There is nothing quite so satisfying as the penetrating ache in your bones following a productive day, Bilbo reflected contentedly.
Gandalf had assured them earlier that day that, if they pushed on just maybe an hour or so more, they would easily reach the edge of Mirkwood by the following evening. Their bodies stiff from riding Beorn’s ponies all afternoon, the company had elected to dismount and to walk for a while. They had done this at regular intervals throughout the day as it gave them an opportunity to stretch their cramping limbs and to allow the hardy little beasts to take a well-deserved break.
They still had a way to walk yet until they could stop and rest. However, due to the happy discovery of a short cut, they had made far greater progress than expected. They had bypassed the area that Gandalf had expected them to reach by dusk hours ago and were now pressing on to another place where they could shelter for the night. A little rocky outcrop was just visible in the distance and it was there where they were headed.
So many days had been spent walking, and walking, and walking with so little apparent progress being made that the company were welcoming the pains in their limbs as, this time; it signalled that they had achieved something.
His entire skeleton feeling throbbingly obvious beneath his wearied muscles, Bilbo was nevertheless content and was happy to drift into lazy imaginings.
The sun was still not quite set in the far West but the sky directly above was already a soft, powdery blue, flecked with tiny diamond glints of starlight. Even now, many weeks after he had first told the tale, the dwarves still asked him to name the various constellations and eagerly informed him if they had found one that they recognised. The ground was soft underfoot, the greenery thick and lush, with a vast swathe of waist-high grass winding snakelike across the boundless prairie they were traversing. The Lonely Mountain had been lost from view behind a range of softly rolling hills, above which the moon was just visible.
Smiling vaguely, Bilbo reached out and gently eased a knot from the thick mane of his much-loved pony – a pretty little grey named Poppy. He had become quite attached to the dear little creature and his high-regard for Beorn made him eager to send Poppy back in fine fettle.
Poppy gave a gentle whinny and turned her head slightly to lip at his ear with a velvety mouth, clearly grateful to Bilbo for removing the annoying tangle which had been itching her for a few minutes.
“Think little Poppy’ll be heart-sore to leave you.” Bofur’s amused voice noted from behind him.
“Ah, she’ll be fine.” Bilbo grinned over his shoulder at him. “Our love burned too brightly to live long.”
The dwarf cackled at that, drawing curious looks from the rest of the company.
“Dare I ask?” Dwalin inquired from where he was walking a little way ahead, Thorin at his side.
“Just discussing the star-crossed passion that is our dear Bilbo and his Poppy.” Bofur informed him.
“Always knew you were a strange one, Master Baggins.” Dwalin called back, the smile obvious in his voice.
Relief at surviving the encounter with the Pale Orc, catching their first glimpse of the Lonely Mountain and being well supplied by Beorn had made the atmosphere amongst the company very relaxed. In fact, their spirits were so high at present that, tired as they were, they were all feeling quite playful. Even Thorin had lost some of his formality and spoke to his company in more than his usual brusque orders.
Bilbo had long since stopped feeling defensive at the dwarves’ gentle teasing and he just grinned and slung his arm over Poppy’s neck. “Ignore them, my darling. They do not understand our love.” He told the pony, cheerfully.
Most of the company overheard this exchange and as a result Bilbo’s response resulted in a flurry of chuckles.
Looking round, Bilbo noticed that Fili and Kili had drawn level with him, their own ponies plodding amiably just behind them. The brothers, young as they were, were the least wearied by the day’s exertions and mischief twinkled in their eyes like the starlight above.
“We hope you’ll be very happy together.” Fili said, his face perfectly serene even as his gaze gleamed with laughter.
“Will we be invited to the wedding?” Kili asked, his mock-serious expression shattering under the pressure of the grin which he could not restrain.
“Fili. Kili.” Thorin called back, his voice indulgent. “Stop baiting the burglar.”
“Aye. He’s a vicious little beggar when roused.” Dwalin added, smirking. “Don’t want him to take against you for insulting his lady love now, do you now?”
Fili and Kili weren’t listening though.
“Look!” Fili cried, gleefully, flinging his blanket over Poppy’s neck. “She’s even got her veil!”
“Come on, Bilbo! Kiss your lovely bride!” Kili grinned, bursting into a peal of laughter as Poppy lifted her head to snuffle at Bilbo’s ear as though she were indeed attempting to extract a kiss.
Bilbo shook his head with a smile, gently nudging Poppy away however, before he could respond Thorin’s voice echoed back once more.
“Fili, Kili. Don’t make Dwalin and me come back there . . .” He said, and although his tone was light there was an undercurrent of warning in it.
