We spent a while like that, entwined and kissing. I could not keep my hands from roving over Thorin's body, assuring myself that he was not hurt anywhere other than his dignity and pride – though for an exiled King such as he was, that was pain enough. He tangled the fingers of one hand in my curls, holding me tight to him with the other around my waist. I am sure that those outside the little cell wondered what was taking us so long, but I would not draw away from this a moment sooner than I had to. It was wonderful, pressed into the heat of him, feeling the strength of his muscles, his big, stocky form that could easily hold me to the ground if he so chose – or rather, could have before the gifts of the Ring. Never mind that, it was still seductive even now.

Eventually though we did have to break apart. Thorin smiled down at me, a rare emotion on his face. He stroked through my hair with a softness that made me think he was not entirely aware that he was doing it. Then his eyes narrowed, and he moved his hand down to wipe at something on my cheek.

"Bilbo, is this blood?" he asked, with frank disbelief. "What on earth? What have you been up to?"

A gave a shaky little laugh. Things were starting to catch up with me now. "I do not think you would believe me if I told you," I replied. "But come on, let's get out of here. Neither of us wants to be here any longer than we must."

He nodded at that, though I could see he was not about to give up his questioning quite that easily. We went back out into the corridor, where the light happened to be better. I looked down at myself and winced. I was entirely a mess. I was caked in blood and worse things, marks of our slaughter. I was only surprised Thorin had not noticed it sooner, or commented on how badly I stank. I could only put it down to the surprise of seeing me there.

"Yes," I said, "I can see how this might require a little explanation." The elf guard, waiting by the cell door, glared at me. Perhaps he did not appreciate the lightness of my tone.

"I should say so," Thorin replied, looking at me wide eyed. "Is that elvish blood? I do not mean to doubt you as I have before, but I cannot see how to believe the evidence of my own eyes."

"I did not come here alone, for one thing," I said. "My insubstantial friends here have no love for elves, and are more to be credited for winning the day against Thranduil's guards than I." I waved at the Nine, Khamûl visible in his be-spelled robes, the others only to be seen by their blood-slicked swords. That they were still out and not in their sheathes reminded me that I had been remiss in cleaning my own blade off before putting it away. I winced. This was not a habit I wanted to fall into.

"What are these creatures?" Thorin asked, looking them up and down. Perhaps his dwarven eyes could see better in the dark then mine, for it seemed he could make them out better than I could whilst walking the material world. "I have never seen their like before."

"Creatures, he calls us," Hoarmurath said derisively. It was, admittedly, made the more intimidating by his ghostly, rasping voice. "Where are the thanks for his rescue? It seems Kings have lost their sense of manners since the days in which we ruled."

"We are the Nine," Angmar said, in dolorous tones, and I could tell he was about to start recounting their many names, deeds and high lineages again, which I had little interest in hearing repeated. I cut him off quickly.

"They are allies," I said. "And they... serve me, for lack of a better term. I promise there will be a better explanation, but I have sworn to give it also to the rest of the Company, and it is better to do it all in one piece. They are waiting for us – we should not make them wait longer."

"Very well," Thorin said. "I shall save my questions for now, my noble rescuer. But I would know what has become of Thranduil."

"He is dead," I said. "I'm sorry if I've taken away your revenge, but I had to kill him. He wouldn't let you go, and his guards wouldn't stop fighting otherwise."

"You..?" He was stunned into silence.

"As I said, I have a lot to tell you," I said, with an apologetic smile. I turned to the sullen guard. "And as for you, since your folk could not bring yourselves to offer help the last time you encountered dwarves needing your aid, I rather think you should offer them some small measure to make up for it now! We shall need food and supplies for thirteen, and horses to carry them." I surmised that all the other wargs had died in the attack, which was rather a shame. Some had been laden with the Nazgûl's baggage though, and we would need to have beasts to carry that as well.

As much as the elf did not want to do as I said, he was well aware of what the Nine could do if his people did not comply. He grudgingly led us to storage chambers, gathering others to bear full packs, flagons and bags, before escorting us out of the stronghold via the stables. Ren, Uvatha and Dwar split off to retrieve the other luggage and met us there, following their sense of the Ring's location to guide the way. These stables were above ground, but cunningly concealed beneath overhanging bluffs. The elegant elven horses were soon laden with the best of Thranduil's cellars. They did have a tendency to shy away and roll their eyes wildly whenever any of the Wraiths came too near, but that mattered little, for we had no intentions of riding them, and they were docile enough and easily led when tied to each other by their reins.

It was with such a cavalcade that we made our way back to the spider's clearing and the rest of the Company., although I took a moment to clean myself and Eldanqualë in the river, the Ring's magic making me proof against the water's enchantments. Then we were gone from that place, never to return.

Telling the story of everything that had happened – that I had kept from the Company – since I first found the Ring, was not a quick process. The dwarves would insist on interrupting with questions at every available opportunity, despite my insistence that if they would just sit down and listen I would give them all the answers in good time. It was only a sharp command from Thorin that prompted them into silence. At least I had ordered the Nazgûl off a little way into the forest, so I did not have to face any disapproving looks from them. Eventually however, everything came out. My nights spent communing with the Ring, wearing down its stubborn will, finally besting it in that dark shadow-place. Angmar coming to me, using my newly discovered spell-craft to wake Bombur, the attack on the spider-camp that had freed them. Invading the elven stronghold. The slaughter there.

Somewhat predictably, that last part was their favourite. Dwalin went so far as to clap me heavily on the back and declare my deeds worthy of a hero's song. Oin, Gloin, Fili and Kili all nodded approvingly. For myself I was not overly proud of the killing I had commanded. I could not dislike the end result, and I knew that it was in truth the only way events could have gone, but I regretted the pride and selfishness of the elves that had begun this whole vendetta that I had become involved in and hence led in this round-about way to their doom. Still, it could not be undone, and I had to come to terms with my actions. Always, I must consider what was necessary, what must be done, and have the courage to do it. Even if it was messy, even if it was unpleasant.

