Nature & Nurture

BY : Cody_Thomas
Category: +Third Age > Slash - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 803
Disclaimer: I do not own anything from the Tolkien universe, this is written purely for fun and I make no money off of this work.

Chapter Summary: Bilbo sets out in hopes that he can find his friend, but the path he ends up taking does not lead him anywhere he would ever want to go.

Notes: The first chapter was almost absolute fluff, with a hint of angst, from here on out, the reverse is true. It is mostly angst and pain, with just a few little bright spots hither and yon until our happy ending.

Chapter Warnings: Angst, Torture, Mind Control, Enslavement, Graphic Depictions of Death, Orcs eating people.




For six months while Bilbo recovered most of his strength, he kept the fire burning in Adroushan, burning herbs of protection and praying to anyone who might be listening to please protect his dearest friend and let him come home. The entire experience had changed him, he was no longer the hobbit that he once was. He was quiet, subdued, and not nearly as quick to laugh. The adventuresome streak that he had enjoyed with Ember, flying over the Shire, and looking towards the far off mountains in the north that they had wanted to explore together someday, those days were over. He stuck quite close to home now, rarely even venturing outside of Hobbiton to go visiting. And where he had once accepted every single party invitation and excuse to dance and sing and feast, he rarely attended anything anymore, or if he did, he didn't much participate.

Only the children could eventually coax him to smile and to tell them stories about Ember and the adventures they'd had together. But his ever bright laughter was gone, and the spark in his eyes was all but subdued and burned out as more and more time passed and his friend never returned.

He buried himself in his work, making fine jewelry for travelers and brides to be, and trinkets for young lads to give to their sweethearts. Even though he was now of age for it, Bilbo had no desire to court, in fact he had very little desire to do anything, and since he was one of the wealthiest hobbits in the Shire, he didn't have to do anything if he didn't wish to.

He also took up a couple of new hobbies; writing, reading, and cartography, he became quite the dedicated scholar. That winter, he let the fire die, and he locked up Adroushan. He came back weekly to dust, and would polish anything that needed more shine to it. He strengthened himself as best he could and made preparations with his family, even wrote up a living will. Spring was barely beginning to show, the snow still thick on the ground, when Bilbo wrapped himself up, hitched up his newly purchased cart and pony, and set off, determined to find Ember and free him. He went to Bree, made a beeline for the bookshop, and purchased the best maps he could find. But he truly had no idea where to start looking. So he made a list of possible places. He would search the entire world if he had to, he was going to find his dragon. He bought books on history and legend, anything that might have mention of a dragon in it, and most of them had several tales that dragons came down from the north. So, north he would go.

With a Ranger named Longshanks that he hired to be his guide and not ask too many questions about what exactly he was doing, he chased rumors of dragons up to Fornost, then when he found nothing but ruins and a decent short sword, they traveled a bit East where Longshanks' people were, and though Longshanks was called away on urgent business soon after, Bilbo planned on going even further North. But the Rangers pointed out to him that going on alone with no idea of how to protect himself was a recipe for disaster. They offered to teach him how to fight, and he accepted their offer. He ended up staying with them, learning his way around axe and sword and bow, just in case. They also taught him hand to hand combat, wilderness survival, then throwing knives once they realized how good he was with a slingshot, which he used with great accuracy when hunting small game. It was a classic Bounder weapon, and a very proper hobbitish skill to practice, so his mother's family had taught him well in its use long ago.

Also, just like his mother, he had became quite skilled at wielding a good cast iron frying pan. She'd liked wielding two, and did so with deadly accuracy. He was working on that, but for the moment a sturdy cast iron pan in one hand and a blade or sling or flail to hand in the other, and he was a rather formidable force, especially for someone the big folk tended to underestimate.

Bilbo often joined the patrol parties which ventured North, sometimes even breaking off from the main group and going off on his own for weeks once he had gotten used to it. They had truly taught him well, and he felt confident he could mostly handle himself. His true strength was stealth, he could sneak up on the best of them, hide in the smallest spaces, rabbit away as quick as mist. The only thing he couldn’t hide from, as he learned to his detriment, were Wargs. Their noses could sniff out anything, no matter where it was hidden, and while he had only met the two, and eventually taken them both down through sheer luck, it had been a terrifyingly close situation to begin with. The first one he had stabbed his short sword in at just the right angle to slice its throat. The second one had gotten their own bit of flesh off of him before he had been able to retaliate against it, and had left a nasty bite on his arm before he managed to stab it right through the eye.

He made it back to the main group and healed up just fine, though setting it in the fire for a bit helped it go much faster and kept it clean. He spent the next several months learning every trick on how to kill them, even adding a spear to his knowledge of weapons, because it was hard for almost anyone to duck low enough to take it away from him without getting run through for their troubles.

When he realized he had been gone for nearly two years he figured that if there were dragons in the north, they were further away than current civilization had mapped out, which meant a distinct lack of supply lines, which meant no people. You needed people if you were going to hoard a huge amount of treasure in one specific place. He decided to return to Bree, intending to perhaps do some business and trade, check his accounts, maybe even make sure all was well back home and visit with some relations. It was quite strange to go two years without seeing any relations.

But when he got to Bree he once more ran into Longshanks who was travelling East, going so far as the foothills of the Misties, to Rivendell, and asked if Bilbo was also travelling in the same direction this time, and would he like some company if so. Bilbo ended up hurrying through his business and going along with the Ranger, since Rivendell was on his list of places which might contain information.

Lord Elrond was an extremely gracious host, and Bilbo got along famously with him. But it was the man’s children who all but adopted him into the family. Elladan and Elrohir were quite lighthearted and mischievous, and Arwen, well she was so very quick and fierce, clever, and yet still tender hearted. They called Longshanks ‘Estel’, and Bilbo discovered that he was all but an adopted son to Lord Elrond himself. Bilbo adored the family. The twins and Estel happily kept him sharp on his fighting skills, he and Arwen often went riding together, she tutored him on learning the elvish languages, and traded crochet, knitting, and weaving patterns with him, and shared his love of making jewelry. They spent many an evening chatting and spinning together, while he and Lord Elrond could continue lengthy discussions full of deep philosophy and wisdom for at least an age of the earth, as well as teaching him several of the elvish ways of crafting metals. Thanks to those lessons he even made himself some light scale mail and hard leather armor that was overlapped and hinged to be very flexible, which also wouldn’t weigh him down and still let him move easily with it on.

A good amount of his time was spent searching through their library, on a quest for anything to try and find out what The Pull was, how to defeat it, and where it could have taken Ember.

Unfortunately, any rumors that were being spoken tended to be in elvish and out of his hearing range. The first caused him no issue, but the second very much did. However Bilbo had also long ago become very good at learning how to feign ignorance of what was being said around him. Elves were far more observant than hobbits, and were sure to notice should he suddenly appear completely fluent in their language when he had never studied it. So he did. Just because he could understand what was written and being said didn't mean he could write it or speak it himself. While the speaking came rather easily to him, the writing style took quite a bit of practice, what with so many dialects, and his instant translation skills making everything appear to be in Westron to him if he wasn’t careful about concentrating. It went much faster with Lady Arwen's gentle and patient tutelage. She declared him quite gifted with language, she had never seen a non-elf pick up the elven tongues so quickly. He told her anything could be learned that one put one’s mind to doing, perhaps he was merely more stubborn than most. That had made her laugh quite pleasantly.

But no matter how long and hard he searched, or how much he learned, there was no mention of that type of magic ever being used before. There were barely even stories about dragons except in long ago times. Perhaps he could have found out more if he had asked directly, but he would then have no answer when asked what he wanted such knowledge for. Lord Elrond was the curious sort and liked to know that sort of thing, especially when researching something as potentially dangerous as dragons. Bilbo might also be a collector of stories, but Lord Elrond was also extremely good at knowing when people were lying to him, so it was best to avoid doing so.

Ember may have been the Shire's dragon, but Bilbo knew that the rest of the world did not view dragons, or at least one dragon, in the same way that the hobbits did. Many tales told of hunting dragons like it was seen as some noble prize to find and slay a dragon in its nest, crush its eggs, and claim its hoard for your own, those stories made him sick.

When he read about the ancient wars he felt nothing but pity for their race. To first be formed from evil and greed, then used in a war not your own, compelled to fight for someone who didn't value your life, while your children were stolen from you and forced to fight as well, all the while being loathed and despised by your given enemy. Then when the war was finally over, to become prey for greedy and fearful humans, to be hunted, feared, hated, murdered, without even being able to speak against it because dragons hadn't yet learned to speak yet on their own, to not have a friend in the world... Bilbo's heart ached, and the very idea of it all horrified him to the bone. Who wouldn’t have become vicious and as violent and dangerous as possible?

But Ember had proven that vicious violence was not their default personality. They were kind, and loving beyond measure if they were given love and trust in the first place. They could be noble and selfless with those they trusted and cared for, and brave and protective defending their home and their family. Yes they were greedy, but no one was perfect, and it was something that could be directed and managed into positive directions. Dragons were not always the monsters the world and the Darkness wanted them to be. But Bilbo knew he would have a very hard time convincing anyone who had not known Ember all the dragon’s life, like the Shire had, that a dragon could be the best and most loyally true friend anyone could ever ask for if the dragon decided that you were worthy of his friendship.

All the research he did on how cruelly dragons tended to be treated, it reminded him very strongly of when he had found Ember's egg, the trail of drying blood, the somehow knowing that something had gone very wrong, that this wasn't right. Bilbo felt a pang of sorrow as he realized with sadness, that it wasn't just siblings Ember had been robbed of, it was his parents as well. He might not have even lived if Bilbo hadn’t found his egg, and that caused Bilbo’s stomach to churn in dread at even the thought. What would have become of the Shire during the Fell Winter, or himself after his parents died? Would he even have had a best friend at all? It certainly wouldn’t have been as special of a friendship or as tangible a bond as the one he had with Ember.

He didn't know who had done such a terrible thing to Ember’s mother, whether it was elf or man, perhaps orc or goblin, though it was unlikely, with how far into the Shire it had been. He still didn't know why no one had ever seen it, or why no one had ever found a dragon corpse. But with how recently he knew that hatred had been alive in the world, he couldn't risk telling anyone about it, he couldn't trust anyone outside the Shire to know about Ember, but there was only so much he could even ask or look up with his few clues being 'powerful magic' 'East from the Shire', and 'gold'. Nearly everything was East of the Shire, and it didn't have to be due East, it could be far to the Northeast or Southeast just as easily.

Lord Elrond had inquired how Bilbo had been injured, not the warg bite, that one was obvious to him, but he was unfamiliar with the claw marks on Bilbo’s face and neck. He also asked if he'd like to have the elvish healers tend him. Bilbo had accepted for his arms, but left his face alone. It was a reminder of what he was doing so far from home. He told the Elf lord it had been an injured beast, strong and fierce, and that he had mistakenly gotten too close to try and help it when it was out of its mind with pain and fear, and if it hadn't been for a dear friend, he likely wouldn't have made it through alive.

