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Silly Trinkets

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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.

How odd.

“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.

Chapter Text

To tell the truth, Briar very nearly circles around Gandalf and the dwarves to make her way south to Lorien, in hopes that the elves there will help her make her way home safely even after that trick Gandalf played on the White Council.

Curiosity and …well, curiosity and something that feels eerily like homesickness draw her in under the cover of her magic ring to listen in on the heated argument going on between Thorin and Gandalf.

The other members of the company save Dori, who is standing the watch, are assembled and listening in silence. Briar slips by Dori after a quick look to see if he’s wounded. Dori, she’s learned, tends to keep his mouth shut about too many things when they concern himself. Fortunately, he seems to be in one piece with his purple hood and elaborate silver braids all in place. He frowns once in her direct, but doesn’t seem to see her even when he stares directly into (or perhaps through) her eyes.

Briar shudders. This is too much like being a ghost.

For one thing the edges of the world have all bled together like watery ink dyes on a page and even nearby sounds seem as though they’re coming in echoes from a great distance. However handy the ring is for evading trouble (or perhaps causing it) it doesn’t seem to have been made with spying in mind.

Thorin’s voice is the first she’s able to make sense of and isn’t that always the way of it?

“The halfling is gone.” He’s turned away from Gandalf. “She fled long before the goblins took us.”

“That’s not true.” Bofur interjects and ah! his voice is so indistinct, like Briar is hearing him from underwater. “She was with us when we fell, but the goblins left her behind.”

“Then she’ll be halfway to the elves by now and the better for it.” Thorin insists and Briar wishes she could see his face better. She can only make him out by the shape of his shoulder and the tenor of his voice, but perhaps it’s for the best. The kinder, more forgiving Baggins part of her heart wants to believe that he sounds torn, more like he’s trying to convince himself than anyone else.

The Took half wants to give him a fat lip.

“I will return and see for myself.” Is Gandalf’s decision. “Wait here or continue on without me. I’ll go no further than this without our burglar.”

“Your burglar made her choice to leave.” Thorin insists.

“Did she?” Gandalf asks, arms crossed over his chest. “Did she really?”

From where she stands, Briar can see Kili clenching and unclenching his fists and Fili’s hand braced on his shoulder. She can see him murmur something into his brother’s ear, although the ring’s influence makes it impossible for her to hear exactly what.

Of the party, only the young dwarf lords treated her more or less the same after that disastrous night when her secret came out. Fili still flirted with her while Kili behaved somewhat more like a bratty younger brother, but they didn’t withdraw from her quite like the others did. They were never involved in the conversations that mysteriously went silent whenever she came into sight. They still sat with her at meal times and involved her in their mischief, but neither would they explain what it was she’d done to wrong the others.

“It’s nothing you did.” Is all Fili would tell her. “Things will go back to the way there were. Only give it time.”

Looking on them now, Briar feels that same tingle of homesickness, which is stupid. Home is her safe, dry hobbit hole. It is her books and her well-stocked larder. Home is the new scent of tobacco and the lingering ghost of her mother’s perfume in her parents’ old bedroom. Home is hiding in the front hall away from the windows when Otho and his odious new bride come to call and inevitably pocket something valuable off her shelves. Home is Tomwise Gamgee lingering by her fence trimming hedges that don’t need to be trimmed. Home is gossipy neighbors, winter holidays stuck watching the little ones in the Great Smials, and her uncles outright trying to bribe her into having some children of her own (either in or out of wedlock) so they have more nieces and nephews to spoil.

Home isn’t twelve raucous dwarves with no sense of self preservation and their leader, who wouldn’t know a kind word if it walked up to him and introduced itself. Home shouldn’t be a campfire in the middle of nowhere with moldy tack for bread and salted beef. It shouldn’t be sleeping in a thin bedroll with only the vigilance of a friend keeping you from waking up as a warg’s midnight snack.

It shouldn’t be, but oh… maybe it is.

Briar Baggins, you are a fool.’ She tells herself as she ducks behind a tree and tugs the ring off her finger. ‘A fool or a Took, I can’t decide which.’

“Am I too late?” She asks aloud, stepping away from the tree’s shelter. “Only I was thrown off one of the rope bridges by a sentry and had to find another way out.”

The Baggins half of her is relieved and gratified by the joy she can see on her friends’ faces (and yes, they are her friends and will be until they tell her otherwise.) They’re battered and bloodied in some places, but all intact. That does more for the fluttering in her chest than Fili’s hand pounding her back or Bofur’s arm around her shoulders.

The Took half of her keeps Thorin just within sight, watching his face for any sign of ire or an indication that he’ll just turn her away again.

He’s watching her with such a face, like those fool bells in her hair all over again.

“Why did you come back.” It’s not quite a question that he asks her, staring into her eyes with an expression that she can’t begin to translate. It looks like it should be anger, but she’s seen Thorin angry before. There’s usually more shouting or staring into the middle distance involved.

The truth of the matter is that she came back for what she has right now at this very second; the warmth of familiar faces all around her, of Gandalf’s wry expression towering over her head, and even Thorin’s sour disposition.

She misses her home, yes, but she thinks better now of the idea of it being filled with voices, laughter, and strange haunting songs. She thinks she’d appreciate it better, if she ever got to have them back again drinking her beer kegs dry and making fun of the blue-veined cheeses in her larder. An empty pantry seems a small price to pay now for a dining room filled with so many bodies you hardly need to light a fire.

She’d like to show Ori how long one should let Buckland wine breath before pouring it. She wants to hear Balin’s opinion of the maps in her tiny library and maybe trick Dwalin into answering the door if Lobelia drops by uninvited, just to hear her squeal. She wants to see Fili and Kili flirt their way through the entirety of the Shire, scandalizing the entire town with their mere presence.

There’s no way to open her mouth and say she wants these insane creatures as part of her life, that she wants to see the Erebor that Dori talks about in his sleep sometimes. She can’t tell him that if she can’t take them home with her then she wants them to have a home of their own where they can put down roots and receive letters. Thorin wouldn’t accept the fact that she only wants good things for them after all the horrors of this journey alone, not to mention everything they’ve suffered since their mountain burned.

She feels it now, the anxiety that comes with having no set place to sleep and no walls to keep the night out. She can’t imagine living like that for years on end. Every day feels like a month out here with no security beyond the kindness of strangers.

“You were right in what you said before.” She tells him instead. “I miss my books. The Shire is home for me and everything that entails. You don’t have what I was blessed with by an accident of birth. I couldn’t go back and remain at peace with myself if I said your problems are no concern of mine. Everyone deserves a home and I’ll help you get yours back, if I can. Gently born I may be, but I’m with you all.”

Maybe Thorin has an answer to that pretty little speech, but Briar will never hear it. The hunting calls of wargs split the air no sooner than she finishes speaking and the time to talk has passed.

It’s time to run again.

Chapter Text

Beorn’s hall will undoubtedly be the part of her memoirs that no one will ever believe, Briar thinks as she watches a sheep deliver a small tray of cheese, boiled eggs, tiny sweet pickles, creamed honey, oatcakes, and an entire pint of Beorn’s damnably hard mead to the bench beside her.

“Thank you, dear.” Briar murmurs soft enough so the others won’t hear. She’s endured enough teasing as it is for the nickname Beorn gave her. ‘Little Bunny’ indeed.

The sheep allows her to pet it briefly before going back about its business.

“I’m going to teach Beorn how to do a proper small beer before we leave.” She comments to no one in particular as she takes a pull of the cider. It’s just as well the water runs clean and sweet in these lands, otherwise she’s sure she’d be completely tanked before midday.

“Do it sooner rather than later.” Thorin comments from behind her, making her jump in her seat. “Dwalin’s been a roaring drunk for the past two days.”

Briar’s glad to have her mending close by to keep her hands busy and hidden, otherwise it would be too hard to hide the way they’ve taken to shaking whenever Thorin is around. It’s a damn fool disease of the nerves that Briar hasn’t suffered since she was twenty-five and Josiah Bracegirdle finally settled down with Bryony Cotton after stringing along half the girls in the Shire for two long years.

