Chapter 9: Not So Easily Broken, Part 2
An outsider might have assumed that the encampment's resident wizard was staying aloof because he had no interest in politics, or because as one of the Wise he was above gossip and scandal, or because he didn't care for the lowly creatures that surrounded him now that his immediate work was done.
None of this was true.
Gandalf was enormously fond of the dwarves he had shepherded all the way from the Blue Mountains, and even fonder of their little tagalong hobbit. He respected Bard and Dain. And though he and Thranduil had their differences, they recognized in one another a certain kind of kindred spirit. Even among the elves, there were few still living in Arda who could claim to have known Doriath before its ruin.
Furthermore, Gandalf wasn't one for standing on ceremony. He had been perfectly content, in centuries past, to keep bartenders in business and trade gossip with kings and gardeners alike. The Prancing Pony had long been one of his favorites, but there was a pub in the fifth circle of Minas Tirith that served extraordinarily good ale, and a distilled drink that the proud owner called whiskey. (He claimed that it would put a fine set of whiskers on the face of even a beardless youth. Gandalf was inclined to believe him.)
So he would have been happy to sit with the Company, telling outlandish tales and drinking the dubious alcohol that Nori brewed in his distillery. His absence had nothing to do with disdain, or even his satisfaction with a job well done.
He was simply tired. Exhausted.
Even with Lady Galadriel's strength, and two of his fellow Istari besides, throwing down the Necromancer's fortress had been a grueling effort. The strength of that old citadel had been rooted deep in the ground, so tangled up in trees and stone and sickly air that the soul of the forest had been corrupted almost beyond redemption.
Like drawing poison from a wound, the Necromancer had made the healing almost as dangerous as the injury itself, and even Saruman had been wearied by the fight. It had almost killed Elrond—it had fallen to Lady Galadriel to save her son-in-law's life. And in the days after the battle, Gandalf found himself falling asleep whenever he sat down for a moment's rest, and losing his thoughts in the fog that had settled over his mind, like cobwebs over branches.
But he had grown stronger as the days passed, and such interesting things had been happening that curiosity overcame his weariness. Just that morning, he had seen gangs of dwarves going down to Dale, carrying pickaxes and shovels and joking amongst themselves. Loads of hewn timber and building supplies were coming up from Laketown, alongside hundreds of refugees. Rumors were flying that Thorin had awakened at last, and was about to lead the dwarves into the mountain, or perhaps that he was about to take up arms and drive Bard from the encampment, and punish the hobbit burglar for his impudence. Gandalf might have been worried by rumors like that, but he had spoken with Thranduil often in the days since the battle. He knew that the situation was not nearly so dire as the camp gossips were making out. Still, Gandalf would be glad of the chance to see Thorin for himself, and perhaps give him a stern lecture on the care and keeping of hobbits.
It was early in the day when Gandalf roused himself for an amble around the rocky slopes, his staff in hand and Glamdring at his side; no one had forgotten that there were still dangers lurking to the north, Bolg not least among them. He made first for Thorin's pavilion, but the guards outside shook their head when he made to enter.
"You don't want to be interrupting them, Master Tharkûn," one of the said. "Not when they're shouting and throwing things and carrying on so."
From inside the pavilion, Gandalf heard a very familiar voice howl "You left us to starve in the wastelands, and yet you speak to me of honor? My grandfather is dead because of you. My father was tortured to death under the boughs of your accursed forest!"
"If we are to speak of suffering," a smooth voice snapped back, "then shall I ask you how your kin acquitted themselves at Dagorlad, when my royal father was slain on the field and my brothers torn to pieces about his corpse? We died by the thousands on those plains. No one stirred themselves to save us, not even the kings of men or the Noldorin lords. And let us not speak of Thingol and his Lady Melian, and the rape of Doriath after the dwarves murdered our king."
Gandalf heard something crash against the side of the pavilion. It sounded heavy and expensive.
"Perhaps you're right," Gandalf said to the dwarven guards, all of whom looked profoundly uncomfortable. It was, he supposed, rather like listening to an argument through the keyhole of a door. In the vague distant way that he kept all of his memories of Valinor, he remembered lingering in Irmo's gardens and listening to Nienna and Námo while they debated with the rest of the Valar, sometimes caught up in bitter council for weeks at a time.
Neither Thranduil nor Thorin would ever be known as the most patient and understanding of kings, and their tempers were much alike in all the worst ways. "It would be a shame to interrupt them, wouldn't it?" he said.
One of the guards nodded fervently. Gandalf left in search of less quarrelsome company. Perhaps Bard would be willing to settle down for a chat.
But Bard was working down in Dale, and when Gandalf looked down at the ruined city from the edge of camp, he saw that there would be no time for idle conservation. Dwarves and men alike were hard at work moving supplies and digging foundations. Others were pouring over maps, measuring distances with lengths of heavy cord, and pounding stakes into the ground.
One of the tiny figures detached itself from the flurry of activity and waved. Gandalf, leaning against his staff, waved back.
It was Legolas, of course. Only an elf's keen eyes could see across such a distance. Gandalf waited, watching the surveying with no little interest, while he ran lightfooted across the rocky desolation and up the sloping ground to meet him. "I see you've been at work," he observed when Legolas drew to a halt beside him and made his greetings. "Does your father know?"
Legolas smiled at that. He was brighter and more breathless than Gandalf had ever seen him. With his hair was pulled back, and a streak of dried mud on his cheek, he looked less like a Sindarin prince than one of Lenwë's sons, living wild along the banks of the Great River. Not for the first time, Gandalf wished that he had lived in Arda in such a merry time as that. What years those had been—long, long before Sauron crept back from Númenor and seduced even his enemies to his will!
"I am lucky to be well out of the succession," Legolas said, oblivious to Gandalf's thoughts. "Now that Namirion has a son of his own, King Thranduil lets me do as I please." He glanced back at the piles of stone and lumber that would one day be the new city of Dale. "And there is much to do. But I am happy to see you again, Mithrandir. Are you well?"
"More or less," Gandalf said. "Unless your kin have found another fortress lurking under the boughs of the Greenwood, in which case I am reduced to weakness and senility, and cannot be relied upon for anything."
"Worry not. In his current temper, Thranduil could break a dozen such strongholds without any force but his guards at his back. The dwarven king wears on his patience. Have you spoken to him of late?"
Gandalf chuckled. "No, but I've heard a great deal. If he and Thorin didn't spend so much time shouting at each other, I would think them in danger of becoming friends."
"He not so weak as that," Legolas said. "He holds his grudges even dearer than his children, and cossets them much the same. It would be a grim misfortune indeed that would drive him into alliance with Thorin Oakenshield again."
