Author's Notes: This was written for the LotR Genfic Yahoo group challenge: "Tying Up Loose Ends." My element was to fill some of the gap when Bilbo spent several weeks exploring Thranduil's halls in Mirkwood. HUGE thanks to Docmon for the beta edit!
Escaping by the Dozen
Bilbo Baggins stared at the door in front of him and wished it was open so that the dwarf locked behind it could see his face. A voice in the back of his mind reminded him he was invisible and the dwarf wouldn't be able to see him anyway, but he ignored the voice. It was the principle of the thing, after all. He was giving Balin one of his best incredulous expressions, and the look was utterly wasted.
"I don't think you quite understand our predicament," Bilbo said.
"If I don't, then it's your own fault," Balin said crossly. "You're the one who explained our predicament."
Bilbo frowned, but he couldn't blame Balin for being irritated. The dwarf had been locked in a single room for almost a week before Bilbo found him, giving him good cause for flagging spirits. Bilbo's own mood could hardly be considered cheery. Around him, the faint glow of distant torchlight painted the cave an eerie red, and Bilbo had a fleeting wish that this corridor was frequented more often. King Thranduil's people kept their main passages well lit, but Balin was locked in a room far away from the hustle and bustle of the larger caverns. That made it easy to speak with Balin, but it also made for a dark and dreary visit.
"I just don't understand what I'm to accomplish by sneaking back out into Mirkwood," Bilbo said. "I don't know my way around the forest!"
"Then you'll have to learn," Balin said. "It's no good letting us all out of our cells if we have nowhere to go once we're free."
Bilbo sighed and rubbed his face. "Even if I find a safe path through Mirkwood, we'll still be in as much of a pickle as we were when the elves captured us. We don't know how to get to the Lonely Mountain from here, we don't know where Thorin is, and we have no defense against the spiders."
"Now that we know their tricks, we can avoid the spiders," Balin said. "And if memory serves, the river flowing outside the cave entrance empties into a lake about a day's ride south of the Lonely Mountain. We can follow the river until it clears Mirkwood."
"What about Thorin?" Bilbo asked.
There was silence for a moment. "We may have to trust Thorin to find his own route," Balin said at length. "I was only seven when the dragon descended, but Thorin is almost a score of years my senior. He remembers that day well, and if any can find the Lonely Mountain from the pathless depths of Mirkwood, he can." Balin's voice now sounded stronger and more confident. "We must do everything in our power to escape and meet Thorin, and that means exploring what seems to be the only exit we have."
Bilbo shook his head but found he had no argument for Balin. He had already done everything he could think up on his own. By following the servants who brought them dinner, he had discovered the locations of his twelve captive companions. They had been separated and placed in different cells throughout the cavernous palace, but Bilbo now knew the ins and outs of the passages between them. He also knew the times of their meals, and he was coming to know the routine of the guards. But he did not know how to free the dwarves, so he found himself reluctantly agreeing to Balin's advice.
Several hours later, he crouched near the great gates that opened and closed like the jaws of some ravenous beast. A patrol was preparing to leave, their spears twinkling in the torchlight and their quivers bristling with feathered shafts. Although he was invisible, Bilbo made sure to stay safely hidden in a darkened recess. His shadow could be seen if one knew where to look, and the elves seemed to feel that something was amiss. They were glancing about and speaking to one another in hushed voices.
One elf stepped forward to the gates. His golden hair set him apart from his companions, and Bilbo was reminded of the elf-king himself. This elf began to whisper words that skittered and twisted about in Bilbo's mind. It was a strange language that Bilbo could not even begin to imitate, but then the elf stopped and turned back. He barked a few sharp commands, and suddenly every torch in the hall went dark.
The elves were now absolutely silent save for the golden-haired fellow, who again started whispering at the gates. A shiver of light appeared. It wasn't much, but Bilbo found himself drawn to it. The elves began moving, their light shoes padding softly on the cavern floor. Bilbo hastened after them, hurrying toward the growing crack that marked the entrance to the outside world. Starlight glimmered at him from beyond the caverns, for near the elven stronghold, the trees did not block the sky as they did elsewhere in Mirkwood. Drinking in the sight of moon and stars, Bilbo quickened his steps, practically tripping over the heels of the last elf as the patrol left the king's halls.
