Nature & Nurture

BY : Cody_Thomas
Category: +Third Age > Slash - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 662
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.

Summary: Bilbo has to survive slavers before he can continue his journey, but a couple of new friends will help him very much along the way.

Chapter Warnings: Capture, Graphic descriptions of violence and death, Injuries.




Bilbo woke up securely bound, gagged, with a sack over his head, and a wicked headache from the bump on the back of his head that an unknown someone had given him. 


It took a moment to really register that he was bumping along in a wagon or cart as well. He was half a second away from just lighting himself on fire to get free, when he heard quiet crying across from him, and felt that he was pressed against several pairs of legs and feet on either side. 


That was also when he realized that there was a metal collar around his throat, and the telltale clink of chains connected to it. There were metal cuffs around his wrists and his ankles, which were bound behind him, and tugging them showed that they were also connected to the collar by the chain, as it choked him. He was hogtied quite securely, and it wasn’t safe to try burning his way free, because it would take hours to actually burn through iron or make it soft enough to stretch and wiggle out of it.


He had no idea how to tell friend from foe, how many innocents might get hurt, or even his location or surroundings. He could be several leagues away from supplies and shelter, and if they were along some kind of narrow mountain road, then burning his way free could be far more dangerous than anything helpful. 


Bilbo breathed deeply, trying very hard to ward off a panic attack. These didn’t smell or sound like orcs, this wasn’t Moria, he could feel the movement of the cart, he could see a bit of daylight through the weave of the sack, and while he was sore, he was by no means either beaten or broken. He was captured, but not badly injured yet, and this time he was FAR from helpless. He was no one’s prisoner for good. He had escaped the orcs, he had escaped the Balrog, he had escaped the canyon, and he would escape this place too. Whoever had done this would PAY, he just had to bide his time and wait for the ideal moment to arrive. 


Bilbo couldn’t speak with the gag in his mouth, and it was too tight to spit it out. He had the idea to try and manifest his magic to come out of his mouth instead of his hands, but he had never tried to do that before. This wasn’t the best time to try and practice such a thing when surrounded by people who were distinctly NOT fireproof, and since he wouldn’t be expecting such a thing from him, they might turn on him if they saw it. 


They hit a particularly sharp bump in the road and it jostled Bilbo hard enough that his forehead hit the bottom of the cart rather sharply, making him moan in annoyance.


“Mommy, I think the dwarf is awake.” Bilbo heard a painfully young child’s voice ‘whisper’ in that way that was anything but quiet, a tone that only small children thought was secretive.


“I know poppet, but the slavers said that if we helped, or even touched him, then none of us would be getting food or water the rest of the time until we were sold, and the one who did it would be beaten nightly. Or worse.”


Clever woman, letting him know what was going on, without actually helping him. He nodded his head sharply once to show her that he understood. This situation was a bit different than the dungeons in Moria. They weren’t all a band of survivors trying to help each other out however possible. This time it would be everyone needing to save themselves first before others. He could understand that, even if it wasn’t ideal. 


People who were freshly captured were easy to manipulate with such necessities as food, water, a lack of punishment, and comfort items like an extra ration, a treat, a bath, or a blanket. Anything that would make the victim feel like their captors viewed them as more of a human and not as a thing, were showing them some slight mercy, or that made their lot seem a little less grim than the others. 


Such tactics had been used rarely in Moria, mostly because the orcs didn’t care, and weren’t clever enough to try and get inside their heads. But a few had always lured in volunteers for sex from the newest captives, in exchange for things like meat and blankets. The newest prisoners had learned quickly that it wasn’t worth it. The meat the orcs offered afterwards was crudely cut up victims, the blankets were threadbare, full of holes, if not falling apart entirely, and the orcs took no care with them if they did agree. 


Many who had volunteered, had died of their injuries soon afterwards, or from fevers and infections instead. The cruelest thing was that the orcs didn’t even have the desire. They had plenty of their own kind to choose from, and didn’t find humans attractive as anything more than food and a bit of fun to torture. But they enjoyed seeing the humans beg to be taken for their amusement, and then give them nothing but pain and a slow death in return. 


Bilbo had luckily still been unnoticed back then, and therefore was never coaxed to accept or been tempted to accept the offer, and after seeing what happened to the others, he had often tried to warn newcomers not to be taken in. 


Unlike probably most of these new prisoners, he had long ago learned that any necessity could and would be withheld on their captor’s whim regardless of any minor promise. Promises meant nothing to those who viewed you as less than themselves.


Something he did notice though, crammed up against other people’s feet as he was, was that he was the only one not bound into a seat, and as far as he could tell, their ankles were all tied with rope, while he was locked securely in chains, and with the way the child had said ‘dwarf’ he quickly figured out that these must be Men. 


An elf would have known that he was too small to be a dwarf unless he were a dwarven child. If he could just communicate with the other prisoners somehow that the best thing all of them could do was help him at least see, then he would be able to get all of them free.


Several hours later they stopped for the night. Bilbo was nauseous from the constant jostling movement of the cart and not being able to see properly. His arms, legs, and chest were all aching from the horrible position, his mouth was dry, and his jaw ached from the gag. His fingers and toes had long since gone numb, and every joint was achingly stiff. 


One by one the slaves were pulled out of the wagon. Some were set to tasks around the camp, others were secured somewhere for the night. He was not left to be last, no he was hauled out, unlocked from the hogtie, and cuffed firmly to two other people by his hands and ankles, one to his left side and one to his right, the cuffs between them all had a metal bar wedged between them so he wasn’t able to touch them. There was another bar between his wrists, and a short chain between his ankles, effectively hobbling him and barely allowing him to move at all save for when the others did. His joints were screaming at the rough treatment. 


The hood was removed, but only to be replaced with a tight blindfold so quickly that he didn’t even know if he was bound to friend or foe. 


Suddenly there was a sharp knife pressed under his jaw, and putrid breath in his face. “You so much as try to speak and cast any of your spells once we take out your gag, we’ll cut out your tongue, and kill the ones you are bound to. Understand?”


They thought he was a wizard ? Well now, that was something he could work with. They somehow knew that he had powers, and were obviously afraid of him using them. Which made him question why they had decided to capture him in the first place instead of just kill him. He also didn’t know when they could have seen him use his powers after the detours he had taken, and the fact he was usually pretty careful to only use them when alone. What exactly they had seen him do, he wasn’t sure, but he’d make them even more afraid.

He could communicate with those captured without saying a word if he could make them realize that the slavers were AFRAID of him and what he could do, and also must be bound to other captives, since they were threatening their lives. Bilbo nodded, seemingly cowed and complacent. 




They took them over to a latrine to allow them to relieve themselves, and made the one bound on his left side help Bilbo to undo his trousers for it with his free hand, not risking letting Bilbo’s hands free to do it himself. He didn’t know who the one on the left was, but the one on the right he had figured out was the small child from before who had spoken while they were in the cart. Bastards. 


If he had been able to have full skin to skin contact with the ones he was bound to, then his powers wouldn’t affect them, the same way the flames didn’t burn his clothes, but they weren’t within enough reach that he could risk it. 


The slavers were right to think that he wouldn’t risk burning the other captives, especially a child. But there was one upside to the fact that they were bound together with iron, with enough time to scratch the sigil, he could turn the shackles into amulets, therefore making it a moot point. He just needed something to scratch with. 


They were then taken to the very edge of camp and were bound sitting upright against a tree. Bilbo’s hands were still secured to the bars, and stretched down between his legs before being bound there wrist to ankle again. Though he couldn’t see, he was obviously very close to the other two, he could feel the whisper of their hair or clothing against his sides, but he still was not actually touching them. He wouldn’t risk burning them. They then wrapped a chain around the two bars and drove a spike between the links and several feet into the ground to hold him there, and a chain wrapped around his waist, pulling him backwards, and binding him against a tree, making his arms stretch to screaming.

Only when they were certain that he was bound securely, was the lad unshackled from him, but not because they wanted to move the boy elsewhere. No, they wanted to put him directly in front of Bilbo to protect themselves as the lad was ordered to feed him quickly. 


Bilbo’s gag was removed by the lad, and only long enough to swallow the stale bread, a thin bowl of gruel, and a few large gulps of water before the gag was replaced. His mouth was apparently never allowed to be empty enough to talk around. They were clever, for slavers.

The two bound with him were only bound at the ankle to him while they slept bound upright against the tree, Bilbo bent in half 


It was a supremely uncomfortable night, his arms, legs, neck and back all aching, and his fingers and hands completely numb after a few hours, but he’d had worse, and his healing likely lessened any permanent damage. Since he couldn’t even try to sleep, he spent most of the night trying to figure out a way to either slip the shackles, turn them into an amulet, damage the locking mechanism, or get close enough to burn the slavers alive. But they were very wary and very cautious, and took no chances, as evidenced by their binding of him.

He considered breaking his hands to pull them through the shackles, but with how weak his magic was it would likely take longer to heal them into anything functional, than it would for the slavers to respond since he didn’t know how close they were. He had to be patient. A way would present itself.


While Bilbo was hogtied in the wagon the next day, the lad asked his mother why they kept Bilbo like that. She didn’t know of course, but it did make Bilbo decide to start winning the other captives over to his side and make the slavers very, very nervous.


