Well here I am again. This time it's been three (!) years. For those of you still following and favoriting this story during the long stretch before this update, I can't thank you enough. Even if I didn't reply to a review, please know that they kept me motivated to try and finish this fic.
I'm really nervous about everything in this chapter, if I'm being honest. Pacing, plot, characterization, you name it. I wrote the first half back in 2017 and then the second half in the last week or so and it's been both terrifying and exciting to get back into this story. But here I am and here it is.
Hopefully, it was worth the wait!
It was a clear night.
That was the only good thing I could say about my trek from Erebor to Dale. It was cold, my clothes were still wet from when I had fallen into the water at the gate, and my arms felt like jelly as I pulled my chest behind me.
At any other time, I would say it was an easy walk. The road, as old and forgotten as it was, was still visible even in the pale moonlight, and the ground was surprisingly level given the rest of its surroundings of jutting rock.
But I was tired, I was scared, and I wasn't particularly confident that this wasn't a completely hopeless venture. I could depend on Bard, I was almost sure, but Thranduil was another story entirely. There was certainly no love lost between him and Thorin and I had a feeling our escape from his dungeons only amplified that. It didn't help that it was my idea that had gotten us out. In fact, if anything, that complicated things. I could only throw a request out to whatever Valar was watching me that Thranduil and his people hadn't figured out exactly how we'd slipped away.
My luck, I knew, probably wouldn't let that happen. My theory was only cemented further when, after what felt like hours, I had finally crossed the bridge to Dale's gate only to find four elves posted in front of it.
A break, I remember thinking, all I wanted was a freaking break. Just once. Just a small one. Was that so much to ask?
"Halt," called one of the guards once I had gotten close enough. "Who approaches?"
I stumbled to a stop, gratefully dropping the end of the chest I had been dragging to the ground with a thump.
"My name is Bilbo Baggins," I called back, trying not to wheeze. "I'd like to speak to Bard."
There was a beat of silence in which the elves and I stared at each other. Then I tacked on belatedly, "Please."
One of the elves peeled away from the gate to come closer, eyes sharp and assessing. I waited, holding my breath, as the elf's eyes roamed over me and then to the chest behind me, before finally snapping to my face.
I was suddenly reminded that these elves we not human, no matter how familiar they looked. There was something in their eyes that unnerved me. They were old, if what I remembered of what Gandalf had told me was right, far older than they appeared. It hit me that this very well could have been a mistake.
The elf turned suddenly, speaking quickly in the elvish language to his companions. Far quicker than I could follow even if I could understand them.
Then, just as suddenly, the elf turned back and said, "Come, halfling."
I watched, stunned, for a split-second as the elf moved back towards the gate without even bothering to check if I was following. Then, snapping to attention, I grabbed the handle of my chest and moved as quickly as I could behind him. Elves were taller than the dwarves, and probably even taller than most humans, and it took a lot of effort to keep up with his pace.
Two of the remaining elves opened the gate while the fourth took up next to the elf that had told me to follow. I could feel the eyes of the other two elves on my back as we passed through the gate and I tried desperately to shake away the feeling that this was a trap. Thranduil and his elves may not hold dwarves in the highest regard but they weren't cruel or malicious.
But that didn't mean that they were friends, either.
Dale was a huge city, even larger than I had first thought when we came upon it on Durin's Day. Built on a hill, the stone streets were narrow and curved and didn't seem to follow any sort of pattern. The buildings ranged from being in decent shape to just shy of rubble.
And there were people. Young and old, men and women, humans and elves, who moved through the darkened streets despite the late hour. It was both a relief and unnerving. To see so many alive was honestly a miracle but to see them so restless was worrying.
The stairs were the worst part, I determined, after climbing what felt like that fifteenth staircase but was probably just the fourth. My chest made it a struggle and my escorts showed no sign of being willing to help. I was stumbling in earnest and was just about to plea for a break when a large white tent came into view in what looked like a courtyard.
There was a warm glow cast from it's opening and as we drew closer I could hear voices coming from inside.
"Wait here," instructed the lead elf, not even bothering to look back at me before ducking into the tent.
I took the few moments he was gone to inhale deeply, trying to even out my breathing. The other elf stood next to me, still as a statue.
Just as quickly as he had gone, my escort returned. "You may enter, halfling."
Putting on a burst of speed I darted between my escorts, throwing a thank you over my shoulder before pushing aside the tent's flap and froze.
There were four figures in the tent. Three I recognized on sight: Thranduil, Bard, and - to my dismay- the Master of Laketown. But the fourth threw me for long moment as I took in his brown robes and short figure. I dropped my chest behind me, mind working, though I didn't miss the Master's attention shift immediately from me to the chest behind me.
It was the wizard. Well, not the wizard. But Gandalf's friend. The one who had helped us flee from the wargs. The one with a rabbit toboggan. What was his name? What was he doing here?
"Oh," said the wizard, looking startled just as Bard said, "Master Baggins, you have survived yet."
I struggled to tear my eyes away from the brown wizard to meet Bard's eyes. I scrambled to put together an answer, "I have. And I can't tell you how glad I am to see you safe."
