"Thanks, Ham! See you tomorrow!" Bella called as her groundsman waved her good-bye for the day.
"You sure you don't want some help with those ferns?" he asked, looking anxious and worried. But Ham always looked anxious and worried these days even with the war over and done with. Bella worried that the lines on his face were here to stay.
"I've got them," she said smiling. "Don’t you worry. You get home to see what Sam's managed to do today."
Hamfast beamed the same proud smile he'd been sporting ever since his son was born and said, "Did I tell you that he already knows the difference between a spade and a shovel?"
"You did, and it's still brilliant, Ham," Bella said laughing. "Now, shoo!"
Ham waved again, and Bella finished lugging the pots of ferns over to the front of the nursery. She adjusted them minutely and nodded to herself. She looked over the rows of apple trees that were still lush with green leaves and a few of the last crop of apples of the season. Naturally Lobelia and Otho would give her to the end of August so that they could take over after all the hard work was done for the summer.
“Typical,” she murmured and then cringed. She really needed to stop saying that. Things were the way they were, and unless something out of the blue came, well, out of the blue, she was stuck.
She flipped the Open sign to Closed on the nursery shop front and locked up the money from the afternoon sales in the safe in the back. With a sigh, she turned off the lights and headed home.
She walked down the short path from the nursery, past the greenhouse and then around the hedge. Bella reached her home and let herself in. Ignoring the lonely silence that settles into big homes that should house more than one person and yet don't, she hung up her coat and took off her boots.
She debated on a bath, but decided that she was too hungry and would have one after her tea. She pulled her coverall sleeves down and tied them loosely around her waist. Left in her thin short-sleeved blouse, she went into the kitchen and pulled down the same blue teacup she'd used since she was a child, and set about making her tea.
She'd just put her bowl of leftover stew and a plate of handmade scones that her neighbour had dropped off day before yesterday on to the table when there was a knock at the door.
Bella paused and frowned. No one ever visited during tea time. Not in this village.
She gave her tea a forlorn look and, knowing her stew would be cool when she returned to it, and headed to the door.
Opening it, she found a man with a very full white beard on her doorstep. His pale blue eyes were behind a pair of thin-framed spectacles, and she was quite sure she'd seen him before, but couldn't quite place him.
"Ah, good evening?" she said.
"Good evening, my dear," he said in a voice much deeper than his slight frame would suggest. "My goodness, I hadn’t realised just how long it’s been."
Bella frowned. "I'm very sorry, but do I know you?"
"You do, indeed, Belladonna Baggins the Younger," he said smiling. "I knew your mother before I knew you, however. And it has been several years since I last stopped by."
"Oh," she said, and the image of this man sitting beside Bella, with Bella's mother on her other side as they spoke flashed in her mind. "Oh! Gandalf! Professor Gandalf?"
"Indeed," he said although his smile faded some. "I was terribly sorry to hear about your mother, you know. And your father, I hear, has passed as well?"
"Oh, yes," Bella said. "I think Dad received your letter about Mum. Ah, he passed close to a year ago."
"My dear, I'm so sorry," he said, and he sounded so sincere that tears tickled the back of Bella's eyes.
But she just nodded. "Thank you. Won't you come in? I didn't know you were in the village."
"I'm not," he said coming inside. "I'm afraid I've dropped in on you quite unannounced, and you may very well be quite angry with me by the time the evening is over."
Bella stopped. "I don't think I understand. But, I have to say, if you’ve come here thinking that, well, that I’m anything like mum, or to do more tests, I’m afraid you’re going to be quite disappointed.”
“Is that right?” he said looking at her. “Well, well.”
She stared up at him and realised that he still seemed as tall and imposing as he’d done all those years ago when he came to visit her mum. He still looked at her as though she were some kind of puzzle that he was inches away from solving and that he knew more about her than she did.
It was intriguing when she was nine years old. Now, on the other side of thirty, it was disconcerting.
“Are you still with the university?” she asked sitting down in her father’s old armchair and indicating that Gandalf should take the other one.
He sat and said, “Oh, yes. But I’ve struck out on my own, in terms of my research. The war threw the department into a bit of a tailspin. Everyone was scattered for a few years there.”
“I can only imagine,” Bella said nodding and not quite understanding.
"Can you? Good. You’re going to need your imagination, where you’re going," he said looking around the front parlour and then back at Bella. "Oh, I do think I should have written, my dear, but I'm afraid I got a bit carried away."
"Carried away with what?" Bella asked frowning. "Professor, please explain yourself."
Gandalf opened his mouth to say something but was interrupted by a knock on the door. Bella turned to look at the door and then back at Gandalf. He looked extremely apologetic.
"I am sorry, my dear," he said. "But they were very pressed for time."
"Who was pressed for time?" she asked. "What is going on?"
There was another knock at the door, this one harder and louder than the previous one.
"Yes, yes!" she called. "I'm coming!"
She glanced at Gandalf and spared another sad thought aimed at her most certainly cool stew and went to the door.
On her doorstep stood just shy of a dozen people. She blinked at them and they blinked at her.
“Ah, hello?” she said uncertainly.
“Good evening,” an older gentleman with a tuft of white hair on his head that matched his beard said cheerfully. “Thank you very much for agreeing to see us at such short notice.”
“Um,” Bella managed before Gandalf came to the door.
“Welcome, welcome! You made excellent time, gentlemen. And lady, of course, Mrs Viren. Come in, come in,” Gandalf said smiling broadly.
“Ah, Professor,” Bella said standing to the side as everyone filed in.
“Balin Fundinson, lass, at your service,” the man with the white tufts said.
“Bella Baggins,” Bella said faintly.
A taller man with extremely close cropped hair and tattoos on his wrists nodded at her. “Dwalin Fundinson.”
“Hullo,” Bella said eyeing his boots and her clean hardwood floors.
“Bofur and Bifur Bloom,” a grinning man with a rakish goatee and an odd cap said as he walked past, indicating himself and another man who had a wild beard and dark eyes. “He doesn’t say much, so don’t take it personally.”
“Lovely to meet you,” Bella said automatically, shaking their hands. Bofur kept grinning and Bifur nodded his head.
“Fili Viren,” said a young man with blond hair and a short-cropped beard to match. He winked at her as he came in which made her arch her eyebrow.
“Hello,” Bella said suspiciously.
“Kili and Tauriel Viren, at your service, Miss Boggins,” another young man with curly dark hair said as his wife, a slender brunette with a serene smile, stepped inside.
“Baggins, Kili,” Mrs. Viren said holding out her hand to Bella. “Thank you for having us.”
“You’re most welcome, Mrs. Viren,” she said shaking her hand and feeling utterly foolish at the same time.
“Tauriel, please,” the other woman said.
“Bella,” Bella replied.
“And finally, may I present to you, Captain Thorin Durin,” Gandalf said. “Captain, Miss Belladonna Baggins.”
“Bella, please,” she said faintly, for she had to blink and tilt her head to meet the eyes of the last person to enter her home. He had dark hair that was cropped quite close to his head, and his beard was full, but neatly trimmed. The breadth of his shoulders seemed to fill her doorway, and she fought the urge to step back when she saw the severity of his profile. Something about it was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. His eyes were a sharp blue and looked her up and down.
She was suddenly very aware that she still had on her dirty coveralls from work, and that while her hands were clean, she had no doubt she smelled of fresh manure after potting up the last of the hyacinths.
Well, nothing for it, so she simply held out her hand and said, “Pleased to meet you.”
Silently, he shook her hand and said in a voice that had no business being quite so deep and smooth, “Thank you for having us. We would have been here sooner, but the roads aren’t well-marked.”
“The Shire is one of my best kept secrets,” Gandalf said. “It’s a little haven out of the way of the world.”
Bella frowned at the description but noticed that Captain Durin was still looking her over. She stared back at him and drew breath to tell him precisely how rude he was being, when he spoke.
"She looks more like a gardener than a medium," he said in that voice of his.
"That's because I am a gardener," she said narrowing her eyes. She blinked. Had he said..? "Wait. Did you say medium?"
He inclined his head, and Bella sighed.
"Oh, no. No, no, no." She glared at Gandalf. "So that is why you’re here. You think that I...?" She turned back to Captain Durin. "Look, I’m terribly sorry. But it appears you've come a very long way for nothing. My mother was the spirit medium. I'm not."
"Oh," he said frowning, and then turning to look at Gandalf.
"Oh?" Gandalf echoed, ignoring the captain and looking at Bella.
"Yes, oh," she said putting her hands on her hips. "I don't have her abilities, Gandalf."
"Now, Bella," Gandalf said patiently. "As I recall, I tested you as a child and you were more than capable of seeing and communicating with ghosts.”
"Yes, but I never sent one back," Bella said. "Which is what you want. I'm no use to you if I just talk to them. They want to be sent back. I don't do that. I can't do that." She put her hands on her hips. “And to be perfectly honest, I don't know that I could even talk to them anymore. Even if I wanted to." She took a deep breath. "Which I don't. Want to."
“Surely you haven’t let this gift of yours go to waste?” Gandalf asked frowning.
"Do you see legions of ghosts tramping through the fields?” Bella asked, her voice rising. “No, you do not. Look, why do you think my mother decided to come to the Shire in the first place?" she said. "The last murder that took place around here was... Oh, I don't even know when the last one was, that's how long." She took a step towards him. “I’ve also heard what some so-called mediums are doing in the big cities, and I’m not about to offer the grieving mothers in this village the chance to see their sons again. Not when I don’t have any confidence in my abilities. I won’t do that. I’m not that person. My mother wasn’t and I’m certainly not either.”
She dropped her head. "I'm very sorry, but I'm not the one you're looking for." She glanced at Captain Durin. "Truly, I am sorry. It appears you've come here on false pretences.”
"So it would seem," he said still glaring at Gandalf. He seemed to collect himself and looked her way. He attempted something that Bella supposed was a smile and said, "I’m very sorry to trouble you, Miss Baggins."
"It's no trouble," she said feeling awkward. "Look, your… friends have already settled in, won't you have something to eat? Or a cuppa, at the very least?"
"That's very kind of you," he said inclining his head. "Thank you.”
"Look, please come in and –" she said.
"Are those scones?" Kili asked her with wide eyes that stared at her table. "Fresh ones?"
"Oh, ah, yes, they are," she said. With a growing sense of futility, she said, "Please help yourselves."
With a certain amount of haste, plates were loaded up with scones and people quickly sat down at her table.
As it was, Bella couldn't stand to see people go hungry and excused herself to visit her pantry and pull out some tins of stew she'd put aside for the winter.
"Let me just get these heated up," she called out.
"Can I help?" Tauriel asked, standing awkwardly in the kitchen. "I'm not much of a cook, though, I should warn you."
"Can you boil water?" Bella asked smiling at her.
"Yes, I can safely say that I can boil water," Tauriel replied chuckling.
"Well, grab that big pot and get it to boiling," Bella said. "I've some potatoes we can mash up."
The next hour was spent fixing supper, and while Bella was still mystified and rather perturbed that Gandalf had just dropped these people on her doorstep under the false impression that she could help them with what she assumed was a ghost problem, it was wonderful to hear voices and laughter filing the house.
In fact, she laughed more in one evening than she had in a month as she listened to the company tell absurd stories from their time spent overseas. In fact, listening to them helped her to forget her own troubles.
After dinner, Bofur and Bifur kindly cleaned up the plates and the kitchen, despite Bella's protests.
"Ah, ah, lass," Bofur said winking. "We cleaned dishes across France, we can handle this."
"Very well," Bella said eyeing his hands on her mother's best teapot. But she turned her back on the kitchen and went into the parlour.
She found Captain Durin deep in tense conversation with Gandalf. However, the more Captain Durin seemed to glower, the more amused Gandalf looked.
"My dear boy, I can assure you that all is going to plan," Gandalf said. He switched his gaze to Bella and smiled. "Miss Baggins is just the woman we need.”
"Are you referring to needing a medium?" Bella said. She shook her head. "I can't, Gandalf. I'm sorry."
He made quite the patronizing face and nodded. "Oh, I know, my dear. I still think that you'll be of great help to us."
Bella pursed her lips and looked at him, but he just smiled beatifically at her, then he brightened and said, "Do you still have some of that remarkable leaf that your father used to have on hand?"
"Oh, well," Bella said flustered by the sudden change in topic. "I believe so, yes. Would you like me to prepare it for you?”
"I hoped you'd offer, how very kind of you," he said pulling a long-handled pipe from his coat and handed it to her.
The moment she touched the pipe, she knew what he'd done and said, "Oh, damn and blast, Gandalf!"
A prickly chill fell over her body and mind and she clenched her hands into fists when the shadowy image of a short man with a wild beard and shabby clothes appeared in front of her.
"Oh, hello," he said. "Am I going home now?"
Bella glared through the ghost at Gandalf. "You tricked me."
"You needed it," Gandalf said sternly. "You clearly have been denying and ignoring your gift for far too long, Bella Baggins. It’s time you used it."
"Is that--?" Fili asked, his eyes wide.
"A ghost, yes, it is," Bella said looking the small spirit over.
He smiled at her. "You must be Miss Baggins! Gandalf has told me all about you! Shall we get on with it?"
"I beg your pardon?" Bella said. "Get on with what?"
"Get on with sending me back!" the little man said frantically. "I'm ready! I'm going so thin these days and it's so hard to hold on and I'm so very tired."
Bella stared at the little man with growing horror and she looked at Gandalf. "Have you just been carrying him around in your pocket? Gandalf! How positively wretched of you!"
"Professor Brown was quite accommodating," Gandalf said firmly. "He volunteered to assist me in my research."
"Did he?" Bella said frowning and crossing her arms over her chest.
"I did," Professor Brown said. He bowed slightly. "Professor Radagast Brown, at your service. I worked with Gandalf in the Theology Department and when I died, rather unexpectedly due to a bout of flu, I came back to finish my research." He straightened. "But it's done and I'm ready to go but none of those charlatans that Gandalf has taken me to has been able to sort me out."
"Oh, heavens," Bella said slumping.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," Fili said uncertainly, "but is there truly a ghost standing in front of us, right now?"
Bella looked around at the company who were staring at Professor Brown with varying expressions of disbelief. Bofur and Bifur stood in the doorway staring at him while their hands dripped soap on her hardwood floor.
"I'm afraid so," Gandalf said standing up to his full height. "And I will warn you that Professor Brown is the most docile of spirits. Others you encounter are not. Nor do they wish to leave as he does. Spirits are tenacious and can be quite single-minded."
"So can we," Captain Durin said flatly. He glanced at Bella. "I thought you said you were not a medium?"
"I'm not," she said.
"Oh, but you are," Professor Brown said wonderingly. "You glow like nothing I've ever seen. I can see the path shining out behind your eyes and it’s quite the struggle to not just head down it. Please help me, Miss Baggins."
Bella stared Professor Brown who stared back at her with big, sad eyes, and she felt that once familiar cold seep into her bones, and her mind tingled.
"I haven't done this since I was a child, and it didn’t go all that smoothly then," she said quietly. "But if you're game, we'll give it a go."
He nodded fiercely, dislodging his hat. “You’re older now, miss. The path’s too clear for me to mistake anything else for it. I’ll be fine.”
"Right then." Bella took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut. Absently, her fingers reached up and took hold of her parents’ wedding rings that she wore on a slender chain around her neck. The cool of the thin gold rings reassured her, and her mother's voice echoed in her head.
Just look for the path, darling. It's always there, just behind your present thoughts. Simply reach for it and then show it to them. They can do the rest.
Bella opened her eyes. She thought she heard Captain Durin suck in a breath, but she focused on Professor Brown.
He looked at her with something approaching awe that made her feel uneasy, especially when he said, "How bright! How clear it is! Oh, it's just right there, isn't it?”
"Yes," Bella said, seeing the path in her mind. "All you need to do is follow it. Just let it pull and guide you through. Just......take my hand-"
She held out her hand, and Mr Brown eagerly took it, and a searing flash of cold so sharp it burned ripped through her mind, and she gasped. Images surged through her thoughts so quickly, but she couldn't pin them down; she only knew they weren't hers.
Her hand burned with cold, and her body stiffened to the point of pain and then...it was gone. She sagged, stumbled and tried to breathe. She curled her frozen hand to her chest and covered it with her warmer hand. She bit her lip when the warmth of her other hand touched the cold one as nerve endings tried to warm themselves. She shivered and saw Captain Durin take a step towards her in her peripheral vision.
She looked around the room and inside her consciousness. Professor Brown was gone. Completely.
"He's gone, then?" Gandalf asked cautiously.
She nodded shakily. "Yes, he's gone." She blinked and then looked at Gandalf. "Oh, do you know that was actually easier than I remember it being?"
Then the world went a bit sideways and her grandmother's hand-woven rug rushed up to meet her.
Bella came back to consciousness with all the dignity of someone who had just fainted in front of total strangers: all at once and with a groan.
She kept her eyes closed and pressed a hand to her forehead. She knew she was in her bedroom because it smelled of the verbena she kept on her windowsill and she also knew that someone was nearby.
She opened one eye.
Gandalf smiled back at her from his seat in the rocking chair by the wardrobe. "Welcome back, my dear."
"I fainted," Bella said flatly. "I've never fainted before.”
"Well, you did it spectacularly," he said. "A finer faint I don't think I've ever seen."
She would have glared if she didn't think squinting her eyes would inflame her headache further. Gingerly, she sat up.
"Well," Gandalf said brightly. "It appears that you are still in full possession of your capabilities."
"I. Fainted. I fainted while sending an eager, peaceful spirit back. My mother told me of the harder ones. The ones that force themselves in and the ones that simply won’t be budged," she repeated leaning against her pillow and giving in to the urge to glare, despite the twinge in her temples. "Clearly, I'm hardly a shining example of a hardy medium who faces the mysteries of the universe with aplomb and ease. Gandalf, I can't do this. I'm sorry, but I just can't."
"You're just out of practice," he said. "And as for being hardy, you come from extremely hardy stock, Bella Baggins. Your great-great grandmother once took on two dozen ghosts from the Middle Ages and sent them on their way in the blink of an eye."
"That was never proven," Bella said.
He leaned forward. "You need to do this, Bella. It's your true inheritance. In fact, I believe it's your only inheritance at present.”
She went cold all over once again, only this time it was the cold of righteous indignation.
"You know about that?" she asked through gritted teeth.
"I know a great many things, Bella Baggins," he said in that infuriatingly patient tone of his. He stood. "Come with us, Bella. If only to have an adventure and test those gifts of yours. What else are you going to do?"
She frowned and shook her head. "Gandalf, I don't think I'm strong enough."
"And how will you know if you don't try?" he asked going to the door.
He'd just moved through it when something else occurred to her and dreading the answer, she asked, "Gandalf. Who carried me in here?"
"Captain Durin did, my dear," he said smiling slightly. "He was most gallant about it."
Bella groaned again and covered her face with both her hands while Gandalf, damn the man, slipped out of her bedroom, chuckling as he went.
She sat and stared out of her window, looking at the fields through the gently waving verbena fronds. She let herself remember things that she hadn't considered in years. Things her mother taught her, games she'd played as a child, even the spirits her mother had spoken to before she had gotten too ill to call anyone anymore.
Bella sat thinking until the sun had set. Then she roused herself and got out of bed. After splashing some water on her face from the small basin on her vanity table, she changed out of her coveralls and blouse and put on a simple blue dress. Not bothering with stockings, she slid on her brown shoes, and went to the kitchen.
Bella walked into the kitchen and upon spotting Captain Durin leaning against the open door to the garden, she held up a hand when he looked about to say something. He closed his mouth and resettled against the doorjamb, pipe in hand.
She felt him watch her as she moved about her kitchen, filling the kettle and making herself a cup of tea. When she added a teaspoon and a half of sugar to her teacup, she could swear she heard that eyebrow of his rise. She ignored him, splashed some milk into her mug and then headed past him to sit on the stoop of her patio.
She cradled her teacup in her hand and stared out into the early evening light.
"You're welcome to join me," she said. "And feel free to light up.”
"You don't mind?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I love the smell of a pipe. I may even have some of my father's supply around somewhere."
"I have enough," he said coming to sit down beside her, keeping a decent foot of space between them. “Thank you, Miss Baggins.”
“Bella, please,” she said smiling. “Miss Baggins makes me feel like I’m a schoolteacher.”
“Thorin,” he said hesitantly. “If you wish.”
She nodded and then focused on warming her hands with her tea.
"I'm sorry," she said after a few minutes while she sipped her tea and he smoked. "You've found yourself a rather disappointing medium, I'm afraid."
"It seems to take a great deal out of you," he said.
"Yes," she said breathing in and out deeply. "It's not easy to begin with and well, I'm very out of practice."
"Are you all right now?" he asked.
"I don't think I'm going to swoon on you, if that's what you're asking," she said.
"A gentleman likes to be prepared," he replied.
She snickered into her teacup and nodded. "Yes, thanks for that, by the way. In any case, a nice faint followed by a cuppa always puts me to rights."
He made a noise that may have been a chuckle and once again, Bella felt awful that she wasn't what they needed. She turned to him.
"Look, I haven't been in touch with that particular crowd in ages, as mum was never one to join in, but I'm sure I can give you some names of other mediums that would be happy to help,” she said. "Respectable ones, of course, no charlatans."
He nodded. "I'm afraid we're on a bit of a deadline. They'd need to join us quickly."
She frowned. "Oh. That does complicate things."
"I hadn't expected a ghost to be so, so," he made a face.
"Ghostly?" she offered.
"Sad," he said.
"Oh," she said surprised. "Well, they say that a ghost is a soul that is untethered from its mind, which always sounded like a rather bleak existence.”
"Can anyone become a ghost?" he asked.
"Well, technically," she said. "Although they tend to be spirits who died violently or with unfinished business or very strong ties to the world.”
She sipped from her mug and took a deep breath, enjoying the scent of his pipe.
"It’s better when they've actually moved on," Bella said. “They're in a better place. Quite literally. Mum had one woman who was a regular. Every Wednesday afternoon at three, she'd come by and Mum would call for her sister who'd died when they were both twenty-five. They'd talk about nothing in particular for the full hour."
Bella stared down into her mug. "I often wonder if it was a good thing that mum did or a bad thing."
"What did you decide upon?" he asked quietly.
"That it was a bit of both and not quite a majority of either one." She shrugged. "Not like I wasn't tempted to try it myself, but..."
"My mother's gone," she said. "And my father was here. And the war came and people needed food and well... Mum would always say that the dead could wait and the living could not." She looked at him. "The dead have time, Captain. It's the one thing they definitely have. The living do not."
He stared back at her and then nodded slowly. "Does it hurt?"
Bella blinked at him. "I'm sorry?"
"When you call for them," he said. "Does it hurt?"
No one had ever asked and she'd never asked her mother and something about this man asking her just sent everything in her reeling.
"No," she said softly. "It doesn't hurt when they’re here. It hurts when they leave."
He nodded and they stared out into the dark for a while.
“You’re all obviously welcome to stay the night,” Bella said after several minutes. “The roads are quite winding and not pleasant to manoeuvre at night.”
“That’s very generous of you,” he said. “But I wouldn’t want to impose.”
She waved her hand. “This house was built for more than one person and, to be honest, could use the noise. Please, do stay.”
He inclined his head. “Thank you. We’ll leave at first light.”
They sat in silence for a bit longer.
“Your parents, I believe Gandalf said they were no longer alive?” he asked.
“That’s right,” Bella said. “My mum died before the war. A nasty case of pneumonia that just settled in and wouldn’t let her go. My father passed a year ago. His heart just gave out one day in the orchards.”
“I’m very sorry,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied. “And may I ask, are Fili and Kili related to you at all? There’s a very striking resemblance.”
“My nephews,” he said and the corners of his mouth curved up. “They’ve joined me on this quest of sorts. Defying their mother’s, my sister, wishes.” He sighed. “But they’ve survived a war, they can survive this.”
“Do you know, Gandalf hasn’t exactly said why you need a medium?” she said. “Are you just airing out an old home?”
“Something like that,” he said carefully. “I haven’t…seen the home in several years. But I’ve heard stories and there’s a very strong possibility that there will be several ghosts that will need to be, ah…”
“Sent on their way?” Bella offered.
“As you say,” he said.
Bella hummed and sipped her tea, making a face when she realised it had cooled in the evening air.
You could go, a voice that sounded suspiciously like her mother said. Darling, things are changing here, and you don’t want to see what those two are going to do to the nursery. You’re only going to be upset and feel powerless. Remember, I was Belladonna Took before I became Belladonna Baggins, and we Tooks hate to be powerless. It makes us reckless.
Tonight was the first time I’ve ever done what you did, she thought. It could have been a fluke. Never to be repeated. And besides, what do I know about properly sending spirits on their way?
You know everything I know, darling, her mum’s voice said. You read the same books, and you have the same abilities. Don’t be so busy holding on to what you’re going to lose that you miss the chance to live, Bella.
Bella sighed and shook her head. Even when she wasn’t there, her mum made quite the argument.
"All right," she said turning to look at Thorin. "I'll help you.” His eyes widened and she continued, “I mean, they’re like the one Gandalf brought, right? Your ghosts? It’s just an old house that needs to be cleared out, correct?”
“As far as I’m aware, yes,” he said slowly.
“Well, then,” she said. “I’ll help you, if you’re all right with a medium who is a bit rusty.”
“You seemed to handle the one inside fairly well,” he said. “Apart from the fainting.”
“Yes, well, that’s bound to stop after further practice,” Bella said cheerfully. “And it sounds simple enough. It's not like you're headed to the Misty Mountains or someplace like that!"
She laughed but her laugh choked in her throat at the look on his face. He stared at her with an ever furrowing brow as his knuckles turned white from their tightening grip on his pipe.
"Ohhh, you are headed to the Misty Mountains," she said her eyebrows rising. "You're one of those Durins, aren't you? I knew I knew that profile. It's very distinctive."
"What do you know about the mountains and the Durins?" he asked, his voice harsh.
"Not a lot," she said quickly. "Only that it's an area that most mediums avoid. There are just...too many. Too many angry and sad spirits. Far more than there should be. So I’ve heard." She winced as his face hardened. "I'm not explaining this well. Come on, I'll show you."
She stood and held out her hand to him. He stared at her outstretched hand, and she froze. However, she'd already made the gesture, and she wasn't about to rescind it so she lifted her head and just smiled at him.
He took her hand, and she bit her lip at the sheer breadth of his hand around hers. Her hand practically disappeared inside of his, and it was so warm. Practically hot. She actually felt weak in the knees, and they just stared at each other for a moment.
It occurred to her that this was an extremely powerful man. He practically vibrated with strength and determination all encompassed inside of a body that had no trace of excess anything; no fat, no roundness, just pure muscle and sinew.
And it was utterly startling to Bella to realize that he was standing in her kitchen and holding her hand in his rather large one.
She watched as something passed behind his eyes as he looked at her, and she wondered what he saw in her.
But, then he blinked, and she blinked, and they came back to themselves, and Bella tugged on his hand.
"I have some books you may be interested in," she said. "They're just in the study."
He rose to his feet, and once again, the sheer amount of him overwhelmed Bella, and she had to take a step back.
She turned quickly and dropped his hand.
Bella walked towards the study and jumped when she heard Thorin call out, “Balin, join us.”
She glanced behind her and saw that not only had Balin fallen into step behind Thorin, but Dwalin and the boys and Tauriel had as well. A surge of nervousness went through her, and she had to remind herself that she had once stood up in front of the entire village in an attempt to persuade them to start planting gardens if they had any hope at all for food and they had started the communal gardens the very next day.
If I can persuade Amos Proudfoot to plant potatoes instead of just drinking what comes from them, I can show these people a book, she thought.
She turned into the study and sighed. “How did I know you’d be in here?”
Gandalf looked up from a book he’d clearly plucked off her shelves. “Because you have a very fine library, Bella. There are some editions in here that I haven’t seen in years. Your mother was quite the collector, it seems.”
“Not Mum, actually,” Bella said going to the shelf on mediums. “Dad did this. He wanted to understand Mum better.”
“Sounds like a top fellow,” Kili said with a glance at Thorin that Bella didn’t miss.
“He was a very top fellow,” Bella said chuckling. She scanned the titles and then pulled down a thick book with a worn black cover.
