While the wizards trotted off to confer about wizardy matters in relative private, Bilbo buckled the sword around his waist (under protest), and Bolg went trudging back towards camp, following Ori and Bifur as they searched for signs of the spooked ponies. Tulip hadn't been among the captured mounts— she and a few others had managed to weather the night largely unscathed, having been left grazing peacefully during the dust up with the trolls— but Bolg still insisted his sense of smell might be useful tracking the runaways, whether or not the dwarves would actually acknowledge the help.
Bilbo let him go reluctantly, suffering a silly twinge of worry; the lad was old enough, and certainly large enough to take care of himself in the woods, but the urge to keep Bolg in his sight for at least a little while after such a harrowing escape didn't seem completely unreasonable. The lad was determined, however, and Bilbo had made a promise to himself long ago that he would never let his son be hobbled by the fears of the world, even his own. Bolg wanted to do some good, without any expectations of gratitude, and Bilbo wasn't about to put a stop to that.
It had been a bit touch-and-go with Bifur early in their journey— communication was challenging, of course, but the issues ran deeper than that. Bombur had hustled Bilbo aside before they had even passed out of the Shire, and recounted the truncated tale of an ill-fated skirmish and a gruesome injury.
"Addled him, as you'd expect," Bombur had said softly, leaning as close to Bilbo as he dared without losing balance and tumbling from his sturdy pony. Bolg had been riding some distance ahead at the time, pointing out landmarks to Gandalf. "Buggering old axe stuck in his skull, and all. Just... he's harmless, mostly; a bit unsteady, by times, but usually mild as milk. But your, er, your son... Don't know for sure what seeing an orc everyday'll do. Me and my brother, we'll keep an eye on things much as we're able, but I thought, we thought, it'd be proper for you to know."
There had been a tense moment or two since then, some agitated muttering and wild looks from Bifur (especially in the queer half-light of the gloaming, when evening began to set in), but there hadn't been any rattling of that wicked boar spear. Now, idling in the woods with troll bogeys drying stiff and disgusting on his coat, Bilbo couldn't help but fret as Bolg loped off through the trees after the others, keeping a careful distance between himself and the dwarves. If catching sight of an orc hiking through the trees— an orc with an axe strapped across his back, for goodness sake— was the thing that pushed Bifur from the teetering edge, Bilbo would never forgive himself. Nor, likely, would he ever forgive Gandalf if Bolg was hurt because of that blighted axe.
"Looking a wee peaky there, Bilbo." Bofur, leaning easily on his mattock, continued scraping dirt from beneath his fingernails. "Not quite got your legs under you yet? I know I'm still feeling right crisped, like a rasher of bacon."
"I— no, I'm fine." Forcing his eyes away from darting immediately back to the woods, Bilbo turned to allow Bofur's chatting to distract him instead. "Just, well, not the most restful night we've had so far, was it?"
Blowing away a bit of dry earth from his hand, Bofur's grin dimpled his cheeks deeply behind the bracket of his moustache. "At least it wasn't raining."
Though he was itchy, exhausted, unspeakably filthy, and really quite sore, Bilbo was still startled into a bout of real, almost breathless laughter. Clapping his hand over his mouth, ignoring the vaguely disgruntled looks being shot in his direction by Thorin and Dwalin, Bilbo was quite pleased when Bofur's warm chuckle joined his own.
"Speaking of bacon," Kili said from behind them, leaning subtly closer and keeping his voice low. "Do you think we've time for breakfast? I mean, it's not as though the trolls are going anywhere, and the wizards might be ages yet."
Bilbo's stomach certainly agreed with the notion, gnawing insistently, but his good sense won the day.
"You try to convince him—" he began to say, entirely unwilling to throw himself on that particular sword by bringing the idea to Thorin, even if his silence meant suffering through the morning empty-bellied. But then the first howl rent the air, and his heart leapt into his mouth. "What— Is that a wolf? Are there wolves out there?"
Bolg had fought wolves before, viciously hungry wolves, but that was little comfort.
"Wolves?" Bofur had snapped out of his slouch instantly, and now he hefted his mattock with obvious jitters, stepping between Bilbo and the distant, fading echo. "No, that is not a wolf."
The beasts came from nowhere and everywhere at once— the first from behind, leaping upon Dori with cruel jaws snapping, followed swiftly by another from the other way— and Bilbo did not have the time to even consider drawing his sword before the fight was over. Nori pulled his brother from beneath the massive body, while Thorin yanked his gleaming new blade from the creature's neck.
"Warg scouts—" It was utter madness, but Bilbo found his fingers wrapping tight around the hilt of his sword at Thorin's words; this beast, this horrid beast was the monster that haunted his son's sleep. "Which means an orc pack is not far behind."
"Orc pack?" The incredulous question escaped before Bilbo could think better of it; as though trolls and wargs were not bad enough, now orcs were descending upon them.
