There are no words adequate to describe the Last Homely House or the wonders of Lord Elrond’s hospitality, which seems impossible to strain even under the burden of thirteen empty dwarfish stomachs and their even more tiresome attitudes.
Having played hostess to those same stomachs in her time, Briar is duly impressed and endeavors to add to the burden as little as possible. This is made somewhat more difficult by the fact that elves, apparently, are better able to differentiate between hobbit gentlemen and hobbit ladies that dwarves seem to be. A fact Briar learned when Lord Elrond pulled her to one side after their meal and commended her into the hands of his daughter and her women with a gentle smile.
Briar feels that she probably owes him a swift kick in the shins for that.
While the others are being feasted and feted in the Lord Elrond’s banquet hall Briar is being mercilessly groomed and pampered to within an inch of her life by a horde of elven ladies that an entire war party of orcs with wargs would think twice before crossing.
She’s pretty sure the gown she’s wearing was once Lady Arwen’s as a small girl and if Briar had been blessed with any bosom at all then she’s fairly sure she wouldn’t have been able to do up the laces of her tabard. Still, the fabric is glorious soft cambric and feels like heaven on her skin after her travel-roughened shirts.
Briar fights the urge to frown as the tiny bells woven into her hair chime whenever she turns her head. The effect is lovely, she has to admit, but a bit annoying when there is something constantly lingering in one’s peripheral vision. She’d take them out, but the comb they’re attached to is the only thing holding her thick brown curls out of her eyes. It’s been too long since her last haircut, but Lady Arwen refused point blank to help Briar trim it.
“I would rather cut off my little finger,” were her exact words.
Perhaps it’s reassuring at that to know that even ladies as blessed in face and form as those of Rivendell have things they envy in others, even aging hobbit spinsters whose coveted curls have a liberal salting of white threads in amongst the brown.
She was technically pardoned from the ladies’ bathing chamber to attend Lord Elrond’s feast, but confusing directions and a certain reluctance to show up in women’s clothing has left her wandering the halls of the Homely House, admiring the view from Lord Elrond’s tall windows, and wishing she dared light a pipe in her borrowed finery.
There was a generous plenty of refreshments in the ladies’ quarters so Briar doesn’t feel as though she’s missing out on the meal. She is, in fact, feeling a little stuffed on candied fruits and sweet nothings. Besides, given the hour she’s not sure that her companions will have left anything behind except crumbs and whatever green foods their elven hosts served to complement their soft white loaves and fragrant baked fish.
…actually, it still sounds tempting. Blast that Gandalf anyway. Why had he insisted on introducing her as ‘Master’ Baggins? It’s a silly farce, but one the wizard seems determined to keep going. Briar hasn’t exactly gone out of her way to accommodate him, but sometimes she’ll open her to say something of little importance beyond small talk; a comment to Bofur on her tatting lessons as a child perhaps, or the difficulty of having to do much of anything in skirts. Then Gandalf will loom out of the shadows with a minute shake of his head and the words die in her throat.
“The ways of wizards and elves are beyond simple Shire folk.” She mutters the old epithet under her breath and sighs. Add dwarves and men to that list; they are all incomprehensible.
She catches sight of the edge of someone’ coat whisking around a corner just out the corner of her eye and she sighs in relief, glad that she’s finally found someone not already attending the feast. “Excuse me.” She pulls up her blasted hems and hurries to catch her unsuspecting savior. “I’m lost. Would you please direct me to…” He voice dies in her throat as she rounds the corner and finds herself nose-to-chest with none other than her surly employer.
‘Well,’ Briar wets her lips and musters a smile from somewhere. She hopes it isn’t as wobbly and thin as it feels on her face, but judging by the expression on Thorin’s face its worse. ‘The cat is out of the bag now.’
“Master Baggins?” Thorin looks her up and looks her down, taking in the silver gray fabric of her gown, the lilies woven into her braids, and stop (oddly enough) to rest on the clever little comb keeping her fringe out of her eyes.
