, you certainly have no right to shake me about like a recalcitrant child!”
He choked out another spurt of blood, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
“All I have done, since I joined this wretched quest,” he snarled, finally voicing what had been burning in his stomach since the day he had left Bag End. “Is do as I was bid to the best of my ability. And with every step I have been told that I am worthy of nothing more than the lowest of contempt, that I am holding you back, that I’m a ‘burden.’”
Bilbo spat again, this time the blood landing close to Thorin’s boots, not caring that the rest of the company was watching the exchange uneasily, even poor little Ori.
“And I took it. And I escaped the Misty Mountains. Alone! I took on the Pale Orc for you!”
He pointed at Thorin, whose face was becoming increasingly troubled.
“I threw myself into that cursed river without a moment’s hesitation and so I ask you, Almighty King of the Dwarves of Erebor,” Bilbo’s tone dripped with resentful, mocking propriety. “When will I be enough for you? When I’ve saved each and every one of you? When I’ve helped you take every last coin of your hoard back from that damned dragon? When I’ve died for you? When will I be enough?”
The silence that followed was painful to his ears, Thorin standing wretchedly – but damningly silently - before him.
Accidentally inhaling some blood, Bilbo staggered away, choking. A hand settled on his shoulder and unthinkingly he lashed out.
Kili, the owner of the hand, jumped away, his palms out to show he was no threat. “Y-you’re soaked, Mr. Baggins.” He said, plaintively. “That river was freezing and there are snow clouds ahead. If we don’t get you warm and dry then you’ll get sick.”
There was a long suspicious moment as Bilbo considered Thorin’s nephew, but there was nothing in the boy’s face but genuine concern. Finally, Bilbo sighed and lowered his sword. “Who has my pack?”
Reclaiming it from Bofur, Bilbo shunned all offers of help and limped behind a rock to assess the damage alone.
It wasn’t good. His right side from ankle to shoulder was a florid mass of bruises from being slammed into the rocks. Although both his tongue and his hand had finally stopped bleeding, the edges of the wound were raw and, now that the adrenaline was wearing off, the pain and the cold were quickly becoming unbearable.
But, he bit it down. After all, he couldn’t be a ‘burden,’ he thought wearily. So, Bilbo awkwardly stripped off his wet clothes and replaced them with dry, but he had no way to dry his wet skin so he still shivered at every cold lick of the wind.
Staggering out from behind his shelter, he found that Ori was similarly being taken care of and Oin was waiting to administer to his hand. Submitting to stitches with only the barest of flinches, Bilbo nodded his thanks to the dwarf as he bandaged the limb, reluctantly opening his sore mouth to let the dwarf peer inside. There was nothing that could be done about the tongue injury so Bilbo just let him wash the blood from his face before shouldering his pack and waiting sullenly for them to set off, residual anger churning in his stomach.
Ori shyly wandered over to thank him and Bilbo mustered a weary smile in return but could not bring himself to speak. He thought he saw Thorin cast a small glance back at him before they began to walk again, but given that he was feeling a little woozy, he concluded that he’d imagined it.
Bilbo would remember the agony of that day as they walked out onto the plains below the mountains for as long as he lived.
It took about an hour for the levels of pain to peak. Stubbornly ignoring the concerned glances of the company, Bilbo struggled on, every step echoing through his body like he was iron, stretched out and beaten on a dwarven forge. He counted the steps, breathing raggedly. One. Two. One. Two. Telling himself ten more pairs and I’ll ask them to stop. And then another ten more. And then another ten more. Because otherwise he could not have kept going.
Then the snow came, thick, tumbling, swirling bursts of it and the chilling numbness was almost worse than the pain. Because at least the pain let him know he was still alive.
It took Bilbo a while to notice that Bofur had put his hat on his head. It took him still longer to realise that someone had fumbled his fingers into Ori’s spare mittens and that somehow he had acquired a scarf.