Bilbo had known this journey would be dangerous, and if Bolg had been a hobbit tween, there would have been no discussion, no chance of them signing on to join the Company. The lad was certainly more capable of holding his own in a fight than Bilbo, but this...
While Gandalf barked questions at Thorin, Bilbo was more concerned with scanning the trees, listening and looking for Bolg to appear. Surely their little search party would have heard the ruckus; surely they would be appearing any moment now—
Ori was the first to stumble out from the greenery, with Bifur following close behind, but it was the sight of Bolg between them that convinced the knot in Bilbo's chest to unclench enough to even breathe.
Wide, pale eyes were gleaming wildly, his posture hunched and hunted, but the lad appeared unharmed. He kept to the higher ground as Ori informed them all of their ponies' ill-timed flight, gaze darting quickly around, and Bilbo could see his hands squeezed into fists at his sides.
The plan was a simple one, dependent upon a great deal of luck, but it was all they had. Radagast tore off through the trees, mounting his sled and urging his rabbits to running, while the rest of them followed Gandalf, snatching up what few supplies they dared to carry; the howling of the approaching pack grew closer with every moment, spurring them on quicker than even Thorin's most emphatic order or hardest glare ever could.
"Give me more," Bolg said as they scrambled for their packs and weapons, pulling the mouth of his larger backpack wide. His voice was hardly more than a low growl, a testament to his fear. "I can carry more— it won't slow me. Ori, Mister Balin—"
Before anyone could argue, Bolg had snatched up one of Ori's bags and slung it over his shoulder, and stuffed Balin's pack and Oin's medicine bag inside his own. Looping his arms through the straps of the bulging sack, Bolg stood tall, and settled his heavier load with a yank and a grunt.
"It's good; it's fine," he said, waving off Balin and Oin's objections, while Ori gawped and Bilbo fought the urge to give the lot of them a meaningful jab with his walking stick. They had no time for dithering, and thankfully enough, Thorin seemed to agree, rounding on them with a thunderous stare.
"We have to move, now."
Beyond the forest, the terrain opened into rocky lowland plains, broken up by juts of stone and some scarce, scrubby brush. It was easier to traverse than the uneven ground of the Trollshaws, where thick roots twisted out every-which-way to snatch unwary ankles, but the field offered little in the way of proper hiding spots. The Company would be free to cover ground quickly, but so would their pursuers, and Bilbo truly didn't fancy their chances of outrunning wargs in a footrace.
His instincts screamed at him to hide, to slip into a crevice or beneath a fallen log and stay so very quiet until the danger passed, but that was hardly sensible or possible. Instead, Bilbo found himself legging it from one meagre shelter to another, wincing at every bark or shout that seemed too close, as Radagast led the orcs on a madcap chase of his own.
The extra weight wasn't slowing Bolg at all— the lad was holding back his long, loping strides to keep pace with the rest of them— but his breathing was still sharp and stuttering, his nostrils huffing with muted snorts that sounded like a furious bull. The wargs were roaring and howling as they dashed after Radagast's sled, the savage noises rattling down into Bilbo's bones, and he could scarcely imagine the sorts of memories Bolg was wrestling.
Pressed close against an outcropping of jagged rock as Gandalf peered around, Bilbo took firm hold of Bolg's wrist, squeezing until his son turned terrified eyes in his direction. The lad was bold enough to face down mountain trolls with nothing but a tree branch, but this was different.
"I'm right here, my boy." Assurances that everything would be all right caught in his throat, unspoken; if things did go sour, Bilbo couldn't bear the thought of wasting his last words to his son on lies. "I'm right here with you."
Bolg bared his teeth in a taut expression miles removed from a smile. "Yes, Papa."
Then they were off, tearing over the coarse grass in whatever direction Gandalf led, and Bilbo held tightly to his trust in the wizard, stamping down worry born of the view: nothing but open field and a handful of widely scattered evergreens for miles. Nowhere to hide; no safe haven. When the wargs were led across their path again, the Company ducked sideways, crouching behind a stoney mound; Bolg was stooped nearly in half, one huge hand braced against the ground while the other laid flat over Bilbo's chest, holding him back against the rock, with Bofur wedged behind the long line of his arm as well.
The growling above them turned Bilbo's blood to ice, sounding alarmingly nearby, and his fears were confirmed as he watched Thorin nod to Kili, prompting the younger dwarf to nock an arrow with one of the gravest expressions Bilbo had ever seen gracing his face. Then Kili was darting out of cover, and the thud of arrow meeting flesh was all but drowned out by the snarling that followed— Bolg was pushing Bilbo back even as the warg and its rider tumbled down the rock, still violently alive.
It was a messy, noisy business, and Bilbo was hardly surprised when the orc's final snarl was echoed by more howling, growing rapidly and worryingly closer.
They'd been spotted, their diversion no longer enough, and Bilbo ignored every stitch in his side and sting in his lungs as he dashed along beside the others; their pursuers were snapping at their heels now, nearly literally. It was a desperate sprint to nowhere without any hope of hiding, until far too soon they found themselves surrounded, with wargs creeping over the hills on all sides and Gandalf vanished like so much smoke on the wind.