The doors slammed shut behind him.
Bilbo froze, certain if he moved he would discover that a piece of himself had been severed by the gates. A hesitant glance back revealed he was yet intact, but he still had difficulty holding down the scream of fear and surprise building in his chest. It was made worse by the feeling that he was trapped, an odd sensation to be sure. Before, he had been trapped in the elven stronghold, unable to escape until elven passwords opened the gates. Now he felt trapped by the forest—the same forest the dwarves viewed as freedom—and he could not escape back into the stronghold until elven passwords again opened the gates.
To make matters worse, Bilbo had no idea when that would be.
Pressing himself against the gates, Bilbo tried to remember everything he knew about patrols. The Brandybucks periodically sent patrols into the Old Forest, and they were rarely gone more than a day. The Bounders, too, had patrols, and they would be gone for only a few days at the most. But Mirkwood was far larger than either the Old Forest or the borders of the Shire. Moreover, the prospect of spending even a few hours in this dark forest sent chills up and down Bilbo's back.
Bilbo licked his lips and took a few tentative steps away from the gates. He scolded himself for not keeping his wits and following the elven patrol, but they had vanished almost immediately after leaving the caverns. He would have never been able to keep up with them. "Best I get to work then," he murmured to himself. "Who knows when I'll have another chance outside the caves?" Mustering his courage, he cautiously made his way over the bridge and started down the forest path. It was a narrow path that at times seemed to disappear completely, and above him, the branches of the trees became twisted and thick.
Then the path ended altogether.
With dismay, Bilbo looked around at the trees that seemed to be closing in from all sides. The forest was very dark here. No starlight glimmered through the branches, and though invisible, Bilbo felt as if he were being watched. He started to back up, casting anxious glances in all directions. Something rustled in the trees off to his right, and that was enough for Bilbo. He spun around, eager to return to the relative safety of the bridge and the gates, only to find that he could not see the path. It was too dark! But the rustling came again, and Bilbo decided not to wait. Aiming in the general direction of the caves, he plunged straight into a thicket, the branches tearing at his face.
After a moment of frantic running, Bilbo realized he was now making more noise than whatever it was that had scared him off the path. He quickly stopped, and the forest around him faded to silence, which was a small comfort. Another comfort was the closeness of the bushes and trees on all sides, for he no longer felt unseen eyes upon him. Unfortunately, both comforts were outweighed by a new realization: he was lost. I've traded one fright for another, he silently wailed, but then his ears picked up on another sound. Not a rustling sound like he'd heard before, but a rushing sound. A river. The river!
Bilbo could not say how long he followed the sound of water. It seemed to take hours but might have been only minutes. Eventually, he stumbled upon a narrow trail. It was not the path he had followed after leaving the bridge, but it made for the river so Bilbo took it. He eventually came upon the beeches that grew on the river's banks, and then with a suddenness that made him start, he was standing at the foot of the bridge. Heaving a sigh of relief, he crossed the bridge and sat down to wait. No matter how long it took the patrol to return, he would stay by the entrance. Mirkwood was not for the likes of hobbits, even invisible ones.
Like his trip back to the bridge, Bilbo did not know how long that wait took, but after a time, he caught the glow of torches through the trees. The sound of singing followed the light, and Bilbo heaved a sigh of relief. Backing away from the gates so his shadow would not be seen, he watched as a hunting party arrived and spoke the twisting words that released the spell on the gates. He wasted no time in following the elves inside, and after the gates clanged shut behind him, he spent many long minutes shivering in the hallway, grateful to once more be a captive of the elven king.
"Balin wants me to try again," Bilbo told Dwalin the next day.
"It would be helpful to know what awaits us just outside the gates."
"Unless I take a torch with me, we'll never know, and I'm in no hurry to let everything in Mirkwood know exactly where I am," Bilbo said.
"It can't always be that dark."
"Yes, it can," Bilbo said. "You wouldn't know because you were blindfolded, but the only reason I managed to find these caves in the first place was because the elves who captured you used torches."
"Well, perhaps you could stay close to a patrol and let their torches show you the woods," Dwalin suggested.
"But they don't seem to use torches all that often!" Bilbo said. "The patrol I followed outside doused their torches before they even left!" He shook his head, forgetting Dwalin could not see the gesture. "I'm sure the darkness bothers the elves, but they don't show it. After I got back, I overheard two of them talking, and they said—"
"Wait," Dwalin interrupted, and Bilbo heard him move toward his cell door. "You understood what they said?"