She opened it and scanned the table of contents, then sifted through the pages. She stopped and then handed the book to Thorin.
“’An Account of Erebor’,” she said gently. “Several years back, a gentleman scholar went to Erebor to see if the tales coming from the village were true. He said they were.”
“Tales?” Fili asked.
“Tales of ghosts that poured out of the ground,” Bella said. She rolled her eyes. “But that’s the romantic spin on things. Scholars are rarely even handed when it comes to describing ghosts.”
“I believe I take offense at that, my dear,” Gandalf said.
“He actually went into the house,” Thorin said, his eyes scanning the text quickly.
“So he says,” Bella said. She hesitated and then said, “It makes sense that there would be so many in one place. It was the site of a great tragedy.”
Thorin glanced up at her and she fought the urge to take a step back. “And what do you know of the…incident?”
“Only what’s written there and,” she turned back to the shelf and pulled out another book, “this one details, um, ‘incidents’ throughout Great Britain. It’s not very long, but there’s an account of the collapse of the mine.”
She handed the book to Thorin, who was still intently reading the first book. Balin took the second book from Bella with a smile.
“Thank you, lass,” Balin said.
“I don’t suppose any of you are old enough to have a first-hand account of the day, are you?” Bella asked chuckling weakly.
“You flatter us, lass,” Balin said. “I was there. As were Dwalin and Thorin, but they were young things, then.”
“We heard the stories from granddad,” Fili said to her, coming to stand beside Balin to read over his shoulder. “A support beam gave way and trapped everyone inside.”
“It didn’t just give way,” Thorin said not looking up from the book. “It was sabotage.”
Bella raised her eyebrows and was very aware of the silence in the room. She glanced at Gandalf, but his eyes were firmly on Thorin.
“It was?” she asked as conversationally as she could.
From the look Thorin gave her under those expressive eyebrows of his, it didn’t quite reach casual.
“It was,” he said, his voice low.
Bella just nodded. “There’s a photo of your grandfather in there. You have his likeness. I knew I’d seen that nose of yours before.”
He merely arched one of those eyebrows and went back to reading, but Gandalf wasn’t going to let his statement go.
“What makes you say it was sabotage?” he asked.
The air in the study seemed to hum with tension, and Bella felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as Thorin slowly raised his head to look at the professor.
“Because my grandfather may have been many things,” he said quietly. “But he was not a fool and he did not employ fools. That mine was the finest one constructed in the entire country, and there is no way that a simple beam was the cause of the collapse. Something made it collapse. Someone made it collapse.”
“Who?” Bella breathed, hypnotised by the cadence of Thorin’s voice.
He looked at her and seemed to deflate. He shook his head and looked away. “I don’t know. I was just a boy when it happened.” He looked down at the book and Bella wondered if he was looking at the page with his grandfather’s picture. “Four hundred men died that day. Another eighty died in the weeks afterwards. My grandfather lost everything. His land, his house, his good name, and eventually his mind.” He scowled. “There was talk that it was his competitors in the region. The Greenwoods. But nothing could be proven, and it looked like an accident, like faulty construction and no one wanted to look further.”
“No one wanted to go near the place,” Balin said shaking his head. “It was cursed, they said.”
“Cursed,” Thorin repeated, his knuckles white on the spine of the book. “Our family never recovered after that.” He looked at Bella. “We moved to London, attempted anonymity. And it worked. But we were penniless. I mean to get it all back.”
Bella stared at him and swallowed. “I see.”
“What is your interest in all of this, professor?” Thorin asked eyeing Gandalf.
“Purely academic,” Gandalf said lightly.
Bella rolled her eyes. “Why do I doubt that?”
“Very well,” Gandalf said. He stood by the hearth and repacked his pipe. “We just went through the worst war this planet has ever seen. Millions of souls were lost. Millions.” He looked at the company. “Such a number. A number that even I have trouble comprehending, but there you have it.” He looked at the empty hearth. “We’re receiving reports of pockets of ghosts across Europe and Russia. Dense pockets that just stand there, as though they’re waiting for something.”
He trailed off and Bella suddenly understood. “You want to send them home,” she breathed. “En masse, as it were. Am I correct?”
“You are,” he said looking over at her and smiling sadly. “I had hoped to see evidence on this quest of what can be done to a group of ghosts. To see if there was something I could relate to others involved. If there was even a way to refine the process and automate it.”
Bella shook her head. “No. No. Gandalf, you want to turn a medium into some kind of industrial vacuum? Mechanize what we do? I’m sorry, but I don’t think it works that way.”
“We?” he repeated lightly.
“Oh, leave it to you to ignore the important bits,” she said glaring. “They. Them, whatever. Gandalf, it can’t be done.”
“It’s quite the undertaking,” Balin added. “Just one of those wore Miss Baggins out. What would a whole fleet of them do?”
“That is what I intend to find out,” Gandalf said. He looked around the room. “These souls cannot be left on this mortal plane to simply linger.”
“It’s a noble thought,” Thorin said, closing the book. “But it isn’t our quest, Gandalf.”
“No, no,” Gandalf said quickly. “Yours is to find out what happened to your home and reclaim it.” He inclined his head. “Miss Baggins and I will be your help.”
“I can’t go,” Bella said quietly.
The room turned quiet once more and she felt Thorin’s gaze like a heavy blanket settle on her.
“You said you would help,” he said his voice low.
“I thought you meant clearing out an old home with a few wispy spirits lurking about,” Bella said looking up at him. “Not to go where the world ends! Do you have any idea how dangerous this region is purported to be? Not just for mediums, for everyone!”
“What do you mean, lass,” Balin asked, “when you say ‘for everyone’?”
“Too many spirits in one place have a tendency to suck the energy right out of the air,” she said. She frowned. “You know that moment right after a blast? Where everything is sort of quiet and numb, before the world comes to? Where there’s this, this…lack? That’s what happens when too many ghost congregate. Ghosts thrive on life, oddly enough. And if they’re hungry?” She shook her head. “Too many can send anyone mad. Your energy and your life just gets taken away.”
Everyone in the room stared at her. She fought the urge to fidget with her dress and simply took a deep breath and started again.
“There is a path behind a medium’s eyes,” Bella explained. “Professor Brown saw the path in my eyes and was able to follow it down and well, out.” She stared at the book in Thorin’s hands. “Most ghosts won’t go where they aren’t invited or if there isn’t a clear path through, but if there are too many and if they died too painfully or in panic, they’ll look for any way out.” She looked up into Thorin’s eyes and said, “They’ll enter a mind but they won’t get out. They’ll stay and drive the living person mad. They call it ghost sickness.” She shrugged. “I’ve never seen it. Neither did Mum. Only read the accounts.”
“I have,” Gandalf said staring at something only he could see.
“I believe I have, too,” Balin said.
Thorin looked away from Bella and back down at the print of his grandfather and father.
She looked at Thorin. “Don’t do this. Please. Don’t go there.”
“I have to,” he said. “It’s my home and I will not let it fester and fade.”
“Have you not been listening to me?” Bella asked. “It’s dangerous!”
“According to what? Your books?” he asked, arching an eyebrow and Bella bristled a little at the dismissive tone of his voice. “Forgive me, madam, but I will not let the unsubstantiated writings of members of a less than scientific profession sway me from my purpose.”
“Oh, I say,” Gandalf said finally speaking up. “Let’s not insult one another, Captain. You have said your piece and Miss Baggins has said hers. You were aware of the dangers of this journey, and now you have more information of what types of troubles await you. Having her along will only help you further.”
“I can’t go,” Bella repeated softly.
Gandalf looked at her and frowned. “My dear.”
“No, Gandalf,” she said shaking her head. She looked at the captain. “I’m very sorry, but I can’t go. Not there. I know that I can’t stop you from going, although I wish I could, but I can’t go. I’m not strong enough, and I’d only be a burden to you.”
Thorin stared at her and then nodded. “Very well. I…appreciate your honesty and your information. Thank you for your…hospitality.” Then he turned away from her and said to his company, “We leave at first light. Get some rest now.”
Without another look in Bella’s direction, he thrust the book back into her hands and left the study. Dwalin followed him as did Balin after gently handing the book back to Bella.
Inexplicably feeling bereft and rather small, Bella turned to put the books back on her shelf. They felt heavy and cold in her hands where they once felt warm and filled with adventures. She knew much better now. She turned to go to her bedroom. She caught the eye of Tauriel, who nodded and gave her a small smile, then Fili and Kili who also nodded at her.
She brushed past Gandalf on the way out of the room and he said, “You are strong enough for this, Bella.”
“I’m not. I’m sorry, Gandalf,” she said quickly walking past down the hall to her room.
She quietly closed the door and leaned against it. With her hands pressed to her face she inhaled shakily. Sending one spirit back was one thing, but several? A dozen? More? She’d go mad. No one had ever done it, and certainly little Bella Baggins of the Shire was the last person to even attempt it.
She dropped her hands and went to sit by her still open window, inhaling the verbena.
Eventually, she heard the rumblings of the captain and Balin just outside.
“It’s a shame we won’t have our medium with us,” Balin said.
“Better that she doesn’t come than she does come and be utterly useless,” Thorin said.
“I don’t know, lad,” Balin said. “Better to have some help than none at all.”
“We can do this ourselves,” Thorin said. “No one has heard from the region in years. It may all just be rumour and myth by this point.”
“And if it’s not?” Balin asked.
There was a pause, then Thorin said, “I will not leave my family home to rot. Not when it can be proven to rightfully belong to me. We’ve done without all our lives only to survive a war of unspeakable loss and violence. I will not have the future generations of my family live the way we did. Constantly moving, living in rooms too small to accommodate one person let alone a family.” He sighed. “We’ve proven ourselves on the battlefield, Balin. We will prove ourselves fighting for our home.”
“Still would feel better having a medium on our side,” Balin said quietly.
“She’s made her choice,” Captain Durin said, and the tone of his voice sent chills down Bella’s spine and her hands trembled.
The men headed back inside, and Bella was left sitting by her open window deep in thought, with the scent of verbena her only company.
Bella awoke the following morning with a crick in her neck. She stared blindly out her window and realised she’d drifted off whilst sitting in her chair.
She got to her feet and then dashed out of her bedroom. Her heart thumping, she looked into the kitchen and then into the parlour. Turning in a slow circle in the middle of the room, she realised that the company had already departed.
Her eye was caught by a sheet of paper placed on her favourite armchair. It merely read:
In case you change your mind, we travel via Shrewsbury. Thank you for your hospitality.
Signed, Professor Gandalf.
The sheet of paper clutched in her hand, she went to her front door, opened it and stared at the sun that was just rising above the hills.
Bella stared out at the nursery next door. The tomatoes would be gasping for some water by noon in this heat, and the latest crop of broad beans needed to be strapped to their rods to keep them upright.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then darted back into the house. She flew around her bedroom, grabbing clothes and shoving them into her mother's old suitcase. She grabbed her knapsack and shoved whatever came to mind into it.
Then she scribbled out a note to Hamfast and as she raced out of the house, she attached the letter to her front door.
Bella hopped onto her bicycle after strapping her suitcase to the rack on the back. Then she was off. She supposed they'd be stopping for petrol at the garage on the edge of town, and so she took the back paths through the park. It occurred to her that she might actually be grinning like a mad woman as she raced down the pavement with her dress fluttering about her bare legs, because, oh, good heavens, she’d forgotten her stockings again, but couldn’t seem to stop herself.
She refused to even consider that they may have completely left the village. All the same, she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw two Land Rovers and a motorbike at the pumps. Kili’s curly hair was instantly recognizable from where he and Tauriel sat on the motorbike. She flew down the small hill and managed to brake beside the vehicles just as Thorin rounded the front of the Rover.
He stared at her for a moment before saying, "Miss Baggins? Are you all right?"
"Oh, yes," she said smiling and nodding. "Out of breath, but fine. I've reconsidered your offer, and I'd very much like to lend you my services, for whatever they might be worth."
"Miss Baggins," he started.
"It’s Bella, and you need me," she said, gripping the handlebars tightly. "I know you think you can just waltz up there and take back your manor, but if it even has a fraction of the amount of spirits it's reported to have, you need me."
Gandalf and the other members of the company had come to stand just behind him, but Bella kept her eyes on Thorin.
"I won't let you down," she said firmly. "I want to help.”
He stared at her for a full minute in silence. Long enough for Bella to have first, second, and third thoughts, as well as worry that her hair was flying in every direction around her face and that she must be dripping with sweat from her mad cycle down.
"Thank you very much for your offer, Miss Baggins, Bella," he said eventually. "I would be...grateful for your assistance."
Bella smiled in relief and said, "Oh, thank heavens. I really didn't want to cycle back to the house. It's mostly uphill from here.”
Gandalf choked back a chuckle and said, "My dear, you will have to leave your bicycle behind you, I'm afraid."
"Oh, that's all right," she said getting off and straightening her skirt. She looked around the garage and spotted young Penny Gamgee, Hamfast’s cousin on his father's side. "Hullo, Penny!"
"Morning, Miss Bella!" she said waving. She frowned. "Your hair's gone a bit wild, miss."
"I'm sure it has," Bella said wheeling her bicycle over to the young girl. "Penny, I'm heading off for a while. Could I leave my bicycle with you while I'm gone?"
"Oh, miss, really?" Penny said staring at the bicycle with wide eyes. "I'll take good care of it."
"I'm sure you will," Bella said smiling. She unstrapped her suitcase and knapsack and handed the cycle over to Penny who ran her hands over the handlebars and beamed at Bella.
"Thank you!" she said smiling widely. "But where are you going? Who's going to look after the nursery?"
"I'm going on an adventure," Bella said walking backwards towards the Rovers. "And my cousin Otho is going to be taking over the nursery from now on."
Penny frowned. "Mum was saying something about that. About how it's not fair that those Sackville-Bagginses are sending you packing after all your hard work and how she doesn't want to hand any money over to them because they already have more than they know what to do with."
"Well, that's quite the statement," Bella said faintly and very aware that the entire company was listening nearby. "But tell your mum to keep going to the nursery. Your cousin Hamfast will still be working there, and he's going to make sure that things are taken care of, even if I'm not around."
"I suppose," Penny said, making a face. “But what about the gardens? What’s going to happen to them?”
Bella crouched down to meet Penny’s eyes. “The gardens belong to the village, Penny. No one can touch those. You just keep taking care of your patch, and they’ll be all right. Remember – all it takes is time and love and anything can grow.”
Penny beamed. “Yes, Miss Baggins. I’ll go water the carrots right away. Are you really going on an adventure?"
"Miss Baggins!" Bofur called. "We need to head out.”
"Be right there!" Bella called back. She turned to Penny. "Yes, I really am going on an adventure. Enjoy the bicycle!”
She gave Penny a pat on her arm and then walked over to the Land Rover, lifted her suitcase into the back and made to climb in after it.
"Oh, no," Bofur said grinning. "Take the front seat."
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"Quite sure," Gandalf said. "We need your help getting us out of these villages."
"Very well," Bella said with a shrug and she walked around to the front of the car and hopped in.
Thorin glanced at her from behind the wheel, and without a word, he started the Rover and they took off down the road.
Bella watched the last of her village fade into the distance in the side view mirror and then turned her gaze to the road ahead.
“The Shire appears to be untouched by the war,” Thorin said after several minutes of silence only interrupted by Bella indicating where to turn and to watch out for various tractors on the road.
“Not quite,” Bella said looking out the driver’s side window and pointing. He glanced over and saw a row of tents situated near a field of wheat that stretched out towards the horizon.
“They just showed up a few months back,” Bella said quietly. “People who were displaced from London after the Blitz. A lot of their children had already been sent here, and the rest of their families followed once the men came back.” She sighed. “Hopefully they’ll be able to earn enough to settle in the area, but for now they’re helping the farmers out with the harvests in exchange for a place to sleep.”
“Is that wise?” he asked. “Having strangers simply camp on your land?”
“There’s enough of it to go around,” Bella said shrugging. “And they certainly aren’t idle, far from it.”
He frowned, and Bella wondered how badly things had been for him during the war. But she also wondered if the disapproval she thought she picked up was simply the usual city-dweller mentality that seemed to always clash with the rural folks.
“It still seems…untainted,” he said. “Out here. You didn’t see any shelling?”
“We heard it,” she said. “But it was more towards the coast and the more populated areas. We were fortunate in that regard.”
“Very.” His tone was flat and final and made her skin tingle with annoyance.
"They keep calling our part of the Shire lucky," Bella said looking out the window at the passing countryside and keeping her voice level and steady. "Twenty of our lads went off and fourteen came back. And I know that there are some villages that had no one return, but I’m quite sure those remaining six families don't feel lucky." She paused. “In truth, I don't know that the fourteen who came home consider themselves lucky, either."
He hummed and the furrow in his brow increased.
"They did their duty," he said. "They should take satisfaction in that."
"Do you?" she asked. “Take satisfaction in the war?”
He didn't answer, just continued to frown.
"I'm not being an objector," she said quickly. "Please don’t think that. I just...well, I suppose since I can see the other side, as it were, those that die in violent ways for violent purposes...it would be better if that didn't occur. The suffering can continue past the death itself." Her fingers reached up to tangle in the necklace around her neck that held her parents' rings. "I wish all could be spared of it, that’s all."
He was silent for some time, and then said, "That's a very naïve way of thinking, Miss Baggins. Violence is always with us. It's in our natures.”
"I know," she said sighing. "Which is why I fear that suffering will never end. We're so sure that our lads died for the right things, but I suppose the other side is quite sure their lads died for the right thing, too." She shook her head. "But death is death, and it makes us all rather equal in the end. Take Professor Brown. He may have clung to his research, but that was partly Gandalf's doing for encouraging him to stay. But, you saw how desperate he was to move on." She tightened her grip on the rings. "Death pares us down to our most basic self, and all a spirit truly wants is to be at peace."
Thorin didn't reply, and she began to worry if she'd said too much. Not that she'd take any of it back, but perhaps now wasn’t the time to talk politics and morality.
Eventually, he just said, "Are you quite certain you aren't an objector?"
"Yes," she said chuckling. "Quite sure." She paused. “Well, mostly sure. I have a rather specific point of view on certain matters and it tends to cloud things."
He just hummed, and Bella was left feeling that she'd said far too much, and that he, more than ever, thoroughly disapproved of her. Why this mattered, she wasn't quite sure.
Eventually, Fili spoke up and asked, “Bella, if you don’t mind my meddling,” Bella was quite sure Thorin snorted, “What did that young lady mean about your nursery?”
Bella cringed. “It’s nothing, really. It turns out that my father neglected to update his will. He died rather unexpectedly, and neither of us had ever thought to change things.” She sighed and continued, “As it turns out, the nursery is officially handed down along the male side of the family. You see, it’s been in the family for generations, and since everyone always managed to have sons, no one ever thought to change it.”
She took another deep breath and tried not to clench her hands into fists. “As it stands, seeing as I am not male, and since my father is no longer alive, legally, the nursery now belongs to my cousin, Otho Sackville-Baggins, as he is the nearest male relative.”
“That’s a shame, lass,” Bofur called from his seat towards the back. “And where does that leave you?”
“Currently?” Bella said lightly. “Sitting in a Land Rover on my way to northern Scotland.” She paused. “The house is still mine, thank heavens.”
“All your hard work, though,” Gandalf said. “You must be devastated.”
“Yes, well,” Bella said losing the battle with herself and clenching her hands tightly together in her lap. “It’ll be fine. I’m sure I’ll be allowed to assist from time to time. And they’ve guaranteed to keep on all of the staff. Oh, heavens. I’ve forgotten to remind Hamfast about the turnips. Blast!”
“What about the turnips?” Fili asked.
“Their rows need furrowing, and we’d planned to start next week, but I’ve thought it over and they really should go in this week,” Bella said as she wondered if she could send a telegram or if it really even mattered anymore and what had she even done? She was sitting in a perfect stranger’s Land Rover heading up to a land filled with more ghosts that she’d ever seen in her entire life, and oh, she was not prepared for this.
Mum, what have you gotten me into, you reckless Took! She fretted over her situation for well over an hour.
Until her musings were interrupted by Thorin pulling sharply to the side.
“What is it?” she asked.
“The other car has a flat,” he said before exiting. “Stay here.”
Bella turned in her seat and saw the other Rover leaning to the side somewhat as Dwalin scowled at it and muttered some choice words at the offending tyre. Kili and Tauriel pulled up on the shoulder, and they eased off the motorbike. Fili got out of the Rover and walked over to them.
“I think I shall stretch my legs,” Gandalf said also getting out of the Rover.
Bella sighed and did the same. She stretched her arms over her head and then walked over to the edge of the hill to look out at the countryside.
It was the furthest she’d ever been from the Shire since she was a child, and the green hills stretched on and on. She shaded her eyes and looked back towards the Shire. Making a face, she deliberately turned her back on the way they’d come and looked ahead. They’d reach the edge of Cornwall soon and then they’d be in Somerset. She doubted they’d be able to stop so that she could take a look at some of the famous Somerset pear orchards, which was a shame.
Stop thinking about the nursery, she told herself. It’s not your problem anymore.
Her hand came up to play with her parents’ rings again.
“It’s lovely country you have down here, lass,” Balin said from behind her.
Bella turned and smiled at him. “It is, indeed. Nothing quite like it anywhere else, I’m sure of it.”
“I believe you may be right,” he said coming to stand beside her. “The Misty Mountains will be very different from here.”
She nodded. “You grew up there? In the Misty Mountains?”
“Born and raised,” he said, leaning back and resting his hands on his stomach. “It’s a wild and beautiful place. The peaks are sharp and stretch into the clouds.” He shook his head. “It’s not a place to take lightly.”
“It seems to make quite the impression on the captain,” Bella commented.
Balin nodded and winced. “The family had to leave under such unpleasant circumstances, as you already know from your book. But it’s still home. His home. Our home, in actual fact. And we’ve been without land to call our own for far too long.”
He turned to her and said, “His life hasn’t been an easy one, lass, but he’s a man I’ll follow to the ends of the earth.”
“You served together,” Bella breathed suddenly understanding the strong loyalties between the members of the company.
“Dwalin did,” Balin said. “The lads were on the frontlines in different companies. Kili met his young lass in France while she served in the Nurses Corp.” He nodded to Bofur and Bifur who were pulling out a new tyre for the flat one. “They served in Thorin’s unit. Thorin enlisted when he was a young lad to earn some money for his sister and younger brother. He worked hard and did well. Then this war came upon us.”
Balin shook his head. “I was only a babe when the Great War ended, and I thought the world would never be so foolish as to start another one.”
“I don’t think any of us did,” Bella said quietly, remembering how her own grandfather, who had been at the Somme, had had to swallow back tears when news of the war reached the village.
“Thorin was shipped out immediately,” Balin said. “He spent the entirety of the war in the trenches. His commander was killed in a skirmish, and Thorin assumed command. The amount of combat that lad has seen would shock you. But he got his men through.” He nodded to Bifur. “It’s shell-shock and a nasty blow to the head that’s left him speechless.”
“I’d wondered,” Bella said. “But I didn’t want to pry.”
“Which is far more decent than any of us are used to,” he said chuckling. “In fact, if ever any of us appear as though we don’t know how to act around gentlefolk, it’s because we don’t! But, don’t take it personally.”
Bella laughed. “As though I know how to act either. I’m something of the village pariah, Balin. Unmarried, no family left, running my own business. It’s quite all right.” She paused. “Thorin mentioned a sister, and she has a shop to run, but are there any other siblings?”
Balin sighed. “Just one. His brother, Frerin was killed at Savo Island in the Guadalcanal. Thorin’s never forgiven himself for not being there.”
“He couldn’t have prevented that,” Bella said frowning and looking at Thorin as he clapped Dwalin on the shoulder while they looked at the repaired Rover.
“Doesn’t matter,” Balin said. He put his own hand on Bella’s shoulder, and Bella met his kind eyes. “He feels responsible for everyone in his company, lass. And that includes you, now.”
“I hope I don’t let you down,” Bella said softly.
Balin patted her shoulder. “I think you’ll do just fine, lass.”
“Balin, Miss Baggins!” Dwalin shouted. “Enough gossiping! Get back in your seats!”
“Settle down, brother,” Balin called back. “Only getting to know our spirit medium.” He winked at Bella. “Always good to have an in with the other side.”
Bella laughed and patted his arm. “Words to live by.”
Her laughter trailed off when Thorin brushed past her without a word, but she just had to roll her eyes. He reminded her of a cat they’d had once that would search high and low for you, only to then sit in the same room and ignore you.
He’s just a big cat, that’s what he is, she thought getting back into the Rover. She glanced at his profile and amended her thought. A very, very big cat, but a cat nonetheless.
The company started off down the road once more.
They drove through the day and only planned on stopping when they were a few miles outside of Shrewsbury, just on the county border. The location of which ignited a ‘discussion’ between Gandalf and Thorin.
“I do not trust solicitors. They did less than nothing to assist my grandfather and then billed him for the pleasure of it,” Thorin said whilst driving. Bella eyed him, but while his tone was fierce and low, his hands were light on the steering wheel and gearstick. She even found herself mesmerised by the flex of his fingers as he downshifted, and she averted her gaze when she felt her cheeks heat up.
“Sir Elrond is not your typical solicitor,” Gandalf said patiently. “He is a scholar as well and has made a study of land laws. He will be able to verify the claim mentioned in your letter.”
“What letter?” Bella asked looking back at Gandalf.
He opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated and looked at Thorin.
Thorin sighed, and said, “Go on. Air our private issues to all and sundry, Gandalf. I doubt I can stop you.”
“If it’s private, then-“ Bella started.
“You’re on this trip with us, you may as well know the details,” Thorin said. “If only to ensure you don’t make any mistakes.”
“How generous of you,” she muttered under her breath.
She supposed he heard her if the side glance he gave her was any indication.
“Well, Captain Durin was recently sent a letter that detailed a claim to a silver mine located on his family’s land,” Gandalf said. “During the war, quite a bit of prospecting went on while searching for materials to use for the cause. A superficial survey suggested that if the mine were to re-open, it would be very prosperous for the owners.”
“Which we are,” Thorin said firmly.
“Which you believe you are,” Gandalf corrected. “A Durin has not set foot on the soil for three decades, captain. If you hope for your actions in reclaiming your land to be completely above board, you need an expert opinion. Lord Elrond is that opinion.”
Bella could practically hear Thorin’s teeth grinding as his jaw tensed. Hoping to dispel the tension, she asked, “Who sent the letter?”
“A man from a nearby village,” Thorin said. “A Master Fry of Laketown. Seems the surveyors left the information with him, and he sent it on.” He paused. “The town will have very little industry, and I expect he wrote in the hopes that we would be able to fund the reopening.”
“Would you?” she asked. “Be able to fund it, I mean?”
“If we can get through the damaged section, and if there is silver there, yes, we can fund it,” he said.
“Ah,” Bella said nodding. “Investors will come out of the woodwork, you mean.”
He glanced at her and she thought she saw something approaching impressed in his expression. “Yes, that is the hope.”
“Will this Elrond be able to tell us what to do about the Smaug problem?” Fili asked.
“Oh, yes,” Gandalf said. “As far as I know, he has no legal right to be there.”
“No one’s heard from the man in years,” Balin said. “He may be dead.”
“Here’s hoping,” Thorin muttered.
“Who’s Smaug?” Bella asked.
“Nothing more than a common thief with delusions of grandeur,” Thorin said, practically growling. “A usurper. A scoundrel. A squatter in my home.”
“All right,” Bella said slowly. She glanced over her shoulder at Gandalf who smiled at her.
“Rather shortly after the Durins departed Erebor, a Mr. Smaug took up residence in the manor,” Gandalf said. “He…capitalised on the absence of the owners and became something of a recluse on land that wasn’t his. No one was capable of ousting him for all manners of reasons, so he was left to his own devices.”
“So he could still be there?” Bella asked.
“He’s dead,” Thorin said flatly. “It’s been too long for him to be anything else.”
There was finality to Thorin’s tone that quite clearly advised that he was done talking. So Bella just nodded and resumed watching the world pass outside her window.
They drove until early evening when the found a layby that was big enough for them to park the Rovers and the motorbike. Getting out of the car, Bella stretched her arms above her head and stared out over the gently rolling green hills. She smelled freshly tilled earth and the familiar smell of agricultural slurry. A small village was settled in a valley and she watched as the lights in the windows came on one by one.