It did little good. The cold was set in his bones now. And still he kept on trudging. One. Two. One. Two. Ten more. Ten more.
But then the snow got deep, and Bilbo’s feet were too numb to feel when he’d put them down so how could he count his steps?
He began to falter, stumbling. Head down, hunched in and looking so very little.
But, still he kept staggering on.
What else could he do?
The world became very small, his entire focus directed on his next step. Nothing else existing in the entire vast universe but that next tiny movement forwards.
Finally, blessed, blessed relief as Thorin’s voice echoed back that they’d found suitable shelter for the night.
There was a vast rock jutting out of the ground, with several large gaps beneath it, a lone, stone monolith in the vastness of the prairie. Balin’s theory was that a stone giant had flung it there from the nearby mountains. They couldn’t fit in one gap all together but if they broke off into groups then there was enough room to just squeeze into the little nooks. Bilbo just stood, huddled close to the dwarf in front of him as the discussion was had, not contributing or even truly comprehending what was being said.
A disconnected part of his mind vaguely noting that the party was splitting off into groups; when a strong hand descended on Bilbo’s shoulder he obediently allowed himself to be drawn away.
The dwarf, an indefinite dark shape amongst the blizzard, ducked briefly to inspect the tiny cave which he had chosen for the pair of them. Bilbo tried to follow, his brain unable to comprehend anything more complicated than mimicry of the other’s actions. But his knees had locked and his balance was listing drastically with the result that he tumbled to the floor rather more inelegantly than he had hoped. The impact jarred through his body and he had to clench his teeth to keep from crying out.
On his hands and knees, Bilbo stared numbly at the snow burying his fingers before a surprisingly gentle arm wound around his middle and tugged him under the roof of granite.
Neither the snow nor the knifing wind could make its way beneath the rock. The forces of nature screamed futilely against the stony shelter, lashing at it, howling round it, but nevertheless were unable to reach the figures protected underneath.
Ironically enough, finding the air around him that tiny bit warmer made Bilbo suddenly and agonisingly aware of how cold he felt, the merciful numbness beginning to subside. His entire body shuddered violently, tight staccato spasms running through his muscles. Bilbo’s chattering teeth caught the edge of his sore tongue, the muffled moan that followed fraught with soul-deep misery and the fresh taste blood.
Earlier that day he had screamed desperately into the pounding waters for his life not to end just yet. But now, pulling his cramped, burning limbs close in to his body; Bilbo curled up as tightly as he could and wished with all his heart for the merciful relief of death.
So much pain . . .
Huge hands, the thick fingers softly encased in gloves, worried over Bilbo’s face and forearms in light touches, as though gauging his health. Bilbo trembled and moaned, writhing away as much as he could. Too rough. Too much. Everything hurt.
Finally, the figure moved away and Bilbo couldn’t contain his sob of relief.
No more. No more pain.
Absently, a part of him noticed that the dwarf was moving awkwardly in the confined space, as though he was trying to accomplish something normally done standing up. And then the gentle, brutal hands were reaching for Bilbo again.
Pain flared beneath the gripping fingers. No. No. Hurts. Get off. He pushed at them but it was no use. The hands were firm; a newborn kitten would have had more hope of swatting them away. Bilbo’s jacket was being levered off his back, the waistcoat and shirt unbuttoned, scarf removed. The soft material of his clothing being tugged lightly from his body stung like it was burning gravel being raked over his skin. Bilbo heard a voice shushing him gently as a choked wail burst from him at the rasp of the scarf around his throat.
He was gathered into thickly padded arms.
Please. No more pain.
The arms tugged him close.
Then warm skin touched his cheek, like the sun itself had been encased in living muscle.
Warm . . .
Desperation did away with all notion of restraint. Letting out a greedy, pleading whimper, Bilbo pressed himself tight against the body in front of him. Pushing, demanding. Begging.