"Then I will not wish for either the misfortune or the friendship," Gandalf said. He didn't say it, but the shadow of Dol Guldur still stretched out long and menacing in his mind, casting all of the north into gloom. Still, no good would come of meddling or rumor-mongering. He would let the young ones have their happiness, for as long as it might last.
"Come, Mithrandir, you look far too thoughtful," Legolas said. "Let me take you down to Dale. It would gladden Bard to see you again, and it will give you happier things to think on."
"No, no—I am too old and wise to interrupt dwarves at work." Gandalf squinted his eyes, looking down at the busy, sprawling worksite. It reminded him of Beorn's orchards, and the beehives buzzing with the industry of their honest little laborers. "By the looks of it, you and Bard have recruited the better part of Dain's army to the task. How did you manage it, may I ask?"
"I don't like to say." A hint of embarrassment crept into Legolas' voice. "One of the dwarves in Thorin's company keeps a portrait of his wife and son. I took advantage of his fatherly sentiment. Bard was terribly vexed when he found out."
Gandalf looked at him, unconvinced; Legolas conceeded the point. "Vexed, but not for long. I fear that he is growing too fond of me to be angry."
It was a simple statement, made with no particular self-consciousness. Gandalf raised his eyebrows nevertheless. The prince's affection for Girion had more than once led him close to disaster, if the gossip was to be believed, and Bard was so very much like his ancestors, in temper even more than looks. Eru's children could be so strange in matters of the heart. If anything were to happen—if Bard grew too fond, as Legolas had so lightly put it—it would come near to breaking Thranduil's heart. It was no secret that Legolas was the Elvenking's favorite child, whatever squabbles they might have.
But that, too, was trouble for another day. "No, my friend. I will take my leave and let you get back to your work. I must find our Mister Baggins, and see what trouble he's gotten himself into since I saw him last."
"Send him my greetings," Legolas said. "And my thanks."
Gandalf didn't ask why. He had been there when Thranduil's soldiers carried Legolas off the battlefield, and he'd heard the story of Bilbo's improbable rescue soon after. Instead, he shooed Legolas back down to Dale, amused and worried in equal measure. Sometimes, even elves were young enough that he felt more like a grandfather than one of the Istari. They were children, after all. Gandalf was charged with looking after them. All of them—Illúvatar's dear children, and Aulë's, and Yavanna's too, for he knew how well hobbits loved the land and growing things, and that alone would make them dear to Yavanna's heart.
He watched as Legolas returned to the grounds of Dale, catching Bard up in a quick embrace before rejoining one of the work crews. They were digging foundations for a grand manor house, by the looks of it. He had seen the ruin of so many brave little towns. How long would this one last? With a sigh, Gandalf turned away and walked back toward the main camp, occasionally stopping to ask after Bilbo Baggins. No one knew where he was, though one or two of the dwarves offered thoroughly unhelpful guesses. He caught sight of Balin and made his way over to say hello, but Balin was in a quiet, heated argument with a short old dwarf wearing very well-polished armor. Gandalf lingered just around the corner from them, exercising his wizardly right to snoop on conversations that were none of his business.
"You think I enjoy this, cousin?" Balin sounded bitter. "Whatever you think of the hobbit, he's a dear little fellow and I'm fond of him. But I serve Thorin, and I must do the king's will as best I know it. At the moment, that means talking to you."
"I see your exile hasn't entirely ruined your sense of propriety," the other dwarf said. "But you needn't scowl and take on so."
Gandalf peered around the corner. Balin, usually so kindly and mild-mannered, was looking at his cousin with the sort of dislike that he usually reserved for goblins, trolls, and anyone who threatened the line of Durin. "I'll keep it in mind, cousin Varin," he said stiffly. "If we could return to the matter of Dale—"
Varin. Gandalf took note of the name and ambled on.
He spotted Bofur and Bifur next—or rather, he caught a glimpse of Bifur, but was immediately distracted by the sight of Bofur launching himself through the air and knocking another dwarf to the ground with hawkish precision and a wild cry of triumph. "Tig!" he crowed, scrambling to his feet and darting out of reach while the other dwarf was still recovering from the shock.
Dwarves, Gandalf thought, with a huff of impatience that went unheard in the hullabaloo. Always fighting, and always a little too cheerful about it. It was a wonder of the world that any of them lived to adulthood, much less into old age. Gandalf felt tired just watching them.
"Excuse me," he said, elbowing his way through the crowded, muddy playing field, using his height and his wooden staff to nudge the brawling players out of his way. "Yes, yes, that was an excellent tackle, Bofur. Excuse me." At last he made it to the other side, battered but mostly unbruised, his cloak and boots caked with mud. He looked back just in time to see Bofur throw himself into the game once again, this time at a dwarf who was more than twice his weight and looked like he could pummel a stone wall to dust without any particular effort.
In the end, he only found Bilbo by tripping over him. It was an understandable mistake. Hobbits were easy enough to stumble over in the general way of things, and invisible hobbits were, in Gandalf's opinion, far more trouble than they were worth.
"Confound you, Bilbo Baggins," Gandalf said, when he looked down to see what he had run into, just in time to see Bilbo turn visible, pocketing his mysterious gold ring with one hand and rubbing his head with the other.
"You kicked me," said Bilbo.
Gandalf looked down at him severely. "And you tripped me. What do you think you're doing, wandering around with a ring of invisibility and making a nuisance of yourself?"
Bilbo crossed his arms over his chest and scowled up at Gandalf. "I'm hiding."
"Hiding from whom?"
"From everyone. From Thorin, and Thranduil, and Balin, and that game of Tig, and the assortment of sour-faced idiots that Dain calls his lords, and from Dain himself for that matter. I'm sick to death of this place, Gandalf. I want to go home!"
"Do you indeed," Gandalf said, mildly. "Thorin will be glad to see you gone, of course."
"He—I suppose so," Bilbo said. He dropped his gaze to the ground.
"And you're of no particular use to anyone. It's not as if we have any more need of a burglar, do we?"
"Yes, well," Bilbo said.
"And it's not as if you have friends to miss you, is it? Oh, for the love of—stop wallowing in self-pity and agreeing with every absurd thing I say!"
That startled the hobbit out of his little cloud of unhappiness. "That was extraordinarily rude," he said, once he recovered his composure. "Carrying on like that. I might have believed you."
"And you, my dear Bilbo, are being extraordinarily foolish, if you think your presence here is worth so little. I've come to the conclusion that hobbits in general are quite remarkable. You are no exception."
"Well, I don't feel remarkable. And you were right, weren't you? At least about Thorin."
He did look very ordinary, standing there with his shoulders slumped and all of his borrowed finery long since discarded. No mithril shirts for Bilbo Baggins, not anymore—after all, he wasn't a soldier, or a lord, or indeed even a burglar.