Fili and Kili did not heed them however, chuckling and nudging each other in private amusement.
“Right!” Fili snorted, with brazen – albeit slightly hushed - disrespect.
“As if those two old men could catch us!” Kili snickered.
Unfortunately, he had not said this as quietly as he had thought.
A gently scandalised ‘oh!’ of giddy anticipation rose up from the rest of the company who knew well that such a comment would not go unaddressed.
Gandalf lit his pipe leisurely, settling in for the show.
This was sure to be entertaining.
The two young dwarves’ eyes widened as their perilous position dawned on them, turning to look anxiously at Thorin and Dwalin who had stopped dead in their tracks.
The company stared - most of them eagerly, two of them nervously - at their backs, waiting for them to move.
There was silence for a long moment, and then finally Thorin cocked his head with a contemplative hum.
“Thorin?” Dwalin said, mirth echoing in his low burr.
“Your nephews aren’t really stupid enough to say what I think they just said, are they?”
“As much as it pains me to admit it . . .” Thorin said, and Bilbo had to smother a burgeoning laugh at his cunning tone.
“Kili, you cretin! What have you done?” Fili hissed, nervously.
“Tell me, Dwalin.” Thorin said, calmly letting go of his pony’s reins and rubbing his hands together thoughtfully. “Do you believe such behaviour is befitting an heir of the line of Durin?”
“Of course not. Always must we respect our elders. Even Balin.”
There was a faint oi! from the back of the group.
“Well then, Dwalin. Shall we ‘old men’ teach these foolish pups a lesson?” Thorin’s voice was positively wolfish now.
“Now then, what an excellent idea . . .”
“Oh Aulė!” Kili gulped, his voice little more than an undignified squeak.
Thorin and Dwalin had dropped their ponies’ reins and were slowly turning, clearly with the intention of making their way back towards them.
“I may not be an expert in these matters,” Bilbo observed, the two young dwarves looking at him. “But, that sounded very much to me like a cue to run.”
Fili and Kili blinked at him. Then they looked at each other and then back again to their advancing elders.
Too late they noticed that they were gathering speed and grinning evilly.
Then, like a flash of lightning Fili and Kili dropped the reins of their ponies and darted away, eliciting cheers from their compatriots. Looking over their shoulders and seeing that their uncle and Dwalin were gaining on them, they suddenly veered off in different directions causing Dwalin to go haring off after Fili whilst Thorin pursued Kili.
Bilbo joined in the joyful whooping as Dwalin’s superior leg-length enabled him to make up ground, ducking swiftly out of the way when Fili attempted to put Bilbo and Poppy between him and his pursuer.
“Baggins!” Fili yelped in protest at this act of treachery.
“Sorry Fili, but I’m more scared of him than you.” Bilbo informed him as Dwalin and Fili sprinted and stumbled in hurried circles around the Hobbit before Fili split off once more.
Kili meanwhile was frantically babbling apologies to his uncle as he threw himself into a roll which sent him careening under Bombur’s pony, putting it between them as a barrier. “I didn’t mean it, I promise I didn’t! It just came out! I didn’t think!”
“You never think!” Thorin’s exasperated response echoed past.
“I-I didn’t think you’d hear me all the way over there! Your hearing’s never been-!”
“Oh, so now I’m deaf as well as decrepit, am I!” Thorin pounced on this further insult.
“N-no, I didn’t – Oh Aulė!”
There was a bellow of triumph from Dwalin as Fili caught his foot on a hidden root and lost his footing just long enough for the elder dwarf to cannon into him in a brutal tackle which bore them both to the floor.
Thorin leapt over the tussling duo as they rolled into his path, ignoring Gandalf as he began to take bets on who would prevail.
Dwalin, his knee firmly planted on the base of the young dwarf’s spine, seized a fistful of Fili’s gold mane in one hand and yanked hard. “Old man, am I?” He snarled, gleefully. Dwalin plunged his hand into a puddle of sticky mud which they had very nearly tumbled into. “Old man this!” And upon that note, he slopped a thick, wet handful of mud onto Fili’s face, smearing it into his beard, ignoring the dwarf’s howls of protest.
Spitting in disgust, Fili sagged to the floor weakly as a chorus of laughter and cat-calls confirmed that the other dwarves very much considered this to be Dwalin’s victory.
Kili staggered to a halt near a patch of long grass, wheeling about on a gasp as he tried to ascertain where his uncle was so he could judge best where next to flee.
Oddly enough, although he stood frantically surveying the scene as he panted for air, he could find no trace of Thorin.
A bewildered, breathless grin spread across his face. “D-did I lose him?” He asked the others.