Lord Elrond had simply smiled and placed a hand gently on his shoulder and said “It's good to want to help others, even if they don't fully understand, or even appreciate your help. Just be careful my friend, and remember that cleverness can sometimes be more help than direct action, but can also be twice as dangerous, especially if you are trying to hide it. On the paths I see for you, nearly all of them will at some point, or many points, lead you to a great and dangerous treasure, one riddled and diseased with the strongest dragon sickness I have ever known, and I fear that as happened once before, you will be gravely injured by those you only ever meant to help.”

“Why would I be seeking a great treasure?” Bilbo had asked, barely keeping the fear from his voice, or the hope from his heart, because treasure was one of his only clues. Had he been searching the library for the wrong thing? Instead of trying to figure out what the magic was, where it could be sourced, and how to defeat it, should he be looking for the location of the vast treasure instead? After all, if he found the great treasure, chances were he'd find Ember, and then maybe, the rest might just fall into place?

“When seeking dwarven kingdoms, great treasures are unavoidable to find, for dwarves hoard and covet wealth greatly, and often fall prey to the lure of gold. Gold can be very treacherous Bilbo, especially to dwarves, so pray, take care and caution when dealing with both.”

Bilbo was many things, but a fool was not one of them. He could take a hint when he heard one, and threw himself into researching dwarves and their kingdoms, though truthfully there wasn't much to find, so he would just have to look elsewhere.

The twins took him hunting a few weeks later, in the early winter, before the first snowfall, and that was when he realized that quite by accident, he had stayed in Rivendell for nearly two years, even though the time had nearly flown by for him. That spring, he decided to visit his home for a time, having not seen it in over four years now, though he'd made sure to stay in constant contact with the Shire, so his relations would have no cause to worry about him and his continued breathing. Many were very relieved that his adventures had lead him into a library of all places, and not into the more dangerous things which usually happened on adventures. He had prudently left out all mentions of both being trained by rangers, as well as the incident with the wargs.

The twins were kind enough to ride all the way back with him, seeing as they had a friend they wished to visit in the Grey Havens, and promised to visit on their way back through from there to Rivendell. They were very tall to try and accommodate in a typical Hobbit hole, but his father’s instructions to raise Bag End to Man sized height back when they still tried getting Ember through the front door for awhile, had a chance to pay off. The boys had no trouble at all staying overnight with him, and leaving for the Grey Havens after first breakfast in the morning.

When Bilbo saw all of his neighbors, he realized that he was definitely not the same hobbit he once was. They looked so carefree and unaware of the dangers which lurked just beyond the borders of the Shire. He wasn’t as soft as he had started out either, and had even more questions that he didn't have answers to. He didn't even set foot in back in Bag End after his guests left, instead he spent a week curled up in Adroushan, the fire pit burning brightly, warm and comforting as ever, and wondering where to go next.

For the first time he felt the tug of the treasures inside, because he had been away from them for so long. It brought tears to his eyes, that lingering feeling of Ember's care and love, his magic humming through his body and heart. 'Heart of the Hoard' the magic whispered, glad to have him back, glad to feel whole again, waiting and longing for their dragon to return, for they were so treasured, so beloved by him. But it also made Bilbo’s loneliness greater since his dragon was not there, and until he found him, he couldn't EVER be there.

Bilbo stayed in the Shire that summer, visiting relations and assuring people he hadn't been doing anything dangerous, merely looking for information, and spending most of his time around books. He decided to remain until spring before setting off again, after all it had been ages since he'd been home. He made plans to have a birthday party come September.

Ember's birthday was before his, in mid August, when the Summer was still heavy with ripe fruits and vegetables, and the grain was nearly ready for it's final harvest before winter. It was early July now, and the whole of Hobbiton was alive with the business of the harvest, and like everyone else, Bilbo spent days wandering into different fields, a pair of baskets at his side, a small sickle in his hands as he picked all the produce he would need for winter. One's personal garden was for yourself and family alone, to plant favorites or what you were best at. The large fields were for everyone who contributed to them during the year, either financially, with provisions, or with work. Come harvest time you could come and pick as much as you wanted to bolster your own stores with, to insure you had extra. No one ever wanted a repeat of the fell winter when food had run dangerously low.

Bilbo had still paid his dues to the fields even though he wasn't there using them, and had also pledged to donate his cart and pony to the field harvesters as soon as they would need him. He loaded up his pantry with summer squash and tomatoes, beans, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, grapes, and berries so ripe and full of juice they all but burst in flavor the moment they touched his tongue. The orchards were swollen, branches near touching the ground they were so laden and burdened with fruit and nuts. In the summer it was peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries. In the early autumn it was oranges, nuts, and the promise of apples in another few weeks. The process of peeling, shelling, roasting, drying, salting, canning, preserving, pickling, making jams and jellies, it was all a wonderfully rote and familiar thing, his pantry steadily filling with the things which would get him through the winter, several types of seeds set aside carefully for next year, donated back to the fields, some could be used in his own garden by the Gamgees come spring.

The day before Ember's birthday, Bilbo noticed the commotion, and realized he had missed something new start in the slow to change Shire while he had been away.

He placed flowers at the door to Adroushan, same as he did every morning, but today was when he noticed that other hobbits had started to do the same. He had been surprised that the Gamgees had maintained the flower garden atop Adroushan while he'd been gone, and it had only grown more spectacular in his absence, planting gorgeous red peonies, and white or blue periwinkles that were planted in swirls like smoke rising from them. Together they represented devoted friendship and fond memories. On either side of Ember's door, were planters with daisies, for innocence.

Ember was well loved in the shire, and everyone missed him, and the bright and cheerful hobbit that had once accompanied him. Hobbiton hadn't even begun to forget Ember, in fact they celebrated him. Ember's birthday had become a new annual celebration in the Shire called 'Guardian Day' or 'Ember's Day', depending on who you asked.

Hobbits came from all over the Shire, and would place flowers at the door to Ember's smial, or make him a shiny that he would have treasured and added to his hoard. There were crafting competitions to see who could make the best one, and the winning item was given the title of 'Ember's Newest Favorite Shiny Thing.' which had been something that changed weekly if not daily when Ember was among them, and then placed inside his Smial. The rest they decorated the outside of his smial with.

For the past few years the winner had been decided by committee, but this year everyone had decided that Bilbo was to be the judge, since he was there, because everyone felt he was the best qualified to know.

There was a huge bonfire, surrounded by smaller bonfires on the hills, in remembrance of how Ember had protected the Shire with his flames. The farmers brought big bundles of chafe with them to toss in, so that sparks would fill the air. Floating red paper lanterns had apparently been tried the first year, but were quickly dismissed because of the mess they caused and the fact that one of them caught a bit of forest on fire, and another had burned one of Farmer Maggot's hay barns to the ground. But solid red lanterns were always set on the tables, and red and gold decorations were the standard for this particular celebration.

There were treasure hunts through farmer's field that had been fashioned after the way Ember had used to help the farmers, hay mazes, and dances that were to tunes they had written about Ember. There was 'The Friendly Guardian', 'Crimson and Gold', 'Safe Under Wing', 'The Fire In The Ice', 'The Hobbit's New Friend', 'The Unlikely Mousecatcher', 'The Cat That Really Wasn't', 'Magpies Of All Sizes', 'Bigger Than a Horse', 'The Farmers' Best Furnace' and finally, 'All Sorts Of Shinies'.

There was even some songs mostly about Bilbo, like 'Tookish Flamerider' 'The Faunt and His Mount', 'The Richest In Friends', 'The Dragon's Tail-e-or', and 'A Dragon's Sort of Lad'. Bilbo realized he had a lot of new songs to learn and set about to writing them down and learning their tunes, they would doubtless keep him company on his travels.

But the best way the hobbits remembered their absent friend was through what all hobbits were good at, celebration, food, drink, and pipeweed. There were cakes in the shapes of dragons or flames, foods were mostly red, orange, or yellow in color, and anything smoked and/or spicy in nature had become a must.

Eventually special things had became a tradition, or were dubbed traditional even if they had only been done once before, because every tradition has to start somewhere, right? Corinthia Hornblower developed a spicy cheese bread filled with smoked meats that were baked over coals. She called them Ember Rolls, which became the first item to be dubbed a traditional holiday item and were a favorite every year. Other things were quick to follow suit. Smoked rabbit, and smoked pork, two of Ember's favorite meats, Squash soup, sliced tomatoes topped with pepperjack cheese and diced yellow peppers, spaghetti squash 'noodles' with red peppers and chiles, stuffed tomatoes and yellow peppers, apricot tarts, peach pie, lemon curd, carrot cake, spice cake, watermelon, cornbread, golden honey, lemonade, corn on the cob, candy apples, red and gold apple salad, the list went on and on, Every hobbit still trying to outdo every other hobbit. Every year there were dozens of new dishes, and every year the festival grew, and the day had spread to the other villages and towns in The Shire until it became one of the biggest annual events. Especially once the brewers had gotten involved.

The Brimblebowers brewed a series of special beers in Ember's honor. A dark stout that actually tasted smoky that they named 'Ember's Brew', a sweet golden lager called 'The Golden Shiny', and a strong spicy red ale called 'Dragon's Fire'. The Gamgees, not to be outdone, brewed up one heck of a sweet and potent drink that they called 'The Dragon's Courage' because it's what you needed to attempt drinking more than one cupful of the stuff, no matter how good it tasted. Other brewers came up with their own drinks, everything from heavily spiced meads and wines, to ciders, but the most popular one that could be enjoyed by every age, was a vibrant red fruit punch called 'Ember's Spark' that the Proudfoot clan had come up with, with a base of pureed watermelon, fresh mint, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, and slices of lemon.

A few pipeweed blends were made as well, all of them smoky, strong, and rich, and in some way honoring their missing companion and his memory. The Shire had loved their dragon, they missed him greatly, and made sure that even if he never returned, he would never be forgotten.

Bilbo had a grand time, and the party really did lift his spirits significantly. His own birthday a month later wasn't nearly as grand of an affair, but just as much fun, since the twins made their way back just in time for it and stayed a week visiting with him.

The winter was mild, and Bilbo spent most of it preparing for the spring, and once the mud was dry enough, he locked up the smials, turned the keys back over to Hamfast, and set out again, picking up two new Rangers in Bree, one named Holber and the other Filas. He wasn’t well acquainted with either of them, but he had met Holber before, who was of a pleasant if stoic disposition, and willing to travel just about anywhere as long as needed. Filas was a younger ranger, tailing Holber and learning what he needed to know. This time they started out heading south and east down the Green Way.

Bilbo had debated his course over the winter and planned on travelling the Green Way to the North-South Road, and taking it south to Isengard in hopes of learning more information about magic. Then resupplying, before starting his search in the southern Misties, and working his way along them, going north, to Moria, then over towards Lorien, before heading North again along the mountains in search of other dwarven settlements. When he reached the Old Ford Road near the middle parts of Mirkwood he would break away from the mountains and head through the forest, then up to the Iron Hills, the most eastern dwarven settlement the Elves knew of, then up to the Withered Heath which supposedly was close to Erebor, he could check out Erebor from there, then go back along the ridge of the Grey Mountains, all the way to the far Northern point of Carn Dum, then south again along the mountains until he reached the Great East Road, which he could take straight home again after resting in Rivendell.

