Days of Agony by MirielOfGisborne
Chapter 1 SEALED WITH FIRE
The world was certainly not ahead. It was all around him, spinning madly, and making him sick. Bilbo got up as best he could on wobbly legs and fighting a burning ache in his head. Even if his vision was slightly blurred and his eyes hurt further from the glowing sun, he was able to determine that he was still on Ravenhill, where he had chosen to take his stand, with the Elves. He was alone, however, and very cold.
Down in the valley, there was little activity and much silence. He could discern no moving enemies, but just to be sure, he drew his sword half out of its sheath and peered at it. Indeed, the blade was shiny silver, no longer haloed in blue, a clear sign that there were no live orcs or goblins nearby. Putting Sting back, Bilbo sighed in relief and his gaze returned to the devastation before him. There were still a few sheared banners fluttering earnestly out of the field of dead warriors. Victory seemed assured, but at no small price. Relief faded quickly into a heavy heart, and Bilbo’s thoughts flew to the ones he still called his friends. He could make out a camp in the distance and there was some commotion at the Gate of the Lonely Mountain. Dwarves were hard at work, removing the fortified wall that Thorin and his companions had raised to defend their treasure. Even if his last conversation with the dwarf king had been tainted with venom and threats, Bilbo wondered and worried, about Thorin, about young Fili and Kili, about the wise Balin and the brave Dwalin, about Bifur, Bombur and the kind-hearted Bofur, about Dori, Nori and Ori, and about Gloin and Oin.
Just when he was starting to doubt that he was able to walk all the distance that would have allowed him knowledge of their fate, Bilbo heard steps climbing the rocks below, and coming towards him. His hand went out of instinct to his sword, but he was once again relieved to see that the intruder was a man, who explained that he had been sent by Gandalf the wizard to look for the hobbit, as he was needed at once. The man offered to carry Bilbo down to the camp, and Bilbo was grateful for it, as the grim journey through the mangled remains of the Five Armies convinced him that he could not have done it himself.
By the time they got to Dale, Bilbo’s nausea had acquired vicious new zeal. He struggled to keep himself upright as the man put him down before a tent, where Gandalf was waiting with gloom on his face and an arm in a sling. He brightened quickly at the sight of the hobbit and ran towards him, his healthy arm spread out in welcome.
“Bilbo!” he cried, as he came close, smiling and laying his hand affectionately on the hobbit’s shoulder. “You are alive and well after all! I am much relieved!”
Feeling a little better at seeing a familiar face again, Bilbo smiled in return. “Yes, yes, I seem to be in one piece. I am glad to see you as well.”
Gandalf studied him, shaking his head in some awe and a bit of concern as he eyed what was no doubt a visible wound on the side of Bilbo’s forehead, where it hurt the most. “We will have to take care of that,” he grumbled.
“How is everyone else?” tried Bilbo, not without a pause in his breath.
Gandalf’s expression clouded again. “Come, Thorin wants to see you,” he said, moving his free arm around the hobbit’s shoulder and nudging him gently towards the tent.
“Is he all right?” asked Bilbo foolishly. Of course Thorin was not all right. That much was obvious from the wizard’s growing frown and his silence.
A sudden hollow in his gut, Bilbo glanced ahead towards the entrance to the tent. It was a black hole of uncertain shape into a territory yet unknown but terrifying. He walked towards it more under the wizard’s guidance than out of his own will, and he had to be nudged again to enter.
The inside of the tent was barely lit by a failing torch and it took some time for Bilbo’s eyes to adjust from the abundant light of the cloudless day outside. His nose, however, immediately smelled blood and metal and mud. His already upset stomach turned inside him, but he endeavoured to focus on retrieving his eyesight.
As the wall of blackness before him started to disperse, Bilbo recognized the huddled shapes of Dwalin and Balin a few feet away. They acknowledged him with tense glances. They were standing by the head of a makeshift bed, where a mound of blankets lay bundled over a great, inert shape, which was undoubtedly Thorin himself. His forehead was visible, smudged with black and crimson, and his closed eyes. His weapons and rent armour were piled at the foot of the bed. Nearby, there was a heap of blackened, blood-soaked rags, which had most certainly been his clothes once. It seemed unreal, impossible even that the broken, bleeding mass in that bed could be the proud Thorin Oakenshield, who had proven his true valour in leading Dwarves, and Elves, and Men into that great battle against a common foe, who had acted indeed like a king worthy of his great line.
