Of all the names Bella Baggins ever held over the course of her long life, of those given to her by the various noble peoples of Middle-earth, or the ones she herself took up for one reason or another, most being altogether too bold for any self-respecting hobbit to claim, her first and favorite was Bright Eyes.
No one understood this name, of course, as her eyes were a dark soil-brown, closer to the ebonwood trees growing at the edge of Buckland than the gnarled oak and pine of Hobbiton. Her eyes were dark like kettles and beetle wings. But the moment Belladonna Baggins, née Took, locked warm brown eyes, closer to honey than teak, with her daughter’s near-black, she grinned the happy, tired grin of a new mother, and whispered, “It’s about time, Bright Eyes.”
“Took eyes,” she told her confused, yet affectionate, husband later, cradling little Bella with her soft golden brown curls and flushed pink face. “My father has eyes dark as coal, and just as quick to burn. These are eyes which belong to mischief, and the sun’s shadow—who, of course you know, dear Bungo, is ever watchful over the little fairies which roam the hills looking for trouble. She’ll be a wild one, this one will.”
Her husband, the most respectable Bungo Baggins, merely smiled and nodded, well used to Belladonna’s fanciful ways and tendency to spin tall tales out of twine. He was tired, his daughter was lovely and gurgling like a soft spring brook, his wife was beaming and bouncing with delight. He was, though he would never be so bold as to say it out loud, quite the happiest hobbit who had ever lived.
As Bella grew older and more hobbits questioned Belladonna about the nickname, the rest of the Shire not so accustomed to Tookish oddity that they didn’t find the whole thing rather strange, she explained to anyone who would listen that it wasn’t because little Bella twinkled with life, though she did, nor because her smile lit up the Shire as she ran screaming through the grass and wildflowers, though it did that as well. It was not even for the starlight which caught now and again in the young hobbit’s eyes when her father tipped her chin up to the night sky, naming the constellations and whispering lovely, mad tales into her wide open ears, or the sunlight which followed after her with a greedy longing as she dug into the soil of her mother’s garden like an adventurer searching for lost treasure.
No, Gandalf—wizard, traveler, and old, old friend to Gerontius Took and his most remarkable daughter—learned one day while sitting with Belladonna and watching the little hobbit roll down the hill under which Bag End sat only to charge up, breathless and shrieking with laughter, to repeat the whole endeavor again, and again. Belladonna called her daughter Bright Eyes because they reminded her of the hearth fire and the torchlight, the darkness burning away in the face of a brilliance so soft it warmed the heart to look upon it. “Bright like embers,” she whispered to him with an indulgent smile, as little Bella grew dizzy from her tumbling and hopped onto his lap, begging for another story of heroes and kings and faraway lands of magic and mystery, “one errant bit of wind and she’ll catch fire. She’s got the eyes of the sun, this one, and the sun’s blessing she’ll have.”
It was a queer thing to say about a child of the Shire, as most hobbits believed little in the grander mysteries of the world beyond the interference of smaller spirits of flower and stick, of the tiny guardians which sometimes watched over the gentler animals of the gardens of gentler folk. Gandalf had spent much time with these people, and he’d never seen any trace of the reverence of Men, Dwarves, or Elves in them. It was part of their charm, and while they worshipped the land in their own way, tending carefully to their gardens and fields, and guiding the little animals and trees at their borders, they belonged to none of the Valar. They belonged only to themselves, and Gandalf loved them for it.
Why Belladonna Baggins suddenly took it into her head to talk of sun blessings and fire burning in her daughter’s heart, he knew not. But she had always had a far-reaching mind, and so he smiled and nodded, and went back to spinning stories of dark deeds and lady knights, thinking privately to himself that if any hobbit might gain the attention of the Valar, it might be this one.