That night, while they were being pulled out of the wagon, he heard the telltale sounds of flint on steel and the crackling sounds as the tinder lit and caught. They were lighting fires to cook the food, and perimeter fires to keep the beasts away. He could sort of feel  that there were three of them, little bright bits of potential in the peripheral of his awareness. There was one ahead on the path, one behind, and one along the bottom of the cliff that rose over them, going by the way the sounds echoed. That one was to cast more light and keep in more heat near the middle. 


Bilbo decided to mess with the slavers’ heads. Just because he wasn’t close enough to grab or manipulate the fire completely, it was close enough that his power could still pull on it and he could feed some power into it. It would be seen as the wind, for a while at least, until they realized a few were being pulled the opposite way that the breeze was blowing. 


As he was dragged towards another part of the camp that proved to lead to the latrine, he made sure that the flames from every fire followed him, pulled straight towards him at an angle like a bit of iron drawn towards a lodestone. He heard a few shocked gasps murmur though the camp. 


“I said no tricks!” The man from before screamed, and booted Bilbo right in the back. 


Bilbo rolled with it as he fell, unfortunately pulling the lad and the other man with him, but he also reached his power towards the fire, pushed power into it, and yanked , trying to pull it to him and sending as much into it at this distance as he could, creating a fearsome distraction as the flames roared up and out in nearly every direction, sending everyone scattering back, and catching a few slavers who were not quick enough to avoid it, scorching them horribly. He was SO close to being able to truly light the bastards on fire-. 


“STOP IT! YOU STOP IT RIGHT NOW!” The man screamed, and landed a lucky blow with his boot to Bilbo’s head that stomped his head hard into the ground and knocked him out. 


When he woke up later to an aching head that was rapidly improving because his magic had kicked in, the lad was tied to him at wrist and ankle to the bars, and sitting shivering between Bilbo’s legs, either from fear or because they had no blanket. Bilbo couldn’t tell with the hood on. Without it he could have pressed his head to the boy and escaped. He heard the boy’s mother murmuring worriedly from nearby, but apparently the lad was already asleep, going by the deep breathing he could feel. So Bilbo did something else. He pulled the fire up to just under his skin, but he didn’t draw it out. He could feel the heat just under the surface of his body, but nothing that could harm the boy, since there wasn’t any flame. He warmed the both of them like that through the night, letting the boy relax and dream deeper.

They of course had chained Bilbo, to a boulder this time, but he had no idea who might be watching if he tried to burn through the chains, which would take a lot of time and power to get through all of them, and the boy would certainly be burned or even die. However, they had only tied the boy to him with simple ropes, and Bilbo had a need to practice his fine detail work. Even though he was blindfolded, he didn’t need a full flame, just a spark, just a smouldering ember that found its way into the heart of the ropes, following their twists and turns and bends, one little spark, nothing that could harm the boy, nothing that would burn or smoke or be felt. Just the one spark of fire controlled by him from one end of the rope to the other eating away nearly all the way through in one area before letting it die, and starting on another.


He steadily weakened all of the ropes around the boy throughout the night, so that by morning they all but fell to useless pieces when the slaver went to move them and coil them up. Breaking apart all over the place, peppered through he imagined with little black holes. But they didn’t know it was him. He hadn’t made it obvious. He’d burned it though in small areas and at different distances. It would look like mold, not fire. He wondered if he could figure out a way to work just enough fire into the locks to damage them without hurting the lad. If he used what he knew could work, the flames would rise too high and would surely draw attention and burn those he didn’t wish to. 


Bilbo didn’t believe for a moment that they wouldn’t shoot the boy just to get to him. But Bilbo was also patient. He knew that this sort of thing took time and careful planning to make it go right the first time, because there might not be a second time.


As they rumbled through a very chill mountain pass a day later that left most of them shivering and shaking, Bilbo was once again hogtied in the bottom of the cart, and hopefully out of view of the slavers. He decided to try and make some friends. Bilbo lit a small ball of flames in his hands. He heard more than one startled gasp, but after a few moments, when it obviously didn’t grow any larger, and with a crooked finger beckoning the captives closer, the others warmed themselves, and he slowly did the same thing with their ropes, controlling little sparks that singed through their ropes at hand and foot, right through the centers and core, making them weak, but he only broke through one or it might become suspicious.

Thankfully by keeping it low enough and only on his skin, he managed to creep a flame along his arm and get rid of the hood and gag as well. Come evening the slavers saw it, panicked, and put him in another one, As well as bound his head back against the stone, but they didn’t even last until morning. Before he was caught out however, he had gotten to tell the lad in a very hushed voice that he needed a small sharp rock, which made all the difference.

In another two days they had run out of hoods, gags, and blindfolds to try and put him in, and since it didn’t seem to make any difference whatsoever, they didn’t keep his vision impaired anymore. The spare horse bit they shoved into his mouth and bound there with a thick and hard strip of leather instead was going to be a lot harder to burn through than cloth or rope, but Bilbo was determined.


Throughout the two weeks of their journey, more and more of the captive’s ropes kept undoing or breaking no matter how often they were redone. One, sometimes two a day. Bilbo had sparked through the cores of them and made the flames eat their way out down the whole length of the ropes in extremely tiny branching pathways like very small threads of lightning, going fully unnoticed as they wound their way through the ropes slowly, weakening all of the bonds again and again until they were able to be broken through and practically disintegrate around whatever they were tied to with just a good tug. No evidence of fire, just several small black spots randomly throughout the rope, easily mistaken for mold or rot. It started a fight between the slavers that one of them had purchased rotted rope.


There was a large revolt of the captives a few nights later while Bilbo was chained to another large boulder this time, the boy physically chained down on top of him, spread arms stretched backwards against the rock and chained behind. He was as immobile as himself, just like every night, but this time they needed the chain they used to bind his head, so there was a thin bar, wedged under Bilbo’s jaw and neck, so he couldn’t move his head, and left him staring straight forward or choke himself.


The slaver’s were needing chains right now since the ropes were so fragile, and so Bilbo’s and the boy’s legs were left free. 


The poor lad was aching badly being kept in that horrible position every night, and was crying a bit as usual. It tended to exhaust him to the point he slept during the day far better, like Bilbo also tended to do. The nights were too uncomfortable to manage. Bilbo hummed and rocked a bit side to side to the best of his ability to soothe the boy. 


He was such a little thing, no older than maybe four or five, and quite small for his age. However Bilbo did draw out the symbol with his foot into the ground around them that he needed to mark the chains with, and made the shackles rattle, hoping the boy understood what needed done. Over and over he drew out the mark and rattled the shackle until the boy understood and also drew it out with his foot near perfectly. Bilbo repeated it again until the boy had the shape of it down, then nodded when he got it right. He kept the flames right under his skin in order to keep himself and the boy warm. As they went deeper in the mountains, the colder it got. It wouldn’t do to harm or startle the lad. It was the only comfort he could currently give the boy besides the hope that somehow Bilbo could use that mark to help them somehow.


When the revolt started, it was in the wee hours of the night while only one person was awake on watch, and even Bilbo had nodded off a little long since. There was a huge commotion that roused him, and though Bilbo was desperate to help, it was happening on the other side of camp AWAY from them. No one even tried to come all the way through the fight to try and free them, it would have been extremely difficult for them to do so anyway, bound and chained as they were. 


The ones who had gotten free from their binds weren’t much trying to help the others either, they were more interested in grabbing supplies, slitting slaver’s throats, and running. Only one person had the keys, the leader, or what passed for one in this group, and he wouldn’t let them go unless he was dead. About half of the captives escaped, three died in the attempt, and two of the twelve slavers were also killed during it, which Bilbo was fine with. 


Bilbo wasn’t blamed of course, he and the lad were still securely bound right where they had left them, but with half of the captives gone, and down two enemies, one of which had been the one to kick him in the head, he was a few steps closer to freedom. 


Unfortunately for the slavers, the one who had kicked him had been the cleverest one of the lot, the planner, the strategist, and he was now dead as dust. The rest were not nearly so smart, or as quick to think up solutions. Even though they were paranoid about Bilbo’s abilities, they weren’t that good at working out how to try and counteract them. When Bilbo finally burned through the leather holding the metal bit in place and spit it out, they didn’t know what to replace it with that he couldn’t burn through since all of the chains were currently in use. Bilbo decided to try his luck and see if he could get rid of it.


“You lot know I’m not a wizard right? That stupid thing is absolutely useless on me. I don’t go around muttering spells. And besides, have you ever heard of a dwarf wizard?”


“W-what are you then?”

“I don’t know, ask the balrog that did it. Call it a curse if you like, it certainly wasn’t my idea. I can’t control it, it does whatever it wants, whenever it wants. That bit won’t do you a lick of good, especially if I lose control, talking is the only way I can pull the flames back.”


They looked suspicious but didn’t fully buy it. Instead they killed an older man who had been injured in the uprising, and used that chain to secure the bit in Bilbo’s mouth around and over his head with heavy and uncomfortably bulky locks. They also decided for efficiency’s sake to keep Bilbo’s hands bound on either side of the boy’s metal collar, the boy’s throat trapped between them, with a bar between Bilbo’s shackles that ran along the back of the boy’s neck and shoulders, the cruel bastards. So they were still keeping Bilbo’s hands immobile and not touching, at least, not with his hands. Though this forced them to let Bilbo sit upright in the cart, instead of putting him on his belly during the days. And it also let the two of them create a better way to communicate since they had nothing else to do. 


