"The king is come unto his hall Under the Mountain, dark and tall. The Worm of Dread is slain and dead, And ever so our foes shall fall!" --Dwarven victory song, "The Hobbit"
At night, under the Mountain, the old ones would tell tales of the Shire. Frodo, together with his friends Merry, Pippin, Fredegar, and Sam, would cluster 'round the gaffers and beg for a story. The gaffers, who were not spared the hard work of mining, would give a token protest, but would always start talking after only a few pleading words.
"Aye, those were the beautiful days, those were," said Gaffer Gamgee reflectively. "When the tobaccy were in leaf, it were green from Bywater to Stock. The air smelled like a good, long smoke, and ya went round feelin' as if you'd had a second breakfast, even early in the morning!"
"A second breakfast?" chorused the young hobbits. "What's that like?"
"It's like," said Gaffer Gamgee, "never being hungry."
"Oooh," the young hobbits sighed.
"And remember old Farmer Willowbottom's crop?" cackled another gaffer. "Punkins big as a Man's head. 'N carrots, 'n tomatoes, 'n potatoes. Oh what feasts we had then."
"'Member we had that party for the Old Took? It was when I was seventeen, it was. Pretty girls dancing with ribbons, fireflies whizzing 'round like tiny stars, and the food! Oh, my, the food."
"'N the time the Shirebourn flooded, 'n they came from Deephallow and asked for our help, 'n we all went down there and mucked out their houses 'n they fed us those pork pies?"
"'N my youngest, Adam, he went down into the Old Forest, 'n he said he saw a spider as big as himself! 'N he came a-runnin' home, white as a sheet, 'n it took him six pints to even get the story out!?" The gaffers laughed uproariously and slapped their thighs, seemingly transported from the dimly lit caverns back to the green Shire.
"Why don't we live there anymore?" one of the young hobbits would always ask. They'd heard the answer before, of course, but it was part of the ritual. The gaffers would give the ritual answer.
"Why, because of King Thorin, o' course. And Bilbo Baggins." Then the old hobbit would spit on the stone floor of the cave, wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, curse the dwarves and their lack of tobacco, and send the youngsters to bed. No matter how much Frodo pried, he could never get the secret out of them. He was intensely curious, mostly because this so-called Bilbo Baggins had the same name as he did. Sometimes his friends teased him, calling him "Bilbo." But none of the young 'uns knew why he was so reviled.
By day, they mined ore and built new caverns for the dwarves and their allies. But the night was their own. Frodo knew all the hiding holes that the caverns under the Mountain had to offer. On days that he wasn't worn out, he and his friends explored the dark caverns. The boys had grown up under the Mountain and they had extremely good sense of direction underground. Fredegar, a little more cautious, usually kept watch for the other four as they crept up in search of a little fun.
This type of adventure had its perils. The goblin guards were ever alert, and the dwarves, if they caught a hobbit above-Stairs, would thrash him within an inch of his life and toss him back downStairs to die or not. But Frodo had dug a lot of the new hallways, and he knew where he was going. Most of the time.
It was an evening in early summer when they stumbled through a passageway into a place they'd never been before. It was a feast-day for the dwarves, Thorin's Day, and the hobbits had gotten the afternoon off. They'd had a nap and a bite, and were ready for anything, even an unfamiliar cavern.
"Wow," breathed Merry. "This place looks ...."
"Dangerous?" suggested Sam. "We should go back, Frodo."
The walls of this cavern were not smooth stone, like the type that the hobbits usually dug. Instead, rough workmanship gave way to small niches in the wall with bars gritted into the rock. Off to the side, a black table squatted, with silver shiny implements on it that had Pippin over there in an instant.
"Sam, take a look at this -- "
"Can't resist fingering the shiny things, can you," groaned Sam, as he walked over to see what Pippin was looking at. He recoiled and then slapped the metal out of Pippin's hand without thinking.
"Pippin! Those are for -- " The ringing of metal on stone drowned him out for a minute, and they all froze. No one came to investigate, so Sam finished lamely, "--torture."
"You think?" breathed Merry. "Wow."
" 'Wow' is not how you should be describing torture," said Frodo dryly. "It might happen to you someday."
"Frodo! Don't say that! Torture is just for dissenters and spies and enemies of King --"
"Enemies of King Thorin. Right. And what do you think we'll be if they find us playing in the dungeons?"
"Ohhhh," said Merry. And backed away from the table.
"Sam's right," said Pippin. "And I'm the last one to run away, but this isn't a place we should be. This is the dungeons, and I never want to set foot here again."