The whole trip would take him over three years if he had to complete the whole thing, but when he found his dragon and freed him, he just wanted to go home from there. Dwarves could be anywhere there were mountains, so that was where he would start looking. They journeyed south, Holber more than capable of keeping them out of trouble, and obviously well versed in what he was doing, and pleased that he didn’t have to watch over someone with no idea of how to survive in the wilds. Filas was young, but smart and very quick to pick things up. Bilbo was a tad rusty on his camping skills, but he had them down pat again by the fifth day on the road.

The adventure stories never talk about how dreary and slow any form of cross country travel is when there are horses along. Nearly the entire time is boring and monotonous, the many hours on horseback, followed by the many hours of walking to relieve the aches in your legs from the hours on horseback, only to undo it all when you get back on the horse the next time. There were multiple stops needed through the day, the constant need to have enough food and water for them, the days of doing no travel at all so the horses could rest properly and graze while you maintain tools or make repairs, not to mention losing at least a full day at any town in order to resupply and possibly see a farrier if needed. But having horses along also meant you could carry many more supplies, so you didn’t have to resupply for yourself as often, and also made camping far more comfortable, since you could pack tents and other bulky items that you wouldn’t be able to carry otherwise.

For Bilbo the easiest task for him was the making and breaking of camp, since he was very good at packing and organizing things, getting a fire going, setting up the tents, and starting a meal while the others fetched firewood, water, and fed and tended the horses. His least favorite chore were the watches at night, meaning that except for the rest days when they could nap whenever they liked, they never got the full night of sleep they needed.

They met another Ranger at Tharbad who accompanied them further, this one called Dungrim who had been selling his services here and in the lands of Rohan for several years now, as bodyguard, messenger, and courier alike, and from what Bilbo could gather, mostly alone. Bilbo kept his ears peeled for all news and gossip, since this Ranger was far less stoic and a lot more chatty than Holber, and quite willing to talk himself hoarse when plied with enough food, drink, and an obviously willing audience. And if there is one thing Hobbits can do well, it is provide good and welcoming company, and encourage conversations.

Filas loosened up a lot with Dungrim around, and Dungrim told them of a dwarvish battle that had just happened on the slopes of Moria a couple of months ago, and that some of the dwarves were still nearby, either moving south towards Rohan, or heading west, coming their way. Bilbo WANTED to talk to those dwarves, find out if they knew anything about dragons. So they altered course there at Tharbad, and headed East towards Moria.

For awhile now, ever since Lord Elrond's warning, he thought that perhaps Ember was in Moria. It was to the east of the Shire, there were tales of the vast riches the dwarves had produced there, was regarded as one of the wealthiest of the dwarven kingdoms, and he had heard a few mentions of some sort of beast of flame possessing magic there. It was a long shot, he knew, because Dwarf lands were always riddled with treasures, and there were and had always been several of them, and dragons were not the only beasts of flame. Ember could have gone to any of them, but there were no maps to be found. Dwarves were an extremely secretive and distant race, and there weren't even rumors about the dwarves, at least not ones that had been around long enough to be written down in even the most recent of elvish histories, which for elves had been about two hundred years earlier, and mostly regarding the lines of succession and significant battles.

So since they knew where Moria WAS, it was as good a place for Bilbo to start as any. The stories don't mention the aftermath of battle. They made it there about six months after the battle had happened, and the stench of death still hung heavy in places, the blood long dry on the stones but still everywhere. Apparently orcs don't bother burying their dead like the Dwarves obviously did, and with how many orc corpses were lying on the slopes of Moria, Bilbo could only wonder the count of how many dwarves may have died here as well. Scavengers and predators had picked most of the single bodies to bone, but where there were piles of bodies heaped atop each other, the air was still rank, putrid, and filled with flies.

Human scavengers had left this place well alone, there was orc and dwarven armor and weapons everywhere, and while the dwarven gift of metal and stone work was legendary, the orc gear was all obviously rough work built for quick slaughter and not any sort of form or style. But he couldn't imagine that it was poor quality steel and iron, else it would have shattered in battle or fell to ruinous rust. What he saw was largely whole, even while left out to the elements for six months. Surely it could be collected and reforged, recast, made into something not ugly or for the slaughter of good people. A little work, some cleansing fire, Bilbo could make so many beautiful things from the aftermath of this carnage, he could make it shine... Bilbo closed his eyes and smiled lightly as he realized the direction of his thoughts. A very dragonish thought, the first he'd had in what felt like ages.

Bilbo sent a messenger bird off to one of his suppliers in Rohan later that day requesting twenty carts and forty men to detour over to Moria and collect all of the armor and weapons from the battlefield and deliver it to the Shire and place it in storage for him, and to offer the letter to his grandfather for a very generous stipend for doing so on his behalf. He also sent a letter to the Gamgees letting them know to expect a large and unusual delivery in a few months time, and to please rent him out a large barn to keep it in until his return.

Otherwise, there was nothing in Moria for him. If Ember was here, or anywhere even remotely nearby, Bilbo would have been able to feel it, and there was no trace of his dragon or Ember’s magic here upon these lands. Bilbo could however feel the mithril below his feet, the rich shining veins of it snaking off in every direction, deep into the heart of the earth and for miles in every direction. The mines were far from spent here, so the dwarves had not left this place willingly. With less orcs and death around, Bilbo could see Ember would love this place, so much open sky above, and so much shining wealth below, but his dragon was not here, so it was time to move on.

They stayed relatively nearby for three days, lazily wandering down to a good pathway while Bilbo pretended to explore and sketch and write down a new story, but was in fact plotting out possible courses now. Did he want to continue south towards Isengard, hoping to find the survivors of this battle somewhere near the Gap of Rohan maybe? Or should they go on towards Lothlorien? He had found one old dwarven settlement, and there had even been mention of a long abandoned dwarven Kingdom called Belegost rather near the Shire, if somewhere to the west instead of the east, so the chances of Ember going there were not at all promising. The Iron Hills still sounded promising, having apparently been attacked by dragons often in the past, meaning there might be great wealth there still, enough to tempt Ember. Or maybe Erebor would be easier to find, it had been said to be a solitary peak beyond the Misties, and very near a large lake, which must be distinctive. There could be several more dwarven strongholds hidden along the Misties themselves, the mountains were vast and rich in ores. There had been mentions of all the great dwarven kingdoms in the books he had read, but not where any of them were. Which was most frustrating.

He had decided to travel to Lothlorien next, to perhaps find a way to ask the beings who had walked this world the longest where the dwarves had settled, but they never made it there. Moria was apparently still infested with orcs, even if they had abandoned the battlefield on the slopes. That night they swarmed up like locusts from the rocks and set upon their camp. Three Rangers and a Hobbit were no match for so many orcs. They hid as best they could but three of them were captured anyways. Filus was the only one they had managed to make sure got away, with a hissed order from Holbur to get help, before shoving him into the river before Bilbo, Holbur and Dungrim were taken and pulled into the deep dark pit of Moria.

Bilbo had thought they would be eaten or something straight away, but that would have been merciful, and as he quickly learned, orcs were not merciful creatures. In fact Bilbo doubted they were even capable of such a thing. They were shoved into a stinking, filthy, stone pit that was capped with a hinged, spiked grate to prevent escape, and an orc with a whip and an extremely long spear standing guard nearby. The large pit had crude stairs hewn into the rock on one side, and was mostly circular, but any other details were lost to darkness and the several other people crammed in there as well. There were about forty of them down there, around a dozen men, about two dozen dwarves, and then Bilbo, the only Hobbit, because Hobbits were a practical people, who don’t typically go leaving their comfortable homes so they could go off and get captured by orcs in the first place.

He stuck close to the Rangers who were huddled close together and discussing things in hushed voices and a different language. Just because Bilbo could understand the plans the two were making of the layout of the route they had taken down here, and possible escapes, it didn’t mean he felt comfortable joining the conversation.

It was hard to track time while underground, the lighting never changed, the activity of their guards rarely changed, seeing as the guard changed often, but never after a specific amount of time had passed. They had nothing to do, nothing to distract themselves. A pair of buckets was brought down to them once a day whenever their captors felt like it, filled with something that smelled absolutely revolting, and tasted worse, but when you were hungry enough, you’d eat just about anything, followed by two buckets of water. Just enough for everyone to have something to drink, nothing more. Their latrine was a hole in the floor that probably opened over a crevasse so their captors wouldn’t have to deal with it, though with how badly the orcs smelt, he couldn’t believe it would bother them.

At regular intervals someone would be dragged out of their prison by several heavily armed orcs and taken away. Either they didn’t go far, or the sound carried strongly, for the tortured screams and sobs were easy to hear. As time passed, several of those who were hauled away never returned. Bilbo learned what the sounds of murderous death sounded like, it haunted his nightmares, it stayed with him in his waking hours, until he could no longer tell if he was asleep or awake anymore. It didn’t matter, the scenery never changed, just the amount of people in the pit with him.

He did notice though that when the orcs would come for one of them, the dwarves had a tendency of removing most of their clothing, or at least their outermost layer before the orcs opened the grate. Bilbo figured it was so that it would be unspoiled if they returned, or could keep another warm if they did not.

Both of the Rangers ended up being hauled away once or twice and were returned later, beaten and bloody. Holber had even been viciously flogged and Bilbo fretted silently for days, worried that it would get infected in their horrible conditions. Somehow Bilbo kept being overlooked when they came. At first he thought perhaps the Rangers were hiding him out of sight just enough, or maybe they just had no interest in a Hobbit. That notion lasted until he realized that literally everyone down there with them had been beaten at least once in the time they had been there. He thought perhaps it was the infamous ability of Hobbits to blend in and hide when frightened, and Bilbo was nothing if not scared out of his mind. Or, and truthfully, this is what he hoped was the reason, that somehow, even now, Ember’s magic was protecting him, hiding him from harm.

About three weeks after they had been put down there, Holber tried picking the lock, but only seconds after Holber touched it with a lock pick, the guard threw his spear keenly straight into the grate and it went straight into Holber’s gut while the orc let out a putrid cry. The man had barely fallen off the stairs and hit the ground, when a wave of orcs swarmed down into the space, beating and stabbing and kicking with all of their might. Bilbo was tucked behind Dungrim for safety, but he still saw the spear be jabbed down into Holber over and over and over again, a grimy boot stomping down and crushing the ranger’s head, and then all of the orcs set to him, tearing him limb from limb with their bare hands. They began biting into the flesh right there, chomping great gory mouthfuls into their disgusting maws, and even gnawing the bones like wild animals as they ate. Most of them left with their snack of human flesh in hand, but their guard retrieved his spear, wiped it off with Holber’s ruined shirt, before tossing the stained cloth carelessly to the ground and asking in a gravel rough voice. “Anyone else want to join him?” While pointing his spear at where they had all cowered against the wall. The orc laughed cruelly and went back up the stairs, slamming the grate over their prison again.