The boy’s mother was worried, naturally, about her son, but Bilbo did his best to hum happy sounding songs to try and reassure her that the lad was as alright as he could make him at the moment, and to keep the lad entertained as best he could. The boy was still set to the tasks of feeding and watering him, but they had at least never had the lad forced to help him at the latrine since that was when the boy was allowed to go as well.


The trade off now was having to kneel at the latrine and watching them use the boy as a human shield, a slaver’s knife set to his young throat in threat. Only then was the boy given the key to unlock the padlock that attached one of Bilbo’s wrist shackles to the bar just long enough for Bilbo to relieve himself, and then allow the boy to place the shackle back around him and lock it. That was when the boy was allowed to relieve himself before they were bound together again. His bar to the boy’s collar, the boy’s wrists locked to a chain around their waists that then threaded down to shackles that bound Bilbo’s ankles. Another bar connecting them collar to collar so Bilbo couldn’t even lean his head forward enough to press his head to the boy. The clever one’s final annoying gift.

Bilbo probably could have killed the slaver before the man could hurt the boy, but he would still undoubtedly burn the lad. Not with his own flames, he had enough control for that at least, but from the metal of the collar and chains as they heated, since they weren’t amulets, and therefore not under his control, especially if he didn’t have direct skin to skin contact with the lad. The metal wouldn’t burn himself, but he couldn’t prevent it from heating. And that would take long enough they would DEFINITELY hurt the boy. Without the key he couldn’t get free of the shackles and collar quickly unless he melted the iron, which would definitely kill the boy in the process. Until there was at least one sigil that he could bind the magic to and make sure that the boy was immune not just to his fire, but also to heat, he was helpless.   


When they did spend the day resting on the bottom of the wagon, the boy proved his cleverness. He had figured out that it was Bilbo destroying the ropes. He became a handy helper in getting bits of rope close enough for Bilbo to surreptitiously make sure that more and more of the rope the slavers were steadily growing in short supply of ‘went bad’. The others caught on quickly and rotated their seats so that their bonds were close enough to Bilbo’s fingers so that at least once or twice a day another rope would break regardless of how dry, preserved, or well done the knots were, and the slavers didn’t have nearly enough chains for everyone, even with half of the prisoners having already escaped. 


The slavers tried to compensate for this by winding a chain through the bars of the cage, and binding their captive’s collars between the bars of the wagon, only letting them out for the latrine and to cook food or set up camp, but otherwise making them all stay in the cart through the nights, one of them laying on the floor of the cart, or two when it was Bilbo and the boy’s turn. That was their undoing in the end since while Bilbo’s hands were not free, the lad’s were far more mobile, and he had finally managed to pick up a stone with a good edge on it when they had stopped that day to refill their water supplies at a river.

They had all been dragged out a few at a time to bathe, since they were apparently nearing their base, where there were already people waiting for the new slaves to be sold. They had of course made the boy bathe Bilbo before himself, and were so focused on Bilbo, that the lad was able to pocket the stone without being noticed

Bilbo silently rejoiced when the lad finally managed to scratch the mark Bilbo wanted onto their ankle shackles with the rock he’d managed to palm. Sure enough, even though it was wobbly, it was enough to reach out and bind his magic to it and extend his fire’s reach without harming the boy.

Bilbo nodded, signalled as if he were putting a single finger to his lips to warn them all to be quiet and tried to convey non verbally with his eyes that he wouldn’t harm the boy to the lad’s obviously worried mother. A moment later he carefully drew the boy back carefully against him and thought of warm soothing fire covering him from head to toe. 


The fire quickly spread out in tiny flames over his hands and up over his body, staying low and hopefully out of sight of the slavers, and then, when he was sure it would work and he could keep the lad from being burned, he let them embrace the boy as well. Bilbo smiled with his eyes when the boy looked at them in wonder as he got to touch them without any harm. He even giggled, and Bilbo knew he was feeling what Bilbo had felt that first time he had taken a fire bath with Ember, warmth that kinda felt like wispy tickling feathers.


“Warm.” he said and Bilbo nodded, then drew the flames back in and extinguished them. He nodded his head at the marks the lad had made, then pointed to the others, and the lad was quick to catch on. He scratched the mark onto the ankle shackles he was closest to, and then Bilbo proved it worked by letting the flames touch them without harming them, to reassure them it would work. It took a few days before everyone cycled close enough to get the mark and have their shackles turned into an amulet.


He started in on his plan the morning after the last shackle was marked. As they were setting out from camp, one of the supply wagons passed within reach, and Bilbo shot a small stream of flames at it, right above an oil lamp, to make it break and seem the cause. He pushed power into it, letting the flames spread quickly, but was merciful to the horses and just made the flames eat through the straps holding them to the cart so they could get away uninjured. The slavers desperately tried to save their gear, but it was no good. Their tents, poles, bedrolls, blankets, extra clothes, cold weather gear, and their supply of lamp oil went right up in an impressive inferno. 


One of the idiots had tried throwing water on it, but anyone who cooked regularly could tell you, throwing water on an oil or grease fire only made it a hundred times worse. The whole wagon was lost in less than ten minutes. During the next two days you could see the way it wore on the slavers, the loss of their comfort items making them get far less sleep, and some being made to walk, or wrangle horses instead of getting to ride in wagons like they had done before. They couldn’t cover as much ground with part of the group moving slower now. It wore on tempers, and an actual fight broke out in camp that night between two of the slavers after the last rope finally broke. 


Now that the others were safe from the heat and flames, Bilbo started working on freeing all of them, while trying to make sure the slavers wouldn’t retaliate against them. The second wagon to go was the one with the captives in it. He slowly let the flames spread through the bottom of the cart and burn clean through the places where the axle was attached to the frame, making both of them fall off and the entire board it was attached to break in half lengthways, so they couldn’t fix it. The axles fell straight off, breaking the wheels and the sides, and the bottom of the cart receiving damage from all the weight of the bars, chains, and people inside it. The leader of their group threw an almighty tantrum afterwards, kicking and cursing the downed cart and swearing so colorfully that Bilbo wanted to cover the lad’s ears. He doubted that the man had ever had one of his runs go quite so badly before. Now they were all forced to walk, save for the one person driving the food wagon. Their pace slowed down even further as they tried to keep everyone in a single line or two on a long chain. They were forced to let Bilbo and the lad have some space, and remove the hobble entirely as it made walking anywhere impossible. 


Bilbo did other little things to wear them down, made the fires burn so hot that their meat scorched to tough and dry jerky by the first time they checked it, he burned their porridges and stews, and even melted through the bottoms of their cooking pots. Losing them their supplies, time, wood, and a time or two, their fire. The captives had still been getting thin gruel and porridge that was cooked in a separate pot, dry waybread that most times was crumbled and cooked into the soup to thicken it, and water. They had originally been made to cook their meals themselves, so their food was the same as always, but the slavers were beginning to get hungry, frustrated and very very angry. Especially once there was only one pot left whole, and that meant either they had to cook twice, meaning people lost out on sleep, they started later in the day, or they had to eat alongside their captives from the same pot. They chose the latter, and everyone’s meals vastly improved, because no one wanted to give up even more sleep. He smiled when he heard that they should have arrived over a week ago. It was incredible how quickly he was able to fray them raw, they were tired, testy, and picking at each other. Which meant they made a misstep. They weren’t paying as much attention as usual, becoming fatigued and distracted.

None of them caught on that Bilbo was slowly burning through the locks on the chain attached to their shackles every night now. They didn’t notice as the bit they had shoved into his mouth was cast aside and not replaced. They didn’t notice the padlocks on the others were failing to fully latch, thereby not securing the chain to their captives' collars. They just wanted the journey to be over now. So sure enough, there was another revolt, and this time, Bilbo was not only ready, willing, and able to join in, he started it. 


He started by heating his chains while they were walking. He made a big show of it, dropping to his knees, crying out, telling them all to get back, he was going to burn, he couldn’t control or stop it… there were spurts of fire seeming to come out of his fingers, and even his breath sent waves of heat and flickers of flames from his mouth in spurts. The idiot who attempted to grab him to get him away from the others, only ended up scalding their hands and shrieking in pain as he scrabbled away. 


There was now a telltale glow creeping down the chain towards the others ahead of him. Red creeping down, link by link, then orange and yellow the closer you got to Bilbo, and finally white hot where the metal was closest to his hands. 


The slavers panicked, rushing to get everyone else off of the chain Bilbo was on. The captives were now crying and shrieking in ‘fear’, having caught on to what Bilbo was doing and willingly providing the distraction he needed. The slavers came close enough to unhook the others in a mad panic, ducking the flames spurting out at them in threatening arcs. Merely trying to make sure no more of their limited cargo and therefore potential profit was lost. 


As soon as the last captive was off and away, Bilbo let loose with giant flames exploding out of him in every direction. He heard someone give the order to shoot him at a distance, in order to save themselves, but stopping arrows was child’s play. His flames devoured it and roared up higher, seeming to not like any threat against their host. Some other brilliant genius doused him with a large bucket of water, assuming that would be enough to at least put him out or dampen the flames, but it just managed to shatter the metal of the shackles from temperature shock, the broken metal exploding and sending flying shrapnel everywhere while sending up a huge and shielding cloud of steam.

That was enough of a distraction for Bilbo to grab the fallen chain, return it to glowing within seconds, and begin using it as a whip. He used it to grab the nearest slaver in a scalding embrace and haul him close. The second that the man was within reach, Bilbo’s hands were right against the bastard’s shirt, so he could blast flames straight into the slaver’s gut, the thick, sticky flames that behaved like liquid stone, and that were so hot they were nearly impossible to put out, and burned through their victim completely.

