"Shh, shh," Bilbo hushed Myrtle quickly, with a sharp look around him, as he clambered up to the wooden poles that marked the beginning of the pen, huffing slightly from the effort.
The poles were low, more to mark a boundary than to keep in a species that wouldn't even have to fly to hop over them, and Myrtle stuck her boxy muzzle easily over them, arching her stout neck to bring herself somewhat awkwardly to near eye level. Bramblescales like Myrtle never grew very much larger than she was now, slightly more than twice Bilbo's height at the shoulder sitting up, round and soberly coloured. Myrtle was proud of her scales, a rich honey brown from nose to wingtips to tail, with a cream waistcoat, but her flanks were dusty from travel and she looked thoroughly miserable.
"You haven't been unsaddled," Bilbo protested, climbing a little awkwardly over the pole, Myrtle clucking at him in alarm as he wobbled and nearly fell flat on his face.
She sniffed once he was safely back on the ground. "I wasn't about to let them get their hands on Brandywine cotton and all this antique buckling! The dwarves are barbarians!" Myrtle hissed, though she lowered her tone at Bilbo's arched eyebrows. "Their dragons sleep in pens! I was given a… a stall in some sort of horrid stable! There's nowhere to do a polite do, and, and they feed their dragons raw meat-"
Myrtle's ridged sail over her neck was flaring as the dragon grew more and more upset, steam pouring from her flared nostrils, and Bilbo patted her quickly on the flanks, reassuringly. "We knew all that before we got here, Myrtle."
"It's one thing to have it told to you and one thing to have it happen to you," Myrtle complained, though her sails flattened dispiritedly. "How's the meeting going?"
"We're having a bit of a break." Bilbo decided not to mention that the elves and the dwarves were having a flaming row, and he'd found it increasingly tiresome and had ended up excusing himself, claiming that he was feeling dizzy and tired from the long journey here from the Shire. The old Thain would have been furious to hear about it, but Bilbo was sure that he had been properly obsequious, and it wasn't as though he was about to miss anything.
Speaking of the elves… "Where are the elves' dragons?"
"Up there," Myrtle tipped her muzzle sullenly up at the distant, snowy peaks of the range surrounding the Ereborean valley. If Bilbo squinted, he could make out a shifting outline of something coiled in the snow, sleeping, sleek white scales and ivory horns near perfectly camouflaged. "They wouldn't give me the time of day, uppity things."
That didn't surprise Bilbo; the elven dragons were reputedly as distant as their companions. "What about the Ereborean dragons? They have some steamers too, just like home."
"Stupid. They're happy with their lot. Many of them can't even speak fluent Westron, let alone read and write." Myrtle wiggled her dexterous scaled hands. "Horrible!"
"That's very unkind of you," Bilbo told her firmly, and her head drooped a little further as she blew out a steam-clouded sigh. "The Royal Red attended the discussions. He's hardly stupid."
Quite the opposite, in fact. Bilbo stifled a shudder, remembering that serpentine neck, the golden eyes bigger than his body that had blinked briefly at him and then glanced away in disdain. The Royal Red, Smaug, had spoken little, even when its hereditary companions, the House of Durin, had started quarrelling with King Thranduil's ambassador over conflicting intel reports about the Pale Orc and the extent of his military might, but Bilbo was certain that the huge dragon was not stupid.
"They treat the firedrakes differently," Myrtle muttered. "They get to sleep in the mountains, in the Iron Foundries. The ones out here are just steamers or spiketails, and one big old etcher. There are more of them back in the pens, but I didn't want to stay there any longer by myself and get poked at by the staff. I'm glad that you came up from the big door. I wasn't going to go near the pens."
"They use dragonfire in their crafting," Bilbo explained, having come out to the pens from the main gate of Erebor because he had gotten painfully lost trying to find his way down from within. "The tour was quite interesting, actually. That's why the firedrakes live in the Foundries." The visitors had only received a very cursory tour of part of the Foundries - given how secretive the dwarves were - but it had been incredible to see how the dwarves had managed to funnel dragonflame to marry alloys of metal that would otherwise be impossible.