Come to think of it, she tatted an awful lot of lace that year.

It’s nearly four days later and she can still feel his arms around her, his breath against her throat, and the touch of his hands lingers along her spine like bottled lightening.

“You’ve been spinning.” Thorin observes, touching the basket full of white lace-weight fingering at her feet with the toe of his boot and she realizes he’s trying to make conversation.

“An unfortunate habit.” She admits. “I hated it as a girl, but all the women in my mother’s family make lace. Every time I wanted to just sit down for a little while, mother would come by and drop a basket in my lap full of whatever mending or spinning needed to be done. Now that I’m older I can’t quite sit still without something in my hands; a terrible legacy.”

“Of course.”

He stands there, hands clasped behind his back, with his lips pursed. The silence between them grows long.

“Did you…”

“I…”

Briar coughs and blushes as they both try to speak at the same time.

“Forgive.” Thorin dips his head. “Please speak.”

“I was only going to ask: did you need something?” She asks. It’s not something she’d admit out loud, but Thorin’s presence is doubly intimidating when he’s trying (or at least she thinks he’s trying) to be companionable.

He opens his mouth …closes it… and then, “No.” Then he’s gone and striding off back in the direction from which he came.

How bizarre.

Someone laughs elsewhere in Beorn’s hall. It sounds like Dwalin’s deep belly laugh and Thorin snarls something back at him that only makes the others laugh harder.

She purses her lips in annoyance; another joke that she’ll probably never hear about.

Dwarves.

She re-applies herself to her mending, glad that the trembles have finally left her fingers.

Ori joins her sometime after supper and shares with her some of the material Beorn gave him for patches, which she’s glad to see. Her shirts are growing thin in the places where they aren’t outright torn and sometimes she dreams about her wardrobe back home full of clean cedar-scented shirts and trousers.

Fili wanders by after a while with a basket of rolls and settles at her feet to noodle about on a little wooden flute. The music draws Kili in and before long there’s a small gathering of dwarves all around her. She gives up her seat to Bifur when he arrives because the floor is covered with their friends and he amuses himself by putting increasingly complex braids into her hair while muttering dire things in Khuzdul.

“He says Hobbit hair is as contrary as Hobbits themselves.” Bofur translates when the muttering takes on a murderous edge even though his touch remains gentle. “He’s having a time getting the plaits to stay smooth. I think his pride is involved now.”

“You’d need to put wax or pomade into it, I’m afraid.” She tells Bifur and Bofur translates for her. “Every young girl in my village has shed tears fighting that particular battle.”

Bifur grunts in reply and takes out his latest attempt to try something new that involves a braid starting at one temple and ending tied in front of the opposite ear so that her hair spills over her shoulder. “How clever!” She says and gives Bifur’s shoulder a fond squeeze. “I can see much better now.”

“You’ll need a proper bead to hold it.” Is Bofur’s decision as he grasps her chin and turns her face from side to side. “A shame there’s no forge here. You need copper, I think, or gold. Bronze would do, but it has an unpleasant scent to it.”

“There’s no sense in making one, Bofur.” She reproves. “I think your dwarfish braids are too clever for Hobbit’s fingers. I haven’t the slightest idea how he’s done this or how to recreate it.”

“There’s no shame in asking another for help.” Bofur says with a smile. “You don’t think those ham-handed louts, Dori or Nori, put their handsome braids in by themselves, did you?” He ducks the empty mug Nori tosses in his direction without even looking. “That’s Ori’s work.”

“Don’t bring me into this!” Ori protests. “Don’t listen to him, Mistress Briar! He tells lies!”

The conversation devolves into a scuffle that Kili and FIli join into with wild abandon and lasts until Beorn himself sees and decides to join the fun. Briar takes her basket and retreats until she’s well out of range, but still has a decent view of the fray.

It’s late and the moon is high in the sky by the time the ruckus dies down. They’re still righting benches and mopping up spills when Briar decides it’s time to seek her bed.

Beorn’s guest rooms aren’t exactly rooms, but rather he’s given them a loft and straw-stuffed mattresses. Someone (she thinks it was probably Ori, he’s the one who thinks of such things) contrived to create the illusion of privacy by hanging up bedsheets from the rafters. Briar’s bed is near the end, furthest from the stairs.

Thorin has the space next to hers and steps out of it just as she starts to pass. They collide with a thump and she bounces back off his chest. It’s good for her pride that she doesn’t fall or need to be caught. She thinks she’s embarrassed herself in front of Thorin Oakenshield enough for two lifetimes.

“Pardon me.” She smooths her hands down the front of her jacket (a nervous habit) and wishes her pipe had survived the tumble she took in Goblin Town. How she wishes she could have a smoke right now. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

…but Thorin isn’t listening. He’s staring at her… oh. He’s staring at her hair.

She sighs and pulls the leather thong holding the braid in place and shakes it loose. “Better?” She asks.

He nods shortly and then frowns. “I…”

Briar waits, but whatever words he wants don’t seem to be coming to him. “Yes?” She prods, gently as she can.

“…nothing.” He mutters and steps past her to storm down the hallway.

“Strange man.” Briar rubs her temples and feels empathy for Gandalf in that moment. He always seems to rubbing his forehead when the dwarves are about. Perhaps they give him the headache too.

She crawls into her little shelter, glad at least that she has a soft bed and thick blankets to look forward to tonight. To her surprise there’s a little package waiting on her pillow.

It’s small, no bigger than the palm of her hand, and seems to be made of someone’s handkerchief. When she opens it she finds… oh! Four little wooden buttons, each with an acorn carved in relief on the front; exactly the same size, shape, and design as the ones she lost in that creature’s cave!

“Who’s responsible for this?” She wonders out loud, turning one of the buttons over inbetween her fingers. They’re nearly exact replicas of the originals, only made of wood. Was it Bofur? Or Kili?

She shakes out the handkerchief that served them as a pound and shakes it open so that she can launder it and return it to its proper owner with her thanks. To her vast annoyance, however, it’s not monogrammed …not precisely. There’s a crest embroidered on the yellowed fabric and not one she recognizes. It’s a crown or a miter of some kind crested with seven stars above a hammer and anvil.

“Well, it’s dwarfish to be sure, which I already knew.” Briar sighs and folds the kerchief up to store it in her pocket.

She’ll find the owner in the morning.

Chapter Text

Between the spiders, the traitorous river, and now the wood elves, Briar is giving some very serious thoughts to starting a few very strategically placed fires.

Sting is a heavy weight under her coat as she follows the elves first into the hall of their pale and eerie king then deep into the dungeons, which are every bit as dark and dank and inhospitable as the caves under the goblin town. She loses them in the Thranduil’s great hall, where the lights are too bright and make her shadow stand out against the walls.

Wood elves are different than the elves of Rivendell, she discovers. They live underground, although not so deeply and the air they breathe is clean. Moreover, their halls are like mazes and the doors do not open for Hobbits no matter how fast or clever she is. She waits for the guards who walk the corridors to pass by and then runs through in their wake.

How long it takes to find the dungeon, she’ll never be able to say. She lost track of the date long before they stumbled across the spiders’ nest and she has no way of tracking the sun in Thranduil’s torchlit halls. She sleeps several times (albeit never for long and plagued by strange dreams she never quite remembers after she wakes) before she comes across the servant responsible for feeding and watering the prisoners in the King’s prison.

Fate is merciful and the dwarves are all housed in the same block of cells. They look better than she remembers: less hollow-cheeked and better rested, though Ori is still pale from the venom and Kili is chained to the wall for some reason.

“This is better than I feared.” She murmurs to herself as she steps over a puddle and peers into the cell holding Dwalin. He’s slumped against the back wall, having taken a nasty hit to the head while resisting capture last she saw of him. He’s breathing and snorts awake while she watches him. Thank heaven. At least the elves attended to their wounds.