Bilbo tugged a tongue of that flame towards himself as the man scrambled back, alight and screaming. Futilely flailing to try and put out the agonizing blaze, the man only managed to burn his hands in the process and watch in horror as the fire ate straight through him from the inside. That was two down, eight to go. 


Bilbo used the sticky fire in one hand and the white hot fiery chain whips in the other, attacking the remaining slavers without remorse. The other prisoners had gradually become alright with the idea that the flames were nothing they had to fear, no matter how large or terrifying they grew.


Huge roaring flames engulfed and destroyed anyone without a shackle, the horses would have fled in terror if Bilbo hadn’t ringed the area entirely with fire to prevent it, otherwise they may have even leapt from the cliff in panic. The screams of the dying men were nothing but music to Bilbo’s ears. 


Once it was over, Bilbo smothered the flames and broke the captives' shackles as well, freeing them, though also making them vulnerable to heat and fire again. He made sure to explain that to them too, not wanting them to get the wrong idea. He also destroyed all the amulets he'd made, not wanting them to potentially fall into the wrong hands.

The prisoners looted the remaining supply wagon, doling out food to everyone left alive, and keeping the wagon itself and all the horses, save Marigold, to get back down the mountain. Bilbo retrieved his traveling pack that had of course survived the fire of the other wagons, the sigil carved into the leather and set ages ago, along with marks on Marigold’s saddle, bridle, and horseshoes, to keep the sweet thing safe. She was used to flames around him.

The slavers had taken his things with them as more items to sell. When he checked, they hadn't found the secret compartments in both pack and saddle which contained hidden food and some extra coin, so he was doing better than most, and his clothes were too small to fit any but a child, so they'd been left alone as well. 


Bilbo was finally introduced properly to the young lad he had spent so much time with, his name was Ashwell, and his mother was Deidre. Young Ashwell gave him a very large hug before all of the prisoners set off back to civilization and safety. Or at least as safe as they were likely to get. But Bilbo had a different destination to reach. 


Bilbo packed his share of the food and continued on towards the slavers’ camp, determined to get rid of every slaver and buyer that he could find and free their captives. He had no tolerance for such things. Two days brisk ride and he was finally there, and it was a much larger place than he had thought it would be. 


The slavers had found a very large hollow in the mountains that they had turned into an actual little village, with dozens upon dozens of captives who were made up of men, but there was also a group of enslaved people in chains who were not men, dwarves, elves, hobbits, nor did they seem like any fell race like orcs, goblins, or trolls either. But they were a huge people, bigger than any he had ever seen before, and just as strong. Their chains were extremely thick, and Bilbo saw them carrying huge and heavy loads, things that would have crushed a normal man easily. It didn’t seem like there were any other captives being held for sale, all of these slaves were already considered owned. Bilbo and the group he had been with was likely to have been their next supply of stock. He would wait nearby for a while if he had to, just to make sure no one else would be coming with more people to sell.


He wasn’t even there a full day, hiding among some stored goods in a shed waiting for night to fall, before one of the giant slaves came in and set down a large barrel. 


“What are you, and what is your business here?” The person asked gruffly. “I can smell you, so don’t pretend you aren’t there. Stealing food and supplies from this place is a stupid thing to try and do.”


“I was planning on killing all of the slavers and setting all of the captives free, if that would be something you are interested in.”


“That is a very stupid thing to try and do, and I don’t know how you think you would succeed. Why decide to do that? We don’t know each other.” 


“No, we don’t. My name is Bilbo. I’m a hobbit, but your people aren’t known to me, I’ve never met your kind on my travels or heard you described in any books I have read.”


“My name is Beorn. We are shape shifters, we have another form we can take, but these chains make it that if we shift, they choke us to death. How exactly do you plan on getting us free? There’s at least a hundred of them and only one of you, and my people aren’t likely to risk themselves for a stranger, even a friendly one. We’ve been tricked before.”


“I have my ways, clever ways, but I promise you, I am going to get all of you free.”


“Those are proud words, little hobbit, and around here, pride gets you beaten or killed. I shall believe you better if you prove to be more than those words.”


“Show me who is in charge and where the slavers sleep, and I swear to you, that by tomorrow, I will give you proof of my word.”


“There is a sort of council that meets in the tall building there, in the middle of town, they more or less run things around here. But there is at least one if not more slaver in every building here. They all work for a bunch of orcs though, not people. It's Azog who runs things, but he's not here right now. You'd know if he was, the slavers get scared and twitchy. 


My people are kept in cages in the outbuildings at the center of town, near the stables. We are used for prisoner control and manual labor. Personal slaves live in their owner’s houses. They will have been branded. The council sends out sixteen wagons every few months, three or four to a group, but the last group is overdue to return. If they aren’t wearing shackles, collars, or have a brand, then they are a slaver, even the women. Don’t let that fool you.”


Bilbo nodded, it was a difficult thing to hear, but it was also something he needed to hear and understand, so he didn’t accidentally let a few of the slavers go. He had no intention of letting any of them get away.


“And your shackles, the one’s for your people, who holds that key?”


“The council.”


Bilbo offered to free the shapeshifter from his chains right then but the man refused, stating it would be noticed immediately. 


Bilbo left, and he came up with a plan. He stayed out of town the rest of the day, and just past sunset, he created a low burning fire which he turned to dragon’s fire. It scorched lots of dry leaves, sending up a huge cloud of smoldering smoke with fluttering smoldering embers that caught the breeze. The embers still had enough fire in them for him to control, so he sent the burning cloud straight over the village, making it seem like a forest fire was spreading somewhere nearby. He sent those glowing embers right on top of the council building, and he let them grow, catching and burning into the dry shingles without any trouble. 


The whole roof had gone alight in mere moments, sending a panic through the town. The council members fled the building, and Bilbo crouched low and unnoticed in the darkness, watching, until he spotted the man with the keys on his belt, following where he went closely. 


As he had hoped, slaves were sent to put out the fire, and he let them, he had what he wanted. Some slaves were also sent to the woods to keep an eye on which direction the forest fire was coming from. But Bilbo had made sure it was just lots of smoke coming from every direction, filling the air in thick columns so they weren’t able to tell which way, if either, would be safe to flee down, especially in the dark. 


Bilbo, for his part, was only letting underbrush and the occasional shrub burn, so even though it looked extensive, it wouldn’t actually harm the forest itself, and the ashes would actually fertilize the trees with the next few rains. It felt good to let his power spread and expand even though it was limited. Like a good stretch after a long time cooped up. 


The slaves couldn’t see in the dark, or with the smoke shrouding the actual fire, leaving nothing to report to the slavers on where it was or how large. It was a tense night, more and more slaves were sent out to find this mysterious fire which surely must be right on top of them by now. Many of the slavers packing their belongings, only waiting to hear which way they should be running, only for the slaves to not find it, or to not return at all. 


Bilbo had followed the man with the keys into his home before setting his fire rolling through the entire house with the man inside, after making sure no innocent was inside. It spread so hot and fast that the slaver was dead before anyone even noticed the flames before they were shooting out of the chimney, and Bilbo had long since absconded with the keys. 


He found the slaves of that house, a group of humans locked together in an outbuilding, and released their shackles, telling them to run, the forest fire had just been a ruse to set them free and hide their escape. He told them that there had been a slave uprising, and now they were free. He did the same with any other human slaves he found, unlocking their shackles and telling them the town was lost to the flames, take their family and run.


None of them had been inclined to return to verify it, taking off into the night with what goods they could carry, without waiting to check on their fellows, taking his word that it was the truth. Though that was from the barest hint of Compulsion he laced his words with, a skill he hadn’t used in a very long time, so he was surprised that it had worked at all. Either way, it made it easier, not to have panicking people trying to look for others. Every slave was going to leave alive if he had his way.


As the human slaves failed to return, the slavers grew more and more nervous, the smoke thick and disorienting until they could hardly see each other, let alone a way to flee safely, and many likely thought it was the end. All night they watched anxiously for the glow of flames, but none appeared in the darkness. And come morning, the smoke and the embers abruptly vanished, three buildings burned to ash, one person dead, dozens of slaves missing, but no fire, no heat, the forest appearing untouched, the underbrush burned to cold white ash that melted away into the soil with the morning dew and mist, not even the slightest blade of grass seeming amiss, or a hint of black char remaining. The slavers were stumped, the air was clear and bright, nothing suggesting a fire had been there. Let alone where the men sent out had gone.

Rumors of ghosts, magic, hallucinations, or mistaking the three burning buildings as a forest fire all came popping up, trying to find a reasonable explanation for everything. Humans liked things to be explainable. 


A few sent out slaves to look for the ones missing, but a little compulsion, the key that unlocked their shackles and collars, and they too never returned. Whereas any slavers who left the valley were killed nearly the moment they were out of sight, torched alive, the flames choking them from even being able to scream before they were dead. 


By the time night fell again, he had made a significant dent in the population, but he wasn’t done yet. As soon as the sun set, Bilbo used dragon’s fire again, this time to create a glow in the sky to make it seem as though the fire was very close to them now. With the heavy smoke, both ways down the mountain looked to be blocked, and there was only one way out of the little valley.