"Yes," Bilbo said slowly. Dwalin sounded strangely interested.
"I didn't know you spoke their language."
"I don't. Or rather, most of the time I don't. From what I've heard, they seem to speak several languages, but once in a while, they speak the Common Tongue."
"Why would they do that?" Dwalin wondered, and from his tone, Bilbo easily imagined the pensive frown on his face. "When speaking to us, they'll naturally use Westron, but when speaking to each another, I would think they'd use their own language." Dwalin paused. "This could be useful."
Having just endured something "useful" with Dwalin's brother, Bilbo found it difficult to muster any enthusiasm. "I don't see how," he said. "It's not as though I can ask the elves any questions, and it's not as though they'll casually talk about how twelve dwarves might best escape."
"Maybe not, but that isn't what I had in mind," Dwalin said. "If I remember correctly, Mirkwood is home to several different groups of elves, some from the East and some from the West. Perhaps they use Westron when these groups come together." He paused. "You say you're not anxious to explore the forest again?"
"No," Bilbo said, wondering what he was about to get himself into.
"Then how would you like a different task? One that Balin might see as useful enough to forego another journey into the woods?"
"What kind of a task?" Bilbo asked, for he knew better than to agree outright.
"Wandering about and listening. The areas where you can regularly understand the language will be gathering places, and unless I miss my mark, they will also be places where the caves vent with the outside air. Elves are drawn to things like that."
"These also sound like places where I'm most likely to be caught," Bilbo said. "I might be invisible, but my shadow still appears in the torchlight. And while I can be very quiet, the elves have keen ears. I think it would be better to stay away from large gathering places altogether."
"I'm not saying you should walk out into the middle of these places!" Dwalin said. "I'm saying you should find them and explore them when no one is about. If the vents in these areas are big enough, we can use them to escape."
And as he had with Balin, Bilbo found himself with no argument for Dwalin. After all, what was burgling without a little risk? And this risk seemed more acceptable than blundering about in the dark outside the caverns, so later that day, Bilbo went to visit Bombur.
Bilbo hadn't paid Bombur many visits until now except to burgle the kitchen just down the hall from his cell. Bombur's cell was centrally located and there seemed to be many elves around it, causing Bilbo to avoid it whenever possible. But this central location was perfect for Dwalin's plan, and with nothing else to do, Bombur had spent many hours listening to the elves. From him, Bilbo learned that the kitchen he had burgled was often filled with conversations in Westron. It seemed a good place to start his search.
Late one night, Bilbo waited out the last of the elves until the kitchen was empty. The fires had all been banked, but a few wall sconces still flickered, providing enough light for an exploring hobbit. Bilbo decided to start with the massive hearth, and after determining the ashes were cool enough, he ventured into the arched fireplace. A faint breeze brushed against his hand, cold and crisp. Excited, he followed the breeze to the back, but its source was a series of narrow slits set about a foot above the floor. There were enough slits to provide a large fire with fresh air, but the tunnels snaking away were two small for even a hobbit, much less a dwarf.
Not to be discouraged, Bilbo turned his attention upward. The top of the fireplace narrowed considerably, but it was not so narrow a dwarf couldn't squeeze up into the chimney beyond. Bombur might need a good shove or two, but it could be managed. Bilbo could not see if the chimney itself became narrower, though, so he glanced around the kitchen for a light. A lantern hung near one of the doorways, and greatly daring, Bilbo took it down and brought it back to the fireplace. Lifting it above his head, he tried to see further up the chimney, but the chimney made a sharp bend four feet above Bilbo's head. He could see nothing past that.
Frowning, Bilbo left the lantern in the ashes and retrieved a low chair. The fireplace was just tall enough to accommodate it, and standing atop the chair, Bilbo tried to see a further into the chimney. He considered wedging himself up into it, but he abandoned that idea when he lifted his lantern as high as he could and saw light gleam off a heavy slotted grate set where the chimney bent. In fact, the bend seemed constructed purposefully to hold the grate, and Bilbo sighed. The grate was wedged tightly into place and looked to be of sturdy make.