She turned and wandered over to Tauriel who was sifting through the packs in the back of one of the Rovers.
“Dare I ask who’s in charge of setting up camp?” Bella asked.
Tauriel grinned. “For some reason, the choice of campsite has defaulted to me, while the lugging of packs falls to the others.”
“Need some company?” Bella asked.
“Tired of the gentlemen?” Tauriel asked.
“Just pacing myself,” Bella replied smiling. “And I don’t want to wear out my welcome.”
“Not likely as far as I’m concerned,” Tauriel said. “Grab that other end?”
Bella grabbed the other side of a wicker basket and they headed off into the woods.
“Pick a nice one, love,” Kili called back.
“Get enough firewood,” Tauriel called back. “Dry stuff this time, yeah?”
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am!”
Bella snickered. “Balin said you two met during the war?”
“Just outside the Rhine Valley,” Tauriel said. “I was stationed at the hospital, and in comes this young lad with a massive piece of shrapnel stuck in his leg bellowing at the top of his lungs to send him back to the front because his brother and uncle are still out there.”
“Ouch,” Bella said wincing. “Love at first sight?”
Tauriel snorted. “Hardly. He was a reckless idiot who wanted glory.”
“And now?” Bella asked.
“He’s a reckless idiot that wants his home back,” Tauriel said shrugging. “There’s something about the Durins. They end up growing on you.”
Bella hummed and followed Tauriel until she stopped at a clearing underneath some chestnut trees.
“This’ll do,” she said setting down the basket.
Bella helped her clear the area of any large branches and rocks.
“So, I hear that you’re on this trip with us because you’re being kicked out of your home?” Tauriel asked.
“My business,” Bella corrected. “My home is still mine. It’s the business that was inadvertently willed elsewhere.”
“How on earth did that happen?” Tauriel asked frowning.
"My father was a wonderful man, but he had a few blind spots," Bella said. "Namely Mum and I. He always assumed that I'd settle down someday." She shrugged. "I suppose I did as well. Those kinds of things always seem to just happen. But then I found myself on the wrong side of thirty and well..."
"And there was no one in your village that ever caught your eye?" Tauriel asked.
"Well, Martin Brandybuck was quite the gentleman when we were fifteen, but he hates vegetables, and I can't be dealing with a man that hates vegetables and won't get his hands dirty," Bella said.
Tauriel snickered. "I quite agree."
"In any case, all the boys went off to war and they came back as men who didn't want someone who already knew how to make a campfire," Bella continued. “I've known the lot since we were all in leading strings, so it's probably just as well."
"I think I know the feeling," Tauriel said. "Kili...likes that I’m independent and can look after myself." She smiled. "It challenges him to find ways that he can take care of me without looking like he's taking care of me."
"You're lucky," Bella said.
"Very," Tauriel said. "We all are, to be honest. To have survived this far."
Bella studied her for a moment and noticed the look on her face resembled the look that some of the lads in the village drifted into when they thought no one was looking.
"It was a lot worse over there than what we were told, wasn't it?" Bella asked.
Tauriel stared into the fire. "The stuff of nightmares made real."
Bella reached out and put her hand gently on Tauriel's arm, and they both stared into the fire. They both blinked out of their reveries when they heard Kili call.
"Beautiful lady of the hearth," he called as he came into the clearing, ahead of the others. "My goddess, Athena in the flesh.”
Bella and Tauriel snorted as they looked at him.
"Athena is the goddess of wisdom, you fool," Tauriel said fondly.
"Hestia is the one of the hearth," Bella added.
Kili frowned. "Who's the pretty one, then?"
"Aphrodite," they said in unison.
"Oh," he said. "Are you sure?"
"They clearly paid attention in school, Kee," Fili said setting his pack down by the fire. "Unlike you."
"My mum was rather big on the myths," Bella said. "I came very close to being called Persephone."
"Bit of a mouthful," Kili said.
"And rather appropriate," said Tauriel.
"Precisely," Bella said. "They decided that I was already going to have a hard time of it if I did inherit her gifts, and it was probably best not to tempt fate too much.” She smiled, thinking of her mother. “They thought I was going to be a boy and had decided to name me after dad. But when I turned up, quite clearly a girl, mum decided that they could name me after her, because why should men be the only ones that children are named after. But they always called me Bella as opposed to Belladonna.”
"Bella suits you," Fili said smiling up at her. "Cheeky and to the point, rather like you."
"I shall take that as a compliment," Bella said grinning at him.
"Right, then. Who's making dinner?" Bofur asked. "We have beans, beans and well, beans."
"Oh, I brought some smoked meat," Bella said. "It was going to go off if I'd just left it at home."
"A veritable feast," Balin said smiling. "Let's have it.”
"I've left it in the car," Bella said. "I’ll dash back and grab it."
She headed back towards the road, humming a little as she walked. As she approached the rovers, she thought she heard a tinny clanking sound and slowed so that her feet didn’t make a sound as she edged closer. She reached the treeline by the road and peered around a thick gorse bush only to freeze at what she saw.
“Oi, Bert! Just take the hubcaps or the tires?” a heavyset man with a flatcap said as he crouched down by one of the Rovers.
“No, you wally! We’re taking the whole lot!” Another man came around the side and glared at the first man.
“I always wanted a motorbike,” a third man said from where he gazed at Kili’s Triumph. “Wonder how fast it goes?”
“We won’t know unless we get them running sharpish!” Bert said. “Hurry up and get something to break the windows.”
“Oh, botheration,” Bella muttered. She weighed her chances of getting back to the campsite in time to collect everyone before any serious damage was done to the cars and decided that something needed to be done. Now.
“Ah, excuse me, gentlemen,” Bella called as she came out from the trees. “I’m afraid those are our vehicles.”
She had a moment to realise that perhaps she should have gone back to the campsite when the men stopped where they were and slowly looked in her direction.
“Oh, dear,” she said under her breath at the avid, hungry gleams in their eyes. “Not good, Bella. Very much not good.”
But she stood her ground and simply smiled, hoping that common manners might win out.
“Well, well, what have we here?” Bert said standing up and looking her over.
“Looks like a little lady all on her own, doesn’t it, Tom?” the man by the motorbike said.
“Certainly does, William,” Tom replied grinning.
Bella fought the urge to cringe and just said, “No, not alone. Very much not alone! In fact, the owners of those vehicles are right behind me and would really not appreciate you stealing them, so if you’d just…be on your way.”
The men just stared at her and she added, “Run along now.”
She twitched her hands in a shooing motion and immediate felt like an idiot for doing so.
Grins slowly spread on the men’s faces and Bella swallowed hard.
“Hear that, lads?” Bert said. “The little lady would like us to run along now.”
Tom and William snickered. “Don’t really feel like running, Bert, do you, William?”
“Indeed, I don’t, Tom, my chum.”
“See I think that we’re going to take these here vehicles,” Bert said walking towards Bella. “And I think we may even take you along, little miss. Wouldn’t you like to go for a ride with us?”
“I really would not,” Bella said frowning and glaring. “And I mean it. The owners of those vehicles are not to be trifled with and will be most angry should you steal from them.”
“Oh, but, here’s the thing, little miss,” Bert said once he was within arm reach of her. He leaned forward, and Bella wrinkled her nose at the smell of him. “They’ll have to catch us first.”
Then he grabbed for her. She shrieked and struck out with her foot, catching him square on his shin.
He let out a high-pitched yell and she darted to the side as he fell forward, clutching his leg. Tom and William also grabbed for her and she dashed past them towards the Rovers. She ran around one of them and then the other, hoping to outrun the men and then head back into the forest. Nearly slipping on the gravel, she rounded the Rover and sprinted for the treeline.
She’d almost made it when something grabbed her by the mid-section. She yelled and she and Bert, who had snagged her, both fell to the ground. She kicked out again and managed to get him on his other shin. She scrambled to her feet only to stop when she saw how close Tom and William are.
“Merry little chase, missy,” Tom said panting. “Now, come here, like a good girl, eh?”
“Get stuffed,” Bella said through gritted teeth.
Tom snarled and he lunged towards her.
A single gunshot exploded in the air.
Bella froze where she was, as did the men.
“Take another step towards her and you’re dead,” a harsh, steady voice proclaimed from the treeline.
Bella peeked around the men and smiled in relief at the sight of Thorin and the others, all fully armed with their guns trained on the men.
The three men seemed to shrink in size as they huddled together and when Thorin approached them, his aim sure and steady, they cringed back.
He just stood there and stared at them, very much not looking in Bella’s direction. A soft hand on her arm made her jump and she sagged in relief at seeing Tauriel standing next to her.
“You’re all right?” Tauriel murmured.
Bella nodded. “Fine. Absolutely, um, fine.”
Tauriel nodded and they both looked at Thorin who hadn’t removed his glare from the men.
“Should we get the authorities, Captain?” Dwalin asked looking them over. “Or just despatch with them here and now? Save the bobbies some trouble.”
Bella gasped. “You can’t kill them!”
Thorin finally looked at her and she bit her lip at the thunderously angry look in his eyes. She edged towards Tauriel, who squeezed her arm gently.
Thorin returned his gaze to the three men and took a final step towards them. He trained his pistol on Bert and Bella held her breath.
“I suggest you run and do not stop until sunrise,” he said quietly.
The men just stared at him. Bella shivered at the sheer amount of threat and force that poured out from Thorin. If it was frightening (and not a little thrilling) to her and he was on her side, she didn’t bear to think what it felt like to Bert and Co.
Thorin tilted his head and in that same quiet and cold tone said, “Now.”
The entire company watched them as they ran down the road until they disappeared from view.
Only then did Thorin lower his pistol. He looked to Dwalin. “Someone needs to stay with the vehicles at all times. Who knows what else is out here.”
“They were hungry,” Bella said softly.
The entire company stopped and Thorin slowly turned his head to look at her.
“What?” he said.
She swallowed hard. “I’m not excusing them. I’m only saying that they were hungry and desperate. That’s why they did what they did.”
“I have been hungry and desperate, but it did not drive me to attack women,” Thorin said harshly.
“Of course it didn’t,” Bella said. “I just…” She looked blindly around at the Rovers, trying to process what had just happened. It was surely her jumbled nerves talking, but she still found herself asking, “Were you truly going to shoot them?”
His face hardened. “You’ve had a terrible shock and you do not need to concern yourself any further with this, Miss Baggins.”
“Concern myself?” Bella repeated. “You were contemplating shooting them!”
“You are not in the Shire any longer!” he shouted, his face lined in the evening shadows. “The world is a violent, desperate place, Miss Baggins. It is not made for soft, kind-hearted people such as yourself. People who have not known hardship or suffering or loss or desperation.” He shook his head in disgust. “You should not be here!”
“And you should not assume that your sorrow trumps my own!” she shouted back.
She clapped a hand over her mouth in shock at raising her voice and he reared back, blinking. Dear God, she hadn’t shouted in…well, she wasn’t sure she’d ever shouted. Not even when Lobelia was at her most stuffiest and imposing. They stared at one another and absently Bella wondered if the others were enjoying the performance.
She lowered her hand and said, “You have weathered more hardship and troubles than most and I will not and cannot even begin to imagine your suffering.” She stared at him directly. “But that does not mean that others do not have their own sorrows and their own loss. Do not presume to even think that I don’t know loss.”
They might have continued to stare at one another if Gandalf hadn’t spoken up to say, “I do so hate to interrupt, but shouldn’t we decamp back to the campfire before the beans burn?”
His statement broke the tension slightly and the company dispersed to sort out dinner and arrange the night watch. Bella turned away from Thorin who was still staring at her with a dark expression on his face. She couldn’t see his eyes in the fading evening light and it unnerved her.
Still close to her side, Tauriel led Bella back to the campfire and quickly handed her a mug of tea. Bella stared down at her shaking hands and curled them around the warm mug.
“Sure you’re all right?” Tauriel asked glancing at her.
“Will be, I expect,” Bella said sipping her tea. She looked at Tauriel. “I kicked them. Quite hard, actually.”
“That’s good,” Tauriel said grinning. “Would you like to learn how to do more than just kick?”
“Oh, yes, please,” Bella said all in a rush. “I mean, I do hope I won’t need it, but yes. Teach me everything.”
“Drink up,” she said nodding at Bella’s tea. “And I’ll show you how to throw a punch after dinner.”
“Brilliant,” Bella said nodding. “Thank you.”
The rest of the evening was quiet and true to her word, following a small bowl of beans and smoked meat, Tauriel showed Bella how to punch and to dislodge an attacker. Fili and Kili stood watch and gave advice that ranged from useful to ridiculous, and by the end of the lesson, Bella was smiling. She figured she was close to the point where she’d most likely do more damage to herself than her opponent should she get herself into a fight. But it was a good start.
She curled up on her blanket and wriggled around until the rocks beneath her body felt only mildly painful and not utterly agonizing.
At one point she rolled over to face the fire, and her eyes were caught by Thorin. He sat perfectly still, his pipe in hand, his eyes firmly fixed on her. She stared back and felt her skin prickle and goosebumps ran up and down her arms. As they stared at each other, her stomach twisted and curled and she had the urge to blink, but didn’t want to lose whatever the feeling or connection was because it felt so new and exciting and…so very not something she’d ever felt before. As she stared at him, he absently brought his pipe to his mouth. When his lips pressed around the stem of his pipe that curling something in her stomach shivered. Bella blinked and turned over.
She laid staring out into the dark woods, the fire warm on her back, and tried to make sense of the direction her life had taken.
In an odd turn of events, she fell asleep immediately.
Shrewsbury was a small city near the border of England and Wales with red brick buildings and winding streets fill the space near the river. The sun reflected off the small cathedral windows as the group walked towards the solicitor’s office, having left their vehicles near the train station, Dwalin, Bofur and Bifur staying behind to guard them.
As they approached a tall building with long, clean windows, Bella momentarily panicked at the state of her clothes. She tugged at her trousers she’d quickly out on that morning in place of her dress from the day before. As it was, she only remembered to grab one frock in her mad dash out the door.
She glanced at Tauriel and noticed the same self-conscious look in the other woman’s eyes. Their eyes met, and they simply rolled their eyes and lifted their chins, hoping no one was too disapproving of their casual clothes.
The hall of Elrond and Associates was pure white and a wide staircase spiraled up several floors. The floor was a lovely etched marble, and it felt cool and calming, quite unlike anything Bella had ever seen.
“Ah, Gandalf,” a pleasant low voice called out. “I expected you much later; you’re making excellent time, my old friend.”
The man that approached them was slim and tall with high, arching eyebrows. His eyes were a warm brown that quickly looked everyone over, and Bella got the impression that this was a man who missed very little.
“Lord Elrond,” Gandalf said shaking Elrond’s hand. “Thank you for seeing us on such short notice.” He gestured to the group. “May I introduce you to Captain Thorin Durin, Balin Fundinson, Mr. and Mrs. Kili Viren, Mr. Fili Viren and Miss Bella Baggins.”
Lord Elrond inclined his head. “A pleasure to meet you all. Please, come into our meeting room. I’ve had some tea prepared, and we can go over your plans.”
“There’s no need to go over any plans,” Thorin said softly. “I only wish to verify the legality of the mines.”
Elrond paused and looked at Thorin, who stared steadily back. Bella glanced at Gandalf, who simply looked calm and nonplussed.
“You wish to keep your plans to yourself, then,” Elrond said nodding. “A wise decision, Captain Durin. For there are many who would approve of the reopening of the mines, for safety reasons as well as financial.”
“You’re referring to the Woodland Realm,” Thorin asked.
“Well, Mr Greenwood has seen a decline in his profits during the war, and he would not be appreciative of his family’s biggest competitor returning to the market. He took over from his father and his son is also working for him, I believe,” Elrond said. “However, I’m also referring to…the local element. People in that region have very long memories.”
He stared at Thorin directly. “I do not believe you will find any friends in Erebor, captain.”
“I’m not looking for friends,” Thorin said. “I only wish to provide for my family and take back what was ours.”
Elrond nodded. “In that case, come with me. I believe you won’t have any legal issues on that score.”
He led them to a pair of tall doors, and when they walked inside Bella sucked in a breath. Bookshelves stretched from floor to ceiling and she walked in a circle to take them all in.
“A fan of libraries, are you, Miss Baggins?” Elrond asked smiling.
“Oh, yes,” she said craning her neck to see them all. “If you tell me that these are all only legal tomes, I may cry.”
Elrond laughed. “The majority of them are, I’m afraid. But I have a lovely selection of first editions and a respectable reference library, as well.”
Bella smiled back, but stopped when she noticed Thorin’s glower aimed her way. She narrowed her eyes at him, and he looked away.
Elrond indicated for them all to sit at the large table by the window, and he put on a pair of half-moon spectacles. “Gandalf mentioned something about a survey and a letter?”
Thorin nodded to Balin, and Balin pulled out an envelope from his breast pocket. Elrond took the envelope and looked over the contents.
“This is a legitimate survey done by the Army Corp of Engineers,” Elrond said thoughtfully. He frowned. “If they’re correct, then the mines should provide a decent output.”
Balin and the brothers breathed a sigh of relief, but Thorin remained stoic as he asked, “And our claim to the land?”
“Ah, yes,” Elrond said rising from his seat. He walked over to a low table and brought back a file. “When I heard you were coming, I applied to have copies of the land deeds couriered to my office. So many were lost during the Blitz, but they were able to send me what I was looking for.” He opened the file and handed Thorin a sheaf of papers. “The quadrants specified in that deed are still owned by the Durin line. They have never been sold or auctioned or reclaimed by the crown, county, or bank. They are yours, Captain Durin.”
Here Thorin did breathe a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” he said. “I have always believed them to be ours, but it will be useful to know they are legally ours.”
“What about Smaug?” Fili asked leaning forward.
Elrond arched his eyebrow. “Is that the gentleman who took up residence in the manor shortly after you left?”
“That’s him,” Kili said. “According to mum, no one ever saw him. He’d arrange for supplies to be left by the gates every week.”
“Well, I’m afraid to say that there is such a thing as squatter’s rights,” he said. “That is, there is nothing that prevents him from making a plea in front of a judge that he should be allowed to live on the property as it has been vacant for some time. However, said judge would most likely still rule in favour of the owners, not the squatter.” He frowned. “How long has it been since a Durin was in residence?”
“Thirty years,” Balin said.
“Well, I’d be quite surprised if the fellow is still alive,” Elrond said. “Unless he’s amassed an army to defend the manor from you, you have every legal right to be there and to do with the land as you see fit.”
Thorin inclined his head. “Good. We will.” He glanced at the rest of the room and then stood. “We’ll trespass on your time no more. Thank you.”
“If that is all I can do to assist you,” Elrond said.
“There is one thing,” Thorin said. He nodded at Bella. “I believe Miss Baggins is in the midst of an unfortunate situation regarding her own property.”
Bella stared at Thorin in utter surprise while he kept his eyes on Lord Elrond.
“Oh?” Elrond said looking at Bella. “Miss Baggins?”
“Oh, ah, it’s nothing really,” Bella said flustered. “I, that is, my father, well.”
“Her rotten relations are planning to take over her business simply because her father forgot to will it to her,” Kili said. “And she’s a bit stuck as to what to do about it.”
Bella stared at Kili and then the rest of the company. “You lot are worse than a quilting circle, you know?”
The brothers grinned at her and Tauriel winked. Bella turned back to Lord Elrond. “That’s it, in a nutshell, my lord.”
“I see,” Elrond said. “The property is entailed away, I suppose?”
“I’m afraid so,” Bella said. She shrugged. “My family’s solicitor looked at it, and there’s no mistake. My closest male cousin inherits the nursery and the land.”
“Has this cousin worked the land at all?” Elrond asked. “Has he participated in the running of the business?”
Bella spared a delightful moment imagining Otho and Lobelia wrestling with the manure and the irrigation system. Then she shook her head, “No, he hasn’t.”
“You may be able to contest it then,” he said. “On the grounds that you have a valid tie to the business.”
“Really?” Bella asked her eyes widened and her heart started to pound. “I could keep the nursery?”
“Only if you were willing to take the effort to contest,” Elrond said. “Which can be quite time consuming.” He glanced at Gandalf. “I take it, Miss Baggins, you are accompanying the Durins as an extra pair of hands?”
“I’m a medium,” Bella said, her mind still racing over the possibility of keeping her nursery. “I’m along to clear the manor of ghosts.”
“I see,” Elrond said, those eyebrows rising once more. “The building here has a ghost.”
“Oh?” Bella asked.
“One of the original senior partners,” Elrond said. “He lurks about in the third floor library and never bothers anyone and seems quite content to simply drift through the archives.”
“I could, ah, see to him, if you’d like?” Bella offered.
“No, no, he’s fine where he is,” Elrond said smiling. “I was going to offer something to you, actually. Why don’t you continue on your…quest with the Durins, and I will contact your solicitor to look at the details of the situation, and I’ll let you know if I think you have a decent chance of recovering your nursery.”
“That’s extremely kind of you,” Bella said smiling. “Why--?”
“Am I assisting you?” Elrond supplied. He switched his gaze to Thorin. “Retaining one’s birth right is an important thing, is it not, captain?”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Thorin said, his voice calm, but every line of his body screamed with tension, and Bella wondered if she touched him, would he be vibrating with suppressed tension.
Thinking that they had gotten what they’d come for, Bella quickly gave Lord Elrond her family solicitor’s details and the company left the building.
Thorin strode ahead of the company, Balin at his side and they talked quietly. Bella walked next to Gandalf.
“Was Lord Elrond warning Thorin of something?” Bella asked the professor. “With all that talk of the local element?”
“Possibly,” Gandalf said thoughtfully. “We’re going someplace very dangerous, Bella. Never forget that. When the mine fell, Thorin’s family wasn’t the only one to lose their livelihoods. Villages in the area depended on the commerce of the mine. They suffered a great depression when the mine collapsed and no doubt still suffer today.”
The evening following the meeting with Lord Elrond was spent in thoughtful silence. Food was made, and everyone ate silently. Bella supposed that the others were thinking on what Lord Elrond had said about their claim on the land as well on the mine. There would be a lot of work to be done should they find the mine to still be usable.
She, on the other hand, thought about whether or not she wanted to take the chance and see if she could contest Otho’s claim on the nursery. She had spent a great deal of time and money and her own personal resources on the nursery. Did she want to spend even more time and money, and no doubt add a great deal of gossip to the village to fight for her nursery?
Let’s get through the ghost clearance first, she thought. Let’s see if we can survive what is promising to be the biggest challenge of a lifetime, before you take on the second biggest challenge of a lifetime.
Bella slept restlessly that night, unable to find a comfortable position on the hard ground and, in the morning, presumed others had the same trouble if the dark circles under everyone’s eyes were anything to go by.
The day was spent in constant motion as Thorin wanted to make it to the border before nightfall.
“We have to be there before the end of the month,” he said as they drove quickly. “I don’t want to be exploring the mines in the dead of winter. We need to be there before summer’s out.”
The drive was quiet for the most part, with Bofur and Bifur humming in the back of the Rover.
They reached the border between Scotland and England and stopped at a pub just on the outskirts of Gretna Green.
“Could’ve done it this way,” Kili said to Tauriel as they got off of their motorbike. “If we’d felt the need to elope. Add a bit of excitement to the event.”
“True,” Tauriel said smiling. “The registry office did have a lack of shadiness attached to it. I suppose we needed more excitement after surviving a war.”
Kili smiled back and pressed a kiss to the side of her neck. “Nah. A lifetime with you is going to supply all the excitement I’ll need.”
“Enough,” Fili said rolling his eyes. “You have wedded bliss, we get it.”
“Aw, Fee,” Kili said laughing. “When you find someone willing to put up with that ugly mug of yours, you’ll understand.”
The rest of the company left them to it, and Bella joined them in the pub. They took over a long table in the corner and sipped, or in Dwalin’s case, drained their pints. Bella looked around the pub and felt her skin prickle the longer she sat there.
“Anyone else feeling out of place?” she asked.
The others just shrugged.
“Border villages are often rowdy,” Gandalf said as the volume of the pub started to increase. “It’ll be fine, my dear.”
“Right,” she said taking a long sip of her cider. She made a face. Clearly they used apples that had already begun to turn. She wrinkled her nose as she took another sip.
The rest of the company seemed content to simply continue to drink and talk amongst themselves. Eventually, Bella found herself caught up in a conversation with Tauriel about Europe and places the other woman had seen.
They were deep in conversation about the French countryside and how it compared to the English green hills when Bella felt the very strong call of nature.
“Be right back,” she called to Tauriel, who nodded and waved her off.
Bella got to her feet and blinked quickly when she realized that while the cider wasn’t the best tasting, it certainly had more of a punch than she expected.
“Where are you going?” Thorin asked taking hold of her arm as she walked past him. He didn’t even look at her and she narrowed her eyes at him.
“The powder room,” she said. “Such as it probably is.”
She pulled her arm free and headed for the bar to ask for the toilets.
“Outside in the back, lassie,” the florid barman said as he pulled a pint for the crowd. “You want the one of the left.”
“Right,” Bella said nodding.
“No, left!” He burst into raucous laughter and the others bellied up at the bar joined him.
Bella laughed weakly and then headed to the dim hallway that led to the back of the pub. The door creaked open as she made her way outside. The toilets were as disgusting as she’d imagined and she was rather grateful for the dim light as it meant that she couldn’t quite see what she was walking on. She cringed her way through doing her business and thought longingly of her lovely clean bathroom and the crisp, fresh streams perfect for wading in the woods behind her home.
She emerged from the toilet and breathed in the night air. A chill had settled in and it dawned on her just how far north they’d travelled in the last few days. She looked up at the clear night sky and rubbed her arms to ward off the chill and breathed in again.
“Huffs and puffs, she does, doesn’t she, Smeagol?” a rasping, croaking voice said.
Bella jumped and looked around for the source of the voice.
“Smells of grass and light, she does.” The voice hacked, a wet, coarse sound as it answered itself.
Bella spotted a small man, hunched over just on the edge of the light that spilled out from the pub windows. He looked up at her through straggly wisps of grey hair. He tilted his head to the side and peered at her.
“She’s got the paths behind her eyes, she does,” he said excitedly. “Straight, straight the paths are. Bet the ghosties just slip right through and down. Through and down, the way they’re supposed to.” His face twisted. “Not like they do us, Smeagol. Not like they do for us. When they gets all stuck.”
“I’m sorry?” she said in a small voice. “What do you mean? Who are you?”
”Oh, she talks to us,” he said hopping and grinning. “No one other than the ghosties talks to us.”
He scuttled towards her, and she took a step back when he came into the light. He still wore what had to have been a uniform of some kind, and his eyes were wide in the light, his face pale and worn. She couldn’t put an age on him, he looked so wretched.
She took another step back.
“Oh, mustn’t get too close, must we?” he said sneering. “Well, we won’t. Wouldn’t like the little girl to be like us, would we?”
His face brightened. “Oh no, mustn’t be like us. Mustn’t get a winding path behind her eyes like us.”
“A winding path?” she asked, horror taking over her, her heart racing as she stared at the small man.
“The ghosties go in,” he said, “but they don’t go out. In they stay and they speaks and they moan and groan and it hurts us. It hurts us!”
He clapped his hands over his ears and shook all over then rocked back and forth.
“Oh, my God,” Bella breathed. Well, hadn’t she wondered what might happen if the ghosts couldn’t find their way down the path. She’d wanted to see what ghost-sickness looked like. It looked like this. Her heart ached, and she felt a mixture of pity and disgust and helplessness.
“Can I help you?” she asked taking a step towards him.
He dropped his hands and looked up at her with those big mad eyes. “Help us? Help us! Yes, yes, help us! Take them out! Take the nasty ghosties away from us!”
He hurried to her, and she cringed from the stench that came with him. She bit her lip and stared into his eyes to see if she could lure whatever spirits lurked in his mind. But the longer she stared the more she realized that there wasn’t anything she could do. Whatever spirits that had entered had situated themselves so firmly in his mind, there wasn’t any way to separate them.
She shook her head. “I can’t help you. They aren’t there. I’m so sorry.”
His face fell and then twisted into a rictus of anger. “You just don’t want to take them from us. You want Smeagol to suffer. You mean, mean, nasty, nasty girl.”