Bilbo was making a stubborn stand at the tent’s entrance, but he soon felt another light push in his back. Gandalf was nudging him once more to tread where he feared. Perhaps there really was no time to linger. Perhaps Thorin’s time was running out with his blood, and whatever he wanted to say to Bilbo had to be said right away or never be said at all. The thought of no more time with Thorin filled Bilbo with real terror, as he had not known before, not when facing giant orcs and spiders, or even a fire-breathing dragon. No more time to apologize for the terrible mess that he had made with the Arkenstone, or even to try and reattach the severed threads of their friendship. He was still sore where the maddened Thorin had grabbed him in his rage, to throw him to the rocks, but he felt now that he was not completely undeserving of that pain. As he took those few hard steps closer to the bed, he saw that, as he was then, wounded and weak, hanging on to life by a thinning thread, he was again the Thorin that Bilbo knew and that he had come to love, even though he had not fully realised it until that moment, when it seemed to be very, very late.
As the hobbit approached, Balin bent over Thorin, whispering to him that his burglar was there.
Thorin opened his eyes, their blue still surprisingly clear, albeit a little pale, but otherwise the only part of him that still looked clean and untouched. His hand emerged searching from under the covers, and Bilbo felt compelled to receive it into his own. It was bloody as well, its knuckles grazed raw, and Bilbo strived to make his touch light enough so as not to stir even more pain into the dwarf’s martyred body.
“Thought I’d lost you,” said Thorin with only a faint echo of his voice, once deep and powerful.
“Oh, no, I’m not so easily lost,” answered Bilbo, finding an unexpected power to smile. Perhaps it was the wonder to see Thorin speaking kindly to him again.
“Bilbo, I would take back my words and deeds at the Gate,” continued Thorin, obviously using all the energy he had left in order to speak.
“It’s all forgotten,” said Bilbo, squeezing his hand as gently as he could.
Thorin was silent for a few moments, breathing a little more heavily. This conversation was clearly draining, but he did not intend to end it so soon. “I wish to part from you in friendship,” he whispered.
“Part from me? No, no, you don’t have to part from me. I’m not going anywhere.”
“But I am,” said Thorin, with the hint of a resigned smile.
“What? Don’t say that,” Bilbo tried to reassure with a shake of his head.
Balin put his hand gently on his shoulder, and when Bilbo glanced back, he noticed a certain note of resignation on his face as well, as if he was telling him to stop giving false encouragement where it was not due, or needed.
Bilbo looked back to Thorin, full understanding of what was really happening hitting him like a hammer to the head. Thorin appeared frighteningly peaceful, dignified as ever, ready to die like the hero that he was, like a king of his people that had done his duty to ensure that they had their deserved home.
“Forgive me,” he whispered with the last ounce of his strength, and with the last ounce after his last, he added, “I love you.”
Stunned, Bilbo gaped, thinking that he had not heard well. Yet, Dwalin’s eyes flashing to him fiercely told him that he had indeed heard very well. No one had any time to react properly, however, for Thorin erupted into a coughing fit, his mystifying words drowning in a gurgle of dark blood. Bilbo felt himself being pulled back into Gandalf’s robes, as Dwalin rushed to lift Thorin’s head so that he would not choke on his own blood and Balin wiped the thick liquid from his mouth and beard. In spite of their vigilance, both brothers appeared composed in the face of such an awful scene, as only old warriors could be. When Dwalin laid his head back, Thorin’s eyes were closed again and he had regained his former air of serenity. Whether he was still awake but exhausted, or whether he had lost consciousness completely, Bilbo was unable to determine. But from the shadow growing on Dwalin’s face as he withdrew and allowed his brother to continue with his careful cleaning efforts, it did not seem like there was much to hope for.
Thorin’s last words still rang loudly in Bilbo’s mind, even if they had been spoken in a whisper, so loud in fact that it hurt. His eyes were drawn to Dwalin again, who was also staring at him quite intensely. He too had been startled by Thorin’s unexpected confession, but it was not suspicion that Bilbo could read now in his wild gaze. He was angry with that searing kind of anger that only Dwarves could muster, but Bilbo did not feel that it was directed at him. Rather, it was revealing itself to him and spreading to him like smoke from a pipe, pervading his every pore. Thorin could not die now, when he had so much to live for, when he had finally reclaimed his lost homeland. He deserved to be King under the Mountain. He had not only inherited that right, but he had also earned it at the price of his own blood and that of his kin. This was an injustice too great for the world to contain and it imbued Bilbo with the same Dwarvish anger, rising from depths darker than he knew he had.
And it was with an angered frown that he turned to Gandalf, asking, “Why won’t you do something?”