It was different for the dwarves. They were a warrior race, fighters all, and battle was a part of their culture. Not so for hobbits. Could I even truly call myself a hobbit anymore? I had known this adventure would change me, and so it had, but to much greater an extent than I ever could have imagined. It would all be worth it in the end though if I could see Thorin returned to his kingdom and the dwarves of Erebor to their home.

"I am still not sure these Wraiths, as you call them, are to be trusted," Balin said, once my tale was finished. "But if, as you say, they cannot act against you, I do not suppose we have anything to fear."

"I am curious though," Thorin said, "of the precise nature of this One Ring, and of its previous owner. I recall legends of my people, more tales for children than anything, passed down from the days of Durin III and the gifting of the Seven Rings. As the story goes, there existed some dark artefact meant to corrupt the gifts of the Elf-Smith – the myth-character we call Khathuzh-khebabâl. I would believe it of an elf to give poisoned gifts, but this poison was not of his making. It was the creation of an Urkhas; a demon, a servant of the God of Fire, he who is the dark twin of Mahal. I have heard it connected in some versions of the tale with this name Sauron, and some say that in later days he was the hidden master behind the Kingdom of Angmar – whose King was a master of sorcery, and whom I have no doubt is the one now sworn into your service. So you see how I am not sure the powers of this Ring are... safe."

"I do not doubt it has been used for evil deeds in the past," I said, looking down at it, sitting warm and golden on my finger. "But I have broken it and mastered it, and I intend to use it for good. I don't put much stock in old tales, I suppose. Demons and gods... these are far outside my knowledge, or the knowledge of any hobbit. We have none of our own, you see, and we do not claim those of any other race as our own."

"Hmmm," Thorin said, still looking uneasy, but said nothing more on that matter at that point.

Dori did though. "Mahal is certainly real," he said, sounding a little put out. Nori rolled his eyes and mouthed something that might have been 'here we go again'. Dori must have seen him, for he continued angrily; "I'll not hear anyone say different! Those who say He no longer watches over his people are speaking nonsense. Don't forget He defied his Father to create us, do you think a god who loved us as much as that would abandon us? We might not see His hand at work, for He is subtle in his crafting, but just look at the good luck we have had in Mr Baggins coming across this ring!"

"Sorry brother," Nori said, raising his hands in a pacifying gesture.

"It does none of us credit to be speaking of private matters of religion like this," Thorin said. "And Bilbo cannot be held to the same standards – he is not, after all, a dwarf."

"Well..." Dori went red with embarrassment. "No, I am sorry King Thorin, Mr Baggins, that was rather rude of me. I just find it very disappointing when young dwarves these days forget the old ways. I have always taught Ori better." I didn't miss the nervous looks on Fili and Kili's faces when he said that, and tried to keep from laughing.

"In any case," I said, eager to return the topic back to the Ring and its provenance. "The previous owner of the Ring, be his name Mairon, or Sauron, or the Necromancer, or whatever you wish to call him has been chased out of his fortress in the south of Mirkwood by Gandalf and some other wizards – so at least we know what that urgent business was that caused him to leave us. Also, even before this, he did not have possession of the Ring for a very long time indeed. Not for thousands of years, if the Ring itself is to be believed. Whatever power he had over it surely cannot remain."

"I suppose after so long, a certain amount of the evil would leach out, diminish, or whatever," Kili said, coming a little closer to peer at the simple band. "I think it's okay. Be good against dragons anyway, I'll bet!"

"So that is basically it," I said to the Company at large. "That is how I came by the Ring, and got the help of the Nazgûl, and was able to rescue you all from elves and spiders. And aside from all the other powers it gives me, it bestows the ability to become invisible, which I think will be rather useful for burglary, don't you?"

"Agreed," Dwalin said. "Our burglar has done well."

I smiled at everyone, glad now that it was all out in the open. Despite that my instincts had kept on telling me to keep the Ring secret, I had never been entirely comfortable with doing so, and I admitted they were right to be cautious about it. I did not think it could lie to me, about itself or its history, but the possibility still remained. The advantages it gave us, gave me, were well worth it however.

After that, we rested in the spider's clearing until the next morning. Then it was off on the path out of Mirkwood, back on the way towards the Lonely Mountain. I was looking forward to getting out of the forest.

The thing that nestled, new-born and delicate, between Thorin and I manifested itself after that in the careful meaning of our touches, of the way we pressed close during sword practise, which was now less about teaching me and more about having time together. I could use the knowledge of the ring to pull muscle-memory into my body, ingrain patterns of movement, write in reflex. I matched Thorin now, and so we did not fight so much as dance in the way that surely all dwarven dances must be like. It was... good.

We slept at each others' side during the nights as well, curled up back to back. It was not all that I wanted; rather I would have entwined with him under the blanket of his furred cloak, but I perceived that he did not quite want to broach the subject of our feelings for each other with the rest of the Company. I did not push. His reasons were his own, and no doubt were due to some point of culture I was not aware of. I knew he would take things further when he was ready, and perhaps there was some finer point of courting as the dwarves did it that meant we had to wait. I did not mind. We had time.

We walked only a few days before we reached the outskirts of the forest, with the Nazgûl winding unseen away from the path as careful guards on all sides. The darkness of the days and nights was suddenly replaced by the sun of early autumn, the wind in our hair and against our faces, green grass, blue skies, heavy branches folding back like curtains to reveal the open world that we had so missed. Forests in general were not bad, I thought to myself, but this one in particular left a lot to be desired. I was glad to be out.