They formed as much of a defensive ring as they were able, and Bilbo drew his sword with nary a tremble in his hand— now, of all moments, he could not afford to let himself falter. He might be more likely to skewer himself than do any helpful damage, but he couldn't stand idle. He could not. Bolg was a familiar blur of white and blue out of the corner of his eye, but he didn't dare take his eyes off the advancing wargs to glance over at his son.
Until, of course, he heard such a ferocious roar, nearly unrecognizable in its rage. Then, foolish or no, Bilbo looked to Bolg, and found the lad standing between Ori and one of the orc riders, axe in hand and lips curled back from his teeth in another wordless, ear-splitting bellow.
Incredibly enough, the warg actually seemed startled by the display— it paused its advance, nearly cringing away even as its fangs gnashed threateningly. The orc faired only slightly better, staring slack-jawed for one frozen moment before returning the roar, a hissing sort of snarl, and hollering some orcish words at the rest of his pack.
"Bolg, get back!" Bilbo shouted, as the orcs drew rapidly closer, penning them in and chittering harshly amongst themselves. Their attention had shifted too much to Bolg, and the idiotic, pigheaded boy was not backing down one single step from his aggressive stance.
"Hold your ground," Thorin countered, bringing his own sword up. "All of you, hold your ground!"
"This way, you fools!"
Bilbo had never been happier to hear that dratted wizard calling him a fool.
It was a passage hidden between the rocks, steep and dark, but unless there was certain and excruciating death waiting at the bottom, it was at least better than the alternative. Bilbo lingered just long enough to watch Bolg break his mad stand-off and start to follow, hauled along by Ori's grip on his coat; regardless, the choice to tarry any further was taken from Bilbo by Thorin shoving him toward the hole, pushing hard enough to send him skittering over the edge, feet first.
The drop wasn't too punishing, though Bilbo managed to scrape his palms and bruise his behind on the way, and then he was scrambling to gain his feet and squinting up at the bright opening as the others continued to slide down into their sanctuary. Thorin was a dark shape against the glare, weapons held ready, while Gandalf counted them off.
When Ori came tumbling down, nearly knocking Dori off his feet, there was no great hulking body sliding after him— there was another roar from above, a scuffle of weapons and wargs, and Thorin shouting for Kili.
"Go!" Thorin shouted. "All of you!" Fili's blonde head caught the last flash of sunlight before he leapt over the edge, followed by his brother and a massive form that could only be Bolg.
Bombur and Dwalin had the presence of mind to make way as Bolg skidded down the incline, coming to rest with a heavy thud and a grunt. His axe was still clutched in one hand, and there was dark wetness slicked over its edge.
Thorin came last, and the dust had barely settled from his landing when the sounds of horns rang out above, and the din of battle and hoofbeats followed. The body of an orc toppled down among them just as the noise was fading, and Thorin pulled the arrow from its neck, his face twisting in distaste from more than the gruesome task.
"Elves," he said, in nearly the same disgusted tone of voice Bilbo reserved for finding weevils in the flour.
There was only one path, apart from attempting to clamber back up the way they came, and the dwarves headed down the narrow cranny with minimal discussion. Bilbo had a thousand questions, many of them for Gandalf, but he settled for stretching up and grabbing Bolg by one dusty lapel, yanking the lad down to bend at the waist as they fell in line with the dwarves.
When his son's face was reasonably close, Bilbo shook his grip, keeping his voice quiet despite the rolling fire in his gut. "What in the world were you thinking?"
"It would have killed him, Papa." Bolg didn't cow, didn't even duck his head, and Bilbo shook him again. "The warg, it would've— I will not let that happen. To any of us."
"Idiot boy." Bilbo regretted the words almost instantly, biting his lip, but there was no swallowing them back. He was also forced to release his grip, as Bolg shimmied through a particularly tight spot in the path; once on the other side, the lad stood straight, facing ahead, and Bilbo knew for certain that he wouldn't let himself be bent down again.
"Bolg, wait." Slipping through easily, Bilbo reached up and caught his son's hand instead, taking hold of two thick fingers. There wasn't enough room to walk side-by-side, but Bolg allowed his arm to be drawn out behind him, not looking back. "You managed to scare me half to death. What you did was brave, my boy, you know that, but please, just... be careful. Spare your poor father's heart, and be careful."
Bolg didn't deign to answer, not with words at least, but Bilbo was faintly relieved to feel the press of a thumb against his hand.
AN: Next update, Bolg meets the elves. You can't see, but I may be rubbing my hands together with a sort of wicked glee.
And if you haven't seen it yet, have a look at the gorgeous cover for this story, done by hobbitdragon. You can find it on either of our tumblrs (pibroch and hobbitdragon), or here, as the cover image of the story.
Thank you for reading, and for your lovely comments so far!