The slavers were panicked now. They had been up for more than two days and one night, so they were tired and scared, which was exactly what Bilbo wanted. In the bustle of panic as the ones who tried to gather their things that hadn’t yet, Bilbo ducked back into the town, letting a couple more buildings catch alight after he cleared them of any captives, in order to distract anyone from paying attention to him. 


He ducked into the outbuilding that Beorn had told him about and found the shapeshifters. He unlocked Beorn from his cage.

“Now do you believe me? Come, the smoke is just a diversion. The way out of the valley is clear, and the time to fight back is now. They cannot subdue you, you easily outnumber them at least five to one.” 


“You give me little way not to believe you, little hobbit.” The shapeshifter said before taking the keys from him while Bilbo broke open the equipment cupboard.


Together the two of them released Beorn’s people from their cages and their shackles, arming them with hammers, tools, some even using their own chains as weapons. The shapeshifters led the way, and set upon their remaining captors, the human slaves either joining them as soon as their chains came loose, or running to gather their loved ones and flee as fast as they could.

Bilbo kept the distraction of the smoke going as the captives felled their enemies and looted the entire town and every building still standing of anything of use. Food, money, blankets, clothing, tents, the horses, wagons, and their tools, they took everything before fleeing into the night at Bilbo’s encouragement, after checking for anyone left in chains. The humans went in one direction, and the shapeshifters went another. The two groups had apparently never been friendly with each other and they had no desire to start now.

Even though most of the buildings were on fire now, Bilbo left a parting gift for any of the remaining slavers who may have managed to somehow hide from the attack. The way out was blocked with flame by now, roaring high and hot. So he took a very large chunk of the Balrog’s magic, and aimed it right at the small town as he stood near the exit.

Giant, intensely powerful flames roared out of both hands for over five minutes in a wave of fiery death for anything in their path, encouraged to grow and consume, everything now alight in an unquenchable inferno. By the time he was done there wasn’t a part of the place that wasn’t burning, not a single soul still left alive inside that could have possibly escaped. The fire burned so hot that  it was pulling in air to feed it, whipping up a strong wind that made them burn hotter, until even the masonry cracked and the buildings fell apart. The stones were all glowing red as they collapsed under the sudden and intense heat that swept through. 


The trees ringing the town were scorched to char near instantly, the stone of the surrounding mountain that protected the village from three sides had flames licking up the sides of the mountain over fifty feet high. Even the stones of the mountain were black with char and glowing a dull red by the time he stopped. The ground the town had stood on was left molten and bubbling, and it would take weeks, maybe even months to cool with how deeply the glow reached.

Once Bilbo was sure that not a wretched slavers’ soul was even possibly left standing, he walked back through the utter ruinous destruction of his handy work, collected the reins of his pony which he had squirreled away earlier, and walked in the direction the shape shifters had gone.


“Handy trick.” 


Bilbo startled, ready to attack, but recognized the voice. Beorn. “It is really a bad idea to surprise me.” Bilbo said unhappily.


“Didn’t know you could use magic, but it was very impressive.” The shapeshifter replied nonplussed, and entirely unapologetic. 


“Well, it wasn’t originally MY magic, it was a Balrog’s, but the beast failed to capture me with it, and the elves showed me how I could use it. ”


“I’d quite like to hear that story sometime.” Beorn said with a smirk. Blunt as a hammer that one.


“Perhaps some day, not right now, it isn’t exactly a happy story. Anyway, I’d appreciate it if you don’t mention it to others.”


Beorn nodded “Not my secret or story to tell, Little Bunny.” 


“Little bunny ?!”


“Your nose twitches and wrinkles when you’re flustered, exactly like a bunny’s.”


“It most certainly does not!”


“Yes it does, and how would you know? Can you see the end of your nose? Because I can, and it twitches like a bunny.” 


Bilbo was highly tempted to lunge forward and bite the skin changer’s nose, but the man would only laugh and say it proved his point. 


Bilbo would be exasperated by the skin changer more than once, as they caught up with the other skin changers and started finding out where they were going. But apparently the giant man liked him, inviting him to sit beside him as they stopped for a meal. 


That was when they got around to sorting out everything they had taken, and luckily one of the things they had looted were the keys to their shackles. One by one they were all set free, and Bilbo kept all of the shackles and chains when the skin changers would have probably just thrown them away, he knew that very soon they would probably need the metal.

The days passed rather uneventfully as they made their way down through the mountains, Beorn always making sure he was included in the group. Bilbo became their fire tender because even after a rainstorm, Bilbo could always seem to manage to get a fire lit and to stay lit through the night no matter how little wood they may have found that night. As time went by, Bilbo felt a sort of kinship begin to form with the skin changers, even though they were far larger than any big folk should have any right to be.


They had a sizable chest full of coin, but it was very little coin to spend on keeping so many very large people alive, and most had very little idea on what to use it for other than maybe buying some food. Bilbo doubted that they would dare to trust men, which he didn’t blame them for at all, but they were nowhere near enough to a town to even need to bother with it at the moment.


They fled East and South, beyond the Misties. It was a hard time considering they were rather ill prepared for a long journey provision wise, but with foraging, hunting, and fishing, as well as keeping a steady pace, they managed to make it through. Eventually they found a wide area rather close to Mirkwood, large and flat, which was perfect to settle down, and seemed far enough away from danger that they should be undisturbed. 


The skin changers hadn’t been free in several generations, and because of that and the mountains they had lived in,  they no longer knew how to do things like cultivate the land. The few plots the slavers had kept in the woods had been tended by the humans. The skinchangers had mainly been used for hard manual labor like quarrying, mining, logging. hauling loads, and building. 


Bilbo couldn’t much help them with home building, it hadn’t been anything he had ever studied, though he could follow directions when given. Thankfully this was something the skin changers could do perfectly well on their own, and digging down deep into the earth and building notched log cabins on top of them were rather easy to do with what they had available. The cabins were also quick to assemble, and Bilbo spent most of his time helping to make daub from the dirt they had dug up, mixed with water and grass to seal up edges and cracks to prevent drafts, as well as help them build a proper fireplace. 


Food however, that was something Bilbo could definitely help them with much more. Not just with the things to forage, which the Rangers and Thrain and even the Elves had all taught him extensively about, but farming as well. Bilbo was still a Hobbit, if as far from a proper one as it was possible to be these days, and Hobbits had a love of all things that grow. He had listened to Holman Greenhand and Gaffer Gamgee his entire youth, and been taught everything there was to know about gardening even though he hadn’t ever needed to ask. 


Even though he hadn’t needed it for more than half of his life now, he still knew the fertilizers and the soil types and the times you should plant and harvest different crops, he knew about the slope of land, the amount of water, and which plants to rotate with which others, and also how to use animals to help you garden. Bees to help pollinate, Chickens, geese, and ducks for bugs and slugs, pigs to root, turn soil, and compost, sheep and goats for grass and weeds, cats for rodents, dogs for protection against predators and to herd the sheep and goats, oxen to help you plow the land, a good horse or two for everything else, and all the livestock would provide fertilizer. Unless you had a dragon, who could do all of it and more. But Bilbo kept that bit to himself.


They were rationing carefully, and had been from the start. Thankfully, it was a good time of year to find a LOT of food. Bilbo helped them forage in the woods for dozens of edibles, and showed them how to grow it for themselves, and then made especially sure that he taught them all the differences between edible and poisonous mushrooms, and how to cultivate those, as well as basic herbal remedies. He expounded on the benefits of athelas as well as any elf could have ever done.  


But in order to really survive they would need a variety of crops to cultivate, as well as hunting, fishing, and farm animals, so he set off with a lot of the coin, in search of the nearest town, and when he found a group of three villages very close to each other, he wasn’t disappointed in the variety of things they had available. It was small but lively, and had a lot of fertile farmland, as well as several smaller surrounding villages. But the people who lived in all three villages were very cruel and unwilling to help outsiders for any reason, and the prices they wanted for what Bilbo needed to buy weren’t just expensive, they were ridiculously overpriced, and only for himself. He hadn’t even been able to try and haggle or barter. Whenever he had tried, the prices had only gone UP. 


Bilbo had a thing about manners and hospitality, his morals had been frayed and worn down long ago, and his temper was very thin these days. So he decided to outright take what they needed from the people who had been so horrifically rude and ill mannered, since they wouldn’t fairly sell it to him. He employed each of the shapeshifters into helping him cover his tracks, and over the next several months the towns were plagued with misfortunes, because Bilbo had become a master sneak thief. 


He snuck into those towns of men, into their barns, stealing different seeds and seedlings of each kind he needed, from each home. Then one by one he also began stealing fruits, vegetables, bags of grain and animal feed. He stole fresh and fertilized eggs by the dozens, newly hatched chicks of all varieties, chickens, ducks, geese, and as many of their mothers to brood them as he could manage to get his hands on, and was once again sharply reminded that ganders are MEAN, but he got one of those too. 


They stole newly weaned goat kids and lambs, and their mothers, and one each of their sires, they snatched  newly weaned piglets, each from separate farms, and a sow with six young ones that weren’t yet close to weaned. That one had taken two of the shape-shifters to help him pull it off, for there is nothing more stubborn than a pig that doesn’t want to move, and an angry sow is nothing he ever wanted to mess with. He took half a dozen barn kittens and puppies from all over as well. 