Gandalf reminded himself to be patient with Bilbo and Thorin both. They had settled their differences before, and they would do it again without a wizard's meddling. "Sometimes even the most worthwhile folk think themselves to be silly and useless," he said. "Even I feel silly and useless on occasion, though I assure you that I'm neither."
"Certainly not," Bilbo said. "You make excellent fireworks."
"So I do. While you are uncommonly good at talking to proud, stubborn kings, and reminding them that they ought to be decent to one another. It may be thankless work," he added, when Bilbo looked unconvinced, "but you are doing more good than you realize."
"I suppose I should take your word for it," Bilbo said with a sigh. "And go to Council. We've a meeting at midday, and I think that we're about to get our finances settled."
"You may look as skeptical as you like. But there are more important things in this world than gold and jewels, I'll have you know."
"So I've heard," Gandalf said. He considerately didn't mention that barely a fortnight ago the dwarves had almost gone to war over just such treasure. "Off you go, then. I won't keep you when you've duties to attend. And no more of this invisibility nonsense! Powerful rings are not trinkets, to be so idly used."
"Don't be ridiculous," said Bilbo. "There's no harm in it, provided I watch where I'm going."
Gandalf harrumphed, but he let the matter go. One day, when things were settled and he could indulge his curiosity, he might take a closer look at that plain old ring. If the weapons of ancient lords could find their way to a troll hoard along the Great East Road, there was no knowing what strange relics might have been lurking in the mountains under Goblintown.
Perhaps the ring was nothing but a useful trifle, or perhaps it too had once belonged to some fallen king. One way or another, Saruman would certainly know. He was a master in such history. Besides, there was something familiar in the craftsmanship, some undefinable presence that slumbered just beyond Gandalf's sight or understanding.
Could it be—of course. Gandalf nearly crowed in triumph. He had it. How could he have been so blind?
It was certainly Fëanor's work, or perhaps it had been crafted by one of his sons. It had that same quiet power, and the same understated artistry. In the absence of a maker's mark there was all the matchless arrogance of Fëanor son of Finwë, who knew that no one could ever mistake his creations for the work of a lesser smith. How strange, for such a thing to end up in the pocket of a Baggins from the Shire! Bilbo could have no notion that he had stumbled upon the legacy of such dread kings and lords.
Gandalf resumed his wanderings as Bilbo headed off to his Council, feeling no little satisfaction. He wouldn't need to go to Saruman for help, after all.
He spent the next few hours poking around the camp, enjoying the faint touch of sunshine and occasionally pausing to talk with one of the dwarves. He had a friendly conversation with Bombur, who was busy looking over their modest inventory of foodstuffs, and kept on asking Ori to check and recheck the totals, as if a few hundredweight of dried meat and flour might appear by some magic of arithmetic. Some time later he found Glóin talking to the camp cobbler, and listened patiently while Glóin ranted to him about the shameful way that humans neglected their children. But he was feeling dim and tired by then, leaning more and more heavily on his staff to keep standing upright. He made his way back to his quiet refuge, more or less abandoned now that the elven army had returned to Mirkwood, and settled down for an afternoon doze.
He was just drifting off, his pipe in his mouth and legs stretched out in front of him, when Bilbo Baggins came running pell-mell towards him.
"What on earth is the matter?" Gandalf asked, a touch cross about the interruption to his well-deserved rest. "Surely it can wait."
"It's Kili," Bilbo gasped, hands on his knees as he struggled to catch his breath. "We were in Council, but something happened—Fili said to hurry, he said to fetch a healer."
Gandalf was already on his feet and striding away, Bilbo trailing along behind him. As they drew closer to the dwarven side of the camp, he could hear a cacophony of shouts and cries. A few voices stood distinct above the rest. Fili, loud and strident. Thorin snapping orders, telling the others to stand back; Thranduil demanding to be let inside the tent, to see to the prince.
When Gandalf rounded the corner, he was immediately mobbed with a dozen dwarves all asking him to do something—anything. Gandalf ignored them all. There were only two people who might have any useful information for him.
"Thranduil," he said. "Speak to me, friend."
The king spared a last sneer for Thorin and turned to face the wizard. "The boy is coming to consciousness at last," he said. "His brother says that he's been stirring for days now, fitfully at best. Now he's speaking nonsense, and his limbs are seizing. But he will not respond to word or touch. It could be that his mind is gone, and his body is acting on animal instinct."
"He's not," Fili snarled. He was fighting to be let back into the tent where the dwarven healers were attending to Kili, struggling viciously against his captors. Dwalin and Glóin together could barely restrain him. "His mind isn't gone. He's here. He just can't wake up. Let me go, let me see to him—"
Thranduil ignored him, still speaking urgently to Gandalf. "I must see the child myself," he said. "He will do himself harm, or the healers will kill him and call it mercy."
"If there is no hope," Gandalf said, quietly, hating the very thought of it, "then perhaps it would be for the best."
"If there is no hope. I am not convinced of that. Prince Fili may be crazed with grief, but if he is not, then we must do as he says. He speaks for his brother."
"Gandalf, you could do something," Bilbo said, suddenly. "You woke Thorin after he was knocked unconscious. After the eagles rescued us, you said something—a spell, or a prayer—and he opened his eyes, just like that."
Gandalf shook his head. "I've already tried, I'm afraid. It was only hours after the battle. Kili didn't stir."
"But it's different now, isn't it? He might be better. Closer to us."
Fili stilled in Dwalin's arms. "Can you, Gandalf? Can you wake him?"
"No," he said, firmly. "And I am sorry for it." But now Thorin was looking at him too, and Dwalin, and all the rest, as if he was some worker of great magic, or even Mandos himself, who could bring even the dead back to life.
But he was only Gandalf the Grey, not strongest even among the Istari. He was weak and tired, and some things were too broken for even wizards to fix.
"Please," Fili said, desperately. "Kili's only a boy. He's barely of age. He deserves so much better than this. If you need a life to trade, you can have mine. But let my brother live."
"I will not work magic like that." Gandalf ignored the whispering temptation, the seductive voice that said you can, though, you can. You could be great, Olórin. Stronger even than Saruman—as strong as your brother who ruled in Mordor. You too carry a ring of power.
He ignored the voice, but it pressed on, as if the Necromancer's words still lingered in the wind, as if Sauron himself were standing beside him, to whisper in his ear. It had not been so very long since his captivity, since he had come face to face with the greatest terror in Arda.
Would it be so wrong to let one child live, when the other wishes to sacrifice his own? You would be doing them a kindness. A mercy. Did not Nienna teach you pity? Pity these children now, and do as they plead.
"Please," Bilbo said, one hand fiddling anxiously with something in his pocket. His ring. He kept casting glances at Fili, and back up at Gandalf. "Please do something, Gandalf."
