2. To the End
No wonder that Thorin is so fond of you. Balin had really said that, with a smile and one of his twinkling winks, in the smothering dimness of the tent where Thorin lay broken after the battle, and in the wake of such horror as watching his brother burn Thorin's raw wounds with a fire-heated sword, surely even participating in holding him still for the procedure.
Bilbo gaped at him until the lingering silence pushed him to begin a reply that he did not know how to continue. "Well, I-"
"You don't have to say anything," said Balin, peering at him tenderly from under his eyebrows. "And it's all right if you don't look." He turned to Oin, who nodded and opened the jar of elvish ointment.
Bilbo felt relieved that he was not expected to justify his implication in the matter of Thorin's avowed feelings for him, and further still to watch as they worked on his wounds. He did feel a calling, however, from a depth carved new within him, to stay for the sake of both. He put aside the wet cloth that he had been dabbing Thorin's face with and got up from his seat.
"I want to look," he said and Balin turned to him again with eyes that were softly trying to dissuade him. "I, I need to see," Bilbo insisted.
Balin nodded. An old warrior, he recognized a claim of honour. Bilbo had earned his place in the Company, not as a seasoned fighter, but certainly by proving himself a worthy fellow in arms and adventure. And it seemed that he had earned more than an honourable place in Thorin's heart. He had a right to see what had been done with his sword to the dwarf that had spoken such binding words to him. He had to know how badly Thorin was injured and what real chance he had for survival.
Ultimately, it was about knowing the whole truth. After all, it had been his thirst for knowledge that had pushed him out the door of Bag End, and beyond the quiet borders of the Shire. He had uncovered much direr things than he had expected, unimaginable violence, death, and stark evil, things that had existed all along even if he had been ignorant of them and that would have continued to exist should he have turned his back on them. But there were other things as well, there were daring hearts beating with no fear of death, iron wills pursuing stubborn dreams, and passions that grew in the shade of words unspoken. Now more than ever, Bilbo sensed the weight of Thorin's initial opinion of him, that he was soft and inexperienced, that he had no place amongst his companions. He had felt challenged then to prove himself to the haughty dwarf king, to show that he could care about more than the comforts of his own home. With everything that he had accomplished in matters of bravery and wit, he realised now that he had been stupidly blind to something bigger than that. Perhaps there had been signs he should have understood, more he should have read in Thorin's eyes than gratitude. But Thorin was so hard to read even by a hobbit of Bilbo's intelligence. He was much older and much more experienced in masking his true thoughts, no doubt a skill he had been compelled to perfect by his important position among his kin. If there had been signs, Bilbo had failed to see them. He owed Thorin that much, to stay with him until the end, whatever form it might have taken, whether it had been death or a new life.
He steadied himself on his feet as Balin began lowering the quilts that were keeping Thorin warm.
"How is your head?" asked the dwarf, glancing at Bilbo.
The hobbit looked at him startled. He had forgotten all about the dull pain in his temple. "Oh, it's fine," he said, lifting his hand tentatively to the bandage wrapped around his forehead.
"Oin seems to have done well enough," said Balin, eying Bilbo's forehead and starting to frown. "Where did you get fresh dressings?" he turned to Oin, a bit accusing.
Oin stared at him confounded.
"It wasn't Oin," muttered Bilbo. "I didn't stop earlier. The elves treated me."
"I see. And I understand. I would not have lingered either if I had been you," said Balin as he continued folding down the quilts.
Bilbo attempted a smile. "I haven't asked," he said. "How are the others?"
"Bruised and battered, but alive," answered Balin, sighing.
The uncovering of Thorin's abused body was now complete, and Bilbo found himself unable to continue the conversation, even if it concerned the state of his friends.
Beneath the blankets, Thorin's entire torso was swathed in what looked like a torn piece of somebody's clothing. If it had been clean to begin with, which was unlikely, it was now impossible to tell, as it was stained with blood, some dried black and some still fresh. There were also bandages all along both of his arms, leaving very little skin visible. Another covered part of Thorin's right thigh.