The Shire was too small and too simple for her little Bright Eyes, Belladonna confided to Gandalf one day some years later, when her daughter was well into childhood and every bit as stubborn and willful as she herself had been at that age. Bella wandered too far and too wide. She scared the other children with her fanciful stories of dragons and black fire, collecting them like lightning bugs in jars around her heart. For though the most remarkable daughter of Old Took never lost her love of wild places and adventure, she worried. While her husband, seeing again the fire he loved in his wife reborn in his daughter, never counted it strange that his darling, lovely Bella liked climbing trees to talk with the birds and threw stones at any stray dogs who might come for her prized chickens, Belladonna knew what it was to harbor a wild heart in the Shire.
She’d been lucky, abundantly, wonderfully lucky, to have found her dear Bungo, even after all her years of wandering, farther afield than she would ever admit even to him. But not many hobbits found that fire and will something to cherish. Sprinkled into the otherwise calm temperament of a proper lady of the Shire, perhaps it might win some cheeky remarks and fond thoughts of excitement in a peaceful, quiet marriage. But little Bella was more than most could handle, and she lived in a place where peace and quiet were more important than adventure.
Belladonna loved her daughter more than she loved anything else in the whole world, except, perhaps, her husband, and would never think to tame her warrior’s heart, but she did worry. For even the fiercest flame could be doused by the disapproval of others, and loneliness was the heaviest burden of all. She might have taught her that, in time, if her sweet, adoring Bungo had not left her too soon, and her own wild heart had broken beyond repair of even her daughter’s sad, bright eyes.
Belladonna Baggins, née Took, did not last the year after her husband died, and followed him to whatever distant land hobbits went to when they passed through the veil of life as soon as she could. At the young age of thirty-four, when she should have been courting, sprouting wings to roost in a nest of her own, Bella had buried her parents in little graves behind her hill, and stared down the rest of her lonely life with dry, aching eyes.
Five times did Gandalf meet little Bella Baggins before the quick death of her father and slower, more painful wasting away of her mother. Five times did Gandalf see that fire grow and blossom, a vibrant, thorny weed in a garden of neatly trimmed flowers—a wildfire in eyes blacker than the deepest night.
He had been present at her mother’s funeral, and set dear Belladonna to rest with as much fanfare and fireworks as he could bring without setting the Shire itself ablaze. He had watched the last Baggins of Bag End try to contain her grief in the face of pleasant and well-meaning sympathy, little fists clenched so hard he was surprised they had not turned to stone, that she could open them again at all. He had stayed with Bella for a week, even as he felt himself pulled to other matters, far grander and larger than the green paradise where one hobbit’s heart keened and suffered.
In the years after, he pledged to watch over her, and she, begrudgingly, allowed him. They grew to friends of a kind, or at least she didn’t throw him out of her home when he called on her sporadically, and never with any notice. She always had a bed for him to sleep in, bemoaning the “oversized waste of space” she’d had crafted specifically for him and set in the far corner of Bag End for any unannounced visits.
Bella Baggins became every bit her mother’s daughter, down to the golden-brown locks and firm, furrowed brow, her dark Took eyes startling even the hardiest hobbits when she neglected to curb their intensity. But even she surpassed her mother for stubbornness. Where Belladonna had been a bouncing, frivolous hobbit, more prone to laughing madly and leaping away rather than enter into a fight, Bella was sharp, cutting—her tongue barbed and her gaze as hot as dragon fire. Perhaps it was the combination of Tookish nerve and Bagginsish obstinance, but Bella Bright Eyes became an imperious force in Hobbiton, kind and polite when it suited her, and utterly dismissive when it didn't.
Though he would never say it, Gandalf enjoyed greatly seeing the quiet town of Hobbiton bristle and raise its hackles as she walked past, like some lazy house cat reminded why it had been born with claws. For sixteen years, he watched Bella Bright Eyes test the boundaries of her home, straying farther than most, save her mother, but not far enough to tempt herself into leaving altogether. He listened to her speak of a nagging urge in her gut whenever she fell into the burning leaves of her pipe. They sat and smoked, and talked of wilder things while she languished in her tiny world, growing thorns around her wilder heart. He watched her pull up weeds and try to tame her garden, shoving herself into the mold of the Shire her mother had loved so much that no matter how far she wandered, she always came back, though it never fit her like it did her mother.