Olórin, wisest and kindest of my brothers, be wise now. Be merciful. A life for a life, is that not a fair exchange? It would be so easy. I would give you the strength you lack. Olórin!
"Yes," Gandalf said aloud, but it was another power that spoke through him. "Yes, Fili. I will do what I can."
Fili sagged with relief. Dwalin took his weight, holding him upright. "Steady, prince," he said, but he was looking at Gandalf with sudden suspicion.
Thorin was not so quiet in his doubts. "What do you mean to do?" he demanded, placing himself solidly in front of Gandalf. It was nonsense to think that he could bar the wizard from doing as he liked. Even strong and unwounded, Thorin was not his match in battle. But still he stood in front of the tent, guarding Kili with his body and the sheer stubbornness of his will. "You are not yourself."
Gandalf ignored him. He had been afraid. Of death, and of the Enemy, and of faltering in his duty. He wondered at his own weakness—to be frightened of his own shadow! But now he was strong, and his mind was afire with the knowledge of it. It burned away all shadows. He had nothing to fear.
Narya glowed on his finger, scorching like pale fire. But he did not feel it.
He brushed Thorin aside, and stepped into the tent.
A life for a life.
He dismissed the dwarven healers with a wave of his hand, a casual word. They knew his presence, and feared him even if they did now know why. They obeyed. He looked down at Kili, the poor dear child—at his pale skin, so fragile and scarred, at the dark lashes that fluttered as he tossed and turned, caught up in some unseen nightmare.
Gandalf stood beside him, watching him thoughtfully. He did not know how to summon the spirits of the dead, or how to trade one for the soul of one still living. But he had felt the spells the Necromancer had used in Dol Guldur. It would not be difficult to recreate them, not with this new power burning through his veins. Would it be easier because the two were brothers? He supposed so.
He closed his eyes and began the chant. But soon he stopped, frowning. He had always used Quenya for his spells, even the little ones, like lighting his had he ever bothered with those? There were far more interesting things to be done with black powder.
Quenya was the language of Valinor, and it had always suited him well. But it was not enough. It was too soft, too gentle, for the work he had to do now. He wondered for a moment what words to use, but the answer came to him quickly enough. When he spoke again, he was surprised at how easily the new tongue came to him. He had never known he was so fluent in the Black Speech.
See how simple it can be, Olórin? You could do so much good, if only you gave yourself leave. There is nothing to be afraid of.
Outside, the wind was picking up. Fili shuddered, though Dwalin was a strong, warm presence behind him, still holding him close.
"Are you well?" Thorin asked him, torn between his desire to keep an eye on the wizard and his need to look after his heir. "Fili?"
"It's nothing, uncle," Fili said, letting his eyes drift shut. "I'm just a little tired. And it's so very cold."
Gandalf heard none of this. For him, there was nothing but the words and the fire of his own newfound strength, nothing but the spirits he was speaking to, speaking so friendly and kind. His was the voice of healer. Of course it was; he only wanted to help. It was an act of mercy he was doing.
There was another voice, too. A different voice. But Gandalf dismissed it.
It persisted. Gandalf quieted it again, more forcefully this time, with a spell that should have silenced the meddler's voice forever. Still, it kept talking, chattering, obnoxiously there despite his attempts to stop it.
Eventually, his old curiosity got the better of him. Gandalf, or the one who might have been Gandalf, spared a second to listen to what the voice was saying.
"—and I'm sure you're not doing anything wrong, because you're Gandalf and you always get us out of scrapes. You're the only one of the Big Folk that's even taken an honest interest in the Shire, did you know that? You were so kind to my mother, and you made fireworks for the Old Took's birthday, and I was only a little lad but I remember it like it was yesterday—"
It was Bilbo. Gandalf felt a brief spark of satisfaction at his words. See? Fireworks have their uses. And black powder can be dangerous. Better to use it at birthday parties than on the battlefield.
"—and I don't mean to be rude, but you're not listening and something's wrong with Fili, and I don't know what you're doing but it's making me so terribly afraid—"
Suddenly, he remembered what he'd said to Lady Galadriel, months ago in Rivendell. Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.
"—so if you could just say something, Gandalf, something that wasn't that wretched chanting, I promise I'll leave. But until then, I'm going to stay right here, and I'm going to keep bothering you. So—so there!"
Gandalf blinked, and straightened up.
How very odd he felt! His throat was dry and scratchy, and his head ached, and everything felt so very dim and muzzy. Cobwebs, he thought, for no apparent reason. Cobwebs in my mind.
"I'm sorry, my dear Bilbo," he said. "I'm feeling rather faint. I was trying to wake Kili, wasn't I?"
"I—I think so," said Bilbo, a little uncertain. He was flexing his fingers, as if he had been holding something very tightly in his hand, and his joints were protesting the force of his grip. "You were saying something in a strange language."
"Quenya," Gandalf said, automatically. There was a thought on the edge of his consciousness, just out of his reach. He went looking for it, but it fluttered away. Well, it couldn't have been so very important; it would come back to him sooner or later. "It's the language of the Valar, and of the high elves that still dwell in Valinor. A very holy tongue."
"Oh. I see." Bilbo said, his brow furrowed.
Gandalf returned to the task at hand. He murmured a few quiet words, drawing his hand across Kili's face. Nothing. Kili had gone still and quiet again, though the tangled blankets and the blood oozing from his reopened wounds were proof of a violent struggle.
He didn't opened his eyes, or speak.
"I'm sorry," Gandalf said. "It was as I feared. He's too far gone to be reached, at least by any skill that I possess."
It would ruin Thorin, to lose his youngest heir. And it would kill Fili as surely as any mortal wound. For a moment, Gandalf was tempted to try again, this time with a stronger sort of magic. He thought for a moment about Fili's request, his offer to trade a life for a life, but of course that was ridiculous. That was necromancy, and Gandalf could not bring himself to venture down that road. Why, even if he wanted to, he wouldn't know where to start. And that was just as it should be.
Gandalf was busy talking to Bilbo. He did not hear the voice. He had never heard it, at least not that he could recall.
Bilbo didn't hear it either. He swallowed hard. "I guess that's it, then." And then, even as they turned to leave, Kili stirred. It was not the uncontrollable seizing that had so terrified his brother, or the small twitching of animal instinct. It was slow and deliberate.
He opened his eyes.
"Fili," he said, though the name was nothing more than a tiny exhaled breath. "Fili?"
Gandalf raised his voice. "Fili," he said, shakily. "Your brother is asking for you."
There was the sound of a struggle, a shout—a string of curses. Fili broke free from Dwalin's hold and was inside the tent before anyone could even think about stopping him.
Gandalf stepped back to give the children some privacy. He was still unsteady on his feet, though he didn't understand why. Perhaps his morning walk around the camp had tired him more than he realized.