His bony knees and elbows were endured silently, a bearded chin was raised to let Bilbo nuzzle his questing face in the crook between neck and shoulder, the tickle of curly hair uncommented on. Stomach muscles stuttered reflexively away from Bilbo’s icy fingers but the arms around his frame pulled him in tighter, trapping the digits there so that they may absorb the living heat seeping from the flesh below. One large hand gently trapped a shifting leg and then Bilbo’s bare feet were being guided into the tops of a pair of boots, his toes curling into the soft fur found there.
More fur was drawn around his back, thick fingers holding it closed and then all was still.
Bilbo lay curled in the embrace, his eyes closed, panting warm air into his lungs. Oh, heat. Beautiful, burning heat. He pushed his face into a lightly haired clavicle, hidden slightly beneath a tangle of cloth, rubbing his forehead cat-like against the bone and savouring the feverish warmth that followed. A heavy hand began to rub along his spine, chafing friction into his skin and Bilbo let out a muffled moan of pleasure which he would have been ashamed of had he been well enough to comprehend it.
It could have been mere minutes or it could have been hours, Bilbo did not know how long the two lay conjoined. All he was aware of was the gradual seep of heat from the larger body to his, the calm rhythm of the strong heart in the other’s chest and the way their bellies pressed firmly together with each breath. The warmth still felt like a blissful revelation after being so deathly chilled for so long.
The dwarf said nothing, his arms carefully cradling the Hobbit to him as though he were on the verge of snapping in his grip.
Eventually however, consciousness gradually returned to the Hobbit and he began to wonder who it was that held him. The sun had set swiftly behind the dark weight of snow, leaving inky blackness behind. As a result, Bilbo could have made out little of the identity of his companion by sight, even if he hadn’t still kept his face protectively buried in the firm, warm flesh of a pectoral muscle.
The dwarf flinched slightly but said nothing as Bilbo’s shifting hand brushed one pebbled nipple. Unpierced. So not Dwalin then. The beard was not luxuriant enough to be Balin, Bifur, Oin or Gloin. The frame to which he clung was too broad to be Fili, Kili or Ori and too slight to be Dori or Bombur. Bilbo’s questing fingers tangled around one long braid, too long to belong to Nori or Bofur and, with a sinking feeling, he began to form a notion of who it was who held him.
“Thor’n?” He mumbled tentatively, his sore tongue slurring his speech.
The body beneath him stirred slightly, a familiar deep voice rumbling through both of them. “Yes, it’s me.”
Bilbo’s muscles locked with sudden tension, remembering the angry words that had passed between them earlier. Here he was, being held by a man who thought he was unworthy, cradled like a babe in the arms of a man who had called him a fool, and an imbecile, who had shaken him like a dog. Even now, Thorin held him like he was a child.
A weak, burdensome child.
But, slowly the rage ebbed away, emotion dulled by exhaustion.
The dwarf prince had bared his naked heart to the Hobbit, rucking up his shirts around his neck before baring the Hobbit’s own skin, drawing him close so that he may more quickly feel the benefit of his touch. Thorin had shared the very heat of his life’s blood with him. Bilbo was a great many things, but he was never ungrateful. And he was so very tired, too tired to succumb to the temptation of strife. A sigh heaved out of him, his fingers curling slackly around the thick plait in his palm.
What had he been expecting earlier, really?
Humility from a prince?
He’d have had more luck asking the sun not to shine.
“’m sorry ‘bout y’ nose ‘rlier.” He admitted wearily, his voice muzzy and indistinct. “Din’t break ‘t ‘d I?”
The ribcage beneath his cheek jolted with a short, bitter laugh. “I treat him with nothing but disdain and he apologises to me . . .” Thorin whispered, as though he was conversing with the rock beneath which they sheltered.
Bilbo tried to raise his head but a hand held him insistently close, fingers curling soothingly through his hair. “Thor’n . . .” He began.
