Chapter 1: The Bells of Dale


It was the middle of Spring already, Bilbo noted, and along the slopes of the Mountain the trees had all filled out with leaves, those that were not already evergreen. The first burst of budding bright greens were fading into the darker tones of coming summer and the sun was bright above them among the upper reaches. He breathed deeply of the morning air, cold and fresh off of the waters and wondered why he had waited so long to make this trip.

Two years ago he had been in the Shire, the sleepy, comfortable Shire. Looking back on it now he felt as if he had been asleep, and had only truly woken back up when he passed out of those safe boundaries for good, his feet taking him gradually back to east and south.

Not that he'd been in any danger, not with the Dwarves with him. They'd had a merry time of it for most of the journey, really, and their adversities had only been the common sort that any traveler might encounter. Nothing too uncomfortable or unexpected. Rivendell had been just as lovely as he recalled, only moreso, and he had been quick to accept the offer of a home there, but he hadn't quite finished his journeying yet. He smiled at the memory of it. Rivendell. Ah, it was an anomaly in his memories, really. Most things were not as nice as he recalled, so it had been a treat to find something was even better.

And now here he was, at long last. Back to the Lonely Mountain; Erebor, it had been named on the older maps. He had enjoyed a warm and well-fed wintering thanks to the hospitality of Elrond's household, then an interesting but mostly safe journey over the Misty Mountains.. as well as through the lands of the Beornings (another small adventure of its own), and now he was back at the home of so manyof his strongest memories. And what a place it had turned out to be!

He had to admit, the last time he'd seen this vale it had hardly been at its best. The town had been a ruin, with everyone two days journey off in the other direction, near the remains of the ruined Laketown. The mountain had been a lifeless desolation of ash and death with hardly a scrap of green upon it. They had all been weary, mourning, relieved at the ending of the battles.

No, this - this was night and day. This was a miraculous turn-around, or so it seemed to him. It was the way of such things, how they seem to spring out of the ground at you if you have not been around to watch the tedious hours (or years) that made it happen.

He looked back down the hill they had just climbed, the stones of their path as smooth and perfect as only close association with Dwarves could make them. The Men's town spread out below them, bright and fresh in the morning light. They had climbed enough they were almost on the level with the tallest bell-tower. No wonder he needed to pause to catch his breath.

The bell-towers were the especial pride of Dale; tall and stately and ornate, built to outshine their ill-fated predecessors. During his stay in the town his host had been nothing less than King Bain himself, and Bilbo had enjoyed a very comfortable stay. He had gotten to tour every point of interest they could show him, whether he was truly interested or not, and waxed enthusiastic about every simple detail of older days. Though Bain was getting older and only now recovering from an illness of some kind, Prince Brand had been a ready and enthusiastic host filled with energy and purpose. Brand had laughed heartily over Bilbo's admiration of his bowmanship, so proud of his lineage from the mighty Bard; he had been eager to ply Bilbo with endless questions about what Bard had been like, and about the surrounding lands and their histories as far as Bilbo could recall. Of the Shire he had asked only a little... perhaps it was simply too far away to seem real to him, Bilbo thought. Certainly that was the fate of Dale among the Hobbits.

Not that he had lacked for attention! All of the Men were curious about him, having heard of but never seen hobbits, and especially having heard of him in connection with their own fortunes in Dale. They were eager to hear whatever tales he felt like imparting, even the most trivial. He had truly enjoyed the pampering and attention for a while; the open, empty lands he had crossed had renewed his taste for socializing and he was ever at home when spinning a tale before a warm fire. And he had been weary from the miles it had taken to reach his goal, weary as he did not remember being before. He wanted to be able to greet his old friends with cheer, not tottering in on his last breath. A few days of good rest and good meals we needed to set it all right, and he finally felt ready to meet them at last.

Those fifty-odd extra years must be catching up with me, he thought ruefully and shrugged his shoulders to loosen them. The road was not too steep, and the pack wasn't really that heavy, but he was strangely nervous.

Now, now it was time to finish the journey. Now to the mountain. The mountain. His Dwarven companions had already gone on ahead days ago while he took his ease in Dale, but King Bain had sent along a couple young men for escorts. He felt no concerns. The dragon was gone, after all, and what was to fear from dwarves?

It was only a day's walk up the mountain-side now, trees already growing thick and green upon the slopes once more. He craned his head up at the height of them. Had it really been that long already, that long since the Desolation had stripped these hills of their covering? He felt old again, just looking at them, yet also rejuvenated. His eyes had seen 113 Springs, but as he walked upon these slopes he began to feel as if it were only 50 once again. Time slipped backwards, except for the getting out of breath a little easier than he recalled.

The hours of the day passed pleasantly through a late snack and a roadside lunch. The wide path was smooth and pleasant under his feet, well-kept and oft-traveled. Men and dwarves alike he passed, and on one occasion, a pair of each kind walking together. In spite of a rocky beginning to their relationship, it appeared the Mountain and the Town had gotten along well then. He couldn't help but puff out his chest a little at the thought.

The water, now far below, was winking with late sunlight between the trees as they topped the main rise and turned along a slight ridge toward the mountain's peak. His escort had not had much to say to him, and left to his own thoughts and memories the time had gone quickly. He was surprised to find they were already taking another turn to the left that brought their path onto the main road into Lonely Mountain. The River Running swirled and rushed alongside them, clean and fresh, hasting its way downward to the waiting Lake.

Far above him, the sides of the mountain rose up in a majesty made overwhelming by its nearness. He gasped with admiration to see the many terraces that now lifted up the sides, water cascading over the edges of some into many-leveled, perfectly balanced pools below, others cascading with the green vegetation of their crops. He had noted that the old watch towers had been restored, but had not seen the new towers that had been built until now, and his eyes were round at the thought of the work that had gone into those fortifications. They were not only functional but beautiful in their design, as if they had grown up from the mountainside they stood on. Now that they were there, it was hard to imagine that they had not always been there, they seemed so much a part of what "ought to be."

How proud they must be, he thought, to have brought so much beauty out of that ruin... Distant specks that he knew to be birds circled the towers' peaks. How pleasant to think that old Ro├Ąc's descendants could still be among them.

The road that they walked followed along the River, and was set with many colors of stones paved in pleasing patterns, all perfectly set and smoothed. He reached out a hand and trailed it along the low wall that prevented any sudden tumbles into the icy waters below. It was so smooth as to almost be silky, with the warmth of the sun on its surface and the cold of the stone beneath. Like the dwarves themselves could be at times...

His mind full of memories, he looked up at the approaching entrance half expecting to see the crude rock wall that a handful of gold-smitten dwarves had built against an army. Armies. Plural. He shivered slightly, surprised at his own reaction; he thought he had left those reactions behind long ago. But being dangled over the edge, the sharp rocks and merciless water below him, the strength of Thorin's rage behind the grip that held him and shook him was not one he cared to recall - yet there it was in a sudden clarity. How glad he was that Gandalf had been there...

Somewhere far in the distance, he could hear the bells of Dale singing briefly for the end of the day. A golden, spring day.

He shook the mood off. Well. Thorin was regretfully gone, and his wall was also, though that was for the better. The entrance stood clear and clean, elaborate metal gates wide open to the late afternoon's breezes, the half-lit shapes of dwarves moving about within the slanting shadows of the carven pillars.

He had returned.