I turned back to the brown wizard and let out the question that my brain was stuck on, "Where is Gandalf?"
At the table, I could see Thranduil's eyes sharpen even as the brown wizard look terrified. At any other time it would have honestly been hysterical. Ever since I had landed in Middle Earth, I'd succeeded in intimidating exactly no one. But here was a wizard, of all people, who I had set off in a panic.
"I- That is to say, he," the brown wizard stuttered, "Important business arose-"
My eyes widened. "What sort of important business?"
"Hardly anything of concern," Thranduil said, eyes watching me closely. "Radagast has visited us out of alarm rather than urgency. Well-meaning but wholly unsurprising. But you however, Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, are an unexpected sight."
I watched, heart in my throat as Thranduil stood up, goblet of what I assumed was wine in hand. ""It seems we meet once more. And here I thought never to see you again after you stole away from my dungeons under the nose of my guards."
I smiled nervously, "My apologies for the trouble."
Thranduil's eyes narrowed, though whether out of irritation or something else, I couldn't say. A few feet away I could see Bard stifling a smile. I switched gears, shoving my worry over Gandalf to the back of my mind for when I could corner Radagast alone and start interrogating him.
I had a mission.
"It's good to see you again," I told Bard sincerely, both dodging engaging with Thranduil and hoping I could start by getting Bard on board this truce first.
Bard gave me a small but genuine smile. "It is thanks to your counsel, Master Baggins, that we were well prepared. We can all sleep better now that the beast is dead."
Smaug was dead. Dead. I wanted to cry.
"His counsel," the Master suddenly demanded, drawing himself up to his rather impressive full height. Radagast turned quickly, startled again but by the Master this time. "His counsel? It is because of this creature that we are here in these accursed ruins!"
I flinched, my eyes dropping to the floor.
"You and your dwarves," the Master blustered, "have been a curse! To set the dragon on my town – to burn our homes! Why," It was then that the Master moved towards me eyes locked on the chest behind me, "I should hope that is only the beginning of the recompense owed to us! Your dwarf king gave us his word."
Oh, God. God, this was going so far south so quickly – why did I think this was even possible.
Then, to my surprise, Bard moved fast as anything. His hand wrapped around the Master's arm, causing the Master to reel back, eyes wary and narrowed.
"Master Baggins saved us all," Bard said mildly, ignoring the way the Master's face turned purple with fury.
I took a deep breath before offering, "I'm afraid whatever deal you struck remains between you and Thorin," I watched as the Master's face contorted further, "you'll have to take it up with him."
The Master's mouth opened as he shook off Bard's hand, no doubt to tell me exactly what he thought of Thorin, the dwarves, of me, but was interrupted by Thranduil.
"Then why are you here?" Thranduil wanted to know, looking almost bored. Behind the Master, Bard watched me curiously. Radagast fidgeted and looked like he wanted to be literally anywhere else. I empathized.
"To bargain," I answered quickly, turning to push the chest towards them.
"This," I began, the next word stuck in my throat for a moment, "war is unnecessary. I'm sure we can all reach an agreement without anyone getting hurt."
"I have tried to come to terms with Thorin," Bard reminded me, "for all the good that came of it."
I breathed in deeply at the mention of Thorin. I pushed away the overwhelming misery that washed over me at the thought of what he'd say if he knew I was here, "I know. He may not be willing to negotiate but I am."
It was then that I took the opportunity to open up the chest, allowing all of them to see the gold and jewels within. Bard moved to get a closer look, eyes wide in astonishment, as the Master took in a sharp breath. Thranduil, I could see, was eyeing the little intricately carved box and looked very much like he had been punched.
I watched him glide closer, goblet forgotten. I waited until he dropped down to a knee right in front of the chest before opening the little box.
It was like watching someone react to seeing color for the first time. Thranduil's mouth fell open, just a little, in wonder as a shaking hand reached out to carefully run a long finger over the edge of the necklace.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" I asked, snapping Thranduil out of his daze as his eyes darted up to meet mine. I smiled, "They remind me of the stars."
"How," Thranduil breathed out, closing the little box carefully and pulling it close before rising. I knew right then and there that I had him. "How did you come by this? How is this yours to give?"
I cleared my throat. "I was brought to Erebor as part of the Company," I told them all, "Now that the mountain is safe and the dragon is dead, I'm entitled to my share of the treasure."
The Master, Bard, and Thranduil all stared. It hit me that I had no way to prove this was true. Oh my God how did I not think of this?
"Ah!" Radagast exclaimed next to me, startling us all, "The contract!"
Then, Radagast stuck his hands deep into his pockets. It took a moment, and Radagast came up with more than what I expected: a birds nest, several of what looked like seedlings with roots and dirt and all, a handful of feathers tied together with what looked like homemade twine. But then finally he pulled out a familiar piece of folded parchment from his robes – how the hell was that thing still in one piece?
Radagast turned to me, the hand with the nest, feathers, and seedlings out-stretched, "Could you, yes, thank you," he said as I cupped my hands to hold them, bewildered. At least it wasn't a stick-bug again. I watched as he unfolded the contract carefully and let it reach the ground. It was good to know my memory of its length wasn't exaggerated, "For his services he is to be given one-fourteenth of Erebor's wealth."