Myrtle blew out another sigh, clearly disinterested in the intricacies of dwarven dragon culture. "Bother! How long more are we going to have to be here?"
"For as long as an alliance is worked out."
"Azog isn't even anywhere near the Shire. I don't see why we're involved."
"We're involved because Gandalf asked us to be involved, remember?"
"And where is the wizard now?" Myrtle's exasperation, Bilbo sensed, was not born out of a feeling of being betrayed but of sheer disappointment that Gandalf had not in fact shown himself. The bramblescale was very fond of the Grey Wizard.
"Still at the White Council in Rivendell, I believe. Now, Myrtle," Bilbo lowered his tone, reaching up until she lowered her snout to press the scales against his palms in a gesture of trust, "I know this is going to be very hard on you, but we've been sent here on behalf of the Shire. I'll try to sneak some food here for you afterwards, and I'll stay with you in the stables-"
"Didn't they give you rooms?" Myrtle interrupted, horrified.
"They did, but if your pen upsets you that much-"
Myrtle was already shaking her head, dislodging her snout from his grip. "No, no, you'll catch your death, Bilbo Baggins, and then how will I face the Thain? I'll manage," she added, grumpily, and then seemed to make an effort to gentle her tone, "For the Shire. Oh, bother, here he comes again," she raised her head suddenly, glancing behind her.
A dwarf was striding out from the mottled ranks of dragons towards them, dressed in gleaming mail and a black coat, with a trimmed, short dark beard that bore a couple of silver beads. He wasn't handsome by the way hobbits measured such matters, but there was an arresting curiosity in his eyes and a confidence to his gait, and he approached them with only a cursory glance at Bilbo's best clothes and Myrtle's pretty Brandywine finery.
One of the Dragon Guard, Bilbo surmised, as he saw the battleaxe that the dwarf wore at his side. Erebor's elite dragon-bourne militia. No one else would have been allowed into the pens other than servants, and he looked like no servant.
"You are the ambassador from the Shire?" the dwarf asked politely, in accented Westron.
"Yes I am," Bilbo replied cautiously. There were hardly any other hobbits about, were there?
The dwarf frowned at him, then glanced back up at Myrtle, sniffing, and just as Bilbo belatedly managed to finally make out the soft warm scent of an omega under all the dragonscents and leather, he stated, "But you are an alpha."
"And…?" Bilbo tried not to bristle instinctively, but Myrtle had already crouched, her sails flaring aggressively. Quickly, he put a calming hand on her flank. "In the Shire," he added quickly, "All dragons choose their companions. Granted, the old school of thought that only omegas should bond to dragons exists, but it is an unpopular one."
And old fashioned, Bilbo added in his head, mentally. Still, it hadn't quite died out as yet, and it was a very sensitive topic where Myrtle was concerned. Female dragons did not usually pick alphas, regardless of modern thought, and although she had never mentioned anything about it to Bilbo, he was sure that the other dragons sometimes still questioned her choice.
"Alphas are not receptive to draconic," the dwarf noted neutrally.
"I speak Westron well enough," Myrtle snapped, before Bilbo could say anything, and the dwarf blinked at her in surprise - then to Bilbo's relief, he inclined his head.
"I see. Please forgive my curiosity."
"No, no, we're not offended," Bilbo said hastily, though Myrtle sniffed above his head, giving lie to his words. "We're quite aware that our ways are different from the, um, dwarven ways. It's been quite a, er, culture shock to Myrtle here, actually. And, oh, how rude of me. My name is Bilbo Baggins," he introduced himself belatedly, with a slight bow. "And this is my companion, Myrtle Bramblescale."
"Pleased to meet you," Myrtle told the dwarf guard frostily.
The dwarf's lips twitched at that, as though on the verge of a grin. "I am Thorin."
"Oh," Bilbo wrestled his memory briefly for the echo of the word, and was rescued by Myrtle, who chirped, "Like the Prince?"
