Chapter 1: The Burglar
The Shire, April, 2941
Ella spurred her pony as she left Hobbiton behind and took the forest road eastwards.
Strictly speaking, it wasn't "her" pony in the first place, but if she wanted to catch up with Gandalf and the others, she could hardly walk, could she? They had left Bilbo's home an hour ago, as long as it had taken her to concoct her daring plan. And it wasn't that she had stolen the animal, merely borrowed it. She would of course return it to its owner on her glorious return, and with a bag full of coins on top. No one could ask for more.
The daylight was quickly fading, but Ella wasn't too worried- a party of a wizard and thirteen dwarves on horseback could hardly be overlooked, even in the dark, and dwarves weren't exactly known for stealthiness and usually long heard before seen. And after all, she knew where they were heading to. She heard everything that was spoken at her uncle's table, once the big feast was over.
No, the hard part would not be finding them but everything that came after that. But Ella had never been one to worry much about chestnuts before they fell into the fire.
At worst they could say no. Meaning she'd have to return to uncle Bilbo, his absent smiles, old books and ( admittedly ) good dishes- that is, the good dishes he would serve, had the dwarfs not plundered his pantry. A swarm of hungry locusts was nothing compared to those bearded brutes. Where Bilbo was hoarding a huge stock of delicacies before, as if expecting a great famine in the near future, there were hardly more than a few crumbs left now, and Ella should know; she had made generous use of the meager leftovers for a quick travel snack.
Outright laughable actually, that grandma Ermentrude ( who came as close to a dragon as Ella could imagine ) should have believed, that quirky bachelor of an uncle could keep her unruly ward in reign when she couldn't. But then- it had probably been more about finding a place where Ella would be less able to "get up to nonsense", as she would call it. Hobbiton was a sleepy hollow compared to Bree, hardly more than a dozen hobbit holes, pittoresquely embedded into the green fields of the Shire, so quiet one could hear the grass grow.
A postcard idyll, a still life in the truest sense of the word. Placid, in terms of its inhabitants. Deadly dull in Ella's. Suffocating.
Bilbo's place was called Bag End and that's what it was- an end, a place to settle down and never leave again, a cage, however neatly decorated, and even worse, in an environment where everybody knew everybody else, and was always up to date with even the smallest of their neighbours' misdeeds- which especially for someone like Ella could augur no well.
But then again- what heinous crimes had she committed to deserve to be dumped in such a backwater anyway? A mug or two ( or a few more ) of ale and a pipe here and there, a little gambling in the taverns, a few ( really harmless )fights, nothing more- and all of it things that would be expected from a hobbit of her age rather than frowned upon. If she were a boy, mind.
But Ella was a girl, and if she sometimes paid her gambling debts in kisses instead of coins, who could blame her? She had no money of her own, and she hardly ever lost- or only if her game partners were fairly handsome. And they were all strangers anyway, tradespeople mostly, who would again be well on their way when they noticed that one or two small things in their possession were missing-
While Bree was a tradepost, which naturally saw its fair share of transients, strangers hardly ever found their way into Hobbiton and thus, Ella was thrilled about Gandalf's visit.
The old wizard was an inexhaustable well of funny magic tricks and exciting stories and his fondness for hobbits in general and Baggins in particular included even her as the black sheep of the family.
But as it turned out, he had only come to talk her uncle into joining a risky endeavor- and for no other than the dwarf king himself.
And if ever a king deserved his title, Ella had to admit that, it was certainly this Thorin.
He was the last of the thirteen dwarves that entered Bilbo's hobbit hole ( or invaded it rather ) but there was no mistaking for who he was at the very first glance. Apart from being more than stately with his sturdy, muscular frame and his handsome, angular face with eyes of the deepest blue Ella had ever seen, framed by a thick mane of dark hair and a beard of the same colour, the man carried such an aura of power and authority that Ella could have sworn the temperature in the room dropped considerably at his entry.
But even if he may make an impressive king, currently he was a king without a kingdom, and that was what the whole conspiratorial meeting was about in the first place.
Ella couldn't claim to have understood everything that was discussed, but there was talk of a secret, hidden entrance into the mighty dwarven stronghold of Erebor, which Thorin planned to find and use to reclaim his kingdom. A task which required the help of a skilled burglar, and that was where her uncle came into play.
Except that Bilbo had outright refused.
Well, had Gandalf asked Ella- which of course he had not- she could have told him so beforehand. Fascinated though her uncle was by old stories about elves and dragons and whatever wonders Middle Earth offered to a fearless adventurer, he preferred to read about it in his books, in front of his cozy fireplace in the safety of his hobbit hole.
Of all her family, Ella was likely the only one who had inheritated something like a thirst for actual adventures, which was as unusual a trait for a Baggins as for all her people.
The old wizard had led the company of dwarves to the right place, but they had asked the wrong hobbit.
About an hour later, when Ella began to worry, they might have decided to ride all night , she was relieved to see the lights of a campfire in front of her. She let the pony fall into a slow trot, as she rode towards the party sitting around it. Now that she had found them, her confidence was beginning to waver, if only a little.
"Gandalf," she shouted at the one person among them she knew and knew to know her, just to make sure to avoid an over-eager dwarf blade at her throat before she could so much as explain her peaceful intentions.
The old wizard rose and let his inevitable pipe sink as he gaped at her in surprise. "Ella?" he asked at last. "What are you doing out here in the middle of the night, child? Is Bilbo with you?"
"No." Ella gritted her teeth at his unfortunate wording. Gandalf might be as old as time itself, and he never called her uncle, who at fifty was supposed to be a man in his prime, other than "young Bilbo", but it was certainly a bad start of her endeavor to point out how young she really was.
Warriors as they were, and a suspicious people on top of that, the dwarves had all jumped up at her approach, and from what she could tell by the light of the flickering flames, now watched her with not too friendly miens. She dismounted and regretted it immediately, when it occured to her that she was now visibly by far the smallest person in the round.To make up for this disadvantage, she held her chin up high, as she took a step towards the dwarf king.
"Bilbo has not changed his mind I'm afraid," she said with what she hoped sounded like a firm and determined voice, "but he is not the burglar you're looking for. It is me."
"Now, now girl," she heard Gandalf's voice but ignored him and instead sank into a deep bow, as this was what was expected in front of kings.
"Llewella Dandelia Baggins, at your service."
The incredulous silence that followed was soon interrupted by a few, stifled, yet clearly audible chuckles from the ranks of the dwarves. Ella looked up and her eyes met Thorin's piercing blue stare. The king himself looked unamused, apart from maybe the slightest twitch of his upper lip beneath his dark beard.
"Quite a long name for such a short person," he said, his voice barely more than a low growl. Ella felt her face grow hot despite the chilly night air. It was a clear slight, and an unfair one at that. Three feet ( or well, almost) were by all means a respectable size for a hobbit, still Thorin, who was exceptionally tall for a dwarf, overtowered her easily by at least a head.
"And a nice one at that," one of the other dwarves leapt to her defense and Ella blinked, surprised to hear an actually friendly voice here. The man who had stepped forward and casually laid his hand on Thorin's broad shoulder, had a friendly face too, young and handsome, or at least by dwarf standards.
"All hobbit names are supposed to have a meaning or so I've heard. Plants, trees and such. What's yours?" There was nothing but polite curiosity in his voice, yet Ella felt her face flush anew. She shot a sharp glance at the wizard standing next to her. Don't.
"Buttercup," Gandalf answered for her, helpful as ever.
The chuckles set in anew, louder this time. Why, thanks a lot Gandalf. Ella supressed the strong desire to kick his shinbone.
The dwarf king looked her over and Ella was well aware what he saw. Gandalf had not been quite accurate, her first name meant "lioness"- which was definitely far more impressive than "buttercup"- but even if her unruly curls might with some imagination pass for a lion's mane, they were of a bright yellow which bore an unmistakable resemblance to the namesake flower, and framed a generously freckled face with round eyes, a not too graceful snub nose and a small rosebud mouth which was right now pinched into an irritated line.
Thorin exhaled with a sigh. He looked tired.
"Well, Miss Baggins-"
"Ella is fine," she interjected quickly.
His gaze hardened. "Miss Baggins," he began anew, his voice a trifle cooler this time, clearly he wasn't used to be interrupted by inferiors. "I thank you for your offer, but I have to decline. I'm sorry you made the long way for nothing, but you shouldn't have come here in the first place."
He turned his broad back on her and walked back towards the fire. Evidently, she was dismissed.
"Come now, girl." Ella felt Gandalf's reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Let's bring you home, shall we?" He glanced at her mount and raised a brow. "Isn't that Master Peabody's pony?"
Ella shook his hand off. "Is that how dwarves honor their contracts?" she shouted in the direction of the king's back. "And here I thought a king was obliged to abide by his word."
Thorin turned with an ominous frown on his distinctive features, but she ignored it, produced a parchment from her shoulder bag and held it up to his face. After a moment, he took it from her hand and darted a quick glance at it.
"The contract was made for a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins," he said dangerously calmly. "It says Baggins, nothing more." Ella shot back and tipped her finger on the parchment. "I am a Baggins. And this is my signature." She raised her chin defiantly to meet Thorin's deep blue eyes. "Like it or not, your Highness, you will need me. And as far as I'm informed, size doesn't matter in this endeavor, rather the contrary, I should think."
For a moment, Ella thought she had won. There was a subtle flicker of a new emotion in the king's cold eyes, but if anger, amusement or even a tinge of reluctant respect at her bold speech, she couldn't tell, especially because it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
"And I said no." he said with cold finality. "You may not have- should I say spied ?- well enough on our conversation, Miss Baggins, because you wouldn't have signed for this if you had. This is no joyride but a dangerous undertaking, and I mean dangerous. It is no less than all our lives which are at stake here, and as much as it troubles me to put my companions in danger, they are all battle-proven warriors. It is my responsibility as their king to do my best so that everyone comes out of this alive and unharmed. However, if you had read this contract- which I assume you have not- you would have noticed that there's no guarantee for this. I am not a nanny and neither have I use for a- mascot."
Now, that was unambigious. Part of Ella never really believed this was going to work anyway, and when she thought about it now, she should be glad about that. By the hairs on her feet, she didn't even like dwarves much. And especially not this specimen. It was better this way. Besides, Thorin had a point, she might not have read the contract too closely, but skipped the less pleasant parts to come straight to the promised reward. But then, there hadn't been a lot of time-
However, another part of her, the way more distinct and unfortunately way less reasonable part, wanted to have at least the last word.
Ella took a deep breath. "I see," she said blankly and inclined her head to the tiniest bow possible. "Well, in this case, I reckon you'd like to have this back."
She reached out her hand und watched from the corner of her eye how Thorin's eyes grew wide and he gasped for air in surprise, when he saw what she was holding in her tiny palm.
His seal ring, the token of his regality and certainly his most precious possession at the moment. Which she had slipped from his finger while handing him the contract without him even noticing.
In the face of this vast impudence, the other dwarves caught their breaths, awaiting the outburst of rage which must inevitably follow, but instead it was Gandalf's low chuckle which broke the tense silence.
"Why Thorin," the old wizard said and he sounded quite cheerful. "It would seem, you have found your burglar after all."
Chapter 2: On the Road with Dwarves
Ella sat at the campfire, surrounded by her new companions and momentarily very pleased with herself.
Sure, in theory, there was still a good chance that this grumpy old bear of a king would chase her off after all, but for now he seemed to have accepted her presence and role in this adventure. Which didn't mean he actually welcomed it. Thorin had not exchanged a single word with her after Gandalf's friendly intervention to her benefit.
Sipping her uncle's good wine- hidden in the back on his cabinet, it had escaped the dwarves' raid on his pantry, but Ella knew where Bilbo stored it and also, that it was reserved for 'special occasions' and if this wasn't one, what was?- she watched the dwarf king, who sat somewhat apart from the rest of the group and stared blankly into the flames, lost in thought, or just as likely, as Ella assumed, sulking.
The other dwarves were luckily of a more talkative nature; they had politely introduced themselves one by one when it became clear that she would join the party- and would certainly have to do that again a couple of times more. Not that their names were long or complicated, rather the opposite- they were short and sounded all the same: there were Dwalin and Balin, Fili and Kili, Dori and Nori and even Ori, Oin and Gloin, Bifur and Bofur and Bombur- and it was simply impossible to keep track of who was who.
The good-looking, friendly young dwarf who had adressed her before however, was Kili, Ella surely remembered his name, and he and his brother Fili were not only visibly the youngest in the group ( her own age about, that was, if one kept in mind that dwarves were considered adults at an age when the common hobbit would start to prepare for the afterlife), but also Thorin's nephews and therefor real princes. And for aristocrats, they were exceptionally nice and jovial, that could not be denied.
Neither of them seemed to have the misfortune to take after their morose uncle, but then again- perhaps it wasn't so easy to be a king when one didn't really have anything to offer apart from a title. Perhaps one had to behave excessively- well, kinglike - when there were neither kingdom nor treasures to back up one's entitlement. But be that as it may, Ella corrected herself inwardly when it occured to her that she was trying to find excuses for the dwarf king's undeniably rude behaviour towards her, a little friendliness could never do harm. Determinedly, she forced her gaze away from Thorin's scowling face to settle on the comparatively less irritating ones of his nephews.
They had talked quite a bit over supper, where she had generously shared the remains of Bilbo's food with them.
Both Kili and Fili were beyond curious about the why and wherefore of her decision to join them on their journey. For one, because she was a girl- although they were much too polite to say that directly- for as it seemed, dwarf women, despite their beards, were generally no more supposed or inclined to meddle in 'men's business' than female hobbits were.
Apart from her gender, the brothers simply failed to understand, how anyone could voluntarily leave home and family behind to join some strangers in a business that wasn't their own, and it dawned on Ella that it would be near impossible to explain her motivations to people who had never known something like a home in the first place.
"Why, for the reward of course," she settled for what she thought must be the most plausible answer, especially for dwarves, who, just as magpies, were widely known to be keen on gold and all glistening things. "My parents are both gone, my older brother inheritated the house and there was nothing left for me so-" she paused to take a draught of her wine. "There's a whole mountain full of gold and gems, where we're going, right? Should be a little something in it for me when it's done, so I can buy myself my own little place."
The brothers nodded their understanding, but it didn't escape Ella how Thorin, who had obviously well paid attention to their chat despite pretending to ignore her, looked up and shot her a hard, unfriendly glance and she became aware that she must have sounded like some Haradrim mercenery.
Why, what did he expect? That she had joined this quest because she cared about his personal goals, because he was such a charming person? Certainly not.
Sure, she did want to help him claim back his throne in this godforsaken mountain-after all, a grateful king meant a generous king, but that was all. If he would find a new home for his people in this mountain- which would of course be preferable- and lead them back to former size and strength, or if the dwarves would just vanish into the holes they had come from when all this was over, was of no concern whatsoever to Ella. As long as there was adventure, and the price was right, she was in.
"Well, there's still the little- or not so little- problem called Smaug," Fili argued. Ah yes, the dragon.
Ella shrugged. "Has he not been asleep for a hundred years or so ?" she replied airily. "He's probably long dead. And if not, well-I for my part, have certainly no intentions to wake him up."
Night fell and the dwarves began to settle for sleep. Thorin assigned them to take turns in keeping watch-more out of habit than actual necessity as Ella assumed, for the most dangerous creatures in these woods were limited to foxes and racoons-and took the first one himself.
Warmed by several mugs of Bilbo's good wine against the chilly night air, she snuggled herself up in her coat and drifted into pleasant dreams of mountains full of gold, silver and glistening gems. Dragons, if awake or sleeping, were not part of it, as far as she could recall, nor stuck up, bad-tempered kings with startling blue eyes.
The next morning dawned with a grey sky full of dark, rain-heavy clouds. Despite- or maybe because of- the bad weather, Thorin was determined to make haste.
He looked hardly rested, as Ella found, as if he had not been sleeping at all, and the merciless morning light did nothing to conceal the first lines on his face and the few strands of grey in his raven black hair and beard.
He was visibly not a young man any more, probably older than Bilbo even, and there was really no reason why she should find it so hard to avert her gaze from him- especially because he continued to ignore her presence as he had the night before-
After a quick and meager breakfast, the party of thirteen dwarves, a wizard and a hobbit set out on the Great East Road towards the Misty Mountains.
After he had waited so long the dwarf king could not move fast enough to reach his destination, which was understandable enough, but didn't make the journey an exactly pleasant one, especially not for Ella, who was anything but an experienced rider. Only a few hours on the bumpy forest road made her butt and diverse other parts of her body complain about the unfamiliar activity, and this was only the first day. Several more on horseback were to follow, and in much rougher terrain.
It was all Ella could hope for, that she would get used to it better sooner than later, and that Thorin would order a rest before she fell off the saddle- although the thought of sitting on the bare forest ground with her aching arse was hardly more enticing.
Again seeking her company as peers tend to, Kili and Fili rode right and left next to her and did their best to entertain her with funny stories of their youthful follies, quite a few of which made her laugh and reminded her only too well of her own 'misdeeds'.
Grateful as she was for the young princes' company, the atmosphere was overall a bit dampened due to the weather, and when the first raindrops began to fall and the drizzle soon turned into a constant cold shower, some of the dwarves began to mutter into their beards.
Of what use was it to have an- allegedly powerful-wizard in their ranks if he couldn't even make the rain stop?
Gandalf, who had undoubtedly seen his fair share of unheard-of adventures before any of them had even been born, was of course above such trifling carping.
"You ought to be ashamed, my friends," he said with a faint smile. "Miss Baggins here should be an example to you all. Hobbits are certainly no horsepeople but do you hear her complain?"
As expected, this silenced the mutter, but Ella couldn't quite delight in the old wizard's praise. Sure, she would rather bite off her own tongue than utter any complaint, but only because she knew without doubt that Thorin would jump at the first opportunity she showed any weakness, so he could declare her unfit for the endeavour and send her back home. Hobbit, woman or not, it was clear, she was to expect no special treatment here and she would certainly ask for none either.
However, when the daylight already began to fade and they were finally making camp under a huge oak tree, whose crown luckily kept off most of the rain, and Ella slid out of the saddle, she couldn't quite suppress a pained groan.
In addition to the searing pain in her behind, she was soaked to the bone and ravenously hungry. After the less than satisfactory breakfast, they had been riding all day and thus skipped four of the usual seven daily meals, and she had an inkling that the dwarves didn't know the difference between supper and dinner either. If things carried on like this, she would probably die of hunger rather than by the hands of some orc or the fiery breath of the dragon who guarded the dwarven treasure-
To spare her bum, Ella kneeled in front of the campfire and chewed rather uninspired on what dwarves obviously considered adequate travelling fare- a strand of dried meat and some hard bisquits. Wistfully, she thought of the opulent dinner she would now enjoy at Bilbo's house.
Fried chicken and smoked ham, with roasted potatoes and a variety of frest vegetables from the market. Fluffy white bread with lots of butter and cheese. Apple pie and cream-first of all, Bilbo would surely have refilled his pantry after the dwarves' leave.
But then, maybe not.
The thought of her uncle came along with a brief, sharp pang of guilt. She had of course left him a short farewell note, but he would certainly still be worried sick about her well-being, let alone what he would have to listen to from her grandma Ermentrude once she learned her grand-child had run away while in his custody.
And then, Ella remembered the spare clothes she had crammed into her bag before leaving Bag End. At least, she could get rid of her wet dress.
She excused herself and walked a few steps into the woods, where the thick undergrowth would hide her from prying eyes. Not that Ella was by any means shy or even uptight, but she had a feeling Thorin would set no great store by seeing her exposed breasts or thighs.
His bad. There was absolutely nothing wrong with either.
Ella struggled to take off her damp dress and change into Bilbo's clothes. In her hurry, she had randomly gripped the first things she could find in his chest, which turned out to be a pair of breeches and a white linen shirt. Comfortable, but not exactly warming, and that might become a problem as soon as they reached the mountains which, as was known, were covered in snow even in summer.
The dwarves, for their part, were well equipped for a sudden start of winter, each of them done up in leather armor and thick furs, and her by comparison light and scandalously revealing new outfit drew quite some furtive glances upon her return. However, only Thorin's was actually disapproving, which really came as no surprise.
The men had by now gone over to liquid food and were in a merry mood, except of course for their leader, who didn't seem to know how to smile.
Gratefully, Ella accepted the mug a smiling Kili offered her. Apparently, they had broached the small cask one of the older dwarves ( Balin? Dwalin? A fellow with a prominent hook nose over a fluffy, snow- white beard ) had carried on his back on the ride.
Ella took a hearty draught- and almost spit it all out straightaway. What she had expected to be ale, was so strong and bitter it made her eyes water. She forced herself to gulp it down, where it burned her insides and immediately went to her head and made her feel dizzy.
"This," she coughed and choked, once she was able to speak again, "This isn't ale !"
Fili laughed. "Sure it is," he replied cheerfully. "Balin brews it after his own secret receipe. Says, if you don't feel like throwing up after the first draught, he's not gotten it strong enough."
"Well, it definitely is strong enough." Ella muttered and raised her mug to the culprit who mirrored the gesture with a delighted grin.
"It's going to get better with every draught." Kili promised with a wink.
"Bet it does. You think, it would be considered rude to just spill it on the floor?"
"Terribly rude," Kili confirmed. "I would seriously encourage you to refrain from that. Wars have been started for lesser reasons."
Sighing, Ella took another careful sip. The brew didn't taste a bit better at the second try, but when you knew what to expect it was almost bearable. And after a few sips more, she realised that she no longer felt the pain in her bum, which was definitely a positive side effect.
By the time she had finished the mug, she no longer really felt any other parts of her body either, and gladly accepted a second helping.
Ella considered to talk the dwarves into a game of dice, but found to her surprise that she somehow couldn't remember the rules, so she settled for expanding their repertory of drinking songs with some of the rather rough ones she had learned at Bree's taverns. The friendly, laughing faces of her new friends seemed to multiply and rotate around her in an increasingly faster, merry round dance and she suddenly felt she loved them all dearly.
She never got the chance to finish the second mug. Long before Thorin got up to again take the first nightwatch, Ella had slumped backwards onto her coat and fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the ground.
Chapter 3: The King's Trust
As expected, the new morning found Ella in extremely poor condition.
Nursing the worst hangover of her young life, she clutched to her pony's bridles, desperately trying to stay on the animal's back during the ride.
The rain had stopped, and now the sunlight was much too bright to bear. Worse even, the forest road had begun to lead into more hilly terrain, and the constant up and down in the saddle made her sick.
Her pained expression and the greenish colour of her face did not escape Kili, who rode again at her side.
"First time I got drunk on Balin's homebrew, I slid down a slope and almost broke my neck. You'll get used to it," he consoled in a cheery voice.
"Certainly not," Ella retorted through clenched teeth. "I'll never touch that terrible stuff again."
Kili gave her a knowing grin. "Just you wait till the nights get colder," he said. "You'll come to appreciate it in time."
Ella shook her head and immediately regretted it. "Never. And could you please not talk so loud? My head feels like an overripe melon ready to burst."
"Understood." The dwarf prince winked at her. "And here I thought hobbits were a hard drinking people."
"And I thought, dwarves were a hospitable people and wouldn't try to poison their friends," Ella mumbled. "So much for theory I guess. If you want my advice, serve this stuff to your enemies instead. All your conflicts will be over before they can even begin."
Kili laughed. "Someone's in a foul mood this morning."
"Stop harassing the poor girl," Gandalf scolded him mildly.
"Don't listen to them," he turned to Ella with an apologetic smile. "I should have warned you. Dwarves have never been good at brewing ale, and no one except for themselves wants to drink it. The elves, however, serve a very good wine. Once we reach Rivendell-"
Thorin, who was riding in front of them, turned his head and shot him an angry look."We're not going anywhere near elves' lands, wizard." he said sharply. "I thought we had already discussed this."
Gandalf sighed. "The elves can help us , Thorin," he said softly. "We need food and supplies, and I for one wouldn't mind a rest in a soft bed rather than beneath the stars again. Not to mention we have a map we cannot read. I'm sure Lord Elrond could-"
The dwarf king clenched his jaw. "I don't need help from elves," he growled. "Where were they when the dragon attacked the Erebor? And afterwards, in Moria, when our men were slaughtered by orcs? The elves, Gandalf, did nothing. They just- stood aside and watched us die. You will forgive me if I think can forgo with that kind of help."He spurred his pony and rode on before the old wizard had the chance to reply.
"Brrr." Abruptly, Gandalf pulled the reigns and steadied his horse."Cursed be the stubbornness of dwarves, and their kings' in particular," he mumbled. "Well, good luck with your endeavor then. I prefer the company of people who appreciate my advice."
"Gandalf, no-" Ella cried, when the old wizard turned around and disappeared into the woods. She stared after him in disbelief, then back to Thorin who was riding on as if nothing had happened. At last, she turned to Kili for help."Won't you do anything? You cannot just let him leave like that. We need him!"
The prince shrugged. "He's a wizard, he does as he pleases. I'm sure he will be back once his anger has passed. Besides, Thorin is right, he has told him before, asking help of the elves was not an option."
"But- but why?" Ella shook her head. "If they can read the map and we can't? How are we going to find the secret entrance if we don't know where it is?"
"That's what we have you for, don't we?" The smile left Kili's face. "Have you not heard Thorin? He has every reason not to trust the elves. As he said, they betrayed our people twice in the hours of our greatest need. Nothing good has ever come from those pointy-eared bastards- no offence, of course" he added quickly with a look at Ella's own ears. "Hundreds of us died, because they refused to help when the orc hordes raided our cities. And ever since those dark days, the hatred between dwarves and elves is deeply rooted."
"I see." Ella chewed her lower lip. Hobbits were by and large a peaceful race of mainly farmers. Armed conflicts were widely unknown, as were serious crimes, whereas it was little wonder that the dwarves' ability to bring treasures to light had always awakened the greed and desire of others.
"What happened in Moria?" she asked Kili. "How could you even win the battle?"
The prince's handsome face illuminated with an outright adoring smile. "Because of Thorin, that's how," he said solemnly. "Have you never heard the story of how he came to his surname 'Oakenshield'? It was when Thror, the King had fallen, and the orc army was about to overrun Moria. It was hell, Ella. The battle was as good as over, the dwarves leaderless, outnumbered by a multiple- there was no other way out than to flee or be slaughtered to the very last man. It was then, that Thorin, the last of the sons of Durin, armed with nothing but his sword and an oaken branch as a shield confronted the leader of the orc army, a huge, pale orc named Azog. And he- I don't know how, but he defeated him. Cut off his swordarm. Then he gathered the remaining army and they succeeded in driving the orcs back. But it was a bitter victory. Many of us died out there, too many. Without Thorin, everyone would have died-"
He paused and gave her a faint smile. "He wasn't much older then than I am now, you know? I don't know how he did it. But I know, I will follow him wherever he may lead us."
Ella had listened in silence, her eyes on Thorin's broad back in the saddle before them. It wasn't hard to imagine him on this battlefield, surrounded by a superior and gruesome enemy, with no hope of victory- or even survival, and still determined to fight to his last breath. That was the man he was- a born warrior, a born king.
And still. It was foolish to reject a possible ally because of something that had happened some hundred years ago. They weren't too many as it was. They would need all the support they could get.
"Don't worry lass," Kili smiled when he saw her doubtful expression. "We'll find a way into that mountain, even without the haughty Rivendell folk. And Gandalf tends to exaggerate. Their wine may be decent, but trust me, the food is terrible."
By nightfall, the party made camp on a rocky plateau.
Not that she would let it show, but Ella felt slightly uncertain about her part in the whole endeavour after Gandalf had left them. Would Thorin send her back home now that the wizard was no longer there to hold his protecting hand over her?
Or was her service even more important now, when they didn't have the elves to tell them where the secret entrance to the Erebor was?
Truth be told, Ella had no idea how she should find a hidden door in a mountain, if no one else knew where it was- or if it even existed.
She was no clairvoyant. She was just a thief.
All the more reason to fight for her right to be part of the endeavour- and so she volunteered for the first night watch.
As expected, Thorin didn't like the idea. "What if orcs make towards us?"
"Well- I guess, then I will scream." Ella retorted dryly. She had not seen any orcs so far, nor did she expect to do so tonight. She sent a crooked smile over to the dwarf king. "Your majesty is of course welcome to join me, if you don't trust my abilities."At that, Thorin frowned, but raised no further objections.
After finishing another meager dinner- throughout which Ella had adamantly refused Balin's homebrew-when the dwarves had stretched themselves out on their furs, Ella searched for a good spot for her nightwatch and chose a flat rock at the ledge which provided a good overview. She sat down, wrapped herself up in her coat and kept her eyes on the plains below, but her thoughts were full of worries that had nothing to do with a possible orc attack.
She wished Gandalf had not left them, wished she could be as confident as Kili that he would come back once he was no longer angry. Without him, the last connection to the home she knew was gone. The dwarves were nice enough, sure- some of them anyway- but she wasn't really one of them and never would be.
She wished Thorin wouldn't be so stubborn and make up his mind about Rivendell.
What was so wrong about elves? They were the oldest and wisest of all people in Middle-Earth- apart from wizards like Gandalf, but certainly much more beautiful to look at- mysterious and fascinating. It was really not fair that she was supposed to meet orcs and dragons and who-knows-what other nasty creatures, but not elves.
After she had watched the area for about an hour and was about to doze off, she almost jumped off her skin when she suddenly heard footsteps behind her the dark.
Expecting one of the young princes, she turned her head, but instead it was the King himself.
"Can't sleep?" Ella asked flippantly to disguise her unease about the unexpected company.
"I thought it might be time for a changing of guards,"Thorin replied in a quiet, dark voice. "Besides, no- I do not remember to have had a night of peaceful slumber in many years."
He moved closer." Everything quiet out there?"
"As far as I can see- "Ella squinted. "Which isn't too far, after all, it is dark. But I don't think, a horde of orcs would have escaped me."
The dwarf king seated himself next to her and watched the plains below them while she watched him.
The pale light of the moon coloured his hair and beard pitch black, smoothened the wrinkles in his face and made his eyes shine an impossible deep blue. He looked so incredibly handsome that the breath caught in her throat.
Worse even, he was sitting so close that Ella could smell him, too- a mixture of the leather and the furs he wore, the woodsmoke from the campfire and something else beneath it- his very own scent, tangy, but not at all unpleasant, and thoroughly masculine. It was a good, honest smell and suddenly made her feel warm and secure, as if a small ball of fire had formed inside her stomach and was now radiating pleasant heat all through her body.
"Miss Baggins, a word," Thorin interrupted these uninvited- and given the fact who he was, certainly inappropriate- impulses. He didn't look at her, but still out into the darkness.
"My behaviour towards you may have seemed harsh- even rude," he began in a low voice. "And I wish to apologize. As things stand, I do not have the luxury of refusing any help I can get, I know that. I don't want to appear ungrateful, it is only-" he sighed. "You are so young- practically still a child-"
"I'm thirty-one," Ella snapped. Which meant as much as 'adult' for a hobbit, or well, almost. "I'm a grown woman."
"Clearly." Thorin grimaced. Was there a slight flush creeping up his cheeks? It was too dark to tell.
"And one among men who haven't been in the company of women for a while. As for my nephews,well- they are still very young as well, and in difficult times as these, they have hardly come to- gather experience with the opposite sex so- the point is-" Now she was sure he was flushing.
"I admit, I don't know much about your people, your- customs, but you're a part of my team now and thus, I cannot deny that I fear for your- reputation."
"My- what ?" Ella snorted out a laugh. Now he sounded just like her grandma.
The dwarf king looked away, visibly embarassed. "You may not be aware of it, but your behaviour could be misinterpreted as- encouraging," he said. "And you will understand that I'm not willing to risk this endeavour for any kind of- distractions."
Now it was Ella's turn to furrow her brow. "I don't encourage or- or distract anyone!" she protested. "I may not be one of your court ladies, mylord, but I know what's right and what's not, and I have done nothing wrong!"
The king raised a dark brow. "I haven't been in the company of many court ladies lately," he said. "But surely I cannot remember to have ever seen any lady as drunk as you were last night."
To her chagrin, Ella felt how her face grew hot, both from embarassment and anger. "The stuff you mistake for ale could fell an ox." she mumbled."It's hardly my fault when I-"
She paused and cleared her throat. The problem was, she couldn't remember, what exactly she had done last night. Every memory after the first cup of ale had vanished into a deep, clouded mist. "But for your peace of mind, I can assure you, I have no intentions to ever touch this terrible stuff again." she finished resolutely.
"Good."The king nodded, seemingly relieved. " I heard what you told my nephews the night before." he said all of a sudden. "About your parents- what happened? Was it an attack? Orcs?"
Ella snorted."No, nothing as spectacular as this. Just a plain fever. Took my mum and dad and my little brother in the course of a mere week."
"I'm sorry for your loss." the king said in a warm tone. Ella shrugged uncomfortably. "Been a long time. I was still little. Hardly remember them."
"Kili's and Fili's father died in the battle against the orcs in Moria," she heard the king say. "Left my sister a widow and the responsibility for their upbringing on my shoulders. It never bothered me, don't get me wrong-they have always been good boys, both of them- a little unruly at times, perhaps,"
Ella lifted a brow. "Guess they had their fair share of good spankings."
Thorin's lip twitched."You bet. Didn't do them any harm if you ask me."
"One might think it could have done me good as well?"
Now he grinned. "One might."
You should smile more often, Ella couldn't help but think by herself. You look downright stunning when you do.
She cocked her head and threw him a glance from under her long lashes. "Why, if that's an offer-"
The smile vanished from the king's face. "Miss Baggins, you seem to misunderstand me-"
Of course. Ella bit her lip and cursed herself inwardly. Attempting to flirt with his majesty? What was she thinking ?
"No, I do not," she hissed. "I understand you quite well, Highness. You don't like me, you don't want me here and you don't trust me- that's as clear as the mud under my boots."
"I trust that you have a personal interest in the success of my mission, " the king replied coolly. "But I am not one to place my trust in someone easily, and as of yet, you have done nothing to earn it."
"I understand." Ella rose. " Well, you said change of guards, right? Good night then, mylord. Mind the orcs don't bite."
Fretfully, she stomped back to the camp of sleeping dwarves and rolled herself up in her coat.
Eru save her from the arrogance of kings. As if it was her highest aim to earn this king's precious trust. For all she cared, he could keep it and stick it where he liked.
Gold and diamonds, Ella repeated to herself as she struggled to find sleep. Gold and diamonds. That's what I'm here for.
But it didn't help. No matter how hard she tried, she was unable to conjure up pictures of a mountain full of hidden treasures before her mind's eye.
What she saw instead, were Thorin's bright blue eyes, the smile that illuminated his dark features and for a moment made him look like someone whose company she could really come to enjoy; something precious which could not be weighed in gold, a treasure forever beyond her reach.
Chapter 4: How to Prepare Dwarves Correctly
The next night, Ella again offered to take the first watch.
It was a good arrangement; she had still problems to fall asleep after a long day on horseback and, after her last confrontation with Thorin, furthermore little desire for a cozy gathering in front of the campfire.
This time, the dwarf king refrained from joining her as he had last night, instead it were Fili and Kili who appeared at her side after finishing their supper.
Ella had the strong suspicion that Thorin had sent them because he still mistrusted her vigilance, but she was still grateful for the company. The hours could grow long when nothing happened, and until now nothing of concern had been happening- which was good, certainly, but also well- boring. And of all her new companions, the two princes came closest to what could indeed be called 'friends'.
Still, Ella wouldn't have been Ella, if she were able to deny herself a pointed remark at Thorin's expense. "I'm surprised, your uncle asked you to join me," she told the princes. "I was under the impression he considers me a threat to the royal bloodline."
The brothers looked completely taken aback at that and Ella couldn't suppress a bitter smile. "You know, since I'm such a hussy and you haven't been in the company of women for quite some time- and you're the heirs to the throne, are you not?"
"He said that?" Snorting, Fili shook his head which made the beads in his blonde moustache dance. His face had flushed deep red."I'm sorry, Ella. My uncle has always been a little over-protective, but he should know as well as you hopefully do, that your honour- any lady's honour-is in no peril by me or my brother. We know how to behave properly."
Kili raised his hands in a confirming gesture. "Absolutely." Then he winked. "Besides, my apologies, but you're not even my type."
Ella was about to say that it wasn't so much her honour Thorin was worried about, but instead she asked: "And what is your type, if I may ask?"
"Oh, I don't know-" Kili stammered, suddenly very much interested in the trunk of the oaktree next to them.