He told himself that he felt the stirrings of fate around her, and perhaps he did—though he’d never been very good with prophecy, damnably boring thing it was. But the real reason he came back year after year was the sadness that lingered in the corners of her eyes. After all his long years spent walking the realm of Elves and Man, and even Dwarves from time to time, listening to their pain and honoring it, he thought he finally understood a bit of his Lady’s burden as he had never truly understood it before. He came back because he had seen kings and kingdoms rise and fall, fought men who would be gods, witnessed the bend of the earth in his Creator’s eternal vision, but he’d never seen such horrible, burning despair in anyone’s eyes as poor Bella Baggins.
For all the years he’d spent learning the art of pity and patience, seated beside Nienna, Lady of Suffering, he felt young in the ferocity of this hobbit’s quiet grief.
For sixteen years, he felt the world grow dark. Shadows crept back into the forgotten places of Middle-earth, shadows with familiar voices. He watched the horizon and kept one ear to the winds, feeling his time of peace was ended at last. He looked at the shape of Middle Earth, at the kingdoms in the East, at a Lonely Mountain with a lonely king who needed only a bit of encouragement to push him back homeward, and wondered if there might be more than Tookish fire in the heart of his dear Bright Eyes.
After all, if he had learned anything over the course of his long, long life, it was that one never knew when such fire, and perhaps a bit of unlikely courage, might make all the difference.
~ ✧ ~
Bella crouched on the branch of her tree, watching the dark figure make his way down the winding forest road. She held her breath, and tried hard to keep very still, for she knew dwarves had excellent hearing, and even better sight in the dim shadows of her forest.
That he was a dwarf wasn’t a question, as Bella had seen dwarves in the taverns of Bree many times, and there was no mistaking the broad shoulders and steady gait. Humans were gangly and skittish, while most hobbits skipped or shuffled, and his shape wasn’t right for either. Dwarves weren’t such an uncommon sight these days, with more and more of them coming down from the Blue Mountains and causing all kinds of fuss amongst her busybody neighbors, but it was odd to see one traveling alone. She’d only ever seen them travel in pairs or triplets. Once a group of five had caused such an uproar in Longbottom, the Thain himself had needed to step in to quell fears of an invasion, or what passed for an invasion by Shire reckoning.
But she’d never seen one on his own. And never on a road so near Hobbiton.
He was still a ways off, so Bella chanced crawling a bit further down her branch. The daffodils, nestled precariously in her basket, shuddered as she moved, nearly forgotten in her surprise. Shifting the basket to a steadier position on the trunk behind her, she eased back, and settled her gaze again on the approaching dwarf.
She’d been traveling the road to Green Hill Country so often the past few years to pick the daffodils here, she felt she knew it intimately, as well as she knew her hill in Hobbiton, and so she had to fight a small bit of annoyance to see someone so clearly foreign interrupting her weekly ritual. Dwarves weren’t inherently unpleasant, not like the rest of the Shire thought, and she had reason enough to count the sight of one a happy surprise, as she’d had a decent conversation with a few in Bree more than once. But they did stir things up, and while she loved a bit of excitement in her dull life, this one looked…different.
I sound like Lobelia, she thought with a shudder, and put it out of her mind. There was no reason to think a dwarf on his own was such a strange sight. No reason to start spinning tales in her head of dark deeds and nefarious plots that might spur a hardened dwarf to set off on his own in search of—
He was only a few yards down the road when a trill of birdsong startled her. She jerked back as a large thrush nearly landed on her forehead, and froze as a crack resounded down the quiet road. She had just enough time to let out a small, “Oh,” before the branch under her broke and she toppled to the ground.