Bella started to walk backwards. “I’m sorry, I truly am. But there’s nothing I can do.”
“Nothing? Nothing anyone can do for us! It’ll happen to you,” he said his head tilting back and forth. “Oh, yes. The path will wrinkle and they’ll stay and you won’t be able to get them out. They won’t get out!”
Bella turned and walked quickly back to the pub.
“They’ll come!” the man called after her. “They’ll keep coming! They like the light! They’ll come and come and come and you won’t be able to stop them! He’ll send them to you!”
Bella ran the last few steps to the pub and wrenched open the door. She slammed it shut behind her and rested against it. She pressed her hand to her chest and tried to calm down. Then she walked slowly into the pub and looked towards the corner but the company wasn’t there.
“Oh, no,” she breathed.
A hand came down on her shoulder. She shrieked and jumped around. Bifur held up both his hands as he looked at her with wide eyes.
“Sorry, sorry!” she said slumping against the wall. “I’m so sorry. Where is everyone?”
Bifur cringed and looked at a group of men by the bar who were looking at the pair of them with angry eyes.
“Oh,” Bella said. “I take it someone made an impression on the locals?”
Bifur nodded and then jerked his head towards the front entrance.
“Yes, okay,” Bella said. She chafed her arms again and glanced back down the back hallway. She turned back and looked at Bifur who cocked his head to the side.
“I’m fine,” she said nodding. “Just…fine.”
He nodded and they made their way to the door, not looking at anyone as they left.
The company stood beside their cars as they waited for Bella and Bifur.
“Leaving already, are we?” Bella asked as they approached.
“Things started to feel decidedly hostile, I’m afraid,” Balin said.
“They called me a bloody Englishman!” Dwalin roared. He moved to go back into the pub, and Bofur and Fili held him back. “I’m no Englishman!”
“Enough!” Thorin said. He stood in front of Dwalin. “You’re no Englishman and soon the world will know it. Let’s move on.”
“Let us just drive on and find a place to sleep for the night,” Gandalf said. “We still have quite the distance to cover.”
“I agree,” Thorin said. “Get in the cars and let’s-“
He was interrupted when the lights from the pub went out and the road plunged into darkness.
All sounds stopped from inside the pub, and it seemed that they all held their breath. The darkness felt heavy and unnatural, and Bella’s heart started to race again. A chill tripped along her arms and neck; her legs felt heavy and glued to the spot. Cold sweat broke out at her temples.
Someone inside the pub shouted, “Bloody blackouts! Hamish! Get the generator fired up!”
Bella looked back towards the toilets and saw him, ‘Smeagol,’ staring intently at something down the road. She couldn’t see his eyes, but he stood frozen, his hands clenched into fists against his head. He turned his gaze to her. Those big eyes stared at her, and fear poured out from him towards her. Then he smirked.
She held her breath as he just looked at her, sneering, before he turned and ran off into the darkness.
She did not want to look down the road. She didn’t want to see what it was that he’d seen. She didn’t want to know what was coming for them.
“We should go,” she said faintly staring into the dark woods. Her skin prickled with that sick, damp cold as she turned. She looked down the road and breathed out. Her breath came out as a vapor.
“We should go,” she repeated.
The company looked at her and then down the road. Everyone stilled and watched.
A group of ghosts, because no human moved like they moved, approached them.
They flickered like images in a film reel as they strode towards the company, jerking and popping across the road. Their bodies shuddered and jumped, and their eyes, oh, their eyes were empty, black pools of nothing.
“Oh, my,” Bella said stepping forward.
Thorin grabbed her upper arm and pulled her behind him. “Wait.”
“What do you mean, ‘wait’?” she said not taking her eyes off the ghosts. “This is why I’m here.”
“Something’s not right,” he said.
“Obviously,” Bella said. “Ghosts are walking down the street.” She cringed as the cold of the ghosts started to tickling the edges of her mind. She frowned. It felt…odd. “Oh, something’s very wrong.”
The ghosts were nothing like Professor Brown or the gentle wisps Bella had encountered. These ghosts barely looked at her; they simply lurched towards the group.
“I’ve never seem them behave so,” Gandalf said. “What-“
“Thorin Durin,” the ghost in the middle rasped. “Cursed son of Durin. Go back.”
Bella’s jaw dropped. “What did he say?”
“Who are you?” Thorin asked.
“The one to drive you back,” the ghost said, grinning. “The one who would see you dead and mad rather than master of Erebor.”
“My God,” Balin said, his voice breaking. “Azog. He was foreman. He worked for your grandfather.”
“Worked and died,” Azog growled. “Died without air. Died suffocating. Died because the old man dug too deep. His greed was too much, and we all died for it while he lived!” He grinned, and it was an evil thing that sent chills all over Bella and she clenched her hands into fists. “You’ll see.”
He turned his stare to Bella and sneered. “And no shining eyes will stop me from destroying you all.” He leered. “No matter how lush the face they sit in.”
Bella shuddered at the utter lack of anything human in his eyes. Thorin pulled her behind him and stood tall.
“You are nothing but a shadow,” Thorin said, his voice loud and taunting. “I’ve faced down an army. You are nothing to me.”
“Thorin, wait,” Bella said trying to grasp his arm, but he strode forward.
“No, I won’t be scared off by an insubstantial spirit that has nothing left to him but fog,” he said. “Come at me, ghost.”
Azog smiled. “With pleasure.”
The ghosts swarmed. They darted forward and ripped straight through Thorin’s body.
Bella cried out at their anguished faces. It was as though they were being pulled forward and through and couldn’t stop themselves. They hit Thorin again and again.
He grunted with each impact, and Bella could see his breath spill from his mouth as a vapor and his face paled with each pass of a ghost.
He fell to one knee and still wouldn’t turn away from the grinning Azog.
“Stop!” Bella shouted at the ghosts. “Please!”
They continued to swarm around Thorin, and sweat dripped down the side of his face.
“Damn it,” Bella said under her breath, and then she darted forward, ignoring the cries around her.
She threw herself in front of Thorin directly into the path of an incoming spirit. The spirit’s eyes widened as it passed through Bella’s body, and with a sigh of relief, it flew down the path in her mind.
“That’s it!” she shouted. “I’m what you want! I can give you peace! Come to me!”
One by one, the ghosts flew into her and down the path. She gasped with each sharp impact, and the cold of the ghosts stiffened her joints and made her skin tight while her lungs burned with the cold. It was agony, but she kept her eyes open and made sure each ghost passed into the beyond. Their eyes were terrible, and they grimaced in agony and then relief as they passed.
After the last ghost had slipped through, she looked at Azog. He stared back, his mouth agape, but then he sneered, and with a wrench, he flew back the way he came and disappeared into the night.
The lights came back on in the pub, and its occupants cheered.
Bella staggered backwards and was only held upright by Thorin reaching for her. He got to his feet and she leaned into him to stay on her feet.
“Why did they do that?” she whispered. “They always want to go home. Why would they attack you? I don’t understand.”
She tilted her head back to look up at him. “Are you all right?”
“I think I should be asking you the same thing,” he said, cupping her face. She gasped at the warmth of his hand on her frozen skin. He frowned. “Your lips are blue. My God, you’re bloody freezing.”
“She needs something hot inside her now,” Tauriel said coming to look at her. She yelled for Kili. “Get some tea, now, darling!”
“Right-o,” he said dashing into the Rover to look for a flask.
Bella shook her head. “Never mind me. Did they all pass through you? Did any of them stay?”
She reached up to look into his eyes.
“Let me, my dear,” Gandalf said coming over. “Look at me, Captain.”
“What are you looking for?” he asked, letting Gandalf look into his eyes.
“Ghost sickness,” Gandalf said tilting Thorin’s head back and forth. “If a ghost were to be trapped in your subconscious, you’d go mad.”
“Which was that ghost’s aim,” Bella said shivering violently. “I’ve never seen them move like that before. It’s like they were being compelled. But who can compel a ghost?”
He’ll send them to you whispered through her mind. She shuddered again but the voice of ‘Smeagol’ remained.
Tauriel put a coat around Bella’s shoulders and herded her into the backseat of the Rover. Thorin followed as they all made to leave.
Bella couldn’t get the image of the swarming ghosts out of her mind.
“I’ve never heard of a ghost that didn’t want to go on,” she said still shivering and taking hold of the flask that Kili handed her. She took a big sip of the tea and shivered so violently, her teeth clicked against the rim. Tauriel frowned.
“Right,” she said as she shoved Thorin at Bella. “Hold her.”
“Beg pardon?” Thorin said.
“She just saved your life. Hold. Her.” Tauriel turned away and hopped out of the Rover calling for either more hot tea or for the company to head off in search of an inn for the night.
Bella just stared after Tauriel. Then she felt a solid arm curl around her shoulders and she was enveloped in warmth that smelled of pipe smoke and engine oil. Her energy just deserted her and she sank into Thorin’s side and curled into him.
“I think she’s right,” he said. “You saved my life.”
“Oh, I hope not,” she mumbled. He chuckled as she looked up at him horrified. “Sorry! That’s not what I meant. I mean, I hope they wouldn’t hurt you. I hope that wasn’t their aim.”
“It’s okay,” he said looking down at her and smiling gently. “I understand. All the same. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said curling into him and liking the way his face changed when he wasn’t scowling.
“Thank you, by the way, for asking Lord Elrond about my predicament,” Bella said. “It was very gracious of you.”
“It seemed the right thing to do,” he replied. “Will you pursue the matter further?”
“I suppose I’ll see what Mr. Elrond has to say and then decide,” she said. “I honestly don’t know, and I don’t want anything to interfere with the business at hand.”
He frowned and looked away.
“You really don’t want me here,” she said chuckling.
He looked over at her in surprise and then chuckled himself. “Is it very obvious?”
“Oh, no,” Bella said shaking her head. “Most people converse by glaring and growling.”
“I’m very sorry for how I’ve treated you,” he said. “And for yelling at you the other evening.”
“No, don’t be sorry for that,” Bella said. She hesitated. “No, actually, yes, do be sorry for the yelling, but not for expressing your frustrations. You’re quite right; I don’t know your suffering and never could. I’m sorry I said all those things to you in the manner I did.”
“But not that you did say them?” he asked.
She shrugged. “You’ve suffered. Greatly. But so have others. If there’s anything I learned from watching my mother, it was that when you realise that your suffering is not something you do all alone, you can begin to heal a bit. Not completely, of course. But a bit.”
“Your mother sounds very wise,” he said.
“Well, she tried,” Bella said, reaching up to hold her rings, the familiar cool of the metal grounded her. “And she listened. And oh, she loved to learn. In truth, she’s the Baggins woman you want with you now.”
“I think the Baggins woman we do have will suffice,” he said quietly.
Bella’s cheeks flushed and she smiled down at her lap. “Even though you don’t want me here?”
“If I wasn’t so desperate, I do believe I’d find the nearest train station and send you back to the Shire,” he said ruefully.
“But you are desperate and here we are,” she said. “Oh, it must curdle your milk that I’m here.”
“Not in the way you are thinking,” he said somewhat cryptically. “But yes. My milk is well and truly curdled.”
Bella burst out laughing, and eventually he joined in with a small chuckle. It was with smiles on their faces that Fili found them when he got inside the Rover.
He grinned. “Feeling better, then?”
“Marginally,” Bella said smiling. “Are we off?”
He nodded and Tauriel got in, as did Balin who took the wheel, Gandalf in the passenger seat.
“Not taking your chances on the bike with Kili?” Fili asked Tauriel.
“Need to keep my eye on my patients,” she said eyeing Bella and Thorin. She shook her head. “You still look cold, Bella.”
“I’m getting warmer,” she said, even as Thorin pulled her closer. She sighed and turned her face into his coat.
“If you don’t mind,” Gandalf said. “I think I may know of a place for us to stay the night.”
The Rover drove through the dark roads until Gandalf said to take the next left and then follow the track.
“Where are we?” Thorin called from his seat beside Bella, his arm still firmly around her shoulders.
“We’re coming up on the home of an acquaintance of mine,” Gandalf said. “I believe he’ll let us stay the night to rest and recover.”
“You believe?” Bella asked.
“Meaning you don’t know,” Tauriel said.
“I have every reason to believe that he’ll assist us,” Gandalf said affronted. He paused. “He is…reclusive, yes, and may not readily be prepared to take us in, but I’m sure I can persuade him.”
“With what?” Thorin asked. “We have little money.”
“No, when he meets the talented lady who travels with us,” Gandalf said.
Bella frowned. “Is he a medium?”
“No, he’s a naturalist,” Gandalf said.
“He runs about starkers?” Fili asked.
“Oh, for pity’s sake!” Gandalf glared at everyone. “He is very in tune with the land and all that inhabits it, including spirits. He is, however, not fond of war and violence, although he’s more than capable of defending his home.”
Bella squinted out the window, and could just make out a faint orange light coming from the edge of the field they drove along.
“And here we are,” Gandalf said as he directed Fili to stop the Rover. Bella glanced behind them and saw the other Rover pulling to a stop, Kili alongside in his motorbike.
“Now, let’s not overwhelm the man,” Gandalf said opening the door. “Miss Baggins, with me, please.”
Thorin’s grip on her shoulders tightened as he glared at Gandalf. Bella smiled and patted his knee.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said. “I’ll be with Gandalf, and if something goes wrong, I’ll scream and you all can come dashing in, all right?”
He switched his glare to her, and a muscle in his jaw ticked, but he let her go. She patted his leg again and wondered if saving a person’s life meant that you could touch them with impunity? For he didn’t seem all that pleased to stop touching her, and it felt like she’d been patting his knee in a placating manner for years.
Bella got out of the car and chafed her hands together. The chill from the ghosts had left her somewhat, but she still felt the cold lingering just under her skin.
A large, sprawling log cabin loomed in front of them, the orange glow she spotted earlier flickered in the round windows, and the only entrance appeared to be a huge oak door that had black iron hinges and a massive knocker shaped like a growling bear.
Perhaps it looked more welcoming during the day, but at just past midnight it felt too big and too dark and too unknown.
“Perhaps Tauriel could join us,” Bella said glancing at the other woman, who nodded and came to her side.
“Excellent idea,” Gandalf said. “Thank you, Mrs Viren.”
Bella walked beside Tauriel just slightly behind Gandalf as they went up to the large wooden door. She breathed in and caught the scent of honey and a low, quiet buzz that meant beehives had to be close by. She smelled tilled earth and that sharp, crisp scent of cool water and wondered if there was a lake nearby.
Gandalf knocked on the massive door and then stood patiently. Bella and Tauriel exchanged glances, and Bella fought the urge to look behind her at the rest of the company.
Eventually, the large door creaked open and a mountain of a man stood in the doorway.
“It is late,” he said, his deep voice broke through the night. “Why have you come?”
“Beorn Bjornson, my good man,” Gandalf said jovially. “It is Professor Gandalf, and I’m in desperate need of shelter for the evening. I do apologise for simply dropping on your doorstep like this.”
Bella only barely managed to hold in a snort of disbelief. It seemed that Gandalf did nothing but drop onto unsuspecting people’s doorsteps.
Beorn cocked his head to the side and studied Gandalf. “I remember you.” He looked at Bella and Tauriel. “I see you’ve brought me a bunny and a fox.”
Bella frowned and exchanged another glance with Tauriel. Bunny, indeed.
“Ah, yes,” Gandalf said chuckling. “May I present, Mrs Tauriel Viren and Miss Bella Baggins.”
Beorn nodded his head and the ladies nodded back. “There are also a mess of men on my drive,” Beorn added. “Why have you come this far north?”
“We intend to go even farther north,” Gandalf said. “And I’d be happy to tell you the full tale, but may we do so inside? We’ve just had a run in with some very determined ghosts, you see.”
“Ghosts?” Beorn’s voice turned sharp and his dark brown eyes narrowed.
“Yes,” Gandalf said with a sigh. “But we’re blessed to have an experienced medium with us in Miss Baggins. She sent the whole lot on their way with the snap of her fingers.”
Bella exchanged yet another glance with Tauriel, this time one of utter disbelief at Gandalf’s tale. Her eyes were quickly drawn back to Beorn when he stepped forward.
“This little bunny sent the whole lot back with the snap of her fingers?” he repeated. He took her hand in his massive paw-like hand. “Tiny fingers, they are.”
“It wasn’t as swift as Gandalf is making it out to be, I’m afraid,” Bella said breathlessly. “But I did send them back.”
Beorn looked her in the eyes and then nodded. “I can see the lights behind your eyes. Been a long time since I’ve met another medium. The last was talented, too.”
“Was?” Bella asked.
“He died in the war,” Beorn said flatly. “He went mad first.”
“Oh,” Bella said, carefully extracting her hand from his.
“Your men are approaching,” he said still staring at Bella. Then he lifted his head and stared at someone who had come up behind Bella that could only be Thorin.
“I don’t like groups of men on my land, Gandalf. But you may stay the night, after I hear the little bunny’s tale.” He grinned suddenly at his own pun. “No one is to touch anything in my house or on my lands.”
He held out his arm to Bella, and she, smiling, gingerly curled her hand around his arm. Beorn held out his other arm to Tauriel, who took it with a regal incline of her head after she shot Kili a quelling glare. Bella thought she could almost hear the grinding of several jaws as they entered the house.
The house they entered reminded Bella of the illustrations in her old books of fairy tales, with high vaulted wooden ceilings and carvings on every available surface. A huge fire roared in a large hearth, and the company was told to sit in front of it. Beorn released Bella and Tauriel, and they sat on the ground near the hearth, Bella sighing when the warmth of the fire seeped into her still chilled skin.
Thorin sat close by, his eyes never leaving their host as Beorn brought out mugs and made tea.
“You will tell me the story of your ghosts, old man,” he said to Gandalf handing him a mug of tea.
Bella let Gandalf’s voice wash over her as she sipped tea that had been laced with honey, and before long, she found herself nodding off.
She jolted awake when Beorn said, “It takes a great deal out of you, doesn’t it, little bunny?”
“Sorry?” she said blinking and turning towards him.
“Sending the spirits on,” he said. “It takes its toll on your soul.”
She nodded uncertainly. “So I’ve been told. My mother never had much of a problem, though.”
“Was your mother battling dark spirits from dark places?” he asked.
“Not as such,” Bella admitted. “Although one fellow did admit to nicking the family’s savings to pay for his second family that he had hidden up in Torquay.”
“There is something moving in the north,” Beorn said, his rough voice quiet and deep. “Something rumbles and calls in the dark. The animals shy away from it. It’s something…wrong.”
He looked at the company. “The wars stirred something up in the air. Something may want to take advantage of that.”
“For what purpose?” Bella asked softly.
“Nothing good, little bunny,” he said shaking his head. “Nothing good at all.”
A loud snore resounded in the room, and everyone jumped and looked over at Dwalin who had clearly drifted off where he sat.
“On that note,” Gandalf said rising to his feet.
“I will show you to your rooms,” Beorn said. He nodded at Dwalin. “Some of you may remain here if you wish.”
The company looked at each other, and Thorin said, “We’ll all remain here, if that is acceptable.”
Beorn shrugged. “The fire is warm and the door is well-locked. Do not touch anything.”
He nodded at Bella and Tauriel and then made his way down the hall. A door closed firmly in the distance.
Bella yawned and slouched back in the large armchair. She curled up and fell asleep to the murmured conversation between Thorin and Gandalf.
Bella woke to the sounds of dishes being set on a table, and she lifted her head from the pile of blankets someone had covered her with during the night. The cold from the ghosts had subsided, but she could still feel the remnants of them with the slightest of tingles in her fingers and in the aches of her joints.
She stretched as she got to her feet and spotted her pack that someone had clearly been kind enough to retrieve from the car. She headed towards the bathroom and changed into a clean pair of trousers and an old navy blue jumper of her father’s that was soft with age. It might still be summer, but if she was going to be running into ghosts around every corner, she was going to have something warm on her person.
Bella took a moment to stare into the small mirror above the sink. Not for the first time, she peered into her eyes looking for the light that the spirits followed, but couldn’t see any trace of it. She did, however, feel it; a kind of vibration just at the tip of her mind and thoughts. She also noticed that the dark circles under her eyes were much darker than she remembered them ever being. She pinched her cheeks hoping to fill them with a little colour and her stomach growled loudly. Oh, my, was that fresh bread she smelled?
A few minutes later, Bella closed her eyes in food bliss as she bit into a thick slice of warm bread covered in honey. Her tea was hot and well-steeped, and she ignored the conversation around her as she filled her stomach.
She snapped back to attention when Gandalf said, “I fear I must leave you all here.”
“Why?” Thorin asked.
“Yes, why?” Bella asked after swallowing.
“I fear the situation has changed somewhat,” he said. “Those ghosts should not have acted as they did and I fear something is at work here. I will not go further without knowing how to counteract it.”
“What do you think it is?” Bella asked.
Gandalf looked at Thorin. “What do you know of Smaug?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” Thorin said, his brow furrowing. “I heard of him from my grandfather and my father, but it always seemed as though they were odd tales or myths. He was a hermit of some sort. Odd. Very rarely left his cave in the mountain or some such nonsense. He came down to the manor after the incident, and my grandfather was fixated on him.”
“Mum said that her mum said that he used to wander the cemetery at midnight under a full moon,” Fili said with a chuckle.
“A necromancer, perhaps,” Gandalf mused.
Bella sucked in a breath. “No! Gandalf, don’t even joke about that.”
“I don’t believe I am, my dear,” he said lightly.
“But that’s vile,” Bella said horrified. “No one would ever be so cruel as to command the dead. To make them suffer needlessly.”
“The world is full of cruelty, Belladonna the Younger,” he said looking at her. “And you saw those ghosts last night. They passed through you. Tell me, were they tormented?”
“All ghosts are tormented in some way or another,” Bella said. “They’re all sad.”
“Not sad, Bella,” Gandalf corrected her. “Tormented. Or perhaps…compelled?”
The bread and honey felt sour in her stomach and she closed her eyes. He’ll send them, echoed in her mind.
“Yes,” she whispered. “They were compelled. They were so relieved when they passed through.”
“I must research this,” Gandalf said. “I need to know how to counteract him, if it is him.” He looked at Thorin. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to halt your journey here and wait for me to return?”
Thorin shook his head. “Winter settles in quickly in the north. If I’m to make any progress unearthing this mine, it must be now. We’ve lost time as it is diverting to pick up our medium.”
“And thank heaven, we did,” Fili said winking at Bella.
Bella rolled her eyes and smiled.
“Then proceed carefully,” Gandalf said. “A dark magic is at work here, I fear. You will feel it. Don’t go near it. I will re-join you as quickly as I’m able.”
It was past lunch before they set off. Beorn took Gandalf to the nearest train station while the others headed north. The company drove well into the night and slept in the Rovers in a layby, setting off again at first light.
They made it to the edge of the Woodland Realm without incident, but Bella felt the tension and anticipation mounting.
She still managed to marvel at the dramatically changing landscape. The lush rolling green hills of the Shire that smelled of the sea had been replaced with large, sharp peaks that smelled of cold and heather and peat.
She was craning her neck to take in a particularly large mountain when Thorin slammed on the brakes. Everyone let out a grunt, and Bella stared out the front window.
“What?” Bofur asked. “Have we hit an elk?”
“No,” Thorin said darkly. “We have encountered a greeting party.”
Parked in the road in front of them were four large cars, with at least a dozen very tall men in front of them. They weren’t armed as far as Bella could see, but she didn’t doubt they could cause some damage if the bleak expressions on their faces were anything to go by. The leader had very blond hair and a stern, if somewhat bored expression on his face.
“Oh my,” Bella said. “They don’t look very welcoming.”
“It’s the Greenwoods,” Thorin muttered. “The colour of their hair is very distinctive.” Not taking his eyes off of them, he spoke over his shoulder. “I’ll speak to him. Everyone else stay in the car.”
“Be gracious, lad,” Balin said as Thorin exited the Rover. “We still have a way to go.”
Thorin didn’t reply and just got out. Bella’s hand came up to hold onto her rings, and she murmured, “I don’t think being gracious is the captain’s strong suit.”
“I think you’re quite right,” Balin murmured back. “But it never hurts to hope.”
Bella quite agreed and turned her attention to Thorin.
“So, you’re back then,” the tall blond man said as Thorin approached. “I’d heard as much.”
“It’s our land,” Thorin replied simply. “Am I to take it that you are Greenwood’s descendant?”
The man nodded once. “Thranduil Greenwood. And you are?”
“Thorin Durin,” Thorin replied.
“It’s bloodied land,” Greenwood said as casually as if he was describing the weather. “Your grandfather dug too deep, Durin. You won’t find anything but bones and dust. The mine won’t produce.”
“Just because you don’t know how to make your land prosper doesn’t mean that I don’t,” Thorin said.
Greenwood narrowed his eyes. “My forests produce the best wood in this region. Your mine is a disaster waiting to happen. Again.”
“What do you care?” Thorin asked. “If the worst should happen, you’ll close your doors and hide yourself away while people starve on your doorstep. The Durins may rush in, but the Greenwoods ignore suffering. I know where I’d rather stand.”
They glared at each other before Greenwood nodded. “We are not our fathers, it would seem, and yet the old hates still live. Go quickly then through here. Try your hand at your mine, but do not place your lives on it. It’s as dead as the dead ones that still walk the passageways.”
With that cryptic line, he walked to his car, and the Greenwoods pulled their cars off the road to let the company pass.
Thorin, stiffly, walked back to the Rover and said, “No one say anything,” as he started the Rover.
The company drove past the cars, and Bella felt the eyes of the Greenwoods as they passed.
She held her tongue for as long as she could, but eventually had to say, “So they know about the ghosts, I take it?”
“They know how to tell a tale, that’s all,” Thorin said. “I wouldn’t trust a Greenwood further than I could throw him.”
“I was gracious, Balin,” Thorin said sounding amused. “Not once did I attempt to punch the smug git in the face.”
“Thank heavens for small favours, then,” Balin said chuckling.
After the encounter with the Greenwoods, they drove on through the night. Thorin wasn’t keen to stop so close to the Greenwood land and purely determined to just get to Erebor. Bofur offered to drive, but Thorin turned him down. Bella watched him through the corner of her eyes. He looked determined, but tired. She wasn’t sure what the ghosts had done to him and felt the need to keep an eye on him.
“If you’re going to persist in staring,” he said making her jump, “you may as well talk to me.”
“About what?” she asked, propping her arm on the door and leaning her head against her hand.
“Why gardening?” he asked.
The side-eye look he gave her was truly impressive.
“Because it’s what my father did. I grew up with it. And I enjoy it,” she said. “It’s oddly straightforward, yet unpredictable.”
“Well, on one the surface, it’s quite simple. You plant the seeds, you water them, they grow,” she said. “But there are so many other factors involved. Things happen, and you just can’t plan for them. You think the creeping roses will go up the trellis, and then they go left towards the violets. Very hard to predict.”
“Like yourself?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon?” she said chuckling. “I’m an open book. I’m terribly predictable.”
“Oh, extremely predictable,” he said. “One minute you’re quite emphatically telling me that you cannot join our quest due to the untold amount of dangers. The next minute you’re flying down a hill on a bicycle with no regards to, well, anything approaching safety.”
“I needed to find you quickly,” she said. “I don’t have an automobile, and a bicycle is perfectly appropriate.”
But Thorin wasn’t finished. “Then you throw yourself in front of a dozen ghosts to save me.”
“That’s what you’ve brought me to do!” she cried, lightly smacking his upper arm with her hand while he just chuckled. “And besides, you’re one to talk.”
“Is that so?”
“You’re supposed to be this grand captain, and yet all I’ve watched you do is blunder into situations without any thought to strategy,” she said drily. “I thought you Army chaps were more measured.”
“We are, as a rule,” he said slowly. “I’m having… difficulty remaining… calm or…”
“Careful?” Bella offered.
She received another impressive side-eye. “Strategic.”
“Ah,” she said knowingly and smiling.
He chuckled, but then turned thoughtful. “We’ve never truly belonged anywhere. My family fled the north, and while my nephews were born and raised in the East End, we’ve never felt like one of them.” His hands tensed and relaxed on the steering wheel. “The army felt like a step towards home. I was given a purpose, and that… helped.”
“It sounds like you thrived,” Bella said quietly. “Not everyone can inspire such loyalty that leads people to follow them across the country on a vague hope for employment.”