His brother grinned broadly."Dark-haired beauties, tall and slender as willow rods," he clarified, not without a hint of gloat. "Not really something you'll find often among our people though-" His gaze roamed over Ella's small, curvy shape and he winked. "Or yours, for that matter. A pity we won't visit Rivendell after all. A rake-thin, vegetables-loving elven maid would be just the thing-and uncle would of course be delighted"
The teasing tone told her that Kili's preferences in the fair sex had been the subject of their conversations before, and that his brother had some fun mocking him with it.
"And what about you?" Ella asked Fili, not so much out of interest, but rather to save the poor Kili from further embarassment. "Me? Well," Fili shrugged. "I'm the older brother, you know. Which means I will someday- and may this day be still far away- inherit the throne, as long as Thorin has no offspring of his own. And a king is supposed to marry for political reasons rather than his own wishes- Thorin would have as well, had we not been forced to leave the Erebor. And if we succeed and claim the mountain back, he will probably have to do so, if only to revive old alliances. The clans are no longer as united as they were when there had been a king under the mountain. Thorin has sent word to all of them before the quest," He gestured vaguely in the direction of the camp and smiled grimly. "And just look how many have followed his call."
Ella nodded. She'd had little to no experience with royal families until she met Thorin and his nephews, but it made sense that they weren't free to live and choose their partners like common people. Not really an enviable position when she thought about it.
"So," she went on, curious despite herself. "Thorin never got to marry because you had to leave your home? And not in all those years after either?"
It was hard to imagine, surely there must have been someone before or afterwards, and certainly a tall, elegant, dark-haired beauty of the kind Kili preferred.
"Before the dragon, I have no idea," Fili shrugged. "We weren't even born then, and it's not that our uncle would talk to us about such personal matters. After Moria and our father's death- those were hard times, Ella. We have been wandering from one place to the next for many years, wherever he could find work as a blacksmith, and never stayed in the same place for long. Even if there had been someone-Thorin wouldn't have had the means to provide for a family. Everything he earned- and it was little enough sometimes- he gave to our mother and us."
"That was good of him." Ella admitted qietly. It was quite irritating; every time Thorin did something to confirm her in her conviction that he was an unpleasant fellow, she heard things about him that forced her to reconsider her judgement.
"It was," Fili nodded seriously. "Although he would certainly say he did nothing but his duty. After all, we're all the family he has left."
"Hush!" All of a sudden, Kili interrupted him in an agitated whisper. He stared straight ahead at the clearing before them. "Do you see what I see?"
Both Fili and Ella followed his gaze to where their mounts were grazing lazily in the twilight. "The ponies?" Fili suggested, eyebrow mockingly raised.
"Indeed, you genius. Can you count, too?"
"Fourteen," Ella whispered, as she understood what he meant. "But we had sixteen. Two are missing. Weren't they tethered though?"
"Of course they were," Kili whispered back. "Someone stole them."
"Oh." Ella gulped."Shouldn't we tell Thorin?"
"Nah," In a rare occasion of agreement, both princes shook their heads. "No need to bother him. Let's see if we can find them by ourselves."
Most likely, they had no great desire to tell their uncle that two of their ponies had been stolen right under his nose, when they were supposed to watch them. A feeling, Ella could understand very well, but then again- she had justified doubts that every horse thief would turn out to be as harmless as herself.
Reluctantly, she followed the brothers into the thick undergrowth behind the clearing, where a path of broken branches showed clearly where the ponies had gone- or rather, as it looked, been dragged to, and by something quite big. Animals? Bears?
Ella shuddered. Whatever it was, she had absolutely no desire to meet it. She didn't even have a weapon on her.
She smelled them before they could even hear or see them, a sickening stench of unwashed bodies, rotten teeth and other unpleasant evaporations, and its source was neither animal nor exactly menlike- or more explicitly, not of a kind she had ever met anywhere apart from stories to frighten little children.
It was three of them, each one of gigantic dimensions and just as ugly as they were big.
"Mountain trolls," Fili whispered, disgusted. "What are they doing here, so far south?" "Stealing our ponies," Ella whispered back and gestured at the two animals who were tied to a tree next to them. Obviously they were meant to end in the huge kettle of soup which was boiling over a campfire, because the trolls were already debating about the taste of horseflesh and the best way to prepare them for dinner. As it seemed, they had different views about the matter, and tended to reinforce their arguments with violent kicks and blows.
"Monsters," Kili spat contemptously. "Well, could have been worse. Big they may be, but luckily with tiny little pea brains. And they're slow. I suggest you sneak past them and untie the ponies as long as they are busy smashing each other's ugly skulls in."
"Me?" Ella repeated sheepishly as she felt the brothers' hopeful eyes on her. "You're the smallest," Fili voiced the obvious. "And you are our burglar, are you not? This should be a task right after your taste."
He gave her an encouraging smile and squeezed her shoulder. "Don't worry, they won't even notice. And we're right behind you, just in case."
He was right, Ella knew it. If hobbits were good at something ( apart from enjoying life to the full, which wasn't exactly a qualifying factor on this mission ), it was certainly furtiveness, and she, having had to sneak past her grandma for many years to leave the house when she wasn't supposed to, had certainly brought this talent close to mastership. Still, she'd give a lot to prove her abilities under different circumstances.
The trolls were in fact too busy with their quarrels to notice the tiny figure who carefully made her way past them in the direction of the ponies. They could speak, but clearly they were no poets, their conversation revolved solely around eating, and most of their vocabulary consisted of curses, mainly directed at the 'cook' who insisted on seasoning his soup before adding the meat to it.
She had no time to waste. However, to Ella's great distress, she wasn't able to untie the knots that bound the ponies to the tree. Silently cursing, she looked around for something to cut them loose- why hadn't she thought of asking Fili and Kili for their knives?- and saw one hanging from the belt that kept one of the troll's loincloth in place- by the way the only peace of garment they all wore.
He stood with his back to her, and if she could pull it from its sheet without him noticing- Well, practice made perfect, there was no way around it.
Ella ventured closer and felt for the knife in the troll's belt, then quickly drew her hand back when the monster, surprisingly ticklish despite his thick, grey oliphant skin, grunted and reached out to scratch his behind. As he did so, he let out a fart that almost made her faint.
Ella clenched her teeth, suppressed the urge to throw up and tried her luck anew. The dagger was heavy. She pulled with all her strength and the troll's large hand shot to his behind again and this time, she couldn't dodge fast enough, his fat fingers closed around her and he held her up in front of his ugly face.
Ella kicked and screamed. The troll, no less shocked than herself, screamed as well.
"Look at that!" he roared in the direction of his companions. "What's that? A tiny little squirrel?"
To no avail, Ella tried to free herself from his iron grip. The troll grimaced in evident disgust."And it's ugly" he stated. "Ewww! Repulsive, how it writhes and wriggles!"
For someone who sneezed in the soup he was about to eat, which Ella had seen him do before, he was astonishingly critical.
"I'm not a bloody squirrel," she yelped, indignation superceding her panic. "I'm a hobbit, you nasty, ignorant clumsy oaf !"
"A hobbit?" The cook scratched his bald head. "Never heard of'em. Can we eat it?"
"Hardly more than a snack," the third one objected. He eyed her suspiciously from his small evil beady eyes. "Are there more of you out there?" he asked hopefully.
Ella shook her head. "No, just me." It wasn't even a lie. As far as she knew, she was the only hobbit far and wide. "And I'm definitely not edible!"
"It's lying," the one who still held her in his grip, watched her with a sly smile that made his face not a bit prettier. He had but half a dozen of his teeth left, but it would still be enough to squash her with a single bite.
"Let's roast its feet over the fire and hear it squeal."
Ella's heart raced in wild panic. Oh Eru, was this how her adventure was going to end? Whatever happened, she silently swore by herself ( even though she knew quite well this was a promise she could hardly keep ) she would not give away the dwarves, would not give away Fili and Kili... where were they anyway?
As if on cue- she heard a loud battle cry, as the two princes stormed the clearing with their swords drawn.
They hacked and thrusted at her captor's enormous calves and, with a surprised cry of pain, he dropped her and falling from a considerable height she landed quite roughly on the forest ground.
With a pained groan, Ella curled herself up into a ball and rolled away from the battlefield to avoid getting trampled into the ground by the trolls' stomping feet.
Howling with anger, the beasts kept swiping and kicking at Fili and Kili who danced around them and stabbed at their legs like a swarm of angry bees attacking a giant oliphant, dodging their violent blows with ease.
Brave as their attack was, and grateful though Ella was that the brothers had leapt to her defence, she knew they hardly stood a chance against those giant monsters. They were too small to stab the trolls anywhere above their knee pits, and their comparatively tiny swords would hardly do more damage than give them a few bruises- although the trolls made enough noise that one might think they were gravely wounded.
After a minute or two- Ella had not wasted any more time to watch the unequal fight but instead run to the ponies to free them - Thorin and the rest of the dwarves broke with loud cries through the undergrowth and joined the battle.
With a sharp stone in her hand for lack of a knife, Ella doggedly hacked at the ropes. She had to be quick. The dwarves could distract the trolls only so long, it was a matter of time until one of the monsters stroke lucky and one hit with those giant fists would be enough to squash them into jelly.
Finally, she managed to cut the knots and, happilily winnying, the ponies surged towards freedom.
Relieved, Ella turned to sound the retreat to her companions and stared right into the infuriated narrowed eyes of the 'cook' who stood directly in front of her. Stunned with shock for a split second, she wasn't fast enough to duck away as he reached out and grabbed her and then another troll was at his side and they held her up between them and to the eyes of the fighting dwarves.
"Lay down your arms," the cook commanded with an ugly grin. "Or we'll rip his off."
Ella's panicking, wide-eyed stare met Thorin's. She could see him hesitate, and for a moment she was sure he would give the order to retreat and leave her to her fate.
But then the dwarf king released his breath with a sigh and slammed his sword into the ground, followed by his inferiors.
Put into sacks and tightly secured into immobilzed bundles, she and half of the company lay on the ground, while the other half had been tied to a skewer which slowly rotated over the fire.
The trolls were determined to compensate the loss of the ponies and have them for dinner instead- but they were yet undecided about the best way of preparing them.
"Why cook them at all?" one of them complained. "We don't have all night. I don't want to be turned into stone with my belly still empty, when the sun is coming up."
Ah. All of a sudden, Ella remembered the horror stories she was told about trolls when she was a child. Their situation seemed quite hopeless at the moment, but if she could keep the trolls from finishing their bloody business until dawn, they could still be saved. The night, however, was only a few hours old. She had to do something to bide time.
"We'll grill them with just a sprinkle of sage," the cook turned to the impatient troll. "Best way to prepare those little ones, trust me." The third troll gave an approving nod. "That sounds quite nice. But hurry up. I'm starving."
"WAIT!" Ella called out to them. "You're about to make a terrible mistake."
"No use to reason with them," one of the dwarves on the skewer ( Bofur?) yelled. "They're halfwits."
Well, halfwits they might be, but when it came to their food, they were definitely very picky. Ella struggled to get up and hop into the direction of the trolls.
"With the seasoning I mean," she clarified. "Have you smelled them? You need something stronger than sage before you can put them on your plates."
Her words were followed by numerous outraged calls from the shackled dwarves. 'Traitor' was one of the friendliest among them.
The cook, the only one of the trolls who wore a kind of apron along with his loin cloth, glared at her from suspicious eyes. "And what would you know about cooking dwarf?" he asked.
Ella knew precious little about cooking in general, she had been shirking from housewifely duties like this whenever she could. "More than you, obviously," she smiled.
"First of all," she began verbosely."You cannot cook them with all those fur on them. You'll want to- skin them first."
Another wave of howls of protests. Stupid dwarves. Couldn't they see what she was doing? "And then, they need to be well-hung, like deer or- pheasants." she prattled on. "To get rid of the severe taste, you know. Or better even- put them in buttermilk for three days at least- you do have buttermilk with you, do you?"
According to the cook's frown, this was not the case. "Screw that," he growled. "You're wasting my time, squirrel."
"Yes," one of the others confirmed eagerly. "Time's running out. Let's eat already. I'll eat them raw if I have too. I like them crunchy." He reached out, grabbed Bombur, who had the misfortune to be visibly the fattest morsel, by his feet and brought him to his mouth.
"NO!" Ella cried. "Not this one! He's- infected! He's full of worms!" With a disgusted cry, the troll threw the poor Bombur back onto the others.
"In fact they all are," Ella went on, encouraged by the success of her words and something no one but her had noticed. In their back, on a rock behind the trees, a shadow had appeared for only a moment, a well-known shadow with a long beard and a pointy hat... "They all have parasites."she finished. "They're infested with parasites from head to toe."
"Did she say parasites? I don't have parasites!"
Ella rolled her eyes in despair. Dwarves and their stupid pride! Despite the- very real -threat of being eaten alive, they could of course not stand for such a shameful insinuation.
She searched and found Thorin's eyes, and he alone seemed to finally understand what she was up to. He gave the dwarf next to him a determined kick. "I've got parasites!" he yelled.
A moment later, the others fell in. "I've got parasites as big as my arm!" "My parasites are the biggest!"
Ella couldn't suppress a grin. Terrible as the situation was, there was a certain comic element to it. The cook saw her smile and approached her with an angrily furrowed brow. "So what are we to do now?" he snarled. "Let them all go? This little ferret thinks it can take us all for fools."
Squirrel. Ferret. Clearly, this was a good day for insults of her looks. Ella had just opened her mouth to return his pleasantries, as another voice called out from the dark like the rolling of thunder.
"THE DAWN WILL TAKE YOU ALL!"
Gandalf was standing behind them on the rock. He raised his magic wand and slammed it into the rock. It broke in two and bright sunlight was suddenly shining through the gap. As the sunrays hit the trolls, they cried out in pain and their skin began to smolder and harden until they were turned to stone where they stood like a bunch of particularly ugly statues.
The shackled dwarves broke into a triumphant laughter and even Thorin couldn't hide a relieved smile.
"Where've you been if I may ask?" he asked the wizard, once all dwarves were freed from their bonds.
Gandalf shrugged. "Oh here and there," he replied vaguely. "Seems I came back just in time. Those trolls- that was nasty business. But I'm glad to see everyone's still in one piece."
"Yes," Thorin shot Ella an unfriendly look. "Not thanks to your burglar though."
Too tired and exhausted for a heated answer, Ella hung her head. It was typical for Thorin to put all the blame on her. And he was right. Had she watched the ponies instead of engaging Fili and Kili into a conversation about dwarfish marriage matters, had she not been careless enough to let herself get caught by those monsters-
"You're being unjust," she heard Gandalf's stern voice. "At least she had the nerves to play for time. None of you thought of that."
Ella looked up and saw Thorin nod and bow this head like a scolded child. By Eru, she was happy Gandalf was back.
Later on, they found a cave where the trolls used to retreat to by dawn.
It exhaled the sickening stench of remains of their former meals but was filled with a surprising amount of treasures, among them two beautiful swords forged by the High Elves of the First Age as Gandalf claimed. Of course, Thorin claimed them for himself- not that he already had a sword and allegedly disliked anything made by Elves.
But there had been a third blade as well, a smaller one, more a dagger than a sword actually, and Gandalf decided that Ella should have it, given the fact that she was the only one in the group without a weapon.
At first, she wanted to decline; no one had ever taught her how to wield a sword and it was not unlikely that she would accidently cut herself with it rather than the enemy.
But Gandalf insisted. An elven blade was very useful, he told her, it glowed blue when orcs were near. She should keep it, for reasons of safety, although he surely hoped she would never have to use it.
Ella hoped this as well. She thanked him, stowed the sword in her belt and turned to follow the dwarves. Their journey had only just begun.
Chapter 5: Hunter and Hunted
Ella had just set herself in motion when she heard Thorin's alarmed cry.
While Gandalf and the others rushed towards him, she pulled the sword she had only just stowed in her belt from its sheet and saw that its blade shone in a bright silver tone, with not a hint of blue in it.
Relieved, she released her breath and followed the others to see whatever new threat they would have to face now. At least, it weren't orcs.
But although the newcomer was no orc, nor any other exactly terrifying creature, he was certainly a most curious sight, beginning with his vehicle which was a kind of wooden sleigh pulled by at least a dozen- rabbits ?- and the man on it looked every bit like he was himself part of the woods he just came from, which, as Ella should learn soon enough, was indeed the case.
A shaggy, mud-caked beard ( against which even Gandalf's looked well-kept in comparision ) covered most of his face and reached down to the belt that held his tattered rags in place.
On his head sat a no less dirty felt hat, he had the red bulbous nose of a habitual drinker,and surprisingly blue eyes peered at them from under grey, bushy brows as big and innocent as a child's- or a halfwit's.
The dwarves had surrounded the stranger, drawn their weapons and were screaming bloody murder-just in case- until Gandalf introduced the strange man as 'Radagast the Brown', evidently one of his colleagues.
Pacified for now, Ella and the dwarves took a break and sat down on the grass- after all, a sleepless night lay behind them- while the two wizards had a talk a few paces away.
The old codger spoke in an agitated voice, and now and then Ella was able to understand scraps of the conversation: there was talk of an old fortress, dark powers, necromancers and giant spiders- not exactly the kind of things to allay her worries, but then, it was just as likely that the man was every bit as mad as he looked.
The morning sun was warm and comforting, and Ella bedded her head on her bundle and closed her eyes. A quick nap was surely not too much to ask, as long as the two old men discussed whatever their business was...
An eerie howl broke through the silence and pulled her out of her sleepiness like a bucket of cold water right into the face.
Ella sat up and felt the hairs on her arms raise in alarm. "Wha-what was that?" she gasped. "A wolf? Are there wolves out there?"
"A wolf?" she heard Bofur's grim voice as he pulled his axe. "No, that is not a wolf."
A low growl followed his words and they all turned their heads in panic, as its source materialized on a rock behind them.
It was indeed no wolf, but a beast much bigger and uglier, and of a breed Ella had never seen before.
However, there was no time for further examination, for only a heartbeat later the creature was upon them with a quick jump of his mighty flanks.
Thorin drew his newly gained Elven sword and buried it deep inside the beast's belly only a moment before its giant, drooling fangs were able to snap for his face.
When he pulled the blade out of the dying creature's flesh, another one approached from the woods and Kili pulled his bow and shot it in the middle of its jump, all of it happening so fast that Ella could hardly breathe, let alone draw her own sword and engage in the fight.
"Warg scouts!" she heard Thorin's angry shout. "Which means an orc pack is not far behind."
An orc pack? Eru save her. And the day had started so nicely-
Gandalf approached them, looking more distraught than she had ever seen him. "Who did you tell about your quest?" he demanded to know from Thorin.
"No one! What in Durin's name is going on here?" the king shouted back.
"Looks like you're being hunted." Gandalf replied in a grave tone.
As if to emphazise his words, an anew choire of howls rose in the distance. A collective moan ran through the rows of the dwarves. "We have to get out of here!" Bifur voiced what Ella thought was indeed a very good idea.
"We can't!" she heard Ori cry a moment later. "We have no ponies! They bolted!"
Now that was fucking great. Orcs were after them and now their ponies were gone. For what kind of suicide mission had she signed up here?
To everyone's surprise, Radagast volunteered to draw the orcs off while the rest of them should flee. Ella's respect for him rose, he might be an oddball straight out of a picture, and she highly doubted he would be able to outrun beasts like this, but he certainly had some balls.
Then she thought no more, but ran. Ran like she had never before run in all her life.
They all did. Up and down through the rocky terrain it went, and soon her lungs and legs were burning from the unfamiliar physical strain and she had to struggle to keep up with her much more athletic companions.
Every time she was sure she couldn't go on any longer, the loud howls of the wargs and the gruesome cries of their riders showed her quite plainly what would happen to her if she didn't, and so she kept on running until she could no longer feel her legs and the adrenaline rushing through her veins burned away her exhaustion.
Radagast and his rabbits were still leading the orcs a merry dance across the plateau, and Gandalf, despite his advanced age, was running ahead of them as fast and light-footed as a spring chicken.
More than that, he even seemed to have a plan about where to run.
"Where are you leading us?" she heard Thorin, ever the wary one, ask him during one of their rare breaks, when the lot of them crouched beneath a big rock.
What did it matter, as long as it was away from here? Ella thought wearily. She, for her part, had enough of adventures for as long as she lived. She desperately wanted to go home, the dull, monotonous peacefulness of the Shire suddenly seeming more desirable to her than anything in the world.
An orc on his warg mount had climbed the rock under which they were hiding, and Ella suppressed a fearful sob as she heard the low growl of the beast above her. Both the creature and its rider exhaled a smell of death and decay that took her breath away. She had thought trolls smelled bad. She had had no idea.
Thorin threw Kili a quick sideglance and nodded, and his nephew raised his bow and let an arrow fly in the direction of the warg. The beast howled in pain and slid down the rock, burying his surprised rider under it in the process. Dwalin and Balin showed no mercy to the orc and killed him quickly with a few, well-aimed thrusts of their axes, but furious answering howls from his companions in the distance signalled that the hunt was far from over; and now the enemy knew where they were.
"This way!" Gandalf shouted and gestured at a rock in front them them. "Quickly!"
And then, all of a sudden, he was gone. Vanished into thin air like a ghost.
"There's more coming!" Ella heard Kili's desperate shout. "We're surrounded!"
The orcs approached them from all directions now, encircling them, slowly drawing nearer. Thorin drew his blade, his handsome face a stony mask of determination. "Hold your ground!" he commanded.
Ella closed her eyes. They were too many. This was the end. Then, she drew her sword as well. If she was to die, she would die fighting like the others.
The tip of Gandalf's pointed hat appeared from a hole in the rocks, followed by his face. "This way, you fools!" he shouted impatiently.
Ella and her companions didn't have to be told twice. They ran towards the hole in the ground and jumped in, where they slid down a slope and found themselves in an underground cave. Thorin was the last to go, he defended the entrance to the cave until the last of their party had made it into safety.
Safety, yes, but for how long? It was just a matter of time until the orcs would find them here. Would it not be better to die in the open air, where she could at least see the sky?
Suddenly, the loud sound of a horn cut through the air, soon followed by unmistakable combat sounds, the buzzing of flying arrows, the clashing of steel on steel. An unexpected ally who had joined the battle to their benefit?
Ella and the dwarves stood and listened with baited breath, and then the first felled orc tumbled down the slope and lay dead before them. Thorin approached the corpse and pulled out the arrow that stuck in his throat.
"Elves." he spat with no more warmth in his voice than when he was talking of orcs. Clearly, there was no love lost between him and the magic people, despite the fact that they had probably just saved their lives.
There was an underground tunnel leading from the cave to goodness-knows-where, but it wasn't that they had much of an option so they followed it. Gandalf seemed to know where it led, but he didn't breathe a word.
They were only a short way down the path when they noticed a nauseating smell in front of them. In the light of their torches, it turned out that its source was a wounded warg, who had evidently crawled into the cave to die here as animals do, but it must have been a female, and a pregnant one at that, because she had managed to give birth to her offspring before she passed away, and all her whelps were dead as well, or so it seemed.
"Brutes," Thorin exclaimed and his features wrinkled in disgust when he examined the dead beast and its brood. "One would think they would let these monsters breed at home in their cages instead of bringing them to a battle."
Suddenly, one of the allegedly dead warg whelps opened its eyes and shakily rose to its paws. The dwarves gasped in surprise and without hesitation, Thorin drew his sword, ready to finish the job nature had so carelessly abandonded.
The wargen cub- newly born but already the size of a small dog- blinked from astonishingly blue eyes and then, instinctively, stumbled on his short legs towards Ella as both the only female and the least threatening person in the group, and she, equally instinctively, reached out and put her arms around it in the immemorial protective gesture every woman would hold a baby.
Thorin looked down on her with a face like thunder. "Release it," he commanded.
Ella shivered under his stern look, but she only clutched the small animal tighter to her chest. "No."
Thorin's frown deepened. "What did you say?"
It wasn't that Ella would be interested in an anew confrontation with the dwarf king, she truly wasn't, and especially not after a day like this, what had gotten into her she didn't know herself. Her grandma used to say everything was cute when it was little- implying this had once been true for Ella as well, before she developped so many deplorable traits- but clearly had Ermentrude Baggins never seen a warg baby.
It wasn't cute, in fact it was quite ugly, let alone that it was covered all over in blood and other unpleasant juices and smelled ferociously, but she knew she could no more let go of it than cut her own arm off.
"Listen Ella," Gandalf said softly, not taking her side for once. "Thorin is right. It won't survive anyway without its mother and even if it would- you have seen to what kind of scary abomination it will grow up to, haven't you? "
The abomination turned its head at him and made a not a bit scary sound somewhere between a growl and a kitten's mew.
"You cannot keep it," Thorin said, visibly struggling for a lenient tone himself. "The orcs breed theses creatures for no other purpose than war and killing. It will never be anything but a fighting machine."
"I could teach it to go against its instincts." Ella replied stubbornly. "It's still a baby. Who says it weren't possible?"
The dwarves began to shift impatiently from one foot to the other. Clearly they were eager to leave these tunnels.
The dwarf king sheathed his sword. He gave Gandalf a look as if to say 'This is all your fault'.
"Is it possible?" he asked.
The old wizard shrugged. "Not that I knew of. But then again- no one has ever tried-"
"Fine." Thorin exhaled with a sigh. "Keep it if you like," he turned to Ella with a hard look. "But you will feed it from your own rations. I'm certainly not going to share our supplies with something like- this."
"Of course." Ella smiled happily. It wasn't that they had much food to spare anyway. They were running low of supplies quickly, especially now that the ponies were gone, along with their saddlebags.
"And it won't spend the night anywhere near the camp!" the king growled. "It smells awful and I have no desire to be killed in my sleep. Now let's get a move on."
The party began to walk again, with Thorin and Gandalf in front, and Ella at the very end of the line, since the other dwarves ensured to maintain a safe distance from her and her foul-smelling burden.
The path seemed to lead deeper and deeper into the rock, but when she looked up, she could still see the sky far above the steep rocky cliffs.
As they had walked for another hour or so, and despite the unabated smell coming from the baby warg who had seemingly fallen asleep and was only now and then giving quiet grunts, Ella meant to notice a shifting in the air she couldn't quite explain. It felt thicker somehow, richer, and the sky above them looked different, too, brighter and bluer, saturated with colour like an oil painting.
"There's light ahead!" she heard Gloin shout before he rushed towards what finally seemed to be the tunnel's end.
Ella sighed in relief. She was terribly tired and desperately craving a break, a meal, however meager, and a bed, if only again on the forest floor.
The dwarves who had reached the exit had not moved on, but stood and stared, thunderstruck, at the sight that enfolded before their unbelieving eyes.
It was a city, embedded in a large valley amidst the high rocks, but not the kind of city Ella had ever seen. It looked like an apparition, a picture out of a dream rather than something actually made of stone.
Its sheer beauty and the deep peace it radiated took her breath away and made her eyes fill with wistful tears. She knew immediately what place this was, and her mouth silently formed the word before Gandalf's voice confirmed it.
Chapter 6: A Special Kind of Magic
There was no doubt that Rivendell was a magical place, Ella thought, as she wandered in silent admiration through its seemingly endless hallways.
Things of beauty could be found in every corner- the walls were decorated with artful carvings and paintings, imposing statues of the finest marble watched every doorway, sparkling waterfalls rushed over rocks into fountains in the lovely, sun-drenched gardens which bloomed in everlasting spring, and the air was filled with the sweet scent of flowers and joyful birdsong.
It was the second day after their arrival, and already she felt rested like after a long holiday, the horrors of the last days faded into something like a distant dream.
She was almost ashamed about having wished herself back to the Shire only yesterday; the wonders of this place more than made up for the hardships of their journey so far and she wouldn't have wanted to miss them for the life of her.
When she and her companions had first crossed the bridge to the city, it had felt like all her weariness and exhaustion fell away from her, replaced by an overwhelming feeling of peace and safety.
Initially, however, it had looked as if they wouldn't enter the city at all.
Thorin had been anything but happy when he saw where Gandalf had led them, accusing the old wizard of having planned this all along- and despite his express refusal- and there had been a long dispute at the end of which the dwarf king could only be convinced by the fact that his company needed rest and food badly, and he still the help of someone who could actually read his map.
Unlike Ella, who had instantly and completely fallen in love with Rivendell, the dwarves seemed immune to the charme of the city and its inhabitants.
Admittedly, Lord Elrond himself had proven a bit of a disappointment. Although tall and impressive as should be expected of a ruler, and having the smooth, seemingly ageless features of his race, he was not as handsome as Ella would have imagined, and the almost transparent, tightly-stretched skin over his high cheekbones, a certain slowness of his walk and his gestures, and his overly sententious speech suggested that he was in truth almost as old as Gandalf.
He was nice enough, though. Offered them food and shelter without a second thought, although probably not for Thorin's sake who treated the fellow monarch with a detached coolness bordering on discourtesy, but thanks to Gandalf, whom the elves called 'Mithrandir' and seemed to hold in great esteem.
It was possible that Rivendell's people regarded his quest with suspicion, but warranted or not, Thorin's inclination to mistrust was annoying.
It was never wise to bite the hand that fed you, and feed them they did, albeit not to the dwarves' satisfaction, who shared a dislike for 'green food' and protested loudly about the absence of meat in their salads.
Other than the dwarves, who had turned down the offer as 'unmanly', Ella had the pleasure of a bath before dinner.
Assuming her elf hosts to be no more thrilled about her new pet than the dwarves were, she had considerately hidden the baby warg under her clothes upon their arrival at Rivendell, and if the elves had wondered why she smelled so, they were polite enough not to enquire. She had also asked for a jug of milk and gotten it without further questions.
Left alone in a room for herself with a bathtub filled with warm, scented water, Ella had unwrapped her pet and taken a closer look at it.
It had not made a noise all along- if because it was too weak or if unconsciously sensing to be in enemy territory, she could not tell- but it was clear that it needed food, and badly.
Ella had poured milk into a bowl and pushed the small animal's snout into it in order to make it drink, but when this had turned out to be unsuccessful, she had instead dipped her forefinger into the milk and shoved it into the warg's mouth so it could suck on it like on his mother's teats, which it eventually did.
It was a tedious process, and painful, too; the baby warg already had small but surprisingly sharp teeth, and the greedier it sucked the milk from her finger the more it buried them into her flesh, not deep enough to draw blood, but painful nonetheless. Sooner or later she would have to think of a better way to feed it, for now, however, Ella was grateful enough she could make it eat at all.
Her determination to keep the little warg alive was only part altruistic- Ella had never been exceedingly fond of animals, and in the short time-span she was allowed to spend with her pony they had not exactly become friends- it was much rather that she wanted to prove Thorin and the others that she could indeed teach the baby warg to become something other than a gory beast.
No creature was born a monster, Ella was convinced of this, even though it surely looked like one.
It was beyond question which of them needed a bath more badly, but to allow the beast to soil her bathing water with all the blood and afterbirth slime on it, would be taking things too far.
And when she had finished her bath, it turned out to be no easy task to clean the warg as well. When the beast noticed what she planned, it suddenly mobilisied all its forces and put up a good fight, scratching her with its tiny claws and spitting and growling as if it expected to be drowned.
When she was finally done, the baby warg had exhausted itself and settled to reproachful glares at her from his deep blue eyes. The bath had done little to make it prettier, but at least it did no longer smell as bad as before, and also, it turned out to be female.
"A pity," Ella sighed, returning its hateful look with a crooked grin. "I was thinking to name you Thorin."
The baby warg wrinkled its- her- little nose, and snorted.
"Yea, I know," Ella nodded. "But I'm afraid I don't know any orc names." In truth, she wasn't even sure if such things as female orcs even existed. "I'll think of something." she promised.
Leaving the baby warg fed, cleaned and sleeping the sleep of the just after the physical strain of having a bath, Ella had put on the clothes Lord Elrond had generously provisioned- a tunic made of a soft and almost translucent fabric that reached all the way down to her hairy feet, and her waistcoat over it, and made her way to the dinner.
All in all, it had been a rather awkward event. The graceful, polite elves could not have stood in starker contrast to their unwashed guests with their coarse manners, and Ella couldn't help but feel ashamed for her companions, who returned Lord Elrond's hospitality with complaints about the food he served and the music played at dinner, both apparently not to their taste.
The only one who seemed to find some pleasure in the elves' company, was Kili- she had seen him wink flirtingly at a particularly beautiful harp player, and the elf maid for her part- although not losing her composure for a second- had not at all seemed averse to his interest.
Thorin, who, due to his rank, had been placed at Lord Elrond's table along with Gandalf, had left the dinner early, and even before his companions decided to contribute to the evening by singing hearty tavern songs and throwing the unloved vegetables all over the place.
It may have been only the wine, which was every bit as good as Gandalf had promised, but it had felt to Ella, as if the room had become darker with his absence, as if he himself were a source of light that drew her to him like a moth to the flame, although there was nothing in his behaviour to warrant this feeling.
And it wasn't the wine, as it turned out a few days later, when Ella accidently came to watch the company of dwarves splashing merrily in all their naked glory in one of Rivendell's fountains.
The dwarves had disdained their bedchambers, and instead made themselves at home in the gardens, where they did justice to their host's fine wine, enriched their menu with his rabbits and squirrels, or misused his fountains for bathtubs- all of it much to the chagrin of Lord Elrond's household.
Hidden behind a marble pillar, Ella stood and watched open-mouthed, how Thorin stood in the water up to his hips, with his eyes closed and his muscular arms crossed behind his head, while a million sparkling droplets of water bubbled down his broad chest, drenching his long black mane and beard and making him look no less a piece of art than the marble statues surrounding the fountain.
With her heart hammering and her face flushing hot under an assault of unwanted fantasies, Ella hid behind the column until her breathing had calmed and her legs were again able to carry her, anywhere, just away from- this.
It was irritating, disconcerting.
She didn't know why she should feel this way, especially because Thorin had never made a secret of his feelings towards her-he considered her a necessary evil at best, and if he was aware of her femininity at all, then only as a possible risk factor to his quest.
It must be the place itself, Ella decided at last, all the beauty around her that made her wonder why she shouldn't have nice things, too.
And without any distraction in form of hunger, sore muscles or fear of dreadful pursuers, she had all the time in the world to dwell on wistful thoughts.
Why none of the tall, comely elves with their smooth, handsome faces and high cheekbones had such an effect on her, Ella didn't know, and anyway the Rivendell folk kept mostly to themselves.
Rivendell was large enough to avoid company, and when she wasn't busy caring for her still unnamed pet, she mostly roamed about the city all by herself, still amazed by its beauty, but feeling increasingly like she belonged neither here nor there.
It was on one of those lazy, dreamy late afternoons, that she stood on a high balcony and watched a golden sun slowly sinking into the valley, and in the distance below, the dwarves sitting around a campfire, that Lord Elrond himself stepped beside her and watched her with a thoughtful look in his dark eyes.
"Not with your companions?" he asked softly.
Ella shrugged. "I shan't be missed." she replied briefly. She must have sounded more bitter than intended, for the elf lord raised a thin brow, but didn't enquire further as was his way.
"The truth is, some of them think I shouldn't even be on this journey." Ella felt the need to explain. A moment later she bit her lip, wishing she could take her words back.
Thorin was still hesitating to reveal his destination to Lord Elrond and seek his help to decipher his map, and she could well imagine that the lord of Rivendell must be curious about his plans- let alone, that he was probably anxious to get rid of the uninvited guests who were ravaging his wine supplies, but it was definitely not her place to tell him about the quest and she hoped he wouldn't ask.
Instead, Lord Elrond reached out and touched her shoulder, as lightly as the brush of a feather. "You're most welcome to stay here, if this is your wish." he said with a faint smile, before he turned around and walked away.
The same night, after dinner and a good deal of coaxing by Gandalf, the dwarf king finally decided to show his precious map to his host and indeed, it turned out that the document contained a hidden text written in moon runes, which could only be read in the light of a moon of the same shape and season in which they had been written.
And as chance- or fate- would have it, this was exactly the case.
"Stand by the gray stone when the thrush knocks," the secret message said. "and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the keyhole."
So this was it. The key to the success of their mission. And Durin's Day, the start of the dwarves' New Year, was only a short time away.
Lord Elrond, however, seemed to have reservations about Thorin's plan to enter the Erebor. He wouldn't elaborate in their presence, and it was only the next night that Ella found out what he meant.
She had left the dwarves to their usual evening entertainment- mainly eating, drinking and throwing food at each other- to roam restlessly through Rivendell's moonlit streets again, and when she had just walked down a stairway, she suddenly detected Gandalf and Lord Elrond coming out of a pavilion in the park below, talking in hushed, yet agitated tones.
"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," she heard Gandalf's voice.
"Do you?" the elf asked sharply. "That dragon has slept for sixty years. What will happen if your plan should fail? If you wake the beast?"
"But what if we succeed? If the dwarves take back the mountain, our defences in the east will be strengthened."
