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Part III

Having scrutinized the map of the Lonely Mountain to his satisfaction, Mr. Baggins made certain his guests were stashed for the night in as many bedrooms as could be found, though he was forced to pack the overflow in cellars and storerooms. Thorin doubted they would notice, having downed more than enough of the Shire's best brews to care. Bidding Gandalf good-night, the hobbit retreated to whatever nook was not already filled with dwarves.

Thorin remained by the edge of the table, eyes moving to the map which lay unfolded on its surface. Among many things, it bore the royal runes of his father and grandfather. He traced over the marks, anger sparking at the thought of all the parchment signified. Turning to Gandalf, he announced reproachfully, "Very considerate of you, to finally tell me of my father's fate."

The wizard sat facing the hearth, and its red glow cast shadows within the lines of a care-worn face. "I remembered the items after our last meeting, but it took some consideration before I understood the connection," he explained. "I did not intend to keep the information from you."

"As you have already said," Thorin replied scornfully. Whether or not there was truth to this, it had been a calculated move, saving the revelation for the moment he was ready to storm from the hall, and forget the wizard's little pack-rat for good.

"A long time have I kept them out of dwarven hands, and for that I may be amiss," Gandalf admitted with a hint of regret. "Yet some things mark time in their own way, to be discovered only when the moment is right."

"Your vague assurances are a great consolation," Thorin snorted. The pressure of the silver key on its golden chain weighed far more heavily on his mind than on his chest. His father's last desire had been that he use these heirlooms to win back their land, yet unless their secrets could be learned, they would grant no further chance of success.

They spent the dwindling hours before dawn speculating on the potential properties of the map and key, and arguing over the matter of the hobbit. Gandalf parried each skeptical remark with assertions about the enduring bravery of the Shire-folk.

"I won't deny they are not as hardy as dwarves—nor quite so hard-headed—but they are resilient in their way; as much survivors as your people."

"Then why haven't I heard tales of this legendary fortitude?" Thorin asked sarcastically.

"Hobbits feel no need to boast to folk they do not know, a fact which greatly limits their reputation. But never fear, you are not alone in ignorance. Bilbo never heard of you before."

Thorin frowned. His halls in the West were not as splendid as he would have liked, but they were the closest thing to a kingdom in the lands bordering the Shire. "I find that hard to believe," he said, a touch haughtily.

"Do you?" Gandalf raised a grizzled eyebrow. "How many of Bilbo's people have you bothered to speak to, unless it was to shout for ale from the bar-keep in the Green Dragon, or yell at the lads loitering along the Great Road?" When Thorin made no reply, he continued, "I thought as much. Like many of the Elder races, you underestimate what you do not understand. I have been trying my best to rectify the matter."

"Yes, you have been trying. I only wonder why," Thorin remarked with a sideways glance. From the beginning, a concern had been chipping away at his willingness to believe Gandalf. He sensed the wizard was hiding something, and like most dwarves, he had little tolerance for obfuscation. "For the sake of argument, I will concede the possibility of brave hobbits. But this particular hobbit does not appear to qualify. A burglar is a far cry from a hero, and I had not set my expectations high. But even so, you have told me nothing he has done to merit my faith. If he is such a professional, why did your thief's eyes not glaze with greed for the treasures we sang of? And why didn't he show more concern over the matter of shares?" Thorin gestured sharply to the contract that Baggins had neatly refolded and placed on the sideboard. "Never have I met a less avaricious treasure hunter!"

"And I suppose this bothers you," Gandalf said with a heavy sigh.

With a low growl, Thorin struggled to resist tossing the contract into the fire. Mastering his vexation, he grated, "It does when I am already doubtful of his talents. Now I am equally dubious of his motivation!" His eyes narrowed. "I have little reason, beyond your word, to believe he has the determination to perform any part of what we require."

"My word should be reason enough!" Gandalf countered. "But of that may you yet learn. I assume these concerns arise from Bilbo's quiet manner. The ability to be surreptitious is a most desirable trait in a burglar, wouldn't you say?"

