Arc III: Conspiracy in the Blue Mountains

Old Friends and New

With the added burden of procuring their own foodstuffs, it took the four over a week from the time of their escape to reach and cross the River Lhun. In that time the Rangers had recovered somewhat from their surprise, but were still acting noticeably hesitant with both Bilbo and Fortinbras. More so with me, thankfully, Bilbo thought, glancing at the two humans.

He had not expected them to be happy with the discovery that he had been keeping such a secret from them, but Bilbo had expected perhaps a bit of shouting, some frustration and confusion, and then finally acceptance. It was what Fortinbras had done (minus the shouting, at any rate.) Bilbo still didn't quite understand the... depth of their reactions. Bilbo had been as honest about himself as he could have been, under the circumstances.

Changing a few names or dates did not make much of a difference, after all, and no one could reasonably expect another person to trust them with their entire life story after only knowing them for a handful of months, no matter what amount of danger they had gone through together. Some things were just too painful, or too private, to be shared.

Human teens are quite like hobbit tweens, Bilbo reminded himself. It didn't help that the two humans acted so much older than their actual age at times. Storming off into the night when they knew they were in danger of pursuit notwithstanding. How he and Fortinbras had panicked!

Then the sheer irony of Bilbo thinking that about another stabbed at the hobbit sharply, and he snorted. Though, in my case, I suppose I am acting my actual age...

Somewhere along the line there had been a rather large misunderstanding, Bilbo suspected. The Rangers' further questions, what few of them there were, seemed to hover around... something, but never quite come straight out and ask it. Bilbo, of course, was having the greatest of difficulties identifying just what this something actually was.

It wasn't the further details of his quest, which they had staunchly refused to question him on any more. Bilbo had already said too much, he feared, although he didn't deem it particularly likely that the mere mention of the Necromancer would alert Sauron's forces to his goals. Hopefully. If anything, a listener would think him quite mad, and discount his ramblings entirely...

Come to think of it, Bilbo was quite fortunate that the other three had believed him at all, strange reactions aside. The hobbit sighed, adjusting his grip around Arathorn's middle as their horse evaded a particularly treacherous looking patch of bog.

I have already been considered mad once in my life, Bilbo supposed. It had been somewhat annoying, and more than a trifle depressing, but it wasn't as if he didn't know how to handle it. It might even have been easier to deal with than the Rangers' new accursed timidness. Though, it was nice for them to trust in his sanity. He himself didn't, at times.

Bilbo turned his gaze to the marsh-like land they were now riding through. This land was uninhabited by any peoples that he knew of, yet there were still the occasional signs of travelers. A scrap of dangling cloth, a hint of smoke on the breeze, the occasional long-butchered animal carcass. Such leavings made them all particularly wary, for they were far from any trade route. That they were the signs of orcs and goblins seemed the most likely.

When he had lived in Rivendell of the Before, Bilbo had heard a little of the troubles of Lindon. Foremost among them was the difficulty of managing a land whose residents were determined to create no further connections with the world. Apathy and the sealonging were the greatest threats to the elves of Lindon, according to Gildor of the Havens, and not a word of orcs or goblins in those lands had passed his lips while he sat at the Council of Elrond.

Though, as Bilbo had recently learned of Aragorn's close-mouthedness with regards to troubles, that didn't necessarily mean anything at all.

The four made their camp shortly before nightfall, eating a quick supper made of yesterday's leftovers. In deference to their suspicions they kept watch in pairs, cutting the night into two shifts instead of three. Bilbo and Gilraen took the first, while Fortinbras and Arathorn agreed to take the second.

Bilbo sat and poked at the fire while Gilraen paced, both keeping a careful eye on the densely packed mess of thorn-covered thickets around them. The horse herd would serve as excellent sentries also, but their noses would be of little use if attackers approached them from downwind.