Lord Elrond shook his head. "It's a dangerous move, Gandalf."
"But it could be even more dangerous to do nothing!" the old wizard argued. "And the throne of Erebor is Thorin's birthright. What is it you fear?"
The lord of Rivendell looked down on the wizard, his usually smooth brow now wrinkled in concern.
"Have you forgotten? "he hissed. "A strain of madness runs deep in that family. His grandfather lost his mind, and his father succumbed to the same sickness. Can you swear, Thorin Oakenshield will not also fall?"
It was then that Ella suddenly heard a stifled moan in her back, and as she turned around she found to her surprise that she was not the only one spying on a conversation not meant for her to hear.
Thorin stood in the shadows behind her, with such a raw expression of deep sorrow in his eyes that it tore her heart out just to look at him.
"Have you heard quite enough?" he said quietly, but his voice sounded brittle and more tired than actually angry.
Ella swallowed the lump in her throat. She wanted to tell him she didn't believe a word Elrond had said, and neither should he, and that it didn't matter anyway because she would follow him wherever he would go, which as it only occured to her now, was nothing but the simple truth.
She wanted to go to him, take him in her arms and kiss away the pain on his face, but neither could she move nor utter a single a word, so she just stood there, gaping at him like a mooncalf, unable to cope with the multitude of emotions washing over her.
"With or without your help, these dwarves will march towards the mountain," she heard Gandalf's decreasing voice as the two of them walked towards the inner keep.
Thorin exhaled soundly and his features hardened. "Indeed." he said blankly. "No help for us is going to come from the Elves and I was a fool to expect otherwise. We will leave by the early light of dawn."
The gaze of his bright, blue eyes, now hard and cold like glass splinters, met Ella's. "It is your choice to make if you still want to bind your fate to my quest."
You're wrong, Ella thought helplessly, as she watched his broad back when he walked away from her to inform his companions. Someone- or something- else has made it for me, and for good or bad, there is nothing left for me now than to follow you to whatever end.
She released her breath with a shaky sigh, then she made her way to her chambers to fetch her pet.
When the first sunlight rose, she and the rest of the dwarves had already covered quite a distance into the mountains, without a goodbye to their hosts, and most likely without a chance of return.
"Be on your guard," she heard Thorin pant who led the way along the steep cliffs. "We're about to step over the Edge of the Wild." Their short resting period was over.
Chapter 7: Into the Mountains
Her fingers clawed into the rock Ella hangs from the cliff's edge, her legs dangling uselessly over the yawning depth.
The ground beneath her is shrouded in the ever-present mist that has given those mountains its name, but she knows the abyss to be deep enough that a fall would not only kill her, but likely smash her body into tiny little pieces.
The battle of the Stone Giants still continues, and every time one of the huge rocks they throw at each other hits near her position, large pieces of the mountain range break off and shower her with stone splinters and dust. The stone beneath her hands is slippery and shakes and trembles with every impact, she can't hold on to it for much longer. From afar, she hears the terrified screams of her companions through the deafening thunderstorm that rages around her, but she can't open her mouth and cry for help, and anyway they're too far away.
Then, suddenly, Thorin is kneeling in front of her at the mountain cliff, his long, raven mane blowing in the wind around his head.
"Take my hand!" he shouts against the thundering noise around them. He reaches out his hand and Ella grasps it, surpised at how warm it feels, how firm and strong, like something made to hold on to. She knew he would come back to get her.
For a moment, the pandemonium around them falls silent and there is nothing but the two of them, she and him, the sky above them and the abyss below her. His beautiful electric blue eyes locked with hers, Thorin looks down on her.
Smiles. And lets go off her hand.
From the Valley of Imladris in the west the Great East Road climbed into the Misty Mountains.
Two passes led through the huge mountain range, a readily accessible lower one, and the so called High Pass which was anything but.
Thorin had decided to take the latter- presumably, to avoid unwanted company- and only a few days into the mountains it began to dawn on Ella that the first part of their journey had been a mere pleasure trip.
Her relief to be able to walk again ( as a decent hobbit should ) instead of rocking back and forth on horseback soon turned sour- the mountain path was steep and at times so narrow that no two people could walk next to another and they had to move sideways with their backs against the rock in order not to be blown down by the relentless wind.
Hobbit feet were made for walking, but on soft grass not hard, sharp stone, and Ella had never been much of a friend of great heights. The view down onto the ever more distant valley made her dizzy, so she kept her eyes straight on the path in front of her, concentrating on putting one increasingly sore foot in front of the other, careful not to misstep.
After a two days' climbing, the path suddenly descended and then they marched through bleak, tundra-like plains for another two days, never resting for more than a few minutes during the day because Thorin was eager to reach his destination as fast as possible.
Upon their departure Gandalf had promised to rejoin them later, but he wouldn't-or couldn't- say exactly when or where, and so far they had seen neither him nor anyone else. The area was largely deserted, or so it seemed, but the dwarves remained vigilant at all times, avoiding open spaces wherever possible and watching out for possible persecuters.
By nightfall they made camp beneath a rocky plateau.
Since they had left Rivendell so clandestinely, Lord Elrond had not provided them with supplies and so they had to make do with the little they were able to gather and hunt underway.
Ella however, had been clever enough to 'borrow' some food from Rivendell's pantry before they left, a little milk for her pet and some slices of a special bread which the Elves called Lembas. It looked and tasted not very different from the hard bisquits she was used to from before, but it was surprisingly nourishing- a single slice was enough to keep her sated all day.
The dwarves didn't like it much, and the warg refused it outright, even when she chewed it for her before.
Ella was worried; she didn't have much milk left and the chance to find a wild mountain goat who would be willing to get milked wasn't very high.
"What do wargs eat?" she mused, more to herself than in the direction of her companions who were sitting somewhat apart from her at the fire as they usually did now.
Her pet no longer horrified most of them as it had in the beginning- in a clean state it looked less like a monster and more like a curious ( and admittedly particularly ugly ) crossing between a dog and cat with surprisingly soft and shiny golden groundhair, and so far it had behaved very well.
She still had to carry it in a cloth slung around her upper body on the steep mountain paths, but in the plains she sometimes let it run free and then it would stumble beside her on its short, chubby legs, wheezing like an asthmatic bulldog. Now and then it would prick its tiny ears and lift its head to sniff in the wind, but if it smelled any of its kind they didn't show themselves and the blade of Ella's Elven blade never changed its colour.
Kili smirked at her. "The flesh of their killed enemies?" he suggested helpfully.
"Great."Ella grimaced."Not that there were many enemies to slay lately- of which I am grateful, of course." she added quickly.
The dwarf prince inclined his head and eyed the animal suspiciously. "What are you planning to do with it when it gets bigger?"
Ella looked down at her bruised feet, then up to him again. "Why, ride it, of course," she said with a grin.
Her gaze flew to the mountain chain next to them. "How long until we reach the Erebor, what do you think?" she asked. "These mountains seem endless to me."
"They are," It was Balin who answered. The old dwarf, as Ella had come to learn by now, was an inexhaustible source of knowledge and rarely missed a chance to share it."Or at least, almost. The Misty Mountains run 800 miles from Gundabad in the far north to Rohan in the south. But don't worry lass, we're only crossing it from west to east, which is a far, far shorter way."
"Gundabad?" Ella asked. She had heard about Rohan but that name was new to her.
"Ah, yes, Gundabad," Balin said in a tone meaning 'Glad you asked.' "Legend has it that Durin, the first of the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves and name giver to Thorin's family line, first awoke on this mountain. He then marched all the way through the mountains and discovered Khazad-dûm- now called Moria- in the far south, where the thriving Dwarvish community created the greatest city ever known and lived there for many thousands of years."
"Until the orcs came and took it from us." Kili said in a gloomy voice.
"We'll have it back," Balin answered, quietly but resolutely. "One thing at a time, my young friend. First the Erebor, then Khazad-dûm. We'll have it all back."
The way he said it, he seemed to have no doubt about the success of their quest. It was strangely reassuring. Kili felt it, too. He smiled and patted the older dwarf's back. "Just as you say, Balin," he nodded.
"Anyway-" his smile turned into a smirk as he looked back at Ella. "Your future mount. Does it have a name yet?"
"It's a she," she clarified. "And no. A hobbit name didn't seem quite suitable, and I don't know any orc names- female ones, at that. There must be female orcs though, right?"
"Oh, I suppose so." Balin cleared his throat. "How else would they-well- you know- breed ?"
Ella suppressed a smile. Despite their usual regulars' manners the dwarves were astounishingly prim when it came to talking about sexual intercourse in any form.
"What a beautiful idea," Kili grimaced. "Honeymoon in Mordor and orc mating rituals. Thank you, Balin. This is going to haunt me in my sleep tonight."
"I suggest you ask them when next we meet," she heard Thorin's humourless bass as he rose to take the first nightwatch, and the laughter died in Ella's throat.
"Which will be soon enough, make no mistake about it."
The look he gave her was anything but amused, storm-tossed brow, eyes cold enough to freeze the water in her mug. "Well, I'm glad some of us are looking forward to an anew encounter with our enemies. For my part, I prefer to avoid it if I can."
He turned his back on them, but before he left, he threw a look back over his shoulder at Ella and the baby warg sleeping in her lap. "Make sure your- pet stays quiet," he growled, then he turned to his nephew. "If it howls, shoot it."
He really had a talent to kill a conversation.
"Well," Kili sighed once his uncle had gone to take his post. "Goodnight then, I guess. Tomorrow we'll be up in the mountains again. Better get some rest."
Ella prepared her bed along with the dwarves, but as usual, sleep wouldn't come easily.
After leaving Rivendell, Thorin's behaviour towards her had become even more unkind, and she understood it in part. He was probably ashamed that she had listened to Gandalf's and Lord Elrond's conversation about the mental illness that ran in this family, and probably resented her for having seen him so unmistakably affected and wounded.
It seemed to her that the more she learned about the dwarf king, the more she believed to understand him, the gap between them only grew broader, and this made her terribly sad.
More than once had she considered to talk to him, disclose her true feelings to him and just await his reaction. Thorin avoided her most of the time, but it wouldn't really prove difficult to have a word with him alone- he always took the first nightwatch- but she couldn't bring herself to do it.
Hobbits might be inferior to dwarves in many ways, they might not be warriors who could look back on a glorious past, but they, too, had their pride. If this big, stubborn mule of a king was too blind to see what he meant to her, it was surely not her job to poke his long nose into it-
The next day, they were back on the mountain chain.
And then there came the thunderstorm.
And the Stone Giants.
Ella awoke with a start, her heart pounding, her body covered in cold sweat.
It took a while until she realised that she was still alive, that she didn't lie shattered on the ground but safely in the cave where they had found momentary shelter.
It had been a bad dream, nothing more.
Of course, Thorin had not let her fall. On the contrary, he had risked his own life to save her. After pulling her up the slope, he had lost his footing on the slippery ground and almost tumbled down the abyss himself. Oin and Dwalin managed to pull him up with combined forces, and then they were all out on their feet again, groaning and panting for breath. And luckily there had been that deserted cave nearby in which they sought shelter for the night.
It was a small wonder in itself that all of them had survived the battle between the Stone Giants, more or less unharmed even, and everyone expressed their relief that they had not lost their burglar.
Everyone- that was, except for Thorin.
"She's been lost ever since she left home," he said grimly. "She should never have come. She has no place amongst us."
Ella waited till her breathing had returned to normal and listened out into the darkness around her. The air in the cave was cold and damp- Thorin had not allowed to make a fire- and there was no sound but the soft snoring of the sleeping dwarves.
Quietly, Ella rose to her feet, bundled up her things, strapped on her sword and tucked the sleeping baby warg in her shawl.
Thorin had made it abundantly clear- she had no place amongst them and she never would. He had expected her to be nothing but a burden on his quest right from the start, and so far, experience had proven him right.
All that was left for her to do was leave, secretly steal away in the night like the thief she was.
Silently, carefully, she made her way across the sleeping bodies on the floor. She had reached the cave entrance when a large paw on her shoulder stopped her escape.
Ella released her breath with a defeated sigh. She didn't have to turn around to know who it was, the scent of him was unmistakable, as was the warmth of his hand that seemed to burn all the way through her clothes.
"What do you think you're doing ?" came Thorin's low, dark voice in her back.
She turned to face him. In the dark she could hardly see more than the outlines of his face, but his bright eyes beneath his dark, bushy brows shone like torches.
"Isn't that obvious?" she whispered back, her chin defiantly raised at him. "I'm leaving. You're right, I should never have come in the first place."
The dwarf king exhaled. "My words were spoken in anger," he said very quietly. "And concern. I didn't mean it. You almost died out there- "
He paused to brush the hair out of his face. "Where would you go anyway?"
Ella shrugged. "Back to Rivendell, I guess. Lord Elrond invited me to stay there for as long as I wished. And isn't that what you want?"
"I wish you would have stayed in Rivendell, yes," Thorin admitted. "Where you were safe. But you didn't, and now it wouldn't be safe for you to return, not on your own. I will not allow it."
"That's not your decision to make," Ella hissed. "You're not my king and I'm not one of your subjects. You can't make me stay."
"Strictly speaking, I could," Thorin replied, his voice even lower and darker than before. "But I'd prefer if I didn't have to."
Ella felt heat rise up her cheeks as she suddenly realized how close he was, close enough that she could feel his warm breath on her face with every word he spoke.
His hand was still on her shoulder, firm and warm, sending oddly pleasant shivers from there all through her body.
The air between them seemed to shift, to grow thicker, quite similar to the way it had in the tunnels when they approached Rivendell, it was crackling with tension. With magic.
The breath caught in her throat. She couldn't speak.
Thorin seemed to feel it, too. His grip on her shoulder tightened and he leaned forward so that their bodies almost touched.
"You'll be safer if you stay here," he repeated very quietly, sounding somewhat surprised by his own words. "You're safe here, with me-"
With so much of Thorin so close to her, safe was not exactly what Ella felt- in fact she had the feeling she was again hanging on the ledge, just before the free fall.
And it felt good. In fact, she couldn't remember to have ever felt better in all her life.
Slowly, like driven by a force outside herself, she raised her hand to bury it in his thick mane and pull his face down to hers.
She heard Thorin inhale sharply.
And then, a low growl coming from the shawl around her waist.
Both she and Thorin awoke from their trance and glanced down at the baby warg who had chosen the worst possible moment to wake up and make its disapproval known.
And then at her belt and the Elven sword in it, which had suddenly begun to flicker and glow in the darkness like a warning light.
Chapter 8: My Precious
It all happened so fast that she didn't even have the time to scream.
Ella stared in shocked disbelief at her sword glowing in a luminiscent blue, when the ground beneath her suddenly began to tremor like hit by an earthquake.
Before she and the dwarves knew what was happening, the whole cave collapsed beneath them and dragged its occupants down with it, and then they were helplessly tumbling and skidding through endless tunnels- down, down and farther down, to what must be the deep core of the mountain.
Their breakneck slide ended with a rough crash on a wooden hanging bridge, one of many that criss-crossed a huge underground cave like spiderwebs. Numerous torches spread their dim light in every corner.
Her head swimming and every bone in her body feeling broken, Ella squinted into her surroundings.
And then she saw them.
Orcs. Hundreds of them, one uglier and scarier than the next.
And they were coming their way, a swarming crowd of risen spears and axes and bared teeth and terrifying war cries.
This just couldn't be true.
A minute ago she had been standing next to Thorin, ready to- what exactly ? she would likely never find out now- and in the next moment she was trapped in the worst of nightmares. It was all too much.
"Keep your head down and stay behind me," she heard Thorin pant against her ear, before he raised his sword to confront the enemy. The other dwarves quickly followed his example and hacked and thrusted at the assailing orcs, but it was useless, they were outnumbered by a multiple and more were still coming.
The orcs, although snapping and slobbering at them like rabid dogs, didn't seem out to kill them though, instead they pushed and shoved their prisoners forwards and farther into the cave, and eventually up a raised stand.
A sort of throne made of what looked like bones sat at its end, and on it, the undisputedly most monstrous creature Ella had ever seen.
It seemed to be an orc as well, a male one, but he was three times as big as the rest of their captors, and considerably fatter with a huge belly and a meatbag of a chin which reached all the way down to his sagging breasts.
The king of this godforsaken place- for that's what he seemed to be, for he wore a wooden crown and carried something like a sceptre, a stick with a goat's skull on it- certainly brought the term ugliness to a whole new level.
The monster hardly noticed the newcomers at first, he was too busy bawling a song- and quite a bad one at, even for Ella's standards, which, having spent more than enough time in taverns of ill repute and lately, in the company of dwarves, weren't too high.
The orcs on the terraces enjoyed it enough though, they cheered and stamped their feet and roared along with the refrain that was actually quite catchy and went "Down down down in Goblin-town". A classic, without a doubt.
When he was finished, the orcs broke into a deafening applause and the orc king, after bowing graciously in all directions, finally deigned to notice his 'guests'.
"One of my own compositions," he explained proudly. "Catchy is it?"
"That's not a song!" Ella heard Balin shout behind her. "It's an abomination!"
Ella rolled her eyes. Great. Always clever to piss off the boss when your life was at stake. The dwarves were as proud as they were brave, but clearly they could use some lessons in diplomacy.
The ruler of Goblintown however, seemed to take it as a compliment.
He actually thanked Balin and spread his wobbly arms as if to welcome his guests, but when his minions dropped the collection of their removed weapons before his throne, his face grew darker.
"And what's that?" he roared. "Who dares to come armed into my kingdom? Spies?Thieves? Assassins?"
Ella gulped. The very ground beneath their feet seemed to tremble from the sound of his thunderous voice. The baby warg in her shawl emitted a low growl. Quickly, she pulled the fabric over her head to shush her while she racked her brain to think of an explanation of their presence in the Misty Mountains that would be both plausible and harmless.
She took too long.
"Nothing to say?" the Goblin king asked dangerously calmly. "Well- if they don't talk, we'll make them squawk! Bring up the mangler!" he shouted. "Bring up the bonebreaker!" The gaze of his bleary pop eyes fixed on her and his mouth twisted into an ugly grin. "Start with the youngest!"
Oh not, not again. Ella closed her eyes as a deafening roar followed the monster's proclamation. Why was everyone in these lands out to torture and kill them? What had she ever done to any of these hideous creatures to deserve such a hateful treatment? An hour ago, Ella had not even known of a place called Goblintown, and now she certainly wished she had never learnt of its existence at all.
But it didn't matter; she was in the company of dwarves, and the members of this people had evidently spent an eternity to antagonize practically everyone in Middle-Earth.
But no, that wasn't fair.
The orcs had driven them from their home and slaughtered them in their thousands, they'd had every right to strike back. It was just that she was so scared-
"Wait! That won't be necessary," she suddenly heard Thorin's firm voice as he stepped forward out of the group to meet his captor.
"Well, well, well," the goblin king said as he came in sight. "Look who it is. Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror. King under the mountain."
He gave a fake bow and his audience on the ranks laughed.
"But no, you must forgive me, I forgot," he went on. "You no longer have a mountain. Tell me, Thorin," he sneered. "From king to king. Is a king without a kingdom still a king? I'd say he is no one. "
He bent forward as much as his enormous belly allowed. "But he may still serve a purpose. I know someone who would pay a pretty price for your head."
He grinned and exposed a set of rotten teeth. "You know who I'm talking of, don't you? An old enemy of yours. A pale orc on a white warg-"
Thorin's eyes grew wide at the mention of the orc who had killed his grandfather at the battle of Moria. "Azog the defiler his dead," he said through clenched teeth.
"Is he now?" The great goblin raised a mocking brow. "Well, he will be upset to hear that."
He turned to his scribe, a tiny little goblin who sat on a sort of swing next to his boss and carried a parchment to write down his commands. "Send word to Azog," he ordered.
The miniature goblin raised his pen and scratched himself behind the ear. "Should I tell him he's dead?" he asked in a funny high-pitched screech.
"Of course not, you idiot!" The goblin king furrowed his brow. "Tell him I have found his prize. Tell him Thorin Oakenshield will be my guest until it pleases him to come and get him. Take them to the cells!" he shouted at his guards. "If they raise any trouble, kill them one by one-but not him!"
He pointed at Thorin with an ugly smile. "He's too precious. His ransom will provide a pleasant retirement."
Again, the orcs pushed them forward with their spears, away from the great cave and down a dimly lit path that likely led to their dungeons.
Ella tumbled along amidst her companions, still somewhat shocked with the sudden disastrous turn of events, but far from accepting her defeat.
The orcs had not considered her enough of a threat to search her and she still had her sword. Their situation might seem pretty much hopeless at the moment, but she had no intention of selling her life cheap.
"I will feign an escape attempt in a moment," she suddenly felt Thorin's hand on her shoulder and heard his low voice against her ear." Once they are distracted, I want you to run. Run and get yourself into safety."
"No."Vehemently, Ella shook her head. "I won't run. Forget about it. I won't leave you."
"Yes you will. You. Will. Do. As. I. Say. " Thorin hissed, underlining every word with a painful squeeze. "I won't let you die down here. That is an order."
Ella opened her mouth to protest, but at the same moment Thorin let out a loud yell and pushed her out of the group and into the shadows of the tunnel's edge.
Then he suddenly broke free from his captors' hands and stormed forwards, the other dwarves after him, the orc horde following in their tracks with furious screams.
Ella tumbled into the darkness, and onto a small, broken stairway that led downwards to god-knows-where.
Before she even had the time to decide if to follow it or run after her companions, the distorted grimace of another orc appeared over her.
The monster grinned and pulled a dagger.
Panicking, Ella stumbled backwards until her feet slipped on the slick stone and she fell down the stairs which suddenly petered out and made both her and her pursuer tumble down into the depth.
There was a long,free fall and finally a painfully hard impact.
An eternity later, or maybe just a few minutes, Ella opened her eyes and found herself lying in a bed of slimy mushrooms that had cushioned her impact and probably saved her life.
They covered a dark and damp underground cave, silent apart from the faint sound of rushing water in the distance.
Her whole body ached in places of which she had not even known they existed. She felt like she would never get up again.
Something like a wet, rough rag brushed her face and Ella yelped, both at the uncomfortable feeling and the rather bad breath that accompanied it.
The baby warg, who must have slipped from her resting place in her shawl during Ella's fall, sat on her chest and eagerly licked her face.
When she opened her eyes she stared back at her with her deep blue eyes and emitted a joyful yelp.
Ella sat up with a painful groan and blinked into her surroundings.
The orc laid a few paces away from her on the stony ground, his limbs twisted, seemingly- hopefully- dead.
She had no idea where she was, but it was clear that she had lost her companions just as it had been Thorin's plan. She would likely never see him again.
Overwhelmed by an incredible feeling of loss and sadness, Ella buried her head into her pet's soft fur and let her tears run free until the noticeably confused animal began to grunt and writhe in her grip.
Then suddenly, a loud growl, followed by unmistakable combat sounds.
Ella pressed her pet closer to her chest and sank back into the cover of mushroom hats.
From there she watched in horror how a very pale and very gaunt creature, presumably the cave's occupant, bashed the not-quite-dead-yet orc's head in with a heavy stone, then dragged the body deeper into the cave, all the while muttering and mumbling to himself.
"Nasty goblinses," the creature said as it struggled to drag off its prey- to eat it, as it seemed. "But better than bones, precious. Better than nothing."
Ella waited until she could no longer hear it, then she released her breath and silently rose to her feet.
Grateful as she was to the curious cave dweller for having taken care of the orc, the creature was clearly mad and therefor dangerous, and she had no desire to draw its attention.
Next to her on the ground, she saw her sword, and as she grasped for it in relief, her eyes fell on something else that was lying there, a small object that shone brightly in the darkness around her.
Ella reached out, picked it up and held it before her eyes.
It was small but surprisingly heavy and visibly made of gold.
Feeling the corners of her mouth curl up into a bitter smile, she put it in her pocket. To think that she had started this adventure in the hope of great treasures and now this small thing would be the only reward for all her efforts.
Not that it mattered much to her any more.
And only if she found a way out of this cave and this mountain.
And that she had to. Not to get herself into safety as Thorin had told her to, or well- not only- but to find someone who would help her free him and the others from their prison before Azog arrived.
The mere thought of the pale orc made her skin crawl.
It didn't take much to imagine what he would do to Thorin if he got hold of him- he would kill him, and given their old grudge he wouldn't do it quickly.
She had to find help.
She had to find Gandalf.
Carefully, her sword held up in front of her, Ella tiptoed across the cave, the warg following in her footsteps.
In the distance- or so she hoped, voices tended to carry far in caves like this- she could hear the creature sing, its croaking voice echoing eerily from the damp walls around her.
Finally she reached a lake in the middle of the cave, and there, on one of the rocks that sat on the water surface like small islands, the creature crouched on its victim, trying to rip off the orc's skin with his bare hands and- as its frustrated howls indicated- little success.
For once Ella was glad about her empty stomach which turned at this sight.
The cave's walls provided good cover, but she had forgotten about her sword which still glowed a bright blue and shone like a beacon in the night.
The creature released its rebellious meal and turned its head into her direction.
Quickly, Ella retreated into the shadows.
She had made it a few careful paces back down the aisle, when the creature, who had apparently climbed the wall above her with surprising swiftness, jumped from a section of the wall and directly in front of her feet.
"Stay away," Ella gasped and fidgeted with her sword in front of the creature's head. " I have a weapon and I know how to use it!"
It was a bold statement, and one whose veracity she very much hoped she wouldn't be forced to prove.
The baby warg next to her, with her ears back and her fur bristled, bared her tiny fangs and reinforced her words with a threatening snarl.
The creature flinched and snarled as well. "Nasty wargses," it complained in a reproachful tone. "We don't like them, precious! Take it away from us! It's ugly! Gollum! Gollum!"
Ella snorted. Her pet might not exactly be a feast for the eyes and she would be the first to admit this, but it would never cease to amaze her how quick Middle-Earth's rather unpleasant inhabitants were to judge others.
Throughout the last weeks she had seen her fair share of ugliness, from the mountain trolls to orcs in various ( and equally repulsive ) sizes and forms, and this new specimen- whatever it was- was clearly no exception.
In a cadaverous skull with jug ears, bald except for a few strands of thin hair, sat blood-shot eyes as big as saucers over a tiny nose and a mouth with hardly more than half a dozen irregular, pointed teeth.
As far as she could tell-for it was naked apart from a worn out and not too clean loincloth- it was male, and the tightly- stretched skin on its gaunt body had the sickly greyish tone of someone who hardly ever saw the light of day.
But despite its apparent ugliness- and that was the most disturbing thing of all- the creature had something vaguely familiar about him.
Ella couldn't quite put her finger on it, but it would seem to her that she should know what he was.
No orc, that much was certain.
But be that as it may, she was so fed up with everyone critizing her looks- or her pet's, for that matter.
Careful not to drop her sword, she lifted the baby warg up and clutched it protectively to her chest.
"People in glasshouses," she declared in a sharp tone. "shouldn't throw stones."
The creature tilted his head and gave her a mystified look.
"Glasshouses?" he repeated quizzically. "What's glasshouses, precious?"
Then his eyes went wide- or better, even wider than before. "Is it a riddle?" he asked exitedly.
"A riddle? No." Ella raised a brow."A saying, more like. The meaning is quite obvious, I would think."
The creature emitted a groan and scratched the remaining hair on his skull as he struggled to make sense of her words.
Finally, he looked up at her with a wide grin that made his face not a bit prettier.
"We knows!" he cried out. "Wargses are ugly but we are ugly, too!"
Well. That was one way to put it.
"We are as ugly as wargses! Gollum! Gollum!" The creature slapped his bony thighs and squealed with joy like this was the best joke he ever heard.
Ella sighed. He was clearly mad as a hare in spring, but perhaps he could still be of some use.
"Listen, Gollum," she said softly. "That's your name, right? I need your help. I got- lost. Is there a way out of this cave? Do you know it?"
The creature went still and a calculating look ran over his face.
"Lost, is it? A way out? Oh yes, my precious. We knows a way out. We could show it."
The gaze of his huge pop-eyes flew over her and the pet in her arms. "We don't like wargses, orces and goblinses," he mused. "But this is a small one. Juicy and scrumptious, not all boneses and tough meat-"
He looked up at Ella and grinned. " We shows it the way if we can eat it, yes?"
"No, most certainly not!" Ella clutched the baby warg tighter. "I won't let you eat her. She- she's my friend."
My only remaining friend, a small, sad voice added in her head.
"Friend?" The creature repeated slowly, wondering. "We don't have a friend."
"Well, I'm not surprised. Here," Ella shuffled her pockets, produced a slice of lembas bread and offered it to him with her hand outstretched. "You're hungry? Eat this."
The creature grabbed eagerly for the presumed treat, held it to his nose and sniffed at it.
His face twisted into a disgusted grimace and he threw it away as fast as he could.
"Nasty Elven bread!" he yelped. "It wants to poison us, my precious!"
"I don't-" Ella stopped and shook her head.
There was no point in discussing with lunatics. She had to try a different strategy.
"You know what?" she asked the creature who was still swaying and wailing quietly. "I think you're lying. I think you don't no a way out of this cave at all. Because if you did, why would you stay here?"
The creature threw her an insulted look. "Yes we knows," he growled. "But we won't tell it, with its nasty wargses and its nasty Elven bread."
Alright, this wouldn't work. Mad as he might be, he was no complete fool.
"How about that," she suggested. "We could play a game. You like riddles, don't you? Well, how about you ask me a riddle and if I solve it, you show me the way out?"
"Yes! Yes!" Gollum's face lit up and he crawled towards her. "We like games, doesn't we precious?"
The excited smile left his face. "But what if it loses? What then?" it asked in a dangerously calm voice. "If it loses we eats it! We eats them both!"
Ella gulped. She had no choice but to yield to his conditions. Every moment wasted in this cave was a moment that brought Azog closer to Goblintown, and her companions closer to certain death.
"Fair enough." she nodded. It wouldn't come to this. How hard could it be to defeat a halfwit in a mental game?
Gollum clasped his hands in excitement.
"Us first!" he proclaimed.
He crawled around her in circles and began in a whispering sing-song tone:
"What always runs but never walks,
often murmurs, never talks,
has a bed but never sleeps,
has a mouth but never eats?"
"Pride goes before a fall" had been one of grandma Ermentrude's favourite sayings, especially when it came to her granddaughter ( "Idleness is the beginning of all vice" had been another ) and for the first time, Ella tended to agree with her now.
Clearly she had underestimated the creature's abilities; he'd certainly spent more than enough time alone in this cave to construct riddles, and this was a good one.
Ella turned away from his smug grin and let her gaze roam across the dark cave while she racked her brain for the answer.
It didn't help that she was bone-weary and aching all over, still in shock from recent events and worried sick for her companions. Finally her eyes came to rest on the black waters of the lake.
Water! That was it. But not a lake-
"A river!" she sighed in relief and turned around to the creature who acknowledged her answer with a frustrated howl.
But her mind was blank, she couldn't seem to come up with something nearly as difficult. And it mustn't be too easy, the creature was obviously good at this.
Her game partner grew impatient. "Ask us!" he demanded. "Ask us !"
The baby warg began to fidget in her arms and she set her down. The animal disappeared in a dark corner to make her business.
Ella put her hands in her pockets and closed her fingers around the ring in it.
She turned and met the creature's expectant gaze. "What have I got in my pocket?" she asked.
Gollum's face turned into an irritated frown. "That's no fair!" he complained. "That's against the rules!"
"No, it isn't," Ella said and crossed her arms in front of her chest. "You told me to ask you and this is my question. What have I got in my pocket?"
The creature opened his mouth and broke into a deafening bluster. Then he stopped. "Three guesses!" he cried. "It must give us three guesses!"
Ella shrugged. "Three guesses, very well. Guess away."
"Nasty Elven bread!"
She shook her head. "Wrong. You threw it away, remember? It was my last slice by the way."
Which meant, if she didn't get out of this cave soon, she and Gollum would soon have a hunger competition.
"Wrong again." Why on earth would she carry stones in her pockets? "Last guess."
Visibly upset, Gollum jumped around between the rocks.
"Handkerchief!" he crowed at last.
"Wrong again." Ella couldn't suppress a triumphant smile. The answer would have been correct had she not forgotten hers at Bibo's home- and afterwards politely declined the dirty rag one of the dwarves had offered her on the first day of their journey.
The creature threw itself on the stone and broke into frustrated sobs. Ella watched his trembling, bony back with only the slightest hint of pity. After all, he had wanted to eat her.
"Well," she clapped her hands. "That's it. You lost. Now keep your promise and show me the way out."
"Lost?" Gollum repeated slowly. "LOST?"
He jumped to his feet and frantically searched his loincloth, then the ground beneath him.
"Where is it?" he cried. "WHERE IS IT!"
This wasn't good. Ella had a pretty good idea what "it" was. And where it was.
Gollum turned around with a threatening snarl. "What has it got in its nasty little pocketses?"
He picked up a stone and threw it at her, then another.
"Thief!" he roared. "You stole it!"
There was no use in arguing with him in this state; even if she returned the ring to him now, he would sure as death not help her anymore.
Without knowing where to run, Ella turned and fled down a dark path to her left, and the creature pursued her, all the while screaming like crazy.
Her escape route soon turned out to be a dead end, or well, almost- there was a small gap between the rocks in front of her and she struggled to squeeze through it.
It would have been a mission impossible only a few weeks ago, but thanks to the not too sumptious meals lately she was no longer as curvy as she used to be.
She felt the fabrics of her tunic rip as she finally managed to make it through the gap, only a moment before a snarling Gollum was upon her, a rock in his hand.
But it was no use anyway. A lot thinner than she, he would have no problems to follow.
Ella tumbled into a small cave behind the rocks and as she did, the ring jumped out of her pocket and flew into the air.
Falling, she reached out to grab it and it slipped on her middle finger.
She drew her sword as Gollum entered the cave but to her utter surprise, he didn't seem to see her.
His mad, wide-eyed stare searched the cave and then, he gave a frustrated howl and crawled on and away towards a path on its other end.
Dumbfounded, Ella rose to her feet and followed him quietly, in hopes that he would lead her to the exit, which indeed he did.
Even though she stayed right behind him all the time, he gave no sign of noticing her, as if she had suddenly become invisible.
She was invisible.
But how was that possible?
The ring ! it dawned on her. It seemed that it was a magical thing, much more precious than it looked like, no wonder the creature called it exactly that.
No wonder he wanted to have it back.
There was the faint glow of daylight in front of her now. Ella's heart made a joyful leap. The exit!
And Gollum crouched right in front of it.
The path was narrow; there was no way to walk around him without him noticing.
Silent like a ghost- which indeed she were now- Ella tiptoed closer, the blade of her sword directed at his scrawny neck.
It would be child's play to jab out and kill him here and now, and, strictly speaking, an act of mercy rather than cold-blooded murder for a creature like him.
Gollum sat on his heels and stared out into the light before him, a look of utter desperation on his ugly face.
He no longer looked threatening, but only like the picture of misery he was, probably the loneliest creature in all Middle-Earth, and she had taken the only thing from him that he held dear.
He was right, she was a thief, but she would not sink so low to take his life as well.
Ella sheathed her sword, took a deep breath and a run-up and leapt right over him and out into the light, followed by the hateful screams of the creature who swore to hate her forever.
She stumbled out of the cave, down a slope and into the woods behind it.
And there, in a clearing between the trees, they all were.
Thirteen dwarves, one more precious to her than the next, and one of them, even more than the rest.
And in their midst, an unmistakable tall figure, long beard, pointy hat and all.
She no longer had to search for him. He had already found the dwarves and - although she had no idea how- once again saved them.
Ella felt a big grin spread across her face.
She was just about to run towards them when she remembered that she still wore the ring. She stripped it off her finger, stowed it away in her pocket and stepped out of the trees.
The dwarves broke into relieved, joyful cheers at her arrival, followed by anxious questions about where she had been and how she had managed to escape.
"That doesn't matter now," Thorin said quickly before she even had the chance to reply. "All that matters is that she is back with us again, safe and sound."
Apparently, he had no desire to expand on his role in her escape.
But he smiled. "It's good to see you you again, Miss Baggins." he said.
"And you." she returned his smile. "All of you."
It was then that it occured to her that something- someone-was missing.
A cold shiver ran down her spine and all the colour seemed to leave her face.
She had left her behind.
"I need to go back," she stammered. Gandalf dropped his pipe and laid his hand on her shoulder."Go back? Have you lost your mind, child?"
"You don't understand," she groaned and shook his hand of. "I lost her. I must go back and get her-"
Kili, who had been standing with his back to her until now, turned around to her with a broad grin on his face.
"Looking for this little bugger?" he asked and reached out to present to her what he held in his hands, an angry little bundle of fur and wide eyes and bared teeth that struggled furiously in his grip.
