A/N: Before reading this chapter, I will warn those of you who don't like violence that there is a lot of it here, and there will be pretty graphic descriptions of abuse and torture mentioned in this part.
For those of you who do read on, you will finally see our first resolution, but the story is only about half done at this point in time, so you still have plenty to look forward to!
"Now," came the slow, triumphant order, "turn around and drop your weapon."
Cursing his stupidity, Bilbo squeezed his eyes shut in aggravation. The tip of the sword dug deeper into his back, tearing the fine cloth of his jacket, making him jump.
"Now!" came the harsh order.
Very slowly, wishing that he hadn't been so careless, he unclasped the belt of his scabbard and carefully let it drop, where it landed on the floor of the cave with a clatter. The absence of his belt was a terrible feeling, but he could do nothing about it. Following that, he slowly turned on his heel until he was facing the ruffian, and had to look far up before he met the gaze of the one in front of him.
It was the blonde-haired Man he had seen outside the cave those two days ago. The scraggly blonde hair was colored a brown in the dark, but his eyes were glinting maliciously. His hand, Bilbo noticed, was bandaged.
"So you're the ratling's uncle," he said softly, calculating. "Bilbo Baggins, isn't it?" His smile was nasty. "We warned you off, didn't we? Said you'd be making a big mistake if you followed us. But I suppose you brought help. Your buddies are taking care of the others, I take it." He raised his blade up to Bilbo's face. "Walk." And again, Bilbo had no choice but to obey, slowly backing up farther into the cave. His heart was beating frantically and only worsened as he realized that he was getting closer to where Frodo was lying.
The ruffian seemed to sense the drift of his thoughts, because his gaze swiftly looked in the same direction. "Still alive, ratling?" he called. "You know how displeased I'll be if you aren't."
Bilbo risked a split second glance over his shoulder, desperate to spot any sign of his nephew's response—and was awarded for his trouble; not in words, for Frodo did not speak, but his feet, still visible from behind the barrels, moved from sight.
The Man jabbed him in the chest with his sword. "None of that, now," he growled. "You'll see plenty of him soon enough—rather more of him than you ever wanted to see."
All the while Bilbo had been backing up, and finally he drew level with where his nephew was, and he was able to see. The sight before him made his heart stop.
Frodo lay half on his stomach and half on his side, awkwardly bracing himself with one elbow and a hand. He was pale and his face drawn, and his expressive eyes were terrified as he spotted the Man standing in sight. With a mix of horror and fury, Bilbo saw why he was lying in such a position—his nephew's back was a torn up mess, clearly the victim of a whipping, and a rather harsh one at that. He was certainly injured more than that, but Bilbo found he didn't quite have the nerve to look more closely, and instead looked up at the ruffian with a surprisingly cold, almost murderous glare that would have normally stopped anyone in their tracks.
The Man, however, was either made of sterner stuff than most or he was just incredibly stupid, because he merely smirked and the tip of the sword dug even deeper into his chest. "You just had to follow us, didn't you, rat," he said softly. "Just had to ignore my warnings. You have only yourself to blame for what will happen now to your kin."
Bilbo really wanted Sting back; he really wanted to stab the ruffian in the foot and watch him howl and hop around. But what was real was utterly different from what he wished, and he could only hope that Thorin and the others would come in time to recover his blunder. How could he be so stupid?
The Man's eyes had drifted past him again, and the darkness of his smirk deepened, promising pain. "I wasn't exaggerating, either, when I said that you would be seeing more of him than you wanted—because I'll split him open along the length of his stomach, and you'll witness him scrabbling for a breath through torn lungs before I do the same to you."
Perhaps it was this last sentence, this latest threat to his lad's life, that broke something inside Bilbo; or perhaps his desperation simply became too much to bear. Whatever the reason, he was moving before he even realized he had—not towards the Man, but tearing himself away from the point of that wicked-looking blade and leaping to his nephew's side.
The Man was prepared for that, however, and as Bilbo moved his foot snaked out and knocked the hobbit's legs out from under him, dumping Bilbo flat on his back with no air in his lungs.
The sword glinted in the flickering lantern light as it descended as fast as a striking snake—straight towards Bilbo's upturned face.
Thorin had had an ominous feeling shuddering down his spine since he and Dawlin had taken down the last ruffian, but he couldn't place why. Turning to Bofur, who was hastily cleaning blood from the blades of his dagger, he did a head-count of the bodies. One—two—three…. Why was he feeling like he was missing something? Then he remembered Bilbo's earlier words.
"There's a Man asleep near the entrance, and another sleeping near the middle. Then there's two others awake in the very back around a corner."
"Damn it!" he snarled, realizing his mistake. There were four ruffians, not just these three! The last one must have stayed in the cave, which meant—"Come on!" he exclaimed, and his voice was suddenly rough with fear. "Bilbo's in trouble!" He knew that the hobbit was wily, but a hobbit against a fully-grown Man was like a pony facing off against a warg. In record time, minding his feet only little, he led the others down the broken path and as quietly as he could he rushed into the entrance of the cave, his cavern-bred eyes making it easy for him to see in the near-darkness. The sight that greeted him made him gasp.