She pulls away and pads down the corridor to the largest cell at the end with the thickest bars, reserved for Thorin himself.

The elves have fed him, she’s glad to see, although the stubborn lout hasn’t eaten or drunk much beyond the bare minimum. She thinks he’d have forgone the food all together if they hadn’t been starving.

Thorin seems unharmed and stares darkly at the servant who changes out his mostly-full tray for a fresh one. He was the one she worried after the most, if only because he seemed the most likely to get himself into some fresh trouble. That the elves haven’t hurt him despite the strong likelihood that he’s been provoking them speaks well of their character. The servant feeding him leaves him extra water and frowns at the full plate as she goes.

Perhaps it is unkind to judge a people by their leader.

It doesn’t stop her from snitching a loaf off the woman’s cart while her back is turned. Briar has had to be circumspect in stealing her meals and hasn’t eaten near as regularly as she’d like, even when surrounded by good toothsome food in the pantries where she sleeps. A half-eaten loaf bound for the compost heap won’t be missed, whereas people tend to pay more attention to the fresh stuff right out of the oven.

A pebble scrapes under her foot and Thorin’s head jerks in her direction. She holds still not even daring to breathe until the woman with the food is gone back out of the dungeons with the door closed behind her.

“Who is there?” Thorin’s eyes are roaming back and forth. “Show yourself, spy.”

Briar slips the ring off her finger and pockets it with a smile before she steps out of the cover of shadow. “I’m no spy.” She whispers. “…but perhaps I am a burglar after all.”

Thorin surges to his feet. “It’s you.” He grasps the bars and for a moment she thinks he might try to push them out of his way.

“It’s me.” She agrees and steals closer. “I couldn’t tail you close enough and lost you all. I’ve been following elves around for however many days now until I found one who led me here. I’ve seen the others and they seem well for now. I haven’t found a way to free you yet, but now that I know where…” Thorin’s hand over her mouth cuts her off.

“Listen to me, Burglar.” He growls. “Take whatever food you can and leave this place. Go and don’t look back. Thranduil’s palace will let out onto the river. It’s how the wood elves conducted trade with the men of Dale. There will be boats. Steal one and go to Laketown.” He jerks the last of his gold chains over his head and thrusts it through the bars. “Gandalf will surely find you there. Have him take you away to Rivendell or the Shire; anywhere you can find safety. Thranduil does not mean to let us go.” He releases her mouth. “Tell me you understand.”

Briar waits patiently until he drops his hand before darting forward to pinch his ear between two fingernails like one of the naughty boys she catches swiping pastries from her kitchen window. “Now, you listen to me, King under the Mountain. You’re no king of mine yet and I take no orders from you.” She releases him and dances out of range before he can catch her. “I’ll do as I please. Now eat. It’s no good if someone trips over your swooned body while we’re all trying to escape.”

He growls something she doesn’t quite catch as she slips her ring back on. It seems to be in Khuzdul and sounds foul so she blows a kiss he can’t see over her shoulder and finds an out-of-the-way corner to eat her loaf in peace.

It takes her a while to learn the pattern of the guards’ patrol, but they’re a talkative bunch and like to gossip as they walk. She learns many things of very little importance, but also the anticipated date of Thranduil’s next feast. He’s fond of them, it seems, which seems fair. Mirkwood is a dreary place and she’d be given to excessive parties if she had to live here too.

Most importantly, she learns that all the guards are called upon to oversee the festivities. Only a few key officials are left behind. Moreover, Thorin’s comments about the river bear fruit when she finds the water gate his stewards use to send their empty barrels downriver for the men of Long Lake to retrieve.

She smiles as a plan comes together in the back of her mind.

Thorin is no happier to see her return than he was to see her leave.

“I’ve found a way out.” She tells him, safely out of reach. There’s little he can do to her from inside his cell, but she doesn’t want to test the limits of his creativity. “Thranduil is giving a festival tomorrow night. I will steal the key to your cells and we’ll escape through the water gate in the cellars. There are barrels we can hide inside. It’s risky, but all the exterior doors are enchanted. They only respond to elves.”

“You want to trick Thranduil’s men into letting us go unawares?” Thorin frowns. “It’s too risky. Robbing the King’s larder at night is one thing, but you’ll be caught taking the key and they won’t bother locking you away. They’ll kill you.”

“No, they won’t.” Briar insists. “I can move unseen and the butler spends most of his time in the wine vaults. He will never see me.”

“Your adventures with the trolls suggest otherwise.” Thorin counters mercilessly. “An elf has ten time the wits of the wisest troll ever born. I won’t permit this.”

“That was blind luck!” Briar hisses. Oh! She will never hear the end of those trolls no matter how well it turned out in the end. “He was reaching for a handkerchief and caught me by accident. He didn’t even know I was there. I doubt the same will happen twice. I’m going now. You can’t stop me.”

“I can shout.” Thorin growls. “I will call the guards here and you’ll be locked in with us where you are at least safe from your own foolishness. The elves won’t execute us for all that Thranduil plans to humiliate me. This isn’t worth your life.”

Briar stomps her foot and would tear at her hair if she could bear touching it now. She misses the bath houses of Rivendell. Even the river is looking like a good option at this point, if only she could reach it. She huffs and thinks and finally turns to Thorin. “I can prove to you that I can do it.” She tells him. “I found more than that creature in the underground lake.”

She puts on the ring and vanishes before his eyes.

Thorin is back on his feet in a second and reaching through the bars. She catches his hand and shushes him before he can make any excessive noise.

“Where are you?” He demands, groping at empty air with his free hand until it wanders into her cheek. Tiny embers trickle down her spine at the contact as his palm skates down her throat and down the blade of her shoulder.

“I’m here.” She tells him. “Just unseen. The creature under the Misty Mountains lost a ring in the caves and I found it.” She has shared bits of this story before in Beorn’s Hall, but never the whole thing. “I put it on by accident and that’s how he lost me. Do you believe me now?”

“I believe you. I don’t like it, but I believe.” Thorin’s hand tenses against her back. “Take it off. I must see you.”

Briar obeys and Thorin blinks as she appears in front of him. He frowns. It’s a familiar expression.

“You’re shaking.”

“The world of the ring is strange.” She admits because it’s an easier truth than confessing to the effect he has on her. She’s all too aware of the thoughtful way his thumb is sweeping back and forth against the nape of her neck. “And cold.”

“Be careful of that thing.” Thorin tells her. “Anything with that much power develops a will and motivations of its own. Using it opens you to its influence. Use it as sparingly as you can and discard it as soon as circumstances allow.”

“It’s just a little ring, plain as anything.” Briar tries, but Thorin silences her with a hand over her mouth again. She’s tempted to lick his palm in retaliation the way she did her playmates’ as a child.

“They all seem so.” He explains. “That’s their greatest advantage. You of all people should know that just because something seems small and harmless that doesn’t mean it is.”

Her eyes dip shut as something warm curls up behind her breastbone at the compliment (however backhanded). She pulls her mouth free and nods. “Careful, oh King, with your compliments or I’ll start to think you like me after all.”

Something moves behind Thorin’s eyes and quick as a thought, he catches her chin to pull her close and…

…and…

Oh.

He kisses her again and the second is just a gentle brush of his lips against the corner of her mouth when compared to the passionate open-mouthed one he bestowed on her first. She can still feel the ghostly prickle of his whiskers against her cheeks even after he’s pulled away.

“Go.” He tells her. “Fetch that key and free us, but tread carefully. If you are caught or even scratched on this madcap escapade, I will put you over my knee at the first opportunity and then lock you in the deepest vault in Erebor.”

“You’d have to catch me first.” Briar replies tartly before better sense can silence her. She blushes at her own daring and slips her ring on before she can get herself into deeper trouble.

Thorin watches her shadow as she leaves. He’s fast when he knows something is up and the thought makes her shiver.

He’d be a difficult man to evade for long and she can’t decide whether or not she even wants to try.