"Right," said Frodo. "Now let me see, how did we get in here?" He was pivoting in place slowly, looking for the nearly invisible crack that had let them in, when the voice came from a niche down the hallway. It cracked and bled as it washed over them, but it was definitely a hobbit's voice.
Sam jumped a mile and nearly came down on Pippin's head. "Ohhh," he moaned, "let's get out of here, this is bad, this is really bad, it's a ghost, it's a ghost!"
"Hush, Sam," said Frodo absently. With the sound of that voice, he'd felt a jolt of electricity, like something was happening that was destined to be. He brushed aside the concerned voices of his friends and walked slowly down the cold stone hallway, feeling the dank air swish around him. Ten steps, fifteen, and he could see an occupied stone niche with a huddled form sitting in the back of it. Twenty steps, and he stood in front of it.
"Who are you?" he said. "Who are you to me?"
The black bundle of rags straightened up, revealing an older hobbit in a patched robe. He had only one eye and as he held out his hand in a gesture of peace, Frodo could see that his ring finger was missing. He was caked with dirt and grime, and when he spoke it came out rusty.
"I'm your uncle," he croaked. "Bilbo Baggins."
Frodo, feeling like he was stuck in a bad dream, stepped back from that reaching hand. This hobbit -- this pariah -- had been a ghost for so long, walking among the hobbit population, mocking them with his name. Almost unwillingly, Frodo said, "What are you doing here, then? Why aren't you with the rest of us, digging holes and wearing our hands to the bone for Thorin?"
He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer, but when the old hobbit -- Bilbo -- said, "Sit down, boy, and I'll tell you," he sat down. Behind him, he could hear steps as his friends moved up closer. Bilbo hunched back down on the stone floor and looked at him, waiting. Frodo looked back. After a moment of silence, Bilbo began to wheeze laughter. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends?"
Frodo gestured around. "Meriadoc Brandybuck. Peregrin Took. Samwise Gamgee."
"Ah. Is the old Gaffer still alive, Sam?"
"He is, sir," came the nervous reply. Frodo could hear Sam's quick breathing and knew he was on the verge of flight. He spoke up then, mostly to keep his friends in place.
"Why don't you cut the small talk, old-timer? We don't have all night here." He sounded more insolent to himself than he'd meant to -- but he was also frightened, and the insolence kept his own courage in place. It seemed to have the same effect on Sam, for his breathing slowed and Frodo felt him settle down on the floor.
"Don't they teach young hobbits manners anymore? In my day, no youngster would speak to his elders like that."
"Your day's gone," said Frodo, and he really meant the insolence then. "And it's because of you that we're slaves to the dwarves. Or so the gaffers say."
Bilbo's wheeze died out, and he said, "Oh, they're right. No one should ever argue with gaffers."
"Old-timer, I'm losing patience. Why don't you tell me why you called me over here?" Frodo wasn't usually a resentful hobbit, but a lifetime of slavery could do that to you. He was very curious, but it wasn't going to change his situation, was it? He might as well sneak back down the tunnels before he was caught and beaten.
Another long silence was broken by Sam hissing, "Let's go. He's crazy -- he doesn't have anything to say."
"Young Gamgee, hold your water," said Bilbo dismissively. "I'm speaking to my nephew. I've dreamed about you, Frodo. I'm not sure if He sends the dreams or whether it's from the Elven woman who kept coming to me, all those years ago -- still. Sometimes I see you shaping stone in the dwarven halls. Sometimes I see you as the King over all. And sometimes I see you coming to set me free." His voice dropped to a whisper, as if the very walls were filled with listening dwarven ears. "Sometimes you break, sometimes you heal. What will you do, Frodo? What will you do?"
"Uncle or not, you're babbling." Frodo got to his feet, beckoning to Sam. "Let's go."
"Stay!" commanded Bilbo, and his voice took on a piercing quality, as if it had been infused with light. "In the name of Gandalf the Grey, hold your tongue, boy! You try my patience."
"I try *your* patience?" said Frodo. "Whoever Gandalf the Grey is, he cannot bind me. Tell your story or sit in exile until the end of your ragged life. But speak not so to me, for I owe you nothing."
"Ha!" cackled Bilbo. "So you really have spirit, do you? And a bit of the Old World about you. I was wondering if it was all show. Well, let me tell you the story. It began before you were born, when I was tricked by Gandalf the Grey into taking a long trip over the Misty Mountains."
Bilbo was a true storyteller, and as he spoke, the young hobbits could see him tramping through the wilds of Middle Earth with his dwarven friends. Pippin interrupted once to ask, "But dwarves? They were our equals then?"