Even in the dim light, the gore was slickly wet upon the stones, but worse of all, there were bits and pieces of Holber left scattered there as well. Entrails and lumps of skin, bits of his bashed in skull and brain, and even a lone, badly damaged finger, not to mention the blood. For some reason, Bilbo fixated on that finger. He honed in on it, could barely turn his eyes away. He didn’t even realize that he was sobbing, or notice the ringing in his ears which made everything seem to fade away. He barely even realized that Dungrim was shaking him by the shoulders and all but yelling his name in his face. He did notice when Dungrim began tearing off his shirt, belatedly realizing that Dungrim was shirtless too for some reason. Bilbo was down to his underwear and Dungrim hauled Bilbo’s back against his chest as he laid down on the stone floor. The Ranger kept his legs bent, which meant Bilbo’s were propped high above his head resting on the Ranger’s knees, and then there were clothes being piled on top of them, while the man’s warm arms were tight around his chest. Bilbo fixated on his toes instead, dirty and shaggy from so much travel, the hair uncombed, and the nails untrimmed. His mother wouldn’t have much cared, but his father would have thrown a fit if Bilbo had ever tried to come to the table with feet like that. When had he let them go so long? Downright unhobbitish it was.

Awareness came back to him slowly, the fact he was shaking head to toe, drenched in a cold sweat, that his head was pounding, and he was dizzy, his pulse was rabbiting in his veins and his breathing was quick and shallow. It seemed to take an age of the earth for him to regain any semblance of control over himself, to have his breathing even out, to calm down in any way. When he did, he realized that Dungrim was holding him tight, murmuring soothing little half truths and pleasant lies in his ear, because it was what he needed to hear, that they would get out of there, that it would be okay, that Dungrim would protect him.

When Bilbo finally came back to himself he broke down sobbing. Great, ugly, horrible, sobbing. He was terrified out of his mind, and he was going to die in this stinking pit. Even with everything he had learned, he was entirely useless. He wasn’t even able to save himself, let alone his dearest friend. No one would know what had become of them, his family would never know when or how he had died, and Ember would be all alone, would think that Bilbo gave up trying to find him, and somehow, that hurt and scared him more than the thought of dying did.

They weren’t able to scrub the blood off of the floor anymore than they were able to bathe themselves, but someone had obviously cleaned up what they could when Bilbo next woke up. He was grateful for it, as well as the clothes people could ill afford to lend him instead of protecting themselves from the cold rock. He returned them promptly, and thanked them sincerely. One of the coats was apparently an extra, left behind by someone who hadn’t returned, and the dwarf had him keep it.

Over the next few weeks Bilbo started talking with the other prisoners, it’s not like he had anything else to do, and Bilbo was a social sort of person. Their numbers had dwindled to the point that what they were given was going much further these days, since the size of the rations had not changed, two buckets of gruel, two buckets of water. They divided it up so that they were eating and drinking twice a day instead of once. The dwarves were a bit quieter and more reserved than the men, who were quick to anger. He learned many of their names, though not all of them were willing to talk.

Then one day, they came for Dungrim again, and though the Ranger fought and fought hard, he was dragged away. The screaming continued for hours before it was cut off sharply and silence reigned. Dungrim didn’t return.

Bilbo thinks he cried for two days, it was hard to keep track down there, and most of the time he was in a numb daze. Finally the gnawing pit of his stomach made him vomit what bile was left in him, thankfully down the latrine hole, and then there was a dwarf crouched in front of him, handing him a bowl of water a few minutes later.

The dwarf was stoic and silent, but held him close. “You have to keep up your strength lad, your friend obviously cared about you, he wouldn’t want you to get ill on his account.” He had noticed the others looked to this dwarf as a leader, so he tried to not make himself look foolish.

“His name was Dungrim, the other was Holber. It’s my fault, if I hadn’t asked them to detour over to Moria-”

“Easy lad, easy, Rangers are a tough lot, but they are also clever. They knew how to care for themselves, but no one could have predicted how big this infestation of Orcs was. They never would have let you come if they had. Why did you want to come to Moria in the first place? It had been abandoned for centuries.”

The truth was wanting to spill out, he was feeling alone and vulnerable, but his self preservation won out in the end. “I’m a writer, a collector of stories and chronicles. I had heard that there had been a battle on the slopes of Moria a few months before, and that the dwarves who had claimed victory from it were still in the area. I-I had wanted to talk to them, hear the story, all of their stories, write them down, learn why they were there, and- well, we got more than we bargained for. We were set upon in the night, one of the Rangers made it to the river, the rest of us, well, you know.”

“Not many care to know the stories of dwarves, we tend to be overlooked by men and elves.”

“It’s hard to look over you when you’re a full head and shoulders taller than me. I have heard enough about men and elves to fill libraries with, but everyone knows those stories. No one knows of dwarves but the dwarves, and hobbits well, Hobbits aren’t exactly known for their great tales. I could fill you up a library of recipes, beer brewing, gardening tips, and animal husbandry for just about any creature to be found on a farm, but about the most exciting thing to happen in the Shire is the annual craft festival where we invite dwarvish and mannish tinkers and craftsmen to bring and sell their wares in Michael Delving and Tookborough. Not exactly the stuff of legend. I wanted to know the stories no one else knew, not men or elves or hobbits. I wanted to know the stories of the dwarves.”

Apparently that had been the right thing to say, because he was promptly introduced to the dwarf he was talking to as Thrain, son of Thror, and was told of his family, his three children, and his wife, whom he hoped had lived, but had no way of knowing. For the next week the dwarves told him their stories. Bilbo had no quill or paper to write them down with, but he listened and he memorized them all as best he could. Their names, their family, their stories. Even if they all died there, Bilbo at least would remember for as long as he could.

Time blurred together into the haze of endless routine, and it’s not like they could very well mark the days. There were only five dwarves and himself in the pit when the orcs finally noticed Bilbo, and he was dragged out into whatever torture chamber awaited the prisoners. They strung him up with ropes sticky and stained with a thick layer of blood and grime. His shirt and the coat were ripped from his back, clinging to his wrists in tatters before they set to flay him open with a vicious flogger lined with knots and bits of embedded barbs to shred his flesh from bone, or at least, they attempted to. It hurt badly, and no doubt, but it didn’t hurt nearly as badly as he thought it would. What should have been bleeding slashes of flesh were merely raised welts, and for some reason he wasn’t as susceptible to whips as he had been to a warg bite. This was unfortunately to his detriment, since the orcs noticed their little piece of meat wasn’t bleeding and screaming the way they would like. That meant it lasted longer, hours longer, punches and kicks which should have shattered his ribs to dust merely left deep, aching bruises, so they upped their ante. They strapped his arms behind his back nearly all the way up to the elbow. They weighed down his feet then raised him by his arms and dropped him from a height until he was screaming. His arms felt like they were going to rip out of their sockets, his feet and knees felt like they should have broken, and little did he know that they all definitely should have. But the worst, the absolute worst was when one of them took a glowing poker from the fire, held it right at Bilbo’s eye level, hoping to see the fear in the Hobbit’s eye, and then pressing the red hot metal directly to Bilbo’s cheek. If Bilbo had been smart, he would have screamed, but the heat was blissful relief after so many weeks of being cold, the ache in his bones lessened, the pain melted away for a blissful second. When the metal was taken away, cold and dull as if it had never touched flame, of course there was no mark either.

The orc’s eyes lit up in sadistic glee, Bilbo could tell that he had figured it out, and worse, he told his buddies. The torture lasted hours, maybe even a full day, as they experimented, learned what would and wouldn’t hurt him, and just what his limits were. When they pried open his mouth and shoved a burning hot coal down his throat, Bilbo didn’t even have time to choke, he just swallowed the blissful, blessed heat, starving more for it than he had real food. But they were all witness to his wounds healing over a bit. He became their absolute favorite punching bag, one they didn’t have to be careful with so their toy could last a few days longer. If Bilbo wore out, all they had to do was heal him with flame.

Three days later they made the mistake of tossing him directly into a furnace, just to see what would happen, but when he changed the flames into dragon fire and used them not only to heal and warm himself, but begin to fight back against the monsters, they shut off every access point for air they could and waited him out. He learned then that he could sustain the flames with his magic alone if he had to, but it tired him, and with no extra air, no food, no water, trying to keep flames lit against their nature was exhausting. The fire quickly died and he was unconscious inside the sealed furnace within a day, after which they dragged him back out and to the pit again. They never let him too near a large fire again.

His new routine was being dragged out and beaten nearly every day, some days they just jabbed him harshly with hot pokers, his skin absorbing the heat, then weakening just long enough for them to stab him a bit before the next poker stabbed him somewhere else, or they just beat him with the cold iron. Others they tried to rip him limb from limb, beat him mercilessly, or just hung him upside down for hours by his feet, his arms weighted and dangling, leaving him struggling to breathe. His thoughts became further and further away as days became weeks, became months, he couldn’t tell. He got lost in his own head and couldn’t keep track of days, or tortures anymore, it was just a single unbroken and unending line of pain and fear followed by brief periods of blissful heat and healing. He wished that Ember had never protected him with his flames, because at least that way, his torment would have an end. Instead, now they could literally torture him right to the point of death, and then bring him back so that they could start all over again, and continue on in that way until he died of old age. He now dreaded the heat and the healing fires, he dreaded the torture, he hated the looks of pity and confusion on the dwarves’ faces. They couldn’t understand how he could hold up, how he hadn’t died yet, or how he wasn’t even more injured with what had been done to him. Orcs weren’t known for their mercy or compassion.

It must have been a month or longer before Bilbo realized that he and Thrain were the only ones left down there in the pit now. He had two full sets of clothes now, gifted to him from one of the others who hadn’t made it back. They were a bit large on him, but he was so much warmer with them than without. Bilbo had never thought the day would come when he would hate the very idea of becoming warm, but being too warm was the last thing he wanted, because then he would heal, and then they would just start all over again.

Thrain was obviously being tortured too, though unlike Bilbo, he couldn’t heal from his injuries, at least, not at first. After awhile, Bilbo didn’t see the point in concealing the truth from his only friend, after all, who would he tell? So Bilbo healed him a bit with some of his magic, instead of using it on himself. Of course the dwarf king wanted to know how he had done it, but there were still some secrets Bilbo felt he needed to keep. He didn’t keep them long.

Three days later, Bilbo was talking after he had been put back in his cell for the night, he couldn’t have stopped himself if he had wanted to. He told Thrain the whole story, about Ember and the way he had raised him, and the secret behind why he healed so fast, and how he could heal others, and how Ember had been stolen from him. Thrain told him what had happened after that, where the dragon had gone, what Ember had done to Thrain’s people. He even told him where exactly the dragon was, and Bilbo broke down, sobbing and thanking him.

If Bilbo had not been suffering from a skull nearly half bashed in by a great metal mallet and going on only a few small coals of heat that day, leaving him pained, confused, talkative, and muddy headed, he might have been able to remember what had been said later on. As it stood, severe concussions were not good for recalling things. Several days later when the orcs healed him properly, he didn’t even remember that the two of them had even had the conversation, and by then , Thrain was in too sorry of shape to have thought he might need to repeat it.