He laughed silently. “There are four more families awaiting word from us once we arrive. They plan to follow us up to help us clear things out.”
“Four more?” Bella asked.
“The Durins weren’t the only ones who left the area,” he said. “There are many who would come if we invited them and showed them a reason to return.”
Bella hesitated, and then asked in a very small voice, “Thorin, what if it doesn’t work? What if there are too many ghosts? Or what if the mines themselves don’t work?”
He was quiet, and she could tell he was honestly considering her question. But then he said, “It will. We’ll find a way.” He sighed. “At the end of the day, it’s land, Bella. I hope the mine will be sufficient to provide us with a livelihood, but if not, we always have the land to fall back on. The land is ours. That’s what’s vital.”
Bella nodded. “I believe I know what you mean.”
“I imagine you do,” he said smiling at her in such a soft way, she felt warm all over. “In fact, I believe I’d be grateful to have your advice on what we could do with the land that isn’t devoted to the mine.”
“I’d be honoured,” Bella said, curling into her seat to face him. “We spent the last several years cutting back on the ornamental plants and focussing on the practical ones that produce, well, produce.” She smiled. “We had the largest victory garden in the county.”
“What would you suggest planting first?” he asked.
“Well, it will completely depend on the climate you have,” she said. She continued to discuss potential ideas until she nodded off in the midst of describing some work she’d done the previously summer on her neighbour’s fields, lulled to sleep by the thrum of the car and safe in the knowledge that Thorin was nearby.
Bella woke with a jolt when the Rover stopped moving. She immediately looked over at Thorin who just smiled at her.
“I think that I very rudely fell asleep as you were talking,” she said, feeling her cheeks burn.
“I’ll do my utmost to not hold it against you,” he said opening his door. “It was the first time I’ve witnessed anyone ever doze off while discussing proper irrigation techniques.”
He unexpectedly grinned at her, and Bella grinned back.
“Where are we?” Bella asked.
“Laketown,” Thorin replied. “It used to be one of the busiest towns up here. Not so now.”
Her still sleepy hands fumbled to open the door, and once she was on her feet, she found herself frowning at the sight of Laketown.
“Oh,” she said wrinkling her nose.
The town looked run down and windblown, and there was a distinctive smell of fish in the air.
“That, however, is where we’re going,” Thorin said coming to her side and pointing.
Bella turned and blinked in surprise. “Oh, goodness gracious me, where did that come from?”
The peak of the Lonely Mountain stood tall and sharp on the other side of a massive lake. The Misty Mountains still lay all around them, but they were mere hills compared to the majesty of the tall mountain.
“And your family mined that place?” Bella murmured.
“The Durins have always enjoyed a good challenge,” Thorin murmured back.
“So do the Tooks,” Bella admitted. “My mother’s side of the family.”
“Shall I challenge you to seeing if a garden can be constructed in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain, then?” he asked.
“Not unless you mean it,” she said smiling up at him. “Otherwise, be prepared for a lot of soil and tilling and endless talk about irrigation.”
“I think I could withstand the hardship,” he said quietly, smiling back.
A chill breeze swept off the lake, but Bella hardly felt it, so caught up in the sight of a gentle smile from Thorin. The blush that filled her cheeks more than warmed her up.
He stepped away and turned to the company as they gathered around. “We need supplies. Food, petrol, and so on.”
“We should also alert the other families as to where we are,” Balin said. “I think I spy a Post Office. Should be able to send a telegram to London. We should also try to find the mayor who wrote to us.”
“Don’t think we’ll need to try too hard,” Dwalin said. He nodded at a small cluster of men and women staring at the company. One man broke away from the group and hurried down a side street. “Think he’ll find us.”
“Fair enough,” Thorin said. “Saves us the trouble.” He turned to Balin. “Send the telegram, while the rest of us purchase supplies. Tell them that the way is being paved, and we’ll call for them soon.”
“Aye,” Balin said. “Shouldn’t I just tell them to make their way north?”
Thorin paused, then shook his head. “No. Until I know the state of the mines, I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.”
Balin nodded. “Agreed.”
The company headed into Laketown, and Bella was exceedingly aware of the stares they collected as they walked. It appeared that Laketown didn’t receive visitors very often.
A high street with very few shops was easy to find, and Balin and Bifur diverted to the post office, while Dwalin and Bofur went to look for petrol. The rest headed to the small shop.
Once inside, it was quite clear that the selection was quite limited, but Bella grabbed a basket and went for the essentials while Tauriel went to the shop counter to set up a possible delivery of bulk items. After grabbing some tea, rice, tinned vegetables, and condensed milk, Bella paused in front of the flour.
“Do I dare assume that the oven will be in working order?” she asked no one in particular.
“If it means someone might make some bread,” Fili said. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“Flour and yeast, then,” Bella said chuckling.
Fili joined in, but stopped mid-chuckle. Bella glanced at him and saw that he had frozen in place, staring at something at the front of the shop. She looked and rolled her eyes.
A young woman with honey blonde hair pulled back in an intricate braid was jotting down Tauriel’s instructions. Her face was alight with curiosity, but she just answered Tauriel’s questions succinctly and politely.
Bella elbowed Fili in the side and said, “Breathe, Fili.”
He jumped and glared at her, but inhaled before walking towards the front of the shop, ostensibly to get a better view. Not bothering to hide a grin, Bella followed.
She propped her basket in front of the young woman, who glanced over.
“Will you just be wanting these until the other items get in?” she asked Tauriel.
“Yes, thank you,” Tauriel replied, before looking at Bella. “Bella, this is Sigrid Bowman. She runs the shop.”
“Good morning,” Bella said to the young woman.
“Morning, miss,” Sigrid said, smiling quickly.
“When could we expect the supplies to reach the store?” Tauriel asked.
“Later this week,” the young woman said. “Provided the other towns don’t get there first. We’re the last stop on his run, I’m afraid.” She looked around at the company. “You’re going over there, aren’t you? To the mines?”
“We are,” Thorin said.
“I see.” She worried her lip and made to say something, but stopped and finished writing down Tauriel’s order.
“What?” Fili asked gently. She glanced up at him. He gave her a small smile. “You were going to say something?”
Bella watched as emotions flickered quickly across the young woman’s face, before she finally said, “No one has been over there for longer than a minute in years. Not since before I was born. Every now and then, the young lads get it into their heads to dare one another to go to the manor and ring the bell. No one ever manages to get further than the drive. There’s something not right there. Something not right at all.”
“It’s our home,” Fili said. “We’re here to make it right.”
“No,” a voice said as the curtain behind the counter was pushed open. “You’re here to re-open the mine and bring misery once again down onto this region.”
“Da!” Sigrid whispered harshly.
The man that stood before them was dressed as a fisherman, with a heavy jumper and thick trousers. He glowered at the company in turn, before stopping to stare at Thorin.
“A Durin, I take it?” he said bluntly.
“Yes,” Thorin said inclining his head.
“You all look like one another,” the man said, narrowing his eyes.
“Da!” Sigrid said again. She turned to the company. “This is my father, Bard. He supplies the fish to the shop.”
“And he quite clearly does not want us here,” Thorin added. “Your family suffered in the aftermath of the incident, I take it?”
“Suffered then, and they suffer now,” Bard said. “This town suffers. You cannot come waltzing in here and expect things to be made right simply by your presence.”
“We intend to work,” Thorin said lowly. “We intend to do what should have been done years ago and bring prosperity back to the region.”
Bard chuckled and shook his head. “It will take more than words spoken in a forceful tone to make that happen. It’s not just the mines that need clearing out. It’s the whole cursed place.”
“That’s what I’m here to do,” Bella said cheerfully, hoping to ease the tension.
Bard looked over at her and blinked. “You are?”
“I’m a medium,” she said.
He looked her up and down. “You’re rather small. And there are an awful lot of ghosts up there.”
“You’ve seen them?” she asked leaning forward.
“Don’t need to see them to know they’re there,” he said grimly. “No one goes near the place. No one wants to be driven mad.”
Bella frowned. “That bad, is it?”
“Worse,” he said. He took a deep breath and then looked Thorin in the eyes, all of his bluster dimmed and the glower faded. “Don’t do this, Durin. Don’t expose yourself and your companions to that place. Just let it fade into memory.”
“I cannot do that,” Thorin said, his features set like stone. “I cannot turn my back on my home. A home I haven’t seen in decades. A home that my kin have never seen.”
“Then you will doom the entire region,” Bard said. “There is something up there that has been waiting to be set free, and when you disturb it, it will take everything in its path.”
“For heaven’s sake, they’re ghosts,” Bella said. “Not dragons.”
“They aren’t just ghosts, madam,” Bard said darkly. “Do not do this.”
“Ah, Bard, our village pessimist!” a voice called out behind them. The company turned to see a florid man with faded black robes and a dingy-looking mayoral necklace grinning at them. “Pay no attention to him, gentlemen! He never has a good word to say about anything.”
“I wonder why,” Bard said flatly, glaring at the other man.
“I’m the mayor of Laketown,” the man said. “I see you received my man, Alfrid’s, letter!”
Bella caught sight of a slight man as he slid from behind the mayor, his black hair plastered to his brow with far too much Brylcreem and what looked like a perpetual sneer on his face.
“Clearly, they have, Mayor,” the man, Alfrid said, attempting a smile that made Bella sick to her stomach. “Laketown welcomes the Durins.”
Bard made a sound of disgust and went back through the curtain. Bella caught Sigrid’s eyes and gave her a smile. Sigrid just sighed and said to Tauriel, “I’ll get this lot ordered for you today.”
“Thank you,” Fili said before Tauriel could reply. “We’re in your debt.”
Sigrid stared at him for a beat and then smiled, a little knowingly, “Well, it is what we do here. At a shop. That sells goods for money.”
Bella held back a snicker at the deadpan delivery and Fili’s reaction of beaming even brighter.
“Thank you, thank you, Miss Bowman,” the mayor said still grinning. “This group needs taking care of, after all. They’re going to bring silver back to the region, aren’t you?”
“We’ll see,” Thorin said stepping towards the mayor. “We only have the cursory survey that you sent us. We have much work to do before we would even think to guarantee the mine’s reopening.”
“Oh, but surely you’ll re-open!” the mayor exclaimed, his eyes bright with something unsettling. Bella shivered as she looked at his dark pupils. He glanced over at her and then quickly away.
Something is not right here, she thought. That man is not right, and I think I want to be wherever he is not!
“I… appreciate your enthusiasm,” Thorin said with some distaste. “But I’ll not make the same mistakes my grandfather did and simply rush in before I know what we’re dealing with.”
“Do you mean the mines or the ghosts?” Alfrid asked, his sneer deepening.
“Both,” Thorin said darkly, glaring at him.
“Speaking of ghosts, what of Smaug?” Kili asked, somewhat sarcastically. “Anything you care to tell us about him?”
“Haven’t seen him,” Alfrid said shortly. “Used to send for supplies every week. But they stopped, didn’t they, Miss Bowman?”
Clearly not comfortable being addressed by the man, Sigrid nodded hesitantly. “We haven’t had an order from Erebor in the last few years.”
“Thank you, Miss Bowman,” Thorin said. “For the confirmation and for seeing to our supplies. We’ll return at the end of the week for them.” He stepped forward towards the mayor whose eyes widened and seemed to gleam once again. “I’m afraid we have much to do and must be getting on.”
“Yes, yes, of course, my boy, of course!” the mayor said stepping to the side. “Do let us know how you get on!”
Thorin nodded once, and then with a quick look with everyone else, he left the shop. Bella lingered while Tauriel paid for the groceries. She watched the mayor and Alfrid talk amongst themselves as they walked out, and she tried to figure out what it was that disturbed her about them.
“I’ll take those,” Fili said as Sigrid loaded up a box with their shopping. He smiled at her again, and while she didn’t reply, a pretty blush stole across her face.
Bella and Tauriel exchanged a glance while they bit back smiles of their own.
As they left the shop, Bella noticed the mayor and Alfrid just outside the entrance, staring after Thorin who had met up with Balin. Bella didn’t like the avid gleam in the mayor’s eyes as he watched Thorin.
“I don’t like him,” Bella muttered to Tauriel.
“The mayor?” Tauriel muttered back. “No, neither do I. There’s something in his eyes.”
“Yes! Precisely,” Bella said nodding.
“He looks…” Tauriel frowned and seemed to have difficulty finding the words.
“As though he’s obsessed?” Bella said hesitantly.
Tauriel nodded. “Yes, something like that. Something’s really not right there.”
“The sooner we can get out of this town, the better,” Bella said as they approached the others.
“I quite agree,” Tauriel said before going over to Kili.
After stopping at the garage to re-fill the tanks and get a supply of petrol to have on hand, the company departed Laketown. Tauriel rejoined Kili on the motorcycle while Bella insisted that Balin take her seat beside Thorin.
“This is your country, Balin,” she said patting his arm. “You should be the one to see things first.”
He smiled and patted her shoulder gratefully.
Bella rolled down her window and inhaled the fresh scent of the pine forests.
“What did you think of Laketown?” Thorin asked.
“I think I’ve seen more cheer in a graveyard,” Bella said flatly.
“It used to have cheer,” Balin said with a sigh. “They held markets twice a week, filled to the brim with goods from all over the region, as well as the trading routes just up the firth.”
“They need us to do well,” Fili remarked. “But if they’re all like that Bowman fellow, I don’t think we’re going to have any volunteers to help us.”
“It’s just as well,” Thorin said. “We’ve always relied upon ourselves to get the work done. We’ll do it again.”
It was on that note, and with an air of fixed purpose that made Bella feel somewhat giddy, that they made their way towards Erebor.
The Lonely Mountain grew in size as they approached, and even though it was late August, and a bright sun hung in the sky, a deep chill clung in the shade of the trees. Bella was glad she’d remembered to grab a jumper in her mad dash out the door.
“Where is the mine?” Bella asked after a few miles.
“Beyond the manor,” Thorin replied. “We’ll come to the house first. But if you head down this road, past the drive, you reach the entrance and the old station that shipped the silver out.”
“Should we go there first?” Balin asked.
“No,” Thorin said after a moment. “I’m anxious to see them, but we should make camp first. See if we have to deal with anything at the house first.”
The road curved around the lake which stayed firmly on their right, small waves on the surface gleamed in the sunlight. Bella spotted a few boats on the lake, and if she squinted, she thought she could see the opening to the large river, or firth, that led to the North Sea on the far side.
“How close is the house to the lake?” she asked.
“Very,” Balin said chuckling. “We used to race sailboats in the spring. I wonder if the boathouse is still in working order? It had the most wonderful view of the mining yards. You could stand and see the activity from the front windows.”
The cars pulled down a drive lined with green pine trees and pulled to a stop in front of the manor.
Bella got out of the car and barely registered her feet landing on the ground so focussed was she on the house, manor, and view in front of her. She breathed in and smelled something on the wind, a sharp scent like pine with a comforting earthy undertone. The plants in front of the house needed some serious attention, but she spotted all types of heathers and creeping roses, with full late summer blooms in bright yellows and reds.
The mountain rose up behind the house on the other side of the lake, and Bella let her eyes follow the peak up to the clouds. The sheer size of it took her breath away.
“Goodness me,” she heard Tauriel mutter.
“Nothing like this in the East End, is there, love?” Kili murmured back.
“Nothing like this anywhere,” Thorin said quietly as he came to stand by his nephews. “Welcome home, boys.”
“Welcome home, uncle,” Fili replied just as solemnly.
Thorin put his hands on Fili and Kili’s shoulders, and they all stared at the mountain and the manor before it.
Eventually, Thorin turned to Bofur and Bifur.
“I aim to put you both to work,” he said. “Those mines won’t clear themselves, and I’ll need strong backs to set things to right.”
“Aye, Captain,” Bofur said saluting smartly. “Point us in the direction of a spade, a bucket, and some light to see by, and we’ll dig for victory.”
“Think I can oblige you, gentlemen,” Thorin said with a grin. His gaze moved to Balin who simply nodded, far too overcome to say anything. “Is it as you remember, Balin?”
“It’s precisely as I remember it,” he said with a watery laugh. He eyed the worn exterior of the manor and shrugged. “Well, close to it, I suppose.”
Thorin nodded and then looked to Bella. “And you, medium, what do you think of Erebor?”
“I think that this place is the stuff of fairy tales and myth. It’s beautiful beyond belief, Thorin, as you well know,” she said quietly. She held out her hands and tested the air. “And there are a lot of ghosts nearby.”
He frowned. “You can already tell?”
“The air is colder than it should be,” she said. “And I can feel them.” She looked at him. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
“Nothing new for us!” Kili said cheerfully. “Where do you want us, Bella?”
“Out here, away from the front lines,” she said stepping towards the house. “I think I should go first.”
“No,” Thorin said, smoothly stepping in front of her.
Bella raised her eyebrows. “And what, pray tell, will you do if, no - when spirits rush at you? Sing a merry tune?”
“I’ll deal with them,” he said adjusting his coat. Bella caught sight of his firearm firmly attached to his waist and rolled her eyes.
“Deal with them like you did the other night in front of the pub?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips. “Or shoot at them? I’m fairly sure they’re dead already, so all you’ll be doing is messing up the paintwork.”
Oh, heavens, that’s a glare, Bella thought as Thorin’s expression hardened.
“Let me do this,” Bella said gently putting her hand on his arm. “It is why I’m here, and I know I can do it now.”
“I don’t… like it,” he said.
“I know you don’t,” she said. “I have no doubt that the captain in you is chomping at the bit to rush in there. But, I’d like to remind you of your own words not an hour ago, regarding your grandfather and not making the same mistakes.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’re remarkably level-headed for a medium.”
“That’s because I was a gardener first,” she said smiling.
“Fine, you go first.” He looked at Dwalin and Fili. “You two will follow me closely, in case anyone mortal is in there.” He looked down at Bella. “Happy?”
“Ecstatic,” she said drily. “Do stay a few feet behind me, please, to give any ghosts some room.”
He nodded and after exchanging a glance with Dwalin and Fili, they all took out their pistols. Bella made a face, but turned to walk up to the large front door. She stopped and looked back at Thorin.
“Do you have a key, captain?” she asked softly.
“I do,” he said, his voice tight, and he pulled a cord off his neck where a large steel key dangled. Bella stepped to the side, and Thorin went to place the key in the lock. He paused, and Bella saw him take a deep breath before he inserted the key. With a slow careful turn of his hand, he turned the key, and the lock opened.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
“Do we stop to wonder why Smaug didn’t change the locks?” Fili asked.
“Later,” Thorin said. “One thing at a time. After you, Miss Baggins.”
“Thank you, good sir,” Bella murmured. She stepped into the manor house, and immediately chills went up and down her spine. The tips of her fingers tingled with cold, and the back of her neck prickled.
“Definitely something,” she whispered. “Be careful, gentlemen.”
“Aye, aye, miss,” Dwalin growled softly.
She moved fully into the foyer and looked up at the large mahogany staircase that wound upwards.
“Oh, how lovely,” she said looking at the dark wooden interiors. “Thorin, it’s beautiful in here.”
“I know this smell,” he said, his voice catching as he also stared in wonder at the staircase and the walls. “I know these walls. This is home.”
Bella sent him a small smile before she moved her gaze towards a hallway on her left. She peered down it and sucked in a breath.
The spirits that stood just inside the shadows where the sunlight didn’t reach were nothing more than faint shadows of the people they used to be. When one drifted into the sunlight, she could see right through him.
“Hello,” she greeted them.
The men behind her turned sharply and trained their pistols on the ghosts.
“Oh, stop that,” Bella said under her breath. She looked at the ghosts. “Would you like to leave now? I can show you the way.”
The spirits seemed to cluster around one another, as if they were shuffling their feet in indecision.
“It’s okay,” Bella said stepping forward. “I promise. It won’t hurt. Don’t you want to rest?”
It was the mention of rest that got them moving. One by one, the spirits drifted towards her. She noted that they were all men wearing dusty dark coveralls and flat caps with small lights affixed to the front. They’re faces were smudged with dust and they looked… Bella stared.
They looked terrified.
“What happened to you?” she whispered as the first one approached her.
He paused, looked into her eyes and breathed what looked like a sigh of relief, and his terror seemed to ease. He made a move to pass through her.
“Please,” Bella said holding up a hand. “Wait. What happened to you?”
The terror came back, and he mouthed a word, his voice long since gone.
She reared back slightly and then nodded. “Right, yes. Well, on you go, sir.”
He smiled gratefully, and then in the blink of an eye, he melted through her. She felt the now familiar freezing chill as the spirits slipped down the path behind her eyes.
One by one, they passed on. The last to go through stopped and peered behind her. His eyes widened when he spotted Thorin. Bella didn’t dare turn her back on him, but whatever reaction he was hoping for from Thorin, he must have received, for he just nodded once and then passed through.
Bella slumped sideways as she pressed a hand to her forehead and held out the other one to prop herself up against a small table.
A warm hand settled firmly on her waist, and she smiled as she tilted her head back to look at Thorin.
“Just in case you felt the urge to swoon,” he said holding her close.
“Shut it,” she said sweetly.
He chuckled before he turned sober. “They were some of our men who were lost. Why would they be all the way up at the house?”
“Ghosts can travel,” she said shrugging. “Perhaps they felt a strong connection to the house, and when they died, they slipped up here.” She breathed in and out. “They’re gone. All of them. The house feels clear now. The others can come inside.”
“What did he say?” he asked as they walked towards the door. “The one you spoke to? What happened to him?”
Bella worried her lip. “He said Smaug happened to him.”
His hands flexed on her waist, but he simply nodded before turning to Dwalin. “We set up a watch at all times, even during the day.”
Dwalin nodded sharply.
The group walked outside to an anxiously pacing Kili and other worried faces. Kili spotted them first and rushed up the stone steps.
“Is it all right?” he asked.
“All clear,” Bella said smiling. “For now, at least.”
Kili looked at his uncle who nodded.
“It’s home,” Thorin said. “It’s ours, Kili. It hasn’t changed in three decades.” His brow furrowed as he turned to Balin. “It hasn’t changed at all.”
Balin frowned. “Surely it has, lad. It’s been too long.”
“Come and see for yourself,” Thorin said turning back to the manor.
The entire group filed into the foyer, and Bella was once again struck by how quiet the interior was, how striking the architecture was, and how uniform and clean the lines were on the walls.
Balin looked around, and Bella thought his eyes shined a bit wetly. He cleared his throat and said, “Erebor. My home. Oh, lad, you’ve done it.”
“We’ve only just begun,” Thorin said placing his hand on Balin’s shoulder.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Balin said before frowning and looking around quickly. “And you’re right. Nothing has changed. Nothing at all! See there? The painting on the wall? It’s knocked to the side. Your father bumped into it the night we left. It hasn’t been touched.”
“There’s dust everywhere,” Bofur added blowing on a low table. Dust billowed up around his face. “This Smaug isn’t a very tidy fellow, is he?”
“So it would seem,” Thorin said looking around with narrowed eyes. “Balin, how is this possible? Even if Smaug was only here for a short time, how has nothing been altered?”
Balin shook his head. “Maybe he never came to the house? Maybe he set up somewhere else? He could have used the old-“ He broke off and raised a hand to his head.
“Balin?” Tauriel asked. “Are you well?”
“Yes, dear, yes, I just-“ He shook his head and sighed. “I forgot what I was going to say right in the middle of saying it. Must be overwhelmed.”
“Rather understandable,” Bofur said cheerfully. “Never been here before, and I’m overwhelmed. It’s a swell place you’ve got here, captain.”
“It is,” Thorin said proudly. “And I’m beyond grateful for all of you for coming with me. We have a great deal to do, but I promise you.” He looked around the group. “I promise all of you, it will be worth it.”
“Hear, hear!” Dwalin said grinning.
“What shall we do first?” Bofur asked.
“Cup of tea?” Bella suggested.
They all looked at her. She stared back. “What? Surely you want hot water and something to eat eventually? Shouldn’t we see to the kitchen first?”
Thorin started to grin. “How right you are, Miss Baggins.” He turned to Dwalin and Bofur. “Let’s see what we can do about the power here and get the generator running.” He turned to Fili and Kili. “Unload the cars and get the mining equipment secured somewhere.” Turning to Tauriel and Bifur, he said, “See if you can find some rooms we can sleep in tonight and see what needs to be done to air them out.” Finally, he looked at Bella. “As for you-“
“See what I can do in the kitchen?” she asked drily.
“It was your idea,” he said mildly.
She rolled her eyes but nodded. “Just point me in the direction of the kettle, Captain.”
Several hours later, as the light just started to dim in the sky, the group sat together in a large sitting room with tall windows that looked out over the lake, eating hot soup and some drop scones that Fili had managed to bake, with Bella’s instruction.
Bella sighed and curled into the dark blue settee and watched the sun hit the top of the mountains.
“It stays so light so late up here,” she remarked. “What are the winters like?”
“Dark and cold,” Balin said. “Why do you think there are so many fireplaces in the house?” He settled back in large armchair with his pipe. “I remember one winter, the snow came in so fast and so hard, we didn’t bother sleeping in our beds. We all piled up in the kitchen with blankets and hot toddies.”
“I remember that winter,” Thorin said softly. “Dis was just a babe and Mother was already expecting Frerin.” He smiled. “To keep us out of trouble, the kids all got together to re-enact the Battle of Culloden.”
Bella looked over at him, horrified. “Good God! Was anyone left standing?”
He chuckled. “Not a one. We all lay in the snow, dramatically breathing our last.” He immediately turned sober. “If I was a superstitious man, I might have called it an omen of the war to come.”
“But you’re not,” Balin said, “so you won’t. War comes, lad. There’s naught us small men can do to stop it.”
Thorin just looked away out the window at the fading light.
“Well,” Kili said brightly as he turned to Tauriel. “I never really got a chance to carry you over a threshold. Shall I remedy that upstairs?”
Dwalin and Fili snorted, while Bella covered her snicker with her mouth. Tauriel just rolled her eyes and said, “You’re utterly incapable of subtlety, aren’t you, love?”
“It’s a Durin trait,” Kili said grinning. “Right, uncle?”
“I’m afraid so,” Thorin said not taking his eyes away from the windows, but the corners of his mouth curved up.
“In that case.” Tauriel got to her feet and held out her hand to Kili, who jumped up to take it and kiss the back of it. The two left the room rather quickly.
“And that will be the last we see of them this evening,” Fili said chuckling.
“The rest of us should be so lucky,” Dwalin said getting to his feet. “I’m going to make sure the Rovers are secure.”
“I’ll come with,” Fili said joining Dwalin on the way out of the door.
“I think I’ll head up to bed,” Bella said rubbing her forehead. “Don’t suppose there’s any spare water?”
“The washrooms should work,” Balin said. “They’re supplied by the well.”
“Then I’m all set,” Bella said smiling. “Good night, gentlemen.”
A chorus of ‘good-nights’ came from the remaining company, and she caught Thorin’s eye as she turned to leave.
“Miss Baggins,” he said, as she made to leave. She turned at the sound of his voice. “Thank you for today.”
She smiled at him. “I wouldn’t thank me yet,” she said. “I have a feeling we’ll have more in the morning.”
“All the same,” he said inclining his head. “I’m glad you decided to come with us.”
“So am I,” she said softly, before slipping out of the door.
She walked quickly up to the small room she’d found near the top of the stairs and once inside, she slumped against the door and pressed her hands to her face.
“Oh, you’re a ridiculous creature,” she said to the room. “Leave it to you to develop feelings for a man so utterly out of your sphere, not to mention locality! Bloody Tookish tendencies!”
She shook her head to dispel the thoughts and, though she’d never admit to them, fantasies about a certain captain, and grabbed an empty basin from the side table to get some water to wash herself off with.
After a few stops and starts with the taps in the toilet, Bella returned to her room with water and proceeded to strip off her trousers and jumper. She shivered in the cool of the evening and marvelled at how different the evenings felt this far north compared to her milder southern nights. She washed off as best she could with a spare towel she’d brought with her, and then pulled on the only nightdress she’d remembered to grab which, sadly, was more of a slip than a night dress with thin straps and made from a thin beige material. She pulled her jumper over it and got into bed. She lay on her side, facing the window and stared at the rippling lake in the almost full moonlight.