The silence was tense, and both watchers were wary. While they had feared pursuit from the renegade Dunedain, the humans had at least been proven to treat their captives moderately well. A night raid by orcs, on the other hand...

Bilbo flinched at the memory of the rescue that Hobbitry-at-Arms and the Rangers had mounted, shortly before the Battle of Buckland. He had participated in enough battles in his time to have witnessed some truly gruesome sights, but the aftermath of that day... the haunted eyes of what few faunts remained, their broken bodies, the parents and grandparents who were missing digits and entire limbs...

No. They would not be captured by orcs.

But fear was tiring, and the night passed slowly. Bilbo mused on many things, eventually falling into a vivid daydream of what he planned to do in Ered Luin. He would like to see the dwarves again, if such a thing was possible. He had managed well enough seeing Gandalf, and he had not acted a complete oaf around Thorin...

Of their dwellings within the Blue Mountains, the dwarves of the Company had said little. Some of them had informed Bilbo of their professions before joining the quest, and the others he could make educated guesses of. They had all lived somewhere within Thorin's Halls, Bilbo supposed, and it was likely that any investigation of banditry would lead to at least one member of the Company...

It is not as if I am in any danger now of confusing them with ghosts, Bilbo thought, his eyes melancholy and a corner of his mouth tucked upwards. Nori is sure to be aware of much of the illicit goings-on at least... And I wonder if Dwalin has been made captain of Thorin's guard yet-

A rustle of wings interrupted Bilbo's thoughts, and the hobbit looked up into a pair of merciless yellow eyes.

An enormous bird stared down at him, a brown-bodied giant with a grey head and ferocious-looking talons. Its dispassionate gaze pierced him for what felt like minutes. Bilbo did not dare to look away. Finally, the bird let out an ear-splitting screech before flapping off into the night.

Gilraen jumped about a foot in the air at the sound, and the other two started awake. Bilbo watched the bird as it disappeared into the darkness.

"What was that?" Fortinbras asked, wiping the sleep from his eyes.

The other three stared at each other, befuddled.

"It wasn't an eagle," Bilbo offered finally. "Though it was somewhat similar in appearance, I suppose."

Gilraen shook her head. "I have heard... just a little, about giant menacing birds living in the lands to the west. I had guessed that the others were just having us on..."

Arathorn rubbed at the corners of his eyes. "That was a hendroval, if the rumors are true. They are flock-birds and are known to be particularly vicious foes. We are lucky that one was alone."

The others paused at his words, reflecting on them for a moment.

"Perhaps they don't like to fight in the dark?" Fortinbras eventually volunteered, his tone hopeful.

"With our luck?" Gilraen demanded of him, throwing her hands up into the air.

"It hasn't been that bad, so far," Fortinbras argued. "While we do get in situations, yes, we usually get out of them just fine -"

Arathorn slowly shook his head before dropping his face into his hands. Bilbo merely sighed. Needless to say, none of them slept particularly well for the rest of that night.

The morning saw no further signs of trouble, hendroval or otherwise. Still, the four made the unanimous decision to break camp without gathering further supplies and chose instead to ride as far as they could before sundown.

By noontime their plans abruptly changed. The river bent around a body of hills, and when the four emerged from behind their cover they discovered a large port town looming in the distance. They attracted little notice upon entering the town, though the procession of horses following behind them soon drew stares and envious looks.

The townsfolk appeared to be composed primarily of dwarves and the occasional elf and human. Bilbo's brow furrowed as he glanced around the streets. I know the name of this place. I do. But what in blazes is it..? he wondered for a long moment before smacking himself in the head. "Kheledul!" he exclaimed. "Of course!"

"You know where we are, I take it?" Arathorn asked, pointing his horse in the direction of what looked like a stable.

"Yes," Bilbo said excitedly. "We are perhaps only several days away from where the Eastway enters into the Blue Mountains. Quite close to our destination, as a matter of fact."

The others let out sighs of relief.

Of course, the stables were already full of ponies, and there was no room for all of their horses.