Thorin appeared, too, but he hesitated for a moment. "May I?" he asked. "I don't want to disturb him."
Gandalf was too lost in thought to answer. He heard Bilbo's quiet reply: "I think he'll be glad to see you, your majesty. But maybe we should keep everyone else out, just for now."
Dwalin heard and obeyed, barring the entrance from any curious onlookers or well-wishers. "Go on, lads," he said to the assembled dwarves. "Get about your work. You'll be able to gawk at the princes soon enough. In the meantime, leave 'em be."
After a few small sips of water and a moment to rest, Kili was almost coherent again. But he was confused, and Fili had to tell him that the battle had been won a dozen times before it finally seemed to sink in. Gandalf kept an eye on him, wary lest he should lose control or lash out again.
He didn't. But eventually he noticed that Fili kept glancing at his right side, compulsively: little darting glances in between his reassuring words. And so Kili looked, too.
"Oh," he said, blankly.
He reached over to touch the place where his arm should have been, as if his eyes were deceiving him and he would surely feel flesh and bone, reassuringly solid, beneath his fingers.
He felt only the rough old cotton of the bed sheets. His lips parted in shock.
"My arm," he said. "My—my arm. It's gone. How am I going to shoot? How am I going to work in a forge?"
"Don't worry," Fili said, hurriedly. "We've home in Erebor now, like uncle always wanted. We're princes. You won't have to fight anymore, or earn your keep. You don't have to worry about anything, I promise. I'll look after you."
"But I don't want to be looked after. I don't. I want to fight, to guard your back—"
"You will." Fili's voice cracked. "Look at me, Kili, please."
Kili tore his gaze away from the ruin of his arm. He was breathing fast and shallow. "I don't. I can't—"
"You can. I promise. We'll do it together, just like always. Nothing we can't do when we're together, isn't that what mother always said?"
Kili shook his head. "Don't think this is what she meant."
Fili knelt beside him, as close as he could, as if he could prove Kili wrong by touch alone when words had failed. "Kili, I swear. You're not healed, not yet, but you're going to get better. We'll go out to battle again, and you'll always have my back. You've just—you've got to trust me. Please?"
Kili looked up at him. "I trust you," he whispered. "Always trust you, brother." He reached out with his one good hand, and Fili took it.
Gandalf left. He wasn't needed, and this was no place for an outsider. Thorin and Fili would look after their kin, and Bilbo would take care of the rest of the dwarves while the royal family was occupied.
Poor child, he thought. But Kili had his family to look after him, and to see him through the wretched months to come. It was a better fate than Gandalf had dared to dream of. More than once he had looked at Thorin's young nephews and felt only sadness, though he didn't know why. Even as they laughed and sang and made mischief, he grieved for them. He had known that they would not live to see their home restored.
But the battle was won, and still they lived. Even wizards, it seemed, were sometimes proven wrong.
Gandalf was glad of it.
"Are you well?" Thranduil asked. The Elvenking had been waiting outside the tent, refusing to leave no matter how Dwalin glared. "You seem—unsettled."
"Do I?" Gandalf said, absently. He still feared he might be forgetting something, but he was too tired to chase after the thought. "Perhaps. Dol Guldur left me worn and tired, and my mind is ill at ease. But no matter. We must speak of other things. You will be leaving soon, now that Thorin is up and about."
"Yes," said Thranduil, his head tilted curiously as he looked at Gandalf. "My work here is all but done, and Tauriel has sent word that I am needed in my own kingdom. Give me a few hours yet to tend my patient, and then we may talk. But I still think you are not entirely yourself, Mithrandir."
Gandalf waved the concern away. "It is only a moment of weakness," he said. "I am tired. It will pass."
Indeed, the fresh air did him good. The further he walked, the better he felt, and soon he wasn't even leaning on his staff for support.
It was just as he'd told Thranduil: nothing more than a passing thing.
Sooner rather than later, Kili fell asleep. Fili watched him anxiously, but it was nothing more than commonplace exhaustion, and he could be awakened by a shake of his shoulder. "Go away," he mumbled, when Fili tried it. "I'm tired."
Fili hovered, uncertain. "I don't want to leave him," he said. "I want to be here when he wakes up. He might be scared, or confused. I don't think he's remembering things very well."
Thorin, who had exchanged only a few brief words with Kili before the boy's eyes had fluttered shut, was equally reluctant to leave. But he wouldn't be able to stay standing for much longer. Thranduil had warned him once again not to stir himself from bed, and once again Thorin had ignored him. He had rushed headlong out of the pavilion the moment he'd heard that something was wrong with Kili, and he had spent the last hour in a haze of agony.
"Give him time," he told Fili. "And be patient, as I know you are. Dwalin will keep watch outside, along with the other guards. Keep your brother company by taking a few hours of rest yourself."
Fili protested, but Thorin would not be swayed. "You're worn down to the bone," he said. "And you'll be no good for your brother if you don't get a full night of sleep and one or two proper meals."
"It's not that easy." Fili tugged at his simple braids, nervously. "I'm not hungry. And what if something happens while I sleep?"
Thorin sighed. "One foot in front of the other, lad. Sleep. Stay close to Kili, if it makes you feel better. And then in the morning, we can have breakfast together. The three of us, just like we used to. Good enough?"
Fili nodded, reluctant but always obedient. "Yes, uncle."
Thorin lingered for a moment longer, eyes fixed on the steady rise and fall of Kili's chest. He was alive. He would never be the same, but he was still Kili, still the boy who had stood over his uncle's body and dared Azog to come closer.
"I'll look after him," Fili promised, as if it had ever been a question.
Thorin left. He knew that it wasn't enough, but he could do no better. His nephews had all the love he could give them, and all the strength he knew how to lend.
Mahal, do better for them than I can. Take care of them when I cannot.
It was only late afternoon, and the sunlight was warm on his face. Bilbo was lingering outside, just as anxious as Fili, but likely for different reasons. "Let me help you," he said. "Just for a moment. You don't have to forgive me. I won't even mention it again. Only let me help."
Thorin didn't respond. He stood just outside the tent, contemplating the short walk to his pavilion. It might as well have been a hundred miles, in his current state. He would never make it without someone to lean on.
Dwalin was still standing guard, and he straightened when Thorin glanced his way. "I'll keep you company," he offered. "If you'd like."
"No," Thorin said. "I promised Fili that you would stay close." He didn't miss the quick glance that Dwalin and Bilbo exchanged. It was enough to make him sigh and give up the fight entirely, at least for the moment.
"Come along, then," he said to Bilbo. "It seems that everyone in this camp is determined that we should be friends, at least everyone that I regard with any favor. You may see me to my pavilion, so long as you promise to keep quiet."