Chapter Text

 

The dragon has been gone for days now and good riddance, in Briar’s opinion. His voice lingers in her bones like the echo of drums and her dreams are no sweeter here in the heart of his hoard, where his smoky stench clings to the walls and she keeps tripping over the bones of long-dead dwarves inadvertently profaning their graves.

She’s found a perch away from Smaug’s golden couch that she thinks must have once belonged to a sentry of some sort. The vantage point is too good and she’s not in the visible way. She’s developed a dislike of being too visible –at least in places like these.

The others are exploring the treasure heap, which is larger than what Thorin described by a fair amount. Smaug seems to have collected more in the years he’s had the Lonely Mountain as his nest. It makes sense that he would have left on occasion. The only bones they’ve found belong to the ancient dwarven dead and there doesn’t seem to be any of the dragon’s waste laying around. Perhaps he would not do dirty things like eating or anything else near his treasure.

“At least there’s that much less cleaning to do.” Briar observes, as she watches Fili and Kili spar back and forth with a pair of undoubtedly priceless weapons with jewel-encrusted handles. Dwalin stops them before long and swaps the gilded blades with a pair of less gaudy, but sturdier looking weapons.

The others have encouraged her to start claiming her share, which they clearly have been doing. She’s found a few bits and bobs she likes the look of; a set of emerald cufflinks, a gilded belt buckle, and another elven comb like the one Lady Arwen lent her only without the bothersome chimes. The comb she likes less, but it keeps her hair in check so she wears it with her hair tucked into a bun for now.

“Trust a Hobbit to think of such practical concerns in the face of a pile of gold wider and taller than her own home by at least four times over.” Thorin observes as he comes to sit next to her. He puts his arm around her shoulder and Briar leans into his embrace. The fortnight the spent in Laketown did not allow for many stolen moments like this, but they did negotiate the boundaries of … well, whatever this is by brief touches and a handful of stolen kisses.

Thorin presses one against her temple now. “I’ve found something for you.” He murmurs in her ear.

“Dividing up the spoils already?” She chuckles. “We Hobbits have a saying about counting your chickens before they’ve hatched.”

“You Hobbits have saying for everything, I think.” Thorin replies and coaxes her arms up. She allows it, curious to see what he’s found and blinks when he drops of shirt of gleaming silver mail over her head.

“What this?” She fingers the edge of the fine weave between two grubby fingers. The rings are so small and delicately joined that it has the drape and feel of fabric rather than armor.

“Mithril.” Thorin explains as he does up the clasps at her throat and wrists. They are decorated with white stones that she has no name for. “The decorations are elven, but the rest is solid dwarfish craftsmanship; a commission from the Thranduil’s people, no doubt. The metal is from our mines in Khazad-dum and all but impenetrable.” He presses another kiss against the shell of her ear. “I would have nothing less between you and danger, my burglar.”

“And you, my King?” She asks. He likes that endearment, she’s found nor is she above making use of it. “And what protection have you found for yourself.”

“My own things, for one.” His mouth quirks to one side. “Though they will do me little good. I’ve grown broader since that armor was made for me so I’ve handed it down to Fili, who fits it well. There is a suit my father once wore that will do well by me and an axe to replace Orcrist.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to find the weapons.” Briar confesses. No one has taken her to task for it, but it weighs on her nevertheless. Striking out for the Lonely Mountain with only the blades that the men of Lake Town could spare them wore on everyone’s nerves.

“You fulfilled our contract and more. The rest is ours to do.” Thorin’s fingers tangle in her hair. “I wish you would let me send you out of danger.”

“And where is that?” Briar asks. She certainly has no idea. “There’s precious little cover outside …and who knows if Lake Town is even standing? Smaug thought I came from there. It’s where he would have attacked first.”

“We’ll find that out in time. The men of Dale survived Smaug once. I believe they will survive twice.” His fingertips catch on the comb in her hair and a smile tugs at his mouth. “So you have picked something out for yourself. I was wondering when you…” He goes silent as he gets a look at the comb and Briar sighs in defeat before tugging it loose and tossing it out into the slittering gold hills in front of them. Now her hair is in her face, but it isn’t worth fighting over.

Yes, I know. Such things do not suit me. It was convenient, is all.” She tells him. “There. Now I have nothing to offend you with.” She pushes herself to her feet, abruptly feeling the need to be elsewhere. Perhaps she can leave this gnawing shameful feeling behind her if she moves fast eno…

“No.” Thorin catches her by the wrist and pulls her back. She lands in his lap, stunned and not entirely sure of what’s happening or which direction is up. “That is not what I meant back then and I wouldn’t have you think that way.”

“What did you mean then?” She pushes at his hands, but he’s stronger than her and outweighs her by at least double. She tries punching him in the shoulder again, but she might as well be a newborn kitten for all he notices her struggles. “How else am I to interpret you?”

His hands close around her hips to hold her stills. “I meant that that blasted comb did not suit you.” He growls. “Not that you didn’t suit it.”

She goes still. “…what?” she squeaks.

“Confounded Hobbit.” Thorin groans and wraps her in his arms. “I mean that if you allowed it, I would dress you in gold and silk and sapphires. I would make bejeweled rings for your fingers and your bare toes. I would trim your coats in golden bells so that you would always be surrounded by music. Do you understand me now?” He pleads. “I would craft for you ornaments of such beauty and complexity and richness that you would never again be able to look on elven work without seeing it for the gaudy trash that it is.”

The first hiccup takes Briar by surprise and she reacts by burying her face in Thorin’s shoulder. Her face has gone hot and her eyes –they aren’t watering. They aren’t. He cradles her against his chest and makes soothing noises as though she were crying and only makes them all the more when she insists she isn’t.

It passes after some time and leaves her exhausted in Thorin’s arms, trying desperately not to sniffle lest he find out that he was right and she had been crying. “Insufferable creature.” She mutters into his chest. “How do you do this to me? I was a perfectly respectable Hobbit before you came along; no adventuring, no silly pointless weeping. I blame you for it all.”

“Good, you’re feeling better.” Thorin pulls her to her feet with something that had better not be a chuckle at her expense. “Come. I would show you something.”

He leads her deeper into the treasure trove, out of the immediate way, to a little corner where the light of Balin’s torches grows dim. There are trunks there, full of ornaments and heavy fabrics.

“My mother kept our most valuable rainment here; the ceremonial clothes for feast days and such. It was an old tradition, it seems.” He opens one of the trunks and lifts out a heavy ermine cloak that he settles around her shoulders. The edges are trimmed with rich embroidery shot through with gold thread and studded with gems. She’s never seen anything so rich in her entire life, not even Old Took’s feast day finest.

“There. This suits you, my burglar.” Thorin murmurs, running and approving eye over her.

“This is too fine for plain folk such as me.” She burrows into the heavy folds. “But it’s warm so I cannot dislike it.”

“Perhaps I can find a more agreeable way to warm you?” Thorin lets his hands creep along her sides to slip up under her shirt and slide against the skin of her back and stomach. This time his lips find her throat and wend a path down to linger at her collar. A shiver chases through her and she feels teeth there as he smiles.

“We haven’t spoken about this.” She says and it sounds a little nervous (as well it should!) even to her ears. “You should know, we Hobbits… don’t. Not without a wedding.” Weeks and weeks she’s been thinking of ways to tell him, but it’s never come out until now.

His hands still on her, but don’t retreat. “You’re a maiden?” There’s something about his tone, something that makes her insides shake in ways she can’t even begin to describe.

“They call them spinsters when they reach my age.” Briar ignores the blush that must be staining her cheeks a permanent red. “…but yes. I’m –untutored, I suppose you could say.” A thought occurs to her and she hastens to add; “I don’t need a wedding. That isn’t what I meant to say at all, I just…”

Thorin shushes her, as he is prone to now, with his fingers against her lips. “All is well.” He tells her. “We can wait, if you like.”

