Commander Belladonna Baggins heaved her pack higher on her shoulders as she breathed in the frigid morning air. The sun was rising boldly in what her equipment informed her was this planet's North. It gave the mist that hung about her a shimmer, as though she were walking through a rainbow.
Ahead of her, Ensign Hamfast Gamgee crouched in the path to fiddle with a piece of his biological collecting equipment. The plant he was examining waved soft gray fronds slowly through the air, collecting the morning dew on its delicate spikes. Ham turned back to give her a cheerful grin.
"Keeping up okay there, Skipper?" He asked, "I can take some of that equipment if you'd like. I know old bones have a harder time--"
Bella chuckled and shook her head fondly, "Enough of your cheek, Ensign. Let's keep moving."
Ham collected his findings with a good-natured shrug. "I was just offering," He called over his shoulder.
"And I was just declining. March, Ensign." Bella caught up to him and gave him a gentle push between his shoulder blades.
They resumed their hike up the mountainside. Around them, the flora and fauna was slowly beginning to come to life as the sun climbed higher in the sky. The animal trail they were on was narrow, with few places affording enough room to stop and rest. Bella and Ham pushed on until, at last, they broke above the tree line and reached a small rocky outcrop at the top of the mountain.
Ham pulled out one of his BioTech tablets and began recording data about the oxygen levels, water purity, and elevation. Bella rested her hands on her head and tried to catch her breath as she surveyed the view. The high elevation made this planet's already thin oxygen even more difficult for her body to process. It was a fine line between panting to catch one's breath and dangerous hyperventilating. She didn't intend to cross it.
As she slowed her breathing, she noticed a cloud of thick black smoke that appeared to be rising from the location of their base camp.
"What on earth could that fool of a Took be burning to make a cloud like that?" Bella muttered curiously.
Suddenly, a sharp howl cracked through the air. A small space shuttle, bearing the distinct markings of the Shire, rose from the trees near the smoking camp and tore off across the forest, rising quickly above the clouds and out of sight.
Bella pressed her comms link, "This is Baggins to shuttle one. Come in, over."
"Try yours," Bella ordered. When Ham received the same non-response, Bella shook her head. "Sorry, Ensign, looks like our trip was for nothing. We're going back to camp. Double-time."
Ham didn't argue, simply replaced his tablet in his pack and hitched the entire thing onto his back. That alone told Bella that he was just as worried as she was.
If the hike up had seemed cruelly quick, the dash back down was breakneck. The narrow trail that had seemed beautifully rustic in its unpolished state was now full of menacing bumps and twists that threatened to trip the pair at any moment.
Bella ran through scenario after scenario trying to figure out what had caused her team to flee the camp without first reaching out to her. Each theory she conceived was more bizarre than the last. Too much of this planet was unknown for her to draw any conclusions about the threats they could be facing.
She ran faster.
Ham emerged from the trees a bare instant before Bella. He stumbled to a stop and she nearly crashed into him. They both stood stupefied by the sight of their camp. The reality surpassed any imagining Bella could have conjured.
What had been a neat ring of five tents when they left this morning was now a circle of charred mounds. Equipment was broken and scattered all around the clearing. A burnt circle marked the emergency take-off of the shuttle. Even their privy had been torched.
"Oh Yavanna." Ham murmured, lurching forward.
Bella caught his elbow and yanked him back. "Cover me." She hissed, unclipping her stunner from her belt.
They moved forward slowly, examining the churned grass underfoot for any sign that could hint at what had happened here. Perhaps native predators? No, the special canvas of the tents could only have been melted to this degree by imperial standard plasma arcs. Maybe there was a disease that their month-long microbiological survey and immunizations hadn't discovered and couldn't contain? This could be an attempt at sterilization.
Bella shook her head, if that were the case, Isengrim would have reached out to me on the comms. She reassured herself.
That left two options: either this planet was host to intelligent alien life forms, which seemed unlikely given that they had yet to find a single structure in the area that was not naturally formed or altered in anyway, or their expedition had been followed and targeted.
Bella firmly pushed her fear into the darkest recesses of her mind. She didn't have the time to dither about in a panic. Quietly, she and Ham began poking about the ruins of their camp, seeking some sign that could tell them what had transpired.
They found it in the grass halfway to the ravine.
"Oh, Isengrim." Bella murmured.