Eventually he worked his way up to the bigger things, and nabbed a few barely weaned draft colts and fillies, their mothers, and then one very memorable time, picked up three old nags and a stallion that would have been sent to slaughter in the morning, but Beorn had taken a shine to them, so Bilbo nicked them. 


If they had gotten it into their heads to rear or run, Bilbo wouldn’t have been able to control a single one of them, let alone all four, but thankfully they seemed to understand that he was trying to save them, and they followed along behind him as docile as you please. The eight oxen he managed to nab took a month of planning and four helpers to help him pull it off. They all disappeared on the same night, one pair each from four different farms, and without a single trace or sound of alarm.


 Most of the thefts were attributed to wild animals, for the footprints of bears, wolves, foxes, and more large and nameless things were everywhere around during those days, and yet not a single hunter could find a trace of them beyond their prints. No blood, no sounds, no remains, no drag marks, the dogs who were set to guard them looked terrified come morning. It was baffling to the townsfolk entirely until a large clearing with the earth scorched black was discovered in the woods nearby the largest town by some hunters.


 There was a masoned circle of stones around the boundary of the black char, and inside laid the stone shape of a slumbering dragon curled beside a flat boulder, a piece of paper discarded on top. There was a large note there, Bilbo’s shopping list of all the things he had needed, but had been refused, the quantities much smaller than what had gone missing, and most noted that there were still things on the list that hadn’t been taken yet. On the back, was written a curse in what appeared to be blood. It stated:


To those so greedy and unkind to an honest person who would have dealt with them fairly, I curse this land and these towns with a dragon’s greed and a dragon’s hunger that shall devour all they hold dear. They shall be judged, their kindness and generosity shall make my beast slumber, their greed shall continue to feed him until he awakens and destroys them all. 


The spirits of nature would have been kind, had they been kind to one who sought their help. Instead I sought aid for ten days only to be turned away at every turn with scorn. So I now treat them as they have treated others, taking ten times the worth of what I wanted, as they had sought to charge from me, in payment for their greed. Should their avarice not become generosity before my beast wakes, they shall birth their own destruction.  


The paper would not burn, cut, or tear, and it couldn’t be moved more than a few feet from the stone dragon. The ink would not fade, smudge, or run with water, or alcohol, or oil, no matter how much was poured on it. No hammer or chisel could so much as chip the stone dragon, no rope or plow could move it, no shovel could seem to dig under it. And worse yet, the stone always felt very warm to the touch, and if you looked at it long enough, it seemed to be breathing and there seemed to be a bit of glow around the eyes.


The townspeople were terrified.


Bilbo had admittedly been angry, absolutely furious at how he had been treated. He had made both the stone dragon and the paper into treasures and bound it deeply into the earth, not an easy feat with his limited magic, but he had been more than furious and had used his magic in that way instead of setting fires in the towns in spite.


Every misfortune in the towns began being blamed on the dragon even if Bilbo had had nothing at all to do with it. He kept on stealing seed, feed, and tools, until the shapeshifters had more than enough to make it through the winter comfortably for themselves and the animals, and still have enough to get through the spring planting as well. Then he finally came across the last things he needed. From a rather well off house that had burned down a while back (not his doing, but still blamed on him regardless), Bilbo took the cast iron wood burning stove with some help from Beorn, along with anything that had survived the fire. The fox shifters were left to dig around in that, seeking useful things, since they could go about unnoticed. Most of it was gone, but there were some salvageable pots and pans that just needed new handles, some bricks that were still usable, and they also found a huge cast iron cauldron they took with glee.


Then finally from a farmer who had recently died without having a family, Bilbo and the shifters were exceedingly bold. Bilbo stole his cart, plow, scythe, pots, pans, kitchenware, all of his tools, and his cows, one of which had a calf. It’s not like the farmer would need them anymore, he reasoned. He nearly got caught that time, cows were not the easiest animals to keep going in one direction, nor the heavily loaded cart the quietest to try and move in the dead of night, especially when a cow is nearly ten times your size, but Bilbo kept her walking by leading the calf so that she followed along with the cart hitched to her, all the way through town before he got her off of the road and into the woods, where Beorn and the others were waiting to lead them away. 


The next night, anything else of use they wanted was gone from the house, but the neighbors only noticed when a day later, the entire house and wall was gone too, having been salvaged by the whole lot for the wood and stone. That certainly caused a stir.


The only thing that could be found to explain it to the villagers was a new copy of Bilbo’s shopping list, each of the items cheerfully marked off, even the ‘big items to get later’ portion such as a variety of livestock, lumber, cart, and stove.


They had enough for everyone after that, and had long since made sure they were far enough away from the towns of men before they settled down. 

Together they built a large communal house, barn, and field for everyone to use for the winter while they gradually built individual homes and barns out of the surrounding woodlands for themselves. 


Bilbo stayed with them for over a year as he taught the shapeshifters farming, crop rotation, food preservation, wool harvesting, carding, spinning, knitting and crochet, making flax and hemp into both food and fiber, animal care and husbandry, and how to craft, cure, and fire clay they could gather from the nearby riverbank and make into just about anything they needed; earthen ovens, bowls and vases, even shingles for the roof. He knew how a few hobbits had made heated clay floors to indirectly warm their smials in the winter months if their feet were especially sensitive to the chill, and he showed them that too. 


Things he hadn’t even remembered that he knew, things he'd learned as far back as his childhood, like papermaking, book binding, ink making, bee keeping and how big of a flower garden or orchard you needed to support multiple hives, it came back to him now that he needed it to help his new friends make it on their own. He hadn’t remembered how many things he knew, because he hadn’t really needed the information for so long, though he had found the subjects very interesting. Together they all muddled through and learned and went from surviving, to actual living. 


During the winter, he took up the hammer and anvil again for the first time in years, and he taught the ones who didn't already know how, to make charcoal and to smith while they were waiting for the thaw to come so they could plant. He smelted and recast the symbols of the Shapeshifters’ slavery into things they would need, showed them how to make horse shoes, and nails, and hammered pots, and that the best hooks always had a twist in them for strength. They didn’t have much metal, but what they did, they made very sure they knew how to work if needed, and a few planned to find a human town that would be good to trade with which was NOT the ones they had stolen from.


The shapeshifters not only survived, they flourished. All they had needed was a bit of knowledge so they wouldn’t waste time through trial and error, or lose crops that they couldn’t afford to lose, possibly starving while they figured things out. It was very fulfilling to see his friends doing so well for themselves, and to know that he had been able to help somehow. So many times he had not been able to do anything to help. This felt like his first real success in a very long time. 


Thoughts of home undoubtedly led to thoughts of Ember. The shapeshifters were doing fine on their own, Beorn and many of them had become quite dear friends to him. But his heart still ached for his dragon. So before he felt like a third wheel, he loaded his pack and since the shapeshifters needed all of the animals they could get for awhile, he left Marigold with them to help out. He couldn’t take as much, but he knew how to travel light. He then set out once more into the Misties, determined to find either his dragon, or more orcs and goblins that he could kill. 


Bilbo followed the mountains southeast, curving down around the forests of Mirkwood, and avoiding the wood elves’ lands, he had been told they were not very hospitable to strangers, though he didn’t know if that was true for Hobbits. The wood elves and Hobbits had once been friends and allies, but he wasn’t willing to risk it alone if the wood elves had forgotten about it. 


As he moved south, Bilbo found an abundance of orcs, goblins, trolls, and wargs, which he felled with swift and merciless efficiency as Glorfindel had suggested, but there was still no sign of his dragon. He burned every fell thing he found. It didn’t matter if it was attacking him or if he just happened to come across it, he burned it before it ever got the chance to harm anything else. 


Several months later Bilbo was attempting to get over a very tricky mountain range when his life drastically changed once again.


Admittedly climbing mountains alone and ill prepared was a very dangerous, and as Beorn would have doubtlessly pointed out, a very stupid thing to do under normal circumstances. Add in the fact that Bilbo was up high enough that there was a year round snow pack on top of this particular mountain only made it worse. To top it all off, even though it was the middle of summer, a storm rolled in, and instead of rain, it fell as a blizzard that came in hard that night and stayed for the next day as well, leaving two feet of fresh and powder soft snow in its wake. 


It was originally going to make the trip three weeks shorter for him to go over the mountain than around it. But the snow slowed Bilbo’s movements to a near crawl since he was only three and a half feet tall to begin with. It had seemed the better option with no idea of exactly when he could find a town to resupply his food in, or find an unfrozen source of water if he tried to descend and then go around the mountain, since it would be over a week and a half of supplies just to look. Whereas he knew where the next township was once he was on the opposite side of the peak. Even with slow going, he crested the peak only a few hours later than he had wanted to, and even though he was tired, he didn’t let himself rest very long. He wanted to try to move down below the snowline before nightfall if possible so he could make a warmer camp. But Bilbo Baggins was in quite a bit of trouble, more than he at first realized. 


Unknown to him was the fact that beneath his feet, the snow was already up to twenty feet thick, in several layers, and many of them had been wet snow that was now compacted down into ice as more and more weight was added onto it with each snowfall. Layer after layer of hard and soft snows with a base of pure ice. 


Except for the Fell Winter, Bilbo was unfamiliar with dealing with very much snow, it wasn’t common in the Shire beyond a few flurries which left a couple of powdery inches for the faunts to go sledding on for an afternoon before it was gone, and it almost never got more than six inches deep. He didn’t have much experience hiking in snowy mountains, else he might have known better. But still he pressed forward, to his detriment, driving his walking stick in deep to give him better support as he moved. 