Luckily, her fall was broken by a very solid dwarf. Her world was a mess of limbs and startled grumbling which sounded like stones banging together, until she stopped tumbling and found herself half-sitting on that same dwarf’s chest. Bella stared into pale blue eyes under a heavy black brow, wide and utterly focused on her, before she was unceremoniously thrown to the side.
She hit the dirt with a thud and felt the fabric of her dress sleeve rip under her mother’s traveling coat. “Steady on you—,” she began, mind scrambling for something and finding anger, as it so often did, only to choke on her words as she looked up into the sharp end of a sword.
“Give me a reason not to kill you, halfling,” the dwarf said, his voice lower than thunder and somehow cultured even in his threat.
She blinked, too shocked for fear, and traced the fine edge of the dwarf’s blade with her eyes. It took her a beat to find her wits again, and when she caught sight of a mass of crushed yellow petals under his heavy boot, she said, “You squashed my daffodils.”
The dwarf’s brow furrowed. “What?”
Bella frowned up at him, looked pointedly at his sword.
He towered over her, wearing a heavy, worn coat that looked like it had seen better days, but was surprisingly fine. In the dim light of the wood, she saw a few flashes of silver in his long, black hair, the edge of a rich tunic at his wrists.
“I spent all afternoon picking those daffodils,” she said, a little breathless but trying to sound irate, “and you’ve gone and squashed them with your offending boots.”
The dwarf cocked his head, looking as if he waited for the end of a joke. He didn’t lower his sword. “You launch yourself out of a tree to attack me only to fail, and you worry about crushed flowers?”
“I didn’t attack you,” she snapped, embarrassment warming her neck and cheeks. “I—I fell.”
“Directly onto my head?”
Bella scowled. “It’s not my fault you walked under my branch at the exact moment it broke.”
The dwarf blinked, his severe face a mask of confusion, as if he were caught between yelling at her again, or laughing.
Only then did Bella remember the small knife strapped under her skirts to her thigh, another currently digging its sheath into her waist. She cursed herself for not having the wits to reach for one before this brute had threatened her. She wasn’t a warrior, not by a long shot, but she also wasn’t some gentle hobbit lass without bite. Which he would learn soon enough if he didn’t lower his sword.
If he saw the promise in her eyes, or decided she wasn’t worth the effort, she didn’t know, but after a moment the dwarf stepped away from her and sheathed his sword. “If you are an assassin, you’re the worst I’ve ever met.”
“An assassin?” she scoffed, rising to her elbows and brushing some of the dirt off her dress. She shrugged out of her coat to examine the rip in her sleeve. Bother it all, she thought. She couldn’t take it to her tailor, not so soon after the last one only a few weeks ago, not unless she wanted to be the scandal of Hobbiton. Again. I’m going to run out of dresses soon. “Someone thinks very highly of himself, doesn’t he?”
He sent her a curious look, before bending to retrieve her basket. “Perhaps you should find sturdier branches, if you intend to spy on innocent travelers.” His eyes scanned the forest quickly, a dark look passing over his expression.
“I wasn’t spying on you,” she muttered, grabbing the basket from his hands and getting shakily to her feet. She must look a mess. She frowned, fighting the urge to shift as pain throbbed at the base of her spine. Something burned on her cheek, and she winced when she pressed fingers to a shallow cut.
“Are you the guardian of this road, then?” he asked, producing a seemingly clean white handkerchief from his pocket and offering it to her in distraction as he continued to search their surroundings.
What on earth was he looking for?
She eyed it for a moment, before snatching it from his hand and pressing it gingerly to her cheek. “Never mind what I am.” She braced a hand on her hip and jerked her chin toward the road. “Go on then. You must be in a hurry, if you’re going to threaten the life of anyone who might accidentally delay what I am sure is a perilously important journey.”
He stiffened, turned back to her with an affronted scowl. “You fell on top of me, and you think to take offense?”