He climbed off his chair and set the lantern down, wondering how he could test the grate's strength, but movement and a gasp near one of the entrances made him freeze.
An elf had entered the kitchen and was staring at the lantern and the chair in the fireplace.
Bilbo stared at the elf and wondered what would have happened had she entered even moments earlier when he was still holding the lantern. After a long minute, the elf relaxed her stare and shook her head, muttering to herself in her musical language. She turned away and opened a cupboard on the opposite wall, and Bilbo exhaled slowly. Quietly, more quietly than he had ever moved in his life, he eased along the wall toward the nearest door. He froze again when the elf paused and glanced his direction, her brow furrowed, but then she turned back to her cupboard. Bilbo started moving again.
He had just reached the doorway when the elf backed away from the cupboard, carrying a bowl and several large spoons. She moved to the tables in the center of the kitchen, but then she stopped and looked straight at Bilbo. No, she looked straight at his feet. At his shadow!
She cried out, her voice echoing through the tunnels, and Bilbo ran. Already he could hear other elves responding, their voices rising in confusion, and soon there were many elves in the hallways. But Bilbo used this to his advantage, for with all the voices, he no longer had to worry about silencing his steps. He ran faster and faster until he left the kitchen far behind. Then he found a quiet, unused corridor by Glóin's cell, and he stayed there for almost an entire day.
After this incident, the elves were more alert, and Bilbo had to move about with greater care.
"Dwalin wants me to keep looking for vents," Bilbo complained to Óin several days later.
"I can't say as I see the point in that," Óin said. "No vent you find will provide an easy escape. If it did, then it would also provide an easy entrance for spiders. I'm surprised Dwalin didn't think of that."
Bilbo grimaced, wishing he had thought of it that.
"Balin seems to have the better idea," Óin continued. "We should concentrate our efforts on the obvious exit."
"Our efforts?" Bilbo echoed. He was fairly certain all efforts thus far had been his own.
"We can't just march out the front gate," Óin said, ignoring Bilbo. "Not under normal circumstances. But what if there was a distraction or an emergency of some kind?"
Bilbo swallowed, remembering how swiftly the elves had responded to his shadow in the kitchen. "What kind of distraction or emergency?"
"Nothing too elaborate. A noise, maybe. Just something to get their attention. That should be easy enough for you to try. Cause a commotion down one of the corridors and then step back to see how the elves react and whether or not they pull guards from the main gates."
"This sounds like it has all the makings of a lovely catastrophe," Bilbo said with a withering glare for the closed cell door. "Besides, even if we could draw the elves away from the gates, how are we to open the doors? We don't know the passwords!"
"Then we distract the elves after they open the doors!" Óin said. "Not all of them will come running. A few will stay to guard the gates, and we might be able to overpower those few. But we need to know how many will stay by the gates and how quickly the other elves will respond to a commotion."
"What if they respond by catching me?" Bilbo asked.
"You haven't been caught yet," Óin pointed out.
Bilbo sighed and turned away from the door. "I think I'll go look for more vents."
As the days dragged by, the dwarves began to get desperate. Every time Bilbo conveyed messages between them or stopped by to offer a bit of company, he found himself facing a barrage of unhelpful suggestions.
"I think Dwalin's on the right track," Kili told Bilbo one morning after breakfast. "Our best chance is to go out some vent or chimney. But Óin is also right. The only vents big enough for us will have grates or some other protection against spiders. So rather than forcing the grate ourselves, let's have the elves do it."
Bilbo's invisible brow furrowed. "How?"
"Block a chimney. Feed some fabric through a grate and push it as far back as you can so the elves will have to remove the grate in order to unstop the chimney. You'll have to explore the chimney once the grate is gone, of course. In a place this size, the chimneys probably connect to one another, and you'll need to find out where they all lead."
Bilbo stared incredulously at Kili's cell door. He was getting quite good at these incredulous looks, and it bothered him that the dwarves couldn't appreciate them. "You want me to explore the chimney while the elves are clearing it?"
"No!" Kili huffed, sounding frustrated. "The elves will clear the chimney quickly, but they probably won't replace the grates quickly, not if they're as sturdy as you describe. You should have time after the chimney is cleared to explore."
"Even if you're right," and Bilbo had his doubts about that, "what am I to do once the chimney joins other chimneys? Where do I go? And how am I to find my way back out if it becomes too narrow to turn around?"