To our north we could just about glimpse the dark Mirkwood river winding out from under the trees, bounded by marshland to the left and grasslands to the right where our road lay. But that was not what fixed our attention. Ahead of us, rising tall and powerful against the sky, was the Lonely Mountain itself, singular, like a monument, a standing stone writ massive, monstrous, wreathed in specks of misty cloud. The sun was falling on its slopes and turning them to gold. I sighed to see it, and I was certainly not the only one.

The path onwards was not as obvious as the mountain. It petered out onto sparse highland meadows and was lost. Nor were these grasslands as safe as they had first appeared. It must have been a wet spring and summer earlier in the year, for there were young bogs hidden everywhere in dips in the ground, heavy mud no easier to cross for all it was untouched, strange lies of the land which hid the way ahead and made it easy to get turned around when the clouds came and hid the sun. If it were not for the unerring sense of direction the Ring-wraiths possessed, we should very soon have been lost entirely.

The sun was not so hot here as it had been in Mirkwood. The gusts and breezes had a chill to them, coming down from the desolate Grey Mountains far to the north. Still it was better than the forest, and we had packed sufficient tinder onto the horses to have a meagre fire each night, which was a great comfort to all of us save the Nazgûl, who were not fond of it at all. It might once have been their old master's element, but their un-death had left them nervous of it, perhaps some corpse-nature recalling the flammability of dry bones or the memory of Númenorian funeral pyres, although they were not truly dead and had never truly died, and thus had nothing really to fear.

We tracked closer to the river at several points, forced by the vagaries of the landscape. It turned out there were several small villages of Men dotted along the length of the watercourse that made their living helping along trade between Thranduil's holdings in Mirkwood and a large town or small city called Laketown which, it transpired, was where the survivors of Smaug's attack on Dale had fled and resettled. I wondered how that trade would be affected by the Elf-King's death. These villages did give us the opportunity to trade for some simple black robes, boots and gloves, which Angmar then enchanted for the Nine. I think it made all the Company more at ease when they were able to see them properly, and if we were to walk amongst the race of Men, better the Wraiths could pass for something more natural than what they were.

After some days further travel we at last came to where the river opened out into the Long Lake, a great body of water that stretched for some miles north to south. I had never seen its like. We had nothing that even came close to its size in the Shire, and hobbits have no great fondness for water in any case. Soft waves lapped against a stony shore, and the mouth of the river spilled down in a series of falls between two towers of rock like open gates. Water churned into white, and the sky painted with all the ruddy colours of the setting sun turned all to fire.

Not far from where we stood on the bank above the shoreline was a ridge of stone jutting out quite some way into the lake itself, forming a calm bay to the south where was built the strangest town I had ever seen. Hundreds upon hundreds of stilts and supports had been sunk into the lake bed, each of which was the trunk of a great Mirkwood tree, and upon them built houses and halls and walkways, and a great bridge leading back to the beach. A few more small huts sat there like guardhouses or watch-posts, but the majority of the settlement was out upon the waters.

This then was Laketown, and all that was left of the once-great city of Dale. As I later found out, they had survived this long on trade from the forest and from the Iron Mountains where lived Thorin's cousin Dain and his people. It was a decent life, even despite the ever-present threat of the dragon, but Smaug had not left the mountain in many years, so that many in the town no longer gave much credit to the stories of their fathers and grand-fathers. Still, such songs were still sung of the days of the Fire-drake, and of the dwarves of Erebor in times no living Man remembered.

Thorin, Balin and I held a quick conference with Angmar and Khamûl. We would need better information about the lands around the Lonely Mountain than our old map could give us. It had been at least a century since any of the dwarves had been in these parts, and none of us knew how much things might have changed. Also more supplies might be of use, and it would be pleasant in the extreme to have the luxury of sleeping on a real bed for the first time in many months, even if it were only the meagre offerings of some inn.

It was therefore agreed that we would go into the town on the morrow once dawn came. The Nazgûl would raise enough suspicion for their dark robes and the fact that they never showed their faces in daylight without coming over the bridge in the dark like the Wraiths they were. We thus camped down for the night, setting our fire in the lee of a rocky outcropping so that its light could not be seen from the lake. I was scraping up the last of the soup Bombur had made for us and contemplating way of dealing with a dragon when Angmar approached me and requested a quiet word in private. Curious, I followed him over to where we had billeted the horses.

"We have all noticed your... closeness to this dwarven king," he began, and I did not need the powers of the Ring to detect his distain. "He is the son of Thráin, son of Thrór, of the line of Durin, is he not?"

"That's right," I replied, wondering where this was going.

"One of the many artefacts we brought with us from Dol Guldur, come to us through various provenances, was a certain ring that has traditionally been passed down through that line," Angmar said, and going to the luggage we had bundled in a pile at the base of the tree the horses were tied to, he produced something from one of the packs. He brought it back over and dropped it into my palm. It was a thick band of silver, sized for larger fingers than mine, set with a step-cut diamond, and inscribed with what I recognised to be dwarvish patterns. As I held it I thought I could feel it humming against my skin, a deep and quiet moan like the rumble of war-trumpets. It echoed in the Ring, harmonising, and I knew what this must be.

"It is one of the Rings of Power, isn't it," I said.

Angmar inclined his head. "One of the Seven. It is as their tales tell; under Mairon's instruction Celebrimbor forged the three Elven rings, the seven Dwarven rings, and the Nine that we wear. They are all however subject to the aegis of the One. Still, Durin's ring is a memento of Thorin's family line, and I am sure he will appreciate it as a gift."

"Well, thank you," I said, somewhat surprised at this uncharacteristic show of niceness from him.