Ham gave a cry and shed his bag in his mad sprint to his companion's side. Together, Bella and Ham rolled Isengrim's body onto his back. His beige Shire Astronomical Survey fatigues were damp with morning dew. His limbs were only just beginning to stiffen in death.
Ham stifled his sobs in the crook of his elbow. Bella leaned forward and closed Isengrim's eyes, "Rest easy, Lieutenant Took. You have done your duty."
Setting aside her pack and stunner, she quickly searched his body for a cause of death. There were no burns, broken bones, or apparent trauma. It wasn't until she ran careful hands over his scalp and discovered a small blister that she realized what had killed her old friend.
"Nerve disrupter." She told Ham quietly.
His hands were shaking, "Monsters." he hissed venomously. "He was a noncombatant."
She laid Isengrim back on the cold ground and stood, numbly brushing dirt off her knees. "Come on, Ensign. We need to find long-range comm equipment to reach the ship."
He nodded and reached out as though to grasp Isengrim's hand. At the last second he twitched back and breathed in raggedly before standing. "Right." He said weakly, "right."
As Bella passed him, she gripped his shoulder firmly. "Survive now, mourn later." She counseled, "We need to think of the living first."
"Aye aye, Captain." He said with a wavering attempt at his usual cheeky grin, "Once more unto the breach?"
"That's the spirit."
They searched the smoldering remains of their camp for nearly an hour before Ham let out a whoop.
"Let's take it over by the ravine to test it," Bella suggested, "I feel too exposed here."
They carried the comm link past Isengrim's body into the deeper undergrowth at the ravine's edge. Bella quickly manipulated the controls until the clearing was filled with a sharp static-y whine. Quickly shuffling through the channels until she found their shuttle's emergency frequency, she began the blind call.
"This is Commander Baggins to Survey Ship Bag End. Please Acknowledge."
She and Ham waited in tense silence. At last, the dull static broke and a voice crackled through the speakers.
"Lieutenant Sackville-Baggins here. Are you all right, Captain?"
Bella exchanged a triumphant grin with Ham, "All right for now. What's your status? What happened?"
Lobelia's voice, normally shrill and irritable, sounded tired as she responded, "A Dwarven military patrol surrounded the camp, demanding surrender. Said they claimed the place by right of prior discovery. Then some trigger-happy loon on their side fired a plasma arc, and all hell broke loose. Isengrim drew them off with his stunner, and the rest of us made a dash to the shuttle. There's a Dwarven ship of the General class up here that we're playing hide-and-seek with, if you know what I mean--"
"You're broadcasting in the clear, Lobelia," Bella reminded her cousin harshly.
Lobelia hesitated, then continued. "Right. Well, they're still demanding surrender. Have you found Isengrim yet? He took off towards the --"
"Ensign Gamgee is with me. Is everybody else accounted for?"
"All but Isengrim."
"Lieutenant Took is dead."
Lobelia had always had a gift for cursing, even when they were children.
Bella interrupted her blue streak, "Lobelia, you have command. Do not surrender to the Dwarrow under any circumstances. They outgun you, they out man you, but you're faster than anything they've got. Keep out of their reach and keep out of sight. Retreat all the way back to the Shire, if you have to. Whatever you do, take no chances with my people. Understand?"
"We aren't going to leave you, Bella!"
"That's Captain to you, Lieutenant, we're on duty. And you can't launch a shuttle to the surface until the Dwarrow are off your ass. We stand a better chance of getting home through political channels then some harebrained rescue. But that will only work if you live to make it home and report. Acknowledge!" Bella snapped, all fondness for her cousin overwhelmed by annoyance at Lobelia's pure pigheadedness.
There was a moment of silence before Lobelia answered, "Acknowledged. But, Captain, you know you can't evade those bastards. You're carrying stunners and they have plasma arcs and nerve disrupters!"
"We'll manage as we must. Now get going, Lobelia. For Yavanna's sake!" Bella ordered, trying not to sound as distressed as she was. Isengrim had always had a better head for command than Lobelia. That was why he was her second and not her dear cousin. With Isengrim dead and Bella landlocked.... She said a quick prayer to whatever deities might be listening that Lobelia would actually listen to her for once.
As the static cut out, Bella sat back on her heels and breathed a deep sigh. "Well, this is certainly not what I expected."