As Balin began unwrapping Thorin's leg, Bilbo clenched his fists and pinned his chin into his chest, bent on keeping his breathing as regular as possible. It looked like one of the wounds that had been sealed with his sword. It was not bleeding, fresh, exposed muscle, as he had expected, but a reddish patch of swollen flesh, shaped much like an ink blotch on an oddly absorbing piece of paper. The erratic contour made it hard to determine what sort of weapon had caused it.
"What…" murmured Bilbo, his hand quivering as it rose to Thorin's leg.
"Spear," said Balin, strangely calm. "It seems to have gone right through the muscle. There doesn't appear to be any damage to the bone, so I expect this will heal well."
Right through the muscle. That must have meant that there was a similar burn on the back of his thigh. This was only the first of Thorin's wounds that he was seeing, and Bilbo already felt a wave of tears swirling in his throat. He looked at Balin, unable to really understand how he could be so matter-of-fact about it, but the dwarf stepped to the side, allowing Oin to approach. Equally composed, Oin proceeded to spread some of the elvish concoction over the wound with careful, competent gestures.
Without lingering on Bilbo's questioning gaze, Balin started uncovering Thorin's stomach, and the hobbit followed the movements of his hands as if bewitched to crave more and more of the terrible sight they revealed. As the wrap came completely off, his bewitchment faded abruptly, and he leaned against one of the poles sustaining the tent, his hand clasping his mouth and chin. It was difficult to ascertain what exactly had happened to Thorin's body, where one wound ended and where another began. He could see more of the same jagged red marks, but these were more like streaks than blotches, one across his abdomen, one below his breast and a round one on his shoulder. The rest of his chest and his ribcage were a massive bruise speckled with shallower cuts. There were deeper cuts on the length of both of his arms, and another round wound in the thick muscle of his left arm.
Bilbo glanced up at Balin, who looked quite dismal himself. "And these?" he asked, lowering his hand slowly from his mouth.
"He took another spear in the shoulder," said Balin in the same controlled tone of voice. "And these look like sword cuts," he continued, indicating the long, now cauterized gashes. "He was lucky this one didn't pierce his gut, or we would have had nothing to hope for," he said, pointing to the slash over Thorin's stomach. "He was also hit with a mace, several times by the state of his ribs. That's what the bruising is from, they're broken. We're going to have to be very careful when we move him. One wrong step and he could puncture a lung and then it would truly be over."
There was so much damage, so many times Thorin would have had to endure a hot blade being pressed against his already torn flesh. Perhaps his screams of pain had really lasted for as long as Bilbo had imagined, in his deficient hiding place, behind a ruined wall and his own frail hands thrown over his ears. Much too long to be possible in a world he could understand, but it seemed that, at some point, he had crossed into another world, where more suffering was possible than his imagination might have conjured. He struggled to keep the tears from flooding his eyes.
"How can anyone survive this?" asked Bilbo, sniffing loudly.
"Dwarves are sturdy creatures, Bilbo," replied Balin with a comforting smile. "And the older we get, the harder we are to break. Thorin is strong. He can survive it, if we care for him properly."
Bilbo stared at Balin, still bewildered. The good dwarf appeared to be painfully clinging to his own show of confidence. He stepped gently aside as Oin came forward with his jar and started applying the balm with the same deft movements.
"And how can we know that he's not bleeding inside?"
"We can't. We'll have to hope that he isn't."
Bilbo's gaze lost focus as it travelled back to Thorin. So much for assessing his real chance to survive. A lot depended on luck and perhaps on a greater force that now held his life in its grip, ready to crush it or save it seemingly without heed for the consequences of either. Bilbo felt abandoned by both, but he was at least grateful that Thorin was unconscious for the moment and couldn't feel any more of the pain inflicted on him.
As he watched his unclothed body marred by injuries, Bilbo couldn't help feeling that some of them were on him, maybe not those that could be seen, but he had certainly played a part in hurting Thorin by betraying his confidence and taking from him what he desired the most, and what was, after all, his to keep. Thorin was not entirely to blame, and Bilbo was not entirely innocent, not anymore. How could he have turned away now when he had come too far for that?