"You should also know," Angmar continued, with a slightly put-upon sigh, "that the giving of rings is also an important step in the dwarven courting process."

I should have been more suspicious then, I should have verified the nature of the other rings with the Ring itself, then we could have avoid some of the inconveniences that occurred during the business with Smaug, but I foolishly took Angmar's helpfulness at face value. It was not even that he was lying to me, for he wasn't capable of that. He merely contrived to fail to mention certain of the ring's effects on its dwarven bearers. Perhaps I had left the Nazgûl on too long a leash, but they did become more willing servants in the end, and it has since been my experience that clever servants are more effective when given their head, so it did all work out for the best.

In any case, I went immediately to where Thorin was sitting by the fire, and drawing him away a little presented him Durin's Ring, with a quick explanation of how I had come to have it.

"It seems every week we have you with us some new marvel occurs," he said, taking it with fingers that shook ever so slightly. "I never thought to see my father's ring again; we thought it lost with him. Bilbo, I can never repay you for this."

"It's nothing," I insisted. "I'm happy to return it to you – it is yours, after all." I had never seen him look quite so emotional, or at least, not in a way that marked happiness instead of sorrow and loss.

Carefully he slipped the ring onto his left hand. It looked well there, like it belonged, and I was not surprised when he pulled me up into a deep, grateful kiss. I enjoyed the press of his lips against mine, the odd scratch of his beard, so unlike anything I had ever felt before. We hobbits are unable to grow hair on our faces, you see, so I had no experience of the strange sensation.

"Here," he said, after we had broken apart and were standing with our foreheads pressed together. "I would have you wear this of mine." He drew the heavy ring from his right hand and took a golden chain from one of his deep pockets, threading it onto it. Of course, it would have fallen straight off any of my fingers. "I have been... considering giving it to you for some while now." There was a certain flush to his cheeks as he said that, lifting the chain over my head so that the ring fell and nestled against my breast.

"Thank you," I said, cradling it in my hand for a better look. It was set with an obsidian stone confined inside a cage of silver, heavily done in dwarvish style. "I shall keep it close."

I wished we could do more together in that moment, sheltered in the dark of the night, but the hour was getting late and the fire burning low, and the others would soon be wondering where we were. After Erebor, I promised myself. After Erebor.

The next morning we packed everything back onto the horses before heading down to the lake, the Nazgûl walking ahead of us on foot acting the part of our bodyguards, which I suppose in some ways they were. It was a bright day, birds wheeling in the skies and their song carried down to us on the light breeze, and our party cut a fine figure, sure to have an impression on the townsfolk.

There were guards posted at the bridge, but this early in the morning they were paying little attention to the road, and indeed they were currently having their breakfast so that the smell of frying bacon came wafting towards us, making my mouth water. We had eaten already, but I certainly would not object to a little something more if it was available. Still, it was hardly good manners for visiting travellers to stroll up and demand to be fed.

So occupied with their meal were they that we were nearly at the bridge itself before they noticed us. Looking up and seeing how many we were, they scrambled to their feet, grabbing up sturdy spears from where they had been leaning against chairs.

"Who are you?" one of them called out to us. "State your business."

"I am Thorin," our leader announced, striding between the menacing forms of the Nine. "Son of Thráin, son of Thrór, King Under the Mountain!" He held himself with all the majesty of his lineage, his mail shining in the sun, the stone of Durin's Ring flashing fire. "I have returned to reclaim what is mine in the name of all my kin."

This certainly caused all manner of excitement. Thirteen dwarves – or fourteen, for I am sure they did not know how else to categorise me – accompanied by nine hooded and armed men, were a strange enough sight, and it was clear we were arrayed for battle rather than trading. No travelling merchants from the Iron Hills were we, and what else then could dwarves be in the tales of Laketown other than the warriors of Erebor?

A man who seemed to be in charge eventually quietened down the chatter and looked us over. "Who are the rest of you then, if you are who you claim?" he asked.

"The princes Fili and Kili," Thorin said, gesturing to them as he named them, "also of the line of Durin. Others whose families once hailed from the mountain, who have sworn to join me in our quest to slay Smaug."

"And these sell-swords?"

I could see each of the Nine go tense with wounded pride at being called something so base as mercenaries, but we had agreed that it was the only story to explain their presence that made any sense. Certainly we did not want knowledge of the Ring to be spread far and wide and be transmuted by that magic gossip possesses.

"Men who specialise in slaying monsters," Thorin said. "Although they have never tackled any so big as a dragon before. Still, they are willing to risk their lives, for the reward is great."

The Captain glanced north then, in the direction of the mountain. His eyes gleamed with the idea – I imagined the stories their bards must sing of the hoard beneath the stone.

"Your story has the ring of truth to it," he said finally. "But if you are to enter Laketown you cannot do so thus armed."

"We have no intention of giving up our weapons," Thorin replied. "And if you will not let us cross the bridge, then summon whomever is the master of your town, and let the decision be his."

"He will not yet have risen from his bed."

"Then send a messenger to fetch him whenever he does," Thorin said testily. "We shall wait."

The Captain sent a guard off running, and so we settled down for however long it might be. The Nazgûl remained where they were, a silent phalanx. I spent my time sending out my senses into the spirit-world, questing north towards the mountain and whatever waited for us there. I felt the ghost-memory of dragon's fire burnt into the ground, scorched soil quelled by the fear of Smaug and unwilling to grow whilst his power still lay over them. There was something within the mountain, I could feel that much, something ancient and powerful, slumbering for now, but ready to be awakened at the slightest provocation.

No, this was not going to be easy. I only hoped the Men of Laketown would know something that might give us the edge in the battle to come.

Such were my uneasy thoughts until, some hour later; we saw a great mass of people coming over the bridge towards us. The Master of Laketown had arrived.