"Yes, master Took. I even counted them among my friends. They treated me kindly and even saved my life once or twice. Why, when we were stuck in the orc caves, one of them carried me on his back. But it all changed when we were separated, and I found the ring."
He told the tale of how he came to have the Ring -- how Gollum gave it to him, all unwitting, and how he escaped the terrible Orc-caves because of his invisibility. "I didn't tell the dwarves about the ring. I wanted to keep it a secret for awhile. But they found out that I had it, after we had a visit to the Wood Elves. Thorin was very interested in it, but he was imprisoned by the Elves, and when I set them free, we were too busy riding the river to worry about it." He told the entranced hobbits about going to the Lone Mountain, talking to Smaug, the dragon, and how the great lizard was killed by a single arrow through his heart.
"Bard of Esgaroth it was who slew the dragon while we bathed in gold under this mountain. And then the Men came, and the Elves, and they demanded their share of the treasure. So even then, though Thorin knew I had a magic ring -- or how else could I have kept myself alive? -- he did not try to take it. He knew that I would stay to see how the battle ended. And I did stay. I kept myself out of the battle, standing on Ravenhill. But as I stood there, I was smitten upon the helmet and knocked unconscious. I know not who did it or how. But when I came around again, I was as you see me, in a prison under the Mountain, and my Ring was missing. So were my ring fingers, though I wasn't wearing the Ring at the time.
"Later, Thorin came to me. It was much later then, probably a few years. He told me that he'd cut off my fingers as retribution. His eyes – they were terrible. Are they still so?"
"We don't get so close to him," said Merry. "And if we did, we'd keep our heads down."
"His eyes were filled with rage and greed – and he fingered something in his pocket as he spoke to me. 'My precious,' he called it. Like that Gollum- creature. He told me that he'd vanquished both Men and Elves, driven them back to the south, and that the Ring never left his side. He told me that the Shire was next and that he was going to pay me back for all my thievery. Thievery! As if I hadn't gotten him away from the Wood-Elves by sending him downriver in a barrel."
"And you've been here – how long?" asked Frodo. "Ever since then?"
"Well, boy, he's never let me out." Bilbo fixed Frodo with a piercing stare. "Will you?"
"I don't. . . ." began Frodo, but the old hobbit forestalled him.
"Don't answer. I'm not finished." His voice dropped even more, and the four hobbits hunched closer to hear him. "Thorin was right to call me a thief. I stole something from him. Something so precious he'd probably do anything for it. And I hid it."
"What could you have kept hidden for so long? And why haven't you used it as a bargaining chip yet?" asked Frodo skeptically.
"It's called the Arkenstone. And the reason I haven't used it yet –" Bilbo broke off and canted his head to the side. "Someone's coming."
"What?" began Pippin. "How do you –"
But Frodo was already up and scrambling back toward the exit. He ran back, grabbed a stupefied Sam by the arm, and dragged him to the crack in the stone wall, hissing at the his other two friends to get over there, now. When they were all safely back into the tunnel, he shoved them behind him and peered back out into the stone room. Sure enough, in a minute or so loud footsteps approached.
"Who is it?" whispered Sam. Frodo felt Sam's questioning hand on his shoulder, and was glad for the warmth of it, for Thorin had just sauntered through his field of vision. The Dwarf king was not tall, of course, and didn't look too imposing, but he had a very straight bearing and a royal walk. And Frodo knew that if he'd turned his head and seen a peering hobbit eye, he would have had all four of their heads, and never mind the shiny torture implements on the squat black table.
He heard the murmur of voices and a squeak as the cell door opened. The footsteps came back toward him, and Bilbo walked to the center of the stone room. He was followed by Thorin and his guards. The guards stopped Bilbo short, hauling him over to the table.
"It's Thorin's Day," the King said. He had a low voice, and it sounded like rocks grinding together. "It's a holiday. And I get to have my fun. Don't I get to have my fun, Bilbo?" He didn't seem to want an answer, and he nodded to the guard, who laid Bilbo on the table and took hold of one silver flechette. As the guard laid knife to Bilbo's skin, Thorin began to giggle, and Bilbo began to scream.
"What's happening, Frodo? What's going on?" Sam's voice recalled Frodo to himself, and he turned back. Sam's face, an inch from his own, reflected his own fear and loathing. "Is that Thorin?"
Frodo pushed Sam backwards gently, thumping him into Merry and Pippin. "Let's go," he said quietly. "No need to know what's going on out there. No need." As they tramped their way back through the new tunnels, Frodo fought with himself – you do want to find the Arkenstone. You don't. You could save everyone. No you couldn't. You're no hero. Yes you are. Go home and go to bed. Go back and see Bilbo again. You're no hero. Yes you are.
Yes you are.
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