One wrong step in the right spot was all it took. One moment all was fine, the next it seemed as though the entire mountain itself was sliding out from under him in a literal churning river of snow that was plowing down the mountainside at great speed. There was no telling how big it was, or how far he was being dragged into the avalanche. 


Bilbo was utterly caught up in it, the world was a total crushing white out, he was tumbling and spinning, unknowing of which way was even up, snow smothering and choking him as he desperately tried to keep his face above it so he could keep breathing as he got small little glimpses of brighter sky. There was nothing to catch hold of, nothing to grab onto to slow or stop himself. He hit rocks that were hidden beneath the snow, winding him even more and likely leaving him bruised horribly if not with broken ribs. His leg suddenly caught on something and he was jerked forward regardless. He screamed as his leg gave a sickening pop as he was wrenched free again and continued his seemingly unending tumble in freezing, smothering, choking snow, mixed with rocks, mud, and hidden boulders, until everything was just white blind darkness, hints of blue, and pain. 


Bilbo must have lost consciousness for a time, but in one way he was lucky, he had stopped with his head mostly above the snow, else he would have undoubtedly suffocated to death. His left leg was screaming in pain, and was pinned in a very strange way. He was buried up to his neck, and one of his arms was trapped fast in the snow under him. As the avalanche stopped, the snow had settled into a pure crushing weight that left him almost entirely unable to move, and it was very difficult to breathe. 


It was going to be extremely hard to dig through on his own with only one hand. Luckily the balrog fire was able to melt enough space around him so he could breathe freely and move better. Even then, with his extensive injuries it took over three hours to fully dig himself free, only to discover that his leg was dislocated at the hip and the flesh was utterly shredded from the knee down, He also had a horribly broken foot that was the worst at the ankle. Unfortunately his spark of dragon magic was still instinctively set to heal his injuries, and while it was welcome for the more superficial wounds on his leg, trying to stop it from automatically trying to fix his hip or foot until he had at least got them back into joint or the bones set properly, exhausted him since it was already trying to heal him, which would only be worse if he had to re-break his leg to make sure it was the right shape. 


The ankle was the easier of the two since he could get his hands around it, but popping his hip back into the socket on his own with nothing to brace it on was nearly impossible to do. When he finally managed to get out of the snow pit he had melted and crawl over to a nearby boulder, toss a bit of rope over it, and then jerk his full weight against the injured hip braced against the rock three times in quick succession, he finally did it. The pain was so overwhelming that he threw up. 


Alone and injured, he let go of the power he had been holding back and his magic rushed to the rescue, leaving him weakened magically, weaker than he could ever remember being since he had escaped Moria. He used only balrog fire to keep himself from freezing in his torn clothes that were nearly soaked through with snow melt, and tried his best not to put any weight on his injured leg. The less magic it needed to use, the better.


Through the fading light Bilbo spotted an outcropping of very large rocks below him that looked like it might have some caves and would at least provide him some shelter for the night. His leg was far too injured to even try and support him, and there were no trees to try and fashion himself a new cane, crutch, or walking stick with either, so he was left with crawling and sometimes sliding through the snow. By the time twilight was beginning to fade, he realized the outcropping had looked much closer than it actually was, and he was still a few hours or more away from it at his pace. 


When he finally reached the edge of the snowline, it was nearly full dark and he was still quite aways away from the promised shelter. He was cold, wet, injured, exhausted, and his magic had taken a great strain. Not wanting to risk any further injury by travelling over the loose and rocky ground in the dark, he decided to stop for the night. It was no fit place for him to make camp, but it was too dangerous to try and reach the rocks when he couldn’t see where he was going, and thankfully the weather had remained mild so far, with no wind to speak of. His wet cloak and pack were of little comfort, but thankfully he found a small dip in the ground, deep enough for him to lay his bedroll out in and with the area heated well with balrog flames and the cloak pinned down over top with some rocks to keep the warmth in and to dry it out, it was quite snug. He still had enough food and drink with him, and was able to at least eat something warm and filling before he fell asleep. 


Dreams were strange things for Bilbo, ever since he had been a child. He and Ember had often shared dreams, the only time he could remember that he hadn’t, had been when Ember had flown off after Bungo had died, and then after Ember had flown off for good. He hadn’t shared dreams with Ember since long before the orcs had caught him, and hadn’t dreamed of him much until he’d literally been on death’s door in the canyon. So to dream of him now was rather unusual.


It was nearly dark as pitch, but Ember was curled up, breathing deeply as he napped, his chest glowing where the flames were kindled inside of him. Bilbo felt so cold, his flame so miniscule, that he walked straight over and curled up next to that blessed warmth he was desperate for. The heat nearly burned, he was so chilled and shaking, but he refused to move from his place. Even though asleep, Ember’s head curled around, encircling Bilbo, and Bilbo slept, safe in that warmth. 


Bilbo didn’t know how much time had passed, but he gradually became aware of the fact that he was being watched closely. He opened his eyes to find himself in a cave, a pair of bright golden eyes watching him steadily and unblinking. He startled when he realized that it was not in fact HIS dragon, but another dragon entirely. He was backed into a corner, the dragon blocking the only escape out, and looking less than pleased. He still couldn’t be burned, but he was too weak. This dragon could easily bite, claw, or crush him to death.


“G-good morning. Sorry to intrude. Do you happen to spea-”




“I- um, eggs? I’m afraid I don’t know anything about-”


“They were stolen last night! I followed the thieves scents and came right across YOU!”


“Milady, I swear to you I had no hand in it. I was caught in an avalanche yesterday. I was laying there because I was injured and couldn’t make it to the rocks below. I was too deeply asleep. I didn’t hear the thieves if they came my way. I didn’t see them, and I swear to you by the great fire that I had nothing to do with your eggs being taken from you.”


She stared him right in the eye for several minutes, and Bilbo didn’t dare to drop his gaze. Finally she snorted harshly and eased away from him.


“For some reason, I believe you.”


“You would be able to smell the lie on me Lady, I am not a clever liar, I never have been. I will help you get them back though, if you’d like.”


 YOU ? Why would a human help a dragon? You must think me a fool. Ahhh I know what you want, you want my hoard in exchange. You humans think you are so clever, stealing them only to sell them back to me, and probably destroying them before I ever saw them returned!”


“No Lady, I wouldn’t want a single piece of your hoard. Your treasure is entirely your own, now and always. I am not one of the Men folk, I am a Hobbit, or a halfling, riches mean very little to us. We prefer green and growing things and a warm hearth to gold and shine. I would happily help you get them back simply because it is the right thing to do. No parent should have their children stolen from them. But I would like to ask two favors from you in exchange if I do manage to get them back.”


“And what favors would you wish from me?”


“A specifically charmed item of my choosing, and a drop of your magic, willingly given.”


“That’s a steep price.”


“They are your greatest treasures are they not? You have a great need, and unfortunately so do I.”


“Indeed I do. Very well. Bring back the eggs stolen from me and I will grant your request. They headed east.”


“I think we should have an Oath between us, don’t you? Since we are strangers to each other, and our requests are quite large.”


“And what do you possibly have to offer as collateral?”


“I thought we’d keep it simple and just sign it with blood.”


“I accept, and should you be trying to deceive me in any way, I will track you down through that same contract and eat you!”


Bilbo nodded. “That seems fair.”


The dragon nodded and breathed out magic onto the floor, which turned into a contract, short and succinct. Bilbo signed and then nicked a small cut with his dragon tooth knife and pressed the cut to the parchment. The dragon’s eyes widened, then narrowed. 


“You have dragon’s blood in you, I can smell it, and yet you live. What have you done? How has this come to be? Blood from one, magic from me, a dragon tooth dagger, do you think me a fool?! You ARE a hunter! Admit it!  TELL ME THE TRUTH !”


It had been several, several years since Bilbo had been on the receiving end of a dragon’s compulsion, and this dragon was both far older and stronger than Ember had ever been, so he was helpless against it. His head swam with the powerful magic and he had no defense against it. Before he knew it, his mouth was opening and the whole story was pouring out. 


 “No I am not! I swear it on my blood I am not a hunter! The only thing I hunt for is my dearest friend. I raised him from an egg, he claimed me as his best treasure, fed me three drops of his blood mixed with a potion and promised to never leave me alone as he filled me with his magic and we exchanged our hidden names! We were so happy, until a strange magical force slowly invaded his mind, made him lose all of his senses, and finally kidnapped him, dragging him away from me. That force possessed him and nearly killed me when I tried to stop it, and even under its influence, he still managed to save me from it. I’ve been trying to find him ever since, and in those travels, I was captured and tortured by orcs for five years, and they nearly made the flame he kindled inside of me die as it did everything it could to protect and save me. But now I’ve used it again and it’s nearly out. That’s why I need your magic, to keep that last burning spark alive. I am so cold, and I have lost so much. I can’t bear to lose that too. Please, believe me, I would never harm a dragon, I couldn’t, I consider them all but kin to me.”


When the compulsion faded he was left panting, tears in his eyes as the pain from those beautiful dredged up memories overwhelmed him with their loss all over again. Bilbo didn’t even flinch or shy away as that great dragon head drew near and that giant forked tongue flicked out and brushed his cheek. He hadn’t even realized that he was crying until then. She took a deep whiff of his hair and on instinct Bilbo closed his eyes at the familiar hot breath and leaned his head against her snout, a hand placed gently against her chin and they were just quiet a moment before she withdrew. 