"Like the Prince," Thorin noted, and there was a faint edge of amusement to his tone that Bilbo could not quite parse.
"Dwarves overlap their names quite a bit," Myrtle told Bilbo loftily, clearly pleased that she had remembered the name. "Just like Men. Of course, we don't do that in the Shire."
Thorin grimaced at that, but said nothing, and Bilbo decided to move the conversation hastily forward before Myrtle, still clearly hurt over the 'alpha' remark, could turn too offensive again. "So, ah, you work with the dragons?"
"He's been trying to remove my saddle all morning," Myrtle muttered, eyeing Thorin with open suspicion. "I wouldn't have any of it!"
"Now look here, Myrtle, Thorin was only trying to help. The buckles will rub your scales raw and sore otherwise," Bilbo said persuasively. "And you don't want to get Thorin into trouble, do you? He's only trying to do his job."
"Oh, very well," Myrtle caved sulkily. "But I'm going to be keeping a very close watch on our things."
Thorin raised an eyebrow at the 'our', but led Myrtle and Bilbo further up the gravel until they were threading their way over the great sandy pit where a gaggle of steamers blew clouds at each other and rolled in the sand - much to Myrtle's disgust (acting like dragonlings, at their age!), and through the banks of stone nests where spiketails peered down at them, their chunky, barn-sized bodies hunkered over eggs, jag-toothed spiked tails curled protectively over their bellies.
The dwarves of Erebor had a great many species of dragons about, Bilbo noted, many of them larger than Myrtle by far, as compared to the Shire, which only seemed to attract and breed steamers. He tried not to seem too curious, especially whenever he glanced at the distant, bulky form of a huge etcher disappearing into the warm dark of the pens. He had never seen so many different types of dragons before, save in his books!
Dwarven staff in gray tunics glanced up briefly at them as they passed, but quickly turned their attention back to the dragons in their care, and Bilbo was just about to quietly berate Myrtle for overreacting when they had to walk over a huge courtyard, where a steaming patch of blood was still being washed out from the stones. Myrtle made a soft whistling sound of disgust, and staring at the stinking pens of frightened cattle beyond, Bilbo couldn't quite remember to correct her.
The stall was spacious and clean, with soft, fresh hay, but it was a far cry from the beautiful little room that Myrtle had to herself in Bag End, with its books and her chests of pretty things and her little flowerbox garden that the Gamgees helped her to maintain. Dispirited again, Myrtle sat still while Thorin and Bilbo efficiently unbuckled her saddle and pulled off the saddlecloth and bags, setting them on the racks set up in the corner of the stall.
She did stretch her wings when it was done, however, and eyed Thorin with great dignity. "Excuse me," Myrtle said mildly, "But where, um, is the bathroom?"
Thorin stared at her with some surprise. "You are a dragon," he told her finally. "You can do that wherever you like and the staff will muck it out."
"You see," Myrtle wailed at Bilbo, and he winced, petting her quickly to calm her.
"Just, er, do it in an empty stall," he told her in a hushed voice, "And, um, try not to think about it."
"'Try not to think about it'? Well, I never!" Myrtle, however, nuzzled Bilbo, huffing warm breath over his curls, then she turned to regard Thorin, who was watching them with a reserved curiosity. "Thank you for your efforts, Master Thorin," she said stiffly, "I hope I didn't get you into trouble this morning."
"Not at all," Thorin assured her. "You are our guest, just like your companion."
"Then if it's not too much trouble," Myrtle mumbled, "I'll like some mint tea and biscuits, and a fish pie, if you have pies."
"Myrtle," Bilbo said reproachfully, but Thorin was already nodding.
"I'll see to it." Thorin let himself out of the stall, closing the door behind him before he ambled off, and Bilbo sagged a little against his dragon, who bumped the arch of her wings around his shoulder.
"There aren't any bramblescales here," she whispered to him apologetically. "Maybe they just don't know what we're like."