This was not at all a miracle that I had expected. But I would take it.
The Master let out a pitiful noise while Bard repeated, "One-fourteenth?"
"It's yours," I told him carefully, trying not to let the overwhelming relief of having backup slide into my voice. I offered my handful back to Radagast who accepted it gratefully and carefully returned his things to his pockets, "All of it, if you want it."
"Of course we want it you little-" the Master started only to be cut off by Bard.
"What are your terms?" Bard asked, eyes bright.
I cleared my throat nervously, "I know that the dwarves have been difficult," I ignored the looks that passed over Thranduil and Bard's faces, "but fighting isn't the answer. Tell your men – elves- to stand down. Should you agree, my share is yours: use it to rebuild Dale, rebuild Lake-town."
There was a long moment of silence before Bard said heavily, "I would like that very much, Master Baggins. Truly. But Thorin is obstinate. How exactly do you plan to get him to agree? It is in his mountain that the treasure currently sits, after all."
I sighed. How to explain that I had stolen the one thing Thorin desired, that he wanted so badly that he was convinced his family had turned on him? That I was planning to use it as extortion?
Instead I settled on, "You trusted me once. I know I have no right to ask it of you again, but please."
Bard stared at me for a long moment before stepping forward and extending his hand. I blinked at it, then grinned, sliding my smaller hand into his.
"You have an accord, Master Baggins," Bard said solemnly as the Master demanded, "What? Now see here-"
"We will leave you come morning," Thranduil said to Bard, speaking over the Master easily, "And return home."
Oh my God this was the better than I could have ever imagined.
Radagast shifted from foot to foot, "Thranduil, there is still the matter of the orc armies of Dol Guldur. I must insist-"
Thranduil looked put-upon, as if this was a discussion they'd already had several times before, "I will not keep my men here to be subject to your whims, old friend."
"Wait," I turned to Radagast, "Dol Guldur? I thought that Gandalf had-"
"It wasn't what we thought," Radagast replied, words tumbling out almost before he could finish them. "An army has amassed and is marching this way."
"An army of orcs," I repeated slowly, my stomach filled with dread as realization hit me, "But -Azog?"
"Yes," Radagast confirmed, voice faint, "That terrible creature leads them. The dwarves were never meant to retake the mountain. The balance is shifting. And now that they have-"
Oh god, the dwarves.
I turned to the three others. "This is of concern," I told them desperately, ignoring the way Thranduil's brow twitched as I threw his words back at him.
I wished I could put into words and explain how much this had worried Gandalf. Enough to leave our quest. To leave me alone to try to do as the Valar wanted. I looked at Radagast, "How many? How long?"
"Oh, my, countless," Radagast replied, hands fluttering. "They will be here by dawn. I'm afraid there isn't much time left."
Bard was quiet, eyes darting between Radagast and I before asking, "You believe the wizard, Master Baggins?"
"Yes," I replied quickly, trying not to panic. They would be here at dawn, "Yes! Your people- is there anywhere that we can send them? Anywhere they can hide? Is there anything left of Lake-town?"
Bard frowned in thought, but to my relief seemed to be taking me seriously.
"No, not Lake-town. We could never move the injured there safely. But the Great Hall," Bard said finally, "There are only a few entrances still accessible. And it is well built." Bard turned to Thranduil, "You will truly leave?"
Thranduil looked aggravated, like he couldn't believe we were still discussing it. Or that Bard was on our side. "If it is so dangerous then who are we to turn away?" Thranduil turned to meet Bard's eyes head-on, "We will stay."
I clenched my teeth, resisting the urge to bring up what Thranduil's strategy had been when Smaug had hit Erebor. It didn't matter now, I reminded myself. The dwarves, the people of Lake-town, they were more important.
"Well, then," the Master said jovially, "Allow me to take up the task of preparing the Great Hall. Worry not! I will ensure not a single hair will be harmed of our dear citizens."
Bard pursed his lips but nodded shortly. Then he turned to me, "You have not steered us wrong, yet, my friend. Dragonfire took very few of us thanks to you and your foresight. We will prepare."
I shot him a grateful smile. "And I'll keep my word. My share is yours. But I need to return to the mountain. The dwarves will realize I'm missing before long. And I will need to warn them."
"Excellent," the Master declared, "I shall take my leave and begin preparations." I held my breath as the Master took another step closer, eyes on the chest, "I would be honored to take this generous gift and-"
"It stays," Thranduil said coolly, pouring a goblet of wine for Bard, his back to us. Yikes. Even when Thranduil and Thorin had thrown verbal volleys at each other they had at least made eye contact.
I watched as the Master's expression turned stony. But he didn't falter, I'd give him that much. The Mast straightened his coat, tossed out a frosty, "Good evening," and disappeared through the tent flap without a backwards glance.
I looked to Bard and Thranduil. "It was a pleasure doing business."
Bard shook his head, amused, "Safe travels back to the mountain, Master Baggins."