He winced as a hand lay gently on his shoulder. It was Balin. "He has another cut on his back," he said "We have to turn him. Can you go to the other side of the bed?"
Bilbo looked to Oin, who was now standing at his side, waiting. He nodded and scrambled to the indicated place. Balin lifted Thorin's left side slowly. "Can you hold him like this?"
"Yes, yes," said Bilbo, and promptly steadied the decline of Thorin's body by gripping the tip of his shoulder and that of his hipbone, two places that looked undamaged enough. His head was lolling to the side, eyes shut tightly in a desolating picture of abandonment to the hands that were holding him from rolling over to the floor. Bilbo became aware that he was touching Thorin's bare skin in areas that were more intimate than a brow or a hand. His fingers immediately perceived the sturdiness of dwarf bodies that Balin had mentioned and it was a reassuring sensation. Still, his hands were very close to cuts and bruises, and he had to restrain an impulse to let go. He had never been in such proximity to someone who was so badly hurt, and certainly not to Thorin. But he had to keep holding him steady while Oin applied the healing ointment to the wound on his back, which he had not seen yet. Another wound, surely of the angry kind. Bilbo leaned forward to peruse it and found with surprise that the urge to pull back did not return. He mustered enough lucidity to determine that it was a long tear across the shoulder, also burned dry, and that, no matter the amount of elvish treatments used, it would have left a definite scar.
Oin soon finished and Bilbo was instructed to keep Thorin in place for a while longer while new dressings were being fashioned from a blanket.
As the two dwarves stepped away to work on their task, Bilbo let go of a deep breath that he had been holding for a long time and looked down at Thorin. His face had not escaped unharmed either. His lower lip was cut and his cheeks were grazed. There was another cut at the base of his hairline, and his hair was very nearly becoming a solid block of mud. He appeared helpless against everything and pale as a waning winter moon. Perhaps this was the moment for Bilbo to show the true measure of his courage, to see Thorin through his darkest hour, to care for him when he could no longer care for himself. It was not the first time he would be doing something out of his usual bounds to preserve Thorin's life. He had after all jumped in front of an orc for him, never having used a sword and never having really fought anyone before. But Thorin was truly worth fighting for, and that moment had given him a first taste of the hidden power that lay within him. Whatever else it took, he was willing to do it.
Bilbo lifted his eyes as Balin and Oin approached with their newly crafted dressings. They did not look particularly appropriate, but there was nothing else available. Balin spread one on the bed and then gestured for Bilbo to lay Thorin on his back. He watched as his wounds were covered once more and the blankets drawn over him, making it look again as if he was simply sleeping.
"He should be all right for now," said Balin, retreating with a sigh and crossing his hands over his belly. Bilbo smiled faintly. "I'll be outside," he nodded and exited the tent, followed by Oin.
Outside, Dwalin was still guarding the entrance to Thorin's tent, his back straight, his arms folded across his chest. He turned to acknowledge his brother as he came at his side.
"For the good of us all, I hope it works," said Balin.
Dwalin resumed his survey of the battlefield, shaking his head. "What is he thinking?" he growled. "He is King under the Mountain now. He has responsibilities. What will he do? Marry the hobbit?"
"He thinks he's dying," crooned Balin. "And I think we must worry about his life first, and then about whom he will marry."
"I know," snapped Dwalin, looking back to his brother with fire in his eyes. "I know that he could still die and that I may have tortured him for nothing. But that was a daft thing to say."
"Well, I think Bilbo might disagree."
"What did you say?"
"I said that Bilbo might not think it was daft."
"And why should I care about what the hobbit thinks?"
"May I remind you that this hobbit saved us several times and that without him we would not be here?"
"Indeed we would not," muttered Dwalin and looked away, gathering his arms at his back.
"None of this is Bilbo's fault."
"Aye, I knew the hobbit was trouble the moment I saw him," gnarled Dwalin .
"Brother, ultimately it is Thorin's right to decide whom he loves. I believe he has sacrificed enough for the kingdom already. Do you not think that we must grant him at least this liberty after everything that he has done for us?"