“No.” The dwarf prince murmured. “No. Do not speak, Halfling. Your mouth pains you and you have endured enough suffering today. And, I owe you words, so many words. Even if Aulë had granted me the gifts of wisdom and eloquence, I could never hope to discover the words sufficient to pay my debt to you.”
Bilbo blinked, confused. “Thor’n-“ He began but he was cut off by a finger resting lightly on his lips and a whispering shhh from the prince.
A sudden, sly wind gusted under the rock. Even as they both shivered Thorin hunched his larger body protectively around the Hobbit, rolling them further onto their sides so that his broad back acted as a buffer against the elements. His lips just brushed the crown of Bilbo’s skull as he sought a comfortable place to lay his head. “You were enough from the very beginning, Halfling.”
Bilbo shifted, and as though sensing his doubt Thorin pressed on.
“Yes, you were.” He said with soft insistence. “You always were. This was never your quest to begin with and yet you left all the world you knew behind, left your friends, left safety . . . And for what? For fear and danger. Yet, you took it in your stride.” The dwarf broke off with a faint laugh. “My kinsmen and I had were not the ones with wit enough to outthink the trolls. That, considering I have met mould growing on rocks with more intelligence than the average troll, is a sorry state of affairs if ever I saw one.”
Bilbo chuckled slightly at his rueful tone and attempted to point out that the scenario would never have arisen had he not been caught in the first place, but another slow shh willed him into silence.
“You escaped the terrors of the labyrinthine mountains. Utterly alone. You, never having wielded a blade in battle in your life before, threw yourself before swords and monsters to protect me, with your life if need be. You, never having seen a body of water as big as than the one which confronted us earlier, nevertheless flung yourself in without a moment’s hesitation to save someone who even now is little more than a stranger to you. Yes, Halfling. You have always been enough.”
But, Bilbo was shaking his head slowly. “N’.” He mumbled. “N’. D’nt des’rve y’ praise. Y’ were righ’. I ha’ b’n los’ on th’s j’ny. Eve’ since I lef’ h’me.”
Thorin tensed slightly, recalling his own words. His eyes closed regretfully. “You should not take everything I say to heart, Halfling. I am old. I am bitter. And, I find anger a more comfortable emotion than fear, even when nothing has been done that is worthy of reproach.”
Bilbo frowned slightly. His face was still pillowed against the firm muscle and bone of the dwarf prince’s sternum, the beat of Thorin’s heart tapping steadily against his soft cheek. But, the previously regular rhythm was stumbling obviously now. As though the prince’s calm exterior hid some great internal distress.
“Thor’n?” He asked, quietly.
For a long minute, Thorin said nothing, just stared wearily up at the ridges worn into the granite roof above him. Another tiny flutter of wind curled around them, and Bilbo instinctively huddled closer once more. This seemed to bring the dwarf back to himself as, when Bilbo had settled again, he breathed out a long, hopeless sigh.
Then, slowly, reluctantly Thorin began to speak, in a voice tight with memories of a great many years of suffering.
“I have lost so much, Halfling. More than you could ever hope to comprehend. And, I’m glad that you cannot, I would not wish such miseries on anyone.
The day the dragon came, I lost everything. My kingdom, my home, my friends. So many were lost that day. Good, worthy brothers and sisters, lost in fear and fire and pain. And even though my father and grandfather survived the beast’s assault, something in them died that day. They may still have lived and yet I lost them nonetheless.
Then exile. And, although we did our best to protect our people, hundreds more were lost. Picked off by illness. By orc raiding parties.” He huffed a bitter sigh. “Starvation. Sometimes Dwalin and I resorted to stealing like common bandits if we knew of those whose situation was dire, but even so we could not feed everyone. There are the graves of our men, our women, our elderly, our babes . . . they are scattered all over Middle Earth, like ashes in the wind.”
Bilbo’s fingers curled gently into Thorin’s braids again, his heart aching as he listened to the self-loathing in the dwarf’s voice.