"She's a good girl," he laughed and looked down on his hands. "Barely a scratch. Think she likes me. She just doesn't know it yet."
Ella stormed towards him with a cry and took the grunting animal from his hands and into her arms.
The dwarves looked down and shuffled their feet in embarassment at the emotional scene that followed- a crazy hobbit woman who was sobbing uncontrollably into the fur of her ugly pet.
Ella knew she behaved like a baby but she couldn't stop herself, all the tension and chaos of the last days suddenly melted away from her, the floodgates were wide open and tears came pouring out.
"My precious" she murmured into the warm, soft and now tear-soaked fur.
And that was how the beast finally got a name.
Chapter 9: Mutual Misunderstandings
One week later
Ella awoke with a start. A stifled cry escaped her throat. Her heart was pounding like a drum.
Still trapped in the horror of her nightmare, she sat up and sucked in the chilly night air until her shivering eased.
It had been a week, but she still saw him every night.
The deep scars that covered both his pale face and his bare, muscular chest, the evil gleam in his eyes and his malicious grin as he had looked down at Thorin who lay unconscious before him, and then told his footman to finish him off.
Hearing the desperate screams of her companions in the tree behind her, she had drawn her sword and lunged at the attacker the moment he raised his weapon over Thorin's head in order to decapitate him for his master.
Once more she smelled the orc's foul breath on her face and the sharp pain running through her arm as she thrusted her sword all the way through his chain-mail and into his chest, once, twice, with all her might, until he no longer struggled and lay still beneath her.
Once more she felt the hard impact as she crashed to the ground, hit by the orc chieftain's huge mount, and saw how he slowly rode towards her, teeth bared, growling, his barbed club raised to smash her head in.
She knew then, that this would be the end, that she was to die here and now.
The dwarves had joined in the fight and fiercely attacked the orcs but Azog didn't even spare them a glance.
This ridiculous little hobbit had had the audacity to step between him and his prey, and he wouldn't let her get away with that.
It was Gandalf who had saved them once again, his eagles had come just in time to carry them away from the battlefield and out of the reach of their pursuers- for now.
The danger, Ella knew, was far from over and wouldn't be until the pale orc was dead.
And just like with Thorin, it was something personal between her and the defiler now, and if she ever dared to forget it, he made sure to remind her of it every night in her dreams.
Unable to get back to sleep, Ella released her breath, listened to the beautiful sound of peaceful snoring around her and felt her lips curl into a grim smile.
She had made her first kill, and it had not just been anyone, but one of Azog's trained elite warriors.
She still didn't know how she had managed to do it at all- she had never wielded a sword before and had acted without so much as a conscious thought, driven only by sheer despair and the urge to save Thorin- but she knew she would do it again any time.
Ella did not believe in the ancient gods of war the dwarves worshipped, but if they existed, one of them must surely have guided her arm on that day.
And most certainly, her standing in the group had considerably changed since then.
She was one of them now, no longer the curious and somewhat suspicious stranger that had more or less been forced upon them, the useless and helpless appendage they had to take care of.
No, she was a worthy member of the party now, a warrior among warriors.
That she was still a hobbit, and still a woman, didn't matter any longer; her brave and selfless deed had turned her into something like a honorary dwarf in the eyes of her companions, and they grew less and less reserved towards her.
Not even her pet was a thorn in their side any longer; after all, she had not turned against her owner in the battle but instead bravely ( although without much effect ) bitten one of the orcs' ankle.
And in reverse, the dwarves were no longer an indistinguishable lot to her as she got to know them better.
Kili and Fili remained her closest friends- saving their uncle had increased their respect for her, but their interaction with her had been natural and impartial from the start and it stayed that way- but now the others opened up to her more and more as well.
Balin, himself also a descendant of Durin's line, was the oldest and wisest of the group, a scholar rather than a fighter and Thorin's most valuable advisor. Although of a gentle nature, and interested in history rather than warcraft, he was as brave as any other when it came to a fight and dreamed of the recapture of Khazad-dûm.
His younger brother Dwalin was a born warrior, fearless and skilled with many weapons. A typical dwarf in many ways, gruff, taciturn and naturally wary towards strangers, he still valued strength and courage in others more than anything and thus, Ella had earned his respect, although not yet his friendship.
He had offered to teach her how to fight, which was not only a great honour but, as he rightfully claimed, also highly necessary, and now they spent many of their spare hours with weapon training, often watched or even accompanied by Dori, who was the strongest of the dwarves and therefore, a more than worthy and difficult sparring partner.
Always pessimistic as was his nature ( he tended to expect a thunderstorm by the time a single raindrop hit his face, and was then oddly satisfied when his defeatism proved true ) Dori predicted Ella would never be a great warrior, but did 'quite well for a girl', which, coming from him, was a huge compliment. ( He had said the same of Kili and Fili before.)
He was the older brother of Ori and Nori, the latter being the black sheep of the family ( something Ella could relate to very well ) and said to have joined the Erebor quest mostly to run from troubles not specified in detail in his home.
Ori, the youngest of the three brothers, about the same age as the princes, was more of an artist than a fighter, he wrote a diary about the quest and made a lot of surprisingly good sketches. Despite being used to be bossed around and mocked by his older brothers, he was always polite and friendly, and Ella came to like him a lot.
Oin was the oldest of the dwarves after Balin, and also a distant cousin of Thorin. He had profound medical knowledge, and in his role as the healer of the group he had made a healing salve of herbs for the injuries Thorin had suffered from the warg's bite in the fight against Azog, and so his wounds healed quite well.
He had been hard of hearing before, and now that the orcs of Goblintown had destroyed his ear trumped, he was as good as deaf -which meant a conversation could only be had if the others shouted directly into his ear.The old dwarf accepted his fate with stoic dignity, but Ella knew it troubled him a lot.
His brother Gloin, brave, quick-tempered and never afraid to speak his mind, was also distinguished by the fact that he was the only one in the company who actually had a family- he carried a picture of his beloved wife and his son Gimli with him and made no secret of his heart's desire to provide the two of them with a safe home in the Erebor, which was the main reason why he had agreed to join the quest.
And then there were Bifor, Bofur and Bombir, who weren't of noble lineage but instead descendants of miners and blacksmiths.
The former, due to a piece of an orc axe from an old battle still stuck in his head, wasn't able to talk and instead communicated with grunts and hand gestures.
His cousin Bofur on the contrary, was quite talkative, he loved music, drinks and all the other nice things in life. Contrary to the gloomy Dori, Bofur was always overly optimistic, able to find the positive aspects in the most hopeless of situations, and thus clearly a man after Ella's taste.
And lastly, there was his brother Bombur, who loved a good meal more than anything and had thus far managed to lose not a single pound of his considerable weight, no matter how stressful their journey and how sparse their rations were. He was also a fierce and fearless fighter when need be, and always up for a joke even when it was on his own expense- which was the case more often than not.
All in all, they were a lovable lot, the best surrogate family Ella could have wished for, and she had by now come to hold each and every one of them far dearer than she would have ever expected- or even wanted.
And then, there was of course Thorin.
The dwarf king had not yet said a word about her brave attempt to save his life, but she knew it was his silent yet obvious acceptance that had encouraged the others to treat her with a new familiarity in the first place.
Instead of his former harsh, and often patronizing behaviour towards her, he now treated her like an equal and was always perfectly polite, which was gratifying, but at the same time left her oddly unfulfilled.
Sure, she had always striven for his respect and was happy to have gained it now, but it wasn't enough.
She wanted the moment in that cave in the Misty Mountain back, wanted back what had undeniably been there between them for a few seconds- but if Thorin ever thought of it at all, he seemed determined to ignore it.
It was still dark, the break of day likely hours away, but she was wide awake now.
In order not to wake anyone, Ella quietly rose to her feet and walked away from her sleeping companions and towards a small rivulet nearby, one of the many side-arms of the Great River of Wilderland in the east.
She had seen the mighty stream from the high bluff where Gandalf's eagles had dropped them after their flight, as well as the huge forest behind it that was the Mirkwood, and then, in the far east, their final destination- the Lonely Mountain, which, being the only considerable elevation in otherwise flat area, certainly deserved its name.
She put her clammy hands into her pockets as she walked, and like all by themselves, her fingers closed around the ring in it.
She had not 'used' it again until now, although, admittedly, often fantazised about the multitude of possibilities its magic power offered. ( To take a close look at Thorin when he took a bath in the river, unseen and without him noticing, was only one of them, but by far the most enticing.)
Ella had heard the whole story of Gandalf's dramatic rescue mission in Goblintown by now, but her own escape had not been a subject of discussion again, and of that she was glad.
Not only wasn't it an exactly heroic tale- same as Azog, a devastated Gollum still haunted her sleep on a regular basis- but also was she oddly reluctant to tell the others about her precious find.
A magic ring, able to grant its owner invisibility, was a mighty weapon, and certainly one both Thorin and Gandalf would be most interested in. But somehow, she couldn't bring herself to tell them about it.
The ring had come to her- more or less, at least.
It was hers.
And even though she didn't plan to use it until it would be absolutely necessary, it felt good to reach into her pocket and touch it ever so often, if only to make sure it was still there.
As Ella reached the rivulet, she wasn't too surprised to find that someone else had already had the same idea.
His bed in the camp had been empty, and here he was, sitting leaned against a huge oak tree, a pipe in his hand, his deep blue eyes watching the slow moving waters before him.
He looked up as she approached him, initial alert making way for a hesitant smile as he saw who it was.
Inwardly rolling her eyes, Ella inclined her head.
"Your Majesty" she replied, mockingly taking up his formal tone. "Do you ever sleep?"
"I'm trying" he replied after a moment. "But there's much to think about, and I have always found it easier to focus my thoughts in the quiet night hours. And by the way, Thorin is fine."
"As long as you call me by my given name as well," She walked closer and seated herself beside him. "Ella," she felt the need to clarify. "Not Buttercup." She had always hated the nickname Gandalf still called her now and then ( and for no other reason than to get her hackles up, she was sure of it ) and the longer their journey continued the less she felt like a flower. And now that she thought of it, she probably didn't smell like one either.
Thorin's smile returned, more at ease now, and she smiled back in helpless adoration.
His physical closeness always had the same effect on her as Balin's homebrew- it put her into something akin to a state of intoxication, set a fire deep in her guts and at the same time, covered her skin all over with goosebumps.
"You must be cold," Thorin, clearly misinterpreting the signs, said softly.
He took off his fur coat and gently wrapped it around her shoulders. It was still heated by his body warmth and smelled wonderfully of him.
"Thank you." He nodded and for a long while, they sat next to each other in comfortable silence.
"I have never thanked you for what you did for me there," the dwarf king said at last.
"Confronting Azog and his myrmidons all by yourself-"He shook his head in disbelief. "That was such an incredibly foolish thing to do-"
"Indeed?" Ella raised a brow. "I would think it was exactly what you did, too."
"I am the king of Durin's folk and a warrior from the cradle to the grave," Thorin snorted. "To flee and climb a tree in order to escape my enemies would hardly sit well with my reputation. Wouldn't sound too good in a song either, would it?"
"Is that what you really care about?" Ella asked in genuine amazement. "What kind of songs will be sung about you one day?"
The dwarf king shrugged. "It's what remains in the end when we're no longer there, isn't it?" he asked quietly.
He had a point, but in this respect Ella would likely never understand the dwarfish disposition.
She had neither the desire to dwell on the past, nor on what might be in a distant future. She certainly preferred to live in the here and now, as it was the way of hobbits, and here and now meant sitting next to the man she adored, no matter who his great ancestors might have been, or whatever songs would once be sung about him.
Thorin's lips curled into a small smile. "There will be a verse about your brave deed now, too. I'm quite sure Ori has already composed something of the like."
Ella couldn't help but smile back. "So what now, was it brave or was it foolish?"
"Both." Thorin nodded seriously. "If there is even a difference. I'd say the most heroic deeds require a certain level of foolishness, and of course, I would have never allowed it. But since I was in no condition to stop you, and since you effectively saved my life, I have hardly a right to complain."
"It's fine." The rare praise warmed Ella from the inside out, but it also made her uncomfortable."You're welcome. And after all, you saved mine twice in those mountains, so I guess we're even now."
"Speaking of," Thorin looked away and watched the stream in front of them. "I believe I still owe you an apology."
Ella frowned, trying to figure out what he meant. "Because of Goblintown?" she tried. "Because you left me behind? That's alright. I know you tried to save me. And you couldn't have known that Gandalf would come to the rescue just in time-"
For a moment, Thorin looked confused.
"Oh, no, no," he said when he understood what she was referring to. "That's not what I meant. Of course I did that to save you, and I won't apologize for it, I would do it again any time if necessary-no,"
He paused and cleared his throat, visibly uncomfortable. "I'm talking of something else. Before we came to Goblintown. In the cave, when I caught you as you tried to steal away-"
So he had not forgotten it. And clearly, he considered it a mistake.
The fur of his coat, pleasantly soft and warm only a moment ago, began to itch uncomfortably against her skin.
Ella pressed her lips into a thin line. "I have no idea what you're talking about." she said flatly. If he really meant to say what she feared he would say, she had no intentions to make it any easier for him.
"Don't you?" He watched her, considering the possibility that she spoke the truth. Then he shook his head. "No. No, I think you do."
Thorin dropped his gaze."I cannot explain what has gotten into me at that moment," he went on in a low voice. "How I could forget myself so far as to almost-"
He exhaled with a deep sigh. "Yes."
"But you didn't."
"No." Another sigh, this time, one of relief.
"So am I right to assume that you want to apologize for something you did not do?" Ella couldn't quite keep the irony out of her voice.
"But I wanted to." Thorin replied very quietly.
Then he sat up and straightened his shoulders. "And it wouldn't have been right."
"I understand." Ella raised a brow. "Because I'm so far beneath you." she said in a bitter tone. "And I suppose it wouldn't sound particularly good in a song either."
Thorin's eyes grew wide. "Oh no, no, that is not what I meant to say, not at all."
He snorted out a mirthless little laugh. "Haven't you heard the monstrosity in Goblintown? I am a king without a kingdom. I am a nobody. I have nothing to offer to anyone but destitution and hardship, and it has been that way ever since I was forced to leave the Erebor. No. But you must understand, it is not the way of dwarves to take those things lightly-"
"Whereas I do?" she asked and saw him grimace in evident embarassment. If she wasn't so sad, she might actually have found it a touch amusing.
"I never said that."The dwarf king frowned angrily. "You're twisting my every word."
He sighed again, forcing his voice back into a normal tone as he continued. "It was my fault, and mine only. But I hope you know that I respect you far too much to- as a person, and a friend, hopefully- and that it is not my way to- well- get carried away by passion. You deserve better than that. Please accept my apology. It will not happen again."
Ella watched the pained expression on his handsome features and it dawned on her that he really meant it.
Curse this stubborn old dwarf and his excessive ideas of honour!
Part of her wanted to throw herself at him and prove him wrong in every respect, but another part of her, a part of which she had not even known it existed until lately, was much too proud to force what would not be willingly given.
The heart in her chest grew heavy and she was suddenly very tired.
"Well, I'm glad to hear that," she said airily. "I think the same way. If you will excuse me now, I think I should try to get some sleep while I still can."
"Good." Thorin attempted a smile. "I'm glad we settled this."
He didn't look glad.
"Good night Ella." he said quietly.
Ella rose and turned her back on him as she walked back to the camp.
If Thorin should ever make a move to apologize again, that she swore silently to herself, she would stop him before he could open his mouth- with force, if necessary. His apologies were the worst.
And if he really believed that friends were what they were supposed to be, he was an even bigger fool than she would have thought.
It was only when she stretched herself out next to a soundly snoring Precious, that she noticed she still wore Thorin's coat.
She pulled the fur over her face and deeply inhaled the scent it carried.
A painful longing raged in her belly.
If this was love, Ella thought, she really didn't want it.
It was no fun whatsoever.
Ella, Gandalf and the dwarves were sitting around a big, wooden table while the man of the house served them breakfast- with a grim expression and clearly very little enthusiasm.
Named after their involuntary host, Beorn's Hall was a farmhouse on the Eastern shore of the Great River of Wilderland.
Apart from Beorn himself, it was the home of a myriad of animals. Tame horses grazed the juicy green grass of the meadows outside, cows, goats, geese and chicken were running freely about the house and occupied every available space, and as if to compensate their owner's taciturnity, there was a constant mooing and baaing and clucking to be heard-not to speak of the humming of the many unusually big bees.
Despite his evident dislike of his uninvited guests ( or guests in general ) Beorn served a good meal of freshly baked bread, butter, cheese, eggs, milk and big jars of honey- but no meat, which he did not eat.
As Gandalf had told them yesterday, he kept his animals not for slaughter, but was instead said to be able to understand their language and considered them his friends.
His only friends, Ella thought compassionately.
She had never heard of skinchangers before, let alone met one- nor would she ever meet another if it was true what he said.
He was the last of his kind.
The orcs had driven his people out of their home in the Misty Mountains, killed many and enslaved others for no other reason than the pleasure to torture them.
Beorn alone had managed to flee; he still wore an iron bar around his mighty wrist that had once belonged to the heavy chain that shackled him to the wall of his prison for years.
Years, in which his captors had likely done unmentionable things to him.
But despite the terrible agonies he had to suffer from the orcs' hands, he had grown stronger -strong enough to eventually break free from his chains and escape his torturers. The rest of his people, as it seemed, had not been that lucky.
As he poured them milk, she threw the strange, tall man a furtive glance from under her lashes.
He looked appropriately human now, but only just; if she squinted she could still see the giant beast he had been only a few hours earlier.
And if he wasn't exactly what one would call a friendly host now, in his bear form he had seemed fully able - and all too ready- to kill them all.
Last night, they had just barely made it into the house, where they had locked the door and the beast practically out of his own home in order to escape his terrible claws and teeth.
Not that they'd had much of an alternative.
After their flight with Gandalf's eagles, it had not taken the Defiler and his henchmen long to again pick up their scent.
They had hunted them relentlessly and Beorn's house had been the only available shelter far and wide. As it seemed, even a scary warrior like Azog hesitated to risk a confrontation with a gigantic bear, but once they left the safety of his house they would again be fair game to their pursuers, and on foot they had not the slightest chance to outrun a mounted orc pack.
Their host told them as much.
"You're already dead," he said, not exactly sounding as if this was something he would much regret. "You're never going to reach the Mirkwood."
A small yelp sounded from outside and he furrowed his bushy brows.
Beorn liked wargs no more than orcs- he had grudgingly allowed Ella a jug of milk to feed her pet with it, but insisted that she leashed her in front of the door in order not to scare his animals, and of course the baby warg wasn't too happy about this treatment.
He didn't like dwarves much either.
Ella shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
She was a little worried that Precious might think it a good idea to make closer aquaintance to Beorn's bees, but the outcome of this discussion could prove vital and she didn't quite trust Thorin's negotiating skills.
Nor Gandalf's, for that matter.
He had claimed to know the skinchanger, but the truth was, Beorn had never heard of him.
He was friendly to Gandalf's collegue Radagast- probably due to the fact that they were both animal lovers- but that didn't mean he trusted any other perfect stranger who claimed to be a famous wizard.
No, the situation clearly demanded female skills. Whatever else he might be, Beorn was also a man- a very lonely one on top of that- and she had yet to meet a man who wasn't prone to flattery.
Ella took a bite of her honeybread and washed it down with a gulp of milk.
"Hmmm." She fluttered her eyelids at their host. "Yummy. I can't remember when I last had such a good meal."
It wasn't even a lie-they had more or less lived on Lembas bread and the few unlucky animals Kili had been able to shoot with his bow lately, and the memories of the delicacies from Bilbo's pantry seemed to belong to another life entirely. "Am I right to assume that you make the honey yourself ?"
Beorn's stern features softened a touch.
"Indeed I do." he replied proudly. "Everything on this table is homemade. With the help of my animals, of course. They give me everything I need."
Ella wondered briefly what he kept the pigs for if not to eat them. Perhaps they were more interesting conversation partners than their grunts indicated...
"I see that." she flashed him a broad smile. "Animals are true friends, aren't they? Not like people.They would never lie to you, never pretend to be what they're not."
She could not help but dart a quick glance at Thorin as she spoke. The dwarf king sat with his muscular arms crossed, his face expressionless, but he did not interrupt her but seemed willing to wait and see where this was going to lead.
Hopefully, to the loan of a dozen ponies.
Beorn raised his bristly brows. If she thought about it, he surely looked feral enough even in his human form.
"A daring presumption for someone who keeps a warg for a pet." he growled.
"Maybe."Ella looked up and held the fierce gaze of his brown eyes. "But I for my part, am not one to judge a book by its cover," she said. "Nor anyone else on the basis of race only. Would you ask my grandma- or my uncle- they would most likely tell you that I'm not a typical hobbit in many ways. I value the reassuring safety of a comfortable home just as much as you evidently do- and still I decided to leave it in order to help my companions claim back theirs-"
She paused and took another appreciative bite of her bread.
Granted, her home at her grandma's had not been that comfortable, and she had originally joined the dwarves in the hopes of adventures and treasures rather than the desire to help them take back what was rightfully theirs, but that was something Beorn didn't have to know and anyway, it was no longer the case.
"What I mean to say is that there's more to each and every one us than meets the eye," she continued. "We cannot choose what we are born as, but I am convinced that this is not- should not be- all that defines us. This is true for me, as well as for my pet, and certainly it is true for my companions. Take a closer look and you will find that we have in fact more in common than not, and clearly we do have a common enemy."
Outside, Precious gave another howl. She seemed to have at last succeeded in snapping after one of the most interesting objects circling her head, and evidently the encounter had been a painful one.
"Excuse me," Ella rose from her chair. "I'd better go check on her."
She had done her best to pave the way, it was up to Thorin now to continue where she had left off.
She was still busy consoling her pet and tending to the considerable swelling the bee's stitch had left at her curious nose, when Gandalf joined her.
He sat next to her at the doorstep and lit his pipe.
For a moment, they sat in silence and looked out into the distant mountains ahead of them.
"What keeps Azog from attacking right now, as long as Beorn is in his human form?" Ella finally voiced the fear that had been occupying her mind all along.
Gandalf shrugged. "Whatever the reason, I'm quite sure it won't be much to our liking," he said with a frown."At the moment, however, we should be grateful for the breather no matter who or what may have caused it. Beorn is a good man, but he is wary and has every reason to be. It won't be easy to win his confidence, let alone his help."
In this respect, Ella wasn't sure if it was a good idea to leave the dwarves alone with their host and she told Gandalf as much.
"Oh, they'll manage," the old wizard said airily. "I have the greatest trust in their abilities to say or do what is necessary when it is necessary, and you have already provided the right direction."
He smiled down on her warmly. "I'm quite proud of you, child. You have grown in more ways than one since we set out on this journey. And after all, these dwarves are a lovable lot once you know them better,"
He raised a brow and his smile took on a mischievous edge. "And some of them even more than others, eh?"
Ella's eyes grew wide and her face flushed hot. "Is it that obvious?" she whispered, aghast.
Gandalf chuckled lowly. "Not for them, don't worry," he appeased. "But this old man knows you since you've been but a little one and thus, it has never been hard for me to read your mind."
Ella hung her head and slouched her shoulders."It doesn't matter anyway," she said quietly. "My feelings are foolish and unwanted and he does not reciprocate them at all."
"Oh," Gandalf exhaled a cloud of smoke and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Did he tell you that?"
"More or less."
And that was true.
Despite all his talk of respect and honour and friendship, Thorin had basically told her that he did not fancy her, and Ella should know; she had said the same to former admirers before, if not exactly in such fine words.
'We should stay friends' virtually equalled 'I do not love you and I never will', and as much as she wanted Thorin's friendship and appreciated the sentiment, she knew deep inside her heart that it would never be enough.
And it hurt. It hurt so very much.
She looked up at Gandalf. "You are a wizard are you not?" she asked. "You can do magic. Can you- can't you make it go away?"
The old wizard watched her with a wistful smile on his weathered features. "I'm honoured, but I'm afraid you give me more credit than I deserve," he answered softly.
"There are powers beyond mine, and love is certainly one of them- but do not fret," he added when he saw her face fall. "You're so young, and the first love always seems to be especially weighty and- overwhelming. I know what I'm talking about, child. It may be hard to believe, but I have once been young also, and have felt what you feel-"
Ella frowned, utterly unable to imagine a young Gandalf, and even more- a young Gandalf in love.
If anything, this must have been so long ago that no one still alive remembered- including himself.
"Who was she?" she asked curiously.
The old wizard dropped his pipe and gave a deep sigh. "Who is she, more like" he corrected quietly." For she is still there- and still as young and beautiful as she ever was, whereas I- I have grown old-"
He shook his head, as if to shake off painful memories. "Anyways, what I'm trying to say is, it will pass," he said. "Some things are just not meant to be and sometimes it is better that way. No matter how this adventure ends, Thorin will still be a dwarf- and a king- and you, you will still be a hobbit."
"Indeed." Ella set her pet down. "Let's go back inside, shall we?" she said with forced indifference. "High as your confidence in dwarvish diplomacy may be, I'd prefer to make certain myself."
But her worries should prove unwarranted.
Negotiations were clearly coming to a finish when she re-entered Beorn's house.
"Fifteen ponies," she heard Thorin's deep voice demand.
"Eight." Beorn's even deeper one countered. "Except for the wizard, my horses are strong and well able to carry two of you. And you will promise to set them free once you reach the edge of the Mirkwood."
The dwarf king inclined his head. "You have my word."
The skinchanger nodded in a respective way.
"I wish you all the luck in the world with your endeavour, Thorin Oakenshield," he said solemnly. "I reckon, you will need it."
I enjoy writing this story more than I would have ever thought. Thanks so much for all the support, it really means a lot! This is a rather short chapter, but after that we're off into the Mirkwood and I'm really looking forward to it!
Chapter 11: Smoke and Mirrors
In order to make good use of the daylight, they set out shortly afterwards.
Azog had not shown himself again since they had sought shelter at Beorn's house, but it would be foolish to hope that they had seen the last of him.
The pale orc had sworn to wipe out Durin's line, he would not give up so easily.
And if there was one thing worse than seeing an orc pack on their heels, it was not being able to see them.
If Ella had nourished the secret hope to ride with Thorin, she should be disappointed.
Being by far the smallest and lightest of the group- even with the additional weight of her pet- she was to share a pony with Bombur.
It turned out to be the most comfortable ride she'd had so far though- the fat pads of the corpulent dwarf in the saddle behind her felt like warm, soft cushions and besides, he generously shared the packed lunch he had prepared for himself at Beorn's house with her.
Unmolested by any pursuers they reached the forest's edge, where they set the ponies loose so they could return to their master as it had been promised.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse; a harsh wind blew and the dark clouds looming in the sky above them soon discharged a cold rain.
A weathered stone gate, visibly of Elven design, marked the entrance of their path through the large forest, formally known as "Greenwood", but now called "Mirkwood", a name which certainly bode ill for possible inhabitants.
It was indeed no longer green, its huge trees were mostly bare even though it was still autumn, and it definitely looked- sick. There was no other word for it.
An unnatural silence hung in the air, no birds sang, and the forest seemed to exhale a cold breath that made Ella's skin crawl.
She didn't like the thought of venturing into a place even the orcs apparently avoided.
"Is there no way around ?" she asked Gandalf.
The old wizard shook his head. "Not unless we go two hundred miles north," he replied. "Or twice that distance- south." But he, too, sounded rather worried.
"And we don't have time for that."
Thorin dismounted, entered the forest with a few determined strides and took a look around. "I don't like it either," he admitted with a frown. "But whatever is wrong with this forest, it can't be worse than what awaits us outside."
He turned to Gandalf. "You have been here before. Will you lead the way?"
The old wizard, still sitting on his pony, twisted his features into a pained grimace. "I'm afraid, I won't be coming with you," he said quietly.
He raised his hand to forestall their protests. "Believe me, I would not leave you if it wasn't for very important business."
"Important business?" Thorin furrowed his dark brows. "Or more secrets? You talked to the skinchanger for a long while before we left. What did he tell you? What are you hiding from us Gandalf?"
"Nothing." The old wizard replied quickly. "Nothing that would concern you or this quest directly, that is-" he corrected himself.
He returned Thorin's angry, dark-blue stare with a steady gaze. "I have reason to believe that there may be dark forces at play, but I cannot tell you more about it until I know for sure. You just have to trust me on this, Thorin."
He looked up and let his eyes roam across the withered treetops. "These woods aren't what they used to be," he said thoughtfully. "They're treacherous, the very air in it is heavy with illusion. They will seek to enter your mind and lead you astray. But fear not- " he forced his lips into a reassuring smile. " If you stay on the path at all times, you shall be perfectly safe."
Ella could not help but think that he did not exactly sound as if he had much confidence in his own words.
"There's a stream running through it," Gandalf continued. "Cross it over the stone bridge, but by no means touch the water. Well, I think that would be all. I'll see you at the overlook before the slopes of Erebor."
He threw Thorin a warning glance. "Don't enter the mountain without me!"
A few hours into the forest, the Mirkwood turned out to be no more inviting than it had looked from outside.
The air was moist and stagnant what made it hard to breathe.
The treetops swallowed most of the remaining daylight, but it was the forest itself that radiated an overall feeling of gloom and distress that had nothing to do with the absence of sunlight.
It lay heavy and laden on their shoulders, made every step they took seem more cumbersome than usual and nipped any desire for conversation in the bud.
Not enchanted, but rather cursed, Ella couldn't help but think.
The enchanted forests of her bedtime stories when she had still been a child had been magical, colourful places, teeming with life, but the Mirkwood was dark and bleak and seemed deserted apart from eerie, whispering voices in the shadows whose words she was unable to understand but did not doubt to be hostile.
After what seemed to be an eternity, the company finally reached the stream in the middle of the forest, and the bridge across it Gandalf had mentioned.
Only that it was no longer a bridge- but merely an array of broken stones, too far apart to reach the opposite shore without coming into contact with the dark, murky waters around them.
Ella leaned on her walking stick, panting.
They were all tired, and far above what should be normal considering that they were used to much longer and more exhausting marches by now.
The baby warg had been the first on whom the unnatural, oppressive atmosphere of the place had taken its toll. She had lain down on her back spread-eagled after just one hour and refused to get up on her legs again, meaning Ella had again to carry the sleeping animal which did not exactly make the trek a less strenous one.
"Well," she said."This won't work. We'll have to find a way around it."
"No." Thorin shook his head and moved towards the stream. "That would take too long."
He reached out and put his own walking stick into the waters. "It's shallow and the stream is only a few feet wide. We can cross it easily."
"But Gandalf told us we must not touch the water!" Ella dared to object.
Thorin turned to her with a grim smile. "He did not tell us, the bridge would be broken. And after all, it's just water. I won't miss my destination for fear of getting my feet wet."
"Why don't we take a little rest while we think it over?" Balin suggested. "I don't know about all of you, but I'm bone-weary and feel every year of my life weighing down on me."
An agreeing murmur came from the rest of the dwarves.
One by one, they let themselves sink to ground and began to share their brought-along provisions, and relieved, Ella sat down at the riverside, too.
Her head was swimming as if she had drunk too much ale, even though she had not touched Balin's homebrew in weeks.
She didn't know how long she had been sitting there.
Everything was quiet.
Had her companions fallen asleep?
She stared at the black water before her and noticed how it made funny little bubbles around her feet.
Her feet ? Her feet were dangling in the water!
Startled, she pulled them out and looked around for her friends- only to find that they had already begun to make their way across the stream.
"Wait!" she called out to them.
Her voice seemed to produce a strange echo beneath the trees.
Ella rose and hurried to follow her companions across the river.
But the path they had been following before was no longer there. Or rather, there were a number of smaller paths now, none of them looking particularly trustworthy.
"This way," Ella heard Thorin announce after a moment, with more determination in his voice than he probably felt.
She was tempted to ask him how he could be sure to know the way in this wilderness where everything looked the same, when he had managed to get lost twice on his way from Bree to Hobbiton, but raising objections felt too much of an effort. It was so much easier to follow him as they always did.
The way Thorin had chosen became stranger and more onerous by the minute; at times they had to squeeze themselves along steep, narrow ledges across the river's edge, and then again it led through a barely penetrable jungle with head-high mushrooms and tree-trunks covered in a thick, sticky white mass that felt like spiderwebs.
Sometimes Ella had the feeling to walk in circles, or that her feet moved backwards, and once she turned around and found herself staring back at her- a pale face framed by unruly yellow curls with big, round, frightened eyes.
The shock made her stumble and reach for the next tree trunk for balance, touching the white spider silk around it and make it quiver in the process, accompanied by an unsettling sound that seemed to carry far across the trees.
When she looked up next, her companions were gone.
"Hello?" she cried out.
"Thorin? Where are you?"
But nothing but silence and the echo of her own voice answered her.
Ella made a few steps further onto the path and then, suddenly, she detected a shadowy figure sitting under one of the bare trees.
The woman- for that's what she was- raised her head at her approach and her lips curled into a welcoming smile.
"Ella, she said, with a voice like the rustle of the dead leaves in the trees around her. "My little buttercup. Here you are at last."
The breath caught in her throat.
Beside her, Precious, the fur in her plump neck bristled, gave a low, threatening growl.
"Mummy ?" she asked in disbelief, her voice sounding high and thin and fearful as a child's in her own ears.
For many years, Ella had been sure to not remember her mother's features at all, to have buried the memory deep inside of her like a secret too painful to reveal, but here she was- Mirabella Baggins, Bilbo's younger sister who had once been considered the most most beautiful girl in the Shire.
However now, she bore the unmistakable traces of the consuming fever that had taken her much too early- with thin cheeks, pale and emaciated, her eyes sunk deep in their sockets, her lips parched and dry.
Ella swallowed hard.
She had thought she had forgotten what death looked like. She had been wrong.
The very air in this forest is heavy with illusions, Ella heard Gandalf's voice echo in her head.
"This is impossible," she whispered. "You are long dead."
Her mother- or the scary vision that looked like her- smiled again, indulgant as one would at the naive babbling of a little child.
"Hush now," she chided softly. "Or you will wake him."
It was only then that Ella noticed that she was cradling something in her lap, a small bundle wrapped up in blankets, and she didn't have to take a closer look to know for sure what it was.
Her baby brother.
Her dead baby brother.
"This is not real," she sobbed, pressing her eyes shut. "You are not real."
When she opened her eyes again, her mother was gone, replaced by-
"Thorin!" Ella gasped out in utter relief.
The dwarf king sat beneath the tree and stared back at her with a wild, wide-eyed look, not seeming to recognize her at all.
"Thorin," she repeated urgently and rushed towards him. "Where are the others? We need to find them! We need to get out of here!"
She grabbed for his wrists and tried to pull him up and make him come with her, but it was a useless effort for he was so much taller and heavier than her, and not made any easier by the fact that his muscular lower arms were much too broad to wrap her hands around them.
"No," Thorin said, his voice sounding as if it came from far away.
He looked up at her and his deep blue eyes were desperate and veiled with tears.
"I cannot leave. Thrain-my father- he was here. He tried to speak to me. I have to wait for him to come back."
"No, Thorin, no," Ella shook her head vigorously. "Remember what Gandalf said? Your father is not really here. It was just an illusion. I- I have seen my mother, too, but she's long dead. It's not real, none of this."
"But my father is not dead," Thorin replied stubbornly. "I know it, Ella, I always knew. His body has never been found after the battle of Moria. He managed to escape and he was here with me only a moment ago-"
It was then that Ella heard a faint rustling in the undergrowth behind her.
Half expecting to again see the ghost of her dead mother, she turned around, only to see a far more terrifying sight in front of her.
It was a spider, but not just an ordinary one- and Ella had never been particularly fond of these many-legged creatures- but instead three times as big as a man and a downright epitome of a nightmare- from its large body to its spiky legs up to the gaping, sharp-toothed hole of its mouth.
She closed her eyes and took a deep, shivering breath.
"Not real." she whispered. "This is not real."
She opened her eyes to the sound of a venomous hiss and found the creature's jaw snap shut only inches from her face, as if to demonstrate how very real it was.
A second later, it gave a shrill shriek and Ella saw Thorin, who had obviously come to his senses just in time, slide under the creature in one swift, flowing movement and thrust his sword deep into its unarmored, vulnerable belly.
The dying giant spider whrited and he pushed it off him with a disgusted groan. "Come," he rasped and reached out his hand. "There might be more of those monsters out here. We have to find the others before it's too late."
They did not have to search long.
Only a few paces further, they came across a clearing between the trees, where the other dwarves fought a fierce battle against at least half a dozen giant spiders.
With an angry scream, Thorin rushed forwards to help his companions.