"When the chimneys join, the passage should get wider, not narrower. Otherwise, it wouldn't be able to accommodate all the smoke."
"How am I to accommodate all the smoke?" Bilbo demanded.
Kili didn't have an answer to that one.
Nor did Bilbo think much of Nori's request for tools that could be used to dig and tunnel. After Bilbo pointed out that he couldn't slip those things under the door or hide them in the food, Nori suggested Bilbo undertake a bit of excavation himself. He could work on making the ventilation shafts in the hearths bigger, or he could tunnel through to the cells and give the dwarves a way to come and go at will. "Then we could help you on those ventilation shafts," Nori added.
"The same shafts where elves like to gather and where they'll probably notice very quickly that twelve dwarves are hammering away in the fireplace?" Bilbo asked.
"We'll do it when the elves aren't around."
Bilbo rubbed his temples. The elves were always around. He had learned that through hard experience. And even if they weren't, the work of twelve dwarves would be hard to hide. "This idea may have to wait a bit," he said. "Balin wants me to explore Mirkwood again."
It didn't take long for Bilbo to decide his favorite dwarf to visit was Bombur. There were three reasons for this.
Firstly, Bombur didn't insist on dictating Bilbo's adventures from the relative safety of a locked cell. For whatever reason, Bombur had not yet reached the levels of desperation infusing the other dwarves. Bilbo's theory was that napping his way through Mirkwood had a lot to do with that. Since he'd been carried for a week's worth of their trek, the journey didn't feel as long to Bombur as it did to the other dwarves. And while he would prefer to be on about their quest, Bombur was also willing to admit that the elves kept him well fed and treated him better than either the spiders or the goblins had.
Secondly, Bilbo's vent hunt had enabled him to know the best times to raid the kitchens, and with the exception of early mornings and late evenings, the kitchen near Bombur's cell was one of the least frequented. It also boasted many fine leftovers from many fine meals, something Bombur viewed as a conniving and vicious form of torture since baking smells wafted down the corridor and into his cell. It was one of his few complaints, and Bilbo was more adept at handling Bombur's grumbles than he was at handling outlandish advice from the other dwarves.
Thirdly, Bombur's cell was a good place to listen to the elves. Bilbo was still doubtful of his ability to learn anything useful, but it was his only means of gathering news. Moreover, it was a productive way to pass the time that didn't entail leaving the caverns or wiggling up chimneys. So it happened that almost two weeks into their captivity, Bilbo was lingering and listening near Bombur's cell when he overheard something that changed everything: There were not twelve but thirteen dwarves in the palace.
"Thorin is here?" Balin hissed when Bilbo told him the news. "Where?"
"I don't know yet," Bilbo answered. "And I don't even know that it is Thorin. I just know the elves are holding thirteen dwarves."
"Who could it be if not Thorin?"
Bilbo decided not to argue the point, especially since he agreed.
"You must find him!" Balin continued, his voice moving back and forth. Bilbo wondered how much room he had to pace. "If we weren't told about Thorin, then Thorin probably wasn't told about us. And if he thinks he's alone and the rest of us have gone on… We can't have that! He may grow desperate enough to betray our Quest."
"He won't be easy to find," Bilbo warned. "I found the rest of you by following servants out of the kitchen near Bombur, but that kitchen isn't supplying Thorin's meals. And the main kitchens have servants going everywhere at all times of the day. It could take a month to follow them all!"
"We don't have a month!"
Bilbo closed his eyes and took a few calming breaths. The longer their captivity, the shorter their tempers.
"Thorin probably isn't in the upper halls," Balin said after a moment, sounding calmer himself. "You would have found him or heard of him before now. That leaves the lower halls."
"Those are hard to search. They don't keep all of the lower levels lit. I'll have to take a torch or a lantern with me," Bilbo said.
"Too dangerous," Balin said, surprising Bilbo. Danger hadn't been much of a deterrent when Balin suggested exploring Mirkwood. "If anyone saw you, you'd be caught."
"Well, the other option is to find someone going down and follow them," Bilbo said. "That could be dangerous, too. It would be easy to trip in the dim lighting, and if I stumbled, they would hear me."
"Yes, but that plan doesn't sound as dangerous as the first. You'll have to try it."