“There is nothing that I can do,” answered Gandalf, bringing a caressing hand to Bilbo’s face.
“Can’t you at least try?” asked Bilbo, pulling himself away from Gandalf’s embrace. “You’ve brought him back before. Why can’t you do it again?
“I have tried,” said Gandalf defensively.
“Then try again!”
“I would, Bilbo. It is not as if I don’t want to help Thorin. But he is beyond my help now. I am very sorry.”
Against the frailty that had taken over his body, the cold in his bones, the dull pain in his skull and that nauseating dizziness, Bilbo felt his anger grow and give him a sudden infusion of vigour. It was his turn to feel betrayed by a friend as he looked up at the wizard’s concerned but otherwise tranquil face. His concern seemed directed at Bilbo mostly, and it was most inappropriate when Thorin was the one who was dying. For the first time in his life, Bilbo felt that he would never be able to forgive someone.
“There is something we can still try,” Dwalin muttered darkly behind, and Bilbo turned as if yanked by an invisible string. Dwalin looked at him again with his feral eyes. But there was also a ray of hope in them. “I will need your sword, Bilbo,” he said, and the hobbit thought he could hear pleading in his raspy voice.
“My, my sword? For what?”
“He will not last the night. That we are all certain of,” said Dwalin, coming closer and speaking only to Bilbo. “Unless we seal the worst of his wounds now.”
“Can you do that? With my sword?”
“Yes. I need a clean, smooth blade, not very long.”
“And what do you plan to do with it?” asked Bilbo, frowning with the suspicion that the cure would be worse than the disease. Dwalin’s storming gaze confirmed his suspicion. “Oh, you are not going to burn him!”
“It is the only way, Bilbo,” said Balin, coming up at his brother’s side.
Bilbo looked madly from one to the other. “But surely we can ask the Elves for – ”
“There is no time for Elvish balms!” shouted Dwalin, swooping over the poor hobbit and shaking him as if he had truly been a rabbit. “We do this now or he has hours to live! At least we will be giving him a chance.” Appearing somewhat regretful of his outburst, Dwalin unshackled his hands from Bilbo’s already damaged arms and retreated, waiting for him to make his decision.
“All right,” squeaked Bilbo, eventually coming back to his senses, and drew Sting out of its sheath. “Here,” he said faintly, handing it to the boorish dwarf, his hand trembling visibly. Dwalin grabbed it, nodding in thanks, then hurried outside, no doubt in search of live fire.
“Bilbo,” said Gandalf, his warm voice breaking through the even grimmer tension of this last conversation. “Perhaps you should see if the Elves can spare anything that helps with burns. And have Oin take care of your head. He’s with Fili and Kili in the next tent.”
“Yes,” said Bilbo quickly, glancing towards Thorin again. Gandalf was obviously trying to spare him the gruesome spectacle of that last desperate attempt to save Thorin’s life. He had to admit that he did not want to see or hear any of it. The sole thought of his own sword being used to burn Thorin’s flesh and cause him excruciating pain made his legs feel like straws after a good rain. He wanted to run out of that tent as soon and as swiftly as possible.
As he walked past Gandalf on his way out, the wizard offered a comforting squeeze of his shoulder. “I will try to make it easier for him.”
Unable to return any of the wizard’s optimism, Bilbo lowered his head and walked out of the tent. The air outside could not be called fresh and it did nothing to alleviate his dreadful headache, or his growing nausea. As he started walking towards the other tent where Oin was supposed to be, he met Dwalin, who was carrying Sting firmly in one hand, its blade now glowing fiery red, and a cauldron full of burning coals in the other. He gave the hobbit a look of warning and hurried back past him. Bilbo glanced after him for a second, then began running as fast as his feet could take him, not even thinking of visiting Oin, Fili or Kili, although he wanted to know if they at least had fared better.
He could not get far enough before the first of Thorin’s screams pierced the thin winter air. His hands went by themselves to his ears, covering them tightly, and his eyes squeezed shut as if that might have kept the sound away. But none of it worked really, and he soon found that it was impossible to continue his journey. He stumbled over some rocks and collapsed behind a crumbling stone wall, crying with his head buried into his knees until the screams finally stopped.
The thought of his mission to find some possible comfort for Thorin was the only power that managed to get him up and walking again. He also found the strength to wipe his tears and discovered, from the resulting black smearing of his fingers, that his own face was filthy with the dust of war.
