The Fourth Age begins in sunlight and hope - but we know it is the Age of Men. This is a contemplation of how things might have gone for some of the other races of Middle Earth, a thousand years after Thorin fell. It's not going to be a short story, or an undemanding one, but I hope the journey will be worth the cost.
If you've read any of my other work, you'll know that I update as frequently as possible, and that I am guilty of committing emotional whiplash, frequent and unkind cliffhangers, and a truly unholy amount of sentiment over Bilbo and his relationship to Thorin and his nephews. I hope none of this will put you off reading or commenting!
I want to go on a journey, here. Come with me?
Erelin was quiet in the small hours of the morning. Bilbo Baggins drew in a deep breath, letting the smoke fill his lungs, and released it into the smog of the night. The gas lamps in the street flickered with the passing of the sea-breeze, but the smog never lifted or moved. A carriage rattled by below, drawn by a small pony, and Bilbo watched it dispassionately. A Dwarf, most likely, though one with considerably social standing to be moving so freely at this hour.
He puffed at his pipe again, sending a thin, quivering smoke ring into the air. When he had lived in the Shire, he would have delighted in watching the smoke float up into the sky, lit by the starlight and carried away on clean, gently winds. But the Shire was long since behind him -a thousand years away, it sometimes seemed, and here in Erelin, his smoke mingled at once with the thick black smoke from the unceasing fires - gas lamps, and the wood-fires of the poor, and the constant burn of coal for steam. The city reeked of it. The high walls seemed to pen them in with their own foul air, until Bilbo damned his injuries and forced himself to climb to the highest point of his creaky house just to try to rise above the stink, to strive for one more glimpse of the stars. But there were no stars over Erelin.
The last puff of his pipe was a signal disappointment, and Bilbo knocked the ash over the side of the window, little caring for what might be below. The city was beginning to wake up now. The first cries of sea-birds could be heard as the ships prepared to go out with the tide, and the miners were shuffling from their homes, making for the great gate that led from the city to the mines below the mountain. The Men would only open the gate once in the morning and once at night; there was no mercy in them for a Dwarf who ran late.
He tucked his pipe away carefully, lowering the window with care and fastening the brass latch. It didn't do to take risks - not even on the third floor of an empty house; not even when you had nothing to steal. His mangled leg was proof enough of that. He leaned heavily on his cane, easing himself down the steps one at a time, and cursing the dim gas lights that made it so hard to keep an even footing on the warped floorboards. In the Shire, they had never held with steps at all. He missed it fiercely.
The morning paper arrived with a thump against the door as he made tea, and he burned his hand on the stove as the sound made him jump violently. He looked out his peephole three times before opening the door long enough to snatch the paper and pull his head back inside, re-doing all the bolts at once. Bilbo read the paper over breakfast, and shook his head at the news.
There were apparently more mystical cults on the rise in the heart of the city, despite the best attempts of the Governance to crack down on all religious practices. Dwarves were reminded of the restrictions on movement, particularly around the train stations. Construction was to begin on a new fleet of steam vessels, to replace the wooden Navy that was growing derelict in the harbours of Lune. Bilbo snorted at that. Unless the Governance was planning to orchestrate another war with United Gondor, the new ships would serve as little purpose as their dying predecessors. Progress for the sake of progress. He poured more tea.
He read about the rumours of a plague beginning to spread in the slums of Erelin with a heavy heart, and made himself a note to write home for more supplies. The Took might have banished him to Erelin, but he owed Bilbo the same support as any other Healer - even if Bilbo did only work with Dwarves.
Bilbo heaved himself upright and began the daily battle. He fought the pipes that hissed and clanked, unwilling to produce enough hot water for his bath, and then he struggled to dress quickly enough to ward off the chill in the air. The too-large house was never warm. By the time he was suitably attired for the day, pocketwatch tucked carefully into his waistcoat, there was already a small queue outside the door of his little infirmary, and he was sucked in.
He offered what herbs he could to a woman whose wrists and ankles were already dangerously swollen with some joint condition he was not qualified to treat, and wished he could do more than offer her some pain relief. The old watchmaker whose long white beard always seemed to threaten his ability to do his work came by for more of the salve Bilbo made for his painful, failing eyes, and patted his hand kindly in thanks as he tottered away. Bilbo had to actually let one patient inside, to his great discomfort - but the huge, bald, tattooed scrapper was too injured to treat at arm's length over his half-door. He was not grateful - but then, few of the Dwarves really were.
"Got no money to pay you, halfling," he growled angrily as Bilbo finished winding bandages over the shallow knife-wound in his bicep.
"That's quite alright," Bilbo said coolly. "I'm not looking to be paid."
The Dwarf spat on the floor, and Bilbo winced. "Course not. Governance keeps you in food and housing, after all. We should all be so fortunate."
Bilbo was happy to see the back of him.
The crowd eased up after the early hours, and Bilbo had time to sit down with a book between visitors. The sun was weak and watery beyond the smoke and reek, and he had to light a gas lamp to make out some of the faded words in the old text. He was looking for information on Dwarvish plagues, but there was precious little to be found in the reference books of Men. He would have to ask the Took to scour the mathom-houses once again for anything on the Dwarves. It wasn't like anyone else was using that information any longer.