"Thank you," I said to Bard. I shifted to Thranduil and bowed, "Good evening."
I shot Radagast a smile and moved towards the tent's flap, ready to leave and maybe, finally, get some sleep when Thranduil called after me, voice low. "Master Baggins. You would give up your claim? For dwarves?"
I paused and then found myself replying with more honesty than I would have liked, "I would have given up far more."
I didn't wait for an answer and ducked beneath the tent's opening and into the cool night. I heard more than saw Radagast join me.
We walked in silence for a few minutes, letting the sounds of an active city, even so late at night, wash over us. I turned over the meeting we had just left in my head. I couldn't help but feel unbearably relieved. It had gone so much better than I could have ever hoped. But, still. I felt as though I had forgotten something. Something important. But what could it have been?
I was pulled from thinking it over further by Radagast turning into a tiny abandoned courtyard that was well out of the way and out of earshot – even from elves. I turned to Radagast, questions locked and loaded to find him already staring at me.
"I understand what Gandalf meant," Radagast said, peering down at me, eyes very serious and far more focused then they'd ever been in the tent. It was a little unnerving. "You are truly an oddity."
An offended wave washed over me and for the first time all night I let my face show what I was feeling.
"Unnatural," Radagast murmured, hand raised as if to touch me, ignoring my look. Oh, I realized. He meant my body situation. That really didn't make it any better but it was definitely less irritating, "And yet you cohere."
Radagast leaned back, hand falling to join with his other one tucked in his sleeves, deep in thought and eyes unfocused. "Truly a marvel."
"Thank you," I said dryly, which caused Radagast to snap back to attention.
"Gandalf called you Laura," Radagast said, watching me closely, "but that is not what you claim."
"I followed Gandalf's lead," I answered, feeling a little defensive of Gandalf's choice. Which segued nicely into, "Where is he?"
Radagast look surprised. My eyes narrowed. He and Gandalf really were related. They both had the worst innocent act I had ever seen. "Where is who?"
I wasn't in the mood. I wasn't even on the same continent as the mood. "Where is Gandalf," I asked firmly, "Why isn't he here?"
Almost immediately Radagast shrunk back. I could get used to this. "Well, important business-"
"If you know what I am," I said, impatience bleeding into my voice, "Then you know why I'm here," At this Radagast's eyes darted away, "And you must have some idea about why this is so worrisome to me."
"I do," Radagast admitted, "But I'm not sure, that is to say."
I waited several long moments but Radagast said nothing else. Deciding to take it into my own hands I asked, "What did you find at that place? Gol – Gol-"
"Dol Guldur," Radagast said, hushed. "Terrible place. Far too many shadows."
Radagast stayed quiet for another long stretch, long enough for my patience to get close to snapping when he finally admitted, "It wasn't what was there but what wasn't."
Great. More wizard riddles. Lovely. "What do you mean?"
"There was a darkness," Radagast took a deep breath as he pulled out a pipe not dissimilar to the one Gandalf had. I watched as he lit it without a touch and sweet smoke curled around us, "something wrathful and watchful and clever but when we arrived it was gone. And that is why Gandalf followed."
"Followed," I repeated, trying to make sense. "Followed to where."
"North," Radagast breathed out, no more than a whisper.
I knew I was missing something. Something big. Some kind of context.
"Should he have gone alone?" I asked worriedly.
"Oh," Radagast said, looking a little calmer as he exhaled a cloud of smoke. "He isn't. Our leader has gone with him. But it will take time – time that you do not have here. And so, Gandalf asked me to find you before the armies of Dol Guldor arrive."
"Well that's," I paused, searching before finally settling on, "good."
"And now that I have," Radagast said, straightening, "we are leaving."
I stared blankly. I had a feeling he didn't mean back to the mountain so I asked, "To where?"
"As far as we can get," Radagast exclaimed anxiously. "My rabbits are waiting, we must leave. Now."
"What," I asked incredulously, "What are you talking about? I have to go back-"
"Yes," Radagast interrupted, hands waving, "To the Shire. We will take the Old Forest Road and then Master Beorn has agreed to see you safely over the Misty Mountains."
I pushed the image of the rabbit toboggan barreling through down the path in Mirkwood to the back of my mind and focused. That was not what was going to happen.
"No," I said firmly.
Radagast looked confused. Good. It was nice to not be the only one for a change. "No?"
"No, I'm not going to the Shire," I explained heatedly, "No, I'm not leaving. Period. I'm going back to Erebor."
"But you can't," Radagast said urgently, "it isn't safe."
"I imagine not," I told him wanly. Given there was a massive evil army due to arrive tomorrow morning.
"No, no," Radagast said with a shake of his head, "It is not safe for you there."
I stared at him. The dwarves were there. How could I not be safe?
Radagast seemed to sense my thoughts because the next words out of his mouth were, "An evil lies on that gold now, thanks to the wyrm that long brooded over it. Dragon-sickness seeps into even the most strong-willed."
My stomach dropped. I knew exactly who he was referring to. I managed to get out, "You really think he'll hurt me?"
Radagast didn't answer, puffing on his pipe and avoiding my eyes. And that in itself was answer enough.