Briar can’t help the annoyed little sigh that escapes her at the ‘master’. It’s the same sigh she’s huffed every time she hears that word from one of the other’s lips, but it’s never been so damning as it is now that Thorin is standing in front of her with his eyebrows up around his hairline and her skirts pooling around the toes of his boots.
“…Mistress Baggins.” He corrects himself and his hands clench at his sides. Whatever that means, Briar can’t find it in herself to guess, but she doesn’t like it.
“Yes.” She agrees, deciding to fall back on manners rather than let this particular line of conversation get started. “Thank you. Are you looking for the hall too? I can’t find it.”
“I am.” He looks rather like he’s bitten into a sour apple and can’t make himself spit it out. “You…”
It’s tempting, it’s oh-so-very tempting to try and deflect again, but Briar is a simple woman from simple straight-forward people. She doesn’t have a lot of experience with dissembling and this is the longest deception she’s ever managed. It just figures that the lie wasn’t even one of her own making.
“I’ve never had the knack of correcting others without giving offence.” She admits, which is perhaps nine-tenths of the problem; her own inability to reveal the truth with anything resembling tact. “It seemed easier to let it be.” She pauses and adds, “Please forgive me. I should have been more forthright.”
“It is no matter.” Thorin’s response is automatic and clearly a kneejerk reaction rather than a carefully considered acceptance of her apology. She knows better than to put any weight on it, but she feels a bit better all the same.
They stand there awkwardly for some long minutes before Briar tucks her hands into her sleeves and risks a gentle prod. “Perhaps we should return to the hall…?”
Thorin jerks (guiltily?) and nods once, sudden and abrupt before he turns away. “Gandalf bade me seek you out.” He grumbles. “You are missed at the table. Where were you?”
“Lord Elrond’s daughter lent me a change of clothing and in exchange I let her play with my hair.” Briar shakes her head with a soft chuckle. “She and her ladies seemed to be enjoying themselves, so I let it to go one longer than I should have. They seem young to me, somehow, even if they are really my elders.”
“Elves live slowly.” Thorin isn’t looking at her anymore and walks with his hands clasped behind him. Something weighs heavily on him though. Briar can see it in the creases of his forehead and the tense curl of his fingers. “They exist out of tune with the rest of us, save perhaps the wizards. Even then they fancy themselves a separate melody. Their motives are their own and not to be trusted.”
“Bitter words, Master Oakenshield.” Briar observes.
“I have reason to be bitter, Mistress.” Thorin replies shortly. “My people suffer the consequences of elven treachery to this day. It was not so long ago that men and elves came from world over to pay out fortunes for the creations of our least-skilled smiths. Now our craftsmen make toys and weapons that our women are only able to sell for a pittance, a mere fraction of what our goods are worth, and we are told to be grateful for it.”
“Gandalf tells me your people are doing well these days.” That’s a lie, but Briar is well able to judge the company’s fine clothes (or at least clothes that had once been fine before months of travel turned them ragged) for herself. Even now Thorin still wore his wealth around his neck in the form of heavy gold chains and in the thick platinum rings on his fingers. She has no doubt that the others had similar caches about their persons. Dwarves have a notorious dislike of banks.
“Well enough, but it was sixty years in the coming. Even so we have no place where we are allowed to settle.” His lip twitches. “That will change. When Erebor is cleansed, everything will change.”
They make it to the hall and -wonder-of-wonders- there is still food on the tables, enough that they are groaning with it and it isn’t hard to see why. There is precious little game, but greens and baked mushrooms aplenty. Poor little Ori looks like he hasn’t had a single bite of his dinner and even Bombur is having trouble cleaning his plate.
‘So like a troop of little boys faced with a dinner of nothing but vegetables.’ Briar thinks herself as Thorin guides her to the long table and …pulls out a seat for her? Stunned, Briar accepts and lets out a little squeak when he pushes her closer to the table. It is a kindness, to be sure, her feet don’t touch the floor in such a tall chair but Thorin has never once cared in the past, not even when they stayed the night at Inns built for the big men rather than more sensibly sized folk.