Time became completely inconsequential, the routine never changed. Pain, torture, lack of sleep, fire only when it nearly went too far. Several times new prisoners were brought in and slowly tortured and killed off one by one, and now, Bilbo knew, added to the orcs’ stew pot. But Bilbo was still their favorite plaything. After the fifth time the prison had been emptied, leaving only himself and Thrain, and with no new meat for months, the orcs getting ever hungrier for flesh, they both thought Thrain was running out of time, being easier to kill, and not given adequate healing time, even if Bilbo occasionally healed his friend whenever he could spare a bit of healing, which wasn’t often. Whereas Bilbo, their captors could keep him alive for decades or more just for the entertainment value, not to mention that by this point, Bilbo was very much skin and bones.

One night, during this desperate time, while Bilbo was trying to come to terms with the fact that soon he would be on his own, with only the ghosts for company, Thrain handed him something, and told him to keep it hidden. It was a ring, one the dwarf had distinctly removed and put in his coat, the one he left behind each time before he was taken away. It stood as a promise between them, of comradery and friendship.

Bilbo had clung tightly to that ring, he held it the entire time Thrain was gone, and when the dwarf returned, he breathed a huge sigh of relief. But it wasn’t long after that that the orcs figured out a torture that made Bilbo literally yearn for death. They found his weakness, they found his fear. If fire was his strength, then his weakness was still the same as it was for most hobbits. Water. Once they discovered it, the orcs took great delight in nearly drowning him, holding him under in a tub, or waterboarding him for what seemed an age of the earth. For three days they left him strapped to a table with a single drop of water striking his head at regular intervals. At the end of those three days he truly thought that he must have gone mad, he knows he had sobbed brokenly until he had fallen asleep with Thrain’s arms around him. The orcs never gave him fire these days unless he had been rendered unconscious, so his nights were spent wet and cold and shivering in the pit, trying to rid his lungs of the water they had taken in, leaving him coughing half the night, and robbing him of much needed sleep.

At one point, his magic reached its limit. He was so tired and weak that their whips actually worked on him these days, drawing blood, flaying flesh, and leaving deep and vicious scars. The beatings returned, leaving him a blackened and bloody mess. His eyes were all but swollen shut, his hands and fingers broken, The strappado dislocated one of his arms, the bone breaking severely as well, and once they left him up on tiptoe hanging by the neck, arms cruelly bound up tight behind him, the broken one screaming in agony. Swear to Ulmo he thought about ending it himself, he thought about tucking up his knees and just letting the rope around his throat strangle him. It would still be an escape, he’d die on his own terms, but in the end he just couldn’t do it, and part of him thought himself a stupid and cowardly fool for not doing it.

His healing still worked, just much slower these days, and tended to go towards the crucial things like making sure he stayed alive, not keeping him from harm, but with the same rations as always being brought, they at least had enough water most times to use one water bucket to clean out wounds and semi wash themselves these days, though it was mainly Thrain who bathed, Bilbo was developing a full on phobia of water, and considered how much water he was constantly being doused with to be bathing enough for him.

The orcs’ treatments were getting to Thrain too. His mind wandered further and further afield, murmuring nonsense, losing track of time and location, gibbering to himself, talking to people who weren’t there, or sitting in the corner rocking. Bilbo was the only one who could approach him without being lashed out at, and Bilbo warned any new prisoners that were dumped down there with them to stay well away, since the previous group, there had been a dwarf who had recognized Thrain, and when he had knelt and taken Thrain’s hand to bow his head over it to show fealty, Thrain had outright attacked him. Bilbo kept him well away from others after that, and distracted him by asking him the stories of the dwarves, and his family, for hope was an easy thing to lose track of in a place like this, and distractions were worth their weight in gold.

Bilbo knew he wasn’t doing much better than his friend, the days when it was a bad day for both of them were the hardest, neither of them able to care for the other and help drive the darkness away. He had once asked Thrain to kill him on one of those days, and he knows had Thrain known how to, or had the means, the dwarf would have done so, which was comforting for some reason.

On the clearer days, he tried to do something to keep their spirits up. Most of the songs he had picked up during his last visit to the Shire were barely half remembered at this point, but he still remembered the chorus and the last verse of his favorite one, one which he sometimes brokenly murmured the words he could remember as he and Thrain curled up next to each other at night to keep warm.

Where are you going, Tookish Flamerider?
Are you off to the mountains to gambol and play?
Are you off to fetch water or wood for your mother?
Are you off on adventures, or eating all day?

Where are you going, Tookish Flamerider?
Are you delivering letters, or gifts to your kin?
Are you hunting, or fishing, or finding new shinies?
Are you scaring off wargs, or just frightening men?

Where are you going, Tookish Flamerider?
Are you off seeing Elves and then meeting the King?
Are you digging for treasure, or finding new places?
Are you raising up dragons, or just selling rings?

Where are you going Tookish Flamerider?
To family or friends or new people to meet?
With those strong wings so willing to take you,
It’s really no wonder you don’t use your feet!

It reminded him, of happier times, of simpler days, of days when there was light and hope and warmth in his life. It helped him forget where he was and the fate which undoubtedly awaited him. He knew by this point that Filus hadn’t been able to make it to help. There wouldn’t be a rescue, there wouldn’t be an escape, he’d just exist in this tortured limbo until his body finally gave out, or the orcs got hungry enough, or maybe he’d die of some other thing.

Anything can become repetitive when done long enough, even torture. For Bilbo, everything was mostly a hazed out blur, followed by random spurts of clarity. During the clear spots Bilbo thought perhaps he was going just as mad as Thrain was and just didn’t know it. How was he to know? He didn’t really care if he had gone mad or not, not really, wouldn’t madness still be a form of escape? All he wanted to do was escape. In his dreams he remembered that there were colors beside black and grey and brown, but he didn’t know if it was true anymore or not. He half remembered the blue of the sky, the green of the grass, and the bright, hot, yellow white and red of Ember’s flames, but at the same time, thought perhaps he had imagined them. He longed for bright colors again, and not being afraid. He barely even remembered what not being scared felt like, if he ever really had. He begged help from faceless images in his mind, some grander, higher form of being. He didn’t care who, just for help of some form, either let him escape, or let him die, and he didn’t kid himself or hold onto false hope on which one it would be, not anymore. If they were at all merciful, death would probably be the form it came in.

Awhile later, the orcs finally went too far. The orc torturing Bilbo was holding him under water until he nearly blacked out, his mind begging, screaming for help, desperate for air, and yet somehow still knowing, he could end it there, if he was brave enough, all he had to do was breathe in as deep as he could…

Right as he reached the point he was going to gasp in that breath whether he wanted to or not, Bilbo was hauled out of the water, what little healing ability he had left was pulled to his lungs, leaving him vulnerable, and the orc stabbed sharply at his throat, the blade met no resistance and struck deep.

It was one of the orcs who had liked that Bilbo was difficult to kill, and at the same time, liked that Bilbo was more vulnerable these days. When the knife slid back out, it was immediately obvious he had struck something major. Blood was gushing out of Bilbo’s throat rapidly, and he was left gaping and gasping as he bled out. The orc made a disgusted sound, and hauled him over to the brazier, and attempted to cauterize the wound with a hot coal, but as always, Bilbo could not be harmed in any way by fire, not even to save his life. The world was growing dim and silent, as it seemed like he was falling away, backwards down a tunnel, skewing his vision. The orc simply tossed him on the coals, either hoping it would heal him, or possibly thinking to cook his body when he was dead. But the fire did it’s job, the heat and the fire began to heal him, the bleeding must have slowed at least a bit, because he remained conscious, barely. He was still dying, slower than before, but it was happening. He closed his eyes, nearly grateful that it was finally over. Then, right when everything was going dim, he felt a great heat on his back, a moment later the sounds of shrieks and screams registered to him. The orcs were running away in absolute terror, all of them. He couldn’t look, he couldn’t even really move, but the tears nearly tickled as they fell. He pictured his friend, his beloved Ember, come to save him at last.

“Please, help me.” He couldn’t bear to leave, not now that Ember was back. The words were barely even spoken, but regardless, he felt the hot, endless fire against his back, and strong sure claws pick him up, the heat rushing into him from every angle, his body soaking up every bit of fire he could touch. He felt the wounds closing, healing, even managing to open his one eye enough to see Thrain peering up from the pit as the huge thunderous footsteps walked him by their prison.

“Thrain, come with us, Ember will help us escape!” His words weren’t very loud or strong, not with how weakened he was, and having his throat slashed, but Thrain still came to the bars all the same.

Thrain looked very skeptical and downright terrified, but knew there was no other hope of escape, every orc was currently gone, and the grate was easy enough to get through when not under guard. Bilbo saw Thrain come up from the pit and cautiously follow behind, and as utterly exhausted, hurt, and relieved as he was, Bilbo closed his eyes and let the heat and fire just overtake him completely.

When Bilbo woke up, it was to pitch black darkness. He was in a deep groove of solid stone that felt like it was melted down to glass in several spots. He was alone, as far as he could tell, no breaths to be heard, no warmth, no glow of fire. He distinctly remembered that there should be fire. Ember had come for him, had saved him, where was his friend? Ember would never leave him alone when he had so much as stubbed a toe, let alone suffering torture and nearly dying at the hands of orcs. Something wasn’t right. He moaned as he sat up. Bilbo touched his throat, the wound sealed over, but still a bit tender. He wonders how much fire he had absorbed, to be this well off right now.

“Pssst! Bilbo!”

“Thrain?” Hhe croaked, knowing the dwarf had followed, and yet not able to see him anywhere in this level of darkness, which was all but absolute, his eyes entirely unable to adjust, no matter how acclimated he had been to the dimness of the orc’s pit.

“Down here Bilbo!” He heard somewhere down and off to his left, along with a slight shuffle of loose stones.

“Where’s Ember?” he moaned, not liking the fact he was alone one bit, his body feeling heavy and leaden, but thankfully still warm for the moment.

“That’s not Ember! We have to get out of here Bilbo! Now!”

Even in the total darkness Bilbo could tell that his vision was swimming and that his balance would be all but non-existent. He felt his way out of the nook and onto the flattened stone beyond, then around his surroundings gradually, only to find that wherever he was, there was a drop on every side except the part behind him that went straight up. He was on some sort of ledge.

“I can’t get down, there’s a drop, and I won’t get far even if I could.”

“It’s a false drop, the stone curves under, but you are less than a foot away from other stones and solid ground in every direction. You won’t fall.”

“I can’t see anything Thrain, the darkness is too deep, and my head is spinning.”

His friend climbed up to him and brought him a bowl of water that he had gotten from somewhere, and Bilbo drank it down greedily. They were just maneuvering off of the rocks when the sound of roaring flames seemed to ring in Bilbo’s ears, and his head swam anew with the sound of it. He could feel the powerful magic and fire drawing closer, and a surge in his own stores, enough to make him gasp with its strength. “E-Ember?”

Thrain’s eyes went wide in terror. “No! No, Bilbo we have to run! NOW!” But Bilbo couldn’t run anywhere. He turned towards that warmth, that power, barely even realizing that Thrain ducked behind a thick outcropping of stones that hid him quite well. It was bright enough to see now, and Bilbo glanced to where he felt the welcoming heat of the flames, even from this distance. He froze. He could barely even comprehend the… the being he saw before him, enormous and terrifying and formed what seemed to be of glowing fire and molten rock itself, a living mountain of flame, far more powerful than Ember, and as old as the earth itself. Bilbo was frozen with shock, unable to move either forward or away.