"Thorin might be sick but he would never. I'm not leaving," I said carefully, watching as Radagast's expression grew stricken, "Gandalf said that this was my destiny, to go to Erebor. Here I am, finally, and I'm not going to leave them!"
Radagast opened his mouth, but I wouldn't let him talk me out of this. This was where I needed to be. No matter what happened.
"Gandalf is the one who brought me here," I told him, "He dragged me across this world. I wanted no part in it but now that I'm here, I need you to let me try."
I watched as Radagast closed his mouth, his expression one I couldn't quite pinpoint. Resigned, maybe. Or even sad.
"You are precisely as he said," Radagast told me, voice surprisingly gentle. I think he meant it as a good thing.
We sat together in silence for a long time. Long enough for Radagast to finish his pipe and for the last of the sweet smoke to fade.
"Very well, Laura," Radagast said heavily, "Return to the dwarves. If you say that you must stay, so be it."
"I do," I breathed out, grateful. "Thank you."
Radagast tapped the ashes out of his pipe and tucked it away. "I will ride for help. This war – even men and elves together will not be enough to defeat the Defiler's host."
I stared at him, frowning. That was comforting to hear but it wasn't the picture Gandalf had painted for me of Radagast all those months before. "Please don't take this as a refusal. But Gandalf said that, well, you aren't overly fond of people."
Radagast smiled wanly. "That is true enough. But this, my dear, is far too important. You've tipped the scales as they say, for us all. In Gandalf's stead I will do what I can."
My eyes filled with tears. "Thank you."
Radagast looked up to the moon and then to what I thought may have been East. "It will take time, though. I will not return with aid before first light. You will need to hold out for as long as you can."
I didn't like the sound of that, not at all, but I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. "I understand."
Radagast turned and watched me closely for a few moments before telling me, "You best be off then."
I smiled up at him, wishing that I felt as confident as I sounded, "I'll see you soon."
The walk back to Erebor was almost a walk in the park compared to my journey to Dale. But I had to move fast, as I could already see a stripe of purple on the eastern horizon. If any of the dwarves had found me missing, well, I didn't want to think of what would happen.
I was relieved to see that my rope was still in place when I returned to the rampart. That meant that the dwarves hadn't noticed my departure.
But it was the climbing of the rope that was the true obstacle. My arms were already in agony from dragging the chest of treasure around everywhere and I hadn't slept well, not truly, since the Goblin Tunnels. I was tired and it took me an embarrassingly long time to scale the wall and hoist myself back over the edge.
I collapsed when I made it, letting the cold from the stone seep into my back. I gave myself the count to one-hundred before pushing myself to my feet. I needed to get back inside and to a bedroll, I knew. I probably wouldn't be able to sleep but at least I could be somewhere that the dwarves could find me come morning.
I rounded the corner ready to topple down the staircase, mind listless, when I ran smack into a warm body.
And promptly had a heart attack. Oh, shit, shit shit-
"Evening, Bilbo," Bofur said above me, hands grabbing my shoulders to steady me. "Or morning, I suppose?"
"Hello, Bofur," I replied automatically, ignoring how my mind was screaming at me that I had messed up so freaking bad.
Bofur eyed me, face strangely solemn. "Alright there, Master Hobbit?"
"Yes," I answered, mind racing frantically, "I apologize I was – I was just-"
Bofur watched me expectantly, eyes unusually sharp, before saying, "Hope you don't mind a little company, been having trouble sleeping myself."
"Yes," I said without thinking, "I mean no, of course not."
Bofur let out a chuckle, though there was nothing joyous about it and moved closer to the brazier. "Been thinking about tomorrow is all."
I eyed him cautiously, "I don't blame you."
Bofur turned to warm his hands, "This where you thought you'd wind up?"
"No," I said, more honesty in my voice than I meant to let out, "Never."
He grinned, but it was like before: empty.
"Didn't think we'd make it this far, truly." Bofur sighed, "Might wish we hadn't before the end."
I could feel my heart skip a beat at his words. We stood quietly together for a long moment before I could see something to Bofur's right catch his attention. And I didn't need to turn to know what he had seen.
My rope. God, I was an idiot.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to think of any excuse to keep Bofur's suspicions away.
But Bofur spoke again, so quietly I almost missed it, "No one could blame a soul for wishing themselves elsewhere."
I inhaled sharply.
After a long tense silence I finally answered, "No, I suppose you couldn't." I glanced up to meet Bofur's eyes. "But I have this feeling that I'm exactly where I should be." I glanced down again. "Ridiculous, isn't it?"
Bofur's eyes were very dark in the firelight, but I didn't miss the fondness flashing through them as he replied, "Now that does sound like a comfort, lad."
I smiled back, "I'm glad you think so."
Bofur turned to look back out to Dale before saying, "It's almost dawn, aye? Why don't you head inside, Bilbo? Get some rest."
"I," I started, before realizing I had no idea what to say, "I'd like that, I think. You'll be alright?"
Bofur nodded, a strange look passing over his face that I couldn't quite catch, "Always am, aren't I?"