"Timidity is not equivalent to stealth," Thorin chastised. "I think it a reasonable request that he not quake and crumble at the first sign of danger."

"Oh, he may quake quite a bit, but he will not crumble," Gandalf assured, "at least not before your own folk do."

The dwarf laughed at the absurdity of the idea. "You believe my people will be hindered by fear? Was it not the courage of the Khazâd which kept Glaurung at bay during the Fifth Battle?"

"Indeed it was," Gandalf answered shortly. "Do not suppose I think you incapable of defeating old Smaug, were you to lead an army of the magnitude present in the Elder days, and protected by the same enchanted armor in which they met that ancient foe. But you have neither. I trust you have not forgotten the toll the wingless worm took on Azaghâl, Lord of Belegost?"

"Never shall dwarves forget the great Lord's sacrifice," Thorin intoned reverently.

"And so you shouldn't, but I worry pride clouds your interpretation of history. I would remind you, it was not the mighty leader of the dwarf-host that ultimately killed Glaurung, but a lone hero, who laid a cunning trap..."

"Yes, yes," Thorin interrupted impatiently, "and the man Túrin died for his troubles as well. All this I know, and it is not lightly that I choose to return to the Mountain now..."

"I doubt you know the whole tale of Túrin Turambar's fate," Gandalf intruded. "Even I know only fragments," he added quietly. "Regardless, I do not wish to see the last of Durin's line killed fighting the last of the dragons, however poetic it may sound. Though if you remain obstinate," he locked eyes with the dwarf, "I may be inclined to change my opinion."

"If it takes my death to roust Smaug from Erebor, then I go to it gladly," Thorin concluded boldly.

With waning tolerance, Gandalf remarked, "A fool and his fate are soon joined. It is only a pity it may not be contained to you alone!"

The king of the dwarves was unused to being spoken to so sharply, especially by someone who was turning out to be of less use than a traveling showman. The wizard had yet to supply the proof he demanded, and Thorin wondered, if it were indeed more than chance which drove them to meet, was it to ensure the success of his mission, or its final failure? Long brewing aggravation finally overtook him, and his words lost all semblance of diplomacy. "If this plan is some contrivance to undermine my claim to Erebor, I swear by the Seven Fathers I will..."

With a loud crack, Gandalf's staff struck the floor, and the light of the fire shrank away from the conjuror. The threat Thorin had been composing died in his mind, as the hall was cloaked in darkness. A crystal on the end of the staff flared into blue life, and the sudden stark brilliance paled the wizard's features, making him appear wraith-like. Even to the dwarf's night-keen eyes the effect was dramatic. It was a conspicuous reminder that the old man who talked nonsense of hobbits was more powerful than he appeared.

"You will what, great King?" Gandalf asked grimly. The wizard's bright eyes bored into his, and Thorin believed he could see his own true fear reflected therein, like a fissure in the depths of a diamond. A lifetime of men had passed since the coming of Smaug, and he had yet to bring the wrath of the Khazâd to the dragon. Having waited for an event to turn the tide of ill luck, he knew now it would never come. Without a change in fortune, the quest would be no more than a vain attempt to satisfy the same urge which had driven his forefathers to glory, and to ruin.

Having failed to answer his question, Gandalf continued, "You ask for my guidance, yet you are as difficult to compel as a ram along the path of a weary traveler!" he said in exasperation. "But do not presume, because I have lived long, that I have infinite patience. Quite the reverse. Were you to know me better, I dare say you would be grateful I lend you my time at all, for I come not to the aid of every beggar king who has lost his realm!" The wizard stared unremittingly at him, and Thorin lowered his gaze sooner than he would have admitted, were he forced to relate the events later. But Gandalf was not finished. "The fate of the rock you revere, and the treasures within, mean little to me, and I will find other means to my ends if I must, but...," here his voice softened slightly, and the glow from the staff began to fade, "I see an opportunity to benefit us both. Indeed, I fear there is more at stake than the fate of dwarves and hobbits combined, though of that, I do not expect you to trouble yourself."