"I promise," Bilbo said. And true to his word, he said nothing as they made their slow way back, Thorin leaning more heavily on Bilbo with every step. He was not a light burden, particularly not for a hobbit, but Bilbo never complained.
"Thank you," Thorin said, gruffly, when they arrived at last.
Bilbo's eyes widened, and his lips twitched into a tentative smile. "You're welcome," he said. "I suppose I'll see you soon?"
"It seems I cannot escape it," Thorin said.
Bilbo took his leave. Thorin squared his shoulders, and entered the pavilion. He knew precisely what was waiting for him, and he was right. There was Thranduil, standing with his arms crossed over his chest and his blue eyes sharp.
"Now will you let me tend your wounds, O King?" he asked. "Or must we have another round of quarreling before you condescend to let me help you?"
Thorin sat down on the bed without a word of protest, and began the painful process of taking off his tunic. Lifting his arms over his head was such a dizzying ordeal that he almost passed out then and there, but Thranduil appeared by his side to steady him. Thorin shrugged away from the touch, but Thranduil was insistent.
"You cannot always be strong," he said. He neatly folded up Thorin's tunic and set it aside, examining the bloodstained bandages underneath with a critical eye. "There is no shame in it. Sometimes, when others are willing to lend you their own strength, you must accept it."
"Why do we always talk about the hobbit?" Thorin was weary down to the bone, so tired that every breath was a struggle. He kept breathing anyway.
Thranduil knelt beside him and began cleaning his wounds, working with a quick, distant touch. His hands were cool against the furnace of Thorin's chest. "I ask myself the same question."
"Sometimes I think he's the strongest of all of us," Thorin said, talking to distract himself from the discomfort. If Thranduil was surprised, he didn't show it.
"Maybe he is, in his own way. You and I were made for war. It was in our blood and our cradles. But your halfling was born in a kindly land, and he isn't the child of kings." Thranduil soaked a cloth in a clear liquid that burned and stung when he pressed it into Thorin's raw skin. Thorin gasped, a deep indrawn breath that hissed through his clenched teeth. "Don't whine," he said, as if Thorin was doing anything of the sort. "And hold still."
"If I move, Elvenking, I promise that you'll know it," Thorin said darkly.
"Striking a healer is poor form."
"You're not a healer. You're my own personal bane, crawled up from the Void to torment me."
Thranduil pressed the soaked cloth to Thorin's chest again, keeping contact for longer than strictly necessary. Thorin flinched, biting his lip hard to keep from making a sound. "I think you're confusing me with another old enemy," said Thranduil. "Perhaps your wits are addled. Did you take a knock to the head, like your halfling?"
Thorin took a few deep, ragged breathing, struggling with the pain. "How did it happen?" he asked, when he regained his voice. "I remember that he was hurt, but little more."
"He was knocked aside during the fight for Raven Hill. There was a great deal of blood, but no cracks in his skull or swelling in his brain. He suffered only a slight loss of memory, which" —his lips pursed— "he may recover, in time."
"His memory?" Thorin said, alarmed. "What—does he not—"
"You needn't fret. It would take more than a blow to the head to forget anything about you, Thorin Oakenshield, else I might dash myself against a rock and try it for myself. And I treated his wounds personally, though one of your Company looked ready to fight me for the honor."
"Oín," said Thorin.
Thranduil hummed noncommittally. "If you were so concerned about the halfling's injuries, you might have asked him yourself. He stayed with you the night of the battle, as I recall. Were you too busy with kingly affairs to speak of anything else?"
"I was busy dying," Thorin gritted out. It was just like the Elvenking to stick his pretty blond head in and interrupt his enemy's death. "But if he is slow to heal, I expect you're to blame for it. You're the one that's been running him ragged with petty work—fetching your meals and letters, as if you haven't got servants of your own."
"Someone's been telling tales. Was it your bruiser, or the fretting child with the sweater and scarf?" Thranduil fetched a clean set of bandages and motioned for Thorin to sit up. He bit his lip and obeyed, ignoring the spike of discomfort that the movement caused, and Thranduil began rewrapping his chest. Thorin loathed the bandages, but they helped with the discomfort, and he knew that they kept his ribs from shifting out of place when he moved.
"The halfling is stubborn," Thranduil said as he worked. "I would rather he got more rest. He hasn't been eating well, and he sleeps only infrequently. But that's no fault of mine."
"Why isn't he sleeping?"
"Have you forgotten your first battle? The halfling was an innocent, untouched by violence or cruelty, before you stole him away to fight in your wars."
"He's having nightmares." Thorin ignored the accusation that he had compelled Bilbo to do anything again his will. Bilbo was no child, and Thorin had realized in the early days of their quest that bossing a hobbit into obedience was like dragging a recalcitrant cow through mud. They simply dug their feet in and refused to move.
Thranduil looked pityingly at him, like a parent might look at an uncommonly slow child. "Of course he is. I suppose you think less of him for it."
Thorin said nothing. But his expression must have given something away, because Thranduil made a soft noise of understanding. Of course Thorin wouldn't think less of Bilbo for waking unsettled in the night, or for seeing wretched things when he closed his eyes. Thorin had dreamt of the gates of Moria for years.
Thranduil finished his work at last, and let Thorin collapse back against his makeshift bed.
"You will be glad to know that your misadventures have done you no lasting harm," he said. "Though I would not recommend you try your luck a third time. Your bones are not made of metal, to be pieced back together with fire and forge. You must be patient."
There was an odd sort of finality in the words. Thorin watched the Elvenking as he got up and made to leave. He packed away his supplies, as usual, but then he began gathering up odds and ends: a few scattered sheets of parchment, a sheathed dagger, a pretty mithril pendant on a thin silver chain. It was almost as if—
Oh. "You're leaving. Going back to Mirkwood."
Thranduil met his eyes, his mouth curving into a small, sardonic smile. "You may rejoice as you please, but don't overindulge. I've spent too long saving your life to let you waste it on idle recklessness."
"If you're expecting thanks, you'll get none from me," Thorin said. "You've owed my family since the day you abandoned us to a dragon."
Thranduil looked around one last time, his eyes falling briefly on the Arkenstone, still sitting at Thorin's bedside. "You're luckier than you deserve, Thorin son of Thráin. See that you remember it."
"Goodbye and good riddance," said Thorin. "You may consider your debt repaid, if you like."
Thranduil was already gone, but Thorin heard his soft, mocking voice drifting back. "I healed you under sufferance, but it was not for your sake. Farewell!"
Thorin took a moment to enjoy his newfound peace. Outside there was clamor and conversation, and he thought he could hear Thranduil's voice in the distance, giving orders to one of his guards. But all was quiet in the pavilion, save for the sound of his breathing and the rustling of the wind.