Swallowing her fear and disgust with a determined gulp, Ella drew her own sword and attacked, too.
The spiders were covered all over with a hard, chitin-like shell which their swords could not pierce- the only way to kill them was to stab them right in the eyes, or to crawl beneath them and go for their soft bellies, avoiding the huge spikes in their abdomens whose sting was instantly paralyzing.
It was no easy undertaking- despite their enormous size the creatures were surprisingly quick and nimble, whereas Ella and her companions still struggled with the effects of Mirkwood's malicious magic.
The shrill shrieks from the dying monsters were blood-curdling, but even though they killed many it seemed that each time another one appeared to take the place of its fallen comrade.
How long would they be able to hold out?
The small she-warg next to her gave a warning yelp and Ella spun around to find herself face to face with a particularly big specimen.
Without so much as a conscious thought, she lifted her sword and buried it deep inside the creature's gaping sharp-toothed mouth.
She felt a warm, sticky substance run across her arms and heard a nauseating death rattle and then, a deafening, triumphant cry.
For a moment, she met Kili's eyes who acknowledged her display of bloodlust with an approving grin.
He didn't seem to notice the spider that was gliding down on a thread from the tree right behind him.
Ella opened her mouth again to shout a warning, but at the same moment, the monster tumbled and fell, a feathered arrow sticking out of one of its eyes.
The archer, a slender figure in skin-tight, dark green hunting gear with a flowing mane of auburn hair, didn't waste a second but put on the next arrow on her bow's string and aimed anew- this time at Kili.
And she wasn't alone.
More Elves emerged from the trees around them now and sent a hail of arrows down on the remaining spiders.
Before Ella and the dwarves even realized what was happening, they found themselves cornered by at least a dozen fierce-looking warriors with tensed bows and their arrowheads right in front of their faces.
Out of the frying pan, as the saying went, and into the fire.
"Don't think I won't kill you, dwarf" a tall, male elf with long, sleek, silvery blonde hair, their leader as it seemed, spat at Thorin. "It would be my pleasure."
Growling, the dwarf king dropped his blade.
"Wise choice,"His captor nodded with a grim smile. "You would find out that we make quick work with trespassers here."
He would be good looking, Ella thought, were his icy-blue eyes not quite as cold and his smooth face not completely bare of any human emotion.
"You're surrounded," the leader of the Elven hunting party shouted. He really had a talent to voice the obvious.
"Lay down your arms. You are now prisoners of Thranduil, King of the Woodland Realms."
Chapter 12: The Silvan King
Under the watchful eyes of their captors, Ella trudged next to her companions through the dense forest which continued to look as cheerless as she felt.
They were prisoners.
Since the beginning of their quest they had spent way too much time in captivity for her taste.
Granted, these elves were no orcs or trolls and they had not done anything worse to them than relieving them of their weapons, that was: not yet.
They were to be brought before their king to await their sentence for trespassing his realms or whatever offence they might have committed, and this time they had no Gandalf to speak in their favour.
Considering their leader's 'friendly' welcome words and the icy, contemptous looks he darted her companions from time to time, being a dwarf was probably enough of a crime.
Ella remembered how Beorn had called the Woodland Elves 'less smart, but more dangerous'.
Well. She didn't know about the first thing, but the latter was certainly true. She was sure they would shoot them at the slightest provocation and likely not shed a single tear over any of them.
After searching them, the Elves had not wasted a further word at their captives but solely talked to each other in their own language Sindarin, but their leader, the fair-haired elf was called Legolas- Ella had heard the other members of the hunting party address him that way.
It was always hard to tell with Elves and their smooth, even faces, but if she were to guess his age she would take a bet that he was quite young by the standard of his long-living people, and that his bossy behaviour was partly a show to impress the auburn-haired woman, who went by the name of Tauriel.
Even though she could not understand the words, she noticed how his voice grew markedly softer and more friendly when he spoke to her, and the looks he gave her were unmistakably full of admiration.
And he was not the only one.
Kili couldn't take his eyes off the tall and slender Elven maid who had saved his life, either.
He stared at her like a thirsty man in the desert at the mirage of an oasis and- prisoner or not- seemed well content to follow her anywhere.
She, for her part, gave no sign of noticing his stares, but Legolas very well did- and judged by the way he clenched his jaw and furrowed his brows, he didn't like it at all.
Fili gave his brother a not too gentle dig in the ribs. "If you keep staring at the Elf woman like that, her grumpy friend will put an arrow in your eye" he warned him under his breath.
"Isn't she stunning though?" Kili sighed. "What more could a man wish for than to die in the face of such beauty?"
Fili rolled his eyes at his brother's newly discovered ( and certainly uncalled for ) poetic ambitions.
"Mahal save us." he grumbled. "Your taste in women will be the death of us all."
The object of Kili's desire however, had turned her head in their direction at his words and curled her lips into a subtle, amused smiled.
Obviously, Elves had very good ears.
Since she was a woman and visibly no dwarf, Ella had suffered comparatively less rough handling from the hands of their captors, although her pet surely attracted a few hostile glances.
But they had not killed the warg as they very well could have, and neither had they forbidden her to keep her, and Ella was determined to take that for a good sign.
And while she was at it, they had encountered no more of the great spiders either, and besides the Elves seemed to actually know the way.
Which finally led to an elegantly curving bridge, and then, on the other side of the river, a huge stone portal covered in mysterious runes- the entranceway to the Elvenking's Halls.
It had not been visible until the company of Elves and their captives had set foot on the bridge, as if it had been hidden by magic.
Which was most likely the case, Ella thought, as everything was where Elves were concerned.
She could clearly feel it again, too- all her exhaustion seemed to fall away from her and she felt rested once her feet touched the bridge's stones- a very similar effect as she had experienced upon entering the Valley of Imladris.
Two Woodland Elves stood on guard at the gate.
When they noticed Legolas and his party, they quickly dropped the bottle they had been sharing during their watch and struggled to stand at attention.
One of the guards pointed at Ella and the dwarves and asked him something in Sindarin.
"Yes," Legolas answered with a grim smile and in Westron. "It has been a good hunt."
The Woodland Elves shoved their prisoners through the gate and into the underground stronghold behind it, and then it went across long, winding wooden staircases until at last, they reached a great hall surrounded by huge pillars carved from the rock around it.
It was a breathtaking sight, a perfect, harmonious fusion of wood and stone- but not nearly as breathtaking as the man who sat on a huge chair made of artfully carved wood in the middle of it, and now rose at their approach.
Ella stood and gaped in astounishment.
"Is this the Elvenking?" she whispered.
"The queen, more like." Gloin rumbled into his beard, causing the other dwarves to chuckle lowly until their captors silenced them with not too gentle pokes with the blunt sides of their swords.
Ella could understand Gloin's resentment ( upon searching him, Legolas had given some quite rude and snide comments on the pictures of his wife and son ) and certainly the king of the Silvan Elves was more beautiful than nature should allow.
He wore a floor-length, shiny robe, had the same silvery-blonde hair and arctic blue eyes as Legolas, but with wide, dark eyebrows which contrasted his fair eyes, skin and hair in the most attractive way.
On his head sat a crown of leaves and berries in autumnal colours.
But despite the typical smooth and youthful look of Elven faces, Thranduil features were distinctive and indisputably manly- as was the body beneath his magnificent robe.
He let his gaze roam over the newcomers and his silver-bright eyes widened as he recognized Thorin in their midsth.
"My, my!" he said, visibly delighted. "It's been a long time, Thorin Oakenshield."
He stepped closer and opened his arms in a welcoming gesture. "Welcome to my modest hunting lodge."
Ella suppressed an amused snort. To call these halls modest was an understatement if there ever was one, and there was absolutely nothing modest about the man in front of her, either.
"We found these dwarves straying across our lands without your permission, father," Legolas said sharply. "There is no doubt that they are up to no good."
Father? Ah. Hence the obvious family resemblance.
Thranduil turned from his son back to the dwarf king. "Is this true?"he asked curiously.
Thorin clenched his jaw. "We have crossed the forest, yes. But I assure you, it wasn't with bad intentions of any kind."
"Of course not." The Elven king curled his finely curved lips into a faint smile but his eyes stayed as cold as ice crystals.
"You must forgive Legolas. His only desire is to protect this kingdom as it is my wish, but sometimes he can be a little over-zealous. And of course, he could not know that you and I are good old friends. I'm very pleased about your visit, Thorin. I'm sure there's a lot to talk about after all this time."
Ella could see how Thorin's jawbone tensed even more in order to bite back a sharp reply.
"Sorry to disappoint you, but we won't stay." he answered curtly. "We are travelling in important business that cannot be delayed."
Thranduil raised one of his pretty dark eyebrows. "Are you now? And what business could that be, I wonder?"
Thorin gave him a tight-lipped, wintry smile. "Our own."
"You must leave. I understand." The Elven king nodded, seemingly unconcerned.
"But not tonight. You have seen what creatures occupy these woods as of late, I'm quite certain you won't want to risk an encounter in the darkness. Besides, you have arrived just in time for our biggest holiday. Tonight is Mereth Nuin Giliath. The feast of starlight. Please- to ensure your own safety- be my guests and stay at least for the celebration."
It was no request and they all knew it.
Thorin's eyes burned with suppressed rage but he knew further contradiction would be pointless and only lead to a fight they could not win.
He inclined his head in defeat. "So be it." he said in a low voice. "And since we are your guests- we would like to have our weapons back."
"I assure you, you won't need your weapons here," Thranduil replied in a condescending manner. "You'll get them back upon your leave, my word on it."
Two angry, red spots appeared on Thorins cheeks. Clearly he was tempted to tell the fellow monarch what his word was worth to him, but before he could open his mouth and say something they all would soon come to regret, it was Ella who barged in.
"Thank you for your invitation, mylord." she said quickly and looked up to meet Thranduil's crystal blue gaze. "We're honoured."
The eyes of the Elven king widened slightly."A halfling," he said in wonderment. "How unexpected."
He took a step towards her and reached out to hold her chin up to him and take a closer look at her. Ella noticed that he wore a jewelled ring on each of his fingers.
"And to whom do you belong, my dear?"
Ella felt her cheeks flush hot, both at his touch and the insinuation.
She heard Thorin next to her suck in a sharp breath.
"I'm no one's property!" she exclaimed indignantly. "I'm a free hobbit and an equal part of the team-"
"The halfling is right," Tauriel, the auburn-haired she-elf intervened on her behalf. "I have seen her in battle with the great spiders. She's a fierce fighter."
Ella shot her a brief, grateful glance and the other woman replied with a wink and a subtle smile.
Thranduil looked at Thorin, then back to Ella and bowed his crowned head.
"I beg your pardon for my ignorance, my lady, but I have never before met a member of your people who would have been a warrior. Especially not such a pretty one."
Ella blushed anew. "You are forgiven," she said as gracefully as she managed, but she was mollified enough. He sounded genuinely rueful and after all- he had called her pretty.
"Good." The Elvenking smiled broadly and showed beautiful, shiny teeth. "But where are my manners. You must be tired."
He turned to one of his subjects and waved his arm. "Show our guests their rooms so they can freshen up." he ordered.
His gaze turned back to Ella. "I'm looking forward to see you again at the feast." he murmured softly.
The woodland elf led Ella and the dwarves out of the throne room and across the strangely beautiful underground castle to the guest rooms.
Walking next to Thorin, Ella noticed that the dwarf king still looked tensed and clearly, he had not been pleased with her intervention either.
He may have good reason not to trust Thranduil's seemingly friendly behaviour, but then again, Thorin always mistrusted everyone.
Ella, on the other hand, deemed it best to keep on the right side of whoever had the upper hand, which currently was the Elven king.
And joining him and the Woodland Elves at their starlight feast was certainly a much more pleasant prospect than to dwell in some dark cell- as it could well have happened had Thorin's temper once more prevailed over his reason.
"What's wrong?" she whispered. "We'll take their food and drink and tomorrow we'll be on our way again and still reach our destination in time. Or do you think Thranduil won't abide by his word?"
"Wouldn't be the first time." Thorin growled lowly. "No matter what he says, he has never been friends with me or my family."
"I know, I know," Ella sighed. "The old stories again. But whatever grudge you bear, it is long past, isn't it? Maybe it is time to dig up the hatchet. Maybe he wants that, too."
She shrugged. "And even if he doesn't like you, he does seem to like me."
The dwarf king gave a contemptous snort. "Don't let yourself be deceived by his sweet talk," he spat. "This isn't about you. It's about me. He flirted with you solely with the purpose to make me angry."
Of course. Ella thought disgruntledly. Everything was always about Thorin. Unthinkable that someone would flirt with her because he was interested in her as a person-
Then it occured to her what he had just said.
"And why should Thranduil think flirting with me would make you angry?" she asked.
Thorin averted her gaze. "He has no honour. " he spat. "He knew it would be offensive to talk to a member of my company in such an improper way."
"I see." Ella grimaced. Here we go again. You and your precious honour.
"Well, I'm not offended," she said airily, although she very well had been, in the beginning anyway. After all, Thranduil had mistaken her for one of the dwarves' pet- "I think he was quite charming."
Thorin furrowed his brows and shot her a dark glance. "If Thranduil requires a new concubine," he said snidely, "I'm quite sure he should have no difficulties to find one of appropriate size."
Ella felt angry heat crawl up her cheeks.
She was just about to tell the insufferable man next to her that if he really wanted to be her friend as he claimed, he could damn well start to be a lot more friendly- but the words died in her throat when she looked at his face.
She might have failed to read the expression on it, had she not seen the exact same one earlier today- on the smooth features of the Elven prince Legolas whenever he noticed Kili's admiring looks at his beloved.
It was jelousy.
Plain and simple.
He cared for her.
Perhaps he always had. Perhaps his rude behaviour towards her had been more for self-protection than anything else right from the start, a desperate attempt to shield himself from a feeling he had to consider improper by his own high standards. And it had only taken another man's - however dubious- interest in her to break the rampart and reveal his true intentions.
Ella wondered if Thorin was even aware of it. Thranduil, as it seemed, very well was.
She gave him her sweetest smile. "You're certainly right." she said in a honeyed voice.
The woodland elf who was leading them to their rooms had stopped in front of a door and gestured the dwarves to follow him inside.
Apparently, Thranduil attached more importance to propriety than Thorin would have credited him for, for Ella was to be accomodated in a chamber for herself.
It was only a short way to go, but it felt to her as if she was walking on clouds.
The most beautiful man in Middle Earth had called her pretty, and Thorin was jelous.
The day that had started so awfully had turned out to become the best of her life.
Chapter 13: A Dance in Starlight
After the hardships of the last weeks it was a blessing to have a room for herself, and even more- a warm bath.
Upon seeing the copper tub in the middle of the small, but elegantly furnished chamber, Precious had bristled her neck fur and given a threatening growl.
Ella laughed."No worries." she reassured her hydrophobic pet. "The bath is for me, not for you- for you, it's dinner time."
The female elf-servant who had prepared her bath had also wordlessly provided her with a bowl of milk and a small, cushioned basket for Precious, along with a less decorative sand-filled box- for obvious purpose.
As the warg eagerly began to drink her milk, Ella get rid of her filthy clothes and let herself sink into the pleasantly warm, scented water with a blissful grunt.
She bedded her head at the tub's edge, closed her eyes and let her thoughts wander back to every time she could remember Thorin being mean to her( many ), pondering if there had always been signs of ulterior motives for his rudeness she had simply been unable to recognize as such.
The result of her considerations was not as satisfactory as she would have hoped.
Perhaps she was wrong after all. Perhaps it had been his resentment towards their host rather than his feelings for her which had provoked his latest display of unfriendliness.
When she noticed that she was about to doze off, Ella sat up in the tub, reached for the rag and the soap bar on the small table next to it and began to determinedly soap and scrub her body, then wash her hair as well.
The bathing water was long cold when she finally stepped out of the tub to dry herself with the provisioned towel, every inch of her skin now rosy and prickling with a cleanliness even Grandma Ermentrude would have approved of.
The Elven maid had not only fetched her a bath, but also fresh clothes to wear, and since tonight was apparently a big day for the Woodland Elves, it was no simple tunic but instead a splendid robe in the dark- blue colour of the night sky, dotted with a million shiny pearls that shone like stars.
It was the most beautiful dress Ella had ever seen- let alone worn.
In amazed rapture she let her hands slide across it, half expecting her ( regrettably calloused from weapon training with Dwalin) fingers to tear the impossibly fine and gossamer fabrics apart.
She pulled the dress over her head and it slid down her body like a cool but gentle embrace.
It went well down to her feet but that was to be expected considering her size, with a long train rustling on the floor behind her when she moved.
Ella took a deep breath and walked over to the high, silver-framed wall mirror to take a look at herself. It wasn't something she would have had the chance to do often lately- and probably for the better- still she was surprised to find a different person staring back at her from the polished glass now.
Okay, perhaps not entirely different.
She was visibly still a hobbit and therefore small, the long walks outdoors had done nothing to make her freckles less striking, and her hair, unruly at best times, curled even more now from the bath.
But the face it framed was distinctively less round than it had been, less- childlike.
It was the face of a woman.
And it belonged to the body of a woman as well.
The bodice of the Elven dress nestled to her bodily forms like a second skin, forms, Ella couldn't help but notice, that were now considerably more athletic than chubby; she was sure to see and feel muscles that had not been there before as she turned in front of the mirror to be able to inspect herself from different angles, but that did not make her look less feminine.
The long dress generously hid all the bruises from former fights on her arms and legs, but- translucent as it was- not much else otherwise.
She made a turn in front of the mirror, delighted at the way the dress flowed around her in a cloud-like, shimmering movement.
"How do I look?" she asked Precious, who, sated and tired, had retreated into her basket like a good pet.
The baby warg answered with a hearty yawn. "Well, what do you know?" Ella snorted and turned back to her reflection.
Her smile faded.
Other than Thorin's snide remark implied, she was not aiming so high as to become the Elven king's mistress. She would be more than content to be the mistress of a certain dwarf, impolite and grumpy and overall little lovable as he might be-
When a knock at the door came- presumably the servant to accompany her to the party- Ella considered briefly to put on her waistcoat to do decency justice, but then she decided against it. It would look outright ridiculous with the dress, and besides, it was dirty.
The mute maid servant led her to a brightly illuminated and festively decorated hall.
The party was already in full swing when she entered, there was jolly music and a loud hubbub of merry voices and laughter to be heard.
Countless candles spread their light over long tables which were practically bursting under the weight of decanters filled with red wine and delicacies of all sorts.
Other than the Rivendell Elves, their Woodland cousins were apparently no vegetarians and there was a variety of deliciously smelling venison among the usual fruits and vegetables and salads- much to the pleasure of the dwarves who may be wary at their hosts but showed no such objections towards their food and drink.
Ella, who had expected something like the civilized event that were Lord Elrond's dinners, had to admit that the Woodland Elves actually knew how to party.
They were more warlike than the Rivendell Elves, undeniably, but less aloof at the same time, more like- well- normal people.
The guards at the castle's entrance had been visibly tipsy, and the Elves in this room surely did no less justice to the wine than their guests did. It wasn't that she expected them to exactly dance on the tables in the course of the evening, but certainly they were far from the stiff Rivendell folk.
And if she had been worried about the revealing nature of her dress, it eased at the sight of the other female elves, whose robes clearly showed more than they concealed, so that the dwarves didn't know where to look with all the half-exposed breasts and thighs around them.
Kili, to his credit, still had eyes for no other than Tauriel- and despite the fact that she was the only one who still wore her hunting clothes- and her weapons.
"I'm the captain of the guards" the auburn-haired woman at the door answered Ella's unuttered question with a slight shrug. "Someone has to keep watch when the others celebrate."
The buzz lowered at Ella's entrance and a few approving whistles came from the ranks of her companions.
Thorin, wo was sitting at the king's table next to Legolas and Thranduil himself, looked up as well, but said nothing but merely pressed his lips to a thin line. He too, had visibly had a bath- his glorious mane was still moist and even more wavy than usual-but not changed his clothes, let alone to something as splendid as her dress.
Ella could only speculate if he rather disapproved of the gift or the giver, or- more likely- both.
The reaction of his host, however, was an entirely different one.
He rose from his chair and his lips curled into a rapt smile.
"Beautiful," he whispered, but Ella couldn't help but notice a touch of sadness flickering across his handsome features for a split second.
While she still wondered what may have caused this strange reaction, it was gone. Thranduil gestured at the empty seat across from him. "Will you do me the favour to sit at my table?"
"Of course." Respectfully, Ella inclined her head. She would have preferred to sit at the cheerful table with the other dwarves than next to Thorin and Legolas with their likewise sour expressions, but a king's request was as good as a command and she knew better than to argue.
"Please, you must try the wine," The Elvenking waved at one of the servants who hurried to fill Ella's glass with a glossy, red liquid. "I daresay it is famous far beyond the borders of my realm."
Ella raised her glass and took a sip, then another. "Quite rightly." she nodded approvingly. "It is very good, thank you."
Thorin, the food on his plate still untouched, gestured at the elf-servant to refill his glass as well.
"And thanks for the dress as well. You are most kind."
"It was my pleasure." Thranduil replied with perfect courtesy. "You may keep it if you like."
"I can impossibly accept such a precious gift," Ella declined automatically,albeit not without regret "- thank you," she turned to the elf-servant who had begun to pile up delicacies on her plate.
"Oh but you must," the Elven king insisted. "After all, I've had it altered just for you. It has once belonged to a grand lady."
Again, there was this strange, wistful smile. "Of course, it would look even better with the fitting jewels. Unfortunately, the particular piece I'm thinking of is not in my possession. You should find it among the treasures of the Erebor, provided, of course, you get that far."
The shift from smalltalk to interrogation came so abruptly that Ella almost dropped the fork halfway to her mouth.
Despite all his la-di-da manners, Thranduil was apparently anything but a fool.
Thorin's head went up. "Who says we're going there?" he asked sharply.
"Oh please," Thranduil's smile was as cold as the winter sun."Where else would a group of dwarves, armed to the teeth, led by the king under the mountain possibly want to go if not exactly there? Not to mention the map you had on you when my people searched you."
He leaned forward and bore his wide-eyed stare into his counterpart's. "Tell me, have you found a way into the mountain? Are you planning to reclaim the throne of your ancestors once the king's jewel, the Arkenstone is yours?"
"And if it were so, what concern would that be of yours?" the dwarf king asked with a wary frown.
"There are gems in the mountain I, too, desire," Thranduil whispered back. " White gems, of pure starlight-"
By the way he looked- eyes sparkling, lips slightly parted-Ella thought, he might as well be talking of a long-lost love.
Thorin raised a sceptical brow. "Are you offering your help, then?"
"My goodwill," Thranduil clarified. "You know who is guarding the treasures in this mountain. If you will wake him- I have once faced the great serpents of the north and I know their wrath. You will understand that I cannot put the lives of my people at risk in hopes for treasures. But if you succeed- and return what's mine- it would certainly be a good start for future relationships."
"I will consider it." Thorin replied carefully, albeit with a disdain on his face and in his voice that showed clearly where Thranduil could shove his 'goodwill'.
The Elven king would likely never see a single piece of Erebor's treasure, unless over Thorin's dead body- which was a risk he was obviously willing to take.
And even though Ella understood- and approved- that Thranduil wouldn't sacrifice his people for his desire for gems, it wasn't exactly noble to bargain for the booty before the battle had even begun- and with no intentions to partake in it.
It made him look like a coward- a greedy coward, especially in the eyes of a dwarf who valued honour over anything else.
"Good." If Thranduil had come to the same conclusions she had, he did not let it show, his handsome face was blank and unfathomable and showed nothing but his fake, polite smile. "But enough serious talk now. Eat. Drink. We are here to celebrate!"
Same as the wine, the food was delicious, but no one at their table except for the host himself seemed actually able to enjoy it.
Legolas who had been brooding over his plate and not made a single attempt at conversation with either Ella or Thorin, excused himself after a while and joined Tauriel at the door to the banqueting hall.
Thorin merely shoved the food on his plate back and forth and emptied one glass of wine after another as if in order to make the best of a bad job, but visibly this didn't make him any happier. He looked like he would be anywhere else rather than here- which was most likely true- and although Ella was usually blessed with good appetite, it made her throat tight just to look at him.
She wondered what they would do should Thranduil refuse to let them go as he had promised, and also, if what she thought she had seen on Thorin's face before had not merely been wishful thinking, for clearly he ignored her presence as best he could.
Lost in gloomy thoughts as she was, she barely paid attention to Thranduil's efforts to support the conversation- he was talking about music just now- and when he asked her to dance for him, she almost choked on her wine. She was sure she must have misheard him.
"Dance?" Ella repeated incredulously. "Now?"
She turned in her seat and saw that not a few of the inebriated Elves were indeed dancing by now, some in pairs, some all by themselves with their eyes closed, completely lost in the music.
"No," she shook her head. "I'm afraid, I cannot-"
Thranduil smiled, his crystal blue eyes sparkling. "You cannot dance? Forgive me, but I find that hard to believe. I thought hobbits were enthusiastic dancers."
Well. The truth was, Ella loved to dance. Always had.
But this wasn't one of Bree's taverns, and she was no elf, she could not in a thousand years hope to compete with their graceful movements and she had no desire to make a fool of herself in front of these people.
But before she could politely decline, Thorin looked up at their host with angrily furrowed brows.
"The lady said no," he snarled. "And she is no trained monkey to perform tricks for your amusement."
Thranduil's dark brows flew up in astonishment. "Indeed." he retorted. "I never thought that. And shouldn't she be able to talk for herself?"
Both men looked at her and Ella felt literally crushed between a rock and a hard place.
She knew, Thorin expected her to turn down Thranduil's request but if she did, would she not prove his own unfortunate choice of words right in every respect?
Ella rose from her chair and gave Thranduil her broadest smile. "It would be my pleasure." she said.
With a pleased smile, the Elven king waved at the musicians to play a new tune.
Evidently, his court chapel's repertoire did not include the kind of catchy, upbeat songs a hobbit would prefer, but then again her dress was hardly made for throwing her legs in the air.
For a moment, Ella felt uncertain but there was no way back now.
Well, screw it.
If she was to make a fool of herself, as likely both Thorin and Thranduil expected, she could as well enjoy it.
She closed her eyes, raised her arms over her head and let the music run through her and guide her steps.
It was a slow tune, wistful and seductive, and after a while, she felt as if her body was moving all by itself, as if she was able to put all her hitherto unspoken feelings into her dance, bundle all the gnawing desire inside her up and turn it into something beautiful.
And even though it had been the Elven king who requested this dance, it wasn't Thranduil she was dancing for. Not a single time during her dance did she open her eyes and look at Thorin.
But she was dancing for him, and for him only.
And when the music faded and her dance was over, she sank into a deep bow.
"I'm tired," she said into the sudden silence and looked up to the Elven King. "Please allow me to retreat."
Chapter 14: Heat
Ella had not said the truth but neither had she lied.
She desperately wanted to retreat- not because she was tired as she had claimed, but because her dancing, or the wine-or both-had caused an onslaught of conflicting feelings inside her she had no hopes of being able to control any longer.
She felt as if the skin had been ripped from her body and exposed the raw, vulnerable flesh beneath it.
She was literally aching with desire and she knew, if Thorin would look at her now, he must see it.
Which, given his former behaviour and the company they were in, was something she wished to avoid at all costs.
She had caught only the slightest glimpse at his face after her performance and couldn't tell what she had found there- but it had not been amusement, that much was certain.
Ella did not wait for the Elvenking's permission, but turned on her heels and virtually fled past her companions through the ballroom and towards her own chamber, ignoring their puzzled, concerned looks as well as the questioningly arched brows of the Elven woman Tauriel at the door.
Once inside, she closed the door behind her and would have locked it as well, had there been a key.
A blink at the mirror showed her a girl who was too small in every sense for the precious dress she wore, and a face beneath a tangled mass of golden curls with the big, fearful eyes of a hunted animal.
Not caring about crinkling the splendid gown, she threw herself onto the bed and pressed her eyes shut.
It was the bad magic of this cursed place, Ella decided.
It turned her inside out, flushed all her hidden feelings to the surface and increased them tenfold.
Annoying, thrice-cursed dwarf.
Had she not fought bravely alongside her companions against creatures like out of a nightmare, earned her place in the company and gained their respect and friendship?
But of what use was it all if the same did not apply for their king?
For surely, Thorin treated her neither respectfully nor friendly, despite all his promises to the contrary.
For a moment, Ella considered to slip the ring on her finger, take her pet and just walk out the gates unseen and leave all this behind.
Travel all the way back to the domestic pastures of the Shire, sell her precious property to the highest bidder, buy herself a pretty little hobbit hole like Bag End and live a happy life on her own terms as Bilbo did- far away from orcs and whatever other nasty creatures sought to kill her, adventures reduced to now and then taking a beautiful stranger to her bed.
But even when the thought crossed her mind, she knew she wouldn't do it.
She had tried to run away before, back in the Misty Mountains, but Thorin had not let her go and he wouldn't now.
He did not want her- he had told her that quite clearly hadn't he?- and yet he obviously considered her his possession.
It was exasperating, a constant back and forth of approach and rejection, of hope and despair, and it seemed that no matter what she did, she could only ever do everything wrong.
Ella was on her wits' end.
After a while, she felt a thud on the mattress when Precious, sensing her mistress was sad as pets do, jumped onto the bed next to her and comfortingly nestled her head to her side.
Ella reached down and petted the animal behind the ears, to a contented sound that could with some imagination be taken for a purr.
"Just the two of us, Precious," she murmured. "We don't need anyone. Especially no kings."
The warg gave a small grunt which Ella took for approval. "Good girl," she praised her. "You may sleep in my bed tonight, but-" she raised a warning forefinger. "Don't make a habit of it."
Upon looking around, Ella found that the considerate Elven servant had provided her with nightclothes, too.
She had just taken off the splendid dress Thranduil gave her and slipped into a light, knee-length shirt, when the door to her room shook with a loud knock.
Ella froze in her tracks.
She had no desire to see anyone right now, but whoever it was, she had little hope that he would just leave if she didn't answer, and after all, the door was not locked.
Before she had the time to decide on how to react, the door swung open to the sight of Thorin, his raven, silver-streaked mane tousled, his dark-blue eyes glowing intensely in the dim light.
He was breathing heavily, as if he had been running.
Lost for words, Ella just stared at him as if he were a ghost.
The dwarf king looked her over in her nightshirt, which, as it occured to her only now, was too thin to hide much of what was underneath.
"Did you expect someone else?" he asked at last.
"No-I-" Ella crossed her arms over her chest and raised her chin up defiantly to meet his eyes. "Truth be told, I wasn't expecting anyone."
"No?" Thorin entered the room and let the door slam shut beneath him.
He was drunk, she realised- which was no surprise, after all, he had downed one glass of Thranduil's famous wine after another.
"Hard to believe after this performance of yours." he said coolly. " It was as good as an invitation to your bed, I'd say. The question is only, was it for me- or for him? "
He furrowed his dark brows. "Or is it all the same to you in the end?"
And that was it. The famous last straw.
Ella saw red.
Before she knew what she was doing, she had struck out and her palm hit his face.
Thorin stared at her, the imprints of her fingers burning red on his cheek, and just as shocked as he, she stared back.
Nobody had ever dared to do that, she could tell, no one, at least, who would still live to tell the tale.
His eyes flared up and with a low growl deep in his throat, he took a step towards her.
Expecting him to strike back, and-given his physical strength-likely knock her down, Ella tumbled backwards into the room, but he quickly grabbed her arms with both of his hands.
Even in her rage and panic she couldn't help but once more notice how big his hands were- big enough to reach all the way around her upper arms- and how warm, his whole body was radiating angry heat like a forge.
Ella struggled to no avail, his grip was like iron, and he drew her closer and against his body.
Thorin whispered something incomprehensible in Khuzdul.
He leaned forward and then, suddenly, his mouth was on hers and he kissed her.
Precious, assuming her mistress was being attacked, bared her teeth, snarled menacingly- and was completey ignored.
Ella had imagined kissing Thorin many times before, but no fantasy could have prepared her for the actual event.
This wasn't just a kiss- it was an assault on her whole body and mind, and she was grateful for his firm grip on her because it made her head swim and her knees turn to jelly.
It was by no means a tender business either.
Thorin's desire was clearly fueled by his anger and the wine- she could taste both on his demanding tongue- and she was angry enough herself to pay him back in kind.
What little was left of her clear mind told her that it shouldn't happen like this, that this was marking his territory rather than making love, but her body, after thirsting for him for so long, reacted to it all the same.
Thorin released her arms, placed his hands on her buttocks and squeezed them as he pressed her closer to him. A low groan escaped Ella's lips when she felt what he had in store for her, and for a brief moment she wondered if she had not bitten off more than she could chew.
But there was no turning back back now, even if she wanted to.
Now that Thorin had decided to go through with this, he no longer seemed to bother with hesitation.
Still devouring her mouth, his hands were all over her body now, leaving a trail of heat that pooled between her legs until she was sure, he would send her over the edge the instant he touched her there.
Ella had always been a girl who knew how to enjoy life-and sex- but what she felt now was nothing like the pleasant tingling sensation she knew from former encounters.
This wasn't fun and it was no game, this was madness.
She ached for him with every cell of her body.
It was a matter of seconds to get rid of her shirt and then she hurried to help Thorin free himself of his clothes, too, eager to press her skin against his, and yes, he was really so wonderfully warm everywhere.
She had seen his bare torso only once before- back in Rivendell when the dwarves had taken a bath in Lord Elrond's fountain, but never before so close, and now she let her fingers roam across his broad chest and impossibly strong upper arms, marvelling at the feeling of taut muscles beneath soft skin adorned with several tattoos and not a few battle scars.
He let her do it for a short while, with his head back and his eyes closed, savouring her touch, but then he lifted her up in a quick, sweeping movement and carried her determinedly over to the bed.
Despite his considerable size it did not hurt at all.
Had Ella still been able to think straight- which she wasn't- it might have embarassed her how wet and ready she was for him, or that she climaxed after only a few of his vigorous thrusts and certainly moaned loud enough for anyone to hear within a hundred yards.
But Ella didn't care.
She cared about nothing apart from Thorin on her, and inside her, who was filling every part of her body and her heart with his warm, comforting, protective presence.
It did not take long for his peak to follow hers, all that long repressed tension called for relief, and after all, he was not quite so young anymore.
Afterwards, Ella lay cuddled against his sturdy chest and listened to his heartbeat slowly calming down.
She let her fingers trace lazily through his thick mane and watched his beautiful face, more relaxed now than she had ever seen it before, his eyes closed, the lines on his forehead smoothened out, his lips not pressed into a hard line but curled into a soft smile.
How she loved him! And now she had made love to him, too!
The world was a wonderful place- even the Mirkwood- whose magic had turned out to be not quite as evil as she had first thought.
Thorin opened his eyes and looked at her.
He returned her smile, but then, his expression grew serious. His lips moved, but before he could say something, Ella leaned forward and forstalled his words with a firm kiss he was eager to reciprocate.
"Don't you dare apologize now," she warned only half in jest when she withdrew. "Or I promise I will stab you here and now!"
For a second, Thorin looked shocked, but then his lips curled into an arch smile.
"And how would you do that?" he asked in a throaty voice. "Our- hosts- have seized our weapons, remember?"
"Lucky you, hmm?" she grumbled.
Thorin's pulled her closer against his chest. "I wasn't going to say that I'm sorry," he whispered against her ear. "Because I'm not. Are you?"
"No." Ella nestled to his warm skin and breathed him in. "I have wanted to do this for such a long time."
Thorin exhaled audibly. "So have I. And still I doubt it would have come this far had you not slapped me in the face."
"Believe me, had I known it would have this effect, I would have done it much sooner," Ella snorted. "In fact, I should have known. You're clearly the sort that needs to be forced for their luck."
"That may be true," Thorin admitted with a crooked grin.
He gently freed himself from her embrace. "I should leave," he sighed regretfully. "Don't want the others to think I got lost in this blasted place."
"Yes, you'd better." Ella tried hard not to sound disappointed. "And anyway, I have promised Precious that she could sleep in my bed tonight."
She darted a glance at her pet, who had retreated to her basket and glared at them from reproachful blue eyes.
Thorin's eyes followed her gaze and he raised a sceptical brow, but before he could utter a- doubtlessly snide- remark about crazy hobbit women and their questionable taste in pets, a loud knock at the door interrupted him.
Ella barely had the time to wrap the blanket around herself when the door creaked open to the sight of one of the Woodland Elves.
He did not look surprised to find the dwarf king in her chambers, but if or what he thought about it she could not tell, his face was an expressionless, stony mask and what worried her much more was his hand which casually but demonstratively rested on the hilt of the sword in his belt.