The concerns of old Tharkûn were indeed vast, and it was apparent the wizard was as frustrated as he, if for different reasons. Thorin felt a glimmer of shame for thinking only of his own necessity, but the feeling was swiftly banished. He could spare little mind to whatever vague imperilment Gandalf was preoccupied with.

As the wizard lowered himself into a seat across the table, the firelight crept back into the room, and the hall returned to its homely state. Gandalf appeared once again to be no more than a man of numerous years, with too many of those spent in conflict. When next he spoke, his voice had lost its dangerous edge, "I will admit your suspicions are partly correct; I have my own reasons for choosing Bilbo, not least because I am fond of him, which you may not understand."

Thorin's brow furrowed. "If sending the fellow into a dragon's den is a mark of your fondness, I will endeavor to stay out of your favor!" he promised.

"Fear not, for you are in no danger of that!" Gandalf replied, only partially in jest. "I have already told you the logic behind my choice. As I explained, the Elder races know little of hobbits. But you must regard this criticism as good council, for the same holds true of the great worms. I believe this is as much a key to our success, as that which hangs around your neck."

Thorin considered these words, for the first time endeavoring to look beyond his own misgivings. After all, the wizard was rumored to be among the Wise. Perhaps the path to wisdom was such that a straightforward march would pass it by, and only an unlikely guide could find it. He hardly knew what to make of it all, but he remembered Thrór once said it was the mark of a fool to quarrel with an ally, however untested he might be. If Gandalf was willing to speak for the hobbit, then he would have to take the risk.

Bowing his head, he entreated, "Forgive me, Master Gandalf. Despite all your efforts, I cannot envision what benefit this burglar will be to us. Yet it is the burden of a king to accept aid, as much as to lend it. As it stands, you want my trust, and I have need of your help, so we must trade as best we can."

At these words, a smile broke across the wizard's features, like light into a shadowed canyon, and his voice grew jovial, "I have had few dealings with your kind of late, but I should have realized overcoming the intractability of dwarves would not be simple." Raising his hand to forestall Thorin's unvoiced comment, he continued, "Stay your ire, it is not meant unkindly. For it is this same reason the Khazâd make poor weapons of the Shadow. The Necromancer failed to break the heart of your father, though his mind was lost. I will rest easier once the lands below the Grey Mountains are in the hands of Thráin's son."

The weight of this statement settled heavily upon Thorin. Many leagues, and unknown peril, stood between him and the throne of Erebor, and he replied with rare humility, "I fear we have a long way to go, before you may rest."

"Speak for yourself!" Gandalf proclaimed with a laugh. "There are a few more hours before night gives way to day, and I plan to make the most of them." He stood and headed toward the hallway. Pausing as he bent to pass beneath the rounded entrance, he offered, "You should know that Bilbo has given up his own quarters for your use. They are as well-appointed as any in the Shire. You will sleep well, if you choose to sleep at all. Good-night!"

Apparently the Wise did not miss a wink, Thorin thought, as he watched Gandalf disappear down the hallway. He knew it would seem ungrateful were he to decline the hobbit's sacrifice, but he doubted sleep would come, however comfortable the setting. Procuring his pipe from among the supplies left in the study, he made his way outside.

Standing on the doorstep of Bag End, Thorin could not have been further removed from the concerns of Erebor, but even while his eyes watched the pipe-smoke curling up toward slate-grey clouds, his mind was fixed on the lost kingdom. To the West, still shrouded in dark mist, were the Blue Mountains. The chance he would never see them again was very real, but he did not regret his decision. Long had he known his life was little but a prologue to something greater. A subtle glow beyond the eastern hills warned that dawn could not be denied for long, and he hoped, that as the sun rose on a pleasant spring morning, the real journey would finally begin.

~Fin~