He picked up the Arkenstone, weighing it in his hands. It was such a little thing, barely the size of his calloused hand, glowing softly in the dim light. No star in the sky could compare; no other treasure in Erebor had been valued so much. Thrór would have died for it. Would he have been proud to know that his grandson had been willing to do the same?
Silence. If the old king's spirit still lingered in the halls of the mountain, it didn't deign to speak to him. And if there was anything of the kingdom Thorin had once loved hidden behind the weathered rock, it was just as far away from him as ever. Thorin set the Arkenstone aside, carefully, and closed his eyes to the emptiness that surrounded him.
It shouldn't have been so hard to fall asleep. Thorin was used to being alone, and solitude had never troubled him. He reminded himself of that as lay awake, his chest aching with every shallow breath, the Arkenstone shining soft and white in the darkness.
Bilbo appeared several hours later, quite literally out of thin air. Thorin, who was still lying awake and wondering vaguely how Kili was doing, would have been more surprised if he hadn't heard the hobbit rustling around in the corner of the pavilion for several minutes, presumably gathering his own belongings.
"Oh, drat it!" Bilbo whispered, as he suddenly became visible. His ring had fallen off his finger. It rolled across the bumpy ground and settled with a small thunk only a few inches away from Thorin's hand.
Thorin picked it up before Bilbo could reach it. "What are you doing here?" he asked, holding the ring between his thumb and forefinger. Bilbo reached for it, scowling; Thorin drew back.
"I just came to get some of my things," Bilbo said, glancing from the ring to Thorin's dimly-lit face, and back again. "It's cold out, so I thought I might find a blanket. Give that back, why don't you?"
Thorin scrutinized the piece of jewelry, admiring its workmanship. This was not ordinary gold, though most eyes would be fooled by its pretty, plain style. Maybe he should take it for himself. A ring of invisibility could be useful.
"If you take my ring," Bilbo said, "after calling me a thief and a traitor for stealing your precious Arkenstone, I am going to be extremely cross with you."
Thorin raised his eyebrows and handed the ring back. He would rather have kept it. But Bilbo would complain endlessly if he did, and do his best to make Thorin's life a misery.
Bilbo snatched it away from him and shoved it into his pockets. "Thank you."
"It's a trifle," Thorin said.
"Yes, but it's my trifle, and I quite like it." He returned to his corner, and began gathering up his things: a ragged old blanket, the threadbare pack that he had carried with him since before Mirkwood, his little sword. It was a stark contrast to the fine trinkets that Thranduil had kept with him, but Thorin had grown accustomed to the clutter. He realized belatedly that Bilbo must have been sleeping in the pavilion in the aftermath of the battle, and only left after Thorin regained consciousness.
"Where are you staying?" he asked.
Bilbo shrugged. "Haven't the faintest. I've spent the last few nights with Fili and Kili, but I don't want to bother them. I won't bother you again, either, if that's what you're worried about."
It wasn't. Thorin hesitated, his pride warring with his inborn desire to protect. He looked after his people. Isn't that was a king was supposed to do?
"You can stay here."
Bilbo actually laughed. It was a small, unhappy sound. He didn't stop packing. For the first time, it occurred to Thorin that Bilbo could vanish, just like that. Not only by wearing that ring. He could pack his belongings and go down to Dale, or to Mirkwood, or back across the mountains to his little home in the Shire. His contract had been fulfilled, and Thorin was alive to speak for himself. There was nothing more to keep him. Thorin should have been pleased by the realization. After all, Bilbo was an enormous amount of trouble. And yet—
"Stay," he said again. "The nights are cold here."
"I hadn't noticed," Bilbo said, stuffing the tattered remains of his spare shirt in the pack.
"Don't be willful, halfling. I'm doing you a kindness."
Bilbo's lips moved soundlessly for several moments. "I'm sorry," he managed at last. "Did you just tell me not to be willful? You—you, Thorin Oakenshield—are telling this to me?"
Thorin, who had spent years navigating the stormy waters of his sister's temperament, and had endured the tantrums of his youngest nephew since Kili was a yowling babe in the cradle, was not oblivious to the sudden tension in the air. But he had spent the last days fighting with the Elvenking, and the last century of his life fighting everything else. He was sick of it.
For the first time in almost a hundred years, he stopped fighting back.
"I am," he said, meeting Bilbo's incredulous stare as best he could in the shadows. "And now I'm asking you. Stay. Please."
Bilbo let his pack drop to the floor, and he kicked it into the corner with his foot. But he didn't sit back down, and he didn't come any closer to Thorin. "You can't keep doing this to me. I'm not a piece of treasure, to be dusted off when you want me and tossed aside when you haven't any interest."
"I trusted you to carry out my will after I was dead." Thorin struggled to keep his voice even. "You allied yourself with my enemies instead."
"They're not your enemies," Bilbo said. "You don't understand. I know you think you do, but you don't. How it's been here since the battle, and how we've been looking after each other—you could do so much good, Thorin, if only you let yourself."
Haven't I done enough? Thorin wanted to demand. Haven't I suffered enough to satisfy you? Perhaps he should have died on the battlefield, and left the ruling to someone knew now that he wasn't a good king. He didn't even know how to become one.
He wished for his grandfather as he hadn't in years, because once Thrór had been the best of kings. Thorin clung to that, to his faded childhood memories of hiding behind the throne when his father was looking for him; the way that Thrór had commanded the eyes of his Council and his kingdom, and the easy confidence of his steps. Thorin had only been a little boy, running to keep up with Thrór's great strides. Even then he had known that his grandfather was strong and good and kind. Thrór had always known what to do—until, one day, he hadn't. That was the way Thorin remembered it.
Thorin didn't know what to do, either.
Bilbo was a dim shape in the moonlight, a shadow, a soft voice. "You have soldiers who would die for you, friends who would do your bidding with all the love they have. You led them home to the mountain. Now they're just sitting on the threshold, waiting for you. I don't understand."
Thorin reached out a hand, and then let it drop. Pointless. Bilbo couldn't see him in the darkness. "Neither do I," he said.
But perhaps Bilbo had seen him after all, because the hobbit took a few soft steps towards him, and then settled down at his side. It was only right for Thorin to put an arm around his shoulders, to draw him closer. His hand brushed against the bare skin of Bilbo's neck, just beneath his tangled curls, and in that simple touch he felt something break inside of him. It hurt like a branding, like a mace buried inside his chest. It hurt like dragonfire.
He didn't have the words for it. He knew that Bilbo didn't understand, but there was nothing to be done about that. "I don't know what to do," he said, helplessly. "There's no one else."
"I'm here," Bilbo said. "I won't leave until you tell me to. Maybe not even then."