"There has been an incident," he addressed Thorin in a serious tone. "My Lord Thranduil requires your presence. You must come with me. Now."
The Elven guard would not say more about the matter but simply ordered Ella and Thorin to follow him.
At least he was polite enough to wait outside the door when they got dressed. Since the situation clearly not called for festive gowns, Ella had put her old, filthy clothes back on and left Thranduil's precious gift in her chambers.
She racked her brain about what might have caused Thranduil to call for them in the middle of the night.
Had there been an attack on the castle? Orcs? Or even worse- the great spiders? The memory of those dreadful creatures made her shiver.
But something told her that it wasn't that, that the reason for their summoning had nothing to do with orcs or spiders but instead everything with her companions.Much as she held them all dear by now, dwarves were by nature unmatched at getting themselves into trouble, and the Elvenking was not the type to take improper conduct well.
What had they done this time, danced on one of his tables until it got broken? Pouched some of his precious goblets? ( She knew that at least Nori had done exactly that in Rivendell. )
She peered up at Thorin walking next to her and his grim expression told her that he, too, suspected something of the like.
When he noticed her worried look, he tried a small, reassuring smile and briefly squeezed her hand.
It was only the smallest of gestures, but it was enough to brighten her mood immediately.
Her lips were still sore from his passionate kisses and she could still feel him inside her with every step she took.
She was with him. They were in love.
Nothing bad would happen now, life just couldn't be so cruel. Whatever it was, they would brave it together.
To her surprise, the Elven warrior did not lead them back to the banqueting hall, but straight to the throne room.
This wasn't good. The incident must indeed have been a serious one if the Elvenking felt the need to discuss it in the place of his power.
Their companions were all there when they walked in, surrounded by four of the king's guards with their swords directed at them.
Next to Thranduil stood Legolas,sporting the same stony expression as his father, and Tauriel who looked rather shaken- or at least as much as this was possible for an elf.
Thorin furrowed his brow and shot Thranduil a fierce look.
"What does this portend?" he demanded to know.
"Ask him." The Elvenking said icily and cocked his head in the direction of Kili who stood with slouched shoulders and watched the floor.
"Legolas witnessed your nephew approach this lady-" he gestured at Tauriel, "in the most inappropriate way. Confronted with his outreagous behaviour, he flatly denied everything and his brother was quick to assist him which almost led to a fight."
He twisted his mouth into a grim, thin-lipped smile. "A fine pair of princes you have raised there, I must say.Very fitting for the line of Durin indeed."
Thorin's incredulous gaze flew back and forth between his nephews.
"Is this true?" he asked sharply and- as Ella couldn't help but think- a little too indignantly for someone who had himself just risen from the still warm bed of his lover.
"No, uncle," came Fili's heated reply. "Kili did nothing wrong. You know him, he would never force himself upon a woman against her will! This bare-faced bastard-" he shot a hateful glance at Legolas. "had it in for him right from the start."
Angry, agreeing hecklings came from the rows of the dwarves.
"Liar!" "Elvish scum!" "He has no honour!" "He insulted my wife and son!"
Only Kili stayed conspiciously silent.
Legolas' gaze was as cold as ice. "I know what I saw." he spat. "I went after him when he followed Tauriel to the terrace-"
"And why would you do that?" the red-haired she-elf engaged in the argument.
An angry blush had begun to crawl up the high, finely chiseled cheekbones of her otherwise pale face. "Am I a toddler who needs to be supervised wherever I go?"
"Dina, Tauriel!" The Elvenking commanded with an imperious gesture of his jewelled hand. "You forget yourself."
"How am I supposed to stay silent when my- honour is made the subject of a conflict?" she retorted. "I assure you, my Lord, it is perfectly intact. We have been talking, that's all."
"Talking?" Thranduil raised a sceptical brow.
"Indeed." Tauriel stood straight-faced. "About- about the stars."
Legolas emitted a contemptous snort. "What would the dwarf possibly have told you with his dirty hands and his greedy lips on you I wonder," he fumed.
It was then that Kili finally looked up.
"The lady is not at fault." he said in a quiet, yet determined voice. "We have been talking about the stars just like she said. When we looked up into the night sky I suddenly saw a falling star and I- I told her that according to dwarfish belief, someone who sees a falling star is granted a wish."
His eyes found Tauriel's as he silently implored her to play along with his story.
"I told her my wish was a kiss from her," he continued very quietly. "Because that's what I have wanted all along. She did not want to, that was obvious, but I told her refusing my wish would bring bad luck and so she complied. It was a ruse to get what I wanted. So you see, it was all my fault, and mine only."
"I understand." Thranduil said frostily. "So that's the way dwarves return my hospitality. I should not be surprised."
Despite his stern tone, Ella found, he looked oddly satisfied.
Thorin, who seemed to think the same, could not hold back any longer.
His brow was storm-tossed and he glared at the Elvenking from narrowed eyes.
"This is a bloody farce !" he exploded. "We never wanted your hospitality, it was you who forced us to stay here. You never intended to let us go in the first place and now you have found a reason. Do you deny it?"
Thranduil leaned forward and met his gaze with equal rage. "Do you deny that you never planned to return my belongings to me once the Erebor was yours?" he hissed back.
"By the beard of Durin, nothing in this mountain belongs to you and never would I give a single piece of my inheritance to a dishonourable bastard like you!" Thorin thundered to the applause of his infuriated companions.
Ella closed her eyes.
In her vision, she saw Thorin and the other dwarves lying in their blood before Thranduil's throne, senselessly massacred by their own stupid, stubborn pride.
Her voice cut loudly through the heated hubbub and caused a moment of silence. "This is madness! There has to be another way."
"I'm listening." the Elvenking said. He bored the gaze of his crytal blue eyes into hers and waved at her to continue.
Ella gulped. She had not spoken with much of a plan in her head but merely the desire to stop the impending doom looming over their heads.
"You let the company go," she continued hesitantly. "And one of us will stay here to make sure you get what you want in case the quest succeeds. A hostage, if you will."
A worried mumble rose among the dwarves, but Thranduil raised his hand to stop it.
"An interesting suggestion," he said airily. "And who, do you think, would voluntarily choose to be my guest until the ransom is paid?"
Ella bowed her head. "Myself."
"No way." Thorin's voice was as hard and adamant as the stone of the mountain he called his home.
"This is not going to happen, not as long as I draw breath."
Thranduil sighed. "You heard your king," he addressed Ella with a light shrug of his shoulders under his magnificent robe. "Pity. I would have enjoyed your company much more than those of your savage companions. But as it seems, you will all be my guests for the time being."
He waved at the guards who held the dwarves in check with their weapons. "Take them to the dungeons!" he commanded.
His eyes met Thorin's and he curled his lips into a spiteful smile. "Actually, I'm doing you a favour, Oakenshield," he sneered. "Your poor bunch of warriors would provide no match for a creature as mighty as Smaug. Instead of a quick death by dragon fire, I offer you a long stay in my cells. Time enough to reflect upon your arrogance."
Dina! Sindarin: Be quiet!
Thanks so much for reading!
Chapter 16: The Things We Do For Love
Ella paced the length of her small chamber up and down as she had done for at least an hour.
The movement kept her awake, but it didn't help calm down the muddled thoughts rushing through her head.
Contrary to all hopes for a peaceful settlement with Thranduil, the worst had happened; her companions had ended up locked up in his dungeons and as for him, might well be left to rot there until the next age.
Ella clenched her fists in anger as she walked.
She was angry at Legolas for his petty revenge on his rival in love, and at his father for jumping at the opportunity to ruin Thorin's plans, but most of all, she was angry at her companions.
The situation had been quite delicate, true, but she was sure it could have turned out differently had the dwarves for once tried another tactic than their usual 'attack is the best defense'.
Or if Thorin had reacted to her proposal.
Truth be told, she was glad he had not- she had little desire to spend an indefinite period of time as Thranduil's 'guest' while the dwarves recaptured the Erebor- let alone the rest of her life should they fail- but she was without a doubt the most expendable member of the company and it had been only fair to offer herself as a hostage.
Last but not least she was mad at Kili, whose desire for the Elven woman had gotten them into this in the first place.
But even when Ella thought it, she felt ashamed of herself.
It was not only Kili on whom the strange magic of the Mirkwood had taken its toll. How could she condemn the dwarf prince for something that had happened to her as well?
He had certainly not chosen to fall in love with Tauriel, just as she had not chosen to fall in love with Thorin.
Love had its own rules, it didn't care for insignificant details such as age-old feuds between two peoples.
It wasn't fair. Why did this have to happen now of all times, when she had just been so happy?
The thought of Thorin in his presumably dark and cold cell, with all his hopes and plans shattered, made her heart tense up with pain.
Stop it, she told herself firmly.
Giving in to despair would help no one now.
She had to come up with a plan, and quickly.
Thranduil had not ordered for her to be brought to his dungeons with the dwarves as he well could have ( cling together, swing together ), instead she had been allowed to retreat to her room.
But there was no mistaking that she was as much a prisoner as they were; the Elvenking had demonstratively placed one of his guards in front of her door.
And even though his behaviour towards her had been nothing but friendly so far and he obviously didn't consider her an enemy, Ella had little hope that it would make much sense to try and intervene on behalf of her companions.
Of course, it was possible that his anger would fume away in time, but time was the one thing the company didn't have. There were only a few days left until Durin's Day.
No. Wait and see was not an option. She had to take action.
She was a burglar, now she would have to be a jailbreaker.
She had to free her companions from Thranduil's prison, tonight. And therefore, she had to find the key.
Ella stopped her pace and chewed at her lower lip, thinking.
Back in Bree, she had been decent at playing cards ( or as some might say: cheating at it ), but now she had an ace up her sleeve of which nobody knew.
Ella put her hand into her pocket and her fingers touched the cool metal of the ring in it.
Now she could of course slip it on and walk out of her room unseen, but the guard in front of it- drunk as everyone else in this castle tonight as he might otherwise be- would likely notice when the door opened as if by itself, and scream alarm when he found her room empty.
That was, unless she silenced him first.
Despite having fought against one or another nasty creature by now, the thought of attacking someone who did nothing but the duty imposed on him caused her no little discomfort, but that couldn't be helped.
She searched her room for something that might qualify as a weapon, but the best thing she could find was the earthen jug with the milk for Precious, now empty and hopefully hard enough to knock an elf out. But even then, how should she hit someone on the head who was almost twice her size?
At last, Ella pulled one of her knee-length socks off and squeezed the jug into it in order to use it like a slingshot.
Then she bundled up her things and, after a moment of hesitation, crammed the precious dress into her knapsack as well. It would be a shame to leave it behind, and after all it had been a gift.
And of course she had to carry Precious as well.
The ring might make its wearer and everything on them invisible, but that wouldn't apply to a warg trudging next to her. "Time to leave, Precious," she whispered as she bent down to take the small animal in her arms.
Her pet- usually happy enough to be carried around- seemed oddly reluctant this time, probably still resenting her mistress for what she had earlier been forced to witness her do with this detested dwarf in her bed.
Apparently, jelousy was not exclusively reserved for dwarves or elves...
After stowing Precious in her shawl and slipping the ring on her finger, Ella pressed the doorknob and very quietly opened the door, the more than poor substitute for a weapon held high over her head. She had but one attempt.
But for once, luck was on her side.
The Woodland elf who was supposed to guard her door, leaned slumped against the wall next to her room and snored noisily, a wine bottle still in hand.
Ella released a relieved breath and- thanks to her swift, quiet hobbit feet- passed him by without a sound and flitted down the hallway.
The next step was to find the key.
She didn't need to worry about finding the dungeons. In likely every castle in the world those were always at the very bottom, but she could hardly hope the key ring would practically hang on the wall across the cells.
But where to start the search?
Where would I put it if I was a king, Ella pondered, and as distrustful towards strangers as Thranduil obviously was?
The logical answer was not exactly a comforting one.
He would probably keep it close to himself, on his body in the worst case.
But then, maybe not.
Would a king as mighty as he not have underlings for that kind of job? A jailer?
Ella stopped to rub her temples and sighed.
She was tired, she was running out of time and she didn't know where to search first. Thranduil's rooms or the cellars?
If she was even able to find either.
The ring granted her invisibility, but it also distorted her vision. When she wore it, her surroundings appeared darker than usual and foggy, they blurred at the edges and sometimes rippled like a picture on a water surface, which was rather nauseating.
The parts of the castle she passed were mainly deserted and quiet, and considering how the Woodland elves had done justice to the wine at the party, most of them would likely be sleeping it off by now.
Ella could only hope that the same was true for their king.
She had made her way until shortly before the throne room when this hope was shattered.
"I know you're there,"sounded an all too familiar voice and almost made her jump out of her skin. "Why do you linger in the shadows?"
Ella pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle a startled cry.
He could not possibly see her, could he? She was invisible, and the hallway was dark; she had not even seen him before he had spoken. Was the magic of the Elvenking even mightier than the one of her ring?
But then, another figure appeared from behind one of the columns and Ella realised to her utter relief, that Thranduil's words had not been directed at her at all, but instead at the Elven woman Tauriel.
"It wasn't my intention to hide from you," the captain of the guards replied. "I have just finished my round. Everything is quiet."
"Good." The Elvenking walked over to a table and poured himself a goblet of wine. "You may retreat now."
He wrinkled his nose. "What's that smell-?"
Oh crap. Quickly, Ella tugged Precious deeper into her shawl.
"Nevermind." Thranduil shrugged and took a sip of his wine. "You need rest, Tauriel. It won't be long until dawn."
The Elven woman crossed her arms in front of her chest. "I don't think I will be able to find rest after what happened tonight." she retorted defiantly.
Thranduil waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "We shall not talk about it any more," he said. "You are forgiven. The matter is settled, and forgotten, for my part."
"But what of the dwarves? How long do you think you must keep them locked away until they forget? For the rest of their lives?"
Thranduil furrowed his thick, dark brows. "Better that than the welcome Smaug would have given them," he said sharply. "I told the truth, Tauriel. It was the greed of the sons of Durin that summoned the dragon in the first place and Thorin is just like his grandfather was. If they woke the dragon- which they would have- it would not only have meant death and destruction for them but also unpredictable consequences for us. The Erebor is not far away from the Mirkwood. If the beast was unleashed, who says his wrath would not come down on my kingdom as well?"
And wouldn't that be a great loss. Ella thought sourly. Just imagine he would burn down the fucking forest and all the nice little spiders in it...
"And still you were keen enough to have your share of the treasure," Tauriel said. "How do you plan to retrieve your heirloom now? You've heard them. They were in a hurry. Perhaps there's only a small time window when it's possible to enter the mountain at all-"
"It matters not." Thranduil waved her objections away. "Time may be an issue for them, but it isn't for us. I am patient. I have waited so long, I can just as well wait a little longer- and for a better opportunity."
"So it is true then." Tauriel concluded in a bitter tone."You never planned to let them go and my- allegedly improper behaviour- provided you with the excuse you needed."
"What did you expect? You know, Legolas has grown very fond of you- and you hurt him deeply."
Tauriel shook her head. "We grew up together. And I love him, too- like a brother. Besides, I don't think you would approve for your son to pledge himself to a simple Woodland elf?"
"Perhaps not." Thranduil emptied his goblet and set it back down at the table. "But I have not raised and supported you for six-hundred years to watch you lower yourself so much as to fall for a dwarf."
Tauriel clenched her fists and sucked in a sharp breath.
"I know I owe you more than I can ever repay, my Lord." she said in a flat voice. "But not even you can command my heart. But fear not-" she added as she turned to leave. "I know where my loyalty lies and I would never act against my own people."
"Good. And Tauriel-"Suddenly, Thranduil's voice sounded oddly brittle. "You know I do not desire those gems for myself."
"Yes, I know." she replied with a sad little smile. "But obtaining them won't bring her back, will it?"
Then she bowed slightly, turned around and walked away down the hallway.
Neither at gambling nor generally had Ella ever been one who'd like to put all her eggs into one basket, so to say. And yet this was exactly what she was going to do now.
Desperate times called for desperate measures.
She knew Tauriel for a mere day, but now it seemed that the other woman turned out to be her only hope.
She followed her quietly until she was sure they were out of earshot- or so she hoped- after all, Elves had apparently better ears than hobbits.
Then she slipped behind a column and the ring off her finger and whispered Tauriel's name.
The she-elf froze in her tracks and slowly turned around, her worried expression giving way to disbelief. "What are you doing here?" she whispered back.
"Looking for you."
It was all or nothing now.
The captain of the guards would either arrest her on the spot and take her back to her chambers- or straight to her companions into the dungeons, since she had obviously not been allowed to leave her room- or she would listen to her first. And hopefully help her afterwards.
Ella took a deep breath in order to gather all her courage.
"I'm going to free my companions." she said. "And I need your help."
Tauriel raised a brow but her face stayed otherwise expressionless. "And what makes you think I would help you?" she asked flatly.
"Thranduil has no right to hold the dwarves captive and keep them from completing their quest, and I know you think that, too. I- I listened to your conversation."
"Did you now? Then it can't have escaped you that I also said I would never do anything to endanger this kingdom."
"And you won't have to." Ella took a step towards her, looked up and met Tauriel's eyes with an imploring look.
The captain of the guards had not yet made a move to arrest her and that gave her hope, but it was still a high-risk gamble to trust in the other woman just because she had heard her speak of her heart. Evidently she felt something for Kili, too, but would it be enough to outweigh the loyalty to her people and her king?
"Those gems Thranduil spoke of," Ella continued. "You said they were his heirloom?"
"The White Gems of Lasgalen, yes." Tauriel confirmed."Thranduil gave them to King Thror in order to have them made into a necklace for his wife. But when the work was finished, Thror in his greed decided to keep it for himself. The queen is dead now, she will never come to wear it, but my Lord Thranduil still wants to retrieve those gems more than anything. Perhaps, in hopes that it will ease his pain at losing his beloved wife-"
"And he shall get them." Ella said quickly. "If we succeed, I will demand them as my promised reward and return it to him. I swear it-" On my honour among thieves. "And as I said, you won't have to break your word. All I ask is for you to tell me where the keys to the cells are."
"And when you have it, what then? How do you plan to escape? The entrance portal is locked and well guarded, and I should know. I just checked it myself."
Ella had not thought farther than unlocking the prison's doors, but of course Tauriel was right. Her companions had no magic rings to make them invisible. There was no way for them to escape undetected; at the latest when they made it to the gates it would inevitably come to a fight- a fight with a forseeable end since they had no weapons-
Tauriel stood and watched the visible agony on the hobbit's features.
She seemed to struggle with herself. At last, she sighed and made a decision she knew she would certainly come to regret, and rather sooner than later.
"You will find the jailers and the keyring in the wine cellar," she whispered. "A floor below the prison block. I assume, they will by now have emptied what was left of the wine and be fast asleep. The cellar has a floor hatch that leads straight to the river- that's how we transport our wine barrels to Lake- town- and then, you just need to follow the river's course to the Long Lake. See to it that you make it to the outer gate without being detected. If you don't- be sure I'll be among the first to try and stop you."
Relieved, Ella released her breath. "Thank you, Tauriel" she whispered with a grateful smile.
The Elven woman didn't return it. "Don't thank me," she replied in a serious tone. "I have the distinct feeling that we are both about to make a big mistake."
A flicker of an emotion crossed her beautiful, even features.
"You are an unusual woman, Ella, even for a hobbit. Take care of that hot-blooded young prince for me, will you? As much as I despise him for disturbing my peace of mind, I would not like to see him killed."
"I will." Ella promised firmly but she could not quite suppress a superstitious shiver at Tauriel's words. They sounded foreboding, to be sure.
Chapter 17: Rapids
In the beginning, everything went according to plan.
Ella found the jailer and his companions in the wine cellar, where they lay in a drunken stupor with their heads on a table full of empty bottles, just as Tauriel had predicted.
It was child's play to snatch the key ring from his belt and unlock the cells- a little harder to keep the dwarves from expressing their joy about their liberation with loud shouts, or convince them to follow her back to the cellars.
The look on their faces when Ella told them to climb into the empty wine barrels ( conveniently, there were thirteen of those ) was priceless.
But then Thorin commanded they do as she said and they obeyed, albeit reluctantly, and Ella pulled the lever that opened the hatch in the floor.
After that, everything went straight up the creek. Literally.
The problems began when it occured to Ella too late that there was no barrel left for herself. ( And when exactly had she become that kind of stupid person who thought least about themselves? )
And when the dwarf-filled barrels rolling down the hatch made enough noise to wake the dead-or more specifically, even the most wasted elve.
And then when the door of the hatch fell close after her companions and left her alone to be caught red-handed in the middle of the crime scene.
Soon, Ella could hear footsteps hurrying down the stairs, and the enraged Sindarin cries of at least a dozen elves who had just been jolted from their rightous sleep.
In her headless panic she didn't even think of slipping her ring back on, but instead stepped farther and farther back towards the wall- until the hatch beneath her feet swung open and made her tumble backwards into the water.
Which was dreadfully cold. Something, the elven woman obviously hadn't thought worth mentioning. And neither had she told Ella that the river was in fact a torrent, with white-water rapids and a series of spectacular waterfalls.
Ella had barely managed to cling to the last barrel floating in front of her - Gloin's- when she heard Thorin in the front scream "Hold on!" Even now the dwarf king obviously insisted to lead the way, but then, there was no way of getting lost with the powerful current dragging them along with it, down the waterfall and then farther across a torrential river with dangerously sharp-edged bluffs.
And eventually towards the outer gate of Thranduil's fortress. Which rattled close in their faces and was guarded by a dozen elves in full battlegear.
From then on, things only got worse. Or as Grandma Ermentrude would have put it: It never rains but it pours.
The elven warriors pulled their swords. And then the first of them hit the ground, felled by an orc arrow in his back. A second later, the whole pack was upon them and a fierce battle begun.
Ella, still desperately clinging to Gloin's barrel with by now numb fingers, heard a loud roar in the tongue of the orcs and looked up to see a particular big and fearsome specimen stand on the rock above them.
She didn't need to understand Black Speech to know that he most likely meant something like 'Kill them all!' And certainly he did not refer to the Woodland elves only.
While Ella still stared, her eyes wide with horror, she felt tiny claws scratching vigorously against her chest.
Precious was no big fan of water on a good day, and now, after being soaked to the bone and having been forced to swallow half a river of icy cold water, the warg had obviously decided that enough was enough.
The small animal struggled its way out of Ella's shawl, made it to the saving shore with a determined jump and vanished between the fighting orcs and elves.
Ella's desperate cry was drowned in the battle noise around her.
And then the first orcs were upon her companions and they were busy fighting for their lives for the time being.
Fighting orcs was no picnic in general, and even less so when you were stuck in a barrel and had no weapons to defend yourselves.
It was mostly hoping a friendly elven arrow would by chance hit the moster who was just about to smash your head in with his axe or club or whatever brutal murder device they had on them, and then relieve them of it and lose it again just as quickly by throwing it into the next attacker.
To their credit, the dwarves were quite effective in that kind of unfair battle. After killing an enemy, they passed around the captured weapons quickly so that the others were able to eliminate the next attacker in time.
Using the advantage of the general confusion, Kili climbed out of his barrel and up the stony staircase next to them in order to pull the lever that opened the outer gate.
But his couragous advance did not go unnoticed.
The leader of the orc pack saw what he was up to. He drew his bow, aimed, and before Kili was able to reach the lever, he fell down on his knees with a cry of pain. The dwarf prince stared wide-eyed at the orc arrow sticking in his upper leg, as if he refused to believe something like this could have happened to him.
Ella heard Fili cry out his brother's name and then Thorin repeating it in a shocked, incredulous whisper.
Another orc appeared at the top of the stairs. He pulled his sword, but before he could finish Kili off, an arrow in his throat stopped him.
Tauriel hat come to join the fight, and just in time to save Kili's life for the second time.
It said that saving another person's life meant you were responsible for them for the rest of your life, and if this was true, the Elven woman apparently took this responsibility very seriously.
And where Tauriel was, Legolas wasn't far away to cover her back.
Even though Ella had little love for the haughty elven prince, she had to admit that he was a decent fighter. More than decent, to tell the truth. The way he whirled through the rows of his enemies in a deadly dance wasn't simply fighting, it was martial arts in the truest sense. A stunning performance, to be sure.
And most of all, it bought Kili the time he needed to finish his job.
He braced himself against the lever and pushed it down, then jumped back into his barrel just in time before Ella and the dwarves in their barrels floated through the gate, down the next waterfall and farther down the river, the angry orc pack on their tail.
The dwarves fought grimly against their attackers, but there was no doubt that they would never have made it without Tauriel's and Legolas' help, even with an amazing stunt by Bombur who managed to overrun a dozen orcs on the shore in his barrel.
And then, eventually, the river led into the Long Lake and they had shaken off their pursuers. Not for long, as Thorin rightly warned, but long enough to allow them to make for the shore and tend to Kili's injury.
Of course the dwarf prince claimed that it was nothing, merely a fleshwound, but his face, contorted in pain as it was, belied his brave words.
Thorin was visibly beside himself with worry, and as always when he was worried, he got angry.
At Kili, at Tauriel, at their relentless pursuers and last but not least, at Ella herself, for reasons only he knew.
She could feel it radiating from him like a heatwave when she sat next to him at the foot of the lake, and even in her grief about Kili's wound and Precious' disappearance, she welcomed what little warmth his fury offered, frozen as she was.
Thorin must have noticed her shivering, but he could not even offer her his fur - it got lost somewhere on the way down the river, and now his wet shirt clung to the impressive forms of his muscular upper body in the most appealing way.
His big hands twitched as if to pull her into an embrace, but then he clenched them into fists. "My fault," he said in a muffled voice.
"He w-w-will be alright," Ella tried to console him with chattering teeth. "He's young- and strong-"
Thorin gave a mirthless snort and shook his head, making his damp, dark mane flow around his head. "I should never have let it come to this in the first place," he groaned." If only I had been there- if only I hadn't gone after you- " He hung his head. "It's all my fault."
Ella watched him with wide, incredulous eyes. "Fili and Kili are no longer children," she whispered back. "They are grown-ups, old enough to make their own decisions. Do you really think you could have stopped him?"
"I should have tried," Thorin replied in a bitter tone."You can't understand that, of course not. What would you know of responsibility? I'm a king, Ella, and that, above all, is what the essence of being a king is. Responsibility. Putting the happiness of my people before my own interests, always. And I failed."
For a moment, Ella found herself lost for words. Did Thorin even realize how incredibly self-rightous and hypocritical that sounded? No, of course not. He really meant it.
"Nonsense" she hissed back. "What about Kili's happiness, then ? His feelings for Tauriel are real. And she- she feels something for him as well. She helped me free you all and she saved Kili's life, just in case you didn't notice."
"She's an elf," Thorin spat in contempt.
"An elf, indeed. So what?" Ella realised that she was about to talk herself into a rage but she couldn't help it. She was cold, she was terribly exhausted and miserable and Thorin's blind stubbornness could make the Valar themselves livid. "This elf disobeyed her king for Kili's sake- who by the way would be the first to agree with you that Kili is no good match for her. And they?"
She gestured in the direction of the other dwarves. "They are here because of you, because of your dream, every single one of them. They would have followed you anywhere. Do you really believe you're doing any of this for them ?"
"Stop," the dwarf king warned in a dangerously low voice, a deep frown forming between his his brows. "You don't know what you're talking about. The Erebor is my birthright, but I don't want its treasures for myself-"
"Sure. Keep telling yourself that. Not even Thranduil would go so far as to sacrifice his people for his selfish goals."
Even when she said it, Ella knew she was being terribly unfair- Thorin wanted to recapture the Erebor to give a home to his people and she knew it- but it was too late to take the words back now. And as expected, Thorin's frown deepened at the anew mention of his adversary.
"You seem to be quite fond of the Woodland elves, and their king in particular," he said icily. "No wonder you were so quick to offer yourself as his hostage."
Ah. So there it was. The reason why he was angry at her in the first place. Despite the cold, Ella felt the blood rushing hot to her head.
"You can't be serious," she shot back in a fierce whisper. "I did that for you! Do you honestly believe I wanted to stay there? How can you even think that, after all that- after what we- after last night?"
Thorin actually had enough decency in him to blush. He lowered his head. "Last night- I was drunk." he mumbled into his beard. " And angry. It can hardly have been anything but disappointing for you-"
Ella snorted. The man was truly incredible. "Did I give the impression that I was- disappointed?" she asked.
Thorin's flush deepened which made him look even more adorable than he already was. It really wasn't fair. Despite herself, Ella felt how her anger melted like ice in the sun at his sight.
"No, I wasn't." she continued softly. "And neither, I daresay, were you."
She sighed and shook her head. "Why are we even having this conversation, now of all times? With an orc pack behind us and Kili wounded-"
And Precious gone. she added in her mind.
In a way, this was the worst of it all. On her short little legs the baby warg would never make it all the way down the river to catch up with them, even if she wanted to, and she was much too small to survive alone in the wilderness. That was, if she had not already been killed by an orc's or elven arrow-
"You're right," Thorin replied. "We shouldn't. I should not even be thinking of these things. And that is exactly my point."
The gaze of his beautiful blue eyes hardened. "None of this would have happened had I not given in to my own desires," he repeated stubbornly. "But I am going to learn from my mistakes. It shall not happen again."
Ella puffed and watched how her breath formed a white cloud in the chilly air.
Hopeless. Her sadness turned into bitterness.
"A mistake." she repeated flatly. " Of course. That's all I have ever been to you."
"That is not what I meant-"
"No?" To her great dismay, Ella felt tears burn in her eyes. She tried to blink them away but Thorin saw it anyway.
"Of course not." he said softly, and with much more warmth. "Far from it."
Again, he reached out as if to touch her, but after a quick look in the direction of the other dwarves, his hand stopped halfway to her face and he dropped it with a sigh. "But now is not the right time for-"
He paused and looked out to the outlines of the Lonely Mountain looming at the other side of the great lake, and the expression of a desire that had nothing to do with her crossed his face.
"For anything else." he finished firmly. "We're almost there."
Ella nodded with tightly pressed lips. Of course.
The quest was, and always had been, the only thing that really mattered to him. Nothing and nobody would stop him now, so close to his destination, neither orc nor elf, not even a wounded Kili, and least of all whatever feelings he may or may not have for his burglar.
She wondered, if there would ever be something like a 'right time' for them. When would that be? Once Thorin would sit in his rightful place on the Erebor's throne, in full regalia and with a crown on his head? Certainly not...
"You're right," Ella said with feigned indifference. She tried to ignore her sore muscles as she struggled to her feet. "Except that there's still a lake between us and the mountain. Any idea how we're going to cross it?"
For sure as death she would not swim. She was still shivering in her wet clothes, and if the river had been cold, this lake was covered with floes.
Ella walked over to the others and saw that Oin had by now wrapped a makeshift bandage around Kili's wounded thigh, but blood kept trickling through the fabrics and the dwarf prince was very pale.
When Thorin commanded the dwarves get on their feet, he stood up as well, but it was painfully clear that he wouldn't walk anywhere in this condition, let alone swim. How in Eru's name were they supposed to make it over that lake?
But then, someone else made the decision for them.
An arrow buzzed through the air and hit the rock right in front of their feet. Quickly, Kili grabbed a stone in order to throw it at their attacker, but the archer shot it right out of his hands with his next arrow.
He was no orc, nor was he one of the Woodland elves, but his intentions towards the company were clearly no less hostile.
"Do it again," he said and aimed anew. "and you're dead."
Chapter 18: Small Town, Big Problems
The man who had ambushed them was called Bard and as luck would have it, he was not only an excellent bowman, but also a boatman.
Distrustful fellow that he was, he clearly didn't believe their story about being merchants from the Blue Mountains for a second, but he was a widower with three kids and a small income, and that was why he eventually agreed to ferry Ella and the dwarves to Laketown and provide them with supplies and weapons in exchange for hard cash.
The dwarves scraped their remaining coins together but it was not enough, so Ella reluctantly offered the precious dress Thranduil had given her as a bonus.
The pearls on it alone were probably worth more than all the weapons in Laketown's armory, but there was no sense in haggling.
Bard's old barge was the only available ride far and wide, and after all he was running a great risk by smuggling a bunch of suspicious strangers into his hometown. Laketown's master maintained profitable trading contacts with the Woodland Realm- and Thranduil's kingdom was evidently where they had just escaped from.
Had Kili not been wounded, Ella suspected Thorin would have skipped a potentially hostile place like Laketown entirely and have Bard take them directly to the other side of the lake.
After all, once they reached the Erebor there would either be enough gold awaiting them to buy anything they needed- or a dragon against whom any weapon would probably do little anyway.
But it would still be a long march from there which the dwarf prince was clearly unable to handle.
In the damp mist that engulfed the lake his face looked sickly grey and his eyes shone like in a fever. The fight against the orcs had visibly exhausted his last reserves and he needed rest badly- a bed, dry clothes, food and medicine.
Ella was the last to enter the barge after the negotiations were completed.
When the boat began to slide up the lake she kept gazing at the shore, hoping against hope to see a small furball sprint towards them at the very last moment.
But that didn't happen. Precious was gone. In the firm belief to be drowned, she had chosen to run- and into her almost certain death.
Ella swallowed the lump in her throat, turned around and sqatted against the boat's hull, with her arms folded around her knees.
Although they had paid him, it was clear from their wary looks that the dwarves trusted Bard only as far as they could spit. He might as well keep their money and still have them arrested once they reached the town, so that his master could surrender them to his buddy Thranduil.
But what other choice did they have?
The bargeman however, seemed to have other plans, and much to their chagrin those plans included that they all climbed back into the barrels which were then filled up with loads of dead fish.
Buried in Laketown's catch of the day ( or rather last day's, judging by the smell of it ) was not exactly the kind of arrival Ella would have prefered, and the town itself provided no pleasant first impression either.
Since it was sitting in the middle of a lake, it wasn't built of stone but wooden planks which swayed under their feet, covered all over with crooked huts and reeking of rot and fish- as they all likely did as well by now.
The place was crowded with townsfolk going about their daily business as every other town, but where the air in Bree was always humming with chatter and laughter, Laketown was oddly quiet.
The people they met on the way to Bard's house surely threw the newcomers suspicious glances from dull and tired eyes, but then quickly looked away again, as if it was too much of an effort to wonder what might have brought a dozen dwarves and a hobbit to their town.
An oppressive atmosphere hang heavy in the air like the cool mist that covered the lake.
This was no happy town by any means, Ella thought.
Its inhabitants were visibly afraid and none of them looked especially healthy or even well-fed. Trade with the Woodland Realm may have made its master rich, but evidently he had no interest to share his wealth with the people under his rule.
Her suspicions were confirmed when a boy of about twelve or thirteen came running towards them to inform his "Da" that their house was being watched.
A fact that made it necessary for his "guests" to enter the house via the backdoor, or better- the latrine. Needless to say that this did nothing to improve either their smell or their mood.
"Why are dwarves coming out of our toilet?" asked the curious voice of a pretty teenage girl when they emerged one by one, coughing and snorting and once more soaked to the bone.
"Will they bring us luck?" asked her little sister, a cute thing hardly older than eight or nine.
Her father gave her a look which said clearly he doubted this very much but Ella couldn't help herself.
"Only if you rub their heads," she whispered with a small wink at the little miss and a sideglance at Dwalin's tattoed baldness that just surfaced from the toilet seat.
"Don't you dare!" the grim warrior snarled and rudely slapped at the boy's helpfully outstretched hand.
But same as the others he was grateful enough to sit by the fireside afterwards, wrapped up in woollen blankets and with a bowl of watery but blessfully hot soup against the cold.
And even more so for the clothes to change ther host offered, even if none of them fitted the size of a dwarf- or a hobbit, for that matter.
The man of the house's children watched their every movement wide-eyed and Ella did her best to return their wary glances with reassuring smiles- or so she hoped.
Having been robbed of her younger brother so early in life when he died of fever along with her parents, she wasn't used to the company of children.
Her older brother was married and had two of his own, true, but she had never seen much of them since his wife, the thoroughly respectful daughter of Bree's mayor, had made quite clear from the start that she didn't consider Ella 'good company'. Thus, Ella was by no means an expert in the interaction with children, let alone children of men of whom two were taller than she was, but that didn't keep Bard's daughters from searching her company- if because they had lost their mother or simply because she was without a doubt the friendliest and least threatening member of the company, Ella couldn't tell.
"The dark one-" Sigrid, Bard's oldest daughter asked in a conspiratorial whisper after she had invited Ella to her own room to change clothes. "Is he your- you know- sweetheart?"
In order to hide her tale-tale blush, Ella pulled the borrowed dress over her head- likely one of Sigrid's own, since the bodice was too tight while the skirt was much too long.
"You know who," the girl replied with a small giggle. "You keep looking at him all the time."