“Yes, well, the bruise I’ll have on my ass from your thick head is more than enough to discourage me from the practice in the future.”
“Are all halflings so rude to those they accost in the middle of the woods?”
“Are all dwarves so eager to brandish about their swords like they have something to prove?”
He considered. “When I think on it, yes, they are.”
She deflated, watching his severe expression relax. He still cut an intimidating profile, but there was something almost…playful in his face now. Surprised, wary, but playful. “You’ll find most hobbits don’t generally climb trees,” she said. “You should be clear of any more falling from the sky until you leave the Shire. Although, if you do cross through Tookland, I’d be more concerned with flying cabbages.”
“That would almost be a disappointment after flying hobbits.” He did a once over of her person, his pale eyes searching with no attempt to hide his confused interest.
She became suddenly hyperaware of the mess of her hair and clothes, and resisted the urge to shift in discomfort.
He, somehow, still looked just as put together as he had a moment ago, with his fine, worn coat and polished leather jerkin. Rings glinted on his fingers, just a few, not as many as some dwarves she’d seen, with their entire family’s wealth displayed on their knuckles for all the world to see. She noticed for the first time the intricate patterns stitched into his clothes and engraved on his sword’s sheath, all proud diamonds and stark lines. Maybe he was someone important, to think assassins were after him and to be wearing such nice clothes. He certainly held his blade with a confidence that spoke to having used it more than once.
And he wasn’t bad-looking, with that sharp nose and fine, dignified grey at his temples. Not bad-looking for a dwarf, anyway.
His eyes crinkled at the sides, that smirk growing as he met her gaze again. “I am sorry for crushing your flowers, miss,” he said, inclining his head in a courtly manner.
“Thank you,” she said automatically, knowing she’d been caught in her examination of him as well. “I’m sorry for…falling on you.”
“No harm done.” His grin widened. “To me, at least.”
She pursed her lips to stop from scowling.
He took a step back, sketching a slight bow and pressing a hand to his chest. “Safe travels on your journey home. Be wary of the road. You never know whom you might meet in these dark times.”
Bella swallowed her immediate dismissal of his warning—as if she didn’t know every stretch of the Shire better than the back of her own hand—fidgeting as her ingrained loathing of pleasantries fought with her embarrassment. “And you as well, Master Dwarf.”
His lips twitched as he turned, ambling down the wooded path without another glance over his shoulder.
She watched him until he rounded the bend. A strange urge held her feet in place, told her to wait until she could see him no more. Once he was out of sight, the urge passed, and she sagged, pressing a hand gingerly to her lower back.
“Be wary of the road, oh please,” she muttered, feeling the sore spot which would most definitely bruise something fierce. “Blasted dwarf’s actually made of stone.”
Squatting so as not to bend her back, she collected her scattered things. Scarves and scraps of food were strewn across the road with the crushed remains of her daffodils. None of them could be salvaged, though she was almost glad for the excuse to come back tomorrow. Her mother’s vase would still be empty, and no one would begrudge her the time spent collecting them from the same spot where she and her mother had found them on a return trip from visiting her relatives in the South Farthing years and years ago. Not that she cared what anyone else thought, but it would at least save her the pointed glances. Anything that cut back on the gossip of Hobbiton was a blessing in her eyes.
She paused in the act of reordering her things, catching sight of a small swatch of night-blue velvet tucked under the wrappings of her crumbled dinner. It was a handkerchief, but far finer than any she had, or any kept by most hobbits. While the fashion of the Shire might be excessively comfortable, they didn’t indulge in useless trinkets or goods. And a velvet handkerchief was too fine for any self-respecting hobbit to empty her nose into. Bella had to concede it was lovely, however. Stitched in some kind of shimmering thread along the edges and in the center was a pattern that reminded her of a mountain, seven stars winking over a single peak, with a diamond at its base.