"This is no liberty. It is madness. It should not be."
"That is what you think. I see no real harm in it, other than to the sensibilities of some. Thorin already has two heirs that he has been raising almost as his own. Fili and Kili will continue the line of Durin with honour."
"Then you approve!"
"It is not my place to approve or yours to disapprove. You said yourself. He is king. If this is what he wants, we cannot stop him."
"I do not have to like it," snarled Dwalin.
As Balin sighed again deeply, Bilbo slipped past them seemingly with a precise destination in mind.
"Where is he going?" asked Dwalin, making no effort to conceal the note of disdain in his voice.
"He wants to wash Thorin's hair. He's probably looking for water," said Balin, returning a smile to his brother. Dwalin rolled his eyes and scoffed. "You were fairly considerate to him earlier. I think you dislike him less than you would prefer. And you may have saved Thorin's life together. That is no small thing. Give it more time, brother," said Balin squeezing Dwalin's shoulder and walked off.
Some time passed before Bilbo returned, stumbling awkwardly, his right side slanting downwards under the pull of a bucket full of water. As he finally reached Thorin's tent again, where Dwalin was waiting like he was carved in stone, Bilbo released the bucket and looked up at him grieved.
"What do you intend to do with that?" asked Dwalin, regarding him critically from above.
"Thorin's hair is soaked in muck," said Bilbo, bristling. "It should be washed before it completely dries up."
Dwalin squinted at him as if trying to find a fault in his plan. He uncrossed his arms. "I'll help you," he said, giving Bilbo a hard stare as he bowed to take the bucket. He lifted it easily and stepped inside the tent. The hobbit followed, with a slight roll of his eyes, not really understanding why he was being treated as if he had anything but good intentions.
Reaching Thorin's bed, Dwalin set the bucket down and straightened his back, with a loud sigh. Bilbo tiptoed at his side. He had expected the dwarf to antagonize him further, but Dwalin did not seem intent on talking. He simply stared at Thorin, his countenance wretched. After a few good seconds, he glanced suddenly at Bilbo, wincing as if the hobbit's growing stare had been jabbing him in the ribs, which were no doubt sore to begin with. Bilbo faltered and looked for something else to set his gaze upon, preferably something as close to the ground as possible.
Dwalin released a low growl. "I swore to protect him with my life," he said. "A fine job I did of it."
Bilbo looked back up, but he didn't know what to say. There was nothing to be said, after all, to quench the regret that was bleeding raw from Dwalin's voice. Nothing that would not have belittled the bond of loyalty between him and Thorin, which Bilbo was sure that he could not begin to fathom in its full depth. He simply returned a sympathetic grimace. "I noticed that you're quite close," he said eventually, feeling instantly stupid.
Dwalin gazed at him with surprising melancholy. "Aye, we grew up together. Trained and fought side by side. We talked about... everything. Or so I thought." Then blame flashed clear in the dwarf's eyes.
Bilbo swallowed hard, trying to free his throat from the suffocating lump that had formed there. This was about him and Thorin's unsettling last words.
Now he was beginning to see the complete picture. There was more than loyalty binding Dwalin and Thorin together. There were also ties of family and friendship. Dwalin had not only failed to shield his king from death, but also his friend. And now death was there waiting. The end. And at the very end, Thorin had revealed something about himself that had turned everything upside down. Something secret that not even Dwalin had known and that required more time to be explained, to be at least accepted, if not understood, to be integrated into his image of Thorin, which could have never been the same as before. But it could at least have been remade into a new image, different and maybe a little smudged around the edges, but one that Dwalin could live with, that both of them could live with. That would have taken time, precisely the commodity that was in doubt at the moment. All that Dwalin had, there and then, was a bloodied, shattered mess of what he'd believed Thorin to be. And that was no way to part with him.
Bilbo looked again at the floor, at a loss for words. His eyes stopped on the bucket of warm water waiting near the bed, and he remembered that they were there for a reason. "Uh, I think we should," he began and continued by gesturing towards the bucket.