She closed her eyes, but they popped right back open. Flopping onto her back, she stared up at the ceiling. She heard the other members of the company as they moved around the floor. Voices that sounded like Dwalin and Balin passed by her door. The floors creaked as the company made for bed and doors closed down the hall.
Bella lay in the dark and waited for the lassitude of sleep to come over her, but nothing came.
“Nothing for it,” she muttered getting out of bed and wincing as her bare feet hit the cold floor. “I need a book.”
Hoping the curtains hadn’t been drawn and that there was enough moonlight to see by, Bella left her room and headed downstairs. She paused halfway down the steps to feel for any ghosts, but nothing tingled and she continued down.
She walked past tapestries and portraits of past Durins. As her fingers trailed along the wall, she wondered what this Smaug had been up to and if Gandalf would arrive soon. An orange glow spilled from an open doorway, and Bella padded over to it. She walked inside, fully intending to look for the inhabitant of the room, but gasped at the sight of the room itself.
It was a library. A library filled with books and dark gleaming hardwood bookshelves. A large bay window took up the far wall, and the moon shone in, illuminating the worn spines of the books. Bella walked further in, her eyes greedily roaming over the books. She looked over every inch of the walls, noting that there even appeared to be a small card catalogue cabinet near the door. She was in the midst of squinting at a title before she realised the orange glow was the crackling fire in the fireplace. Turning she saw that Thorin sat on the floor, his back resting against a small loveseat that faced the fire, his long legs stretched out in front of him towards the fire, and that he wore an amused smirk on his face.
“It’s not quite on the scale as Elrond’s,” he said when her eyes met his. “But it’s not bad.”
“It’s stunning,” she said a little breathlessly. “It feels… Oh, Thorin.” She looked around and turned in a circle. “It feels like a family library. Someone put thought and care into this room.”
“Yes, they did,” he said still staring at her. “My grandmother. It was already all here when I was born, even though she’d died the year before. She was from Laketown originally; she’d taught school before she married my grandfather. He promised her a library when they married.”
“He delivered,” Bella said chuckling. “It’s the most beautiful room I think I’ve ever seen. It makes me want to curl up and never leave.”
He extended a hand to the space beside him and said, “Please.”
Bella walked over, suddenly very aware of her bare legs and feet, but entranced by the warmth of the fire and Thorin’s open manner.
She settled on the floor, tucking her legs underneath her and pulling her jumper down as far as she could. Thorin sat just within reach, and she smelled the now familiar scent of him after days on the road next to him. Oil and wool and pipesmoke.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he asked.
“Not really,” she admitted. “You?”
“Haven’t tried yet, to be honest,” he said raising a glass to his lips and sipping from it. The firelight reflected in the amber liquid.
“Is that whiskey?” she asked.
“My grandfather loved whiskey,” Bella said smiling. “Dad was more of a lager fellow.”
“Would you like to try it?” he asked. “Be a shame to come all the way to Scotland and not try a decent whiskey.”
“Downright sacrilegious, I’d expect,” she said. “I’d love to try some.”
He handed her his own glass, and Bella was touched by the intimacy of the gesture. Touched and thrilled, though she tried to stamp down the thrill. The same delicious thrill she felt when she felt his gaze on her. She took the glass and entertained the notion of placing her lips precisely where he'd placed his. She flushed hotly and hurried to take a sip.
Inevitably, she swallowed too fast and coughed at the burn in her throat; her eyes watered.
"Oh," she managed. "Has a burn to it, does it?"
He chuckled, but not offensively. "Sip it slowly."
She tried again. It still burned, but it also soothed as it went down, and she sighed at the warmth that spread outward.
"All right," she said, "it's rather nice.”
"I'm glad you're enjoying it," he said. “That's a fifty year old whiskey, that is."
She blinked at him. "Would that make it rather valuable?"
She handed the glass back to him.
"Very valuable," he said taking back the glass and sipping from it. She watched the play of his throat in the firelight. "I’ve calculated the value of a handful of items in this room alone, and I don't dare voice the sum aloud. But it would have clothed my family and put food on the table several times over."
Bella glanced around the room. Her father had liked historical objects, and Bella thought she spotted a few first editions in the bookshelves.
"Oh, my," she murmured. "Are you... You’re remarkably sanguine about it."
"That'd be the whiskey at work," he said smirking. "I’ll be livid come morning."
"I'll warn the others and keep my distance," she said.
"Don't," he said quickly, lowering the glass. "Please, don’t. I'll not yell at you, I promise."
“I know you won’t,” Bella said softly. “I think we’re past all that, aren’t we? I mean,” she played with the cuff of her jumper, “we’re friends now, aren’t we?”
“Friends,” he said slowly, as though he were trying out the word. “Yes, I believe we are friends.” He blinked. “Been a while since I made a friend. A true friend,” he added. “Not just a comrade in arms.”
“Like the others?” Bella asked.
“Yes, like the others,” he said smiling down at his glass. “I am lucky in my company. I have men who are fearless and capable at my side. And a tiny medium who stares ghosts in the face and tells them to ‘come along, now.’”
“Well, it does seem to work,” Bella said; she shook her head. “I can’t believe it works.”
“I can’t either,” he said drily. “But they listen to you. They go where you tell them.” He frowned. “Do you feel well? There were quite a few of them earlier. Does your head hurt?”
He reached out and brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek. She sucked in a gasp and felt her face flush. Thorin froze, his fingers still pressed to her skin. Bella just looked at him while he looked back.
He slowly, so slowly, moved his fingers over the curve of her cheek, along her jaw, and down the curve of her throat. They rested just over her pulse, and he closed his eyes, appearing to listen to her heartbeat.
Bella swallowed, knowing he’d be able to feel the motion of her throat, then she gathered her courage together and reached for him.
She trailed her fingers down the shadowed side of his face. His hand shot up and caught her wrist. She stopped. He held her wrist firmly but gently and not meeting her eyes, he turned his head so that his lips brushed against the pulse that beat rapidly at the base of her hand. He opened his mouth, and when the tip of his tongue flickered lightly over her skin, she drew in a shuddery breath. He finally raised his eyes to look at her.
“I do not think that friends do this, Miss Baggins,” he said, his voice quiet and so low she almost didn’t hear him. She felt the vibration of his voice against the sensitive skin of her wrist
“No, perhaps not,” she whispered back. “But I dearly want to.”
“Good,” he said dropping his glass to the floor and reaching for her. She smelled the whiskey as it spilled onto the rug, but could only focus on the bright blue of his eyes as his large hand cupped the back of her head as he pulled her to him.
Their lips met just as a harsh scream tore through the house.
Bella stumbled back and stared up at Thorin who stared back at her.
“That wasn’t me!” she said.
“Bifur,” he said grimly.
The scream came again, followed by the thunder of people running to his room.
“Bella! Ghosts!” Bofur yelled from the floor above. “Bella!”
“Oh, heavens,” Bella said as she and Thorin got to their feet and ran out of the library.
They dashed up the stairs, Thorin taking them two at a time, while Bella scurried behind him, her bare feet slapping on the wood. A loud crash came from the room that Bifur had settled into.
“Bella!” Bofur called again.
“Coming!” she yelled back.
She ran into the bedroom behind Thorin, only to crash into his back with an ‘oof!’ She winced, but then darted around his side. Her jaw dropped.
Four large ghosts were flying about the room with anguished eyes and grim features. They jerked and jolted as they tried to grab for Bifur. He yelled and waved what looked like an old walking stick at them. They’d dodge a swing from him and try to dart underneath his flailing arms, only to dodge again when he swung at them. Bofur had jumped into the fray and was madly waving an empty candelabrum at them. The weight of it made him lurch as he’d swipe the ghosts.
“Stop!” Bella shouted. Bifur and Bofur stopped moving while the ghosts continued to swarm. “No, not you, two!” she shouted. “Them! The ghosts! Stop that right now!”
The ghosts glanced at her as one for a moment. Only a moment. But that was all it took for Bella to see that these ghosts were like the ones on the road. These ghosts had no intention of stopping what they were doing, although the despair in their eyes clearly said they wished to.
“God, give me strength,” she said under her breath. Absently, she saw that the others had come into the room, but she wasn’t sure what to do. Helplessly, she watched as Bofur swung the candelabrum at one of the ghosts who faltered as the candelabrum went through the man’s stomach, or where the man’s stomach used to be.
“It felt that,” she said. “It felt that! Bofur, hit him again!”
Bofur gritted his teeth and swung his candelabrum for England, the ghost visibly flinching as the candelabrum went through his head.
“It slows them down,” Bella said excitedly as she approached the ghost. “Do it again!”
Bofur swung again and as the ghost faltered, Bella stepped directly into his line of sight.
“Go through now!” she ordered.
The ghost gave a look of relief and then, with visible effort, ran at Bella and passed through her. She stumbled a bit, but yelled at the others, “Distract them somehow!”
“How about this?” Dwalin shouted. He pulled his pistol and shot one of the ghosts in the shoulder.
The ghost halted, looking confused, and while her ears rung from the blast, Bella darted in front of him. Again, there was a look of distinct relief before the ghost charged through her.
“Next!” Bella shouted, her hands shaking, but utterly determined to end this now.
Dwalin took aim, but Thorin got there first, his shot hitting a ghost directly above his heart. The ghost clapped a hand to his chest, and Bella tripped over her own feet to meet his eyes.
The ghost caught sight of her and surged to her and through.
“Last one!” Bofur shouted.
Bella turned to see Bifur, with a grim expression on his face, thrust the walking stick through the stomach of the remaining ghost.
“Bella!” Thorin shouted holding out his hand.
She grabbed for it, and he flung her in front of the ghost, who met her eyes and lingered for just a moment. The sheer amount of despair in the ghost’s eyes made her insides tremble.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “It’s over. Go on, now.”
She could’ve sworn she saw him mouth the words ‘thank you,’ but he was gone so quickly, she couldn’t be sure.
The room fell silent.
Bella’s ears rang; her hands were frozen stiff; and her throat hurt from shouting.
It took Bifur dropping the walking stick to jostle her out of her fugue. She looked over at him and noticed how pale he looked.
“Well. That wasn’t normal,” Bella said to him. He made a face and nodded.
“Sorry about the wall,” Dwalin said to Thorin as he dug the bullets out of the wall.
“Hang the wall,” Thorin said looking at Bifur. “Are you all right, private?”
Bifur nodded, rubbing a hand over his face. He shrugged a bit sheepishly.
“They came out of nowhere,” Bofur said going to his brother. “I’d just stepped out for a second, and he yelled.”
“Did you see where they came from?” Bella asked Bifur.
He shook his head and just snapped his fingers.
“It happened suddenly?” Bella asked raising her eyebrows.
“Did they come out of thin air?” she asked. “Or did they come through a wall?”
He held up one finger.
“The first one? They came out of thin air?” she asked.
He nodded before jabbing his thumb straight at his chest.
“They came out of thin air, and headed straight for you?” she asked frowning.
He nodded slowly.
“Without looking around?” she asked. “Just headed straight for you?” She paused. “Or perhaps whoever was in the bed?”
Bifur nodded emphatically and made the motion again with his thumb, his eyes clear and serious.
“Right,” Bella said letting out a breath.
“What are you thinking, lass?” Bofur asked worriedly.
“I honestly don’t know,” Bella said slowly, staring into space and trying to collect her whirling thoughts. “Spirits don’t usually behave like that. If they’re called, yes, they’ll come. But to just make a beeline straight for a person? Who didn’t call them?” She made a face before turning to Thorin. “Whose room was this? Before you left, I mean?”
“Frerin’s,” Thorin said. “My younger brother.” He nodded at the far wall. “That’s the master bedroom where my parents slept. He was only a child when we left and was kept close by.”
“Hmm,” Bella said. “Oh, I wish Gandalf was here. This makes no sense. And if it does make the kind of sense I think it might…” She bit her lower lip. “Well, I hope I’m not right, and I hope Gandalf turns up soon.”
“What are you thinking, lass?” Balin asked.
Bella shook her head. “I don’t want to say. Not yet. If this happens again, perhaps. But for now, I think I’d prefer to say that these ghosts are not very happy about us being here and leave it at that.”
“Very well,” Thorin said. He turned to the rest of the company. “Would everyone prefer if we slept in the lounge?”
“And let them think they can push us around?” Kili said shaking his head. “This is our home, uncle and I quite like the room we’ve picked out. I’m not moving. Love?”
He looked at Tauriel who nodded. “We’re fine, Thorin. We don’t need to move.”
The rest of the company nodded and agreed, even Bifur and Bofur.
“In that case,” Bella said. “I’ll say good night, and if any more ghosts appear, yell for me.”
“Aye, aye,” Bofur said saluting smartly at her.
She rolled her eyes at him, but grinned and saluted back.
As she left the room, she slumped a bit and braced herself against the wall with her hand. Support came quickly in the form of a large hand on her waist. She smiled.
“I’m honestly not going to swoon, you know,” she said tilting her head back to look up at Thorin.
“Well, I might,” Thorin said smiling down at her.
She snorted. “I highly doubt that. You’re a tree of a man, Thorin Durin.”
“Are you saying that he’s thick as a plank?” Dwalin said as he passed by. “Because he is.”
“Sod off,” Thorin said, curling his arm around Bella’s waist, before asking her, “What do you need?”
“Some hot water, I think. For a cup of tea,” she said. “I’ll go to the kitchen.”
“I’ll come with you,” he said.
Rather than argue with him about her capability to walk down a flight of stairs, she let him walk beside her down to the kitchens.
She headed straight for the kettle they’d used earlier and turned on the gas stove. She leaned against the kitchen counter staring at nothing in particular, her thoughts whirling all over the place. They landed on what Bifur’s scream had interrupted earlier and she blushed and bit her lip.
“Yes,” Thorin said from where he stood leaning against the counter opposite.
“Yes, what?” Bella said looking at him.
“Yes, we were going to kiss and yes, I’d very much like to take up where we left off,” he said staring at her, his lips curved into a small smile.
“Oh, thank heavens,” she said in a rush as she walked towards him.
The smile that spread across his face made her heart race, and she had to smile back. He stepped fully into her space, and Bella tilted her head back as his hand came up to cup her face. His thumb slowly smoothed over the apple of her cheek. He leaned down, his eyes firmly fixed on her lips which started to tingle, and she felt warm all over. Her own eyes dipped down to his lips, and the tingles spread everywhere and she placed her hands on his chest to steady herself.
He lifted his eyes up to meet hers as he paused, his lips a mere breath away from her own. The pause continued until Bella rose up on her toes to close the distance.
Alternating heat and shivers tore through her body as Thorin’s lips moved slowly against hers. His other hand grasped her waist and pulled her to him. She made a noise and slid her hands up to twine around his neck, her nails sliding through the short strands of his hair.
She clutched at him. She’d never clutched at anything in her life, but there she was. Clutching.
His beard rasped against her skin, and she laughed against his lips.
“Should I be worried that my love-making is tending towards humorous?” he asked, not lifting his lips from hers, the vibration of his voice causing her to arch towards him even more.
“I didn’t know that my face could be ticklish,” she said rubbing her cheek against his. “I rather like it.”
“Good,” he said before pressing his mouth to hers firmly.
She rose up as much as she could onto her toes, and Thorin slid his arm lower and hitched her up his body. He moved his thumb to her chin and pressed lightly; she parted her lips, and the kiss became something more.
Bella was seriously considering wrapping her legs around his waist and ordering him to set her down on the counter, when she heard, “Oh, Christ! Sorry, Captain! Sorry!”
Thorin lifted his head from Bella’s to glare at Bofur who edged into the kitchen, his hand outstretched and patting the counter, his eyes averted away from Thorin and Bella.
“Just looking for a glass for some water,” he continued cheerfully. “You carry on!”
Thorin sighed, and Bella snickered as she pressed her face into his neck. He slowly set her down, and she kept her face pressed against him as he said, “There is a glass an inch from your hand, and if you don’t get out of this kitchen in the next two seconds, Private, I’ll court-martial you.”
“Right-o!” Bofur said before grabbing the glass and zipping out of the kitchen.
Bella let out a loud snicker and lifted her head to look at Thorin. “Well, the entire company’s going to know now. Bofur’s worse than an entire knitting circle at keeping secrets.”
“Does that bother you?” he asked, running his hand over her hair. “Them knowing?”
“Well, I suppose it depends on what they know,” she said, looking down. “Did Bofur just interrupt a simple kiss or was it a precursor to… something more? Between us, I mean,” she added quickly. “I know that kissing in and of itself can lead to something more in the physical sense. Not that I have much experience in the matter. Or well, any experience in the matter, to be perfectly honest. Please stop me from rambling.”
Thorin abruptly lifted her up and pressed his mouth to hers while walking them backwards to perch her on top of the table in the corner. Bella let out a soft ‘mmpf!’ before kissing him back, her hands gripping fistfuls of his jumper. His hands were gentle but firm as they moved over her back and on her hips to come to a stop cradling her face.
He lifted his head to say, “It’s more. Between us and physically. It’s more. If you want it to be more.”
“Yes,” she said breathlessly, her hands restless on his shoulders. “I want more.”
He made a noise deep in his throat and pressed his mouth to hers.
They continued on in such a vein until Bella pulled back to say, “You realise there are other people who may wish to use the kettle?”
“They can wait,” he growled.
Then he lowered his head back to hers and carried on until the whistle of the broke through.
She placed a hand on Thorin’s cheek, and their kiss drew to a close. Thorin pressed his forehead to hers briefly, then let her go. She hopped off the table and hurried over to the stove. She took the kettle off the hob and turned off the gas. She took a moment and then turned to look at Thorin.
He still stood beside the table, but he was turned towards her, looking at her.
“Do you know that I expected Gandalf’s medium to be dressed all in black with a fringed skirt and a black veil?” Thorin said.
“It’s a popular look for most of us,” she said. “You probably didn’t expect to find someone who’d been planting hyacinths and wrestling with a recalcitrant bed of creeping roses.”
“I did not,” he said. “I’m glad that’s who opened the door, however.”
“I’m glad it was you on my doorstep,” she said before making a face. “I must be tired. I’m not usually so twee.”
“Neither am I,” he said. “Shall I walk you to your room?”
“Yes, please,” she said smiling. “But, tea first.”
She turned and set about fixing a cup of tea, with more milk than tea to help her sleep. She didn’t feel the cold anymore from the ghosts, thanks to Thorin and his kisses.
“I want to go into the mines tomorrow,” Thorin said.
“I thought you might,” she replied pouring a healthy dollop of milk into her mug.
“You think we’ll encounter many ghosts?”
“It’s where the accident happened, so yes, I do, I’m afraid,” she said. She looked over at him. “I’ll be ready.”
“So will I,” he said, cupping her face and pressing a kiss to her forehead.
After breakfast the following day, they headed out to the Rovers. Bella took a moment to tie the arms of her coveralls around her waist and noticed that she’d caught Thorin’s eyes.
“Something to say, Captain?” she asked.
“You were wearing those when we descended upon you,” he said looking her over.
“They’re incredibly comfortable and practical,” she said grinning. “They belonged to a neighbour’s son, and I appropriated them shortly after he outgrew them. Do you know how hard it is to find ladies trousers with sizable pockets?”
“Next to impossible!” Tauriel called out from near the other Rover. Bella grinned at her and winked.
“You’re not the woman we met then,” Thorin said as he followed her to open the door for her.
“Oh, I am so. I’m just not as worried anymore,” she said smiling and patting his chest. She hopped into the Rover and leaned towards him. “Actually I take that back. I’m actually terrified. We haven’t seen that Azog fellow since that night outside the pub. The ghosts last night have been frightening and not anything to sneeze at. But, I do seem to be able to do something about them, so maybe that’s what’s different about me?”
“Maybe,” he said. “Whatever it is, I’m glad for it.”
“Me, too,” she said smiling again.
Everyone loaded up into the Rovers, Kili and Fili making sure all the equipment was secure in the back, and then they headed off down the drive. The air was warmed by the sun with only a hint of a chill off the lake. Bella expected to feel the ever-present breeze from the lake and the mountains, but the trees were still in the forest and the lake barely rippled as they drove past. The world felt oddly quiet, and it unsettled her deeply. But as no one else remarked upon it, she decided to ignore it.
They headed down the road and soon began to see evidence of the mass exit all those years ago. An abandoned truck here, a broken wagon there.
“Did no one ever think to loot the area?” Fili asked in a hushed voice.
“Not that we ever heard,” Balin said. “The threat of ghosts and the danger of the unstable tunnels were enough to keep people away.”
“The tunnels are stable,” Thorin said firmly.
“We don’t know that, lad,” Balin replied.
“I know it,” Thorin said, his hands flexing on the steering wheel.
Balin sighed, but didn’t say anything further.
They pulled into the yard and Bella looked around. She’d expected dusty wooden buildings and rickety porches, but what greeted her were sturdy stone buildings with clean lines that surrounded a wide yard. The large doors to the buildings were closed tight, and the windows stared out. To Bella’s mind, it resembled a large mausoleum rather than a mine.
A sign that read ‘Main Tunnel’ caught Bella’s eye and she studied the heavy metal doors that had been left slightly ajar. She saw a stirring of wind in the trees, but clearly no wind would ever shift those doors.
Thorin put the Rover into park and lifted the handbrake. He leaned forward and folded his arms on the steering wheel, staring into the abandoned yard.
“The majority of the workforce was in the main tunnel that day,” he said quietly. “A thick vein of silver had been found the day before. My grandfather focussed everyone in that tunnel, determined to get as much as they could to flood the market. They dug so deep.” He took a deep breath. “The main support beam fell. Just crumbled apart. More than half the men were trapped. Rescue efforts failed. One attempt was made to blast through, but it only made it worse.”
He abruptly got out of the Rover, and Bella shoved back the desire to go to him and hold on for dear life. Instead, she straightened her coveralls and followed him to the middle of the yard, where Thorin stopped. He turned to the company.
“I have no intention of digging or even exploring where they failed,” he said. “Not yet. There are several other veins that could still be viable. We’ll start there.”
He looked at Balin. “What do you think?”
“I say…” Balin grinned at Thorin. “Hand me my axe, lad, and let’s get to it.”
The smile Thorin gave was fierce and beautiful and made Bella’s insides tremble.
They kitted themselves out with hardhats with small lights attached to the front and the men grabbed pickaxes and spades. Thorin let Balin lead the way into the tunnel on the right of the yard. Dwalin carefully flicked the switch to turn on the overhead lights.
A pop of breaking glass that had Bella jumping quickly nixed that idea.
“We’ll take a look at the wiring when we’re done here,” Dwalin said. “Or we’ll need to bring the gennie down with us.”
“Lights on, then,” Balin said.
Everyone switched their headlamps on and walked through the tunnel until they came to a hastily erected wooden barrier. Tauriel and Bella stood back while Thorin and Dwalin quickly pulled the boards down. Bella allowed herself a moment to appreciate watching the muscles that she’d quite cheerfully clutched the evening before in action. Swallowing, she looked away, but not before catching Tauriel’s amused look. Bella rolled her eyes in response.
Dwalin pulled the last board down, and they continued on. Bella soon felt the familiar chill that precipitated a ghost.
“Wait,” she said quickly, pushing past Dwalin and Thorin to stand in front of them. “We’ve got company, I’m afraid. Let me.”
She stared down the tunnel, and her eyes widened. “Oh, heavens. Look at all of them! So many! They’re…” She frowned and stepped back. “They’re coming rather quickly, aren’t they?”
Before she could say anything further, three spirits rushed at her and passed through so quickly, she lost her breath.
“Wait!” she said slapping her hand to her chest. “That hurts!”
Several more just swooped in and through, and she gasped for breath as she stared at their blind, ravaged eyes. She could smell the dust on their clothes and tasted the grit on her tongue.
“Bella!” She heard Thorin yell behind her. “Close your eyes!”
Reflexively, she closed her eyes.
The ghosts stopped, and she held her breath before letting it out slowly. The cold of the ghosts was still there, just at the edge of her body. She felt the ghosts who’d rushed in follow the path through, and she ‘watched’ them go. The other ghosts hovered just in front of her, impatient and anxious.
“Oh, my,” she breathed, her eyes still closed. “That was interesting.”
Thorin’s hand cupped her elbow and tugged her back to stand just in front of him. She felt the ghosts follow her.
“Your eyes glow like a lighthouse in the dark,” Thorin said next to her ear. “They’re attracted to you.”
“Moths to a flame,” she murmured. “Right.”
“We should go,” he said to the others.
“No,” she said firmly, turning her head to him. “I’ll finish this.”
“They’ll overpower you,” he said.
“Not this time,” she said, placing her hand on his and patting it. She stepped away and faced the ghosts.
She opened her eyes.
The ghosts surged forward.
She closed her eyes, quickly.
She felt the ghosts stop in front of her, and she heard soft moans of anguish.
“Now, I’m happy to help you all,” she said raising her voice. “More than happy. However, you are to only to approach slowly. Slowly, or not at all!” She paused. “Is that clear?”
She felt more than heard any actual agreement, so she carefully opened her eyes.
The ghosts inched forward, and she nodded encouragingly. “Thank you,” she said to them. “Now, one at a time, if you don’t mind.”
One by one, they came forward; they slipped in and through. She lost count after a while, their faces blurred into each other, the only thing she focussed on were their eyes. Grey, blue, brown, over and over, and the smell of dust and dirt stung her nose and throat.
Eventually, they stopped, and Bella swayed on her feet.
“Well, that was something, wasn’t it?” she said as Thorin came up behind her, his hand once again cupping her elbow to hold her upright. “So many of them.”
“One hundred and twelve,” Bofur called out.
“You counted?” Kili asked.
“You didn’t?” Bofur retorted.
“So many,” Bella repeated quietly.
“Are you all right?” Tauriel asked coming to her side and handing her a flask of tea.
“A little chilly, but all right,” she said before taking a long sip of tea. “I’m all right.”
She took a deep breath and looked up at Thorin, who nodded down at her. “Well done, Miss Baggins. I believe our way is clear for the moment.”
Bella hung back with Tauriel, letting the others headed down the now clear tunnel, and then following close behind.
“I think the question is where did they all come from?” Bella said absently. “Is there a connection between here and the main tunnel?”
“Ventilation shafts,” Dwalin called back. “They stretch throughout the mines.”
“Ah,” Bella said. “Not that ghosts need openings, but it’s surprising how much they prefer to use them.”
They walked several more metres before Balin called out for them to stop. “It’ll be here, lads. Look around you.”
Bella looked around, not quite sure what she was looking for, but looking nonetheless.
“Am I looking at what I think I’m looking at?” Fili asked, his voice hushed.
Bella looked in his direction and watched as he slowly walked up to a wall. Thorin and Balin joined him.
Balin dropped a hand on Fili’s shoulder. “It is, lad. Pure silver. Leave it to a Durin to spot it.”
“Is it enough, though?” Kili asked walking up.
“Enough to make a start of it,” Balin said, placing his hand on the seam. “It goes in deep. This is just the surface of it. But it’s a good colour, and it will go far before we reach the end of it.” He looked at Thorin. “It’s a start, my lads.”
Thorin grinned, and Kili whooped before sweeping Tauriel up into a hug. The rest of the company laughed and clapped, and Bella found herself swung up into the air by Bifur, and she laughed, clapping her hand on her hat to keep it fixed on her head.
She met Thorin’s eyes through the crowd, and he flat out beamed at her, and she found she couldn’t stop smiling.
“This calls for a drink!” Dwalin said grinning wildly, and the others cheered.
Later that evening, after a rowdy dinner of more soup and several bottles of lager found in the stores that had miraculously lasted, Bella wandered away from the others to look at the library. She’d just started to peruse some of the spines when Thorin walked in.
“Do you know that I think you’re missing a few titles,” she called over her shoulder.
“Oh?” he said walking towards her.
“Hmm. There are some gaps here,” she said, her eyes closing as his arms slid around her waist. “Hello.”
“Hello,” he murmured against her neck.
“You had a good day today,” she said reaching up to cup his cheek with her hand.
“We had a good day,” he said pressing a kiss to her neck.
She hummed and tilted her head further. “I’m looking at your books, do you mind?”
“Not at all,” he said pulling her close to him; his tall, broad shoulders towered over her. “We should do an inventory of them, actually.”
“Sounds like fun,” she said. “I thought you had gardens, though. I haven’t seen those yet.”