Thorin closed his eyes, struggled to compose himself. One foot in front of the other. There would be time tomorrow, and the day after, to talk about treaties and the Council, and their dwindling stores of food, and what precisely a king's speaker had the right to do. There would be time for arguments, and perhaps for making amends.
"If you are to stay," he said, "you must learn to do I as say. You may argue with me in private as you like, but a king cannot be shamed in front of his subjects. Can you manage that?"
"I think so," Bilbo said, voice muffled. He curled up at Thorin's side, a soft warm weight pressed against the rough cotton of Thorin's shirt. Even that gentle touch hurt, but Thorin could bear it. "Provided you keep two things in mind."
"I still haven't forgotten that you almost tossed me off the battlements. And I'm perfectly capable of calling you an idiot, even if I have to wait until we're alone to do it."
Thorin floundered for a moment. "I wonder that you can bear to be around me," he said. "It would do no good to apologize, but—"
"Oh, please do apologize. Maybe it will do some good after all. You won't know until you try."
Thorin wasn't in the humor for teasing, so he fell back on the formalities that he had learned as a child. "As you wish. Mister Baggins, I've done you a great disservice. And I ask your forgiveness for it. For—"
"Holding me over a battlement," Bilbo prompted.
Thorin struggled between rage and embarrassment, and settled on a weary resignation. "For holding you over a battlement," he said. "And for banishing you on pain of death. For not honoring the strict terms of your contract."
"Carry on," said Bilbo, sounding entirely too cheerful. "For saying that I looked like a grocer—"
"I'm not apologizing for telling the truth."
"You told the truth rudely."
"I regret the wound to your delicate sensibilities," he said, stiffly.
Bilbo was so close that when he laughed, quiet but sincere, Thorin could feel his shoulders shake. "No, you don't."
"You accept my apologies, then?"
"Why—yes," Bilbo said, sobering a little. "I do. You weren't quite yourself, you know. But I'll be much less forgiving the second time around. In the future, whenever you feel inclined to throw me down a mountain, perhaps we might discuss the matter first?"
It was quite possibly the most damning condemnation Thorin could have imagined. The fact that Bilbo meant well by it, and did not intend for the gentle sarcasm to sting, only made it worse.
Thorin knew the truth, though he would never speak of it. The Arkenstone hadn't driven him mad, or poisoned his mind, or seduced him to cruelty and malice. He had never felt stronger than when he'd sworn vengeance on those who had laid siege to his mountain, or when he'd threatened death to the inoffensive little hobbit who had traveled so far with him, and through so many dangers.
"Kili," he had said, "if you ever see Bilbo Baggins again, you will shoot him. Is that understood?" And Kili had nodded, dumbly, speechless with shock. He wouldn't have obeyed, of course. Thorin knew that now. At the time, the thought hadn't even occurred to him. Kili was loyal, so he would follow his king's orders; he had thought no more of it.
You weren't quite yourself. But he had been. That was the worst of it.
"I should beg your forgiveness, too," Bilbo said. "While we're both so quiet and peaceable. You know, I think this is the longest proper conversation we've ever had?"
Thorin stayed silent, but Bilbo was talking in a sleepy, drifting way, too tired to pay much attention to what Thorin wasn't saying. "I'm sorry for stealing your Arkenstone, or at least I'm sorry that it made you so very upset. And I'm sorry for going against your wishes so often—only I'm not sure I would do anything differently given the chance. I suppose that means I'm not particularly sorry, doesn't it?"
"You're talking nonsense," Thorin said. "Go to sleep."
"Should I leave?"
"No." Thranduil had said that he wasn't getting enough rest. And it felt right, somehow, to have Bilbo settling in to sleep beside him. He thought of the first hours after the battle: when he'd known with a certainty that he was dying, and Bilbo had stayed beside him the whole long night, faithful through it all.
Bilbo made a small noise of contentment. "Good. I'm awfully tired all of a sudden. Not sure I could move if I tried. But tell me if I'm being a nuisance, or if you want your blanket back, or—"
"Sleep," Thorin ordered sternly. "Now."
For once, Bilbo did as he was told.
Gandalf was sitting alone, wrapped in his cloak and smoking a pipe, contemplative. It was a clear night, but foul weather was rolling in from the northwest, soaking up the starlight and drowning it in dark clouds.
Thranduil appeared at his side, silent, like a wraith with golden hair. One of his soldiers stood a modest distance behind.
"My escort," he said, thought Gandalf had not said a word. "I leave tonight."
"And the young prince?"
Thranduil raised his eyebrows. "You are a prying soul, Mithrandir, even by the reckonings of the Istari. Yes, Legolas is staying here. I lost him to Dale once, and when I laid eyes on the dragon killer I knew it would happen again. He can be spared for half a century, if that is how long it takes for the man to die."
"You are not worried for him?"
"I trust him. He is not a child, no matter how he seems to you. He loves his king, and his soldiers. The forest will always be his home."
Gandalf hummed thoughtfully, leaning back until he could see Eärendil's star, sailing on its endless course across the dark sky. "Be careful among the ruins, old friend."
"You think something lingers there?"
"You wouldn't leave so hastily unless something was troubling you."
Thranduil lowered his voice. "The captain of my guard has been sending reports. Her letters came up with the supplies for Dale."
"She took a wound in Dol Guldur, but she does not recall how or when. Three of her soldiers have disappeared, and two more have been found dead. There is something evil in that place, Mithrandir. I do not doubt you drove the Necromancer from the forest, but perhaps he was not alone."
Gandalf sighed. "The Necromancer is gone. But I am beginning to think that he fled of his own choosing. You were right, I'm afraid. Something did happen this morning."
"When you were waking the boy?"
"Yes. I have been thinking on it for hours, but it eludes me. Whatever it may be."
"It may be him," Thranduil said.
Gandalf did not deny it. The possibility had haunted him since he'd first felt the Necromancer's presence, lingering in a sword that should have been buried with a warlord long dead. Sauron had once commanded a great power over spirits and souls. Sauron, so silver-tongued and beautiful, who had in Valinor been dear as a brother to him. Was all the might of the White Council enough to drive him from the east? And if Sauron was gone from Dol Guldur, where now would he go?
"Yes," he said, heavily. "It may yet be him."
The stars shone bright overhead. Clouds drifted over the ragged line of mountains to the north, over the windy heath where Bolg still lurked. But beneath the slopes of the Lonely Mountain, all was still and peaceful.
In a pavilion near the gate, a king and his burglar were curled up together, sound asleep; a golden-haired boy kept watch at his brother's side, struggling to keep his eyes open. Down in the old city of Dale, an elven prince talked quietly with the man who had slain a dragon. And long after the Elvenking left, riding hard for Mirkwood, Gandalf still sat alone in the darkness.
He was thinking of the ring that Bilbo had found, and wondering what sort of creature would call itself Gollum.