"I did see a few barksnouts and a number of riverslates," Bilbo replied just as softly, "Imagine Paladin's Scabious having to eat some raw steak."
"He'll eat it just to make Esme's Yarrow sick, or if he's dared to do it," Myrtle disagreed, though she perked up a little at the reminder of home.
"Would you rather the Thain sent Lobelia and Knapweed?"
A churring rumble shook through Myrtle, a dragon's laughter, and she spat a small gout of steam. "Oh! If they did, the dwarves would be at war with us in no time, never mind the Pale Orc."
"Exactly." Bilbo patted Myrtle again soothingly. "Just endure this for a little while. I'll come out to see you whenever I can."
"I suppose I do have the easy bit, since they only let that Royal Red in on the meeting," Myrtle grumbled. "You're the one who has to figure out what the dwarves or the Grey Wizard want from the Shire."
"Gandalf will show up sooner or later."
Hopefully before the elves and dwarves declared war on each other, Bilbo thought, a little moodily. Blast all this incomprehensible racial politics! Bilbo and the Shire cared not the least about some ancient ancestral blood feud over a bloody necklace. Hopefully King Thrór would come to his senses and get the meeting on track. The elven dragon companions may look willowy and slender, like the sea serpents, but Bilbo had heard tales of what they were capable of, and he had no intention of involving himself or Myrtle in the middle of an all-out draconic war.
At least the King of Dale - a tall, grim-looking man called Bard - had seemed equally bemused by the arguments. Bilbo had felt a little warmer to Men after that, even if they of all races could form no bonds with the dragonkin.
"I'll try to speak to the other dragons again," Myrtle muttered, "Although my draconic's rusty. Maybe I can help you figure this out. Their companions may have talked to them."
"Yes, that's a good idea," Bilbo agreed. If anything, it might keep Myrtle out of trouble.
"And," Myrtle hung her head a little at this, "We packed so quickly that I forgot my book. If there's a library here, could you please-"
"Of course." Myrtle had always liked to read before she went to bed. "I probably have to get back to the meeting now. But I'll get a book for you afterwards."
"All right." Myrtle turned her head, to eye him carefully, first with one ridged side, then the other, before rubbing her cheek ridges against him with affection. He threw his arms around her in return, breathing the warm scent of her scales, and if he closed his eyes, Bilbo could almost imagine sunlight on the lush fields of the Shire.
Presumably an unpopular book with the dwarves, Bilbo had thought a little sourly. The leather-bound tome was dusty, the leather cracked, its spine in need of repair; Bilbo had found it deep in the recesses of a back row of shelves.
Still, the very young assistant Librarian seemed loathe to give it up, almost on the verge of tears by the time Bilbo managed to find his way down to the dragon pens, and before they reached the stonework doors that connected Erebor proper to the pens, Bilbo rounded on the young dwarf with a sigh. "Ori. We're really not going to eat your book."
"No, no, no of course not," Ori had quickly turned a bright red. "Y-y-you are our guest. As is your, as is your dragon. I've just never heard of a dragon reading before, and, and I've never been down into the pens, let alone come close to a dragon, and-"
"Never?" Bilbo interrupted, surprised.
"I, um, I may not look like very much at all," Ori muttered awkwardly, though he didn't back down, "But I'm an alpha, Master Baggins. We're not let near the dragons."
"Oh, um, I translated that badly," Ori cut in with a squeak. "We're, we're not like the Northern Men at all, not with what you hear about how they carry on with the Aspects. It's just that… here, alphas don't bond with dragons, so they can't join the Dragon Guard. So, um, well, and I like my books and my scribe work and-"
"Ori," Bilbo stopped the babbling quickly, dryly, and as Ori lifted his chin, with a young alpha's defiance despite himself in the defence of his books, he sighed. "You can come with me, because I'm a little lost," he said out aloud, ignoring Ori's look of confusion - Bilbo had a very good sense of direction, and he had been the one to find their way down here after a servant had led him back up into Erebor proper from the pens earlier in the day. "And since you're the assistant Librarian, Myrtle has a few questions for you about the use of books in Erebor. So come," he added, when Ori still hesitated.