"I don't!" Ella objected, embarassed. "Or do I?"
"Yes, well" Ella sighed. "But no, he isn't. Not exactly. It's-complicated."
"Isn't it always?" Sigrid nodded with the thorough understanding of her at most fifteen years.
"I take it, you speak from experience then?" Ella decided to go on the offensive.
It was Sigrid's turn to blush now. "Of course not," she dismissed. "I'm a good girl. And Da would never allow-"
Ella couldn't suppress a grin. "What's his name ?" she asked.
The girl dropped her gaze, pretending to fold up Ella's wet clothes. "I told you, there's no one." she insisted but then she peered up at Ella from cornflower blue eyes. She really was pretty.
"I've never seen dwarves so close up," she whispered almost inaudibly. "I knew they were small, and very different from us and they are, but I never thought they might be-"
"Not repulsive," Sigrid corrected. "Well- some of them. The blond-"
"Who, Fili?" Ella raised her brows. Interesting. Of the two brothers, it would usually be Kili who would be considered the handsome one. Then it occured to her that they weren't supposed to tell anyone their names and she cursed herself inwardly.
The girl in front of her blushed even deeper. "I quite like his mustache, that's all," she said in a weak attempt to play down her interest.
Ella smiled broadly now."You should tell him," she replied with a wink. "He will be happy."
A loud uproar from the main room interrupted them.
As it turned out, Bard had shown the dwarves the 'weapons' they had bought and clearly, they were not what they'd had in mind.
When Ella and Sigrid walked in, Dwalin was just lifting something into the air that bore an unmistakable resemblance with a spade.
"And what's that, bargeman ?" he snarled. "Do I look like a gardener to you?"
The rest of the arsenal was no more suitable to dwarvish taste. A blacksmith's hammer. A harpoon. And so on.
"We paid for weapons! Iron-forged swords and axes!" Gloin barked out and slammed his fists on the table.
"It's a joke!" Bofur agreed and threw a rusty mace onto the pile of spurned weapons.
"You won't find better outside the city armory," Bard replied unapologetically."All iron-forged weapons are held under lock and key."
And Laketown's master has probably good reason to keep it that way, Ella thought.
"I say we leave now," Balin announced but their host firmly shook his head.
"You're not going anywhere. Spies are watching this house."
Ella saw Thorin and Dwalin exchange a look. The bald dwarf nodded in silent confirmation.
For the time being, the matter seemed to be settled.
It was when the scarse daylight began to fade that Ella joined Thorin who was standing by the window and staring fixedly at something in the twilight.
Ella followed his gaze to a high watchtower with an unknown weapon on it.
"A dwarvish wind lance," the dwarf king whispered. "The last time I saw such a weapon, a city was on fire. It was the day when the dragon came. The day that Smaug destroyed Dale. Girion, the lord of the city ordered his bowmen to kill the beast. But no common arrows could pierce his hide, it was thick as the strongest armor. Only a black arrow fired from a windlance- but few of those have ever been made."
He paused and shook his head with a sigh. "Much would have been different had Girion hit his aim that day."
Ella stared at him open-mouthed. "And you knew of this all along?" she asked incredulously. "How are we supposed to fight a dragon against whom common weapons are useless? How could you take all of us- your own nephews even- into a war you knew we cannot win?"
She frowned and shook her head in disbelief. "And why would Gandalf possibly encourage you to do this?"
"It's been a long time," Thorin replied. "The dragon might as well be dead by now. Let's hope he is. As for my nephews, well- I would never have asked them to accompany me, but there was nothing I could do to stop them. They are sons of Durin as am I- their mother, however, my sister Dis- she was not happy about it as you can imagine."
"Sounds like a sensible woman to me," Ella snorted. "Are you sure you're related?"
Thorin smiled at that and as always, the mere sight of it made her heart clench with desperate love for him.
A serious face looked good on some people but most looked better when they smiled, and Ella certainly belonged to the second category- a face like hers just wasn't suitable for a perma-frown.
With Thorin, however, it was different; he looked good enough with his usual scowl, but when he smiled, his features turned from handsome into outright adorable. It was as if a light was turned on in the darkness.
"I'm sorry about your pet," he said suddenly, softly.
"Are you now?" Ella hung her head. "You never liked her anyway."
"I'll get you a new one," he promised without further elaboration. "A whole dozen if you want."
"Sure." He didn't even remember her name. He would never understand why she had been precious to her.
"Back in the Blue Mountains," Thorin continued in a distant voice. "Those were good times, not always easy, I'll admit that, but good years on the whole. We were- survivers. I was fortunate enough to watch the boys grow up, provide them with what they needed, little as it may have been. But it never was- it never felt like home. My home has always been the Erebor and I always knew knew that one day, somehow, I would return here. And everybody needs a home, wouldn't you agree?"
The imploring look from his deep blue eyes brought tears to Ella's own.
She wanted to tell him that for her, home was wherever he was, no matter the place. In a mountain, or a city, on the road, even in a cursed forest or a cold prison cell- it didn't matter, as long as he would be there with her.
But she knew he wouldn't understand. He didn't feel the same.
"Once we reach the Erebor," Thorin promised in a firm voice and placed a warm, big hand on hers. "Everything will fall into place, just you wait. Everything will be alright."
"Yes." Ella forced herself to a smile.
A conviction so strong as his was hard to resist. And she wanted to believe in it, too, wanted it more than anything.
"Everything will be alright." she repeated his words like a conjuration, hoping the gods she didn't believe in would listen and be merciful enough to fulfill her wish.
Chapter 19: Small Town, Big Problems Pt 2
In her dream, Ella waded through a sea of gold.
She was in a great hall filled with thousands upon thousands of golden coins and goblets, glistening gems and jewels that shone bright enough to make up for the absence of any other light.They felt cool beneath her bare feet and jingled with her every step.
She didn't know when and how she had come to this place, but she was in search for something, if only she could remember what it was. It was very important, that much she knew, although not for herself, and she couldn't leave before she had found it. But the hall was huge and it could be anywhere -and anything.
I will know it when I see it, Ella told herself.
And just when she had thought it, she saw it indeed- a faint glimmer in the distance. A large, perfect gem that outshone all the others around it.
The King's Jewel. The Arkenstone. Of course!
In her haste to get there, Ella tripped over her own feet, slid down a pile of gold and landed hard on her bottom. The tremor caused an avalanche and the Arkenstone got buried in a million coins.
Oh nononono, Ella whispered frantically and rushed to the spot where she had last seen it. It was only when she got there that she saw what the golden torrent had exposed.
A pile of bleached bones sat right in front of her, and in the middle of it, a grinning skull with a crown on its head.
And while Ella still stood and stared in horror, a shadow emerged from the darkness behind it, the gigantic, scaly head of a serpent. Its reptile eyes flew open and they were of the same colour as the gold around them, and just as cold.
"I am FIRE!" the dragon roared and emphasized his words with a fiery breath in her direction. "I am DEATH!"
Ella awoke with a stifled cry and to the sight of a very grim looking Bard bent over her bed.
"What happened?" she croaked out, still trapped in her nightmare. "Has the dragon come?"
If even possible, the face of the man in front of her darkened even more. "No," he replied harshly. "Or should I say- not yet? I had a suspicion concerning your friends, and you have just confirmed it."
"What? No," Ella struggled to sit up. "I don't know what you're talking about. I had a bad dream, that's all."
She looked around and saw Bard's children stand at the doorframe, their expressions frightened and oddly reproachful. She shook her head in order to shake off her sleepiness and the remnants of her nightmare. "Where are the others?"
"You tell me." Bard retorted. "Where would your dwarf friends possibly want to go in the middle of the night?"
Oh damn. Ella remembered the glance that had been exchanged between Thorin and Dwalin earlier. She knew where they were. They were going to get themselves "real" weapons. And without taking their official burglar with them, if that wasn't ironic.
"Wait," Ella blinked incredulously. "They're all gone? Kili, too?"
She couldn't believe Thorin would have taken his nephew on such a dangerous undertaking, not in the condition he was in. But like uncle, like nephew- as far as stubborness was concerned, the princes were in no way inferior to the dwarf king. Kili had probably refused to get left out, just as she would have done had she not fallen asleep-
"The city's armory-" she said with a sigh.
Bard nodded grimly. "That's what I thought. And something's telling me this isn't going to end well."
He should be proven right.
As soon as they had opened the front door it became clear from the hectic activity on the streets despite the late hour that something must have happened. And whatever it was, it wouldn't be much to her liking, that was certain.
Ella didn't wait for Bard, but stormed down the stairs and followed the townsfolk hurrying by her to what must be the town square.
And there they were, standing in the light snow that had begun to fall, once more surrounded by guards in heavy armor with their weapons directed at them.
It really should be a familiar sight by now, but it still made her heart flutter with fear for them every time.
Ella scrambled through the crowd of curious spectators towards her companions until a spear barred her way.
"Stay back!" the iron-helmed guard commanded, which made Thorin lift his head and turn it into her direction.
"What happened?" she whispered.
"Bad luck," he shrugged his broad shoulders. "Kili stumbled on the stairs and dropped the weapons he carried."
"Oh no," Ella's eyes searched Kili who looked even paler than before- and like he would fall over any second were it nor for the tip of the lance in his back.
"Why have you taken him with you anyway?" she hissed back. "He's much too sick, don't you see that? And why have you left me behind?"
Thorin's lips curled into a faint smile. "You were asleep, I didn't want to wake you," he said softly, only answering her second question.
And then the doors of the big townhouse before them swung open and out came Laketown's master, a corpulent and very irritated elderly man, accompanied by his much smaller but no more friendly looking second.
He had visibly just been jolted from his sleep- he still wore his nightclothes under a fur-trimmed coat.
"What is the meaning of this?" he barked out.
"We caught them stealing weapons, sire." one of the guards replied.
"Ah! Enemies of the state, eh?"
"A desperate bunch of merceneries if ever there was one" the spitfire next to him confirmed in a contemptous tone.
"Hold your tongue!" Dwalin hissed through clenched teeth "You do not know to whom you speak. This is no common criminal, this is Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror!"
Thorin stepped forwards and briefly laid his hand on Dwalin's shoulder in a mollifying gesture.
"We are the dwarves of Erebor," he proclaimed and his sonorous voice carried far across the marketplace. "And we have come to reclaim our homeland."
An excited murmur rose among the crowd. Those people might not remember the times when there had still been a king under the mountain, but each and everyone of them had grown up with the old tales of better times.
And Thorin was a brilliant speaker, effortlessly capable of conjuring up colourful pictures before their minds' eyes.
Of a once more prosperous city, where everyone would profit from the riches the Erebor had to offer.
And the crowd cheered him, that was, until Bard barged in to screw his performance up.
"Death!" he yelled. "That's what you'll bring upon us. Dragon fire and ruin. If you awaken that beast, it will destroy us all."
"You can listen to this nay-sayer," Thorin said, unimpressed. "But I promise you this. If we succeed, all will share in the wealth of the mountain."
An anew wave of cheers showed clearly whom Laketown's inhabitants were more inclined to believe, and Ella could hardly blame them.
They were desperate enough to grasp at any straw that promised them a better future, and even without a crown on his head, Thorin was visibly a born king, a born leader.
A man who would stand by his word no matter what.
Even with the frightening pictures of her nightmare still vivid in her head, she, too, believed every word he said. She wanted to.
And that was why she did not hesitate for a second when the master's dummy asked if someone would vouch for Thorin's character.
"I've travelled far and through great danger with these dwarves," Ella heard herself say in a firm voice. "And I know, if Thorin Oakenshield gives his word, then he will keep it."
The grateful look he gave her after her words warmed her all over. She should remember this moment often in times to come.
Bard did not give in so easily. "Have you forgotten what happened to Dale?" he asked the audience." All those who died in the firestorm? And for what purpose? The blind ambition of a mountain king! So riven by greed that he could not see beyond his own desires!"
But Laketown's master had already made up his mind on the matter.
Gold and treasures were to gain here, and he didn't even have to lift a gouty finger for it. Not to mention the fact that he was no big fan of Bard anyway and suspected him to fuel riots in his city.
"Let's not forget it was Girion, Lord of Dale and your ancestor who failed to kill the beast!" he said with ill-concealed malicious glee.
Bard stepped towards Thorin and looked down on him. "You have no right." he hissed. "No right to enter that mountain!"
The dwarf king held his angry stare with a steady eye. "I have the only right." he countered quietly, but with cold finality.
And so it was decided.
By the first light of dawn the company set out to the final stage of their journey, in boats the master had generously provided.
All the dwarves now carried the weapons they had originally planned to steal, and were clad in shiny new armor (and how come the armory contained dwarve-sized battle gear? Ella couldn't help but wonder. Had Laketown prepared for a moment like this for all these years? )- all, that was, but Bofur, who had taken a cup too much and was probably still sleeping it off.
And all, as it seemed, except for Kili as well.
"Not you," Thorin said firmly when Kili got ready to enter the boat and reached out his arm to bare his way. "We must travel at speed and you would slow us down."
"What are you talking about?" Kili's look was one of utter disbelief. "Of course I'm coming with you. I'm going to be there when that door is opened. When we first look upon the halls of our fathers-"
"No Kili," Thorin said softly and laid his hand on the tousled hair that framed the prince's pale face. "Stay here. Rest. Join us when you're healed."
None of them had been willing to admit it to themselves, least of all Kili himself, but it was painfully clear that the prince was much too sick to make it to the mountain. The accident in the armory had proven it, and Ella had told Thorin so herself. Still, the devastated expression on Kili's face tore her heart apart.
And not only hers. "Uncle," Fili implored Thorin. "We grew up with the tales of that mountain, you told them to us yourself. You cannot take this away from him. I'll carry him if I must!"
But Thorin remained adamant. "One day you will be king and then you will understand," he replied stonily. "I cannot risk the fate of this quest for the sake of one dwarf. Not even one of my own kin."
His words sounded selfish and cruel, but Ella knew enough about the ways of dwarves by now to know they were not; it was the only thing he could have said to convince Kili to stay here.
Gladly as the young prince would meet his death to be with them in the great moment, he would never allow the quest to fail because of him.
Kili hung his head in defeat and Ella stepped forwards to pull him into a tight embrace. Despite the chilly morning air she could feel the feverish glow of his skin beneath his clothes.
"Thorin is right," she whispered into his ear. "You need rest to get well. This mountain's going nowhere and you'll be there with us in no time."
"But I won't will I?" Kili whispered back in a shaky and bitter voice. "I won't get better and he knows it. He's leaving me here to die."
"No!" Ella grasped his arms and made him look her in the eyes. "No Kili, that's not true! You're not going to die, you hear me? No one is."
Ella wished she was as confident as she tried to sound. She forced her lips into an encouraging smile. "We'll be together again soon, I'm sure of it," she repeated. "But until then, you need to take care of yourself.
"And I'll stay here and see to it that he will." Oin, the company's healer, was apparently much better of hearing now that he had his new trumpet. "My place is with the wounded."
"As do I," Fili announced. Ignoring Thorin's protests, he climbed out of the boat as well. "I belong with my brother."
Accompanied by the cheers of Laketown's people, Ella and the remaining nine of her companions made their way towards the Erebor.
The dwarves smiled and waved, and Ella looked at all the happpy, hopeful faces around her. By Eru, she swore silently to herself, she would do all in her power to make sure they would not be disappointed again.
Chapter 20: Homecoming
Even with the promising sight of their destination ahead of them the final stage of the journey proved to be every bit as strenous as Ella had expected.
If she'd had doubts about leaving Kili behind in Laketown, she saw now that Thorin's decision had been the only sensible one- the wounded prince would by no means have managed the steady climb in increasingly colder and thinning air.
They had been walking in a fast pace all morning, without so much as a breakfast break, and even though the city behind them was only a small spot in the distance now, the mountain in front of them didn't seem to come any closer.
It was oddly quiet up here in the foothills, which made their puffing and panting sound all the louder.
They were all weary, of course.
When was the last time that they'd actually had time to rest, or even a full night's sleep? Must have been back in Beorn's house, and even that had been merely a short break.
Only Thorin seemed unaffected by tiredness or exhaustion, on the contrary. The closer they came to their destination the more vibrant he appeared, as if the mountain itself filled him with new life and strength. He led the way with powerful, determined strides, only now and then looking back and shouting at them to hurry up.
And hurry they had to. Today was the day. Once the sun set behind the mountain, the chance to open the secret door would be squandered- for at least a whole year until next Durin's Day, if not forever.
This was the final destination of their quest, the reason why they had endured all the rigours of this journey. Who would have thought they would make it this far when they first set out from the Shire, and despite countless grim enemies who had tried to stop them? And still they were here now, and before their eyes the Lonely Mountain rose in all its majestic beauty above the surrounding hills. No matter if they succeeded or failed to enter it- it would be the end of this adventure.
And that, even more than the fact that it wouldn't feel quite right to take the final step without Kili, Fili, Oin and Bofur, was what made it so hard for Ella to share the joyful anticipation of her companions.
What was homecoming for the dwarves meant farewell for her; when Thorin had reclaimed the Erebor, her services would no longer be needed. Whatever would he need a burglar and a thief for, once his forfather's legacy, the great stronghold and all its treasures would be his?
And while there would probably forever be a place for every member of the company in his halls, how could Ella ever fit in? She was a hobbit, not meant to live beneath the ground, surrounded by thick and heavy walls of stone. They would certainly expect her to want to take her share of the treasure and return home as soon as possible-
Back to the Shire, to green meadows and soft hills, to sunlight and birdsong and seven meals a day.
To waking up in the morning and already knowing how the day would end.
Back to monotony. Back to boredom. Back into - insignificance. It had been hard to bear before their journey, how much harder would it be now, after all she had seen and experienced?
Not to mention the fact that she would not come back with her pockets full of gold as she had liked to imagine upon her departure. Her share of the treasure would be a particular necklace she had promised to return to the Elvenking.
The girl she had been when she started this journey might have forgotten such a promise and not lose any sleep over it- after all, it had been given under pressure and for the benefit of someone who planned to let them all rot in his prison- but the woman she now was, could not.
So no riches for Ella Baggins to bring home. What was she supposed to do once she got there, crawl back under Grandma Ermentrude's thumb, endure the old woman's strict supervision and endless tirades in hopes she would pass one fine day and maybe bequeath the house to her? Eru, anything but not that.
She could of course live with uncle Bilbo- provided he would want her to after what she did. There was a certain charm to the thought of rubbing it all under his nose, all the things he had missed when he refused to join the adventure Gandalf had originally planned for him.
He would probably not be sorry about Mirkwood or Goblintown, but he would have loved Rivendell.
She could even write a book about the journey, like the weighty tomes on Bilbo's bookshelves. It would make a thrilling read, to be sure, even if she left out the juicy parts- not to mention the fame it would bring her in Bree's taverns.
Ella imagined to grow old as the kind of pathetic eccentric who had people buy them ale in exchange for heroic stories from times long past.
In the sad knowledge that she had once left her heart behind in a faraway mountain...
How many years, how many mugs of ale, until she would no longer care?
A beautiful, sunny place could be as much a prison as a fortress beneath cold stone when one did not belong there.
And the Shire had never really been her home. The only time she had ever felt like she belonged was on this quest, in the company of the dwarves and their leader. And one way or another, it would end tonight.
Her eyes came to rest on Thorin's broad back in front of her and she felt a sharp pang in her chest. How long until he would have forgotten her once she was gone?
And if she stayed?
What could her place be in this mountain? Her housekeeping talents such as cooking and cleaning were more than lacking, and even with Dwalin's training the same applied to her fighting skills.
So what else? A place in Thorin's council? Downright ridiculous.
When it came down to it, there was but one possible role for her in his new kingdom- in his bedchambers.
And only until he would take a wife as was expected of a king. And then, if she was very lucky, perhaps the new queen would keep her as her chamber maid or wet nurse for the royal children- a less than promising prospect, true, but at least this way she would be able to stay near him-
Around noon the company reached a high plateau that looked down into a valley.
Thorin sprinted towards the cliff and stared at the ghost town that lay before them.
"What is this place?" Ella panted, when she and the rest of the company had caught up with him.
"This," Balin replied solemnly. "was once the city of Dale. Now it is a ruin. The desolation of Smaug-"
"The sun will soon reach midday," Thorin intervened quickly. "We must find the hidden door in the mountain before it sets. This way-"
Clearly he had no desire to be reminded of the dragon and his destructive powers right now.
"Wait," Ella called out and made him turn back to her. "Is this the overlook? Gandalf said we would meet him here, and that on no account-"
"Do you see him?" Thorin interrupted her impatiently. "We have no time to wait upon a wizard."
The dwarf king met her pleading eyes, then looked around to survey the rest of his exhausted entourage.
"Fine." he sighed. "We'll have a short break and see if he turns up. Sit down, rest, and eat something. You have ten minutes, then we'll have to move on."
But he did not act on his own advice but kept standing at the edge of the bluff, his gaze avoiding the ruins of Dale but instead remaining fixed on the mountain behind it.
Ella sat down against a rock and gratefully accepted the water tube and the loaf of bread Balin handed her.
"Thanks for the break, lass" the white-haired dwarf panted as he seated himself next to her. "Hate to admit it but I'm getting too old for such forced marches. Fortunate that we're almost there."
Thanks to her gloomy thoughts from before, it must have come out less enthusiastic than intended, for Balin threw her a questioning glance.
"What's wrong?" he asked softly. "I would have thought you must be as happy as the rest of us when this ordeal is over."
"I am," Ella replied quickly and forced a smile. "I'm happy for you all, and I'm proud to be allowed to be there with you when you first set foot into your new home. You deserve no less."
The old dwarf lifted his bushy, white eyebrows. "Methinks you underestimate your own share in our success," he said almost reproachful. "You have risked your neck for us more than once, and proven your loyalty and worth to the company time and time again. I could not think of anyone who would have earned the right to be by our side when we enter that mountain more than you do."
Ella blushed when it occured to her that she must have sounded as if she were fishing for compliments. Embarassed, she broke off a piece of bread and crumbled it between her fingers.
"That's kind of you to say," she mumbled under her breath. "And as I said, I'm happy for you. It's just that, once this is over, our ways will part and I- I know I'll miss you all so much."
"Then why leave?" Balin watched her with a confused frown. "Not that I wouldn't understand if you wished to see your home again, but I thought," he paused and cleared his throat. "well, as matters stand between you and Thorin, I would have thought-"
Ella almost choked on the water she was just about to swallow and stared at Balin who chuckled lowly at her nonplussed expression.
"My dear girl, I may be old but I'm neither deaf nor blind. It is clear that the two of you are- ahem, well- attracted to each other, and not just recently-"
Ella felt her cheeks burn even hotter and lowered her head to the dismembered bread crumbs in her lap. Did everyone know by now?
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to embarass you, and of course it's none of my business" the old dwarf said quickly. "It was impossible to overlook, you see, being so close to each other as we were on this journey, but none of us wanted to say anything before you would-"
But had Thorin ever planned to tell the company about them, Ella wondered.
She loved him with all her heart, but in the end it had only been that one night in Thranduil's castle, long dammed-up tension errupting in a heated encounter, fuelled by anger, jelousy and too many wine.
No declarations of love had been exchanged, no promises been made, neither before nor after. Not that there would have been much time to discuss such matters on their wild flight from Thranduil's kingdom to Laketown...
Thorin had said he didn't regret it, but those might have been just words spoken in post-coital bliss. Maybe he did now.
That he cared for her too, was apparent- even to the others as it seemed- but where could a relationship as unequal as theirs possibly lead?
"Even so, he's still a king, isn't he?" Ella voiced her doubts with a sad smile. "And I am no one. Worse, I'm not even a dwarf."
If she had hoped to hear Balin say it didn't matter, she should be disappointed.
"He is a king, indeed," the white-haired dwarf confirmed in a serious voice. "Which means he will be able to shape his kingdom as he wishes. Now tell me, what more could a king wish for than a woman at his side who chose to follow him when all he had to offer was a quest with numerous dangers and an uncertain outcome? Who risked her life to save his? King or not, he can be glad to have you, Ella Baggins, and if I may be so bold to speak for my companions, we all are. There is absolutely no reason to hide your light under a bushel."
He squeezed her shoulder and Ella did her best to return his smile. If only it were this easy.
"It is Thorin I love," she said very quietly. "The man, not the king. I don't care about titles. And I don't want a crown."
"No you don't," Balin replied and watched her thoughtfully."And perhaps that is precisely why you should wear one."
"Time's up," Thorin's voice came from the edge of the cliff. "We cannot wait any longer. Let's get a move on."
Where's Gandalf? Ella wondered as she struggled back on her sore feet. He had promised to meet them here, particularly emphazised they should not enter the mountain without him.
But there was no time to speculate about what might have kept the wizard from rejoining them as he had promised. The descent into the valley began, and it was just as strenous as the climb before had been. And then it went up again, on a steep rise towards the mountain.
It was already getting dark when the company finally reached their destination, a small ledge guarded by a huge dwarf-statue carved into the rock around it.
Thorin rushed ahead, reached out and put one of his large hands on the rock wall.
"This must be it," he whispered, his voice shaking with contrained excitement. "The hidden door."
He turned around and raised his fist with the key in it.
"Let all those who doubted us," he called out in a loud voice. " rue this day! "
A choire of euphoric cheers from the rows of the dwarves answered him.
Never before since Ella had first seen him had Thorin looked so happy, practically radiant with joy. A broad, triumphant smile lit up his beautiful features, deep blue eyes sparkling like diamonds in the low winter sun.
All the dwarves were grinning like idiots, cheerful as little children on Yuletide, and just to look at them brought a smile on Ella's face as well.
But then- and perhaps because she was no dwarf- she just could not, by any stretch of the imagination, see what they saw.
The Lonely Mountain was an imposing sight at close range, to be sure, but it would seem to her that it did not bear its name without good reason.
There was nothing welcoming about the thick, heavy rock faces in front of them, at least not towards her, they appeared cold and rejecting, even hostile.
Not at all like a home.
And beyond that, she saw no door either. Only tons and tons of solid, impenetrable stone.
"Well, we have a key, which means that somewhere there must be a keyhole," Dwalin announced with more optimism than actually undeniable logic.
He stepped forward and began to tap the rock with his fingers, soon joined by Nori with a cup and a spoon.
"The last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the keyhole." Thorin solemnly repeated the words of the prophecy, his face bathed in the light of the setting sun behind them.
He looked at Dwalin and Nori who were still searching the rock wall for a keyhole. "Quickly! We're losing the light!"
But despite their combined efforts, there was nothing to be found. No door. No keyhole. And with every minute that passed confidence turned more and more into frustration.
"Break it down!" came at last Thorin's desperate command when the last glows of dusk disappeared behind the hilltops.
The dwarves raised their axes and began to beat and hammer against the rigid stone, but it was to no avail; the door was sealed by a powerful magic, as Balin reminded them, it could not be opened by force.
And then the sun set for good.
"NO!" Thorin tumbled towards the rock, map in hand. "The last light of Durin's Day," he read once more, his voice breaking, "will shine upon the keyhole. That's what it says."
He looked up and stared at them in complete bewilderment. "What have we missed? Balin?"
Unhappily, the old dwarf shook his head. "We've lost the light," he said very quietly. "There's no more to be done.We had but one chance. Come on, lads, let's go. It's over."
One by one, with hanging shoulders and sad faces, the dwarves turned around to begin the long descent until it were only Ella and Thorin left on the ledge.
The dwarf king stood with his head bowed, like petrified, and suddenly looking even older than his almost two- hundred years.
Very slowly he raised his hand and let the key glide from his fingers and down on the stony ground.
"Thorin," Ella whispered in a tearful voice. "I'm so sorry."
He looked up at her with an expression of such utter despair that it tore her heart to pieces.
"You heard Balin," he said and he sounded endlessly tired, as if all life had been drained out of him. "It's over. Time to leave."
He turned and began to trudge after his companions, but Ella stood still for another moment and cast a last glance at the rock that had refused them entry.
A variety of emotions rushed through her.
First and foremost there was sadness and deep compassion for her beloved. Thorin had set all his hopes and invested all his energy into this endeavour, but they had still failed and now his dream was dead.
She was disappointed too, of course, and how could she not be? They had come so far and suffered through so much- and for nothing at all.
And yet, there was another emotion behind the sadness and disappointment, one she was ashamed to admit to herself because it was both cowardish and selfish, but she couldn't help feeling it all the same:
They would not enter that mountain and perhaps it was for the better.
Perhaps her first intuition upon their arrival had not deceived her, this superstitous fear that had been crawling over her at the sight of the rock wall.
This was no home.
Something dark and evil was in this mountain and it did not want them here.
Some doors better remained closed.
And was it really so bad after all?
Of course, Thorin was devastated now, and it broke her heart to see his despair, but he still had so many other things to live for, his friends- his family in the first place.
And she could become a part of it.
Once Kili was better, they could return to the Blue Mountains, all of them, to the good if simple and sometimes even harsh life there.
Where it wouldn't matter that she was a hobbit and of nowhere near noble descent.
She would love to meet Thorin's sister, Kili's and Fili's mother.
And had Thorin not said he could have been happy there were it not for his perennial dream of reclaiming the Erebor?
Well, they had tried everything to make it come true, no one could deny that.
Perhaps it just wasn't meant to be.
It might take some time, but in the end he would learn to accept it, learn to be happy with what he had. And she would do her best to make him as happy as she possibly could-
Ella turned around to follow Thorin and the dwarves on the long way back to Laketown, and as she did, she suddenly heard a knocking sound and saw a small, black bird picking against the stone in search for insects.
When the thrush knocks.
A crescent moon rose from the dark clouds in the sky and bathed the scenery in a pale, mysterious light.
Light, Ella thought in sudden realization.
The last light of Durin's Day.
But not the sun.
The moon !
She spun around and there it was, clearly visible now in the light of the moon as if it had always been there.
The keyhole in the wall.
Ella stood and stared at it in disbelief, for a moment numb and speechless with amazement.
Then, before she had the chance to make up her mind, she began shouting, shouting after Thorin and her companions to come back.
She did not want to enter this mountain, she really didn't, but it was what they wanted- what Thorin wanted more than anything else.
She didn't know what awaited them here, if there was even a chance of a future together with Thorin within these walls, but she knew for a fact that there would be none if she deliberately deprived him of this now, and only out of a vague feeling of perhaps completely unfounded fear.
Within seconds, Ella was on her knees and searched the stony ground for the key he had dropped when it seemed as if the quest had failed.
In her frantic search she happened to stomp on the key and accidently kick it towards the edge of the slope, but before it could fall down and probably be forever lost, a heavy boot stepped firmly on the banyard.
Ella looked up and watched Thorin pick up the key as slowly as he had dropped it before.
His eyes were shiny with tears as he held it up before his face and slowly his lips curled into a grim smile.
The other dwarves had returned now as well and they stood and stared awestruck as their king walked towards the hidden door.
He put the key into the keyhole and gently turned it, then he placed his big strong hands on the stone and pushed with all his strength.
The secret door swung open with a dull thud.
"Erebor," murmured Thorin in a deep, throaty voice, visibly overwhelmed with emotion, and stepped over the treshold.
The king under the mountain had come back home.
Chapter 21: The Girl and the Dragon
The worst thing, Ella thought, was that the scenery looked exactly like in her dream, down to the smallest detail.
Erebor's treasury was a hall of enormous dimensions and it was full of gold and diamonds from floor to ceiling.
The chink of the countless coins beneath her feet was the only sound to be heard and the air was cool and stale, but that was to be expected since the fortress had been abandoned for many decades.
Not quite abandoned though, right? You know who has been living here for all those years.
But Smaug was dead. Or at least, fast asleep. He must be.
He had not shown himself when the door opened and they entered the mountain, when Thorin had let his hands roam across its walls so gently as if he was again touching a long lost lover.
Nor afterwards, when the dwarf king had led the awestruck company on a tour through Erebor's gigantic halls. The builders who had once designed and built the fortress must have been true masters of their craft; every room, every staircase, every door was an epitome of striking beauty and proved clearly that dwarves were indeed unmatched when it came to architecture.
To Ella's amazement Thorin still seemed to know the place inside out- and despite the fact that he had not seen it in many years. Not once did he lose his way down here as it would inevitably have happened in the open air.
In the end, he gathered them all in what must be his own former chambers, a big, sparesely yet elegantly furnished room in which the dominant item of furniture was a huge, golden harp, although now thick with dust.
And then the company had a merry welcome party, with food, drink and music, and the high stone walls were echoing with their joyful songs and laughter.
Thorin, who had every reason to celebrate, sang and laughed more and louder than everyone else.
The Erebor, the Seventh Kingdom of Durin's Folk, was again his, all there was left to do now was to find the Arkenstone.
The King's Jewel, that gave its bearer the power to reunite all of his people under his reign. One last step to ensure the dwarves could finally return to former strength. The beginning of a new, glorious era, of prosperous times where all would profit from the riches of this mountain, as he had promised.
And it was her task to fulfil.
This was the reason she was here, this had been the deal from the very beginning.
Hobbit feet, quick, soft and silent, were better suited than heavy boots to search a hall full of gold and not waken the beast that guarded the treasure in the process.
However, there was no guarantee. The contract had been quite clear about that and her companions knew that as well.
Balin had said there would be no dishonour in turning back now, which was probably true, but that was not the point and Ella had known it once she had met Thorin's eyes.
He wanted this gem, needed it, and if she could get it for him, she would.
Because I would do everything for him.
And there was another good reason why she should be the first to enter the treasury, and alone.
The gems of Lasgalen.
Another duty she had to perform, another promise.
It was very unlikely that Thorin would return them to Thranduil should he get hold of them first.
The two kings were both stuck in the age-old feud between their peoples, and Ella knew Thorin was much too stubborn to make the first step towards a new understanding.
If he had despised Thranduil before, he hated him all the more now, and that was partly her fault. It was only fair that she should be the one to make amends.
Carefully, Ella made her way through the golden coins and jewels that littered the ground, feeling transported back to her dream more and more with every step.
Come on now, she tried to encourage herself. How hard can it be to find a big, white jewel and a necklace made of gems like pure starlight?
In a huge, dark hall crammed with tons and tons of gold and jewelry? And a dragon lurking somewhere in the dark...no! Musn't think of him. Concentrate on the task at hand.
Maybe an hour later- it was hard to tell without daylight and time seemed to stand still in here- Ella had lifted, observed and discarded quite a few big, white gems on her way, none of them the ones she was looking for.
And then, eventually, and again exactly like in her dream, she made a careless step, stumbled and slid down a pile of golden coins with a startled cry that echoed back from the high stone walls around her.
The golden mountains around her began to quiver and move, and when the clinking flood ebbed away she wasn't even surprised to see a piece of thick, scaly skin peek out of it.
A closed eyelid as big as her head.
She just had time to tumble behind a pillar and slip the ring on her finger, when the dragon opened his eyes and rose from his bed of gold in all his terrifying glory.
Very much alive, and now, very much awake as well.
The beast flared its nostrils and sniffed, then bared its huge fangs into a snarl and began to crawl towards her position.
"Well, thief" Smaug said and the dark rumbling of his voice covered Ella's skin all over with goosebumps. She didn't know what terrified her more, his voice or the fact that the monster was able to speak at all. "I smell you. I hear your breath. Where are you?"
In headless panic Ella began to run, but even though he could not see her the dragon had no difficulties to follow her by the rustle of clinking coins beneath her hurrying feet.
"Come now," he teased. "Don't be shy. Step into the light."
He slithered around her as she stood pressed against a column. "There is something you carry," he mused. "Something made of gold. But far more precious."
When the dragon said those last words, something very strange and alarming happened.
Suddenly Ella's head felt like it was about to burst under an assault of frantic whispers in a foreign tongue, and she saw before her the terrifying vision of a huge, blazing eye.
It burned like a thousand suns, scorched the flesh off her bones and drew and sucked her into its hungry, all-consuming darkness.
With a horrified gasp, Ella tore the ring from her finger and pressed her eyes shut.
When she opened them again, the nightmarish vision was gone and she found herself face-to-face with the dragon.
"There you are, thief in the shadows." Smaug seemed to grin.
It all felt so unreal. As if she was still dreaming.
But it was no dream, and this time she would likely not wake up to see another dawn.
Why, oh why had she not listened to her gut feeling? They should never have entered this cursed place, she had known it!
She had not wanted to make Thorin unhappy, but an unhappy Thorin would have certainly been better than a dead Thorin.
Well, now they would all find their grave here.
Had Gandalf forseen that the dragon was still alive, she wondered. Was that why he had not joined them at the overlook as he had promised?
When she thought about it now, the wizard had been conspiciously reluctant to answer the question how many dragons he had already killed.
Probably none. And a creature like Smaug wouldn't be defeated by funfair magic tricks-
So, that's it. This was the end.