He walked without seeing much of where he was going or of what surrounded him. When he reached the Elven camp, he noticed that it didn’t look much better than that of the Dwarves or of the Men, but somehow it didn’t seem as horrifying anymore. Not as it had seemed when he had first woken up alone on Ravenhill and had looked upon the devastated valley. Now it was as if he was dreaming, there, in the thick of death and destruction, but detached and unfeeling of the suffering he was witnessing. He didn’t even react when one of the elves rushed towards him offering to find him a healer. He let himself be guided to a tent of their own, larger and brighter and less stifling than Thorin’s, where a female elf, lithe and radiant as all elves were, took him by the arm and sat him down on a white bed. Bilbo stared blankly into nothingness as she began to work on his head wound. He only came back to himself a little later, when the elf healer asked him with sincere concern about any other damage that he might have had, or of any other hurts he wanted soothed. He faced her finally, but did not answer. It seemed distasteful to complain or even to be asked about mere bumps and scratches after he had had to listen to Thorin Oakenshield scream out in pain for what had seemed to be too long.
“Can you spare anything to treat burns?” he asked simply.
“Burns? But you do not have any, from what I can see,” said the elf, giving him a searching look.
“Not for me. I need to see your king. I am Bilbo Baggins-”
“Companion of Thorin, we know, and friend of the Elves,” she said quietly.
“I come on Thorin’s behalf,” announced Bilbo unimpressed, grimacing somewhat at her last remark, surely a reference to his role in securing the Arkenstone, the one object they could use to deal with Thorin in his madness and hopefully avoid unnecessary war. “I need to make a request from your king, for another king.”
The elf lowered her head slightly. “Very well, I will take you once I’ve finished dressing your wound.”
“Take me now,” said Bilbo, his own voice sounding unfamiliar and commanding to him. His stare must have been equally convincing, for the elf hurried to finish her work and then gestured to Bilbo to follow in her footsteps.
As they reached the Elvenking, the healer retreated with a bow and left the hobbit to make his request. Bilbo explained in not too many words that Thorin’s situation was dire, and that he needed all the assistance he could get. Thranduil listened, then called his chief healer, who handed Bilbo a generous jar of something bluish green that he said would help greatly to keep Thorin’s wounds uninfected, and to allow them to heal sooner. Bilbo thanked them without excessive ceremony and started back to the Dwarf camp, running as fast as he had when he had wanted to get away from it.
As he approached Thorin’s tent again, he noticed that Dwalin was standing outside, looking even gloomier than before. He had apparently caught sight of the hobbit from the corner of his eye, for he motioned to his belt as he came close and handed him his sword back, cleaner and shinier than it had been when Bilbo had relinquished it earlier for brutal medicinal purposes. “This belongs to you,” he grumbled, not looking Bilbo in the eye, and sounding afflicted.
Bilbo stared at it for a while, and his hand hovered above it hesitating, almost not wanting to acknowledge ownership of it. He remembered hesitating as well when Gandalf had first presented the then nameless sword to him, but it had been because of his fear to use it. In the meantime he had found that he had more courage to use a sword than he had expected, and he had even become proud of it and his ability to fight for his friends and their noble cause. That sword had saved Thorin’s life twice before, and with it the lives of the entire company. Hopefully, it would have saved Thorin’s life again, and the manner in which that had been attempted would have been worth the suffering it had caused him. And even if Bilbo’s hope was strong, he still did not like taking that sword back. It did belong to him, however, and Dwalin would not have accepted such a dishonourable refusal.
“How did it go?” asked Bilbo, finally taking a hold of Sting and putting it back in its sheath. His own question sounded a little stupid to him, as if he had not heard enough of how it had went.
With the troublesome object of torture out of sight, Dwalin gave him a pained glance. “Hardest thing I ever had to do,” he said sighing and moved his gaze back to the battlefield, still smoking here and there.
A moment of silence passed. Bilbo thought fleetingly of asking the big dwarf if he was angry with him because of what Thorin had said, but this was really not the time. There were more important matters to be dealt with and when Bilbo decided to speak again, it was about that. “I got something from the Elves. They say it will help. Do you, do you think he’ll live now?” he asked, looking up at Dwalin.
“I’ve no idea, laddie. We tried.”
“Well, I’d better get this to him,” said Bilbo, lowering his gaze, and Dwalin approved with a grunt.
The smell inside Thorin’s tent was now even harder to bear. He was still lying under his blankets, as if nothing had happened, but at least the remains of his clothes and armour had been put away. Balin was now sitting on a chair near him, dabbing at his forehead with slow movements, using what looked like a relatively clean piece of cloth.
He looked up, raising his eyebrows as he saw Bilbo come in. “Anything?” he asked.