“Nooo . . .” Nori smirked.
“Well, then where-“ Kili began.
At that moment, Thorin roared up from where he had been concealed in the thick scrub behind his nephew and grabbed him around the ribs. Kili yelped but it was too late, Thorin was already throwing himself backwards and hurling them both from view.
For a second, all that could be seen was the vehement twitching of the long grass and then the two dwarves exploded from it, grappling wildly.
Out of the two brothers, it was undeniable that what little common sense ran in the bloodline had clearly been inherited by Fili. However, Kili had inherited his uncle’s complete inability to submit under duress and, even though it would have been far more logical at this juncture to admit defeat, the young dwarf continued to attempt to wrangle his way free from Thorin’s grasp.
Bilbo became aware of Balin standing next to him.
The old dwarf was shaking his head in fond humour at the sight wrestling pair. “If Dis were here she’d never believe it.”
“Dis . . . Thorin’s sister?” Bilbo asked.
“Aye, the lads’ mother. She was always harking on at Thorin not to be so pompous. Only time she could get him to listen was when he was playing with those two. Mind, he was just like the pair of them when he was a nipper, fuelled more by fire than sense.” Balin broke off on a faint laugh as the grunts of effort dissolved into insults and broken shouting.
“Just ruddy lie still!” Thorin demanded, attempting to use his greater weight to incapacitate Kili. However, the young dwarf was too wriggly to pin down.
“Why? Getting tired, old man?” Kili grinned, sensing that he was starting to gain the advantage and flinging himself over so that Thorin was forced to roll with him.
Bilbo hurriedly leapt back as a flailing leg nearly took him out, the amounts of violence being utilised by the pair increasing as Thorin yanked Kili’s hair and Kili bit Thorin’s hand. With an almighty yell of strain, Kili succeeded in pinning his uncle to the floor, straddling his chest with his hands firmly locked about Thorin’s wrists. He stared down at the dwarf prince, his bright young face glowing with triumph. “What happened to that lesson you were going to teach me?” He mocked, believing himself to have won.
“Oh, believe me boy, it’s coming!” Thorin growled, his blue eyes glinting in his dishevelled face.
“How-“ Kili was about to ask how precisely Thorin intended to get out of this one when the prince did exactly that. In one swift movement Thorin had bucked his legs up and locked them around his nephew’s chest from behind, using them to break Kili’s hold on him and wrench him backwards. An unexpectedly flexible twist following Kili’s momentum and Thorin was directing his nephew’s weight into a painful impact with the ground.
Kili, winded and wheezing from the blow, attempted to struggle up but a heavy boot descended on his chest and pressed him back down with decisive firmness.
Thorin, panting, his mass of dark hair bedraggled from all the tussling, looked down on his nephew with a faintly smug expression. “I didn’t get old, boy. I got devious. Maybe one day you’ll learn to be too.”
His nephew looked up at him, his lips parted with gulping breaths and his soft brown eyes wide and very young all of a sudden.
Then, he gave his uncle a cheerful smile and grabbed at the foot on his chest. In one swift movement he twisted Thorin’s ankle, dislodging his uncle’s balance and then, throwing his weight forwards as much as he could to put force behind his movement, he shoved Thorin’s leg upwards causing his uncle to overbalance and topple to the ground like a felled statue.
Everyone let out a gasp of shock at this unexpected development as Thorin landed with a surprised oof! of expelled air and lay stunned besides his nephew. This rather muddied the bets that had been made on the outcome and they looked at each other in confusion. Who had won?
An exhausted hand poked at the dwarf prince’s knee. “I can be devious when it suits me already, thank you very much.” Kili’s short-winded voice said, triumphantly.
That was the final straw. Thorin threw his head back against the grassy ground and roared with laughter.
Fili, his face still encrusted with dried mud, staggered over with the intention of assisting his brother and uncle to their feet, only to be dragged back down to the floor. He and Kili found themselves hauled gracelessly into Thorin’s embrace even as the prince continued to chuckle.
“You are both cheeky, foolish, undignified, reckless little idiots and I swear you will be the death of me,” Thorin said, his voice full of rough tenderness and the echoes of mirth. “But, Durin preserve me, I wouldn’t change you for the world.”
The company reluctantly returned any exchanged moneys to its original owner, declaring all bets null and void by the lack of a clear winner while Fili, Kili, and Thorin lay in a tangled heap on the floor, smiling vaguely skyward, just enjoying the moment.
Many, many years later, it was that image which Bilbo sought always to remember whenever the descendants of Durin drifted across his memory.
Not a prince and his heirs.
Just an uncle and his nephews.