She blinks. “Wait?” Is he offering her time to consider? Or… maybe something else?”

“Until you are ready …or perhaps for a wedding?” He explains, brushing her cheek with his knuckles. “My mountain will never be as merry or comfortable as your Bag End, but parts of it could come close. For you, I would make it so.”

“I never considered marrying.” She confesses to Thorin’s chest, unable to look him in the eye. “Hobbits choose only once and it can end… badly.” It’s always been too frightening to her; loving someone the way Belladonna Took loved Bungo Baggins. She’d only lasted a few years after he left and Briar thinks her mother only lasted as long as she did because she hoped to see Briar settled with someone of her own.

When that hope died so too did her mother.

“My kind are the same.” Thorin confesses. “Even if our husbands or wives die before us, we never choose again. Our choices are forever and I would choose you. Will you choose me?”

“I already did.” She lays a hand over his heart and knows this is her forever. No matter how this adventure ends, she’s stolen the only thing in the entire mountain that she truly wants.

Later she’ll claim she tripped, but the truth is that Briar is the one who pulls Thorin down onto the gold under their feet. It’s an unstable pile and the weight of her fine fur coat triggers a small avalanche of gold and gems that has them both laughing as Thorin sits upright, kneeling over her and shedding riches like water in every direction.

Briar looks down and covers her smile with one hand. “It seems you’ve made good on your promise, my King.” She chuckles and waves a hand down to where the loose treasure has pooled between her thighs and in the crease of her stomach. “Here I am, dressed in gold and gems before you. What will you do?”

“What indeed?” Thorin murmurs as his eyes trails down the length of her only to stop arrested at her middle. “Mahal…” He breathes and lets his fingers ghost over the surface of the gem nestled in the cup of her navel. “Briar, do you know what this is?”

She peers at it, trying to match its milky brilliance to anything in her limited knowledge of precious gems. “Is it an opal?” She asks.

“Perhaps.” Thorin shrugs. “We were never able to tell, but it is nothing so fragile. An opal will crack if you get it wet. This stone blunted the chisels of every stonecutter in the mountain, even blades of pure diamond chipped and shattered on its surface. It is unbreakable and so we called it the heart of the mountain; the Arkenstone.” A slow lazy smile eases across his lips as he brushes bits of debris away from the gem. “My grandfather spent months searching for the right setting for it. The work of our greatest masters looked cheap and tawdry next to it.” His eyes lift up to meet hers. “It pleases me to succeed where he failed.

It takes a second, but his meaning sinks in and Briar covers her face. “Dwarves.” She groans. “Will you you always be like this?”

“It seems likely.” Thorin pulls her hands down and kisses her, long and slow. His hand remains curled possessively around the stone. “Best you get used to it now.”

Briar starts to reply, but goes silent when she hears Balin calling in the distance for Thorin.

Thorin holds a finger over his lips and stands. “What is it?”

“There’s men and elves approaching from the direction of Lake Town.” Balin sounds worried. “They’re massing at the gates and…” He pauses. She can almost hear the worried frown he must be wearing. “Sire, I think they’ve brought a pair of armies with them.”

“Get the others and seal the entrances we haven’t already closed.” Thorin barks. “Everyone is to arm themselves and muster on the balcony over the great doors. I will speak with their leaders and find out what they’re after. This may be what the birds warned us of.”

“Aye, my King.” Balin departs in a jingle and crunch of gold and Thorin drops to one knee beside her.

“I want you to retreat to the back door.” He holds up a hand. “Don’t argue, just go. Take the Arkenstone with you. You’ll know if we are attacked and if we are overwhelmed then use your ring to escape. Take the stone with you back to the Shire. Stay there, and live your days in peace.”

“Thorin, you enormous…” He stops her with one last kiss and pressed his nose into her hair to breathe her in.

“There are two treasures in this mountain that I value above my life and I will die before I allow Thranduil and his pawns to touch either of them.” He rises to his feet and leaves without a backwards look.

Briar looks down at the gem in her lap and it’s taken on a hateful glitter in her eyes. She looks back towards Thorin’s retreating back and already knows that she’s going to disobey him.

The robe falls to the ground with a heavy finality when she stands and follows invisible in his wake with the Arkenstone as a dense weight in her pocket.

It feels like a bad omen.

Chapter Text

 

The first voice she hears in Hobbiton belongs to Tomwise Gamgee, a patient and steady soul whose voice she has never heard raised above a shout… until now, that is.

“Stay away, vultures! I’ll lay out the first one of you to try and move me. Aye, and the next too!”

She cannot see him for the crowd of people around her front door, but she thinks he might be the only thing keeping them all from piling inside. Briar elbows her way to the front of the throng only to find… is that… is that a sign nailed to her door?

Auction?” She shrieks and the weary miles of road fall away from her as she discovers the fact that her dear sweet and beloved cousins, the Sackville-Bagginses, have had her declared dead and nagged the Mayor into agreeing to it. 

Briar spends her first several days home hunting her belongings all over the Shire. Most of her neighbors give back what they bought at auction quite easily, but she ends up having to hire a pair of burly lads from the Green Dragon to search Otho and Lobelia’s house for the majority of it. It’s an embarrassment that has the whole of Westfathing talking for days, but mostly they talk about how Briar had to hire two carts just to get everything they’d stolen back home.

They may be calling her ‘Mad Baggins’ these days, but no hobbit thinks kindly of a thief.

(If only they knew!)

In the mornings she visits her tenants and catches up on the business of being a Baggins in Bag End. There isn’t much of it that Hamfast and his sons haven’t handled for her during the year, which she’s grateful for.

In the afternoons she keeps her correspondence and reads. Lord Elrond tutored her in the elven tongues himself and gifted her with many volumes of untranslated Sindarin poetry. It keeps her occupied and her mind active, which does more to keep the melancholy at bay than all the well-meaning coddling she could find in the Shire so perhaps he knew what he was doing.

The evening is a time of peace and reflection for most hobbits, who abhor the noisome humors of the dark air and block it out with good cheer or thick walls. Briar has taken to sitting on her front step during those hours with her pipe and a lantern watching the far roads and pretending that she isn’t waiting for someone. Sometimes she stays inside, sitting in her front hall where she can sort through her mother’s glorybox and remember the things from her childhood.

Sometimes, very rarely, she thinks of a smaller chest in the bottom of her wardrobe that hasn’t been opened since her father locked it on her Coming of Age day. More specifically she thinks of the matching key in her father’s old desk that he was never able give to anyone.

(Even more rarely her fingers will dip into the pocket of her waistcoat to idly toy with a ring of gold. She stops, cold, in those strange eerie moments and never remembers quite how the ring came to be there. It stays in the glass case up high on her mantle …doesn’t it?)

Tomwise has been shadowing her every move and she is sure that he’d be standing in front of her door with a pitchfork if he thought he could get away with it. As it is, the hedges by her front gate have never been no immaculately groomed in her whole life. Perhaps it gives him an excuse to threaten the people come to gawk with the clippers.

“People have been talking.” He tells her one day as the sun dips in the sky. It’s well past the hour when good hobbit bachelors seek their mothers’ kitchens for a meal to restore them after a long day of work, but Tomwise has taken to lingering. They speak to one another through the wide open window in her study more often than not. Briar doesn’t care, but Tomwise still thinks she has a reputation worth protecting.

Sweet, stupid man.

“They’ll do that until the sun stops rising, Master Gamgee.” Briar allows from where she’s seated at her desk. “What are they talking about today?”

“Harebell Cotton’s been saying you’re going to leave.” He’s pale and pensive when he says this with fists concealed in the pockets of his coat.

“That’s unlikely. One adventure is enough for this lifetime, I think.” Her heart couldn’t take another. It very nearly broke when the last one ended. She doesn’t think she could bear a second … maybe if she were younger, but maybe it would have just been that much worse. Briar remembers feeling everything so much more keenly as a young girl; her heart bled in those days when it should have only bruised.

However she seems to have missed the point.