It was not a force for good like Ember was, but how the orcs had fled from it in terror, it was not their ally either. Was it a force for evil? Or was it so tremendously powerful that it was beyond such petty definitions? And like Ember, had it merely been misunderstood due to its appearance? All of his other thoughts ended as it set down two large barrels right on the ledge next to Bilbo and then scooped him up in one huge hand as if he were nothing more than a kitten. Bilbo had flinched, but it was making no move to harm him, and the fire… there was so much blessedly warm fire, he couldn’t resist. It seeped into him, healing damage, soothing his aches and pains, bolstering his completely drained stores of magic. He saw the creature’s hand darken as if the stone was cooling from where he was taking the warmth. There were little wisps of fire licking at his hands and he let the flames grow, and envelop him, burn off the dirt and the grime, soothe the pain, ease his mind. It was the first fire bath he’d had since the orcs had tossed him into the furnace, and he reveled in it. The beast was making sounds, curious about him, but Bilbo’s magic was still too weak, so he was unable to translate it, and he didn’t trust his voice to speak. After he changed the flames crawling up his arms into the eternal heat of dragons fire, cupping them in his hands and opening his mouth to swallow them down until he was properly warm again, the creature actually sniffed him and stroked his head with one enormous claw. Bilbo pretended, probably very badly, that such a thing had no effect on him.

It stroked his head again, with what Bilbo could only describe as fondness, if a creature such as it could even feel fondness. But for some reason that seemed enough for Bilbo’s senses. This being did not seem out to hurt him, whatever it was, and was actually helping to heal him, so Bilbo was very grateful. He placed his hand on one of it’s claws and looked it in the eye, or well, what passed for eyes on it. “You saved my life. Thank You.” It sniffed him again then set Bilbo back on the ledge next to the barrels. Bilbo discovered that they held all sorts of foodstuffs, more than enough to last him for several weeks. Whatever it was, it was intelligent enough to know that Bilbo would need food. “This is perfect. Again, thank you.” The creature meandered away, and it glowed enough to light up a good portion of the cavern they were in. They were near a large underground lake, it must be where Thrain had gotten the water from. Thrain had also been right that there was no treacherous drop out to swallow him up, it was just the flattest area in the place save for the lake bed.

For the first time in longer than he could remember, Bilbo had something that wasn’t gruel, and while his appetite wanted him to eat everything, his stomach knew he wouldn’t be able to hold it down. But still he had a few bites of meat, bread, cheese, and it was nearly impossible to resist devouring the grapes completely. When he was full he gingerly made his way down to the lake, drinking his fill and deciding to wash out any remaining wounds he had, his leg, arm, and shoulder still giving him a lot of trouble, and his head more than worse for wear. It was the first time in longer than he could remember that he actually saw his hands, battered, broken, gnarled and scarred from improper and rapid healing, the nails torn, ragged, or missing entirely, and his feet were even worse, his skin thin and his arms and legs were nearly skeletal, he had gone so long without proper nutrition. There wasn’t much he could do about it though, so he just cleaned up as best he could, and slowly moved back to the ledge. Thrain was still huddled down behind it and Bilbo made sure to pass him his own share of food.

He slept that night after the creature left and plunged them back into darkness. Bilbo was doing better, but he was still a long ways from being hale enough to navigate the rocky tunnels and darkness at even a snail’s pace, let alone having to try and climb anywhere, especially without the aid of rope. And Thrain wasn’t any better himself, no matter how he tried to hide it and stubborn through, he had several wounds and at least one broken bone that had healed poorly. The orcs and their treatments had taken a heavy toll on both of them, making escape far more difficult. He and Thrain spoke for hours in the dark, trying to plan where to go, but not knowing either the layout of the tunnels, the way out, no proper supplies, light, tools, or the places the orcs were gathered, was very VERY dangerous. They knew they would not survive recapture, and they were not in any shape to try and fight their way out either. So they stayed put, hiding out in the creature’s lair for several weeks, maybe even months as they recovered, safely hidden from the orcs. The beast stayed there quite often, meaning Thrain stayed hidden, only eating and drinking when it had left on whatever business a creature such as itself could have, but all in all it was the most peace either of them had had since first being captured. Proper food, rest, and a lack of torture were a high step up from their previous situation at least.

Thrain called the beast “Durin’s Bane” and he never lost any of his fear of the creature, whereas Bilbo was often scooped up and sniffed or had his head stroked as it gave him more flames to help him heal. He even woke up a time or two curled up on the beast’s chest, it’s enormous hand cupped over him, keeping him pressed to flaming warmth and calling Ember to mind so clearly that it often made him forget where he was, expecting to find himself in Adroushan, a dragon atop him purring contentedly. It was very jarring to wake up and not find him.

The longer they stayed, the more of the beast’s magic Bilbo must have absorbed as well, not just its warmth and fire. Because he could see in the dark these days, and as time passed, he began starting to realize that the roaring, crackling sounds it made was actually a form of language, one he could gradually understand the more he heard of it. Over time he could even speak random, broken words of it the longer it went on.

One of the first things the beast asked him when it realized that Bilbo had started speaking its language rather fluently, was “What are you, little flame?” Bilbo didn’t really have an answer it would understand, but still thought he knew something which would please it. “Fire born, and fire made.”

It became a daily thing, twice, sometimes thrice daily, a deep soothing fire bath and swallowing all of the flames he could manage, followed by “What are you, little flame?” He tried to figure out what it was meaning by it, that perhaps he just wasn’t translating it right, but the words never changed or took on a new meaning no matter how much flame he took in, or how many times he was asked.

The heat from this fire didn’t linger inside of him the way Ember’s had, it warmed him while it was there, but it wasn’t something he could hold onto the way he could the dragon’s fire, meaning that when Durin’s Bane left, it took the heat with it, leaving Bilbo cold unless he used his own stores of magic to keep himself warm while it was gone, depleting him all over again until it returned, meaning Bilbo spent as much time with it while it was there as he could.

Time passed, they had no idea how long, but the creature kept him warm and well fed. Bilbo didn’t even notice when he had started replying only in the flame tongue that he was spoken to, and Thrain, he was growing wary and pensive, often leaving for days at a time trying to learn the paths and find an exit.

Most of Bilbo’s wounds had healed, but his scars and their effects remained, his shoulder and arm was weakened significantly, and even though he had all of the fire he could want, what magic he had absorbed wasn’t easily wielded like the dragon magic was. It was unyielding, and temperamental, and nearly smothering, and it seemed he got colder faster these days, meaning the longer he was away, the faster he hurt again. One night was especially cold, and the chill left his shoulder in agony. When the creature returned, and saw Bilbo’s tears and pain, it picked him up and asked him what was wrong. When Bilbo replied that he wasn’t able to use its magic to heal the way he used his own, it huffed at him, said ‘fire can’t be stoked if it can’t reach the tinder. You are surrounded by stone, cradling your sputtering spark, trying to kindle it back to life, while an inferno waits outside, waiting to help you. I can only warm you so much from there with my magic. If you don’t let it in, it can’t heal you.”

Bilbo didn’t understand what stone he was apparently surrounded by, he had no idea, but then the creature placed its claw into one of the endless cracks along its surface, and when it came back out, it was coated in liquid stone.

“If you want my magic, Little Ember, you have to let it in.”

That nickname made Bilbo shiver head to toe, and his eyes fill with tears, but still when that molten heat was offered to his lips, Bilbo opened his mouth and drank it down. He shrieked in agony a moment later, flailed and thrashed and screamed, it scorched something inside of him, a new channel for magic, one that was flooded with power and heat.

Ember’s magic had been warm and soothing, a gentle current he could touch and move as needed, this, this was a flood, set to drown him. He saw it in his mind’s eye for just a moment, that precious little blue and white flame, that stuttering spark that had burned it’s way into him so gently he hadn’t even noticed. The flood would destroy it, snuff it out, possibly be able to control it and the one who had given it to him. He saw his mind’s self snatch it up in desperation, and having no other option to keep it whole or save it, ripped open his own chest, hid it inside of his still beating heart, and healed the wound as fast as he could before the flood of magic overwhelmed and smothered him. The flood tried to force its way down his throat, seeking the spark and to silence Bilbo for good, but the spark had found something to catch hold of and burn, it drove the flood back out and Bilbo felt the flood turn to rage as it couldn’t smother and kill him. The liquid fire magic buried him up to his neck, his limbs held immobile, his face barely able to breach the surface, and when it circled his throat but wasn’t allowed to choke him, finally it decided to make it so the magic couldn’t be used against it at least. It solidified as a collar made of stone, one which had a hood that blinded him, a gag which silenced him, and it also stoppered his ears, leaving him magically blind, deaf, dumb, and unable to use the spark at all. Mentally at least, he was imprisoned all over again, enslaved and brought to heel.

In the physical world, he screamed until he passed out, tears flowing, and he continued sobbing in his sleep. Thrain was there when he woke up, feeling like he was in a haze, his head and thoughts muddled, and a feeling of being warm but trapped, and he couldn’t even warn Thrain of the danger he might pose for him now. Thrain had been right to be afraid, Bilbo felt the magic even now, squeezing him. There was no more pain, but there was no more anything really, everything was a hazed out blur to him, nothing else mattered except the will of the power which now held him.

It was angry that Bilbo had kept the spark from it, so if it couldn’t control the spark, it would control Bilbo instead, and if he protested in the least, it would stop being kind. It would turn on him, make the orc’s treatments seem like tickles, and never let him die, it could make him immortal, it whispered, and then torture him for all eternity, until the spark died all on its own, and Bilbo would belong to it anyway. Even then he’d wish he were dead, and it would never be granted to him.

The magic was a whispering threat in his head, so when the creature came back and picked him up and the magic hissed at him to kneel, Bilbo knelt. The creature was very pleased at this and stroked Bilbo’s head, never noticing the tear that flowed down the hobbit’s cheeks.

Bilbo lived in the haze again, even though there was no pain this time, and Thrain could tell that something was very wrong, but wasn’t able to do anything. Thrain had tried leaving with Bilbo once, but Bilbo’s legs stopped working when he reached the tunnel entrance, he couldn’t do anything but kneel once again, and was kept like that for hours until his legs were numb, burning, and throbbing with pain. Thrain had dragged him back to the lakeshore when Bilbo had begun babbling that he’d be cross at him if the creature found out he had tried to escape, and his legs didn’t unlock until Durin’s Bane returned, two days later. By that time, Bilbo had broken, and when it picked him up and stroked his hair and fed him fire and asked him what he was, Bilbo finally understood what he was being asked, and curled tightly around one of the claws that cradled him. “Yours. I’m yours.” He’d said in a voice that was flat and hopeless, tears streaming down his face but unable to sob.

That had pleased his owner very well, and he rested in flaming warmth which eased every ache, pain, and even the memory of pain. Though somehow his dreams were still uneasy, filled with sorrow and a desperate denial, a screaming railing that he couldn’t recall when he woke up. He often studied the ring on his finger while Thrain was gone these days. He had offered it back to the dwarf long ago, but he had refused it, saying it was Bilbo’s and that it was a symbol of their friendship.