Bilbo scowled. Apparently, danger was still not much of a deterrent. But Balin was right. They had to find out where Thorin was, and this seemed to be the best way. So for the next few days, Bilbo spent many hours in the lower levels, watching elves bear plates of food in many different directions. When he found a single elf bearing a single plate of food, he followed. But more often than not, he found himself wandering back into the upper caverns where the living quarters were, and Thorin was not being kept up there.
Several days later, when there seemed to be very few elves in the lower caverns, Bilbo was on the verge of losing his patience and heading down to explore the lower levels on his own. But just after he worked up his courage to steal a lantern, he saw two elves coming down his hallway. One carried a plate of food and waited at the entrance to a dark corridor while his companion lit a torch. This looked hopeful, and Bilbo decided he could forego his own hunt one more time in order to follow these elves.
They walked quickly, and Bilbo sometimes had to run to keep up. He kept his movements as silent as possible, though the two elves seemed too busy conversing in their own language to notice him. The one bearing a torch did glance back from time to time, but it seemed to be more out of habit than unease. Even so, Bilbo was careful to stay well away from the torchlight; he couldn't afford to have them see his shadow.
That was how he managed to lose the elves.
He tarried a bit too long behind a corner, waiting for the elves to draw further ahead. The torchlight didn't fade, and Bilbo wondered if they had reached their destination. But though the torchlight held steady, the voices did fade after a moment. Confused, Bilbo peered around his corner only to discover the elves had lit a wall sconce and gone on. The light of their own torch was nowhere to be seen, and staring at two dark tunnels that slanted down, Bilbo could not even guess at which to take. Nor could he go back. The tunnels behind him were lost to darkness, and he was unsure of the way. He would have to hope the elves returned by the same route.
Settling beneath the burning wall sconce, Bilbo rubbed his brow and tried not to think of what would happen if the elves departed by some other way and left him in darkness. To distract himself, he began thinking of all the strange plans and directions the dwarves had given him over the past week. He found himself curiously drawn to Óin's suggestion about testing how elves responded to distraction. Something about the idea niggled the back of his mind, and Bilbo wondered if he could put it to use. The only times the elves unlocked the dwarves' doors was to deliver a meal or change the privy pot. Those were probably the only times the elves worried about an escape, for just after such a visit, they might forget to latch the door or the lock might fail to catch. Nothing of the sort had happened thus far, but it was still a possibility. And if these two elves were indeed delivering a meal to Thorin, how would they react if they started back for the main passages and heard something move behind them? Wouldn't it be reasonable to go back and make sure Thorin was still in his cell?
Bilbo's eyes narrowed. It was a risky idea. Almost as risky as carrying his own lantern. But he was running out of ideas, and he had already come this far. It was time to be more assertive in his burgling.
His plan depended on the elves coming back the way they'd gone down, but in this, Bilbo's fortune held. A few minutes later, voices started to echo in the caves, and down one of the descending hallways, a faint light bobbed. Bilbo hastily hid himself in the other hallway and waited. He wondered what sort of distraction he should make, but all he could think of were Óin's suggestions about a noise. As though cued by the thought, his stomach made an untimely rumble, and Bilbo wrapped his arms around his middle, hoping to shush the noisy creature.
But the grumblings of his stomach reminded him of a bit of dessert wrapped in a napkin and stashed it in his pocket for safekeeping. His next thought bordered on blasphemy, even from an adventurous Took perspective. After all, hobbits simply did not throw away good food. But it was either that or make a distracting noise himself, and Bilbo had become enough of a burglar to know he must avoid that at all costs. Ignoring the virulent protests of all his hobbit sensibilities, he retrieved the folded napkin from his pocket, waited until the two elves walked past the lit wall sconce, and threw the dessert back down the hallway.
Both elves immediately stopped. The dessert had been some kind of hard sweet filled with nuts, and it clattered as it rolled. The elves did nothing for a moment, and then they started speaking rapidly to one another. For a moment, Bilbo feared they would call for help, but after a minute or so, they started back down the corridor, just as Bilbo had hoped they would.