Leaving.” Tomwise insists. “The way Mistress Bella left after your father died.”

Briar sets down her pen.

“No, Tomwise. I have things to hold me here.” She does. They’re little things, silly things, but hers. She knows how to cling to them until she either finds something stronger... or doesn’t. “I have my books and my letters. That’s enough to keep me rooted. You don’t need to worry. I won’t give Lobelia the pleasure.”

Hobbits and elves have this in common, she thinks, although grief cannot prey on them the way it does her kind. Elrond knew enough, at least, to see the signs of it in her and sent her away with the only cure he could prescribe.

“Miss Briar.” He steps closer and his fingers curl around the painted sill. She looks away, but a gentle hand roughened by garden tools (never by swords or hammers) catches her cheek and turns her face back.

She and Tomwise are very nearly the same age. He is perhaps a year or two older. One tends to stop counting with any seriousness after thirty-three in the Shire. His sun-bleached blonde curls have silver in them at his temples and there are lines on his face that are still strange to see.

Briar knows why he’s never married, although she never stopped hoping that he’d give it up. They’ve never spoken about it. Briar never wanted the marriage bed or any sort of bed at all until… recently. Now she wonders if she should have put a halt to this years ago. It seems cruel now, to let hope live on for so long when there’s really no hope at all.

“I’ve never said a word.” He tells her softly. “It was never my place and I know you, Miss Briar, better than you think.”

“Tomwise, don’t.” She tries, but he shakes his head.

“Books won’t hold onto you, Miss Briar.” He goes on talking. “Letters haven’t got any hands. They can’t keep you the way you ought to be kept.”

“Oh, Tomwise.” Briar turns away from his hand, from his touch, because it’s not the right one …it’s only close enough to make her want to close her eyes and pretend. “No. Don’t ask me this.”

“I picked you, Miss Briar,” Tomwise tells her, “when we were children together. Even then, I knew you’d never pick me back. I made my peace with it. You’re the only one for me.” He reaches for her again, but stops when she flinches at the feel of calloused fingers against her temple. “You’ve had a disappointment, but that doesn’t need to be the end of it. I could make you happy, Miss Briar. Only let me try.”

She does close her eyes, but her skin remembers that other touch too well. Tomwise has never held a hammer or an axe or a sword in his kind hands. He isn’t the one.

“I knew you in short pants, Tomwise.” She says at last. “I blacked your eye for you once when you told me I couldn’t play conkers with your club and my father used to pay you three pennies a week to keep boys away from me when we were tweens.”

“It was five, actually.” Tomwise admits with a small secret smile. “Always felt guilty about that. Never told him I would have done it for free.”

“You’re a brother to me; good, loyal, and true.” She feels like weeping, but the tears don’t come. Is possible to be all cried out? “I never wanted a husband and I never expected one. This isn’t what you think it is. I did a bad thing, Tomwise. I would do it again if I had to and I must make my peace with that. I don’t need rescuing.”

Tomwise is quiet for a while, watching her in that quiet way of his. “I believe you believe that, Miss Briar.” He says at last. “I don’t agree. You did something maybe, but I choose to believe it was the right thing. Why else would you come home and break your heart over it?”

“Maybe?” Briar drops her face into her hands. There will be ink on her face later, but that bothers her less and less with every passing day. “I don’t know anymore.”

“Then believe one who knew you when you were in pinafores.” Tomwise sighs and his hand settles on the crown of her head. “Believe someone who patched you up whenever you bloodied Otho Baggins’ nose for picking on your little cousin or got bit by some Big Man’s stray mutt.”

“That was only the once.” She mutters. It’s an old argument. The dog hadn’t even meant it. It was hungry, hurt, and she’d startled it. Even then she’d known she had no one to blame but herself.

“And then you hid with it in a barn for three days and cajoled Farmer Maggot into adopting the beast when your father would have had it put down. Aye, I knew about it and didn’t turn you in.” He smiles a bit, half wry and half sad when she looks up at him with a startled face. “You haven’t got a dark bone in your whole body, Miss Briar. Anyone who says you do isn’t worth the dust between your toes.”

 That earns a smile from her that she doesn’t even realize is beginning until it’s there on her face. “Thank you, Master Gamgee.”

“Any time, Mistress Baggins.” He replies and she can see that he means it.

“Don’t you wait on me, Tomwise Gamgee.” Briar says, certain of that at least. “I won’t be coming after you.”

“I never thought you would.” Is his answer. He turns to go and raises one hand in a backwards goodbye. He says something else that she doesn’t quite catch, it’s too soft and he says it into the wind, but she thinks it might be: “…but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

Briar sits at her desk until the sun goes down and the pin-prick glow of candlelit windows begins to bloom across the hills of her beloved Shire. She watches them come to life and listens for the sounds of song and laughter drifting into her study on the wind.

“Enough of this.” She tells herself. “No more moping. I’ll be me again.”

In the morning, she cleans her front hall from top to bottom and begins to take stock. Winter is not far off and she’s put off preparations long enough.

It’s a bit dismal, to tell the truth.

If her pantry contained naught but crumbs before she left, then it’s even emptier now. Lobelia carted off every root vegetable and glass jar in the house, none of which Briar was able to get back because one can hardly separate one potato from an entire barrel of them. Restocking has taken more time and coin than she likes to think about, but she has plenty of both now thanks to the troll cache she uncovered at the base of the Misty Mountains. After… well… everything, she didn’t feel she had much claim on the treasure of Erebor beyond the mail shirt she wore out of the back, but she earned her portion of the troll’s hoard.

There’s still a band of mud on the edge of her mother’s glorybox in the front hallway and she’s put off polishing it away for nearly a month. Even so when she sits down in front of it with a bottle of oil and a soft cloth, she finds herself opening it instead of brushing the dirt away.

Mother never minded a little dirt unless it was on the front her daughter’s dress. She said it gave life character.

The contents of the box are a bit jumbled where Lobelia was no doubt rifling through them for the Took family lace and embroidery patterns. Briar always thought it was odd that her mother’s glorybox would have a false bottom to it, but she sees the wisdom in it now.

She spends the afternoon sorting through and refolding her mother’s linens; the cloths, kerchiefs, scarves, and swaddling clothes that bore her mother’s stitches. Some of them she remembers from childhood, but there are others that were never used. She runs her thumb over a band of embroidered sheaves of wheat that was no doubt intended for the collar of a little brother that she never had.

Briar tucks it all away safe and locks the chest so Lobelia can’t take another stab at it the next time she pops over for an unannounced visit.

When evening falls, Briar lights her lantern as usual but stays inside. She has an appetite for once and a chicken pie in the oven. So naturally there’s a knock at the door the second she sits down to break the crust.

For a moment she thinks she’s imagined it, but then the knock comes again so heavy and loud that she swears the windows rattle with the force of it.

Dwalin?” She jumps up and closes her robe around herself as she hurries to the door.

It’s not Dwalin at the door, nor is it Balin, Kili, Fili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Gloin, Oin, Bifur, Bofur, or Bombur. It isn’t a single soul she knows nor anyone she would expect to see on her front step out in the dark.

It is, however, a dwarf leading nine other dwarves all in armor with swords and spears and axes and the crest of the Iron Hills on their breastplates.

“Lieutenant Freyr.” The first dwarf introduces himself with a bow deep enough that his rusty-red beard brushes the tops of his boots. “At your service.”

“Ah, Briar Baggins at yours.” She thinks to curtsey this time, which she utterly failed to do the first time she ever opened her door to find a dwarf on the other side.

“Then fortune has been kind.” Freyr informs her, tucking his helmet under his arm. “Yours is the house we were searching for. No one else would answer their door. We came here because of the lantern. I have a message for you from my King.”

“I … oh!” Briar steps back. “You should come inside. I have food and drink. You’ve come a long way.”

“That would be greatly appreciated, Madam.” Freyr nods his respect and begins bringing his men inside. They’re a quieter bunch than Thorin’s company and more disciplined, perhaps because they are soldiers in truth rather than smiths, tinkers, and toymakers out to reclaim their fortune.