Ham chuckled, "You have a gift for understatement."
"And you have a gift for--" A flash of dark against the pale horizon caught her eye. Lurching to her feet she grabbed her stunner. A large Dwarf, bald except for a thick mane around the back of his head and geometric tattoos decorating his scalp, stepped out from the grass and raised his arms.
Ham moved first, shoving Bella out of the way. She stumbled backwards, fear closing her throat as her foot met empty air and she tumbled backwards off the sheer face of the cliff. The crackle of a nerve disrupter echoed in her ears as her vision blurred and green-gray foliage ripped at her face and arms. She dropped her stunner and comm link and tucked herself into a small ball. An instant later, she hit the ground with a sickening thud.
And then all she knew was blackness.
The earthy smell of moss and the damp against her cheek slowly drew Bella back into wakefulness. Her eyes felt gummy as she forced them open, trying to see past the swirls of black obscuring her vision.
A pair of black boots were sunk in the mud not two feet from her nose. Slowly, she tried to lift her head to seek their owner, but the movement sent a spike of pain and nausea through her entire body. Whimpering, she lowered her head back to the dirt and instead rolled slightly until she could make out the figure of the Dwarf officer standing over her.
Terror washed away the pain in a swell of adrenaline. Her hand shot out, desperately seeking her stunner.
"So you're an officer." The man above her drawled. He spun her stunner in his hand, broad palm making the weapon seem like a toy. "You look more like a grocer than a soldier."
Bella pushed herself slowly into a sitting position, "I'm not a soldier." She retorted. "I'm Commander Belladonna Baggins of the Shire Astronomical Survey. Noncombatant."
The man raised a single eyebrow, thin lips quirking up in a smirk. He had long dark hair sporting two thick braids that hung before his ears, streaks of silver highlighting his temples, and a short beard. By Dwarf standards she understood his look to be quite simple and understated, but by Hobbit standards it was all rather elaborate. Why on earth did soldiers wear their hair so long anyway? Highly impractical.
He was broad of shoulder, though he didn't have nearly as much bulk as she expected to see in a Dwarf, and his uniform served to emphasize the power in his frame. Bella fought back another whimper as she realized just how unlikely her tentative plan to fight her way free would prove to be.
"Ah. Of course. My name is Captain Thorin Oakenshield, commanding the Dwarven Imperial war cruiser Erebor." The man - Thorin - said. "What happened to your party?"
Bella squinted at him suspiciously, "You would know better than I. I was up the mountain, escorting my botanist--" She gasped, "Ham! I mean, Ensign Gamgee. Have you seen him? He pushed me into the ravine when we were ambushed--"
Thorin glanced to the top of the ravine and grimaced. Her heart sank. "Was he a brown-haired boy?" Thorin asked.
"Yes." Bella's hands tightened into fists anxiously.
"Then there's nothing you can do for him now."
Bella pushed herself angrily to her feet. Thorin took a step back, watching her warily as she growled, "That was murder. All he had was a stunner!" She took a menacing step forward, managing not to stumble by sheer force of will, "Why did you attack my people?"
Thorin crossed his arms over his chest and rested his weight on his back heel. He looked perfectly at ease except for the tenseness of his shoulders. "Your people," he began slowly, "were to be interned, peacefully, for violating Dwarven airspace. There was an altercation. I was stunned. When I came to, I found your camp much as you did."
Bella spat, "Good." She said grimly, "I'm glad Isengrim got at least one of you before your lot murdered him too."
"If you're referring to the courageous, if misguided, blond boy from your camp, he couldn't hit an oliphaunt if it were standing still. I don't understand why you Hobbits put on soldier's uniforms. Dwarven children have more training than you do. In fact, if there's anything separating your ranks but the pay scale, I don't see it." Thorin's disdain was evident in his dismissive tone.
Bella saw red, "He was a geologist, not a killer, you miserable oaf. And as for my 'children', your people couldn't even catch them." So there, remained unsaid. Though it hung unpleasantly in the air.
Thorin hummed thoughtfully and Bella bit back a frustrated curse. The torture hasn't even started and I'm already giving up intelligence. She scolded herself, you need to stay calm, Bella. He's just trying to wind you up.
"They haven't, have they." Thorin mused, "What orders did you give your ship when they told you of their escape?"