“Yes, here,” said Bilbo, coming closer and handing him the jar. “How is he?”
“He’s been like this since we finished. That was too much pain for anyone to bear. I don’t think he’ll be waking up again very soon.”
“But he will wake up, won’t he?”
“I hope so, laddie, I hope so,” said Balin, with disquieting uncertainty in his eyes.
Bilbo’s gaze fell to the ground and he bit his lip, holding back more tears. Then he looked back up to Balin, who was dipping the cloth in a bowl of water. Taking a deep breath, he offered, his voice a bit shaky, “I can do that. You should get some rest.”
Balin seemed to appreciate the offer. “Well, we should see about this,” he said, pointing to the jar of Elvish ointment, which he had placed on the side of the bed. “What is it exactly?”
“They say it will help him heal faster and it will keep infection away.”
“Hmm, that is not too bad. I will go fetch Oin,” said Balin, standing up and actually smiling a little, gesturing for Bilbo to sit in his place near Thorin’s fevered brow, and handing him the wet cloth.
“Is he still with Fili and Kili?” asked Bilbo as he took his seat.
“Are they any better?”
“No, but we are hopeful,” said Balin, with a little less uncertainty than before.
As Balin walked out, Bilbo felt grateful to be alone with Thorin for a while and see him properly. His face had been cleaned in the meantime, and he looked more like his regal self again, even if he was cut and bruised and his hair was still drenched in bloody grime. Bilbo resolved to work out a way to wash it off once they were done with his wounds.
In fact, Thorin looked like he was sleeping, much more so than at any other time during the quest. He had always been restless, always stirring at the smallest sign of alarm even when he was supposed to be resting and someone else was keeping watch. But now he seemed peaceful, removed from the torture he had endured only a while earlier and from the torment that he had carried in his heart for so long. Perhaps this was good reason to hope.
“Thorin?” tried Bilbo softly, gliding his finger over one of the dwarf’s thick eyebrows, the only thing that seemed safe to touch at that moment. “Can you hear me? Thorin!”
There was no answer, however, for Thorin had fallen into a darkness far deeper than sleep, from which it was very possible that he would never return. Bilbo withdrew his hand, feeling a stream of tears flooding his eyes. Perhaps it was foolish to hope, but he needed Thorin to survive. Those words that he had said were making him feel as if he had been groping in the dark all along, as if he had missed something far more valuable than his books and his armchair, than seeing the Elves, than going on adventures, or even than the world itself, something he had not wanted, but without which his life now seemed hollow. If Thorin did not wake up again, that something would have been lost forever, and Bilbo was not sure that he could live with that. Or with the guilt over taking the Arkenstone from its rightful owner when in fact he had been trusted to retrieve it. It had been a last desperate attempt of his own, to avoid war and save all their lives, including Thorin’s. But he had achieved nothing but betraying Thorin’s trust, and apparently hurting him more than he could have possibly imagined at that time.
“I’m sorry, I’m so terribly sorry,” he whispered close to the dwarf’s ear, unable to keep himself from trying.
Thorin still did not answer, so Bilbo decided again to wipe his tears and do everything in his power to ensure that he would get a second chance. Remembering that he had a very practical task to perform, he wet the cloth that Balin had handed to him and laid it gently on Thorin’s forehead.
Soon Balin and Oin walked back inside, and Bilbo looked up at them, expectantly.
“You do not have to stay, Bilbo,” said Balin.
“Yes, I do,” said Bilbo, frowning. He had left before, but he could not leave again.
“Very well,” sighed Balin.
“He won’t feel anything, anyway, will he?” asked Bilbo with wide eyes.
Balin smiled faintly, “Not anymore. But you would be able to see.”
“I can handle it as long as he’s alive,” said Bilbo, swallowing hard.
Balin’s smile became wider, “You are indeed a brave little hobbit. It is no wonder that Thorin is so fond of you,” he added with a wink.
If Bilbo had not been so shocked by that remark, he would have stopped to ponder that Balin’s wink was a short reminder that they had shared happier times in the past, and perhaps a sign that there could still be happiness in the future. Thorin’s confession was still troubling to him, and then, there had been Dwalin’s strong reaction. Balin seemed to be thinking about it in approving terms, however. As they looked at each other, one with affection, the other with disbelief, there near the shattered body of the one that they both loved, wounded so that his survival hung only on a fool’s hope, Bilbo felt that Balin’s remark should have filled him with more anxiety over possibly losing something invaluable. Instead, it filled him with more of that insane hope that it would not end there, and that there was still a chance for something better.