I let out a startled laugh, recognizing my own words as they were thrown back at me. "Yes," I said warmly, "We can always count on that."
Bofur grinned and this time I was sure it was real. "Good night, Bilbo."
I nodded, moving towards the staircase before stopping at the first step, hesitating.
"Bofur?" I called behind me, waiting until Bofur turned around before telling him, "Everything is going to be alright." I would make sure of it.
A flash of genuine surprise crossed as his eyes roamed searchingly over my face. Whatever he found seemed to startle him more before his expression smoothed out. "Aye, lad. I reckon it will."
I smiled back before turning back to the staircase and heading back into the mountain.
It was silent in Erebor's halls as I made my way back to the treasury. I could hear no voices, no debris being moved, no weapons sharpened. Everything was still. Quiet.
When I turned down the last hallway and came upon the treasury I was surprised, and disappointed, to see only one dwarf moving through the gold. I didn't need to move closer to know who it was.
I took a deep breath, nervousness building, as I quickly crossed the last few catwalks to reach the landing where all of our bedrolls had been set up. As I got closer I could hear the telltale snoring from the dwarves. I sighed, smiling. Who would have guessed that snoring was something I would be relieved to hear?
I reached the landing and could see that almost all of the dwarves were there. I quickly did a count, able to identify who was who simply by the number of dwarves in each cluster. When I reached eleven, I moved carefully between them to the bedroll that I had claimed. Once there, I lowered myself carefully onto it, sighing.
I resisted the urge to press my hand against the Arkenstone and instead turned to look over the dwarves one last time. And I was startled to see two sets of gleaming eyes staring back at me. I had traveled with the dwarves for so long and yet their night-vision eyes always gave me a scare.
I didn't have to look too closely to know who it was.
A genuine smile pulled at my mouth. Those two. I waited until they laid back down, their flashing eyes disappearing against the shadows, before turning back to watch Thorin.
I sighed, unable to stop myself. I couldn't muster the energy to go and try to convince him to rest as well. I knew it was a losing battle before it even began.
I gave into the urge to touch the Arkenstone that time, staring at the floor and wishing that I could have found some other way. But I knew this was all I had. All I could do now. And in the morning, whether or not Thorin would forgive me, it would all be over.
I closed my eyes and curled up on my bedroll, wishing sleep would come so that morning could arrive. But despite dawn being only a few hours away, it was the longest night I had in Middle Earth.
I woke up with a start, like I had every morning since I found my ring. Clawing away that last dredges of darkness and fire in my nightmare, I rolled onto my back and listened, waiting for my shivering to subside. There was still snoring around me, thankfully. I could pick out Gloin's odd whistling snore to my left and Ori's softer snuffling to my right.
I brought my hand up to curl it over my chest, right between the pocket in which I kept my ring and the one just below that held the Arkenstone. Today was the day.
Balin. I needed to talk to Balin.
I didn't know how much time I had until dawn was fully here and I needed to move fast.
Pushing to my feet, I tiptoed back through the dwarves to Balin's bedroll, careful not to disturb Dwalin who was right next to him. Kneeling down in front of where Balin lay prone on his side I reached out and gave Balin's elbow a shake.
"Balin," I whispered, praying that I wouldn't wake any of the others. I watched as Balin's brow furrowed, "Balin, wake up. Please."
Balin made a soft noise before shaking his head just barely before his eyes opened. "Bilbo?"
"Yes," I said quietly. "I'm sorry but please. I must speak with you. It's urgent."
Balin pushed to his feet immediately, sleepiness already forgotten, "Thorin?"
My eyes teared up at the name and took a deep breath, "No, no. Something else."
"Very well," Balin said, frowning. "This way then, Bilbo. Come."
I nodded, stumbling to my feet and following a step or two behind Balin. We walked for a few minutes until we were a far enough distance away that Balin deemed suitable. Then, he turned to me.
"What is it, lad," Balin asked, voice low.
I glanced down the hallway from where we had come, and then once I was sure we weren't followed I said, "It's about Azog."
"Azog," Balin repeated, surprised. "What of that creature?"
"This war," I said slowly, "Isn't what we thought it would be. The elves, the men. They aren't a threat. Azog marches from Dol Guldur. He's coming for all of us."
"By the Maker," Balin inhaled sharply, "How can this be?"
I shook my head. Balin would know better than I would. But I offered, "That's what Gandalf left us to investigate. They were building an army and now that Smaug is dead and you are home they want to shift the balance back in their favor."
Bain lifted a trembling hand to his beard. "When?"
"Dawn," I said, dropping it like the bomb I knew it was. Balin's eyes widened.
"You, the elves, the people of Lake-town." I said desperately, "We can't turn our swords on each other. I need your help," Balin turned from where he was staring at the wall, "Thorin-"
Balin shook his head, "Say no more, lad. But I fear it may be impossible to reach him until Gandalf arrives."
"He isn't coming," Balin's head snapped in my direction. I tried very hard not to cry, "Gandalf isn't coming back."
Balin breathed out a stream of dwarvish that I suspected were curses. I felt like doing the same.
After a long moment I whispered, "What do we do?"