"We can't possibly abandon them," Fortinbras said after they had been waved away. "They are not wild horses, after all, and with those signs of goblins..."

"We will not have to," Bilbo said. "They have been trained to respond to commands in Sindarin, after all, and there should be several elvish settlements farther to the south. I am sure that any of them will be more than happy to accept them."

"Horse dealers, are you? And from Bree, I suppose, given your mixed party?" A passing dwarf spoke up, eying the horses and their riders curiously. "Kheledul is perhaps not the best place for those - you'll be looking for Duillond, most likely. It is to the south, yes, and not too far from here. Err, if you don't mind my asking, masters and mistress, did you get lost?"

The Rangers exchanged a glance, unsure of how to respond. Fortinbras bit his lip. None of them had expected to get stopped and questioned, and they hadn't thought to work out a plausible explanation beforehand. The truth, alas, was not an option. Or, perhaps it was...?

Bilbo shook his head and sighed. "A short cut turned into a long cut, unfortunately," he said honestly. "You have heard of the trouble in the Shire, this past winter? Not all of the invading orcs and goblins were killed - many were merely driven off, to regions unknown. We hoped to avoid them by taking a more northerly route."

The dwarf raised her eyebrows. "And you still live?" she asked, stroking her pale blonde sideburns in astonishment. "Haudh Lin, the region you passed through, is overrun by goblins and other vicious beasts... I have heard of attacks near the Eastway in Needlebole and even here in the Gate, but that route should still be the safest by land. Though I suppose you travel with armed escort for a reason," she added, gesturing at the two Rangers.

"I knew those were goblin-signs," Arathorn muttered into the palm of his hand.

"We were lucky, I suppose," Bilbo answered the dwarf, frowning. "We saw no goblins, nor were we set upon by any vicious beasts."

"Haven't been to these parts before, have you?" the dwarf asked, not without some sympathy.

Bilbo blinked at her. Something about her appearance was vaguely familiar to him, though he couldn't quite place what it was. "I'm afraid not, mistress," he said.

In front of him he could feel Arathorn give the slightest of starts. The dwarf, however, merely nodded as if such a reply was to be expected.

"I thought so," she said, her eyes twinkling. "There's only one thing for it, then."

Fortinbras eyed her warily. "And that would be...?"

"Why, my husband and I are wholesalers," she explained. "We import goods from distant lands, and sell them to neighboring merchants who go on to sell them to their customers. Naturally, this means we do a great deal of traveling about the countryside. Unfortunately our daughter, Gimris, managed to break her leg while exploring the rigging of one of our suppliers' ships," she said, looking ridiculously proud of her adventurous child.

"Now, we are under contract to deliver these goods to particular individuals at particular times," the dwarf said sternly. "We cannot break this contract! But neither can we leave our little lass here on her own. Our families live in the Halls, and they cannot get here in time. The solution is obvious: one of us must stay to care for our daughter. But, it is not wise to travel alone, with a cart full of goods!"

"So you want us to escort you or your husband to... Duillond, in exchange for guiding us there," Fortinbras said with a sigh.

The dwarf shrugged at him. "It is no hardship on your part, if you are headed there anyway," she said. "We both stand to benefit from such an arrangement. I am Mizim, daughter of Ilga, by the way."

"I am Fortinbras Foxburr," Fortinbras introduced himself, "this is my cousin, Bilbo Underhill, and our friends and companions..." Fortinbras trailed off, glancing first at Gilraen and then at Arathorn.

It took Bilbo a moment to realize why, exactly. It was perhaps not the best of ideas for either of the two Rangers to introduce themselves by their actual names. If word of their location traveled back to the wrong ears, or potentially even the right ones... The two humans could end up in quite a bit of trouble. Bilbo spared a moment to curse himself for his lack of foresight. We should have discussed this yesterday, hurrying be bothered!