“Thank you.” She tell him, at a loss for any other words. Thorin glowers down at her and turns to reclaim his place at the head of their assembled company.
“And who is this?” Fili all but leers at her from across the table, elbowing his brother who regards her with a bright grin. “You left to find our burglar, but came back with a lady! Uncle, I think you’re not very good at this.”
“I’m not complaining.” Kili snorts and carves a slice of bread off his loaf with one hand and offers it to her with a suave grin. “I didn’t know there were other halflings in Rivendell. We’re travelling with one of the Shire, Mistress, who shares your look. Perhaps you are distant kin.”
“You aren’t funny, Kili.” Briar replies tartly and takes the bread from the young dwarf’s fingers before he drops it on the table in surprise. “Thank you for this.” She reaches for one of the pots on the table and finds it full of …hmmm some kind of paste smelling of smoked fish and spicy herbs. She spreads a little of it on her bread and tries it.
Silence reigns at the table and when she looks up she finds herself the center of attention. “What?”
“Master Baggins?” Ori yelps. “You… you’re a mistress?”
“I am.” Briar agrees and tries a little jam from another jar. It’s thick, red, and tart, but goes well with the spicy fish paste. She turns her mother’s smile on them when they all keep staring, the one that says ‘yes, you had something to say?’ better than a line in the sand.
None of them accept her dare and soon conversation begins to flow once more, the revelation of her gender representing little more than a bump in the road… or so she thought.
The festivities die down after the moon reaches its apex and begins the slow climb back down to the horizon. Briar excuses herself to go looking for a bed and is only half-surprised when Thorin follows her out of the hall.
He says nothing as they walk and Briar can’t think of a single thing to say to break the silence until the reach the doors leading into the womens’ quarters and she turns to say goodnight, but her throat closes up when she sees the look on Thorin’s face.
‘He’s going to send me home now.’ She thinks and braces herself for the inevitable, only to come up short when the dwarf lord abruptly reaches out and pulls the silver comb with all its bells out of her hair and pitches it out the nearest window.
“That was a loan!” She cries out and forgetting what few manners she’s been able to cling to all this time, turns and punches him right in the arm as though he were one of the little hobbit boys she’d once run wild with and whose eyes she had (on several memorable occasions) blackened for them. “What am I to tell Lady Arwen when she asks for it back? So sorry, you’ll have to fetch it out of a tree. What were you thinking?”
Thorin, for his part, doesn’t even pretend to budge. Her best punch probably couldn’t even raise a bruise on his skin. How irritating.
Instead he steps in close, looking down at her with barely constrained violence whose source Briar cannot fathom and isn’t about to tolerate.
“Elven baubles do not suit you.” Thorin grumbles and Briar feels the prickles of a pure and true rage start to creep up her back.
“You do not need to say such things.” Briar’s voice shakes with something that should be anger, but oh no, may well be tears. “I, of all people, know that. You didn’t need to say it.” Hobbits women are not meant for pretty trinkets and delicate things suit Briar, now in her fiftieth year with no children and no husband, least of all. The flower crown of the May Queen never graced her brow and the only lads who ever invited her behind the Party Tree were of the sort who couldn’t afford to marry where their hearts led.
She made peace with her lot in life long ago –or at least thought she had, but it galls, oh! It stings to have her nose rubbed in it.
Thorin jerks back as though burned. “I didn’t…” He shakes his head. “That isn’t what I meant.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. Goodnight.” Briar allows, gathering her dignity around herself and her flushed cheeks. It isn’t much in the way of armor, but it’s enough to keep her from looking back over her shoulder before she closes the door behind her and leans back against it, struggling to keep her breathing steady.
The sitting room is empty, thankfully, so Briar stays where she is and perhaps she stays put too long because she jerks awake in the small hours of the morning, curled up with her back still to the door and eyelashes still damp, to the sound of footsteps in the corridor.
“Enough of this, Briar.” She tells herself. “Go to bed and forget this nonsense.”
Sound advice, indeed. Now if only she could follow it.