I hoped Balin had a plan. Anything. Because my only option would break my heart and possibly break Thorin as well.
Balin's mouth opened but before he could say anything more, we both froze. Down the hallway we could hear shouting. Bofur shouting.
Oh, no. It was time.
As one, Balin and I ran back to the others, falling in line to head back into the armory. I watched as the dwarves assembled their armor, pulling it over the heads and legs and fastening in with impressive speed. There was no waiting for one another. Once they had finished, they grab their weapons and move out one or two at a time to the rampart.
I felt sick as I followed a few steps behind Bifur. Within a few moments we stepped out into the morning sun. I could see most of the dwarves scattered across the rampart. Thorin was already holding bow.
But it wasn't an orc army at the walls. Instead it was an army of gold. Elves.
What the hell was this.
I moved closer to the wall to get a better look as the last dwarves, Oin and Ori, poured outside to join us. It was elves, definitely, all across the field their armor gleamed as they stood in long rows. And smack in the middle was a group of what must have been Lake Men, dressed in browns and greys and holding whatever weapons they could lay their hands on. I saw several harpoons and even a few fishnets.
And in front of them were two figures on horseback. No, not horseback because Thranduil was riding what looked like an honest to god elk. Beside him was Bard, on the same pale horse he rode the previous day.
Oh my God I was going to lose it. I was going to scream.
"Come, King Thorin," Thranduil called up at us, a barely-there smirk gracing his features. "We bring you glad tidings."
"Your tidings," Thorin snarled, venomous, his face even more pale in the morning light, "Are not welcome here, King of the Mirkwood."
"I should think you'd be pleased to hear our news," Thranduil said, smirk dropping, "You will find no war with us. An armistice has been offered and accepted."
"You lie," Thorin said confidently, "As I have told your friend: you will find no goodwill with us."
Oh no. No, Thranduil wasn't-
"On the contrary," Thrandruil countered, eyes bright even from a distance. It was impossible for me to tell if he was angry or happy, "We have been given a promise from one of your own. And who should know honor better than you and yours, King under the Mountain?"
-Going to throw me under the bus. That asshole.
Thorin flinched, almost imperceptibly, if not for the way one of his shoulders twitched. To my left I could feel Bofur's eyes on me.
"A lie," Thorin shouted back, voice unwavering, "From a base king. For none of mine have left this mountain since it has been reclaimed. No bargain could have been struck!"
"That's not quite true," I said slowly, softly. But not soft enough to keep my voice from carrying. A dreadful silence fell over us. One by one, the dwarves turned to me. Some with looks of horror, others with eyes wide. Ori, I was almost sure, had stopped breathing. Next to me, Kili asked, voice trembling, "Bilbo?"
But none of that really mattered, none but Thorin.
Thorin's eyes were like chips of ice but his expression was that of a confused child.
"I made them an offer." I explained carefully, heart twisting painfully as Gloin and Dori stepped back away from me in shock. "To give them my one-fourteenth of the treasure if they would stand down. And they accepted."
Not that they were doing much standing down, currently.
I shifted uncomfortably, stomach turning, as Thorin took a step closer. I felt very much like I was standing in front of a predator. "I gave them my word," I said quietly. "Would you have me break it?"
"No," Thorin breathed out, eyes wide. My heart gave a hopeful flutter before, "I will not allow it."
"It's too late," I told him, heart sinking. "I made them a promise. And I will see it through."
"You will do no such thing." Thorin snapped, gaze burning into me, "I will not have them bleed your soft heart. I rule this mountain and they will not lay a finger on what is ours."
"Mine," I shot back, causing Thorin to flinch and my heart to lurch. Please, just let me do this. We had so much more to worry about. "You said it yourself. It is my share. And I will do whatever I choose with it."
I waited until Thorin's eyes met mine again, "I will do this."
"No," Thorin said again, face hard. "I would see us all die with swords in our hands before I let them touch our gold."
I stared at him, eyes burning. I swallowed, "You wouldn't."
"Our honor, our home," Thorin told me breathlessly, "Is worth far more."
Honor. Home. Those weren't the first things out of Thorin's mouth. The gold was worth more to him than any of us. That was it then.
I gritted my teeth, clenched my fists and ground out, "And what of the Arkenstone?" I asked, watched Thorin's face grow slack with shock. "What is that worth?"
You," Thorin breathed out, looking like he had been struck, as the others gasped, "you cannot have it."
"I can," I confirmed, voice wavering. God why did this have to hurt so bad? "And I do."
No," Thorin said again, looking away, eyes unfocused.
"Yes," I said sharply, taking a step forward and forcing Thorin to look back at me. "I didn't believe it, you know? How could I?" Thorin stared, uncomprehendingly. Around us I could see the others had similar expressions.
"Smaug," I clarified, watching Thorin closely. The others dwarves shifted in my peripherals, "I thought it was lying. It was an evil creature - how could it not be? I didn't want to believe it. But it was telling the truth after all," And wasn't that just a kick to the teeth, "'Watch it destroy him. It will corrupt his heart and drive him mad.'"
I stared at Thorin, willing him to finally hear me. To realize. "And here we are."