“I’ll show them to you,” he said pressing his mouth to her neck again.
“Oh, this wasn’t what I expected,” she murmured.
“What wasn’t?” he said against her skin.
“I never really planned on this,” she said.
He lifted his head and turned her around in his arms to peer down at her. “Romance? You never planned to marry?”
“Not really?” she said. “No one was ever really interested, and I was never really interested.” She frowned. “I’m not quite sure why you’re interested, to be honest.”
“Why wouldn’t I find a gardener by day, spirit medium by night interesting?” he said smiling a little. “Although, I do understand. I hadn’t planned for any of this either.”
“You never thought about marriage?” she asked.
“I never really thought about anything past making sure my family had enough to eat. Then I thought about making sure my men survived the war, then I thought about getting our land back.” He frowned. “You weren’t in the plan, Belladonna Baggins the Younger.”
“You certainly weren’t in mine, either, Thorin Durin,” Bella said poking his chest. “You’re like this elm tree that just sprouted up in the middle of a rose garden. You don’t want to pull it out, because it’s a bloody elm tree, and they’re glorious, but it’s really going to muck up your rose garden.”
He chuckled. “I’m an elm tree?”
“I suppose you’d prefer to be an oak tree in this utterly nonsensical analogy?” Bella asked rolling her eyes.
“No, what I’d prefer is to kiss you right now,” he said.
“Beg pardon?” she asked blinking up at him.
“I’d very much like to kiss you right now,” he repeated. “I’ve not been able to think of much else today, in spite of our success.”
“Oh,” she said in a small voice, her mind whirling around not able to settle on anything apart from, ‘Yes, please! Kiss me! What a lovely idea!’
“Oh?” he repeated stepping forward. “Was that an ‘oh’ of repulsion or an ‘oh’ of interest?”
“Interest,” she said quickly. “Keen interest, if you’d like specifics.”
“I would like specifics,” he said sliding those hands of his up and down her sides and leaning down. “By all means, tell me everything you’re thinking.”
“Do you know,” she said rising up on her toes and carding her hands through his hair, “I’ve completely lost my train of thought.”
She caught sight of his smile before closing her eyes and falling into his kisses. She lifted her head, “Oh, I remember! You’re missing some books.”
“Do you really wish to discuss books now?” he asked, a little breathlessly.
The lines of his face stood out in sharp relief in the fading light as shadows moved across his features. She ran her fingers over his cheekbone down to his jaw.
“I could be persuaded to discuss something else,” she said leaning up.
He lowered his head.
His mouth moved over hers again and again. Bella did her best to meet him pass for pass and tightened her grip in his shoulders. His hands smoothed down her back, and she rather wished she’d done away with her jumper earlier so she could feel each callus that caught on the wool as he moved his hands over her. When he reached her backside, she made a sound into his mouth as he curved his hands over her bum to her hips. Effortlessly, he lifted her, and she awkwardly wrapped her legs around his waist.
“Is this-“ he asked against her mouth.
“Yes, yes,” she said frantically. “Just don’t drop me.”
“Never,” he said chuckling as he moved them closer to the fireplace and the small fire that burned there. He sat down on the loveseat, and she tipped forward onto him as he leaned back. Strands of her hair tickled her cheek as they slipped out of her bun, and she tilted her head back a little to move them out of the way.
Thorin quickly found her throat with his mouth, and she let out an ‘oh!’
“All right?” he asked pressing tiny kisses under her ear.
“More than,” she said curling her hands into his hair and holding him in place as his tiny kisses turned into open-mouthed affairs. “Oh, sweet heavens.”
Her head fell back as his mouth trailed down her throat, and she reached down to grab his hand. She had just pulled it up to rest on her chest when she heard a shout.
“Oh, not again,” she said opening her eyes to stare up at the ceiling.
“Bella! Ghosts!” Kili shouted from the floor above.
“Damn,” Thorin muttered as Bella hurried to her feet. They both ran out of the library and up the stairs.
“Where are you?” Bella called.
“Master bedroom!” Tauriel shouted back.
Bella ran to the end of the hall to the room that Tauriel and Kili had taken, Thorin close behind her.
A gun fired just as she reached the door, and Thorin pulled her back before she ran into the room. She stared up at him confused, but he just yelled, “Cease fire! We’re coming in!”
He nodded at her, and she went into the room and just stared.
Six large ghosts like the night before swarmed and jumped about the room. They ran through walls to appear on the other side and they kept trying to go through Kili and Tauriel. However, armed with an old golf club (Kili) and a cricket bat (Tauriel), they were fending off the ghosts rather well, swiping and parrying as they stood back to back.
But no matter how good they were at getting some good hits in, the ghosts were relentless. One large fellow in particular with a viscous snarl on his face actually managed to fly through Kili. He shouted out and doubled over.
“No!” Tauriel shouted as she braced him up.
“Here!” Bella yelled stepping into the room directly into the path of one of the ghosts.
His snarl turned into a look of surprise before he fell into her and then down the path in her mind. Bella gasped and felt nauseous as the remnants of his hate-filled mind lingered.
“Oh, dear God,” she said under her breath, looking blindly around the room. She blinked and re-focused. “Come to me! I’m the one you want!”
A shot rang out, and Bella looked over at a ghost that Thorin had managed to shoot in the head. The ghost stood stock still, his hand held to his forehead that had a small black hole in it, which slowly closed up.
He looked at Thorin, stunned, until Bella rushed over to him and said fiercely, “Look at me.”
The ghost looked down at her and without a word, moved forward and through.
“Bloody hell,” Bella muttered, glancing at Thorin who nodded before shouting, “Aim for their heads!”
“One at a time,” Bella added weakly.
The next few minutes passed in a blur of gunshots, swinging cricket bats, and ghosts silently finding their way to Bella.
When all was said and done, Bella found herself slumping to the floor to just sit, her aching head in her equally aching and chilled to the bone hands. A hand she recognised as Thorin’s gently cupped the back of her neck.
She lifted her head to look at the room. Kili sat on the bed, his arm wrapped around his stomach, while Tauriel held a hand to his forehead.
“Are you cold?” Bella asked Kili
“A little,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Help me up,” she said to Thorin, who easily lifted her to her feet. She stumbled over stiff legs to Kili and placed her hands on his face. She peered into his eyes and tilted his head to the side and then back.
She shook her head. “You’re fine. He just got in a good swipe at you. The chill should fade.”
“Thanks, Bella,” he said smiling up at her. “God, it must be agony for you. They’re bloody cold, aren’t they?”
“They are,” she said with a sigh. She looked up at Thorin. “I don’t think this is random. I think we’re being targeted. Your brother’s old room last night, the master bedroom tonight? Someone is trying to hurt your family, Thorin.”
“And I think we know who,” he said grimly. “But where is the bastard, and why doesn’t he just show his face?”
“And how is he getting the ghosts to do what they’re doing?” Bella asked no one in particular.
“Shall we try to smoke him out somehow?” Dwalin asked. “Get him into the open?”
“If we knew where he was, we could,” Balin said.
“Then we need to look for him,” Thorin said. “Every morning, we search the house and the grounds. Then we work on the mines in the afternoon.” He looked around the company. “I’m not letting him interfere with our plans, but I’m also not going to be blind. We search, and we work. Is that clear?”
“As crystal, sir,” Bofur said while the others murmured their agreement.
Bella rubbed her hands together and said, “Anyone else for a cuppa?”
She was quickly met with a chorus of ‘yes, please’ and ‘God, yes.’
After everyone had a cup of something warm (some with a little something extra and some not), Bella made her way upstairs. She quickly changed out of her coveralls and into her nightdress and warm jumper. She paused but then pulled on a pair of thick socks she’d found in one of the dresser drawers, before she crawled into bed.
But as it had the night before, sleep just wouldn’t come. Her mind whirled with thoughts of ghosts and silver mines and magic and Thorin.
“Oh, blast,” she muttered before throwing back the duvet and getting out of bed. Her socked feet slid a little on the hardwood floors, but she crept quietly down the stairs and headed towards the library.
When she saw the orange glow from the fireplace spilling into the hallway, her heart sped up.
She entered the library and saw Thorin in the same place as the night before, stretched out in front of the fire.
His head was turned towards the door, and he smiled faintly when he saw her.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked.
“Didn’t really try,” she replied walking towards him.
“Mind filled with thoughts of ghosts?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“What then?” he asked his voice low and his gaze fixed on her.
“You,” she said simply.
They stared at each other for a beat, before he held out a hand and said, “Come here.”
She walked straight to him and took his hand. He pulled her down to his lap and she curled around him, soaking up his warmth. He sighed and pressed his mouth to the top of her head.
“You’re still cold,” he said.
She nodded. “The fire’s helping. You’re helping.”
“Good,” he said rubbing his hand slowly up her arm.
Bella raised her head to look at him. They simply stared at one another for a moment, before Bella leaned forward and pressed a chaste kiss to his mouth. He hummed and smiled faintly against her lips.
“May I stay here in front of the fire?” she asked. “With you?”
“Always,” he said softly.
Smiling, she lowered her head back to his chest and listened to the steady thump of his heartbeat.
“Not what I expected,” he murmured into her hair as he tightened his hold on her.
Bella just curled her hand into his jumper and closed her eyes. Sleep came very quickly.
The next two days passed quickly. They followed Thorin’s instructions, and morning were spent searching Erebor’s grounds for Smaug, while the afternoons were spent readying the two viable tunnels for further mining activity.
Bella’s nights were spent lying and talking in Thorin’s arms in front of the fire in the library. She told him of her childhood in the Shire and he spoke of the East End and his family. She knew that she was falling very hard and very fast for the man, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.
The morning of the third day, Bella, Tauriel, and Bofur looked through the attic, and Bofur had the two women in stitches with his stories about life in Glasgow and the things he and his brothers got up to when they were young lads.
“Bombur’s the luckiest out of the three of us,” he said looking under a large steamer trunk. “He found himself a lovely girl who loves a laugh. Married her as quick as he could. They’ve got three little ones already. Can’t wait for him to get up here. The kids are going to love that lake. Not many lakes in London, you know.”
Bella smiled at him and something tickled the back of her mind, but she pushed it away in order to examine a large crate of papers.
The tickling feeling remained with her throughout the morning, and it finally dawned on her as they drove towards the mines. Bella caught sight of the lake as they pulled into the main yard and she went to Balin.
“About our searches, what about the boathouse?” Bella asked as they walked into one of the tunnels. “Has anyone searched the boathouse?”
“What boathouse?” Balin asked absently looking at the walls and pressing his hand against one of the support beams.
Bella frowned. “The boathouse. You mentioned it when we first arrived.”
“Did I?” Balin said looking blank. He paused for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t think it’s all that important, lass. We can look at it if you like. Later.”
Bella’s frown deepened, and she made a mental note that she really needed to look into the boathouse.
Their afternoon at the mine was incredibly productive, and Bella had to send only a handful of ghosts on their way. None of the spirits she encountered had the blank and angry drive of the ones they’d encountered those first few nights and she wasn’t sure what to think about that.
As had become customary, they all had dinner together and chatted happily, making plans for the following day.
“When should we send for the others?” Balin asked.
“Soon,” Thorin said after taking a drink from his mug. “The two tunnels look as sound as they can be. I’d prefer to have more support before we look at the larger one.”
“We need more supplies,” Tauriel said. “The order we placed should be ready day after tomorrow. We could send a telegram then.”
“Good idea,” Fili said quickly. “I’ll go into town to get the supplies.”
“Fee, you’re not fooling anyone,” Kili said chuckling. “We all know you just want to get another gander at the lovely Miss Bowman.”
Fili’s response was to throw an apple at Kili’s head.
The group broke up close to midnight, and Thorin and Bifur took the first watch. Bella caught Thorin’s eyes, and he nodded at her. She hid a smile and hurried up to bed.
She was woken a couple of hours later when a weight made her bed dip to the side. Humming she turned and smoothed her hand across Thorin’s chest.
“All clear on the Western front?” she murmured.
“All clear,” he murmured back, his hands already making their way down her side and along her thigh.
“Good work, Captain,” she said curling close and languidly throwing her leg across his hips. He helped her the rest of the way, and as she sat astride him he leaned up. Their mouths met and sleep was quite quickly the last thing on Bella’s mind. Thorin’s hands were strong and sure on her body and Bella experimented by rocking shallowly atop his hips.
He groaned and she kissed him frantically, desperately trying to follow the sensations that tripped up and down her spine and simmered just under her skin.
His mouth found a spot on her neck as his hands came up to cup her breast. As his thumb brushed over her nipple through her thin nightdress, Bella rolled her hips just so and with a sharp gasp, the sensations sharpened and left her clenching and shivering above him.
He froze beneath her and lifted his head to look her in the eyes, his eyes wide and his mouth parted slightly.
She smiled breathlessly and said, “Not quite like they say it is in the books, is it?”
“No?” he asked as his hands gentled on her ribcage.
“No,” she said shaking her head. “It’s far more exciting and lovely.”
“Gorgeous thing,” he said before kissing her softly. Eventually, he pulled back and pressed his forehead to hers. “I should go.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she said looping her arms around his neck. “You just got here.”
“Yes, and while the last few nights have been wonderful,” he said. “I’m not entirely sure how strong my self-control is right now. Especially right now.”
“I see,” Bella said leaning back to look him in the eyes. “And if I said to hell with your self-control?”
He stared back at her and she could practically see the desire swimming in his eyes and the tension in his body was a thrumming thing under her.
“I…feel I should still go,” he said haltingly. “I’m trying to be firm on the matter, Bella.”
“Oh, yes,” she said shifting on his hips. “Quite firm, indeed.”
“Minx,” he growled and she laughed as he rolled them both over. His mouth covered hers once more and she couldn’t keep her hands still, they roamed over his arms, his shoulders, his back.
Far sooner than she would have liked, he stopped.
“I should probably marry you,” Thorin said looking down at her, whilst Bella stroked his hair.
Her hand stopped then resumed stroking. “Should you?”
“Hmm,” he said. “I know our situation is an odd one. But, I have taken rather extreme liberties, and well, my parents would be most ashamed of my actions towards you. They haven’t exactly been honourable. Seducing a young woman, such as yourself.”
She gripped his hair and tugged none too gently. “Hardly young, and as I recall, it was an act of mutual seduction. I rather insisted that you kiss me as I’m rather insisting that you stay here in this bed with me.”
“All the same,” he said chuckling. He turned his head to look at her. “Wouldn’t your parents wish the same for you?”
“I suppose,” she said thinking. “They’d mostly like me to be happy and to marry someone who would respect me and treat me as an equal.”
“Am I not your equal?” he asked, and she heard the distinctive Durin pride enter his voice.
“It’s more like I’m not your equal,” she said.
He frowned. “I don’t see-“
“Thorin,” she said, “if this mine turns out to still be profitable, you will be sitting very, very pretty. Far prettier than anyone in my family ever has. Prettier than the majority of British Isles, actually. You come from nobility.” She shrugged. “I come from a line of gardeners. Good, respectable ones, but gardeners nonetheless.”
“You think I would throw you over based on such a superficial thing?” he asked, his voice deepening and his eyes narrowing. “Disregard your thoughts and feelings like my grandfather?”
“That isn’t what I said in the slightest,” she said rolling her eyes. “I’m only pointing out some of the things that others will. And it is a factor, you must admit that.”
“I’ll admit that I hadn’t expected you to be so fixated on status,” he said pushing himself off of her and getting to his feet.
“Thorin!” she said scowling. “What on earth?”
He headed towards the door, before he paused to look back at her. “I was attempting to do the honourable thing by proposing to you.”
“I beg your pardon, but I didn’t hear a proposal,” she said hotly.
“And instead I get a lecture on the suitability of pedigrees,” he spoke over her. “From you!”
She narrowed her eyes. “I honestly do not know how this conversation degraded to this point, but I think you should leave.”
“I’m happy to satisfy you,” he said arching his eyebrow and then he left.
Bilbo stared at the closed door and then flopped back onto the bed. She lifted her pillow, covered her face with it and groaned.
“Bloody prideful man,” she muttered into the pillow.
The following morning found Bella in a dreadful mood. By the time she made her way downstairs, she had worked up a righteous fury that she fully intended to take out on a certain someone’s head. But first…
“I’ve put this off for too long,” she muttered and headed to the library.
She noticed that the fire had long burned out, and that the loveseat looked as though it had been slept on. Restlessly slept on. Pillows were strewn about the room, and the fire looked like it had been disturbed several times during the night as soot was scattered about the floor.
Serves him right, Bella thought, but she made a face and shook her head. She didn’t mean that. Not really.
Well, she mostly didn’t mean it.
She went straight for the gaps she’d noticed previously and made a note of the books on either side of the gaps. Then she went to the small card catalogue near the door. She flipped through the catalogue until she came to what she was looking for.
“Magic in Britain,” she said aloud. “And The History and Practice of English Magic.”
She stood absolutely still and then looked around the library.
“He’s been here,” she said softly. “And he took those books. But where did he take them?”
She thought she knew. Oh, she was going to need breakfast before she did anything else and so she hurried to the kitchen. On the way she braced herself in case she ran into Thorin and prepared a small speech she was aching to deliver to him.
She was rather let down when she reached the kitchen to find only Tauriel at the sink. Bella rolled her shoulders and smoothed her hair back.
“Where is everyone?” she asked walking over to the still hot kettle and preparing a cup of tea.
“Searching the old stables,” Tauriel said finishing the washing-up. She eyed Bella. “Overslept, did we?”
“Not altogether sure I slept at all,” she muttered drinking her tea quickly. “Don’t suppose there’s any bread left?”
Tauriel nodded at the table where a small heel of bread lay abandoned on a plate.
“Lovely,” Bella said. She haphazardly slathered some honey on it and bit down grumpily.
“Well, I suppose I’ll be the one to bring it up since you seem to not want to,” Tauriel said turning to look at Bella. “What did Thorin do?”
Bella glared at her. “Everyone knows, don’t they?”
“That the two of you have been keeping company? And that he looked like a thundercloud this morning? Yes, of course, they do,” Tauriel said. “We all knew that it was only a matter of time after you yelled at him on the side of the road.”
“Really?” Bella stared at her.
“Durins rather like being challenged,” Tauriel said with a shrug. “I’d consider it a defective trait, but I love my husband quite a bit, so… What happened?”
“He proposed,” Bella said swallowing the last bite of bread and walking over to the sink to slip her plate in. “After a fashion.”
“Let me guess,” Tauriel said handing Bilbo a plate to dry. “He proposed in such a way that conveyed just how much he was condescending to you and that you should be eminently grateful for the offer and weren’t you so happy he’d asked?”
“Something like that,” Bilbo said drying the plate vigorously. She paused and looked at Tauriel. “Oh, Kili didn’t?”
“Oh, he did,” Tauriel said.
“And you accepted him?” Bilbo asked.
“That was the first proposal,” Tauriel said grinning. “The subsequent six offers improved over time.”
“I’m not sure if I fancy another six after this one,” she said snickering, then she sobered. “But I’ll worry about it later. I need your help now.”
“What do you need?” Tauriel asked drying her hands.
“I need you to come with me to the boathouse,” Bella said.
Tauriel looked confused. “The what?”
“That’s what I thought you’d say,” Bella said. “Come with me.”
They headed outside. The sun shone weakly through the haze of morning mist that seemed to have settled in the area as though it had no intention of moving. Bella marched determinedly towards the lake.
“Oh,” Tauriel said blinking. “There’s a boathouse. A rather large boathouse.” She frowned. “Why haven’t we looked in here before?”
“Magic, I suspect,” Bella said flatly.
Tauriel looked at her. Bella shrugged. “Gandalf warned me, you know. I’m just annoyed it took me this long to realise that it was at work. I think Balin’s tried several times to remember this place and he just couldn’t.”
She looked at the boathouse and nodded.
“We need to go in there,” Bella said, grabbing onto Tauriel’s hand.
“Should we get the others?” Tauriel asked.
“Probably. But if we leave here, I think I’ll forget that this is here, and I think this place is too important to forget,” Bella said.
“I take your point,” Tauriel said. “Well, can’t be worse than Normandy, so, KBO, Miss Baggins.”
“Right-o,” Bella replied and they walked towards the unassuming small house.
The tall pines on either side of the boathouse swayed as a cool wind blew in off the lake. Bella tugged the sleeves of her jumper down over her hands and walked briskly to the door on the side of the building. The boathouse jutted out over the lake just enough for a small boat to be moored just inside. She used her sleeve to wipe away the grime from the window and peered in. As she leaned on the door, it swung open slowly with a loud creak.
She and Tauriel stared at the open door.
“Well, that wasn’t odd at all,” Tauriel said drily.
“Oh, no,” Bella agreed. “Doors swing open all the time.”
They exchanged glances and then stepped inside the boathouse, looking around the walls.
“Well, I think we found the books,” Bella said staring at the piles of books on the small worktables that lined the building. She wandered over to one of them, the sound of the water just underneath the floorboards echoed in the room. Looking up, she stared at odd, handwritten ciphers and squiggles that had been tacked to the walls. The signs and strange letters had been written in black ink and the damp air had smudged the ink, causing it to run and the paper to wrinkle.
“Bella,” Tauriel breathed. “What does this all mean?”
“Nothing good,” Bella said consciously echoing Beorn’s words from several days ago.
“Do you feel that?” Tauriel asked.
“The feel of someone watching us?” Bella asked backing away from the walls and barely moving her lips. “Yes.”
“What is it?”
“More like who,” Bella said looking around. She stopped when her eyes moved over the grimy glass of one of the windows. She stared at her murky reflection; stared at it until it moved.
“Oh, Christ!” Bella said jumping back into Tauriel.
“What?” she said, grabbing for Bella’s hand.
“I thought…” Bella leaned forward, looking again at the window, gripping Tauriel’s hand tightly.
They both stared at their reflections until the windowpane was filled with a dark shape. The glass cracked loudly. Jumping, they stumbled back as the dark shape oozed from window to window, shattering the glass as it moved. With a deep laugh, the dark form shot out from the broken glass on the floor and passed over their heads.
The women ducked and Bella felt the intense chill of death settle in her bones as the darkness flew over them.
Then all was silent.
Bella looked around the boathouse once more, Tauriel at her side. When a piece of glass slipped from a window and smashed on the floor, they both ran from the boathouse.
“Bella?” Tauriel asked. “What in the bloody blazes was that? Was that a ghost? Wait. Was that him? Smaug?”
“Yes,” Bella said as they ran towards the house. “I don’t know how, but yes. He’s been watching us the whole time. In fact, I doubt we’ve been without his attention since we got to the area.” She shivered. “I really don’t like this. He’s using magic somehow.” She groaned and wrung her hands. “Gandalf warned us about this, but he didn’t say how to fight it. Damn and blast!”
“We need to tell the others,” Tauriel said as she pulled open the main door to the house.
Bella nodded and they rushed into the foyer where the company had already gathered. Tauriel went to Kili, while Bella went to Thorin.
“Thorin,” she said breathlessly. “We need to talk.”
He barely glanced at her. “You said everything that needed to be said last night, madam.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Bella said rolling her eyes. “This isn’t about that. It’s about Smaug. I think-”
“Smaug is dead,” he said raising his voice and turning to the group. “And we’ve wasted enough time looking for him. It stops now.”
“What? No, Thorin, he’s-“
Thorin spoke over Bella. “We’re going into the main tunnel today.”
The entire hall fell silent.
“Lad, are you quite sure?” Balin asked quietly.
“I’m positive,” Thorin said looking at them all.
“We don’t know how bad it is,” Fili said frowing.
“However bad it is, it’s nothing to a Durin,” Thorin said, his hands clenched into fists. “We can do it. We must. It’s ours to take back, gentlemen. And I mean to take it all. We will return this area to its former glory and prosperity and the only way to do that is to find the vein that defeated my grandfather.”
“Thorin,” Bella said urgently.
“No,” he said, his voice flat and low, not even bothering to look in her direction. “We will do this. Anyone who does not have the heart to come with me may stay here.”
Bella’s eyes widened as she stared at him and her heart stuttered in her chest, and she felt sick to her stomach. Something was wrong. He didn’t sound… right. She craned her neck to try to look into his eyes, but he kept his face averted, but she saw a flash of shadow cross the blue of his irises. She reached for his hand, but he moved away from her.
“We leave now,” he said striding out the door.
Bella stared after him. She glanced at Balin who looked worried. “Are you going to just follow him?” she asked.
“He hasn’t led us astray yet,” Balin said hesitantly. He squared his shoulders. “And we’ll follow him into this, too.” He patted Bella’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine, lass.”
“Will it?” she asked flatly.
He avoided her gaze and went outside.
Tauriel came over to her, looking exasperated. “Kili says to wait until later to bring up the Smaug problem.”
“It’s just as well,” Bella said crossly. “They’re walking into some kind of trap, I can feel it.”
“Well, we’re not going to let them walk into alone, though, are we?” Tauriel asked.
“No, I suppose we aren’t,” Bella said and she followed Tauriel out to the cars.
She tried once more to catch Thorin’s eye, but he seemed bound and determined to avoid her gaze. Her stomach turned and she sighed.
The drive to the mines was tense as Bella never took her eyes off of Thorin. She was seated in the back with Tauriel who was trying to tell Kili their suspicions. He kept shooting them both incredulous looks, but seemed to believe them.
“Uncle isn’t exactly approachable right now, though, is he?” he whispered to Bella.
“Oh, you noticed that, did you?” she snapped.
“Bella,” Tauriel said, putting a hand on her arm.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” Bella whispered back. “Just…keep a close eye on him, yeah?”
They both nodded.
They pulled into the yard and Thorin led the way to the main tunnel. He stood staring at the boarded up entryway for some time.
“Lad,” Balin said hesitantly. “We can come back some other time. When we have more men and…”
“No,” Thorin said, his voice harsh and rough. “We do this now.”
He turned his head to the side and Bella craned her head to see if she could look into his eyes.
“Open it,” Thorin said, his voice a low growl that echoed in the tunnel.
Dwalin exchanged a look with the others but quickly began tearing down the old wooden boards, Bofur assisting him.
“This isn’t a good idea,” Bella said quietly, trying to keep her voice down, but she saw Thorin’s shoulders tense. He glanced at her over his shoulder and smirked. Bella’s jaw dropped and she stared at him as he turned back around.
She could have sworn that a different face had looked back at her just then. A mean, sneering face that lay just beneath Thorin’s features.
“Damn,” she breathed as she stepped closer to Tauriel.
The other woman leaned towards her and asked under her breath, “Did I just see what I think I saw?”
“Yes,” Bella said. “Something is very wrong and it’s going to get worse.”
“That’s what I thought,” Tauriel said, nodding at Kili who was sneaking looks back at them. He nodded back at her.
“Don’t suppose you’re armed with anything?” Bella asked.
“After the last few nights?” Tauriel said. “Two pistols and a spade.”
“My hero,” Bella said. “Be ready.”
The last board came away and the company parted to stand on either side of the tunnel in order to peer down past the barricade.
Balin aimed his torch down the tunnel. “The cave in was several metres further down.”
“That’s where we must go,” Thorin said striding forward.
“There are ghosts,” Bella called. “I can feel them just up ahead.”
“Of course there are, medium,” Thorin called back mockingly. “This is a tomb, isn’t it?”
Balin sucked in a breath and Dwalin gaped at Thorin’s retreating form.
“What the devil?” Dwalin growled.
“Yes, precisely,” Bella said pushing past him.
“That didn’t sound like Thorin,” Bofur said as the others hurried after Bella.
“Because it isn’t him,” Bella said. “Come on. We can’t lose him in here.”
They ran after Thorin, who called back at them, “Hurry, men! Our treasure awaits!”
“Thorin!” Bella yelled. “Stop!”
“Not so loud, lass,” Balin said. “Don’t know how stable these walls are.”
“Oh, bloody hell,” Bella said under her breath.
“Here we are,” Thorin said a few metres ahead of them. The others stopped just behind him and they all stared at a great pile of rubble. “Shall we blast it? Hack at it with pickaxes? Tear it down with our bare hands? What will we do to get to the great Durin mines?”
He turned and Bella held back a whimper because it was Azog that stared at them through Thorin’s eyes. Thorin’s blue eyes had been replaced by the pale, terrible gaze of a dead man.
He sneered directly at Bella. “Try and catch me, medium.”