“Oh, bother,” she sighed, straightening and turning back to look down the road. The dwarf must have dropped it. Collecting her things as quickly as she could, she jogged down to the bend, but there was no sign of him.
She sagged, hitching up her meandering sleeve where it had torn free from the rest of her dress and shrugging on her coat. “Confuscated dwarf.”
~ ✧ ~
Thorin could not suppress his grin as the hobbit sagged in the middle of the road and began mumbling to herself again.
Doubling back as soon as he’d ventured far enough out of her sight, he crept through the wood to watch as she gathered up her things. He told himself it was to ensure she wasn’t some assassin sent to trail him along with the others who had been following him from the Tower Hills. One look at her could have told him that much.
Her rounded face didn’t speak to a lifetime of fighting. She’d probably never had reason to wield a sword, let alone been sent to kill an exiled dwarf-king. Though, he had to admit, as he watched the hobbit kick the dirt up with her large feet and push disheveled golden-brown curls from her face, he should count himself lucky to die with such a soft face above him, that dark gaze the last he ever saw of this world.
His grin faded at the thought. His failure at Ered Luin was making him morose, if he longed for the gentle beauty of some bothersome hobbit lass to be his final goodbye before venturing into the halls of Mahal.
He should leave, find the trail of his shadows, if they were truly assassins or merely some humans who thought him easy prey, and get rid of them before meeting that damned wizard in this sleepy green vale. But letting the hobbit wander into a trap set for him left a foul taste in his mouth. Perhaps if he had offered to escort her home…
A king is not a nursemaid, he reminded himself, wondering why she hadn’t moved on yet. She was just standing in the middle of the road, shifting from foot to foot.
He was still caught in his indecision when the hobbit turned abruptly to the opposite side of the road, withdrew something from under her skirts—Thorin had the faint impression he should avert his gaze, though he still wasn’t sure if she was a she, as hobbits all tended to look the same manner of gentle no matter their sex, and their perplexing clothes didn’t help—and threw what appeared to be a knife with surprising grace. It landed dead center in the middle of a knot and held.
She sighed, nodded her head, and hopped over to the tree, her step quicker now.
Thorin’s brow lifted as she yanked the small, thin blade from the tree and slid it between her teeth. She gathered up her wild, curly hair, tying it up where it had escaped in her fall from the tree, and slipped the knife into her bun.
He eased further into the shadows as she turned back with a firm set to her small chin, and made her way up the road in the direction from whence he’d come.
Well, that settled that. The girl wasn’t nearly so helpless as she looked, even without her barbed tongue. He’d seen a few hobbits on his travels, not enough to draw any conclusions about them as a whole, but he’d found them a silly, bumbling folk, distrustful of dwarrows, who would no sooner pick up a sword than scale mountains. Perhaps this girl was an outlier. She certainly dressed a bit different, with a sturdy green dress and a worn, red velvet coat which looked made for use rather than ornament. He’d felt some kind of reinforcement over her sides as he threw her off his chest, as well. Perhaps she had armor on under her dress. Most hobbits he’d seen wore bright, obnoxious colors and thoroughly useless linens which would would not stop a blade so much as invite it in.
Odd thing, he thought to himself with a grin, stepping onto the road again as her dirtied green skirts, hitched up to display her hairy feet and ankles, disappeared below a dip in the hills. She’d most likely bought him a few more hours of peace, though she didn’t know it. Whoever was trailing him didn’t seem eager to kill innocent hobbit lasses, no matter how…strange.
He sighed, rubbed a hand over his forehead, which didn’t hurt from her insubstantial weight falling on him, but felt oddly fragile, and started down the road in the opposite direction. If he was going to lose his escort before meeting the wizard that evening, he’d need to do it soon. It was only his luck that this country was too soft and open to allow for any decent place to set up an ambush.
“Perhaps I should climb a tree,” he mused under his breath, laughing a bit to himself as he settled his sword belt and pulled his hood once more over his head.