Bilbo was flat on his back on the floor, Sting lying uselessly on the ground several feet away; and the Man towering above him was swinging his sword down right at the hobbit, intent on the kill. Thorin knew that any attempt he and the others would try to make would come too late, but even so he reached for the hilt of his sword again—
And stopped in shock, because even as he watched the sword fly towards its mark, Bilbo's right hand reached out, palm-out, and deflected the broad side of the blade to the left—a maneuver that the Dwarves had taught him. The hobbit did not escape unscathed, however; even though he was able to hit the blade with his wrist, the sharp edge of it managed to slice his palm as it was jerked to the side. But the hobbit kept on going, ignoring the pain it must have generated, and one of his large, furry feet kicked out and ruthlessly punched the ruffian in the groin, which was the highest point he could reach.
The Man fell back with a howl of pain, and Thorin winced with what in any other situation would have been sympathy; now, however, he only drew his sword as the ruffian stumbled back, one hand clutching the front of his pants, but his expression was frankly murderous now.
"Little bastard!" he screamed. "I'll peel the skin from your bones-!"
But then his scream ended mid-word, and his eyes widened with a new pain, his expression registering shock.
For a long moment that seemed to last an eternity, the scraggly-haired Man seemed to teeter on his feet, a look of agonized surprise on his face before, with a harsh gasp, he toppled forward, falling limply on his face with one of Bofur's daggers sticking out of his back.
Thorin and his companions wasted no time. In less than an instant they were all rushing forward and climbing over the Man's lifeless body. Bofur none-too-gently ripped his weapon from the broad back and spat on looking down spat on it, his dark eyes smoldering with hate.
The first thing that hit Thorin about the cave was the smell. It smelled of stale sweat, soured blood, and positively reeked of fear. Then he turned the bend of the cave, where Bilbo ad crawled after the Man had fallen, and the sight that greeted him made him start dead in his tracks.
Bilbo was kneeling on the cold unforgiving floor, his voice soft but breaking as his fingers stroked the dark hair of the hobbit he held in his arms. Thorin swallowed; it was clear they had finally found Bilbo's missing nephew, and it was also dreadfully clear that he had been ill-used by the ruffians while in their captivity. The young hobbit's back was a ripped up mess of tattered skin and caked blood, and his stomach was lined with the raised whelps of a whip. That wasn't the end of the terrible remnants of such violence, but Thorin did not care to see the rest at the moment. The small, slight body trembled and shuddered, both with fright and with cold; but there was no sound of tears or even breathing from the Shireling. The sight of such wanton torture made Thorin furious, and he knew that even if he had kept the Men alive they would not have remained so much longer.
"It's alright, darling," Bilbo was whispering automatically, his soft vice loud in the utter silence of the cave. "I'm here, right here, you're safe—"
Thorin stepped closer, and saw the young hobbit flinch in Bilbo's arms, stopping mid-movement and suddenly stock-still where he lay. Thorin had seen such things happen with captives frequently threatened and beaten: fear completely overrode thought and the body froze in hopes of avoiding punishment.
Bilbo looked up at him and the naked terror in his expression was heart-breaking. He clearly had no idea what to do in a situation like this, but it to Thorin's surprise he found it warmed his heart to realize that the older Baggins could still look to him to know what to do.
He turned to Nori and Bofur and Dwalin. "Put your weapons down and slide your bulkiest armor off," he ordered them quietly. He himself backed away from the two hobbits and did the same. When he was done with that, and feeling oddly bare, he walked back over, very carefully, to Bilbo's side.
Bilbo's nephew had gone still by the time all the Dwarves were shed of their more disturbing articles of clothing, but he still occasionally trembled. When hearing Thorin's footsteps, the dark head swung towards him and the Dwarf-king finally met the mysterious Frodo Baggins face-to-face.
The first thing he noticed were the wide, frightened eyes that locked with his, eyes that he saw even in the dim light were a brilliant cobalt blue; the second was the ugly purple and black smudge that marred the skin of his left eye. His skin seemed to be white, naturally so, but the color did nothing to hide the awful discoloration of bruises and scrapes scattered on his torso and limbs. In looks, he looked similar to Bilbo in the set of his mouth and chin, but his features were finer than his uncle's, the nose thinner and straighter, the jaw more delicate. And on all of these were the same signs of abuse; worst of all there was a half-healed wound running jagged below his left eye, painful-looking and red as it slowly closed. Thorin thought he would always bear a scar from it.
It made him almost sick to his stomach to be witness to such violence. After all, who could possibly want to hurt such an innocent? Looking back at his companions, he saw the same fury and sadness reflected in their expressions and realized then that they had all somehow decided that they would guard this Shireling with their lives.
Bilbo's fingers were still gently combing his nephew's curls. "Frodo," he said softly, his vice still choked with tears. "You're safe now, you're with friends. These Dwarves are my friends, they helped me find you. They won't hurt you."
No, Thorin thought to himself, we wouldn't hurt you, but a hobbit could damn well break your heart.