“You bastard!” Dwalin growled, stepping forward. “Leave him.”
Azog laughed, the sound dreadful and wrong coming from Thorin’s mouth. “Try and catch us all!”
Ghosts melted out of the shadows and swarmed the group. Bella couldn’t catch her breath as the spirits rushed through her body and around her head. She kept her eyes open and managed to send a few on their way, but there were so many and she was so small, she couldn’t meet their gazes.
“Too many!” Bofur shouted, batting at them with his pickaxe and nearly impaling Fili in the process. “There’s too many of them!”
“Tauriel!” Bella shouted as she tried to ward the ghosts back with her torch. “Aim for their heads!”
Shots rang out as Tauriel and Kili aimed their pistols at the ghosts. They managed to get several to falter long enough for Bella to step in and pull them through her, but the ghosts just continued to pour out of the walls and the tunnel.
Azog laughed Thorin’s laugh and spread his arms wide, clearly delighted at the chaos and Bella’s heart ached.
“We have to get out of here,” she shouted. “Grab Thorin!”
Dwalin, Balin and Bifur managed to overpower a snarling Thorin as Tauriel, Kili and Fili cleared a path with their pistols for Bella to guide them out, Bofur at her side as he swung his axe. She kept her eyes wide open as her skin burned with cold.
She heard a struggle behind her and the sound of flesh hitting flesh and wondered if Dwalin had landed a blow on Thorin or the other way round.
“Release me!” Azog yelled through Thorin. “Release me! You will all die here! I was promised!”
Bella did her best to ignore his taunts as she continued to walk quickly towards the entrance of the mine, pulling as many spirits through as she could. Weak daylight eventually appeared and they emerged into a cold, hard rain.
The men dragged Thorin over to one of the cars and shoved him against the side of it. He growled and bared his teeth at them.
“He’s mine,” he snarled. “The Durin line dies here. I’ll have my revenge.”
“Get out of him,” Bella ordered through gritted teeth, rain streaming down her face and soaking her through.
Thorin’s eyes flashed startlingly blue for a brief moment, then they turned pale again.
“No!” Bella shouted. “Thorin, come back! Force him out!”
“He’ll take him from you,” Thorin said in a nasty tone. “He’ll drive you all mad because he wants to see the effects of it. He’s fascinated. You’re the perfect subjects. But this one. This one I’m going to make watch!”
“Get out!” Bella yelled, pressing her cold hands to Thorin’s wet face. “Get out, get out, now!”
She pulled with all her strength, and Azog slipped a little, but then fell back in.
“Thorin, fight him,” she whispered. “You have to fight him.”
The blue flashed again, and Balin leaned down to speak next to Thorin’s ear.
“Not like this, you said,” he spoke in a low tone. “You refused to become your grandfather, Thorin. Push this devil out of you so that you can be the Durin you want to be. Come back to us, lad.”
Balin looked at Bella, who nodded and then pulled with all her might. Thorin bared his teeth and then let out a roar that seemingly shook the air and paused the rain. Azog was thrust out of Thorin, directly into Bella. She gasped and fell flat onto her back in the mud, and dirty water splashed onto her face and clothes. She closed her eyes to trap him in her mind and had to wrestle fiercely with Azog before shoving him down the path.
He howled as he went, but then it all fell silent. Bella gasped and hesitantly opened her eyes. She looked up and saw Tauriel’s worried face.
“All right?” she whispered, as rain continued to fall all around them.
Bella nodded and blinked the rain from her eyes. “All right.”
Tauriel helped her up and Bella clasped her hand. She looked to Thorin who was being supported by his nephews. Although he was pale and breathing hard, he was looking at her.
“I believe I may owe you an apology,” he said his voice hoarse. “I know I owe you my thanks.”
“Later,” Bella said smiling a little. “I know where Smaug is.”
“How?” Bofur asked, his hat dropping with rain.
“Azog told me,” she said drily.
“Where is the bastard?” Dwalin said roughly wiping his face with his hand.
Bella sighed, before saying, “He’s dead.”
In the library, clad in warm, dry clothes, Bella folded her hands around a mug of tea and stared, unseeing, out the window at the rain battered lake. “Typically, there’s no reason for there to be so many ghosts here. Yes, they accumulate around disasters, but not to this extent and why would they linger so?”
She took a deep breath.
“Not to mention how they behave. I think they’re being compelled. Forced into attacking us.”
“Compelled?” Thorin repeated from beside her, his own mug of tea in his hands and his expression grave.
“Even though we haven’t seen any actual physical trace of him, apart from the boathouse, which we had all managed to completely ignore until you went there this morning?” he asked.
“Yes,” Bella said nodding and fully aware that the others were following the conversation like a tennis match.
“How is he compelling them?” Thorin asked.
“Magic.” Bella cringed even as she said the word.
“Magic.” Thorin looked sceptical.
“Oh, come on,” Bella said. “You’ll believe in ghosts and gravity, but not magic? Besides, Smaug clearly believes or we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
“So what do we do?” Kili asked. “How do we stop him from ordering the ghosts to attack us every five minutes?”
“I’m not sure,” Bella said with a sigh. “I think we need to find him, and well, throw the compulsion back on him somehow.”
“Do you know how to do that, lass?” Balin asked.
“Not a clue,” Bella said slumping back in her chair. “We need Gandalf.”
Thorin straightened up and looked at Dwalin. “Go to Laketown. We’ll cable him at the university. See if they know where he is.”
“Going to have a hell of a time doing it,” Dwalin said nodding at the horrible weather outside.
“Bella, what can you do?” Tauriel asked.
“I don’t know,” she said staring out the window at the pouring rain.
“Could you find out?” Tauriel asked. “We have his books, you know.”
Balin nodded. “It’s true. Could you do what he did? Follow his progress?”
“I could try,” Bella said shrugging. “But I’m not a magician. I simply talk to the dead.”
“There is nothing ‘simple’ about you,” Thorin said looking at her. “Would you be willing to try?”
She stared at him for a moment, stared into those sharp blue eyes that had always seemed to look right through her from the very beginning. She could see how much it was costing him to even ask the woman he’d been sharing his time with to do such a dangerous task, and she appreciated his struggle. She also knew that he’d be completely accepting of her decision to not help.
She, however, would not, could not accept inaction. Not now.
“I’m willing to try,” she said, her voice firm. “I need to go back to the boathouse.”
He nodded. “But, not alone.”
“Oh, most certainly not alone,” Bella said shuddering. “I want at least four of you lads with me.”
In the end, five went with her, while Tauriel, Fili and Kili drove to Laketown to cable Gandalf. The shattered glass from the morning still lay on the floor, but there was no sign of Smaug or any kind of ghost.
“Just grab them and let’s go,” Bella said, rubbing her hands on her arms. “I don’t like it here.”
“It isn’t as though he can’t follow us into the house,” Bofur said lifting several books into his arms.
“Yes, all right,” Bella said. “All the same.”
They grabbed what they could and then quickly headed back to the library, where Bella quickly assumed a seat at the desk in the corner and started to read.
An hour passed before a mug of tea was placed beside her and Thorin asked quietly, “Dare I ask how it’s going?”
“It’d be better if I knew what I was looking for,” Bella said taking the mug and sipping. “I suspect he got rid of any of his actual notes and heaven knows how he died or where his body is. Not that I’d really know what to do with it if I found it.”
“Can’t you just call him?” Bofur asked from over by the window. “I thought that’s what mediums did.”
“Well, yes, I think I could,” Bella said. “The problem still remains in that he commands a large number of ghosts. If I call Smaug, I call the lot of them and we can’t manage them all at once.” She glanced at Thorin. “And now you’ve seen what happens if one of them gets in.”
Thorin’s brow furrowed and he looked down. “I think it happened last night. When I came in here to sleep. I was…agitated and I had such dreams.” He swallowed hard. “I saw him just before he…” He looked at Bella. “No one is to be alone until this is finished.”
“Agreed,” Bella said, longing to reach out and just touch him. He seemed to pick up on her thoughts, for he came closer and brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek.
“Thank you,” he said. “It looks as though you have once again saved me from torment.”
“I hadn’t planned on making it a habit, you know,” she said, reaching up and wrapping her fingers around his wrist, feeling his pulse strong and sure. “But you seem to attract trouble extremely well.”
He half-smiled and took her hand in his to press a kiss to the back of it. He opened his mouth to say something, but Dwalin’s voice announcing, “They’re back!” interrupted him.
They all turned to the library door as Dwalin strode through with a peculiar look on his face.
“We’ve got guests,” he said.
Behind Fili, Kili and Tauriel came Bard Bowman, his daughter and other people from Laketown.
Thorin let go of Bella’s hand and faced them.
“Why have you come?” he asked, staring at Bard.
“To make sure that those devils you’ve awakened don’t go past the boundaries of Laketown,” Bard said. “And to make sure you keep your promise, Durin.”
Thorin bristled and his eyes narrowed, but Bella got to her feet and said, “Thank you, Mr Bowman. The extra hands may come in handy.”
She turned to Fili. “What of Gandalf?”
“We sent the cable,” he said. “And rung the university, but no one has seen him in days.”
“Bother the man,” Bella muttered. She turned back to her books and sighed.
“What next?” Dwalin asked.
Bella flipped another page until she realised that the room had gone quiet. She looked up to see everyone staring at her.
“Oh! Oh, I have no idea,” she said, her hands fiddling with her sleeves. “We wait, presumably.”
“For Smaug to make another move?” Thorin asked, cocking his head at her.
She shrugged. “Yes? As it is, I only have the vaguest idea of what’s going on. I’m not a tactician, Thorin.”
“Then it’s a good thing that I am,” he said. He turned to look at the company and then at the Laketown residents. “I refuse to wait.”
“You want to draw him out,” Bard said stepping towards him.
“Yes,” Thorin answered. He looked everyone in the eyes, one by one, and then continued, “And I propose to do it now. Before nightfall.”
“Now?” Bella asked, putting her hand on his arm. “But you-“
“His captain has just been defeated,” Thorin said. “He’s weak and expects us to go away to lick our own wounds. We know where he wants us.”
“The mines,” Fili added. “Azog was quite clear about that.”
Thorin nodded. “He wants us all to perish in the mines. We can go there and call him out. Call him out of the darkness.” He nodded at Bard. “We have reinforcements. We have our medium. We can beat him.”
“But for how long?” Bella asked. “He’s using magic to control those ghosts. I can’t change that.”
“I may be able to,” a voice intoned from the door.
Gandalf breezed into the room just as though he’d always been there.
“Oh, you have the most uncanny timing of anyone I’ve ever met,” Bella said eyeing Gandalf disbelievingly.
The insufferable man merely winked at her as he said, “I do like to keep everyone on their toes.”
Bella raised her eyes skyward and prayed for patience with bearded old men who meddled.
“Welcome to Erebor, Gandalf,” Thorin said looking amused. “You can fight this magic?”
“I believe so,” Gandalf said frowning. “I found a former colleague of his, from when he attended university. Smaug has always been obsessed with death and the power of it.” He looked at Thorin. “I believe it was he who sabotaged your mines all those years ago.”
Thorin looked stricken. “It was no accident?”
“No,” Gandalf said shaking his head. “I do not believe so.” He looked out the window towards the mines. “Death is the last great adventure, so they say. And I believe Smaug searched out a way to start his path to what he is now.”
“A dead magician?” Thorin asked scornfully.
“A powerful dead magician,” Gandalf said. He looked at Bella. “I believe I can counteract his compulsion spell, but I’ll need him out in the open to do so.”
“I’ve never called anyone, Gandalf,” Bella said, her stomach twisting. “I’m not sure I can.”
“Of course, you can,” he said. “You’re Belladonna Baggins’ daughter and a medium in your own right. You can send them away, you can bring them forth.”
She took a deep breath and nodded. “He won’t be alone when I call him. He’ll bring the rest of the dead with him.” She looked around the room. “It won’t be pleasant.”
“But you can send them on?” Sigrid asked, from her place beside her father.
“I can,” Bella said, “But I’ll need some help from you all.”
“Distraction,” Fili said nodding. “We can keep them busy for you.”
Bella nodded back and then looked to Thorin. “Captain. This is your land. You give the final orders.”
“Then we go to the mines. Now,” he said. “We face this madman head on and we don’t hesitate. We rid these mountains of the dead and we start again.” He looked at Bard. “You’re with us?”
“We’re with you,” Bard said solemnly. “If only to make sure you don’t mess this up.”
“Such faith,” Thorin said arching his eyebrows. “But, I’ll take it. To the mines!”
For the second time that day, Bella rode in tense silence to the mines. She practiced the words used to summon a spirit that her mother taught her over and over in her head. Rubbing her forehead, she stared out the window. A hand on her arm had her looking over at Tauriel, who smiled at her.
“You can do this, Bella,” Tauriel said. “We’ll not let you do this alone.”
“’Course not,” Kili added grinning. “You’re our medium, now. We don’t abandon our own.”
Tears stung the back of Bella’s eyes as she smiled back. “It’s very kind of you to say.”
“It isn’t kindness,” Thorin said quietly from the front of the Rover. She looked at the back of his head, as he continued to look forward. “You’re one of us now, Miss Baggins. For good or for ill. We’ll not be leaving your side.”
Bella’s breath caught in her throat and it took her a moment before she could reply, “And I’ll not be leaving yours.”
Thorin’s head turned, just a fraction to the side and she saw the corner of his mouth curve up and then he faced the road ahead once again.
Feeling a bit more confident that she’d at least not be alone Bella faced forward, as well, and steadied herself for what was to come.
The yard was silent apart from the rustle of the pine trees above and the hiss of the lake as its waves pulled back and forth on the pebbled shore. Bella walked to the centre of the yard and peered into the dark of the main tunnel. She glanced at her friends behind her. Gandalf carefully stepped slightly forward. Thorin also caught her eye and after a moment, he nodded slowly at her.
Bella nodded back and then, once again, faced the mines.
She closed her eyes and tried to recollect the image of the man that Azog had so feared. A tall, thin, pale man, with angular features and black eyes formed and holding his image firmly in her mind, she opened her eyes.
Staring at the black tunnel ahead, she said, “I summon you, Smaug. Come forth, for there are those here who wish to speak to you. Come forth.”
The only answer was the sound of the wind across the lake.
“Come forth, now!” she called. Her eyes sliding to the side and down, she said, “Unless, of course, you fear what’s waiting for you. Unless, you cannot bear to face your enemy in the flesh.” She laughed lightly. “Well, so to speak.”
A dark form appeared in the tunnel ahead and Bella focussed on it. It walked steadily towards her and she straightened her back.
“You’re not the most accomplished medium I’ve encountered,” the form said, his voice low and hissing. “But you’re not the worst by any means.”
“Thank you,” she said uncertainly. “So, you’re Smaug.”
He stepped fully out of the shadows and bowed his head. “At your service, medium. Shall I tell you how I did it? Shall I explain myself?”
“You can fade away into the mists of time,” Thorin called out, his voice harsh and echoed in the empty yard. “You can suffer as you made others suffer!”
“Oh, I am so glad you’ve brought your kin with you, Durin,” Smaug said laughing. “You’re all so predictable. So proud of what you think you can accomplish.” He looked over the crowd, his grin deepening to a toothy gash across his face. “And do I see the locals in the crowd? How lovely!”
“Go back to hell, demon,” Bard called.
“Happily,” Smaug said, placing his hand on his chest. “But only after I take some of you with me. Shall I start with your daughter?”
Fili took aim with his pistol and said calmly, “Try it, you bastard.”
“Oh, I intend to,” Smaug said his tone as light as if he were discussing the weather. He looked at Bella. “You’ve done well, medium. You’ve sent quite a few on their way. But it’s so hard to get them to go your way when they don’t want to.”
“They do want to,” she said scowling. “They want to be free of you. Let them go, Smaug.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he said shaking his head. “A tradesman would no sooner let go of his tools, than I would let go of mine.”
He blinked a long, slow blink and Bella forced herself to stay in place as hundreds of spirits appeared from the tunnel behind Smaug. Their faces ravaged by fear and anguish, they lined up behind Smaug and stared out at the living in the yard.
“Are you going to send them all on their way, medium?” Smaug asked chuckling. “I don’t think you’re strong enough, do you?”
“Perhaps she just needs assistance,” Gandalf said stepping forward.
“From a dusty old scholar?” Smaug said to Gandalf. “How quaint. I have magic on my side, old man.”
“Why?” Gandalf asked his expression fierce. “Why do this?”
“Because I can,” Smaug said, his mouth curling back over his teeth. “Because I figured out how to manipulate the dead. Because it’s fun, old man! Because it’s delightful to see fear bloom within someone, to smell their fear on the air.” He looked at Bella. “And you cannot get rid of me. Evil is here, in this land and it is here to stay. You’ve just had a taste of what is to come. It’s power and power is meant to harnessed.”
He smiled a terrible, gruesome, mad smile. “Do your worst.”
The ghosts surged towards the living.
Bella would always remember the following several minutes as a haze of gunfire and the harsh cold of the dead as she darted about the yard, pulling in those she could. Absently, she heard Gandalf shouting words that had no meaning to her and Smaug shouting back. As she sent terrified spirits through, she was aware of Thorin close beside her, his pistol accurately hitting where he aimed it.
Suddenly, a great blast of warm air swept over the yard, and both the living and the dead staggering where they stood.
Bella looked to Gandalf, who shouted, “It’s broken! Bella, send them on!”
Turning, Bella was overwhelmed by the mass of spirits that invaded her mind, eager and desperate to be on their way. She stumbled backwards and would have fallen if not for Thorin, who grasped her waist and clasped her to him, her back to his front.
“I have you,” he said beside her ear. “I won’t let go.”
Bella couldn’t speak, she could only grab onto his arms that had banded about her midsection. Her grip increased as the number of spirits rushed at her. Her eyes strained and teared as she kept them open.
A mad howl came from nearby and a force shoved her to the ground and sent Thorin flying back.
She looked up at the furious face of Smaug above her.
“You cannot have them all!” he shouted. “You cannot take me!”
Bella scrambled to her feet, locked her gaze to his and said mockingly, “Do your worst.”
Then she pulled. She pulled with all her might. He sneered and she nearly sobbed with frustration when he barely budged.
“God damnit,” she said through gritted teeth. “Go!”
“Such a tiny thing,” he said as he started to dart about the yard, but never once taking his eyes away from hers. Bella spun around and around trying to keep track of him. Her feet slipped in the mud and the gravel, but she kept her eyes open and kept pulling.
“Bella! Pull him through!” Gandalf shouted from somewhere on the periphery.
“I can’t,” Bella said through gritted teeth as her grip on Smaug started to falter and he started to laugh.
Oh, God, she thought. Mum, help me!
“Certainly, sweetpea,” a familiar voice said next to her. “You only ever needed to ask.”
“Mum?” Bella said, her voice shrill as she made sure not to take her eyes off of Smaug.
“Yes, darling, it’s me. You called and here I am,” Belladonna Baggins said, her transparent form holding still beside Bella. “Now, let’s send this dreadful man on his way.”
“Oh yes, let’s,” Bella said. She drew in one final deep breath and pulled at Smaug with all her might, A sharp golden light shone from her mother beside her and all around the Baggins’ women as they pulled together.
Smaug’s eyes burned with desperation and mad hatred as the combined will of the Bagginses became too much for him.
“No!” he hissed. “I’m not leaving!”
“Yes, you are,” Bella said flatly, and then she shouted, “Now!”
A gunshot rang out striking Smaug directly between his eyes. He froze for a split second in shock, which was all Bella and Belladonna needed to make a final pull.
Screaming in anger, Smaug flew at Bella and she gasped as tears ran down her face as he and his burning anger passed through her. She stood completely still as she watched with her inner eye as he scrabbled for purchase on the path as he shrieked in her mind. The echoes of his screams were joined by the rest of the lingering spirits as they passed through Bella down the path. Soon, Smaug’s screams faded and Bella blinked rapidly, clearing her vision.
She turned to see the company and the Laketown citizens staring at her and at the figure beside her. She tried to smile, but couldn’t quite get her stiff and exhausted facial muscles to work. Her eyes met Thorin and he lowered his pistol to his side while he stared back at her. Gandalf shifted beside him and Bella noticed that he couldn’t seem to stop staring at her mother. Bella looked over at her, who was looking at Bella with so much love in her eyes.
“Oh, my darling girl,” Belladonna said smiling.
“You’re really here?” Bella asked, her voice cracking.
“Always,” Belladonna said. “Not quite sure how, but that’s death for you. Always one surprise after another. Your father sends his love.”
“Does he?” Bella said laughing and holding her chilled hands to her stomach, as if she could hold in the exhaustion and giddiness the day had brought on in her. “I miss you both, so much.”
“We miss you, too, darling. But you’re doing wonderfully, dear. So strong and capable,” Belladonna said, before she winked. “And you have wonderful taste in gentlemen, too. You get that from me, you know!”
Bella’s startled laugh faded as her mother slowly disappeared from sight. Frowning, she turned to the others and looked for Gandalf.
“That’s that, then, is it?” she asked him. “It’s done?”
“Yes, my dear,” he said, looking dazed.
“Good,” Bella said. Then, for the second time in her life, the ground rose up to meet her as the world went black. However, this time, she was quite certain that two very strong hands caught her before she hit the ground.
Bella slowly came to feeling warm and utterly wrung out. She shifted under the duvet and realised that the murmuring she’d first heard upon awakening had stopped. Turning her head, she opened her eyes and saw Gandalf and Thorin standing just inside her room, next to the door.
“Morning?” she tried.
“More like evening,” Gandalf said. “You’ve only been asleep for a few hours.”
“Ah,” Bella said, sitting up and rubbing her face. “It’s the same day, then?”
“Same day,” Gandalf confirmed. “However, I don’t think you should get up just yet. That was quite the display.”
“I have no intention of getting out of this bed,” Bella said, dropping her hands to settle on top of the duvet. She looked at Thorin. “Are you well? Is everyone well?”
He nodded. “Thanks to you and Gandalf, yes. Everyone is well. We’ve neither seen nor felt any spirits.”
“Good,” Bella said adjusting her pillow behind her. “That was some excellent shooting, Captain.”
“Thank you, Miss Baggins,” he said half-smiling as he opened the door. “I’ll let everyone know you’re awake. They were quite anxious about you.”
“Oh, you don’t-“ The door closed behind him and Bella finished softly, “have to go.”
She sighed and glanced at Gandalf who merely raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, hush,” she said crossly. She rubbed at her eyes again, and then asked, “My mother was there, wasn’t she?”
“Yes, she was,” Gandalf said. “Did you call her?”
Bella nodded. “I didn’t mean to. I mean, I didn’t know I could. Oh, Gandalf. I didn’t know about any of this. Magic? All these ghosts? Mining? You threw me into this woefully unprepared.”
“I know,” he said. “And I apologise for it, but I had no choice.”
“Right,” Bella said, not believing him in the slightest, but she didn’t have the energy to fight him on the point. “I think that I have a great deal to learn.”
“Well, it appears that there’s a lovely selection of reference materials in the library,” he said cheerfully. “Unless…”
“Unless what?” she asked.
“Unless you aren’t staying long?” he said. “I know that you have things to tie up back home.”
“So I have,” she said slowly. “I’m…not sure what my plans are at present.”
He nodded. “Yes, of course. Get some rest before you make any decisions. That’s always been my strategy.”
Bella chuckled as she closed her eyes. “You have no strategy, you old wizard. A part from dropping in unannounced and hoping for the best.”
“And look how well that turned out,” was the last thing she heard before she fell back to sleep.
She slept through the night, only waking once to find a cup of tea that had long since gone cold, and a small sandwich. She devoured the sandwich right there in bed and then pulled the duvet over her head and fell back to sleep.
The next morning, she got up well before the sunrise, splashed some very cold water on her face and washed the rest of herself off as best she could using the flannel and basin. Then, dressed in her last set of clean clothes, she headed downstairs. On her way, she ran into Tauriel, who hugged her tightly.
“Feeling better?” Tauriel asked.
“Much,” Bella replied. “Don’t suppose there’s any tea?”
“Where do you think you are?” she asked. “Of course there’s tea.”
Two cups of tea later, and a complete account of everything that occurred after she so spectacularly fainted from Fili, namely that the Laketown residents were cautiously grateful and were going to come back to help clear the main tunnel, Bella went in search of Thorin.
She found him standing in the library staring out over the lake. Reluctance seized her and she paused in the doorway.
“You can come in,” he said not turning away from the window. “I’m not going to snap at you again.”
“Always good to know,” she said walking forward. She stopped beside him and looked out. She chuckled. “Naturally, the sun is out today.”
“Naturally,” was all he said.
Bella crossed her arms over her chest and frowned. “Are you still angry with me?”
“I was never angry at you,” he said with a sigh.
“Then what was all that?” she asked facing him, and tugging at his arm to get him to face her.
“It was a proposal,” he said, not quite meeting her eyes.
“Yes, well, the Durin method of proposing really needs to undergo some extensive work,” she said poking his chest. “Try again.”
He looked up at that. “You… What?”
“Try. Again,” she said stepping towards him and craning her neck to look at him.
His eyes moved over her face and then he opened his mouth. Bella leaned up expectantly.
“Bella! Telegram!” Bofur shouted from the hall. “It’s from that Lord Elrond fellow. He says--Oh, bollocks. I’ve done it again, haven’t I?”
Bella looked over at him standing in the doorway and holding a piece of paper aloft. He cringed as Thorin glared.
“Yes, you have,” Bella said. “What does Lord Elrond say?”
Bofur cleared his throat and looked down at the telegram. “Miss Baggins. STOP. There is case against relatives. STOP. Could keep business due to existing claim. STOP. Would you like to proceed? STOP.”
Bella stared at him and frowned. “Oh. Well. I don’t…”
“Pardon us, Private,” Thorin said taking Bella’s hand and pulling her with him out of the library, past Bofur. “I need to show Miss Baggins something.”
“Right-o, Captain!” Bofur said as they headed down the hallway.
“Thorin?” Bella asked.
“Wait,” he said shortly. “Just. Wait a moment.”
Bella fell silent as he led her through the halls, past the kitchen, to a door that led to the back of the manor. Opening the door, Bella blinked in the sunlight and tightened her grip on Thorin’s hand.
He strode across a stone terrace and then down a short flight of steps, only to stop and say, “There.”
Bella looked and her eyes widened. “Oh, heavens.”
Ahead of her was a garden. A massive, overgrown garden. She could spot at least four different types of roses amongst hyacinths, ivy, daisies and poppies. Walking forward, she saw thick, lush hedges that desperately needed pruning, as well as brambles and even some strawberry plants. Ferns of the deepest green she’d ever seen lined a stone path that wound its way past wildflowers and a small downy birch was propped up in a corner next to a thick blackthorn.
“There’s an orchard just further on,” Thorin said quietly behind her. “And I checked, there’s still a large field just beyond that. It’s very overgrown and needs to be ploughed before anything can be done to it, I presume. But…”
“But,” Bella said turning to look at him.
“But I don’t know the first thing about gardening,” he said staring into her eyes. “Give me a gun and a map and I can find the enemy. Hell, give me a pickaxe and I can carve rock. But…give me something alive and I haven’t the faintest idea what to do with it.”
He stepped forward and took her hands in his. “Show me what to do with life, Bella. I’m not sure I’ll be able to remember on my own.”
“Oh, you ridiculous man,” she said pulling a hand free to place it on his face. “You know what to do. You’ve gotten this far.”
“Well, then, perhaps I would be better off asking.” He took a deep breath. “Stay. Here. With me. Let me hold you up against the dead, while you hold me up against the living.” He met her eyes and smiled shyly. “Let me finally be seduced properly in front of the fire in the library and then have you make an honest man out of me.”
Bella burst out laughing and curled her hand around his neck, pulling him close enough to press her forehead to his. “Only if you promise to seduce me at the same time.”
“Promise,” he breathed, his voice a deep, rumble that made her shiver.
“Then, yes,” she said. “I’ll stay. I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me.” She lifted her head. “I may need to go back to the Shire for a few things and to make sure that my relatives don’t completely wreck the place.”
“Luckily I remember the way,” he said grinning.
Bella grinned back and allowed him to kiss her breathless and senseless and later, she could have sworn she heard her parents’ delighted laughter on the wind.