Bella crossed her arms defensively, "I told them to use their initiative." She said vaguely.
He snorted, "At least that's one order you can be sure a Hobbit will obey."
She tried to ignore the offense, "Well, at least I know why my people left me. Why did yours leave you? And for that matter, if Isengrim was so incompetent with his stunner, who shot you?"
The stunner, previously at rest in the man's big hand, was now aimed back at her. Thorin's eyes narrowed as he responded, "None of your concern. Have you another comm link?"
Mutiny, then. Well, that might prove beneficial to her people, at least. Overthrowing a leader tended to cause no small amount of confusion amongst the ranks.
Bella shrugged, "Your soldiers trashed everything." She stated.
"It's fine. I know where to get another one. Can you walk yet?" He asked.
"I think so." Bella took a tentative step. The sharp pain pushing at her skull wasn't gone, but it was manageable now. She nodded firmly, "Yes. I'll manage."
"It's probably just a concussion." Thorin said unsympathetically, "It will pass."
"How far?" She asked.
"Two hundred kilometers," Thorin hedged, "give or take."
Bella sat down on a log, feeling suddenly faint, "Have a nice trip."
"On my own it would take me two days. Being a...geologist, or whatever, I expect you'll take longer."
"Get up." Thorin hesitated, "please." He reached out and gripped her elbow to pull her up. The warmth of his hand was a welcome change from the cold dampness of her fatigues. He pulled away as soon as she was standing, seemingly reluctant to touch her.
As he moved to the bottom of the ravine, Bella watched him incredulously. "You aren't joking." She said flatly.
"What on earth are you going to do with a prisoner on a forced march?" She asked, near hysterical, "I could bash your head in while you sleep!"
Thorin snorted, "I'll take my chances." He said dismissively.
With a sigh, Bella followed him to the base of a small path that would lead them to the top of the ravine. It would seem she had little choice in the matter.
At the top of the ravine, Bella leaned against a tree and panted heavily. "I could have been a banker." she muttered, "Could've taken over my father's business. Fool of a Took."
Thorin glanced at her sidelong, "Come on, we need to keep moving."
Bella shook her head, "I'm not going anywhere until I've buried my officers." She said firmly, pushing herself away from her tree.
"It's a waste of time." Thorin said, "One we can ill afford."
"I'm not going to leave them in the open as if they were animals." Bella said indignantly, "For all you dismiss us Hobbits as gentlefolk beneath the soldierly pride of Dwarrow, they died an honorable death. I will see them buried for it."
He stared at her for a moment, face impassive, before nodding. "Very well."
Bella quickly made her way to where she and Ham had been ambushed, passing Isengrim's body with a respectful nod. When she reached the place, however, there was no sign of her Ensign.
"I could have sworn we were here." She muttered, looking around. "You didn't move him, did you?"
"No." Thorin said, "But he couldn't have gone far, in his condition."
"Gone..." Bella whirled to face him, "I thought you said he was dead!"
"He is. His body just hasn't realized it yet." Thorin grimaced, "The disrupter must have missed his cerebellum."
Bella spun back, eyes quickly finding the path of broken vegetation now that she knew what to look for. "Ham!" She shouted, "Hamfast!"
She followed the path at a stumbling run, Thorin following more sedately behind her. She nearly tripped on the beige-clad figure curled up against the base of a tree.
Kneeling beside her friend's body, Bella reached out blindly. "Ham, it's me, Bella."
Ham turned towards her with blank eyes. Suddenly he began to shake, teeth bared in a parody of a smile. Is he cold? Bella thought, desperately casting about for something to wrap around him. When she touched her fingers to his hand, it was warm. Suddenly she realized what was happening.
Blinking back tears, Bella slowly lowered Ham to the ground so that he was lying on his side. As he convulsed, she combed fingers through his short curls and hummed an old Hobbit lullaby. Whether it was for his benefit or hers, she couldn't say.
When Ham came back to himself she helped him to sit back up and gently wiped the spittle from his mouth. He seemed distressed, gripping her arms and moaning at her in extended vowels and choked clicks and grunts, but he quieted when she made calming noises at him.
Bella turned to glare at Thorin, who was watching the proceedings impassively, "Liar! He isn't dead, only injured. He should be receiving medical attention!"