"I've never been here before," Ori whispered hurriedly, though he pattered gratefully next to Bilbo when Bilbo identified himself to the Dragon Guard recruits tasked with watching the door. Each shot Ori a hard stare, despite the omega scent Bilbo could pick up from the both of them, but they were eventually waved through. Ori stuck very close to him once they walked out into the huge cavern that held the stalls, fixing his gaze on the ground whenever passing servants even glanced at them.
Myrtle was curious about Ori, but so effusively grateful for the book that Ori actually handed it over with a watery smile. "I've never heard of a dragon who could read before," he kept saying, and thankfully, dinner had long mellowed Myrtle's mood enough to ignore it.
Holding it carefully near the lantern, Myrtle flipped through the pages with her blunted claws, sighing happily, and eventually struck up a conversation with Ori over the amount of literature in the library, which seemed to edge quickly into Ori's apprenticeship as a scribe.
"Master Hwalin is nice to let me work in the library," Ori had confided bashfully, as Bilbo set up the foldable writing table from their saddlebags, and a blank scroll and his quill and ink, when Myrtle insisted on seeing Ori's calligraphy. "But this is what I'm learning to do."
The young dwarf had beautiful, if angular penmanship, and Myrtle was so enthralled that she would not settle down until Ori had written 'Myrtle Bramblescale' very intricately on another scroll. "Now you've done it," Bilbo laughed, as Myrtle's sails flared as she held up the scroll, studying it and preening, then carefully rolling it up and putting it in their pack. "I'm never going to hear the end of it."
"It's a trifle," Ori said shyly, "I can do a much better one when I'm home-"
"What's goin' on here?" a brusque voice cut in, as the stall door was pulled open, and Ori shot to his feet so quickly that he nearly knocked over the table. The newcomer was a huge dwarf, bald but for a thick ridge of black hair over tattooed skin, and he eyed them all with a frank stare that was nearly unfriendly. He wore the leather armor and mail of one of the Dragon Guard, and he smelled of scale and iron.
"Excuse me," Myrtle was the first to recover from her shock, "But please knock on the door in the future, you gave me quite a fright."
The dwarf stared at her, looking her up and down, then over to Bilbo. "You're the hobbit ambassador."
"Er, quite right."
"Are you aware that we don't have alphas down here?" the dwarf asked flatly.
"Excuse me," Myrtle drew herself up, sails flaring, "My companion is an alpha."
The dwarf didn't even glance at her. "Keep your dragon under control, hobbit," he told Bilbo acidly. "And as to you, Master Ori, you shouldn't even be here. You'll upset the beasts."
"I'm sorry," Ori whispered quickly, pink to his ears, but before he could move, Myrtle had snarled, outraged, "Beasts!" and had stepped forward, wings outstretched. Bilbo grabbed on to her forearm, but the dwarf merely stared at her, unafraid, and behind him, in the dim-lit dark, there was an answering, rumbling growl, deep-throated. An etcher, a large one by the sounds of it, ready to come to its companion's defence if necessary.
"Shh, shh shh," Bilbo said quickly, and Myrtle glared at the dwarf before settling back down onto her haunches with a huff and a fluting, whistling sound. Deep in the dark, the etcher answered with a low and throaty growl that ended in a snort, and Myrtle muttered to herself, turning her back pointedly to the dwarf and picking up the borrowed book, wings hunched over her back, the very picture of aggrieved injury.
"I'll take you both back up," the dwarf said gruffly, as though he hadn't just faced down a furious dragon, full-mantled.
"Of… of course, Master Dwalin, I'm so sorry about the trouble," Ori swallowed hard.
"It wasn't his fault, it was mine," Bilbo said quickly. "I insisted that he come along."
Dwalin stared at the both of them, unimpressed. "Move along, now."
Bilbo shot a glance over to Myrtle, but she was pointedly ignoring all of them now, and he sighed. This didn't bode well for the rest of his stay.