They eat every bit as much though and Briar finds her freshly-filled larder being emptied again in no short order. Somehow, she cannot make herself mind.

“I have guest rooms you may use, if you don’t mind doubling up.” She tells Freyr once everyone has been fed and the others are occupying themselves with clean-up.

“Thank you again, Madam.” Freyr murmurs and watches her crockery fly about. Briar hardly notices at this point. She’s seen how dwarves handle their own cookware by now and Freyr’s men seem to be taking great pains with hers. “You seem used to our ways.”

“I spent a year on the road with a company of dwarves like your men.” Frankly, she’s more glad of the company. Also she knew better than to get out her mother’s good dishes, just in case. “I’ve seen worse things than someone helping wash up.” She fetches her pipe and offers Freyr the use of her tobacco pouch, which he accepts. “So, tell me; what message does Dain Ironfoot have for someone like me?”

“None, so far as I know. My message come from Erebor.” Freyr gestures to his breastplate. “King Dain gave those of us with connections to Erebor leave return to our homeland. My men and I chose to enter the service of Thorin, King Under the Mountain. He sent my men and I to find you and escort you either back to the Mountain or to the Shire, wherever you chose to go. We never caught you on the roads and goblin raids delayed our passage through the mountains.”

There… there’s a ringing in her ears and Briar shakes her head, trying to clear it. “Forgive me, but… I could have sworn you just said…”

“My lady, are you all right?” There’s a hand on her shoulder, but the noise in between her ears is drowning everything out because Thorin is dead. He was dead long before a human healer ever tripped over her in an out-of-the-way corner of the battlefield and would have left her there too if she hadn’t thought to wiggle the ring back off her finger.

He was dead and cold before she woke up for a second time in Bard’s camp. She heard it from the Master of Lake Town himself.

“I…oh…” Briar faints for the second time in a year and wakes up an hour later in her own bed with Tomwise Gamgee holding her hand.

“There she is.” Tomwise peels one of her eyelids back to check her pupils. “You gave us a fright, Miss Briar.  One of yon dwarves nearly beat down my door calling for help.” He presses a cup of water to her lips. “Drink slowly …now what brought this on? I haven’t see you with the vapors since we were little.”

“I…” Briar sits up in bed and is glad that she has no dizziness. “I had a shock, that’s all. The dwarves. Are they still here?”

“Aye, they are, although my Da would have seen them all turned off into the night if they’d allowed it. We can still send them away if you like. What did they say to you?”

“It was good news.” She waves away his well-meaning interference and pushes out of bed. “I must speak with them. Where is… ah!”

Lieutenant Freyr is seated on the bench outside her door with his arms crossed over his chest when she reaches the hallway. He looks up and looks her over, which is how she realizes someone took her out of her robe before putting her to bed. She closes the neckline of her nightgown with one hand, but not fast enough to hide the ribbed and mottled scar across her collar that she ended up bringing home as a reluctant souvenir.

“That’s a goblin bite.” He rumbles as if she didn’t know what it was or where it came from. “An old one that someone cleansed with fire. Here now, I was told you were sent away before the fighting started. Where did that come from?”

“And I was told that Thorin Oakenshield died of his wounds on the field.” Briar replies. “It seems we’ve all received bad information. You must tell me everything that happened. I only remember up until the great eagles arrived.”

“Aye.” The dwarf replies with a thoughtful nod. “It seems I should.”

Lieutenant Freyr’s story matches with the Master’s account for the most part. The eagles came and Beorn entered the fray as well, both departing every bit as suddenly as they arrived. Thorin was grievously wounded with Fili and Kili defending him from Azog’s son, Bolg. All seemed lost, except for a mysterious old man who entered the royal chambers where a final watch was being kept over the dying King and his heirs.

“No one knows what happened there. Everyone was sent away.” Freyr admits. “…but the King took a turn for the better afterwards and his nephews as well, although they were nearly lost. After, the King called me to his side and told me of a Hobbit woman who had been sent away from the fighting. He bade me find her and bring her to him or if she would not go then return her to her home. You led us a pretty chase, Madam. I will not lie. I thought we might never find you. This was our last effort to see if you’d made your way home safely without help.”

Gandalf. Of course.

Briar sways on her feet and finds herself pushed down into the seat Freyr has just vacated.

“She’s not going.” Tomwise declares. “You dwarves have caused enough trouble in these parts. No more.”

“Tomwise, enough.” Briar frowns. “You don’t speak for me.”

“Someone ought to, Miss Briar.” He turns to her. “Last time dwarves came through here they stole you away and you come back with that great nasty wound. We all believed you dead. Will you let them take you from your home twice?”

“I make my own decisions, Tomwise Gamgee.” Briar scowls and finds her hands have gone steady. Oh, there is nothing like anger to balance one’s nerves. “So that is enough.”

“I see.” Tomwise looks down at his hands and nods. “Of course. I’ll be going then. Good evening, Miss Briar. Dwarves.”

There’s something very final about the way he closes the door behind him, but it’s something that was a long time in coming.

“We’ll be leaving on the morrow, Madam.” Freyr informs her. “If you are coming with us, pack those things you cannot do without. It may be some time before you’re able to return here.”

She nods and the soldiers leave her me. She stays there for a while, thinking, and then rises to light a candle.

There are letters to write.

Her things are packed by morning and Lieutenant Freyr dispatches one of his men to deliver her letters. She leaves Bag End in the care of her young cousin, Drogo Baggins, who is a good sort and will be marrying soon. His betrothed, Primula, will make good use of the things her great aunt Belladonna left behind and defend them from Lobelia.

Briar takes with her three small chests, four different pipes, twenty pocket handkerchiefs, one elven dagger, a waterproof hat, a small golden ring of no particular importance, several changes of clothing, and a pony cart to carry it along with their supplies.

They leave at dawn and this time Briar doesn’t look back.

Of the journey, the less said the better. It is quieter than her first trip to Erebor, but that isn’t saying much. They stick to the East-West Road, which takes them through Rivendell where they receive a warm welcome and eventually through Mirkwood where they don’t. It’s a long trip and Briar is reduced down to one handkerchief and a single remaining pipe by the time the Lonely Mountain comes back into view.

“A welcome sight.” Freyr sighs and it is echoed by his men. “Was it like this for you, Madam? On that first trip?”

“Yes, Lieutenant, only more so.” Briar admits. “There’s no dragon waiting there this time.”

Although there is something arguably more frightening awaiting her if she lets herself think about it.

Lake Town is smaller these days and the Master wears an angry pinched expression when they pass through on their way to Dale. Briar was tempted to stay the night there, but Freyr’s men were uncomfortable with the looks the Master sent their way.

Bard welcomes them and gives them room within his own house, which is only half-built but looks like it will be a grand place one day.

“Dale is growing, Mistress Hobbit.” Bard tells her after supper. “The land is burnt on the surface, but the ash has enriched it. The soil had a long rest and we will buy seeds from elsewhere in Middle Earth to make it green again. The farms are already producing a bit and soon we won’t have to bring food in through Lake Town.”

“Problems?” Briar asks.

“The Master enjoys his tariffs, but he cannot enjoy them for long.” Bard pours her another drink. “But enough of that. We are a merry party tonight and tomorrow you will return to the mountain. I will send an escort with you with letters for King Thorin. All will be well.”

“I hope you are right.” Briar murmurs and accepts the toast.

Erebor has come to life in the time Briar has been gone. The front gates are thronged with new arrivals and their carts. The sound of happy dwarfish voices is audible long before the gates come into view.

Briar cannot help but think that this must be what Thorin once dreamed of at night.

A hunting horn sounds as they pass the out watchtowers and is picked up by the sound of drums. An approach warning perhaps?

“That’s for us.” Freyr says in response to her questioning look. “The towers will have been looking for us. The drum beats are a code to alert those in the mountain that we’ve arrived.”