There was another wave of patients in the evening, when the ships had returned and the mines had closed, and Bilbo dealt mechanically with the injuries of the day. He stitched and bandaged the jaggedly-cut palm of a dark-haired street urchin who looked like he still ought to be in day school. From the calluses on the lad's hands, though, and the weary slump to his shoulders, Bilbo was sure he was looking at one of the half-enslaved human boys of the fleet. Once, his heart would have gone out to the boy; but Bilbo had lived ten years now in Erelin, and nine of those without stepping foot from his cold home. He was too weary for pity.
He closed up for the night as dusk was falling, though the coming of night was easier to determine by the ringing of curfew bells than by any change in the light. Dinner was a quiet affair, and Bilbo chose an old favourite to read as he ate - a book of Shire poetry from an earlier Age. The memory of green things, of clear water and bright skies, was enough to set an ache in his throat, and he put the book down after a while. Ten more years before his Mission would be over and he could go home.
The knock on the door made him jump, sending his water glass crashing to the floor, and Bilbo's heart began to pound. A knock in the night had never yet been a good sign. Usually it was a dire medical emergency, but it was always too late to patch the poor bugger up by the time they'd dragged them all the way to Bilbo's door. He wanted to pretend he was not at home - but Bilbo had taken oaths. He stood carefully, avoiding the shards of glass. The soles of his feet might be tough, but they were not invulnerable.
He peered out the peephole, standing at the awkward angle necessary to see the faces of taller Dwarves. The Dwarf on his doorstep didn't look particularly injured or ill. He was standing with his hands tucked into his pockets, rocking back and forth a bit with a deliberate ease that struck Bilbo as very strange indeed. Heaving a sigh, Bilbo unbolted his door, but left the chain latched across, and opened it just wide enough to peer out.
"Can I help you?" he asked, hoping he was giving the impression of not really wanting to help at all. The Dwarf peered in at him, and grinned widely. Bilbo stepped back a bit. That was strange.
"Are you Bilbo Baggins?" he inquired politely.
"Says so on the door, doesn't it?" Bilbo asked. He was being unkind, and he knew it. "Look, it's after curfew, so if you're not currently dying, you should get home and come back in the morning, all right?"
"Oh, I can't do that!" the youngster said - because as Bilbo watched him, it was becoming evident that he was quite young. Bilbo stepped back toward the door and looked closer. Very young indeed; possibly less than ninety. He rubbed his tired eyes and looked again. "I haven't got anywhere to go. I was hoping I could stay with you!"
Bilbo slammed the door in his face, and rubbed a hand across his eyes. Pranksters, at this time of evening? He'd be hauled away by patrols of Men within ten minutes.
A knock came again, and Bilbo sighed and yanked the door back open, jamming it hard against the brass chain. "Look, I'm really not in the mood for a joke tonight. Go home before you find yourself losing a hand. Curfew is a serious matter."
"I know it is," the Dwarf said. He glanced behind himself, staring into the murky gloom, and then looked back to Bilbo. His eyes were piercing. "Please, I need a place to stay, and I don't know who I can trust."
There was a distant shout, and Bilbo knew it was over. A patrol had spotted his visitor, and would take care of his problem.
"I'm a Healer, not a hotel," Bilbo snapped, guilt making him angry.
"Please!" There was fear in the young voice now, and the Dwarf put a hand out to the door, grasping the thick wood only inches from Bilbo's face, but there was no threat in the sudden motion. "Please, I'm looking for something I've lost! It's important!"
Bilbo paused, half-ready to close the door even on the desperate hand. There was something in the plea that struck him inexplicably. A sense of life, maybe; of passion. He hadn't heard that in Erelin for many years. The patrol was coming closer.
"Move your hand, you young fool," he spat after a moment, and closed the door enough to unhook the chain before swinging it wide open. It made no sense to let this mad young Dwarf into his home - but there was a strange feeling rising in his gut, and a buzzing in his head, and he acted without thought. The tall, sturdy young fellow was inside in a heartbeat, slamming the door shut behind him, and Bilbo looked him over in the light.
He was blond, and that was the first strange thing. Bilbo had seen precious few Dwarves whose hair was not grey or white, and those who he had seen were almost all dark-haired, or wildly ginger. In the light, the lad seemed even younger than Bilbo had first thought. His eyes were a bright, piercing blue, and he had a strong nose and chin; a handsome lad, for a Dwarf, but Bilbo knew his views were biased. His clothes were striking - well-made, neat, and clean. He was no ragged street urchin.
"Speak quickly," he said, trying to sound like he was still in control of the situation. He gripped his cane firmly in one hand, prepared to use in it self-defense if needed. "Who are you? And tell me - this thing you're looking for, the important thing you've lost - what is it?"
"Oh, as to that," the Dwarf said brightly. He dipped his head in a low bow, which startled Bilbo; Dwarves never bowed to any but other Dwarves. "I'm called Fíli, and I am in your debt."
Something in Bilbo's head gave a sudden bright spring of recognition, like hearing a long-forgotten melody. It was distinctly disconcerting.
As he straightened again, Fíli offered Bilbo a strange, sad smile. "And I have no idea what it is I've lost. I'm fairly sure it was my heart."