"You're not thinking clearly, Commander Baggins. No one recovers from a disrupter injury of this caliber. He's as good as dead."
"You can't see what the damage is just by looking at him from the outside!" Bella snapped, "And you can't demote him to the status of a corpse just for your own convenience!"
His eyes were calm and cold, "If you wish, I have my combat knife. It is quite sharp. I can end his suffering, quickly if not painlessly. Or you may do it, if you feel it is your duty as his commander."
"And that is what you would do, if one of your men were injured thus?"
"Yes." Thorin stated, as though any other conclusion were impossible. "No man should have to live like that."
A wave of disgust rolled over Bella and she tasted bile in her throat, "It must," she said quietly, meeting Thorin's eyes, "be like living among cannibals, to be a Dwarf."
For a long moment the only noise to be heard was Ham's heavy breathing. Finally, Thorin spoke. He was quiet, contained behind his mask of indifference, "What do you propose we do with him, Commander?"
She turned to regard Ham critically, mentally measuring each of the two hundred kilometers Thorin wished to traverse against her own stamina and Hamfast's new disability.
"I will not abandon him." She declared. "If you wish to kill him, you must kill me too. And if you wish to leave him, I will stay by his side."
Thorin grimaced, "I don't kill prisoners."
Bella silently rejoiced at the plural. At least he no longer viewed Ham as a corpse. Forcing herself to her feet, she turned to face her captor.
"Well then," she said, "I guess we're coming with you."
Thorin raised a skeptical eyebrow, "Can he even walk?"
Bella reached down and pulled one of Ham's arms over her shoulder. Heaving him upright, she pulled until he was standing, leaning his lanky frame flush against her side. Together, they took a few stumbling steps forward.
Bella turned to grin at Thorin, "See?" She said, "he just needed a bit of help."
Thorin nodded slowly, "The supply cache we are heading to," he said, "it has medical supplies."
She bit her lip, thinking quickly. "All right, here's my offer." Bella said, "I will cooperate with you, give you my parole as a prisoner, assist you in any way I can that does not actually endanger my ship or my people, if I can take Ensign Gamgee with us."
Thorin huffed, "I don't see how this will work. We will have to move quickly, I doubt he'll be able to keep up."
"He'll keep up." Bella said firmly, brooking no arguments. He'll have to, she added silently, for all our sakes.
Thorin shrugged, "I may be crazy, but I accept your offer."
They buried Isengrim as twilight fell. Soft skittering noises echoed on the edges of the forest as Thorin dug the grave, but nothing interrupted them. That didn't stop Bella from keeping Ham close, though.
They found a few ration tins still intact in the ruins of one of the tents. Most of the packets were burnt or melted, but the tins of oatmeal and blue cheese dressing, of all things, had survived. Bella fed Hamfast and herself before offering to take first watch.
Thorin turned her down. "You're going to be helping your Ensign walk tomorrow, you should get all the rest you can tonight."
"And you?" Bella asked, "When will you rest?"
His answering smile was humorless, "I'll rest when I'm dead."
Bella's sleep was restless, her dreams full of fire and the crackle of nerve disrupters. In the middle of the night she sat up with a gasp, sweat-soaked and panting.
Sitting with his back against a rock, stunner resting between his hands, Thorin sat surveying the forest. Bella crawled until she sat beside him, elbow barely brushing his.
"I can't sleep." She whispered.
Thorin looked at her out of the corner of his eye, "Was this your first battle?"
Bella scoffed, "Hardly a battle."
"Just because you did not fire a weapon does not mean you didn't fight this day." Thorin replied placidly, "The night terrors are nothing to be ashamed of."
Bella wiped her damp cheeks, "He was my cousin." She admitted quietly.
"Lieutenant Took. Isengrim. He was my cousin." She sniffed and wiped her face again, "Several of the crew are, actually. Distant, but still family."
Thorin was very still beside her. "I'm sorry." He murmured.
Bella bit back a sob, "I'm going to have to tell my auntie when I get home." She hesitated, then added quietly, "If. If I get home."
"You'll get home."
"So you say."
They sat in silence for several minutes. Finally Thorin spoke again, "Go back to sleep, Commander. You need to rest."
Bella nodded and returned to her spot beside Ham, curling up in a tight ball and squeezing her eye shut. As she began to drift away, she heard Thorin's rumbling voice begin a song...