He’s leaving something out, she can tell. The drumbeat changes a little before they reach the gates properly and Freyr’s men seem to be listening to it.

“I see.” Briar clenches her reins tight and tried not to fuss with her hair or her skirts. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that she’s here to face criminal charges.

Dwarves of all kinds watch them as they pass and Freyr hands her down from the pony cart himself. “There’ll be a place for you to refresh yourself inside the gates.”

‘Inside the gates’ is a misleading description. Briar is led deep into the Mountain’s interior, which has been mercifully cleansed of dragon-smell and replaced by the scent of hot metal, fabric, and the smoke of a hundred forges.

A dwarf in a blue hood leads her to a suite of rooms far above the wide open halls where Smaug once slept, past the vaults and common dwellings, and into areas of the complex she’s never seen before. He leaves her in a comfortable set of rooms with its own bathing chamber and a warm fire.

Well. It’s no dungeon, there’s that at least.

“You will please wait here in these rooms, Madam.” Her guide instructs her. “There are things provided for your use and water for bathing. Take your ease and rest now.”

“I… yes. Thank you.” She remembers to bow and receives one (deeper than hers) in return.

The bath is …well, it’s quite nice, actually and she’s been having fantasies about her copper tub back home for most of a year. Dale doesn’t quite have such nice things as cisterns and bath houses quite yet so she’s still wearing everything one picks up on the road that doesn’t wash off in a bucket. She scrubs herself raw and goes back for another round until she’s in danger of rubbing her skin off. There is a soft robe in a chest at the foot of a bed that looks too inviting for her to resist it.

Later no one will tell Briar how long she slept or how long Thorin sat by her bedside watching her, which means it must have been embarrassingly long.

He’s there when she comes slowly awake, blinking and stretching with part of her sure that it’s a dream. It’s one she’s had before and will doubtless have again.

He looks different as King Under the Mountain, but still somehow the same. His clothes are of a richer fabric, but a plain cut that allows for economy of movement over ostentation. He wears the same platinum rings and gold chains, albeit more of each than he used to. There’s a crown on the foot of her bed half on its side like it was thrown there with no particular care given to how it fell, but Orcrist is leaned carefully on the wall behind him –always within reach.

“They told me you were dead.” She whispers and watches him lean forward, bracing his weight on his elbows. He never speaks in her dreams. Maybe her sleeping mind has too much self-preservation for that. “The Master told me before he put me a barge with the other refugees bound for Rivendell. I thought you died angry with me.”

“I nearly died, but not angry.” He touches her hair, following the length of it down her shoulder. Funny, she hadn’t realized that it had gotten so long until now. When did that happen? “Regretful, yes. Angry? Never for long.”

She catches his hand and holds it, trying to burn the warmth of it into her memory. This? This is real. The knowledge comes to her in drips and trickles, building up into one blinding truth.

Confounded dwarf.” She throws herself into his arms and allows him to pull her into his lap, too busy kissing every line and plane and scar on his face. There are more of them now and others lurking under his clothes probably. “Do you have any idea how much I cried over you?” She gasps in-between kisses. “I held a lantern vigil to send you home safe to your ancestors. I should…” She kisses him again, full on the mouth. “I should tie your beard in knots.”

“I’d let you. If it meant you would stay, I’d let you.” He lifts her off his laps and lays her down on the bed. “Will you stay?” His hand hovers over the belt of her robe, toying with the knot holding the garment closed.

“As long as you want me.” Briar says it with her heart in her throat. “Maybe longer.”

Some of the shadows leave his eyes and he smiles. The look on his face takes her back to that first night when he stood in her hallway and said she looked more like a grocer than a burglar. “Then you’ll never leave.”

They speak a bit more after that, but nothing of substance and all too private to be worth relating.

It is later, much later, when they lay together under the furs and blankets that Thorin’s wandering fingertips find and freeze over the scar on her shoulder. “How came you by this?” He asks, turning her body towards the light.

“A lucky goblin.” It’s not a complete lie. She was invisible at the time, but had stumbled into the path of a small war party who were attempting to flank one of Dain’s squadrons. She hadn’t been able to contribute much to the battle up until that point beyond triggering rock falls on similar outriders, but she had no rocks to push down on those goblins. Instead she snuck into their midst and used Sting to cut, slice, and bite the enemy. One of the goblins just bit back. Shortly after escaping that melee she took a knock on the head that ended her brief involvement in the war. “The treatment left worse scars than the original wound. The healers flushed it with water in Lake Town then cauterized it before I was sent on to Rivendell. A sickness entered the wound and Lord Elrond’s folk re-opened it to cleanse it.”

Thorin traces the arc of the bite mark with a darkness in his eyes that he doesn’t share with her. Instead he turns his attention to the little brass key on its chain around her neck. “And what is this?”

“Something of my father’s.” Briar replies. “He died before he could give it to anyone for me.”

“I see.” He traces the outline of the little key, which is nothing so fine or complex as anything a dwarf would make. It was made by a smith in South Farthing who specializes in such things and is perhaps prettier than it is functional with a rose carved into the thumb-sized handle. “…and what does this unlock?”

“One of the chests I brought with me.” She turns her head to look at Thorin. “You should be careful. It’s bad luck for anyone to touch it who isn’t my intended.”

Thorin bares his teeth at her and nips her shoulder before tugging the key over her head in one deliberate motion. “Which chest does it unlock?”

“Are you so curious, my King?” She asks, making an innocent face when he scowls for her.

“I am now.” He informs her. “Which one?”

She points and Thorin gets out of bed disregarding his own nudity to drag it over. The lock turns over with the briefest of hesitations. Her father had kept it well-oiled in the days before he died and so too did Briar’s mother in her turn. It represented their hope for Briar’s future, which is something she’s only just now coming to understand.

What would they think of Thorin? She wonders this and other things as she watches the king of the last hidden stronghold of dwarves unpack her glory box.

Belladonna would approve, Briar thinks, of the careful way he handles linens and needlework that haven’t seen the light of day in nearly twenty years. Bungo would snort and grumble and puff on his pipe, but that was his reaction to every boy in the Shire who looked at Briar for longer than half a heartbeat. He might have been won over in time though thoughtful gifts and Thorin’s own implacable pride, which is something any Baggins could appreciate.

“These are children’s clothes.” Thorin looks up to her with wonder in his face. “What is this?”

“Hobbit women don’t take much with them when they leave their parents’ home.” Briar confesses. “… just one thing aside from a trousseau, really. When we are young, we start making things for our eventual home; little things at first like handkerchiefs and hand towels, but eventually swaddling clothes, curtains, carpets, and blankets. A husband makes the house, but his wife is the one who fills it. The last thing we make is… ah.” She blushes and ducks her head so she doesn’t have to watch her own clumsy needlework come to light. “At the bottom, there’s a package sealed with wax. That’s my wedding veil. My mother wrapped it up when I finished it on my Coming of Age day and then my father locked it away in my glory box there. According to tradition, the only one allowed to open it is my husband on our wedding day.”

There’s a rustle of dry paper and when she looks up, Thorin is looking back at her.

“I will keep this in trust.” He says and brushes a kiss over each of her eyelids. “And open it when the time comes.”

Briar accepts his kisses and returns them with her own as she pulls him back into the warm sanctuary of their bed.

A year and a half ago Briar Baggins sat in her own safe little parlor and asked a wizard if he could guarantee her a safe return from an adventure she never sought out.

“No,” He told her with a little sadness lurking in his tired eyes. “And if you do, you will never be the same again.”

He never mentioned that home might not be where she left it or that it might not be a place at all. Perhaps he thought she, being a homebound Hobbit of the Shire, wouldn’t understand and he would have been correct.

She understands now that ‘home’ can take many forms. It’s not found in antique crockery or even behind familiar doors. It’s in the sound of a familiar laugh, a friend’s smile, and in the circle of a beloved pair of arms.

At long last, Briar has come home.

-Fin