The Master was a portly man, dressed in fine clothes with a thick golden chain draped ostentatiously over his neck. He was not tall, as Men went, shorter than any of the Nine, but that still let him loom over any of the Company. He approached at the head of a large group that filled the bridge behind him, craning forward to try and get a good look at us. I heard many voices whispering to one another as Thorin stepped forwards to speak to this leader of theirs. It was clear that there was a great deal of curiosity surrounding our arrival and the mission we had professed to.

"My good dwarf," the Master began by saying, look us over cautiously, "welcome to Laketown. I confess in his haste the messenger who came to me was not as clear in expressing your reason for coming to our fair town as he might have been. He claimed that you are of the lineage of the dwarven Kings of old, and have come to kill the dragon that is rumoured to sleep beneath the mountain to the north. Surely that cannot be true?"

His polite words and high-browed manner, mild as it might have seemed, yet did not entirely conceal the suspicious glimmer in the man's eyes. He certainly did not trust us, but I could not entirely blame him. It was bad enough for me at the beginning of this whole adventure when thirteen armed dwarves turned up outside my home and it could not be any more pleasant an experience for the Master, particularly not when they were joined by nine mysterious'mercenaries' in hooded robes. No doubt he was wondering whether we were scouting out the town's defences in preparation of raiding it, or some similar scenario.

There was a great sense of anticipation from the crowd, and Thorin looked them all over slowly, as though trying to gauge their exact mood before he spoke. "Your man told you truly," he replied. "I am Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór, called Oakenshield, rightful King-Under-The-Mountain."

At this proclamation a great cry went up amongst the assembled townsfolk, and the whispers rose to a great roar. Men and women all were shouting out in excitement, the young children joining in simply for the joy of the thing. I overheard someone close to the front of the crowd begin to recite the words of some song concerning Erebor's return to ascendancy to her neighbour as proof of some point, and soon that general theme was taken up and discussed in every which way. The Master's expression turned pinched and disapproving before he gained control of himself and motioned the Captain of the Guard to establish some sort of order again.

The Captain seized a great horn from where it had been hanging on a post nearby and blew upon it with gusto until the people of the town began to quieten down and pay attention once again. The Master smiled graciously. It did not reach his eyes.

"If it is your intention to rid us of the dragon and come into your own once again, O King," he said, bowing, "you are very much welcome. Come into the town and we shall have a feast in your honour tonight, and let us have no more of this nonsense about leaving your weapons here. You are our guests, and shall be treated as such."

Such were his words, but he did not mean them. I believe it was his intent to keep a close eye on us at least, and to pacify his people with a show before swiftly booting us out in the morning. It was a more circumspect method than I might have expected from what little I had seen of leaders on our journey so far. Certainly I could not imagine an elf being so polite to ones he distrusted even if it was to his advantage in the short run. I surmised later that this was likely due to the Master's experience negotiating trade between the various races that bordered his own lands; the elves to the west and the dwarves to the east, and the very occasional caravan from outposts to the south that belonged to the lands of Rhûn. He was merchant-born and elected rather than coming to his office by virtue of his lineage, and it showed.

We followed him into Laketown, the crowd parting before us. Many were the looks of awe, amazement – avarice in some cases. For my part I took in the sights of this strangely built settlement. There were tall strong gates on the other side of the bridge, and spikes of wood jutting out from the walkways to either side to prevent anyone from trying to climb up from the water. There were many of these at the borders of the town, interspersed with true walls. On the other side of the gates we were led into a marketplace, although the stalls were not yet open for it was still early on in the day, and besides, both customers and traders were part of the throng that had come out to see us. In the centre of the open space was a wide circle of open water that opened up to the greater lake by a channel, and many quays led down to it so that goods could be unloaded.

Our party was brought to a large house where we were told we were to stay for the night, and thereafter left alone, at least so long as we stayed inside, for many of the townspeople remained in the streets, eager for any glimpse of us they could get. The table at the centre of the main hall was quickly stocked with food; fresh meat and bread, plenty of fish both roasted and made into soups, green apples and pears in wooden bowls, even berry pies still warm from the oven. It was eagerly welcomed after so long eating dried, salted or otherwise preserved travel food.

"All this and a feast tonight," Bofur said, piling his plate with cuts of gammon. "Uncommonly generous, these kind folks. If your ghostly friends do manage to win the day for us, I'll not mind them at all as neighbours."

I agreed, in the general sense. Yet after all this misfortunes that had troubled us on our journey thus far, I couldn't help but feel it was a little too good to be true.

That night we shared separate rooms in small groups, with Thorin taking one by himself on account of his rank. I took the opportunity this presented and snuck through to join him. As I passed through the hall I saw the Nine seated around the table, empty dishes piled off to the side to make a space in front of them. They seemed to be playing some sort of game in hissed whispers, moving around roughly shaped pieces of stone, but I could not make out anything more.

How wonderful it was though to slip under the fur covers of Thorn's bed, feel his arms open to welcome me, to nestle into him and feel him press soft kisses to the back of my neck. This was what I had wanted every night since the forest, but had been unable to have.

"I do not mean to push," I said quietly once we had gotten comfortable. "But will you tell me why you don't wish to let our relationship be known to the rest of the Company yet?" I did not doubt his feelings for me, for his responses to my overtures had been too heartfelt, and often I felt his eyes upon me.

"We do not generally speak much of our culture to those who are not dwarves," he muttered at my back. "But I would have you with me, Bilbo Baggins, for the rest of my days, and so this must be done properly. Our kind love only once in our lives and for me that love is you. But I am an exile, a King without a Kingdom, one who has shorn his beard with the dishonour of loosing that which ought to have been mine to protect. It is not my place to think of softer matters until my responsibilities to my people have been dealt with."