Thorin flinched again. One hand raised up next to his head, as if to ward off a blow. I didn't know if that was good or bad.
"If you want the Arkenstone," I told Thorin firmly, "You will honor my agreement."
"Liar," Thorin shouted suddenly, hurling a poisonous glare at me, "You think me so easily tricked?"
I shook my head, throat closing again. "It's no trick. And you believe me." I met Thorin's eyes again and knew I saw real panic there. "Don't you?"
I cleared my throat, this time I was the one avoiding Thorin's eyes. It was time to twist the knife. Though, it felt more like I was doing it to myself. "I've hidden it. In the mountain," I pulled a face, "Maybe in Dale," Thorin sucked in a sharp breath. "It doesn't matter, though. You'll never find it. Not with all the dwarves of Middle Earth searching for a hundred years."
Thorin went very still.
"I won't die, won't watch any of you die, for such a small thing," I said, resisting the urge to look around at the others. I knew if I looked at any of them, the tears building behind my eyes would fall. "No matter what you command."
There was a long tense silence.
Thorin advanced on me so quickly, I didn't realize what was happening until his large hand was wrapped around my neck, pushing me back. I gasped, trying to pull away out of instinct but Thorin's grip was like a vice. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Fili lose his balance for a brief moment as he was shoved aside before righting himself and grabbing hold of Thorin's arm, eyes wide and focused on his uncle.
"What did they promise you?" Thorin demanded, eyes cold and hard as ice even as tears gathered at his lashes, "What prize has your honor bought? Titles? Land?"
I wheezed, standing on my toes, trying to lessen the pressure and wretch myself out of Thorin's hold. I could still breathe, though not much, and I could feel the muscles in my neck convulse, "No."
"Do not dare think you might escape this."" Thorin snarled, grip tightening even as a tear ran down his cheek. I tried not to let my panic show, but I could feel my lungs burn and the edges of my vision darken, "Answer me, what have they given you?"
I met Thorin's eyes for an impossibly long moment before gasping out, tears streaming, "Nothing! I did it for you!"
Thorin's eyebrows furrowed, uncomprehending and I hastened to add before his grip cut off my air supply entirely, "To protect all of you! So that you can be safe, here, finally home!"
"Do not think you can ply me with your sweet words," Thorin hissed tossing me away after a beat of silence. I stumbled back, coughing, as several pairs of hands caught me a helped me find my balance. "You have betrayed me. You are nothing more than a craven knave. You care nothing but for your own life and have laid it bare for all to see."
I watched, horrified, as Thorin drew Orcrist and took a step towards me. The hands on my arms and back tightened.
I had failed in almost every way that mattered. Thorin was gone now.
Thorin stopped in front of me and said in no more than a whisper, voice cracking, "Should I lay eyes on you again, your life will be forfeit."
In the blink of an eye, several dwarf backs – Dori, Ori, Oin, and Bifur – blocked my view of Thorin. I gasped as the hands, shockingly gentle, pulled me away.
"I'm sorry," I gasped out as if Thorin could still hear me, as if it mattered at all, honesty wrecking my voice as my vision was blurred tears. I had nothing left to defend with. No words, no lies, no last-minute plans. Thorin was right, it was all laid bare, "I'm sorry that it came to this."
Despite being able to breathe again, though in more of a wheeze than anything, I was still crying. I brought my arm up to wipe my eyes, though I realized it was a wasted effort. In front of me, Nori was gathering the coil of rope I had left behind and tossing it over wall.
A warm hand was on my back and I realized it was Bofur and Kili bracing me.
"It's alright Bilbo," Kili whispered, face white as a sheet. His touch was careful as they steered me over to the edge.
"Come on now," Bofur was saying, pressing the rope into my hands, "There we are, Bilbo, down you go."
"Be careful out there," Nori whispered to me, as I threw my leg over the wall. "And good fortune, friend."
I wanted to say something, anything, back. To tell them thank you. To tell them how sorry I was. That I didn't meant for this to be what happened.
It didn't matter though, in the end. I couldn't get the words out, my throat was tight and hot and painful, and I was still wheezing out my sobs and I climbed down the rope.
It took an eternity to reach the bottom and once I hit the ground I stumbled. My head was throbbing, my lungs ached, my eyes burned, and I was still crying.
I made my way across the bridge as quick as I could and found myself in front of Bard and Thranduil.
"Master Baggins," Bard said, eyes very wide. White-hot anger cut through me.
"How dare you," I hissed out through my tears as I glared up at them, stopping Bard short. "This wasn't what we agreed to."
Bard looked ashamed and even Thranduil look regretful.
Before any of us could say more, a loud horn blared across the plain. It was different than the horn I remember from our time running from wargs before we found sanctuary in Rivendell.
"What in the world," I heard Bard murmur, turning his horse in the horn's direction.
From above, Thorin called, "The Shire-rat's share is yours, if you live to see the next sunrise."
To the left, cresting over a ridge, was an army. But it didn't look like orcs. Their march was rhythmic, their armor gleaming.
Thranduil had an answer for us though and hissed out, "Dwarves."
Oh, great. So that was what I had forgotten.