The haze grew ever thicker around him as more and more time passed. Now when Thrain’s mind wandered afield Bilbo would simply put his magic into the dwarf, trying to convince him to stop wandering off, to just stay there with him, where it was safe. Bilbo didn’t want him to be afraid anymore, couldn’t he see that his owner wouldn’t do them any harm? His owner took such care of Bilbo, and Bilbo was positive it would do the same for Thrain, if only he could drag him out of the shadows and his eternal hiding spot.

One day, Bilbo was resting with Thrain nearby for warmth, because he was always cold unless his owner was there these days. His owner was off getting more food for him from wherever he got it from, and then suddenly, he heard… fighting, the clang and clash of swords, the roar of battle, the shrieks of death. There were orcs nearby, and Bilbo cowered in fear, wishing his owner had left him a flame, any flame, so that he’d be able to kill them, he had so much magic now he could probably burn the entire world with it if he wanted, but they were alone in darkness. As a torch entered the chamber, Bilbo shrank as far back on his ledge as he could, trying to stay hidden. The torches cast very little light in the huge cavern, but they were nearly blinding to Bilbo regardless. Bilbo pulled Thrain close, he had to hide and protect him from this new threat, they carried torches, once they got close enough it would be their death.

It took several moments to realize they were speaking, and then to understand what was being said, he hadn’t heard the tongue in so long he had nearly forgotten it.

“-Appears gone but his stench lingers, and the stone is scorched near to glass. This is undoubtedly his lair.” said one, melodic and strange.

“Find Bilbo, he should be nearby if he still lives.” this one nearly sounded familiar, though he couldn’t place where from. Bilbo didn’t like that they seemed to know his name.

“Leave the beast to me. Find your friend if he lives, but do not cling too tightly to your hope.” Spoke the first one again, and Bilbo very much did not like him.

Thrain’s arms were around him, trying to pull him out of his crevice, and he clung all the harder to the stone. He was safe from the orcs here, they would never trespass near his owner, he wouldn’t leave where he was supposed to stay!

A moment later Thrain was calling out to them, drawing their attention “Here! If you are seeking Bilbo, he’s over here!”

Bilbo couldn’t bear the betrayal, he lunged at his friend in fury, toppling them both off the small ledge. He took up a rock in each hand ready to fight to his last breath! He wouldn’t go back to that terrible pit ever again! He brought the stone down hard on Thrain’s head, but he wasn’t strong enough to smash it to the pulp he had wanted, and Thrain knocked him back, first with a solid swing from the side, and then by kicking him in the stomach, winding him greatly as he landed hard on his back against the stones.

“Don’t let him near fire!” Thrain shouted as they drew close and Bilbo lunged towards them and their flames, only to be grabbed from behind by his one-time friend. “That beast has done something terrible to him! Addled his mind and enslaved him! He’ll burn you alive given even half a chance! Please, you must help him!”

Bilbo fought and snarled and screamed his outrage as he tried to attack his foes ineffectually. He had no spark, all he needed was just one single spark… He howled and screamed as their hands grabbed him tight, he resorted to biting, kicking, flailing as they tried to subdue him. He snarled at them in the fire speech, calling for his owner to save him once more.

He grinned in triumph when they trembled in fear at the words which came out of his mouth, and then he felt the flare of heat inside of him. His owner was returning, and he snarled at them as much. Let them quake in fear at that knowledge, their deaths would be terrible! He managed to kick the helmet off of one of the beings that held him captive, desperately trying to tie him up with a rope.

Somehow he knew the face, though it was half remembered, as if from a dream. He was so startled he stopped fighting for a moment and in that moment he was bound inescapably by two of the of the strangers and Thrain, the knots wouldn’t slip no matter what he tried.

“Bilbo! Bilbo stop! It’s us! Don’t you know us my friend?”

Some hazed out part inside of him insisted that he did, saw this half remembered stranger and for some reason he started crying, because it meant… something, he couldn’t remember what anymore.

“My owner is coming for me. He won’t like that you have taken me. Very soon you will all die.” He said in a low dark voice.

“Get them out of here, I’ll cover the rear and face it if I must. Whatever you do, do not turn back if I fall.” Said a tall elf who was quite imposing and rather other worldly, the first one who had spoken.

“Glorfindel-” said the one whose helmet Bilbo had kicked off.

“GO!” He snarled, and shoved them towards the way they had come from.

Bilbo snarled and struggled, growling at this Glorfindel stranger “Don’t even THINK of harming my owner! He saved my life! Leave him alone! He’s mine, and if you so much as try to lay a finger on him I’ll kill you myself!” He snarled and spat. He felt the fire building inside of him, desperate to destroy, the torch was close enough now, the fire tongue was about to roll off of his lips and make it explode and consume them all when Thrain turned to him with sorrow in his eyes.

“Forgive me, my friend.” He said before Thrain punched him hard enough to keep him from speaking, then gagged him soundly and bound his eyes, knowing that Bilbo couldn’t burn anything if he couldn’t see it or speak the words. Bilbo howled his muffled affront, but nothing happened, and he felt it as he was picked up and carried.

The other stranger tugged the others towards the entrance. “We’ll all go, it’s better to flee than to face it. Bilbo, we will leave him in peace if you swear to stay silent as we pass. You wouldn’t want to draw the orcs down on us now would you?”

Glorfindel didn’t sound pleased, but also seemed a bit relieved as Bilbo nodded his assent with tears in his eyes, tears that they couldn’t see, so it didn’t matter if they fell.

There was a great rending tug and pull at him as they fled the cavern, he could even feel that it gave his kidnappers pause as they fought to pull him away from where his owner’s magic wanted him to stay. He heard a sword being drawn, a whoosh of air, the sound of metal against stone, and suddenly they had no trouble at all moving him away from his owner’s home.

Moments later he felt the flare of rage as his owner returned only to find him gone.

Bilbo sobbed brokenly, he felt the great and overwhelming loss, and felt like he had betrayed his owner. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It wasn’t my choice.’ He cried in his mind over and over again towards his owner, not knowing if perhaps somehow, his owner could hear or sense him. He wondered what would become of his owner, lonely and without company here in the endless dark beneath the earth, hidden and feared by all but himself.

Since he was blindfolded and gagged he had no idea of what surrounded them as he was hauled around like luggage or an extremely ungainly sack of potatoes. One of their other kidnappers must have picked up Thrain and carried him as well because suddenly they were picking up speed, until judging by the wind Bilbo felt against his face all of a sudden, they were sprinting if not full out running in the hard to navigate tunnels.

His kidnappers were tireless, he was even strapped to one’s back like a rucksack before they obviously started climbing. He was only set down to eat, relieve himself, or get a few fretful hours of sleep, and it was only Thrain who fed him, bites of a strange bread and water, and three times a day a sweet and pungent potion that he was given a cupful of. He had stopped fighting, since gradually, as more and more distance was covered, his connection to the beast grew fainter, and the haze of his thoughts retreated enough at one point that he realized he had been fighting his own rescuers and felt rather hollow, empty, and a bit ashamed of himself.

It had been two days judging by the number of cups of medicine he had been given, and when Thrain removed the gag to feed him and give him his medicine, even though he was still blindfolded, he knew where his friend was. The haze wasn’t as strong right then, in fact for the moment it had retreated enough that he was able to speak.

“I’m sorry.” he murmured with a bowed head, and he felt the comforting weight of Thrain’s hand on his shoulder.

“I know. It’s alright, you weren’t yourself. Mahal knows I’ve done worse to you on my bad days.” Thrain removed the blindfold and ropes for the moment, and Bilbo blinked and squinted even against the dim light of their one torch. “Still have to keep those on while we move though, in case you suddenly decide to turn nasty. The path they are taking is treacherous, there’s paths I doubt even a dwarf could find a foothold, you trying to attack or burn us all wouldn’t help.”

Bilbo nodded in understanding. Just because today was a good day for both of them and they were relatively more aware than some days, it didn’t mean tomorrow or even an hour from now would be the same. He and Thrain were both a thousand leagues away from alright, they had accepted that long ago, and though they were well adapted to dealing with each other’s bad times, the others weren’t, and the coping methods they would usually use couldn’t really be done right now, so they had to find a different way to manage, especially with people who didn’t know what they were up against.

For the first time he looked and truly saw his rescuers, their faces were very familiar, but their names were slow to come back to his tongue. “Elladan? Elrohir? How on earth did you find us?”

Elladan came over with his brother, while the other elf stayed well back with a rather distrustful look on his face. “Father hadn’t gotten your letters in several years, and he was worried when he sent a letter to your home only for it to be replied to that no one had heard from you there in years either, so he sought you out with his Sight. He saw the orcs, and the balrog, and we immediately launched a rescue mission.”

Elrohir laid a hand on his shoulder. “We are glad to find you alive Bilbo. You are family to us.”

“H-how long, were we, how long did I-” his throat didn’t want to form the words, his voice didn’t want to work, part of him didn’t even really want to know, terrified of the answer, but Elrohir knew exactly what he was trying to say anyway.

“Near as we can tell, you were last heard of five years ago in the Shire. How much of that was spent in the Balrog’s clutches, we have no idea.”

“Almost a year, I think, I marked down the days whenever I could, the day you came was day two forty nine, though I am sure I missed several.” Said Thrain. To be honest this was the most lucid Bilbo had seen him in months. He recalled having given Thrain magic, trying to do… something. It was all a blur. He felt the Balrogs’ magic still inside of him, a cocoon of thick, viscous, heavy lava magic all but smothering him, and it just felt wrong and horrible, but he didn’t know how to get rid of it.

“We should be free of this place in another day, then we will head straight for home.” Elladan said.

It actually took another two days to reach the surface due to a rock slide blocking off the more direct route. They had emerged at night and with as long as Bilbo had been underground, the open and wide expanse of sky overhead was nearly incomprehensible to him, and the stars were downright dazzling. The dawn the next morning all but took his breath away, even though he couldn’t truly look to see the sunrise due to his eyes being too sensitive. The orange, pink, and gold splashed across the sky beforehand actually made him close his eyes and weep, and he sat there on that rock for an hour at least, with his eyes closed and the warmth of the newly risen sun on his skin before he put on the cloak he had been given, and raised the hood to protect him and his eyes.

It took them another day after that to reach where they had stashed the horses with two other elves, and after that they were galloping north, racing towards Imladris with all haste. They often switched horses in places you couldn’t even tell could hold them, and continued on near tirelessly, resting only when Bilbo and Thrain needed to. Even though he hadn’t gotten angry or violent again, they kept his hands and feet bound and his mouth gagged just to be safe, but let him wander freely at every break they took, though Thrain still wouldn’t let him too near the fire at night.

Having been held underground for so long, Bilbo’s and Thrain’s eyes were highly sensitive to the light, so they wore their hoods up everyday and a dark, thin veil over their eyes to protect themselves, but which still let them see. Bilbo kept trying to see the color of the sky, and watched as much of every sunrise as he could tolerate before the sky became too bright, making his eyes water and hurt to look anymore. He often rode with either Elladan or Elrohir, while Thrain rode with Glorfindel. Over a week after they were released they were resting the horses under a thick copse of trees, and Bilbo finally caught a glimpse of blue sky. It nearly looked foreign to him, but was as welcome to see as an old friend.