Now that the worst had happened and the monstrous drake loomed over her as the culmination of all the other terrors they had faced on their quest, Ella felt suddenly oddly calm and beyond fear.
"That's a very rude thing to say," she replied coolly and looked up to meet the dragon's fiery eye. "I'm not a thief. In fact, I just came here to see if you were really as great as the old tales say. I did not believe them."
The dragon snarled and a shower of coins rained down on her when he spread his enormous wings and pulled himself up to his full height in front of her.
"And do you now?" he roared.
Ella shrugged. "I've seen worse. You should meet my grandmother. Granted, you're a little bigger. And definitely much better looking."
The dragon gave an amused snort. "Do you think flattery will save your life?"
Ella was quite sure that the answer to that question was no, but what else could she try? Smaug was clearly as vain as he was mad, and in dealing with megalomaniacs flattery was certainly a more promising survival strategy than reason.
"Well, it was worth a try," she sighed. "But no, I guess it won't."
But the strange, light-headed feeling would not leave her and she couldn't seem to care.
"No indeed." the monster hissed spitefully.
"You could of course kill me," Ella agreed. "But considering your size and mine, it wouldn't exactly be an epic achievement, would it? And I would hardly make for more than a little snack."
While talking, Ella had slowly stepped backwards and away from the dragon, her eyes searching left and right for a possible escape route.
"Look, I have a better idea. " she continued. "You've been in here for-what- sixty years? Must have been quite boring. And lonely. How about an excursion to the north? You know- where all the other dragons are. I bet you'd find one or the other dragon lady there who would gladly- well- lay an egg from you or something."
The answer was a menacing growl.
"Well, not the north then." Ella prattled on. "What about the south? I hear Mordor is lovely at this time of the year. Nice and warm. Lots of fire-"
And then, she suddenly saw it, lying on the gold-littered ground exactly in the middle between her and the monster.
A big, white jewel that outshone all others.
The dragon followed her gaze and his giant, sharp-toothed jaw curled into a devious grin. "So that's why you're here, thief," he said. "To do the dirty work for your little dwarf friends. Did you think I would not know this day would come? That a pack of canting dwarves would come crawling back to this mountain?"
Ella had carefully and unobtrusively ventured closer to her booty, but before she could reach for it, Smaug cut her off. He stomped his huge clawed foot on the ground before her and the Arkenstone vanished under a churning flood of golden coins.
"It is Oakenshield, am I right?" the dragon snarled. "He sent you in here to get the Arkenstone for him. I guessed his foul purpose some time ago. But it matters not. His quest will fail. A darkness is coming. It will spread to every corner of the land."
Ella shook her head. "I have no idea what you're talking about." she said. Which was true, at least for the last part of his words.
"Don't bother denying it," Smaug snorted. He moved closer and his hot, foul smelling breath brushed her face.
"You have his smell on you, I would recognize it always and everywhere. He is your lover, isn't he? And still he sent you to your death to get what he wants. He has weighed the value of your life and found it worth nothing."
"No, that's not true." Ella whispered. "You're lying!"
But it is true, an ugly little voice whispered in her head. She must have been in the treasury for hours now, and the dragon's roars and stomping had certainly rocked the whole fortress- her companions must know by now that something had gone terribly wrong. And still nobody had come to her rescue-
"Oh, have I touched a sore spot?" Smaug mocked. "I'm sorry. You should have known better than to put your trust in the faithfulness of dwarves. Their true desire has only ever been for gold and treasures. But this treasure is mine and I will not part with a single coin, not. one. piece. of it."
He glanced down at the Arkenstone before him. "I'm almost tempted to let him have it," he said with a malicious grin. "If only to see him suffer. Watch it destroy him. Watch it corrupt him. Watch it poison his heart and drive him mad."
"But I think not." he continued in a matter-of-fact tone. " I think our little game ends here. So tell me, thief, how do you prefer to die? "
Ella preferred not to die at all.
She slipped the ring back on her finger and plunged sideways, a split second before Smaug's gigantic jaw snapped shut in her former position.
Rolling over the floor she grabbed the Arkenstone before she quickly jumped out of the line of fire when the angry dragon emitted a breath of flame.
She rushed towards the saving exit and stumbled up the stony staircase that led out of the treasury, then she pulled the ring from her finger and stood a moment pressed against the cool stone wall to calm her breathing and her heavily pounding heart.
As she reached the end of the staircase she saw Thorin standing there, and with a sobbing cry and without thinking twice she ran towards him and threw herself against his broad chest.
The king wrapped his arms around her and held her to him. "Mahal be praised, you're alive," he whispered in a a shaky voice and planted a kiss on the top of her head.
His large hands stroked her shivering arms up and down, then he gently pushed her away in order to look at her face.
"Do you have it?"
"What?" For a moment, Ella had no idea what he was talking about.
Thorin sighed impatiently. "The Arkenstone," he hissed through clenched teeth. "Did you find it?"
Ella stared at him, unable to understand how he could think of this now when it was clear that they had to run for their lives.
Thorin was sweating, and his eyes were wide and sparkling in an unhealthy, feverish glow. He did not seem to see her at all, nor did he seem to care about the terrible impending threat that was about to come upon them any moment.
Ella swallowed the lump in her throat. So the dragon had not been lying. She meant nothing to Thorin, all he desired was the gem she was supposed to get for him. And when he had it, it would destroy him and drive him mad.
Truth be told, he looked pretty mad to her already.
"No," Ella shook her head. "No, Thorin, I don't have it. And it doesn't matter now. We have to run- the dragon-"
They both looked down the balustrade, and as if on cue, Smaug in all his horror crawled towards them.
At the same moment, the rest of their companions came running down the stairs and positioned themselves in front of them with their swords drawn.
The dragon flared his nostrils and inhaled the scent he hated the most- dwarves. He growled deep in his throat and his massive upper body lit up in a red glow.
"You," he roared and his hateful voice shook the walls of the treasure hall around him. "will BURN."
Chapter 22: Dragon Sickness
One Week Later
Ella stood at the balustrade and looked down at Thorin. The dwarf king was clad in splendid garments and a floor-length, fur trimmed cloak and swayed about the treasure hall like a sleepwalker.
"Gold." he whispered to himself in a throaty voice. "Gold beyond measure. Beyond pain, beyond sorrow and grief."
He had been like this for days, ever since Smaug had left the Erebor.
There had not been much sense in fighting the dragon, they all knew that, and still they had tried.
Had lured him all the way through the fortress up to the great forge, in hopes he would ignite the furnaces with his fiery breath- which he did- and then drown in a flood of molten gold.
It had been a clever plan, but it turned out that fire could not be fought with fire, and a dragon not killed by the substance he loved the most.
Smaug had risen from his supposed grave and broken through the front gate to carry his blazing vendetta to Lake-town.
Ella and the dwarves could only watch in helpless horror as the dragon had wrecked the city, just like Bard had so gloomily predicted before.
And then they had seen him fall from the sky and die.
A week had passed since then and the fate of their companions who had stayed behind in Lake-town was still uncertain, but Thorin seemed to mourn his nephews as if they were already confirmed dead and only the sight of his treasure hoard was able to give him solace.
He didn't allow anyone to leave the fortress to look for Kili, Fili, Oin and Bofur, instead he ordered them to search day and night for the Arkenstone.
Every corner of the treasury was to be combed, every stone of the fortress overturned until it was found.
The dwarves did their best to carry out their king's will and all the tables in his chambers now bowed with piled-up coins and jewelry, but the King's Jewel remained lost.
And as day after day of the unsuccessful search went by, Thorin grew more and more angry and suspicious.
Last night, in a fit of raving madness, he had called the dwarves a bunch of retards who weren't capable of finding a single item.
It was heartbreaking to see him talk to his old comrades like that. They had followed him into great dangers to recapture his kingdom and deserved better than to be treated like the lowest lackeys.
"It is here in these halls, I know it," Thorin said to Ella when they were both lying on the huge canopy bed in his chambers. "And still it has not been found."
As most of the time now, he seemed to be talking to himself rather than to her, even when she lay right next to him, in the sweet fatigue that followed extensive lovemaking.
Along with the Erebor and its treasures, Thorin had reclaimed her body as well.
She spent every night in his chambers now and he was passionate, virtually insatiable.
It was as if he lusted for her just as much as for the gold in his treasure hoard, and his desire seemed to grow in the same measure as his madness.
In the mornings she would wake up exhausted and sore and with the space next to her in the bed empty- meaning the king had long left her to again wander Erebor's hallways like the restless, vengeful ghost he had become.
He hardly ate these days, nor did he sleep, obsessed only with the thought of the Arkenstone like a drinker with his next supply of wine.
Which she still carried in her pocket.
More than once had she wanted to give Thorin the jewel, but time and time again she had heard Smaug's malicious words echo in her head and she couldn't bring herself to do it.
"Perhaps it is lost," she answered softly and hated herself for lying to him. "We have been searching for days now- if the Arkenstone really was here, shouldn't it have been found by now?"
"Indeed." Thorin said darkly and turned around to her. He leaned on his elbow, cupped his chin in his hand and burned his stare into hers. His beautiful deep-blue eyes were wide and sparkled with madness. "What if they have already found it and purposefully withhold it from me?" he whispered.
Ella felt an icy cold shiver run down her spine. If only he knew how right he was.
Frowning, she shook her head and hoped her shaking voice wouldn't betray her. "You can't be serious. The company has always been loyal to you, none of them would ever-"
Thorin reached out to stroke her cheek and smiled, albeit in a way that did nothing to allay her fears. "You're so good, so pure. You have no idea what greed and hunger for power can do to even the best and most loyal dwarf. The Arkenstone is the most valuable artefact of our people and it is called the King's jewel for a reason. Whoever possesses it can proclaim himself king, do you understand? Now, who of them wants to steal my crown, what do you think?"
"No one! Thorin, you're wrong!" Ella objected vehemently.
But he didn't even seem to hear her.
He got up from the bed, wrapped himself in his cloak and began to pace the room.
"Is it Balin?" he mused in an absent voice. "He may be old, but it doesn't say for nothing there's no fool like an old fool. Or Dwalin? He has always been ambitious- has he grown tired of following my orders and rather wants to give them himself now? Gloin maybe? Who has never held back to criticize my decisions before?"
Ella shook her head in disbelief.
It was as absurd as it was unsettling to hear him utter such groundless suspicions against his companions, when it was obvious to everyone but himself that he was the only one who was obsessed with the cursed gem.
It didn't seem to occur to him that the real culprit was right here in this room, in his bed even, and Ella dared not think of how he would react if he ever found out about it.
She wished she could say she couldn't imagine he would ever hurt her, but in his current mental state he was unpredictable and the truth was, she was afraid of him. That he obviously did not suspect her was cold comfort, it only made her feel all the more guilty.
"You're tired, you don't know what you're saying," she tried to soothe him. "You can impossibly believe your own kin would betray you. Come back to bed- or if you're hungry, I could go and get you something from the kitchen-"
Bombur had done his best to free the old kitchen and storage rooms from dust and spiderwebs, and cook them daily meals from the dwindling supplies they had brought with them from Lake-town.
With its huge hearth it was one of the warmest rooms in the fortress and had become the dwarves' gathering place for the time being.
Thorin, who had spent every day of the journey in their company, never joined them at their meals any longer.
When he was not in the teasure hall, he preferred the seclusion of his own chambers now, or Erebor's huge, empty halls and the company of the whispering voices in his head.
He summoned them to his throne room when he had orders for them, and when he talked to them now it was no longer like to equals or friends but as a king to his subjects.
Thorin shook his head. "I'm not hungry."
He let his fingers absently run over the jewelry boxes on his desk. "Perhaps you're right and it is none of my kin," he pondered, then he suddenly turned around to her.
"It is Nori, right?" he gasped out. "Of course! It must be him. He has always been a thief-"
"Thorin, stop this!" Ella cried out.
Her heart fluttered in her chest with panic. Next he would remember that the same could just as well be said of her-
Thorin looked shocked at her outburst and for a moment, his eyes lost their mad glow and he looked again perfectly normal. And worried.
At times he would suddenly wake from his derangement, but those moments of clarity were short-lived and increasingly rare.
"I'm sorry my love," he said softly but he sounded confused, as if he had no idea what exactly it was he was sorry for. "You need rest."
He seated himself next to her on the bed, leaned over and breathed a tender kiss on her forehead.
Ella wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his broad chest. Desperate tears threatened to drench the fabric of his splendid cloak.
How was it possible that her love for him was not enough to keep him from descending deeper and deeper into madness?
When they made love, Thorin seemed to be all hers and entirely under her spell but the bad magic of the Arkenstone was stronger; it always forced his mind back to it right afterwards.
"Sleep now, "Thorin whispered after a while and gently freed himself from her embrace.
Ella tried to hold back her tears."Won't you sleep, too?" she asked quietly.
Thorin smiled and brushed the damp hair off her face. "I'm not tired. I'll join you later," he promised.
He left the room and gently closed the door behind him.
It was only when Ella no longer heard his footsteps on the corridor that she let her tears flow freely.
As expected, Thorin had not returned when Ella woke up the next morning.
She sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes in order to get rid of her sleepiness.
When her lover had left her last night- presumably to resume his lonely walking tours through his shattered kingdom- she had made a decision.
She would return the Arkenstone to him, today.
It was the only way.
She would volunteer to search the treasure hall along with the others and pretend to have found it only now.
Smaug had said it would drive him mad, but how much madder could he possibly become?
At least, when Thorin had the gem, he would no longer have reason to suspect the others of treason and conspiracy against him.
And when his obsession with the Arkenstone no longer occupied his mind, he would again think of his nephews, and of Oin and Bofur, allow them to leave the fortess and make inquiries about what happened to them.
Ella refused to believe they were dead and she knew the other dwarves were worried sick for their missing companions as well.
She would do it.
She would return the Arkenstone to Thorin, but first, she would talk to Balin.
She wished she could seek Gandalf's advice, but the old wizard remained gone for reasons unknown and in his absence, the wise, old dwarf was the next best option.
She got dressed, left Thorin's chambers and made her way through the dark, deserted hallways.
The dragon was dead, but upon his retreat he had left behind a trail of devastation and also his stench; the whole fortress still reeked of fire and brimstone.
It would take an army of builders and cleaners to restore its former glory. If it was even possible.
Ella tried- and failed- to envision the charcoaled, foul-smelling ruin as it must have been before Smaug came- a bustling, prosperous place, a safe and happy home for the dwarven people and their families.
How could it ever be like this again, under the rule of a half-mad king who was practically eaten away by greed and mistrust?
Ella wrapped her cloak tighter around her as she walked.
When she was not in Thorin's arms, she was always cold now. It was a cold that radiated from the thick, damp walls around her and seemed to settle down deep inside her bones.
She found Balin in the library among dusted volumes and parchments.
She knew him to be the oldest member of the company, but only now he really appeared old to her, almost decrepit.
When they had first entered the Erebor he had wept tears of joy, but as he looked up at her now, his eyes were again red from crying but all joy had left his weathered features.
"Dragon sickness," he answered her unspoken question in a quiet, sad voice. "I've seen it before. It is a fierce and jelous love, Ella. It sent Thorin's grandfather mad and I fear the same is happening to him now, too. He has not been himself since we entered this mountain-"
Ella remembered the conversation between Gandalf and Lord Elrond she had eavesdropped back in Rivendell. She hadn't wanted to believe the words then, but now it became painfully clear that the Elven lord's fears had been all too warranted.
"We should never have come here," Balin continued, his voice choked with tears. "We were happy in Ered Luin. I knew better than anyone else what could happen, I should have tried harder to convince Thorin to leave the mountain alone. But how could I have refused him?"
He turned his desperate face to Ella and lifted his hands helplessly.
"He is my king, he is from my family, and what is more- he is my friend. How could I have said no?"
"You couldn't." Ella choked back her own tears and nodded her understanding. She knew only too well how he felt.
The most disturbing thing, however, was that Balin was only half right when he said Thorin were no longer himself.
He had not changed overnight- he had been headstrong and bossy before, although never immune to advice.
And he had always been protective of the company and mistrustful towards outsiders, whereas now, he was only protective of his gold, and mistrusted even his own kin and his closest and oldest friends.
"What can we do?" Ella whispered.
She stepped closer and looked intently at his sad face. "Balin," she began hesitantly. "If Thorin had the Arkenstone- if it was found- do you think, it would help?"
The old dwarf sighed. "The whole treasure hoard is cursed," he explained in a serious tone. "And the Arkenstone crowns all, it is the summit of this great wealth and bestowes power on he who wears it. Would it stall his madness?" He shook his head unhappily. "No. I fear it would make it worse. Perhaps it is better if it remains lost."
Ella bit her lip and tears filled her eyes as she watched the lonely figure of the king under the mountain make his endless rounds amidst his cursed gold.
The dragon had told her so, and Balin had confirmed it just now- if Thorin got hold of the Arkenstone it would drive him mad for good.
If she really wanted to help him, she could not give him what he desired most.
Best she threw the gem from the top of the mountain and watched it shatter on the stony ground-
She turned to leave and at this moment, she heard hurrying footsteps on the stairs coming her way.
"Uncle!" a familiar voice shouted out loud and immediately, Ella felt her heavy heart grow lighter and leap with joy.
Fili! They were back!
Thorin stopped dead in his tracks and slowly raised his head as if he had just woken from a dream.
He looked up the balustrade and spread his arms wide.
"Welcome," he began, but then his brow furrowed and he squinted as he took a closer look at the newcomers.
Four had stayed behind in Lake-Town, but only three had returned.
All colour seemed to leave Thorin's face.
"Fili," he whispered, aghast. "Where's your brother? Where's Kili?"
Chapter 23: Gems of Pure Starlight
"Where's Kili?" Thorin repeated in a louder voice when Fili did not answer his question immediately.
"Yes, where is he?" Ella echoed and stared at the blond dwarf prince next to her. "He must be with you- you arrived together, right?"
She knew the others would never have left Kili behind in Lake-town, not when he was sick, and especially not after Smaug had wrecked the city.
Unless he was dead.
Fili glanced at her, then back at his uncle and pressed his lip to a thin line. He looked very uncomfortable and so did Oin and Bofur who watched the ground beneath their feet.
"No," Thorin groaned and his stare broke when he came to the same horrible conclusion.
With a few long, fast strides he was up the stairs and grabbed his nephew's shoulders. He shook his head in disbelief and tears welled up in his eyes.
"Is he-" he began but his voice quivered so he couldn't bring the words out.
"Kili isn't dead, uncle." Fili said quickly, then he averted his gaze. "At least, that's what I hope."
He took a deep breath and forced himself to look into Thorin's eyes again. "He is in Mirkwood."
Thorin frowned and narrowed his eyes. "I think I must have misheard you," he said in a dangerously calm voice and tightened his grip around Fili's shoulders."He is- where?"
"It was the only way. Please, let me explain."
"Those explanations better be good," Thorin snarled.
Fili winced a little at his uncle's threatening tone but met his hard stare defiantly.
"You weren't there, you don't know how it was," he began. "We tended to Kili's wound as good as we could but he just wouldn't get better. In fact, when you had left, his sickness only grew worse. He wasn't even able to stand on his own feet any longer. We asked the town's master for help but he slammed his door right into our faces. The only one who was willing to help us- was Bard."
He paused and let out an unhappy laugh. "And despite the fact that he knew we would bring Smaug's wrath upon his home."
He looked up at Thorin. "He killed him, you know. Fired a black arrow from the windlance as his ancestor did before and managed to hit the only sensible spot in Smaug's armor. He is a very brave man. But that was later. First, the orcs came. The very pack that had been hunting us when we fled from Thranduil's castle. They attacked the city and would have killed all if it weren't for Tauriel and Legolas."
Thorin's face darkened. "The cursed elf woman and Thranduil's impertinent offspring." he spat contemptously.
Fili's gaze didn't waver. "They saved us." he said in an imploring tone. " They had captured one of the orcs and questioned him whereupon he told them the arrow that hit Kili's leg had been poisoned and would kill him. Tauriel and Legolas fought off the attacking orcs, but she could do nothing for Kili there because the antidote he needed was kept by the healers in Thranduil's castle. And that is why- that is why I allowed her to take him with her."
Thorin let out a mirthless snort. "And you believed the words of a treacherous wood-elf?" he thundered. "How could you be so stupid? It was cheap trick, a ruse to get hold of him, don't you see that? Thranduil would do anything to get the opportunity to blackmail me and now you have given it to him!"
Shocked by his outburst, Fili shook his head. "You're wrong about Tauriel, uncle." he whispered fiercely. " She came back for Kili because she cares for him. And I had to take the risk, it was the only chance to save his life."
"That was not your choice to make!"
"Yes it was," the dwarf prince replied firmly. "You weren't there, you left him behind because he would have slowed you down, remember? Nothing should stop you to reach the Erebor in time. Well, as it seems, you succeeded. Congrats. Have you any idea what we've been through, how we were beside ourselves with worry about you when the dragon came? We thought he'd killed you all!"
He let out a sharp breath. "I did what I had to do to save my brother's life and I would do it again any time. I- I believed that if you were in my place, you would have done the same." he finished quietly. "But now I'm not so sure."
Thorin glared at him. "Well, I suppose we'll see what your foresight is worth," he said icily. "Thranduil will soon be here to make demands, and he won't be the only one. About time to have the front gate repaired."
He wrapped his cloak around him and disappeared inside the fortress with rapid steps.
"Come," Ella reached out and hesitantly touched Fili's shoulder. "You have travelled a long way. You must be tired and hungry. I'm sure Bombur has something good on the hearth."
That he did, and when Fili, Oin and Bofur entered the kitchen there was a happy, tearful reunion with their companions who had believed them dead and vice versa.
But when the newcomers had filled their bellies with the stew Bombur had prepared and answered their excited questions, a depressed mood again spread over them like a dark cloud.
"Mahal knows, I knew he wouldn't be happy about my decision," Fili muttered gloomily into his ale mug. "But never would I have expected such a frosty welcome."
He finished his drink and slammed the mug onto the table. "What's wrong with him? It is almost as if he didn't even care if we're dead or alive."
"No, laddie, don't think that," Balin said.
He reached out and squeezed Fili's hanging shoulder. "I'm sure he does care. He has not been himself lately- "
He sighed. "You know about the sickness that lies on this treasure hoard, do you not?"
The prince looked up at him. "Dragon sickness," he whispered alarmed. "So the old stories are true? Are you saying Thorin is losing his mind?"
His face went white when a terrible thought crossed his mind. "Do you think he will refuse to give Thranduil what he wants in exchange for my brother?"
"Of course he won't," Ella objected." You are all the family he has left and Thorin loves you both more than anything! Certainly more than a stupid necklace."
She wished she was so certain about that as she pretended to be.
"If you say so, lass," Gloin snorted doubtfully. "I wouldn't bet my boots on Thorin's love for his family these days."
He gave her a strange look from narrowed eyes . "Well, if there's anyone he listens to now, I suppose it's you. Make sure to whisper the right things into his ear at night-"
Ella felt her face grow hot at the unmistakable insinuation.
She could imagine what it must look like to the other dwarves. She spent every night in Thorin's chambers, while he had no friendly word for the rest of the company any longer but only bossed them around.
But even when she understood their frustration, it made her very uncomfortable to hear them talk about Thorin like this, behind his back, as if the king were no longer of sound mind- even when this was exactly what was threatening to happen.
"I may share Thorin's bed," she replied sharply. "but that doesn't mean he listens to what I say. I'm not sure if I like what you're implying but I assure you I do what I can. And you better be careful what you say. He is still your king!"
"We're all a little edgy at the moment" Balin said quickly and laid a hand on her arm in a soothing gesture. "I'm sure Gloin meant no offence."
"Of course not," the dwarf in question muttered into his beard. "I apologize."
An awkward silence followed.
Ella looked around at the faces of her companions and found embarassment on some, but to her great dismay, also resentment and undeniable fear. Did they honestly believe her capaple of denouncing them?
As it seemed, the curse of Erebor's gold had not affected Thorin alone but also served to spread fear and mistrust among his company-
And did they even have what it took to bargain with the Elven king? she wondered in sudden panic.
Smaug's appearance had kept her from looking for the necklace as she had originally planned, and even though the dwarves had searched the treasury for days and carried boxes full of jewelry to Thorin's chamber, she had not yet seen anything that would fit the description "made of pure starlight"-
It was later at the same night that Ella should learn the answer to this question.
She was lying in Thorin's bed, its sheets still soaked with their sweat and bodily fluids after another passionate encounter.
The king stood with his back to her, revelling in the piled up treasures on his desk as he so often did these days, and she revelled in the sight of him.
In the dark waves of his long hair falling softly over his broad shoulders, the play of muscles beneath the skin on his broad, inked back, and the small tuft of black hair in the spot where it segued into firm buttocks and powerful, hard thighs.
Even in the immidiate aftermath of pleasure- and Thorin never failed to make sure she found hers as much as he did- she felt her throat get dry and anew desire well up inside her at the sight of his body in all his naked glory, and the blissful memory of it upon hers.
Thorin held a jewelry box in his hands she had not seen before- at least, she thought she hadn't, there were so many of them.
He opened a drawer in his desk and produced a tiny key from it. "Come here," he said in a throaty voice. "I want to show you something. No-no, stay like this," he added when Ella wanted to reach for her nightshirt.
He took her by the shoulders and gently maneuvered her in front of the large wall mirror.
"Close your eyes." he commanded.
Ella did as he told, not too keen on watching her own image any way even though the room was quite dark.
She wasn't shy and usually felt good with and within her body, but then, she had never before been in love.
All memories of her former meaningless and short-lived affairs back in Bree paled against the overwhelming feeling Thorin caused in her, and compared to the epitome of sheer male beauty that was the dwarf king she couldn't help but consider her own looks deficient.
She expected he was going to give her some piece of jewelry as he had done practically every day since they had come to the Erebor and officially been lovers.
It made her uncomfortable because she couldn't tell if this was the dwarves' way of courting ( a hobbit would bring her flowers but there were no flowers in the Lonely Mountain whereas it had gems in abundance) or rather a sort of payment for her services.
But Thorin seemed to enjoy seeing her hung with jewels and so she let him do it- let alone that it was unwise to displease the king under the mountain these days.
The room was anything but warm and she shivered slightly as she stood naked in front of the mirror.
But then she felt Thorin's big, warm hands in her neck as he gently brushed her hair aside, and a second later, something cool gliding down her décolleté.
She opened her eyes to a sight that made her squint as if she'd look into the glaring sun, even though this light was much colder.
She knew immediately what it was.
Gems of pure starlight.
So he had them after all.
In her back, Thorin sucked in a sharp breath.
"Beautiful," he murmured, enraptured, his eyes dark with desire.
Ella swallowed. How she wished his words weren't for the famous necklace but the woman who wore it- if only in part.
It was without a doubt a true masterpiece of art but she did not feel comfortable wearing it. It had been made for a proud Elven queen not for a little hobbit, and its dazzling white stones felt unpleasantly heavy and cold against her bare skin.
"The white gems of Lasgalen," she whispered.
"Indeed." Thorin smiled grimly." I assume, you must have wondered where they were. Well, my grandfather knew about Thranduil's desire for it so he didn't keep it in his treasure hoard but instead locked it away in a safe place."
He furrowed his dark brows. "A pity he wasn't so considerate with regard to the Arkenstone."
"Thranduil will want them back," Ella began carefully. "If we can use them to ransom Kili we must do that-"
Thorin's frown deepened. "I know." he growled lowly. "But not tonight."
She felt his beard scrape against the skin at the side of her neck when he lowered his head to kiss her there.
He let his large hands glide softly across the clinking gems before they possessively cupped her breasts. "Tonight I want to see them where he never will," he whispered darkly against her ear. "On you."
He squeezed and caressed her breasts and chuckled lowly when he felt her nipples harden under his touch.
Ella tilted her head to meet his lips and opened her mouth to his demanding tongue.
Her whole body was covered in goosebumps that no longer had anything to do with the cold. She moaned into his mouth when one of his hands slid down her belly and between her quivering thighs to find the tell-tale wetness there.
His thick, skillful fingers never failed to find her most sensitive spots and her knees threatened to give in when he caressed her in maddeningly slow circles.
Her breath went ragged and the way he pressed her back to him she could feel that he, too, was again rock-hard.
In a sudden, swift movement, Thorin spun her around and effortlessly carried her over to the bed.
There was a brief struggle at the end of which she managed to climb on top of him, and he let out a deep groan when she straddled his hips and guided him into her warmth.
The position was unfamiliar- Thorin usually preferred to be the one in control- but even in her arousal Ella worried the necklace might take damage with his considerable weight upon her.
To her relief, Thorin didn't seem to mind their roles being reversed but instead find pleasure in the new experience.
However, the dwarf king wasn't one to give up control entirely. His firm grip on her hips served to set the pace to his liking and the way the white gems slapped against her breasts with each of his violent thrusts seemed to fuel his desire even more.
For a moment, Ella wondered if his lust for gems and his lust for her were in fact one and the same, if he would have even allowed himself to get carried away by carnal pleasures like this were it not for his madness- and if she really wanted to changed that if it were so.
It was a dangerous, unsettling thought.
But then, her own pleasure overwhelmed her and she threw her head back with a throaty cry and stopped thinking or caring.
Chapter 24: A Foul Bargain
Carefully balancing two brimful ale mugs Ella approached Fili who stood at the balustrade that looked down on Thror's tremendous treasure hoard.
She offered him one and he accepted it with a hint of his old, blithe smile.
"I thought you didn't like Balin's homebrew. What changed your mind? Let me guess- something about desperate times and desperate measures?"
Ella snorted."This isn't Balin's plonk. This, my friend, is the good stuff."
She brought the mug to her lips and took a deep draught. "Bombur found a couple of barrels in the storerooms when he was looking for supplies. Most of the food in there had gone bad after all those years, naturally, except for a few flour bags, but at least we won't die of thirst."
"Well, cheers to that."
Fili raised his own mug and emptied it in one go. He looked tired.
They all were.
Smaug had managed to destroy Erebor's front gate completely when he had broken through on his way to Lake-town, but Thorin wanted it repaired in order to keep out invaders who he was sure would soon come to steal his riches.
And so they had spent most of the day carrying up boulders and piling them up into a high stone wall.
The dwarf prince wiped his mouth quite un-princely with the sleeve of his tunic. He looked down at the treasure hall and shook his head in wonderment.
"I wouldn't have believed there was so much gold in all Arda," he said. "I can almost understand why Thorin was so eager to get it back- and why he's so scared now somebody might take it from him."
Ella threw him a suspicious sideglance. "You are also a Durin," she began slowly. "Do you feel it, too? This strong desire for the treasure, the urge to protect it at all costs?"
Fili squinted when he considered her question. "I guess a treasure such as this must awake the desire of anyone, be it dwarf, elf or man- even a hobbit's." he said at last. " But no. In case you're worried I might succumb to dragon sickness as well, I can reassure you, this is not going to happen. In the end, it's only gold, right? And I would give it away any time- all of it- for the sake of my people- my family, the ones I love."
Ella released a relieved breath at his confident words. He was really such a good person and certainly, he would one day make a great king.
She laid a hand on his arm. "I'm so happy you're back," she said softly. "And you needn't worry. Thorin is willing to return Thranduil's heirlooms to him if that's what it takes to get Kili back. He may not like it, but he will do it, he told me so. He knows he has to."
She tried an encouraging smile. "We'll all be together again soon and then-"
And then all will be good.
If only she could believe that.
"By Mahal, let's hope so," Fili replied. "I'm so worried about Kili. Not because of Tauriel, mind you, her I trust. She followed us to Lake-town post-haste when she learned about the poisoned arrow, and she did what she could to help Kili. Even Oin was impressed by her healing skills. And how she fought off the orcs- she really is a very brave woman. But what if they didn't make it back to Mirkwood in time? What if Thranduil refused Kili the medicine he needs?"
He clenched his fists. "If only I knew for sure!"
"He'll be fine," Ella tried to soothe him. "You were right to trust Tauriel, she will know what to do. She was the one who helped me free you, you know? Even though she was well aware of the consequences should Thranduil find out about her intervention. I think- I think she really likes Kili very much."
Fili shook his head with an incredulous smile. "An elf, of all people. Who would have thought-? But I think you're right. I think she may well be his One."
He paused when he saw Ella's confused look.
"It is our belief that Mahal created every dwarf with the desire to meet the one that carries the missing piece of our soul." he explained. "These persons are called our Ones, and we can only be complete once we have found them. However, not everyone is that lucky, some of us may search their whole lives but never find their Ones. Besides, there aren't many dwarrow dams you know- so perhaps it is only natural that some of us should find their Ones outside our own people-"
He gave Ella a curious look."Has Thorin never-"
He paused and cleared his throat." Well, I would have thought- since you are now obviously- well- close."
Ella looked down and shook her head.
"No,"she said quietly.
Thorin had other things on his mind these days than talking about soulmates, that much was certain.
"He still might," Fili said quickly. "No, I'm sure of it. It wasn't quite clear to me in the beginning, but now it makes perfect sense. Remember how Thorin was supposedly so concerned about your reputation? "
He grinned . "Why, I'm convinced it were rather his own impure thoughts that troubled him so. And of course, things are always bit more complicated for him. You know him, always thinking he must be better than anyone else, be above such things as 'feelings' because they might undermine his authority- and yet, in the end, he wasn't strong enough to fight the dragon sickness." he finished in a bitter tone."You know, all my life I have dreamed his dream of reclaiming the Erebor. But to see him like this now- Mahal, I wish we had never left the Blue Mountains."
Ella bit her lip when she recognized the same words Balin had said to her before. But it was too late for regret.
It was this place that made Thorin sick, but now that he had it back he would never let go of it again.
"What if he stays that way?" she whispered. "What-what if it won't get better?"
Fili shrugged. "Then we will have to get used to it," he replied stoically. "He is our king and we will be loyal to him no matter what. We wouldn't go against him, never, even if he goes insane or becomes a tyrant. That is not the way of a Durin."
Ella chewed her lower lip as she let his words sink in.
Perhaps it wasn't that bad. After all, Thorin's grandfather had suffered from the same madness and the Erebor had still prospered under his reign.
Wasn't it possible that Thorin learned to live with this sickness like with any other, adapt to losing his mind as if it were an eye or a leg- and still be able to be a good king?
Possible, maybe. But hard to imagine.
"We shouldn't give up hope yet," Fili said softly as if sensing her doubts. "He may yet conquer it. And then," he smiled. "I will see him weave wedding braids into your hair."
Ella wished she could share his confidence. "Well, I hope this isn't mandatory," she muttered and gestured at her hair which was a mess, as always. The thought of the -naturally impatient- Thorin trying to braid that bird's nest on her head almost made her smile, but then again, he had never spoken of marriage to her-
"What about you?" she asked Fili in an attempt to switch topics. "Have you met your One yet?"
Her question served to spread an adorable blush across Fili's face.
"Sigrid?" she ventured a shot into the dark. Fili tried hard to maintain a straight face. "Well, she was very helpful when Kili was sick," he admitted. "And caring. Certainly a maid with her heart in the right place. But she's but a girl-"
Ella smiled. "I think she likes you, too- or at least, your mustache."
If even possible, Fili blushed even more. Unconsciously his hands flew to the beaded braids that adorned his upper lip.
"Did she tell you that?" he asked, visibly pleased.
Ella's smile broadened. "Maybe, maybe not. My lips are sealed. I'm afraid you will have to ask her yourself next time you meet."
Fili's face darkened. "If I ever see her again that is," he said unhappily. "The people of Lake-town helped us and we thanked them by sending Smaug to destroy their homes. I wouldn't be surprised if they preferred to avoid further contact with the dwarves of Erebor."
But Fili should be wrong.
Bard should soon come to claim the promised reward for Lake-town's support from the new king under the mountain.
But first, Thranduil came.
And he did not come alone.
In the morning of the next day it turned out that a huge army of Elves had set up camp in the ruins of Dale, where the people of Lake-town had taken refuge after Smaug's attack.
Like at their last meeting, the Elvenking made a dazzling appearance on his big white elk mount, although he was now visibly clad for war. He wore shiny silver armor with a matching tiara and his azure eyes shone as cold as the precious metal of his battle gear.
"So you survived," he stated instead of a greeting when the king under the mountain and the dozen that was presently his whole people had taken position on top of the provisionally reconstructed gate.
"I'm sorry to disappoint you," the dwarf king retorted acidly. "You must have hoped you could just walk in over our dead bodies and help yourself to my treasures."
Thranduil raised his brows and shrugged slightly as if to say ' well, you can't always get what you want.'
"The poor people of Lake-town were not so lucky," he said."I have only come to help the destitute in the hour of their greatest need."
"Sure." