The rock seemed to have a personal vendetta against him.
Bilbo muffled a low groan in the leather of his rucksack – temporarily utilised as a pillow – and wriggled slightly, attempting to find a comfortable position. It was no good however, no matter which way he shifted the rock on which he lay refused to relinquish its crusade to become one with his spleen.
Sighing, Bilbo sat up and rubbed his face. The rocky terrain leading up to the Misty Mountains was so uncomfortable that virtually all of the company had decided to just power through it. The only ones capable of sleep were Bombur and Bifur, Bombur because his great size meant that he felt the insistent pressure of the stony ground far less than everyone else and Bifur because . . . well, he was Bifur.
“You’lright there Bilbo?” Bofur asked vaguely, from where he sat next to the Hobbit.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Bilbo lied. He was reluctant to complain. There was nothing anyone could do and everyone else suffered as badly as he. Moaning would only lose him the other’s respect.
“Mmm.” Bofur said, his eyes hanging low with drowsiness. “Pipe?”
“Oh, yes please.” Bilbo said, gratefully. The gregarious dwarf passed Bilbo his tobacco pouch and the Hobbit sighed at the first taste of smoke on his tongue. Thanking Bofur and passing back the pouch, Bilbo took stock of the situation.
Officially, Oin was meant to be standing guard but so many of the dwarves were up that the official watch system had been abandoned. Looking around, Bilbo noted that Dwalin and Balin were staring vaguely into the fire, Dori and Nori were conversing with Gloin in low voices and Fili and Kili were dozing lightly, slumped against each other for warmth and comfort. Bombur and Bifur were curled up asleep on the far side of the fire, next to Thorin who was sat with his head in his hands, lost in thought.
Looking round, Bilbo noticed that little Ori had crept closer.
“Evenin’ Ori.” Bofur greeted the young dwarf. “You can’t sleep either?”
Ori shook his head. “Not a wink.”
“Aye, there’s a lot of that going about.” Balin mumbled from a few feet away.
“Sorry, Ori. What did you want?” Bilbo asked, shuffling sideways so that the dwarf could settle next to him.
The dwarf fingered his woollen mittens for a moment, seemingly embarrassed. Finally, he blurted out, “W-would you tell us a story?”
Bilbo blinked. “A story?”
“Yes.” Ori began to speak hastily, feeling the need to defend himself in the face of Bilbo’s confusion. “It’s just everyone’s so tired and grumpy because none of us can sleep and I thought maybe a story would cheer us all up but we know all the dwarf tales and legends off by heart and then I realised that none of us had ever heard any Hobbit stories before . . .“ He tailed off weakly.
“Actually, that’s not a bad idea.” Bofur said, interestedly. “If you wouldn’t mind o’course.”
“No, no. Of course not.” Bilbo mused. “I’m just trying to think of a good one. I mean, what would a typical dwarf story be?”
“The tales of Durin.” Fili murmured, surprising everyone. He and his brother had opened their eyes blearily, seemingly giving up on attempting to sleep sitting up.
“The miner and the trolls of the Iron Hills.” Bofur said.
“The Battle of the Redwater.” Thorin’s sleepy voice cut in.
“The Siege of Carn Dum.” Dwalin suggested.
“Hmm . . .” Bilbo shook his head. “There are no Hobbit stories like that. Our legends are rather . . . smaller in scale.”
“How appropriate.” Kili grinned, a weary echo of his normal boisterousness.
Bilbo rolled his eyes at the quip. Then he paused, his gaze raised skyward.
“You alright there, laddie?” Balin asked, confused by the inaction.
A slow smile spread across Bilbo’s face. “Actually, I might have a good one. Do dwarves have a legend of the stars?”
“Stars?” They all looked skyward, confused. This high in the mountains the sky was clear and bright, a seemingly endless blanket flecked with tiny shards of light, the moon a constant anchor in the distance.
“Not really.” Bofur admitted, finally. “We spend so much time below ground that the stars more or less get forgotten a lot of the time. Although, we tell the little ones that they are seams of night-diamonds there to light the dark and keep the monsters at bay.”
“So, you have no constellations?” Bilbo asked, finding himself amazed at the concept of a life without stars.
“What are constellations?” Ori asked, curiously.
“Alright, I think I’d better tell this story from the beginning.” Bilbo decided, settling himself more comfortably.
Sensing that this would be interesting, the few weary dwarves pricked their heads up slightly so as to listen better.
Looking up into the night, the stars reflected to infinity in his eyes, Bilbo began to talk. “Once, very long ago, the first Hobbit came into being. He emerged from his hole in the ground and found the sky was black, with only the moon to be seen.
Walking, he came upon another hole in the ground and, peering inside, he found the first Hobbit lady.”
“I know where this is going.” Nori smirked.
“You’re a dirty little beggar, Nori.” Bofur said, bluntly. “Carry on, Bilbo.”
“Nori’s not far wrong.” Bilbo conceded. “The Hobbit was struck by her beauty and, once she had emerged and they had begun to talk, he was entranced by her wit and her heart as well. And though, they wandered far and wide in those first few days and found dozens of other Hobbits, neither had eyes for any but each other.
After many months of walking down from the Hills of Evendim, they came across a land of green, rolling hills and a long and winding river which channelled a path down from the Nenuial waters down to The Great Sea of Belegaer. There the Hobbits decided to stay and so they laid claim to this small, unused patch of land and named it the Shire.
On their journey, the Hobbits had encountered all manner of other creatures including men and elves and dwarves and orcs and trolls. Although the elves, dwarves and men were kinder than the terrible orcs and other beasts which haunt the mountain passes, they often fought between themselves and so the Hobbits learned to distance themselves from the larger races, for fear of embroiling themselves in conflicts not of their making. Previously not wanting to do so until they had reached a place of safety, now they were settled the first Hobbits built a home together, tunnelling into the soft ground of the hilly Shire to build holes like those from whence they came. Finishing their home, they emerged at the end of a long day’s work and viewed how far they had come and all they had done. That night they danced beneath the lonely moon and they swore their loyalty and love to each other would outlast the light of the night sky.
However, their promise would soon be broken by a force far stronger and darker than the wars of orcs and men . . .”
Bringing his eyes down briefly from the gentle lights above him, Bilbo realised that all the dwarves, not just Ori and Bofur were listening to him avidly. Even Fili and Kili had sat up straight and Thorin had raised his head from his hands to listen to him.
“For a few months everything was happy. They found themselves conceived of a child and waited eagerly for the birth. But, then one day the lady began to feel listless. Her limbs grew weak, her eyes dimmed. She could not stand without falling, her own legs not enough to support her. The first Hobbit tended her desperately with all the care and love he could, but the sickness had taken hold too strong and too fast. After a long month of sickness, the lady whispered her love to him one last time and breathed her last in his arms.”
A faint chorus of sad murmurs rose from those around him and little Ori sniffed back a tear. Opposite, Gloin’s head dropped, his hand straying to the pocket in which he kept a tiny sketch of his wife and young son.
“The death of his love broke the first Hobbit’s heart.” Bilbo continued softly. “He had lost everything, his beloved wife, their unborn child and their home, for he found he could not return to the hole which they had built together as it tormented him too cruelly to see the remains of the life they could have had. He left the Shire, intending to find the hole in which he had first found his beloved and there he would remain, alone with her memories.
As he began the slow journey back into the mountains, the first Hobbit found tears on his face. Each one glowing like tiny glassy moons and so he threw them aloft into the sky that their light may guide him back to where he first met her.”
“And they became stars?” Kili interjected, eagerly wanting to see if he was right.
“That’s right.” Bilbo said, over the other dwarves’ impatient shushing. “And, as he did so he placed the stars in constellations so that the tears he shed over his love memorialised the life they should have shared. Look.”
He stood up and scanned the sky, then he pointed. “There is the bed that he and his wife shared, and . . . there, the smaller version of the same stars? That was the cot they had built for the babe. And . . . See there? That tiny cluster of seven. That was one for each of the seven children they had hoped to have, four sons and three daughters. I used to know their names . . .”
“Each of them has a story?” Fili asked, amazed by the sheer volume of lights above him. All the dwarves were following Bilbo’s gesturing closely, fascinated by a concept of a story written in the stars.
“Oh, he wrote everything in his starry tears. As soon as the sun set he would throw them into the night, telling of the lullaby his wife used to sing to their unborn child, the toy dolls and bears and soldiers they made for them, the dancing horses they painted on the nursery walls. Everything he had come to love and everything he had lost he immortalised in the stars so that, whilst life may wax and wane like the moon above, their love would light the world forever.”
There was a long pause as Bilbo contemplated the stars above him, trying to think of any more constellations he could pick out. Then, a low voice broke the silence.
“Yours is a sad tale, Master Baggins.” Thorin Oakenshield said, his voice subdued.
The dwarves watched as Bilbo lowered his eyes and smiled, starlight dancing in his eyes. “The story isn’t over yet.” He said, gently.
“Eventually, the Hobbit reached the hills where he had first met his love and he threw aloft his final, and brightest tear, fixing it that it would always delineate north so that others may use the star to navigate their way home. And so, his heart weary and drained of all tears, he took the final steps of his journey. However, there was someone there waiting for him.”
“His wife?” Little Ori said, hopefully.
Bilbo shook his head. “At first he thought so, hoped so. For the being was made of light and he believed it to be a ghost.”
“But it wasn’t his wife?” Kili asked, confused before being shushed again.
Bilbo turned, and this time he smiled up at the moon. “The pale moon had watched the first Hobbit with interest from the moment he had crawled from the ground. He had watched the love between the Hobbit and his wife and been glad for their happiness, although it had only made him feel lonelier in the dark sky, with the sun beyond his reach.
Upon witnessing the lady’s death, he had been so grief-stricken himself that he had closed his eyes. He had intended never to open them again, lest he witness more heartbreak. But then, gradually through his closed eyes he became aware of brightness that had not been there before. Eventually, his curiosity got the better of him and he opened his eyes once more. To his surprise and delight, he found himself surrounded by millions of stars, no longer alone in the dark.
In his gratitude he searched for the person who had brightened up his sky and realised it was the tears of the first Hobbit. So, he descended to the earth and met the Hobbit at his journey’s end.”
“Hang on, how in Durin’s name did the moon manage to get to earth, let alone make itself corpore-“ Nori began, but he was interrupted by a boot to the face.
Dwalin, the owner of the flung boot, glared about at the others. “Next one to interrupt gets kicked off the mountain.” He growled.
Bilbo swallowed down a smile and continued. “The moon thanked the first Hobbit for the gift of the stars, thanked him for ending his loneliness. The Hobbit responded that he was glad that the moon’s solitude was over and he thanked it for illuminating his and his wife’s journey all those many months before, for lighting them safely home. The moon asked if there was anything he could give now, in return for the gift of the stars.
The Hobbit said nothing for a long moment and then he began to speak. He spoke of how, from the very first moment he had laid eyes on his love, his heart had no longer been his. He spoke of the life he had dreamed of and the hope that was now gone. And he asked the moon that which he desired above all else. Was it foolish of him to wish that the moon had the power to draw back the veil of mortality and restore his love to him?
The moon shook its head. It professed itself to be more sorry than it could say, but the sun alone had control over life and he could not restore the Hobbit’s love to the world of the living.
The Hobbit nodded and thanked the moon for its honesty, confessing he had not entertained much hope. The moon however did not leave.
It smiled softly and asked would he be saddened at all to leave the world behind. The Hobbit replied not at all.
It asked would there be any left who would suffer by his absence. The Hobbit replied not at all.
The moon took a step forwards and asked the Hobbit if he wished to be with his love above all else, above loyalty to his people, the Shire, and life itself? The Hobbit did not even hesitate in his answer, swearing upon the dark hole from whence his love came and the bright stars above him that the very world no longer held meaning without his beloved by his side.
The moon just smiled and held out its arms. Then come to me, it said, and I will end your suffering.
Believing that it was offering the merciful oblivion of death, the Hobbit rushed into the moon’s arms without a second thought. But, to his amazement, he passed straight through the being of light.
Looking around, he saw that the moon had vanished and he screamed at the sky for its betrayal in not ending his sorrow. But then, faint tendrils of light wound down from the stars above and bore him upwards until he was level with the diamond remains of his tears.
Catching a glimpse of himself, he realised he had become a being of light exactly as the moon had appeared. And then, he saw them. Emerging from the stars.
There was the bed. There was the cot. There were the seven children dancing and the horses drawn on the nursery and the dolls and the bears. They had lived on in the tears and the starlight and the memories.
Scarcely letting himself believe, the Hobbit turned . . .”
Bilbo paused, revelling in the rapt attention of his audience.
There was a long, agitated pause and then Dori burst out, “Well?!”
Bilbo smiled. “Behind him stood his wife, their son in her arms. The Hobbit fell to his knees and wept, drawing them into his arms and crying his gratitude to the kind moon who had restored his love to him.”
He turned and pointed. “And so, the first Hobbits and their child were finally united in the dark bright sky. Standing together as three forever more.”
Following his finger, the dwarves saw a perfect line of three stars, shining out brighter than all the others surrounding them.
A faint, appreciative sigh went up from Bilbo’s audience. Content with the happy ending.
“Excellent story, laddie.” Balin said, to a chorus of agreement.
“I never knew the sky could be so . . .” Ori breathed, lost in Bilbo’s story even after it ended.
One by one, the dwarves slowly lay themselves down, the tale having lulled them once more into drowsiness. Gradually, oh-so gradually, their breathing slowed and soon they were fast asleep.
Bilbo smiled wearily upwards one last time before bringing his gaze back to earth.
In doing so, he noticed that Thorin was the only one still awake and that he too was gazing starwards, lost in thought.
Eventually though he lowered his gaze and caught Bilbo’s eyes, his expression rather softer than usual.
“Go on, Master Baggins.” He said, gently. “You’ve earned your sleep. I’ll take the watch.”
Bilbo nodded, yawning and lying down. So weary was he now that even the uneven ground could not belay sleep. In fact, he was so very tired that he did not hear himself speak his next words.
“Good night, Thorin.”
A pair of blue eyes regarded the softly-snoring Hobbit gently before being raised.
Viewing the dancing stars above them.