"Then I have even more incentive to help you kill the dragon," I replied, smiling. I was happy to at least know the truth, even if I could not believe that Thorin was dishonourable by any standards. Of course I did not say anything to that effect – he had placed a great trust in me telling me these things that were not usually spoken to outsiders, and I would not sully that by criticising his culture, however obliquely.

We soon sank into sleep after that, for the hour was late, the bed warm, and the both of us curled close to the one we loved.

The overly-excellent treatment continued that evening. Laketown was not quite large enough to have much in the way of lords and other high-born folk, not even in the genteel, country way of the Shire, but it did have a kind of gentry composed of the richer merchants, those who owned land and farms supporting crops and livestock to the south and east, and those who seemed to be advisors to the Mayor, although they likely had other occupations that I did not hear about.

The feast itself was of many courses over several hours. The Company were seated in places of honour, with Thorin taking the Master's own seat, Fili and Kili to his right and left, and the rest of us nearby. The Nine had not come; they did not and could not eat, and it would look suspicious if they did not touch their food. Quite aside from the wonderful spread, which included some marvellous breads where the dough had been woven into intricate shapes, there was weak but well brewed beer, wine imported from the elves which none of us touched, and some strong spirit from Rhûn. I indulged my hobbit appetite, even though I still had no real need for food. That did not stop me enjoying it, thankfully.

Halfway through the meal, after a very nice dish of fat fish smoked over a peat fire on a bed of fried cabbage, leeks and bacon, the Master rose to his feet as several men bearing various instruments came into the hall. "Our minstrels have requested that they be permitted to sing some of our songs that tell of the return of the King-Under-The-Mountain," he said, and sat down again rather quickly.

"Aye, my lords and ladies," said the leader of the little group, bowing to us all. "From our grandfathers and our fathers has the promise of this day been carried down, a promise that you, King Thorin, have come to fulfil."

Thus with lute, pipe and harp they began to sing. As I listened to the words, a certain fear began to grown in my breast. Quite apart from our own hopes of regaining Erebor as the home of the dwarves, these descendents of Dale had put all of their own hopes upon us too. Even if we did not fail them, even if Smaug was slain and the mountain regained, I was far from sure that we could fulfil all that seemed to be expected of us. Looking at Thorin's expression as the song transitioned into another, rather prematurely telling of the dragon falling to the earth in the throes of death and the rivers flowing with gold, I could see his heart was just as uneasy as my own.

I suspected our stay in Longtown would not be a long one. At least the Master would appreciate that.

We spent one more day in the town, making the rounds of the merchants and in many cases forcing our meagre stocks of money upon them, for they were inclined to give things up for free in anticipation of the reclaiming of the dragon-hoard, and none of us were much inclined to get into that sort of debt. Bad enough the assumptions of promises that already existed.

The Master sent us north in a big, flat-bottomed boat with heavy-set men at the oars. He seemed rather relieved to see us go; not to mention pleased at being proven wrong about us. Horses and ponies were being sent around by another, more circuitous route, fresh ones to replace those elven steeds, which was rather better a deal for Laketown than for us. Still, whether we succeeded or not in our quest, one way or another we would not have much use for ponies after that.

It was another fine day, for although there had been a shower of rain in the morning it had swept away the clouds and left the afternoon fresh and crisp. The leaves of the trees by the shoreline were starting to turn towards the colours of autumn. We passed a number of fishing boats along the way, nets draped over their sides, and with each one a cheer went up when they saw who we were. We bore the un-earned adulation with something between embarrassment and pleasure. Our minds were not on them, but on the mountain ahead. Durin's Day, when the secret door would be revealed, was nearly upon us, and the weight of time pressed down.

Three days travel saw us up the River Running and set to ground on the western bank, where our pack-animals were waiting for us. All our supplies were there and more, for there had been a certain amount of padding out by our well-wishers. Also there were a few ponies extra, allowing the baggage to be so apportioned as to allow us all to ride, and thereby to speed us along our way. I was thankful for this. With Smaug so close I was growing nervous, and rather than go slowly and put things off, I would rather it was over with as quickly as possible.

The land here was quiet and empty, open and with few trees or shrubs. It was the aegis of the dragon, the Desolation, an aura of power that chased away the wildlife and put the earth into slumber so that things would not easily grow. It was not all burnt by his fiery breath, although much of it was closer to the gates of Erebor and the ruins of Dale, for such scorching of the ground was not necessary for the creation of this bone-deep spell. That needed only his presence.

One day, your abode will be stamped just as firmly with your own presence, the Ring whispered to me.

I hope my presence will be rather more comfortable than this, I replied. We mounted up, the Nazgûl riding on our flanks four to each side, and Angmar next to me, and began the trek into the shadows of the mountain. The very air was still with a kind of sick anticipation, and I found myself several times holding my breath. Much as had been along the route from Mirkwood to Laketown, there were no true roads here, but the rolling hills were easy enough passage, and so long as we kept the mountain before us, we could not become lost.

We left the river after a day, heading north-west towards a great spur of the mountain that had become visible, and which led up to where the hidden door was marked on Thorin's map. We made good time, but the passage was tense, the hours long, and with the heaviness of Smaug's presence upon us, no-one felt like talking. The Nine were the least affected, but they were not particularly loquacious at the best of times.

For all that none of us could doubt that Smaug yet lived, we saw no sign of him, or any other thing living, by the time we reached the foot of the mountain. Deeply he was slumbering, somewhere within those once-great halls, a lizard hibernation, coiled on gold, blanketed by jewels. Perhaps the Ring-Wraiths and I might indeed slip in quietly without disturbing him, but to kill him like that? No, nice an ideas as it was, I knew it could not possibly be that easy.