Thankfully, Gilraen realized Fortinbras' purpose at once. "I am Rae," Gilraen said, "and this is Thorn." Both Rangers gave a polite half-bow from where they sat.

Mizim clapped her hands together, a smile breaking over her face. "Well, then, masters and mistress," she said. "Do we have a deal?"

The four looked at each other. It seemed as if none of them had any objections. Bilbo shrugged.

"I believe we do," Fortinbras said, speaking for the group.

Mizim grinned. "Follow me," she said, leading the four and their horses past the docks, where a great crowd of people swelled.

Humans of Gondor mixed with those of Umbar, of Harad, and those of even more distant lands that Bilbo did not recognize. The occasional elf darted through the seething mass - most were dressed in fashions that Bilbo was familiar with, but several times he saw those whose garb was unlike anything he had seen before.

And, of course, there were the dwarves. Dwarves shouting and gesturing and flinging great crates of goods to and fro. A great ship had newly arrived, and was being lashed to the pier. Their standard, a black serpent set upon a red background, flapped in the breeze. The Southron sailors were talking with the dwarven deckhands and soon goods and coin were being passed from person to person. The din of their shouting was terrific to hear.

Bilbo gazed at the town around them, a modest port that nonetheless boasted of one of the most diverse mixes of people he had ever before seen. The hobbit spared a moment to wonder at how the elves of Rivendell had ever complained of the reticence and isolation of the dwarves. To Bilbo, it seemed quite the other way around.

The Rangers and Fortinbras were looking every which way, drinking in the sights in front of them in absolute amazement. Bilbo smiled at the three. None of them had ever seen so much of the world all in one place before, he knew. Bilbo remembered the feeling.

After a moment, though, Bilbo had to poke Arathorn in the side before Mizim disappeared completely from their view. The Ranger broke from his daze, and gently nudged their steed forward. The rest of the horses soon followed.

Mizim stopped outside of a ramshackle inn and gestured for them to wait. She disappeared inside, leaving the four travelers to mill about. They dismounted, stretching out their aching muscles.

"Is this a good idea?" Gilraen asked, gazing after the dwarf. Her expression was vaguely pinched. "We will have to watch our words the entire time..."

"Probably not," Bilbo said, "but announcing ourselves to all and sundry would likely invite trouble we cannot afford. It is no different from our time in Bree: it is only that this time the stakes are somewhat higher."

Fortinbras frowned. "It might be wise for you to use those names you chose among the elves as well," he said slowly. "If they are in contact with the rest of the Rangers, then rumor of your presence here might reach them."

Arathorn frowned. "We have not decided if we should inform Cirdan as to our troubles," he said. "Lord Elrond likely already knows, of course, but it is perhaps not wise to alert our other allies and trading partners as to our potential... weaknesses. "

Gilraen glanced at Bilbo, then quickly looked away, feigning at disinterest. "In your... time, was news of the coup... common?" she asked.

Bilbo shook his head. "I had never heard of such a thing," he said.

"We never told you?" Arathorn asked, startled.

Bilbo blinked. "I first met Gilraen sometime in my sixties," he explained. "We were acquaintances, but not, ah, exactly friends." Oh, dear, Bilbo thought to himself. Somehow, in all the time he had known the two humans he had quite managed to separate the younglings in front of him from his memories of the tired and bitter Chieftess of the Dunedain and her dead husband. That would be a terribly awkward conversation to have with the Rangers. And how could he possibly explain their future son Aragorn? The two weren't even betrothed yet! Bilbo hoped that they wouldn't question him any further on that particular vein.

Gilraen and Arathorn exchanged startled looks at Bilbo's response.

"Bilbo never joined the bounders, the first time around," Fortinbras said somewhat uncomfortably. "Many things happened... differently." He winced.

The Rangers looked horrified. "Then the Horn of Buckland was never sounded?" Arathorn asked. "Or did someone else..."