“You truly have no fear of me, and I can taste your truth in your tears. You even know our ways. How extraordinary, for a fire drake to choose a mortal heart, and for that heart to be able to love him back the same. Don’t worry little cousin, I shall not let that spark go out. We dragons must look out for our own.”


The dragon withdrew and bit into one claw, until a drop of blood welled up. “I give it freely. Kindle your spark, little dragon.” 


The blood was molten hot on his tongue, and so very welcome. He could feel the sputtering spark in his heart leap and jump into life near instantly. The seat of his magic blazed bright with light and blessed heat and he felt truly, properly warm for the first time that he could remember. His wounded leg began healing properly, and bone deep aches that he barely even noticed anymore since they had gone on for so long, finally began relaxing and fading away.


“Thank you” he sobbed to her, not knowing that she then placed the cut on the contract, signing it. Within hours Bilbo  felt nearly as good as new. His wounds were healed, the dragon magic was burning hotly in the fireplace of the seat of his magic, making the stones there begin to glow, and he had a strange new cast to his sight. It wasn’t anything grand, but he could see a sort of aura around living things. The dragon for instance had a pale purple hue around her, and for some reason there was a trail of it leading out of the cave. It took him awhile before he realized what it must be, and began heading out after the faint trail of magic the eggs had left. 


He travelled over one side of the mountain, and down the next towards an abandoned village. He didn’t catch up to the thieves for three more days. When he did it was a group of five men, bandits by the look and smell of them, who were tucked into a small niche in the rock. There was only one exit, which he had no trouble blocking off, and two dragon eggs in the center of them. They were talking about how they were going to trade them to orcs who could shackle and tame them if they started young enough, and Bilbo had heard enough. Dragon eggs were impervious to fire, men were not. 


The biggest, hottest and most powerful stream of balrog flames he could manage blasted straight into their hiding spot. No negotiation, no bargaining for their lives, Bilbo just listened to the sounds of the terror and pain filled screams until they stopped, and then he simply walked in amidst the carnage, picked the eggs up, and tucked them into his cloak.


“Well that was a bit of an adventure you had wasn’t it? Your mother is quite concerned. Let’s get you warmed up and home, shall we?”


It took longer going back, this time travelling uphill and carrying two large and very heavy dragon’s eggs, which he constantly kept warm with low burning dragon’s fire that didn’t fatigue him. When he got back to the cave the mother dragon was waiting, and the pleasure emanating from her was nearly physical. She curled around her clutch protectively, tucking them into the nest with the other three eggs the thieves hadn’t managed to take. It was a joyous reunion, and Bilbo was just as happy for the mother dragon as he was that he could be the one to make things right and bring the family back together. But it also made him miss his dragon more than ever. Lost in thought as he was, it was some time before he realized the dragon was speaking to him.


“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I wasn’t listening.” He said with a sheepish grin.


“I said you were wanting a charmed item of some sort. What were you wanting?”


“Oh, right! I was wanting a small ordinary looking bag, something I could even put into my pack if I needed, but I could open it as wide as needed, and inside it could hold anything, as much as I wanted and never be full or weigh much of anything at all. That way I could keep all of the provisions I possibly needed and not be weighed down, have somewhere to hide or stay if there was danger or bad weather, and could even smuggle my dragon back through the lands of men if I had to with no one the wiser.”


“Best to also make it so it can’t be stolen from you, destroyed, or lost either. That is a great treasure. You are quite the clever one aren’t you?”


“No, I’m just trying to survive, and have had too much time to myself to imagine things. Is it possible then?”


“Of course, it isn’t even that difficult, but here, before I start on your little bag, the drop of magic you were promised.” She said, holding out a single drop of blood on one of her talons.


“Lady, you already gave me-”


“I had not signed the contract yet, therefore it is owed to you, as promised, for the return of my eggs.” She said with a voice which brooked no refusal, and she again offered him the talon with the single drop of her blood.


Bilbo simply nodded and accepted, he was not one to go against a dragon’s contract. The fire that pooled inside him was so blissfully warm that every last ache, scar, and even his mind, was soothed and silenced. There was birdsong outside, and for the first time in longer than he could remember, he could understand the words as they chittered and sang about the weather. He didn’t have any writing in different languages to hand right then, but he was willing to bet, with how powerful and strong her magic was, that that had been restored as well. Bilbo started crying a bit at having those parts of himself back. Parts that had been lost for so long. He didn’t resist as she pushed him towards her nest with her tail, and curled him amongst her eggs, protecting him as if he were one of her own. 


“Sleep little dragon, nothing shall harm or disturb you here. Sleep.” And Bilbo fell into the most relaxing slumber he could remember since he left the Shire. 


Again he dreamed of Ember, only this time his dragon was awake. Bilbo felt that warm breath over his face as he kissed that great scaly snout over and over again. But Ember looked sad, though he did not try to pull away from Bilbo’s touch. 


“Ember? What is it? What’s wrong?”


“I am forgetting your face, and even your smell is no longer familiar to me. I miss you so much Bilbo.”


“I will find you Ember, I swear it. I’ll find you and bring you home again.”


“You can’t. You’re dead. I felt you die. I tried to save you, I really did. I am so sorry Bilbo.”


“I’m not dead! I’m not, and I’ll prove it to you! Just tell me where you are! Tell me where you are and I will come straight to you as fast as I can!”


“It doesn’t matter now, nothing matters with you gone. It won’t let me follow you, The Pull. I’ve tried, though I doubt the Valar would let me go to where you are anyway, why should they, dragons are their enemy.”


“Ember, I swear to you, I’m not dead! Please just tell me where you are!”


“I’m in Er-”


And Bilbo woke up with a start from a sharp nip to one of his fingers with needle sharp teeth. One of the eggs which had NOT been stolen, had hatched in the night and the dark brown hatchling was thinking Bilbo’s fingers were something tasty to eat. The dream faded quickly from his mind even though he tried desperately to hold onto it, something about it had been very important… but within moments he couldn’t even recall what it had been about. Bilbo was distracted with the little hatchling for a while, he even pulled out a bit of dried meat from his pack and let the little one have a chunk that he tore into smaller pieces so that it wouldn’t try chewing on his fingers again. He was unaware that the mother dragon was watching him closely with a bit of a toothy grin. 


“She likes you.”


“Oh? Well, that’s comforting to know. I like her too, quite spirited.” 


“We never properly introduced ourselves. I am called Ladonia Stormblaze.”


“And I am called Bilbo Baggins. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”


“And your heartflame? What are they called?”


“I named him Ember when he hatched because he would curl around the ember pot that kept his nest warm, and was as black as soot with only a hint of red iridescence when he was in the sun. He was adored and well loved by my people from the eldest to the smallest children, they all called him Ember with fondness. He loves the name, which he now prefers to his egg born name of Smaug, so that is what he goes by.”


“It’s a fine name for a fire drake, especially as it was a name given with such love. There isn’t much love in the world for dragons to begin with, yet it is the only thing which loosens the hold of The Discordant Song over us. It’s good to see that it can be different. I’m afraid I haven’t heard of a fire drake by either of those names though. I’m sorry that I cannot help you the way you have helped me.”


“You have though, you kindled my spark, it was nearly completely out after the avalanche, and I thank you for it so much. The Discordant Song? I have never heard of that, what is it?”


“The song of Melkor, which brought forth every fell being and dark creature at the beginning of the world.”


For hours she told him of Melkor and Sauron, and the history of the world. They were things he had a generally vague idea had happened in the far distant past, but no idea that it could ever be connected to him in any way. Even with how long he had lived in Lord Elrond’s house and studied his library, Bilbo had never thought that The Pull could be a sort of inborn darkness that a dragon might be weak to. Perhaps Ember could be in Mordor then, which was a terrifying concept all on its own, but he was willing to try anything if it worked.


Later that evening she gave him the charmed bag he had asked for. It was about the size of a one day provision bag, round and flat on the bottom, with a drawstring at the top. It looked to be made of leather, but it felt like cloth, and it smelled like neither since it was made of pure magic. It was otherwise unremarkable looking and fit into his pack quite easily. He also had no trouble fitting himself, and his pack inside it. It was actually quite warm and snug. He smiled and thanked her.


Bilbo stayed with Ladonia for another two weeks, so that he could help watch over the eggs while she hunted during the day. At night he curled up beside her on a bed of blazing coals, and it was the best sleep he had gotten since Ember had flown away. After the last of the eggs had hatched, and she was full and had a good store of food ready for the little ones, he headed out the next morning after kissing all of the children farewell and embracing his newest dragon friend. Ladonia pressed her head firmly against him, and then told him she would never forget him.


“I hope to see you again someday, you and the little ones.” Bilbo said with a smile.


“Yes, I would like that. Seek me out when you find your Ember. The Fire willing, you will be reunited quickly with your heartflame. I wish you luck and safety on your journey Bilbo Baggins.”


“I wish you safety, good hunting, and strong fires. Thank you for everything.” He said with all sincerity as he took his leave.


After Bilbo left the area, he headed east. If his map was right, he should be somewhat nearby the great east road. Perhaps it was time to leave the Misties and continue his search in other areas. He really didn’t want to consider going to Moria, but he would if he exhausted all other potential places. Perhaps he should finally make a try for Erebor, or the Iron Hills.


Now he just needed to find the road.




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