“Then came Khazad-dûm. My grandfather was only one of the innumerable dead that day. And the futility of it all made it all the worse. I had told grandfather that the fortress was too far lost to be reclaimed, that even if by some miracle we could defeat the armies of orcdom we still lacked the abilities to face the Balrog of Morgoth which waited in the depths. But, still he insisted . . . In the end, all we could do was force the beasts back inside the walls of the mine and ensure our safe retreat.”
Thorin swallowed, his voice thickening. “Already we had grown used to makeshift burials. Building cairns at the roadside for the fallen. But, the numbers lost at Moria were beyond our comprehension. Not if we had had thirty aeons in which to work could we have built enough crypts to house them all. We had to burn the bodies instead, denying them even the comfort of returning to the eternal sleep of stone. We permanently deforested a vast swath of land in order to build the necessary pyres. Such waste . . .”
His grip tightened around Bilbo, as though unconsciously seeking comfort from the Hobbit. Had there been light enough to see, Bilbo would have observed that Thorin was staring sightlessly ahead of him, as though he was gazing back across the years to that painful time.
“I made a vow that day.” Thorin whispered, his voice hollow and tired. “On the flames which consumed my fallen friends, I swore that never again would I allow the lives of the worthy to be so lightly sacrificed. That I would do everything within my power to ensure that none came to harm under my watch. That none would die due to my failings.” A small, sad smile distorted his voice. “I didn’t count on meeting a Hobbit with more courage than sense.”
A hand tilted Bilbo’s chin up and Bilbo could just make out the faint glinting shine of Thorin’s eyes in the shadows. “I am responsible for this company, Bilbo. Your brave heart does you and all your kind great credit, but you should not be placing yourself in danger to make up for my inadequacies as leader. This is not your quest. I’ll not have your life on my conscience.”
There was a moment’s silence, the snow fluttering like butterfly wings outside.
“You are an excellent leader Thorin Oakenshield, only a fool would deny that. You have done well by your people and even a blind man could see that your company loves you and trusts you with all their being. But, that doesn’t change the fact that you still can’t swim.” Bilbo pointed out, softly. “You’re right. This was not my que-“
He paused to turn his head and spit out a newly formed mouthful of blood.
“Q-quest.” Bilbo continued. “Not to begin with. But, it is now. And I’m sorry if my actions have given you cause to worry. But if you think for a second that anything will stop me from using what skills I have to help you and the others, to aid you and protect you where I can . . . That anything will stop me from doing everything possible to prove myself worthy of being in your company, then you’ve never been more mistaken in your life.”
Nothing more was said for a long moment, the quiet determination of Bilbo’s words echoing in the tiny space.
Finally, Thorin spoke. “You really are quite a remarkable person, Bilbo Baggins.” There was something in his voice that Bilbo couldn’t quite discern. Not quite wonder. Not quite affection. Respect, maybe? Even so, Bilbo was glad to hear it. “I understand why Gandalf was so insistent. I am glad he was. Gladder still that you changed your mind and followed.”
The day had been long and fraught and the line between consciousness and sleep was gradually beginning to blur for Bilbo. Slowly, he began to tug his clothes back into place, no longer needing the skin contact anymore and wishing for the comfort of layers. Thorin soon followed suit and then Bilbo’s face was buried in warm, luxurious fur, the prince still cradling him protectively close.
Still though, there was one final thing that Bilbo felt needed to be said.
“I was telling the truth before.” He said, a small yawn muffling his words. “You’re not my king. Hobbits don’t have them. Never have. We muddle on without.”
He nuzzled closer, feeling Thorin raise his head once more so Bilbo could slot himself comfortably beneath his chin.
“But, if we did. Well . . .”
Bilbo’s eyelids drooped heavily, the steady flickering of Thorin’s pulse welcome beneath his ear.
“ . . . I’d be proud to call you king.”