"It did not need to be, then," Bilbo said, his eyes sliding shut. "The Fell Winter was nowhere near so bad in the time Before as what we faced. I do not know what changed this." I can certainly guess, however, Bilbo thought bitterly. He had only made one great change before that time, after all, unless some activity he had undertaken during patrol had had a greater affect than he had been aware of.

The four waited in uncomfortable silence until Mizim finally returned, three other dwarves in tow. The three were all red-haired and stocky, unlike Mizim.

The young female, presumably the previously mentioned "Gimris," looked to be only half-grown. Her sideburns were nothing more than the faintest of wisps, and only served to make her look utterly adorable. Her lower right leg was tightly wrapped in bandages and set in a sort of wooden frame that held it at such an angle that her foot did not reach the ground. She hobbled about on a pair of wooden crutches, babbling enthusiastically at her mother.

But Bilbo only noticed the dwarf child in a distant sort of way, so surprised he was at the sight of the other two. Gloin and a young Gimli were standing in front of him, the former looking utterly besotted and the latter mildly suspicious.

Fortinbras looked at Gloin and the young Gimli, and then back at Mizim. He raised an eyebrow at her.

Mizim shrugged at him. "I might have exaggerated somewhat," she admitted cheerfully. "Still, a party of two isn't much safer than a party of one, especially in times like these."

Gimli frowned fiercely at that and addressed his mother in Khuzdul. Gloin slapped his son on the back and laughed at whatever he had said. Gimli shook his head and huffed at his father's response, while Gimris giggled.

Mizim sighed. Her reply to her son was brief and curt, and also in Khuzdul.

Bilbo blinked. He only knew a few words of that particular language, but he was absolutely certain that he recognized the terms "humans," "halflings," and the expression "not a threat." Bilbo felt vaguely offended by such an insinuation, but supposed that he couldn't be too angry at it if it made his life that much easier.

"I apologize for my son's behavior," Mizim said, reaching over and pinching one of Gimli's cheeks. He reddened , attempting to wave her off.

"While Thorin's Gate has been a relatively safe land for many years," Mizim continued, releasing her son, "we have recently had some problems with bandits and the like. As a result, my Gimli has become quite... cautious, around individuals he does not know so well."

Fortinbras nodded. "Perfectly understandable," he said graciously.

"But still," Gloin said, bowing, "that is no reason to be rude." He cleared his throat, looking over the four and their assorted horses, now milling about the yard. "I am Gloin, son of Groin, at your service," he introduced himself. "You already know my wife, Mizim, and these are our children, Gimli and Gimris."

"At your service," Gimris said, curtseying cutely.

"At your service," Gimli echoed sullenly, giving a curt bow.

"I am Fortinbras Foxburr," Fortinbras said, bowing as well. "This is my cousin, Bilbo Underhill, and our friends and companions Rae and Thorn."

"And we are at your service and your family's," Bilbo added, remembering the proper response just in time. After all, it certainly wouldn't do to appear ill-mannered for his second introduction to one of his good friends, now would it?

Author's Notes

Finally! We have actual plot progression! Whoot! And dwarves! I did say that I was using LoTR online as one of the background sources, yes? If not, there it is. If you've played, then you probably are familiar with the hendroval... :D The "Gate" refers to Thorin's Gate, which is the region of the Blue Mountains that is under Thorin's control. It has a number of different towns in it - the Halls is the big one, with Kheledul a somewhat distant second. The names of the spouses/children of the Company dwarves are from Sansukh, and used with determamfidd's permission. And, if you are curious, Gimli is 32 right now - young for a dwarf but only one year younger than Dain Ironfoot was in his crowning moment of awesome.

Trade is a very good way of meeting people from all over the place, isn't it? :D And I imagine dwarven goods are very much in demand... Even as far away as Harad. And with Sauron and his forces still stuck in Dol Guldor... The rest of the world stands to be free of his particular brand of mischief. I imagine that would make diplomacy quite a bit easier.