Dwalin jumped a bit at Bilbo's remark, but his gestures towards Thorin were filled with a calculated concern that seemed to contrast heavily with his gruff appearance and the obvious rift in his sentiments for Thorin. He wedged a careful palm under his head and moved him to the side of the bed, allowing his hair to flow in a muddy waterfall above the cauldron that Bilbo had placed nearby. Then he retreated in silence and allowed the hobbit to approach.
Bilbo retook his seat, leaving Dwalin to his thoughts. Using a chipped metal can, he began pouring water over Thorin's hair, running his hand through it to dislodge the drying grime. His fingers brushed inevitably against Thorin's forehead and the lobes of his ears, as he tried to divert water from reaching where it did not belong. He had never washed anyone's hair before, but he vaguely remembered his mother washing his. She had always been gentle and mindful of keeping water out of his eyes and ears. And he had always perceived it as a magical time between the two of them, a moment of profound communion. Not that his mother had ever failed to show affection, but her hands kneading carefully in his hair and rinsing it clean had been like a ritual, a solemn promise that she loved him then and she would love him forever. That memory surged to the surface of his mind, fresh and alive, against his ability to stop it. He could also not avoid pondering what it meant for the present, for it undoubtedly meant something, especially after what Thorin had said to him. However, it was getting harder and harder to breathe, let alone think under the heavy scrutiny of Dwalin, who was standing at his side. Something had to be said or done to break that lumbering spell.
Bilbo cleared his throat. "I don't suppose anyone has any soap," he said, half-joking and looking up at the dark looming dwarf.
"You might find some with the elves," answered Dwalin with a great scoff.
Bilbo smiled. "I'm quite sure Thorin would disapprove. It's enough we've had him coated in elvish balm."
Dwalin didn't seem to find any of that amusing, but at least he didn't return another scowl.
"You know what I can't stop thinking of?" continued Bilbo, redirecting his attention to his task.
"Your books and your armchair?" sniped Dwalin.
Bilbo looked at him again, and thought of showing him his own abilities in matters of scoffing. "My garden, actually. The scent of my flowers, to be more precise, on that morning when I ran off into the blue with you."
"No one held an axe over your head." Much like his beloved king and friend, Dwalin could hold a bitter grudge.
"Are you angry with me?" asked Bilbo, stopping what he was doing, pushed beyond his determination to reserve that discussion for later or to not begin it at all.
Dwalin puffed with such pathos that his ragged moustache fluttered, and he turned his head, crossing his arms again over his chest. "No," he eventually grumbled.
"You're angry with him, then."
Dwalin remained shrouded in his defensive gloom for a while, but then the crust of acrimony began to crack. He uncrossed his arms and sighed. "There is something on my mind as well."
"Oh, what?" said Bilbo, a bit relieved, and poured some more water over Thorin's hair.
"The battle, you mean?"
"Indeed. I'd always believed that Thorin was our hope to get back what we'd lost, pride and fortune alike. But when he stood up against Azog with nothing to his defence but an oaken branch and his own spirit, he proved to all who were still alive that he was a great dwarf, and that he could be a great king."
"He still is all that," said Bilbo with a smile. "He still can be a great king."
Dwalin peered at him long from under his eyebrows, slightly reminiscent of his less impetuous brother.
"You don't believe that anymore?"
"Of course I do," conceded Dwalin, but he still sounded like his trust in Thorin had been wounded beyond repair. "Tell me, Bilbo, why did you come back?"
"Thorin treated you harshly the last time you saw him. You had every reason to run back home, where you've wanted to be all along. Why didn't you?"
"I, I was worried about... him, about all of you, really."
"You do not resent his behaviour?"
"But that was not really him, was it? I can't hold a grudge knowing that he was not himself."
"Friendships have been broken for less. And I am no longer sure of what is really him," lamented Dwalin.
"Well, I am. I know he's not an unscrupulous murderer," Bilbo retorted, and Dwalin glanced at him startled.
He studied the hobbit some more. "What did you do to him?" he asked abruptly.
"Did you do something to make him say that?"
"No, of course not. I don't know what I could have done. I, I thought he despised me."
Dwalin growled in his beard. "Not after you jumped in front of that giant orc and saved his life. Not the mention that clever little trick you pulled with the barrels, and the keyhole." Now he was eyeing Bilbo as if all those had been crimes against his very kin. The hobbit opened his mouth but couldn't really speak. "Do you… feel the same?" Dwalin charged again after pausing to give Bilbo a contemptuous once-over, his question sounding like an ultimatum.
Bilbo tried to think of what Dwalin might have liked to hear. Would he have liked Bilbo to give a negative answer and leave no open gate for Thorin's foolish confession to spawn serious consequences should he have woken up? Or would a decisive no have angered him further, as it would have meant a failure to honour Thorin's feelings and therefore a grave insult? Bilbo's own truth was somewhere in between. "I don't know," he said quietly. Dwalin's reaction was of the same grey nature. He drew back with a grunt, but his frown began to relax. "I truly don't know how this happened. I did not expect it. I don't know how to feel, really."
Dwalin looked like he might have continued the conversation if a low rumour had not been growing outside. Bilbo tried to see past his shoulder, and the dwarf glanced back as well. As the breeze of whispers came closer, Dwalin started towards the exit.
Bilbo hurried to finish with the washing of Thorin's hair. It could not truly be called clean in the absence of soap, but at least it was no longer drenched in bloody filth. It had all poured with the water into the cauldron at the foot of the bed, and if the recipient itself had not been coal black to begin with, Bilbo was sure that the sight of its contents would have made his stomach turn once again. He gathered Thorin's dripping locks in his hands and squeezed them in a spiral like laundry to wring out the excess water.
As he got up from his seat to drag the cauldron away, the curtain at the entrance was pulled to the side, and in came Dwalin again, followed by two very tall, meandering figures, who stooped awkwardly to get inside. Bilbo rushed to return Thorin's head to a less unflattering position, then looked up to notice, not with a lack of surprise, that the tall figures were elves and that one of them was none other than Thranduil himself. His forehead drooped into a little bow to Bilbo, which the hobbit returned more amply.
Dwalin was glaring something fierce behind the elves, his gaze seeming to shoot fireballs up at the nape of the Elvenking. Between that and the greatly differing expression on Thranduil's face, Bilbo managed to also notice that the elf king was carrying a sword with him, which he was now holding at both ends in a reverent pose above the ground and under his lowered brow. It was Orcrist, the cleaver-like Elven blade that Thorin had found in the troll cave, and that he had rapidly taken a liking to in spite of its origins. He had not been very happy when it had been taken away, and Bilbo himself had found that particular gesture of the elves to be a bit abusive. Surely, it had been crafted by their kin, but Thorin had not stolen it. He had found it and made it his own. Lord Elrond himself had acknowledged Thorin's ownership of the feared Orcrist and had relinquished it to him with favourable wishes. It was unfair that it be taken away by the Elves of Mirkwood, and yet many things that had happened were unfair.
Thranduil raised his gaze to Bilbo and the hobbit could see something that he had never thought he would see in the eyes of the haughty Elvenking – remorse and desire for reconciliation. "We have come to return to Thorin Oakenshield that which is his own and was taken unjustly from him," he said, offering the sword to the little creature before him.
Bilbo felt more than inappropriate to take it. For one thing, it was sized for Elves. It was big even for Thorin, but at least he had the brawn to wield it. Bilbo was sure that he would struggle just to hold it in a dignified enough manner. Other than that, he didn't really know why Thranduil was not giving it to one of the other important Dwarves. Dwalin was right there. Surely he was a more fitting recipient for such a meaningful gesture. Still, musing over the propriety of the events unfolding din not change the fact that he was being given something for Thorin. It would have been even more inappropriate to refuse. He reached with both hands towards the sheathed blade, which looked less intimidating in the grasp of an elf, and he clenched his fingers fast around its hilt and pointier end. As he held it, he realized that it was indeed too heavy for him. His wrists strained and almost dropped it as Thranduil removed his support. He managed to keep a veiled appearance of self-control as he struggled to lean it against the bed where its rightful owner lay unconscious.
Released from that burden, Bilbo was faced with another. The other elf had handed something to Thranduil, and Thranduil was now on the verge of handing something else to Bilbo. The something was a lump that fit neatly into the elf's hand, bundled in grey fabric. As the fabric was swept aside, light irradiated in its wake and Bilbo found astonished that the Elvenking had revealed the Arkenstone. Rays of gleaming rainbow were waving all around it. It was indeed hard to look upon it and not be seduced.
"You took this. You are the one who must give it back," said Thranduil, stirring Bilbo from his sudden daydream.
"Yes, of course," said Bilbo, feeling his face redden with guilt. He took the stone, covering it back with the grey fabric, and held it close against his chest.
"Are you hopeful that he will survive?" asked Thranduil.
Dwalin took a few steps forward and came to the Elvenking's side.
"Yes, yes, we are hopeful," answered Bilbo.
"We have brought you some clean sheets and dressings," said Thranduil, turning to the other elf. The latter came forward, carrying a bundle of white fabrics in his arms. Seeing that Bilbo was already occupied, he shoved the bundle into Dwalin's arms, whose eyes shot up at him with unyielding wrath, in spite of the fact that the elf was helping.
"We can offer more assistance," said Thranduil, addressing Dwalin as well. "Should you need it."
Dwalin conceded to return a slight bow of the head.
Thranduil looked back to Bilbo, offering his good-byes, it seemed, and he turned to leave.
"Thank you," called the hobbit behind him.
The Elvenking sketched a thin smile, then walked out of the tent, followed by his companion.
Dwalin glared after them for a good while, and then returned a dark gaze to Bilbo. He rushed toward him, but stopped near Thorin's bed and lifted Orcrist from its leaning stance. He took it and laid it neatly across the bed, at its owner's feet.
Then, he came up to Bilbo, eying the precious bundle in the hobbit's arms. "You had better give that to me," he said gruffly.
Bilbo didn't protest, but handed the stone to him with some hesitation, more under the pressure of Dwalin's stare. It was put with Orcrist, at Thorin's feet, seemingly the only place that could ensure their safety in the after-battle chaos.
Bilbo remembered that he still had something to do. He had managed to place Thorin's head back on his makeshift pillow, but his hair was still wet. Bilbo took one of the pieces of cloth that Thranduil had brought and sat back down next to Thorin's bed. He wrapped it around his head and around the length of his hair, then began to massage gently, trying for a faster dry.
Balin walked in with some gusto. "What was that? Was the Elvenking here?"
"Yes," said Dwalin bitterly. "He brought back Thorin's sword and the Arkenstone. And dressings."
"Oh, I see," said Balin, looking impressed. "Well, we cannot keep him here for too long," he continued, nodding in Thorin's direction. "Or the lads. It's getting cold. We have to get them to the mountain. I'm confident that the Royal Quarters are still intact. We should clean up the best we can, build a fire and get them properly cared for."
"I agree," said Dwalin, his tone noticeably refreshed.
"Bilbo, I trust you'll be all right here by yourself?" asked Balin.
"Aye, he'll manage fine," grumbled Dwalin, at his side.
Bilbo smiled as innocently as he could. "Yes, I'll be all right. And I'm not by myself. I'm with Thorin."
Balin smiled back and Dwalin rolled his eyes. "Do take good care of him until we come back," said Balin with another wink.
Then, they were both gone, but not before Dwalin cast him another dissatisfied look as he walked out of the tent.
Bilbo looked back to Thorin, who was still unknowing of everything around him, of the treatment of his wounds, of his hair being washed, and even of his most precious possessions being returned. He wasn't aware that his life-long friend was disappointed in him and needed him to survive so that he could ask for explanations, or that Bilbo needed a little more time ith him to find out what really lay behind his last words.
"Thorin," he said quietly, caressing the dwarf's bruised forehead. "Please wake up soon. You have a lot of unfinished business to tend to."
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