Fire-drake he is, the Ring told me. Dragon of the old bloodlines, earth-fire made flesh. His scales shall be as stone, and though their bellies are soft as tanned leather his decades upon his hoard will have embedded it into him, made a part of himself. If you truly wish to slay him, you must hope that a naked place has been left somewhere upon him, or else no steel, however enchanted, will avail you.

If I wish to slay him? I asked. What other course of action is there?

That remains to be seen. If he will talk, he can be reasoned with. The dragon-kin were once our allies, in ages past. Melkor gave them wings, and they were always dear to him, for their nature was all he loved of Arda. They were secondary only to the shadow-Maiar, those the elves call Balrogs.

You want to reason with this dragon? I asked, astonished. What do we have that he might possibly want?

Do you doubt you will and power, even after mastering me? The Ring whispered, half-mocking. We shall soon find out what paths lie before us, and whatever the course, do not doubt that it is in my interests to protect you, for if I became part of a dragon-hoard I would never leave that place again.

This kind of self-interest I could certainly rely upon. I was not sure of the wisdom of stopping to speak with Smaug rather than using the element of surprise to spring an attack upon him, but the Ring had not led me ill since I bested it. I would at the very least try.

We made our camp that night upon the crest of one of the low hills that slowly stacked upwards towards the mountain's spur. The ruins of some old watchtower were upon it, and Balin told me it had been called Ravenhill in better days. Thence we began to lay out our plans for the coming days, of the order in which we should search the clefts of the western slopes for the hidden door, and of how a scouting party ought to be sent to see the state of the main gate and how much remained of ruined Dale. I volunteered the Nazgûl and myself for that mission, since we could pass unseen by most eyes.

We set out the next morning, the Wraiths divesting themselves of their enchanted robes as I slipped back into their ghostly world, watching things change around me. It had been a sunny day before but now the sky was overcast with looming clouds, the sides of the mountain guttered with fires that were not truly there, and the withered pines that clustered in places swayed as though in a fierce wind. Such was my impression of Smaug's power upon this place.

Dale, when we came upon it, was eternally aflame. Dull grey ruins smoked and kindled, ghost buildings burning down only to be resurrected and burnt again. A discordant version of the Nazgûl's fear-song floated towards us, carried by the breeze, joined by the faint sounds of screams. This was a city of ghosts. I could feel it through the Ring, a thousand tiny specks of once-life, meagre spirits next to the Nine, little more than remnants of whatever they had been before. I had the impression then that I could compel them to me if I wished, that there was a certain similarity to the Wraiths that using I might force a kind of compulsion, but they were so weak there would be little point in it.

Already you begin to gain some of the instincts of witch-craft, the Ring said to me, sounding pleased. Any with some speck of power might call upon the dead if they wish, but few can do so in such numbers as you might, if you so willed it.

I did not particularly will it, not even to practise the song of whatever spell was needed. It seemed a cruel thing, to rip those fragile shades away from whatever memory of life they had, even if such life was filled with pain. To make them aware of what they were would surely be worse. I wondered how bad the inner halls of Erebor would be, how many of Thorin's kin were tied to Arda by the same unnatural method of their deaths.

We went on a little further so that we might see the Gate. Climbing an outcropping of the southern spur the fallen glory of Erebor came into view. Vast statues guarded a broken and gaping gash impotently, their massive axes made into empty threat. The river poured out from the wound, falling in a silver spray, and dark smoke and steam came forth with languid power. I could not be entirely certain if they were present in the material world or not.

"All of the halls must be filled up with dragon's-breath," Khamûl said to me.

"A fortunate thing that there is another way inside," Uvatha added. "This entrance will be guarded, one way or another."

"You are aware, little master," Ren said, with a certain embarrassed trepidation, although I did not appreciate him bringing up my height, "that we are not immune to dragon's flame. He will kill us as easily as he will kill those dwarves you favour, if we are not careful."

"I didn't really expect any different," I said, which was a lie. I suppose I had hoped that the Wraith's immortality extended this far too, but apparently not. I thought I could still get away with speaking to Smaug, for I was fast, and a small target, but it might be better if I did not bring the Nazgûl along on that particular sojourn.

Having seen all that there was to see of the sundered gate of Erebor, we headed back towards the western spur and our campsite.

I reported back our findings to Thorin and watched his lips go thin and tight with a kind of futile anger. Of course he must have seen all that we had seen when he left Erebor, and it did not seem as though the passage of time had changed much. I wanted to offer some kind of comfort, but the expectations of Dwarvish culture forbade me. I could only be silent and sympathetic, and although not useless, it was not what either of us needed.

It was too late in the day at that point to start the search, but the next morning we moved our camp higher up the valley between the two great outcroppings of the mountain, along what might once have been a goat-path that would have been eaten up by growing grass were it not for the pall of the dragon's desolation. There was enough of the rough scrub for our steeds to eat though, and it seemed that Smaug had not ranged about so greatly on these slopes, for they were not so charred.

Day upon day after that we split into parties of four or five to search every narrow valley, every wrinkle of stone upon the mountain's face for signs that a door might be placed there. We looked for any traces of a path, a subtly cut route for the comers and goers to make their way safely down. It was not an easy task, for there were many places such that an entrance could feasibly be placed, and a great deal of territory to cover. Eventually, and more than half by accident, we found what we were looking for.

It was Fili and Kili who came upon it. They had gone scouting back further down the valley where the western side was a broken up mess of boulders, fallen stone and scree slopes, and found by chance what appeared to be a series of rough steps winding upwards between the tangles of rock. Not quite ready to get our hopes up too quickly, they had followed the path up for some way before it cut across the head of the valley northwards via a narrow ledge, and ended in a wide bay that looked out to the west and Mirkwood in the distance. Of course they could not see the door, for it was as cunningly concealed as all secret doors naturally would be, but they were sure they had found the place we were searching for. Indeed, the smooth, sheer rock face inside did not look entirely natural.