It took several more days before they reached Imladris, but when they did, Bilbo didn’t react how the elves had thought he would. The merry sound of the running water tumbling over the cliffs and flowing through the valleys did not soothe him, in fact it and the feel of the ropes over his hands and feet sent him into a full fledged panic that had him falling off the horse, landing hard on his back, and near scrambling over a cliff trying to get away from it, left him lashing out with feet and hands that were still bound towards anyone around him, and even biting whichever hand had dared get too close. In the end it was Thrain who managed to wrangle him into a corner of rock, untie his hands and feet, and make the cloak he was wearing go tight around him. “They wouldn’t give you a blanket, they didn’t want you warm. You’d be cold and wet all night. Are you cold or warm Bilbo? Are you wet or dry? Is it bright or dark? Can you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin? Can you smell the fresh air and the living earth, the flowers and the grass and the trees? We didn’t have any of that.”

It took awhile before Bilbo could come back to himself, and then he just broke down and sobbed and sobbed for ages, great, ugly, terrible sobs that hardly even let him breathe, and almost made him sick from coughing. He couldn’t stop shaking, or really catch his breath, just hard tiny pants, as if he had run a great distance, and couldn’t get enough air.

Thrain kept talking to him, and eventually he walked him down into the valley step by hesitant step, as Bilbo shook and trembled the entire time. Thrain kept reminding Bilbo that he had wanted to show him his all but second home, introduce him to his second family, have him taste a certain tart the kitchens had made, and take him on a tour of the library. As long as they kept Bilbo distracted they could slowly move forward one step at a time, the elves following behind at a distance. In the bottom of the valley, before they could cross the bridge, Thrain set him down next to a great tree, let him touch the soft earth and the rough bark, let him smell a handful of leaves, and run his fingers through a patch of grass. Thrain even told him there was a bridge ahead, and once past it Bilbo would be all but home.

It was well over an hour before they could cross a bridge over a large patch of running water, especially one without any guard rails. In the end the two of them crawled across it slowly, so that there was absolutely no chance of Bilbo falling or slipping off of it and into the water. As much as Bilbo had calmed down, this was nearly more than he could handle, and anything could set him off again right then. Their companions must have thought them strange, but while it was now the twins who were rather wary for the moment, Glorfindel seemed to have come around for some reason, and when Bilbo got stuck halfway across the bridge, unable to move, just clinging tightly to the bridge and tried to remember what breathing was, the gasped pants leaving him lightheaded, the older elf spoke to him gently, and wasn’t letting the twins move onto the bridge until Bilbo got safely across.

“You’ve reached the halfway point, I know it seems longer, but you are nearly there. Just a bit further, and you have truly escaped from them, and are free again. They never wanted you to escape, they never thought you could be free again, or that you would ever get this far. Won’t it feel good to prove them wrong?”

A fierce determination seemed to settle in Bilbo’s bones and though it took several more minutes he ground his teeth together hard and kept going across that bridge, one tiny creeping inch at a time, and when he reached the other side he started crying again, but Glorfindel crossed swiftly and knelt in front of him, placing a consoling hand on his shoulder. “You made it, you survived, now you have to learn how to live again. It will take time, and patience, and practice, but your friends are all here to help you when you need it. I’ve been where you are, I know the hardest battle you will face now will be against your own mind, but you were strong enough to survive and escape, you are strong enough for this too, I promise you.”

The twins seemed confused when Glorfindel led them away, obviously wishing to comfort and ask for answers, but the older elf simply stated “He knows where his room and the infirmary is, leave him alone, he’s a grown hobbit, not a child, he doesn’t need coddling. Warriors need to reflect on battles they have just won, let him enjoy the moment, he’s had precious little enough to enjoy lately as it is. Now, Elladan, let’s get that hand looked at, for all we know the Balrog made Bilbo venomous, and we don’t need you losing your pretty little fingers now do we?”

It was the first of many battles he had to fight with himself, and the first few months were the worst. He could find no rest in the soft mattresses, or the wide open rooms, and definitely not away from Thrain. Thrain’s awareness ebbed away again without Bilbo using the Balrog’s magic to force him into coherency, leaving him surly and disoriented, even among friends. He and Bilbo clung to each other, as survivors might. They could be found nearly every day under their shared bed instead of on top of it, wrapped in blankets and pillows, and woe to the being who disturbed either of them while they were asleep. Finally the ones who helped keep the rooms neat stopped trying to get them to sleep in the bed at all and just created a cozy nest for them in a closet, which the two of them thought was perfect.

The healing wasn’t much easier. Thrain responded well to the elve’s treatments, but Bilbo’s magic had forced his body to heal immediately in order to survive.This meant crooked bones, badly repaired nerves, tendons, ligaments, skin, and veins, scars that went into muscles and impaired movement, and worst of all, his magic still trying to protect him from further injury, which meant repairing the damage was nearly impossible. The only thing which helped even slightly was Bilbo building up a large fire and crawling into it.

Breathing and basking in normal flames it kept him warm, it soothed his pain, and somehow it kindled the small spark he had hidden in his heart even though he couldn’t currently use his magic. He was still trapped by the Balrog’s magic, it had gone fully cold, like lava which had hardened into stone. But it was still magic, magic Bilbo had to learn how to bend and use, or purge and get rid of, and he couldn’t do so until his own magic was strong again.

Needless to say Lord Elrond had nearly panicked when he caught Bilbo building a huge fire and then stepping into it, only to then be shocked that Bilbo wasn’t coming to any harm inside of it. He believed it had been the Balrog, and Bilbo was happy to let him continue thinking that. Bilbo explained about the Balrog’s magic, and what it had done, and how it felt like he was trapped inside of it. Lord Elrond was not a wielder of magic, but Lady Galadriel was, and Lord Elrond asked for her advice. Bilbo hadn’t been expecting her to show up, but she was welcome when she did. She had seemed to see into the very heart of him with one look, and then sent everyone out of the room and beyond hearing and sight range, and they had immediately obeyed. Bilbo had trembled in fear when he saw he was alone with her. He could feel how much power she held, and how directly at odds it was to what dwelled inside of him. She could obliterate the tiny spark in his heart with a single word, he was sure of it.

“Do not be frightened of me Bilbo Baggins, I will not harm you, or the treasure you so fiercely hoard inside of your heart. Why would I steal or destroy the thing you cherish most, or the magic which saved your life, and is even now keeping the dark magic from consuming you? I know the real reason that you are beloved by fire, I won’t take that reason away, I’m here to help you get rid of the other magic that you do not want, and also teach you how to better heal yourself.”

Over the next several weeks she would walk into his mind, where he was being held captive by the Balrog’s power, and used her own power to chip away at the magic holding him prisoner, carefully extracting him from it. Once he was free she pulled him to her side, cast what seemed to be a handful of starlight into the room, and they watched as the solid stone filling the room exploded and broke apart into bits of rubble, leaving a large pile of palm to pebble sized chunks. The pathway it had burned into him she cleansed with a blast of light, leaving the tunnel it had carved, but now it was glowing with stardust instead of thick with the dark lava magic.

“It is important to remember that you cannot wield this magic Bilbo, to wield it is to accept it, and this magic seeks to enslave and control you, tether you, and make you into a pet. However that doesn’t mean you can’t use it. This tunnel it burned into you, that is how you use this magic, the same as you use your dragon’s magic through this other tunnel, but while you wield your dragon’s magic, this one you must use differently. When you wield magic, you control it. You hold it in your hand and tell it what to do, and how to form, and what you want it to manifest as; like fire, or healing, or protection. You then release it through the channel that has been created for it, and it does its best to accommodate to your will. If your will is strong enough, it happens exactly how you wanted it to. If not it can have unexpected results, but they are generally along the same lines as what you had wanted. If your will isn’t strong, then nothing will happen at all.”

“So how do I use something I can’t wield?”

“It’s still magic, and magic has power, great and explosive power. Without direction or a will behind it, it is just a force of nature, like wind, or lightning, or fire, it exists even without being controlled, and as such…” She picked up an extremely tiny shard of the black stone from the floor and tossed the piece through the Balrog’s tunnel. The power surged through Bilbo’s hand in the waking world and he was startled as a great blast of fire came through his fingers, thankfully straight at the fireplace, or he might have burned down Lord Elrond’s house. The blast lasted for several moments before it ended and he stared at the now blackened fireplace in shock. If just that tiny sliver had caused all that... looking at some of the fist sized chunks made him shiver. She smiled at him. “You can aim it, but you cannot control it, and it is finite. Once the stones are gone, there is no more of it, so you can either go somewhere and purge it, or you can use it to your own advantage, whichever you like. Either way, it is your decision.”

She also taught him that the little room he was in in his mind, was the seat of his magic. Ember had apparently created it for him stone by stone long before granting any of his power to Bilbo, and it was where Ember’s magic that he had granted him lived and grew, but now that Bilbo had set the magic directly into his heart, there was no knowing what effect it could have on him. It had given him greater control, but it had also weakened a bit, and seemed directly tied to his physical strength now.

“I can teach you much, but you will have to learn how best to wield it now that you have changed it so fundamentally and it has become a part of you. Now that you know how to get rid of the Balrog’s magic, let us see if we can bolster the rest of the magic inside you that you can wield. Magic becomes easier to wield the more you use it.”

Bilbo spent much of his time in a large stone fire pit that he kept lit with dragon magic and good wood, he also bit by bit fed the smallest pieces and the dust of the Balrog’s magic out of his mind, and into the fireplace so he could be rid of it, the extra heat in the room was welcome.

When the spark inside of him seemed strong enough, Lady Galadriel showed him medical books, showed him how the body was put together, how each bone should look, how each muscle should move, each tendon and vein and ligament should function, then coaxed him to focus his magic on one single spot at a time, and have it reform things into the right order. She had him start small, one finger joint at a time, and also suggested that he could even stay in the flames while he did it so he didn’t tire so easily. Once he had that down, she had him focus on something he couldn’t see so well, his arm. It took him months upon months to make any sort of progress on it, but when he did, she told him that he would be just fine, and to heal well, then took her leave. He had learned a lot from her, but they both knew, he needed to be the one to pull himself together, literally and figuratively.

By the time a year had passed his arm was making significant progress, and most of his fingers were almost entirely straight and had the strength in them again. Lord Elrond treated him for his night terrors and perhaps his magic was healing his mind too, goodness knows he had been doing a fair bit better than Thrain, who spent many of his days wandering aimlessly and barely even speaking, and his nights curled up and shaking. Neither of them could bear to be in darkness these days and kept at least oil lamps burning throughout the night.

Bilbo had steadily dictated out letters to his family from the moment he was clear headed enough to do so, and he continued until his hands were strong enough to hold a pen again and could write them himself. He knew he had a lot more healing to do before he could go anywhere, but the real question remained, that when he had healed, would he go back home to the Shire, or was he actually brave enough to try and continue his quest to find his friend?



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