He followed more closely this time, and it was well he did, for the elves moved even faster than before. They moved almost too quickly for Bilbo, who soon found himself falling behind. But fortune was still with him, and just before he lost sight of them completely, the elves stopped. At the end of a long corridor was a door with a lit torch burning fitfully above it, and as the elves stood before this door, Bilbo heard a rattle of keys. The door opened with a quiet creak, and then came an angry voice that Bilbo immediately recognized. A grin threatened to split his face. He was so elated by his success that he scarcely managed to get out of the way when the elves closed the door and started back up the tunnels. It was a wonder he was not seen, but the elves were too busy talking to each other to note the faint shadow dancing in the torchlight.
Once the elves were gone, Bilbo hastened over to the door, grateful they had left the lit torch in its holder. "Thorin!" he hissed.
There was a long silence, and then in a voice filled with disbelief, there came an answering, "Bilbo? Bilbo Baggins?"
"Yes!" Bilbo said. "It's me!"
They both started talking at once, demanding to know how the other had come to be there. Thorin won out, and Bilbo shared the story of how the other dwarves had been captured by spiders and of how he had rescued them. He was forced to reveal the story behind the ring that made him invisible, and Thorin demanded to hear this tale several times, asking many questions with each telling. He was unusually interested in the ring, and it started to make Bilbo uncomfortable.
"You are certain there are no markings on it?" Thorin pressed. "No adorning jewel? No runes?"
"It's just a plain gold band, as I told you before," Bilbo said wearily.
Thorin fell silent, clearly bothered. "From your first descriptions, I thought… But no. That would be impossible. The High Pass is too far north of Khazad-dûm. It could not have made its way there."
Bilbo decided to change the subject. "You still haven't told me how you were captured. Balin thought you might have gone on without us. We couldn't find you in the forest."
"Probably because I wasn't in the forest," Thorin growled. "I was here." And he launched into his own tale, explaining that he had missed the spiders altogether and been captured much earlier by the elves. "We mustn't tell them of our Quest," Thorin said firmly. "If we do, they will want a part in it and insist on a reward for their service. Take word to the rest of our company: no one is to say anything about the Lonely Mountain, Smaug, or our journey."
"I'll do that," Bilbo promised, "though it may take me a day or two. Fili and Bofur are about as far from everyone as you can get without actually leaving the palace. But I'll see they get your message."
"Good!" Thorin praised. "You give me hope! We'll escape yet, and we'll not let the elves claim what is ours by right!"
Bilbo considered reminding Thorin that there was still a dragon between themselves and the treasure, to say nothing of thirteen locked doors and an elven cave system that seemed to have only one exit. But Bilbo didn't have the heart to bring down Thorin's spirits, so instead he asked, "Is there anything you need? Anything I might be able to bring you? Not that I can do much until I get my hands on the keys, but I can keep my ears open or maybe try to slip something onto your dinner tray."
"Bring me whatever tidings you hear," Thorin said. "And take my message to the others."
"I'll go now," Bilbo said, stepping away from the door, but then he stopped. He had been so intent on finding Thorin's cell that he had spared no thought for how he would get back. Except for the torch above the door—which seemed to be going out—there was no light in these lower tunnels.
"Still here?" Thorin wondered.
"Yes," Bilbo said sheepishly. "I think you may be stuck with me a bit longer. I'll need to wait for someone to come down and then follow them out."
There was a grunt that seemed equal parts exasperation and amusement. "Well, so long as you're trapped here with me, we can spend some time planning our escape. You said it's difficult to leave by the front gates?"
"Very difficult," Bilbo said, taking care to emphasize this point.
"Hmm. I suppose you're familiar with the palace now?"
"I'm getting to know the twists and turns," Bilbo said. "I know my way around much of the upper levels, but there's a lot left to explore in the lower levels."
"Then I want you to explore it," Thorin said. "Dwarves helped delve these caverns long ago, and there must be some secret we can expose. Why don't you try to stay close to the chief of the guards? He must make rounds from time to time."
"Stay close to the chief of the guards?" Bilbo echoed. "It seems to me that someone who is chief of the guards probably earned the position and is good at what he does. Wouldn't he be someone I should stay away from?"
"Ordinarily, yes, but he's certain to know these caverns well. If you follow him about, he may reveal something we can use."
Thorin continued on at length, expounding on the merits and details of his plan, but Bilbo leaned his head against the door and stopped listening. Above him, the torch fizzled and went out, plunging the tunnel into darkness. It was going to be a long night.