The whole Company was both joyous and relieved to hear the news. Durin's Day was the day after tomorrow, and we had all been getting rather nervous that we would miss it, and either have to foolishly risk the gate or come back after another year had passed. Quickly we broke camp and began the task of moving it up to that concealed nook, hidden by overhangs that explained why we had seen no sign of it before.

Said task was not an easy one. The stairs were too steep for horses or ponies, so they had to be left down in the valley under guard of Bofur and Bombur. Then the ledge proved to be so thin and precarious that we had to go across it in single file unburdened by any packs that might put us off balance at a crucial moment. The fall was as bad as that of our dangerous passage through that pass in the Misty Mountains where we had come upon the battle of the stone giants, at least a hundred and fifty feet down onto sharp rocks. We lashed ourselves – save the Nazgûl, who proved to be as sure footed as any mountain goat – together with ropes, and made our slow way across in that fashion. The packs had to be sent back down to the first campsite and then pulled up on the end of several ropes tied together by means of strange but very effective dwarven knots.

After that all we had to do was sit down and wait for the right moment. The rope system was robust enough that we could occasionally lower Kili, Fili or Ori down upon the end of it to give Bofur a bit of a rest from his guard-work. He came up that way a few times also, happy as a hobbit at a hog-roast, for he said it reminded him of working the mine-faces back in the Blue Mountains. Bombur refused to risk it, for good as the knots were, he did not trust his weight to them.

Even though everyone knew about the moon runes and what they had said, that was not enough to stop some of the dwarves from trying to force the door open early. Dwalin tried battering it with his war-hammer, but he could not even raise shards of stone from the surface, and only served to blunt the weapon's spikes and jar his wrists and elbows with the reverberations. Bofur gave it a try with his mattock to no more success.

"No, do not try anymore," Thorin said when he spotted Gloin eyeing it up, for he would probably have broken the blade of his axe upon it otherwise. "It is the work of the finest stonemasons Erebor ever produced, and it is clear no effort of ours will make any mark upon it."

I was just as impatient as everyone else. Not that I had a real plan for killing Smaug if it came to that, but I hoped that when I went down to speak to him I might take the opportunity to look him over and see if there was, indeed, any spot on his once-soft belly that might be amenable to being pierced by a spear or lance or something along those lines.

Do you have any experience in slaying dragons? I asked the Ring, mostly to pass the time.

I do not. When they fought with the armies of Melkor and Mairon many ages ago, that was before my forging. Many perished on either side of that great conflict, and Mairon never spoke of it but with great bitterness.

How did the dragons there come to die then? I asked, hoping to gain at least some clues as to how we might deal with Smaug.

This was the age when the great powers of Arda were young and strong. The elves had not yet been diminished, and their heroes and sorcerers had not yet passed into the West. Nor was Melkor intending at first to use the dragons in the battle that ended the War of Wrath, for he had not yet armoured their soft bellies with diamonds from the great seams of Thrangorodrim. So it was that a thousand thousand arrows found some mark, with powerful spells behind them, and many bit deep enough to kill. Even Ancalagon the Black, greatest dragon that ever was or will be, fell in the end to Manwë's eagles and the witch-craft of Eärendil favoured of the Valar.

Unfortunately for me then, it seemed that to kill dragons you had to be some great elvish hero, and even then it were best you had ten others like you to lend a hand, or to have the help of creatures that might as well be called gods. That was not a description that, even with some generosity, would quite stretch to cover the Ring. We would have to be lucky in the extreme for strength of arms to win the day. Talking was starting to seem like a better and better idea.

And unlike the Nine, you have no need to fear his flame, the Ring told me. No fire can touch me, and I will show you how to pull that same protection over you.

You couldn't have mentioned this a bit earlier? I said, but did feel rather better.

The day started to darken as evening fell. The sun lowered itself slowly towards the distant horizon, turning the far off eaves of Mirkwood golden. In the blue sky high above was the first crescent sliver of the new moon. Half of the Company were staring at the rock wall, half out at the light of sun and moon, waiting. The Nazgûl were disinterested.

Suddenly there was a loud knocking noise. I started and looked round to find the source. A thrush was perched upon a stone by the door-wall, although I had not seen it fly in. It had grasped a fat snail in its beak and was rapping it sharply upon the rock. I sprung to my feet, and held my breath in anticipation along with the others as they saw what I was looking at.

The sun sank lower, lower, and I was frantically counting days in my head in case we had missed one in the confusion of our journey and it would not be until the next day or the next that we would see the keyhole. But no; at last a ray of light shone out, falling upon the stone. With a loud crack a sliver of rock fell away, revealing a hole about three feet above the ground. Quickly Thorin rummaged for the key in his pockets. Pulling it out he strode over and thrust it into the revealed lock, twisting hard. There was a grinding noise like the movement of some heavy and long disused mechanism, and lines began to form upon the sheer rock face, marking out the boundaries of a squat door.

"Come help me with this," Thorin cried, and then everyone was gathered around him and were pushing hard upon the door until it began slowly to move inwards, opening up with a great rush of hot air and the release of a foreign reek like rotten eggs, burnt hair and musk. I coughed and covered my nose against the stink of the dragon. Inside was nothing but darkness, deep darkness leading down into the depths of the mountain.

Even had I wanted to bring the Nazgûl with me when I ventured in this way, I could not. The ceiling was not high enough for them to pass unless they went half bent or on hands and knees, neither of which their pride would allow. This was a journey I would have to take on my own. Ahead, Smaug waited, asleep or awake I knew not.

"Alright," I said, "I had better make a start of it."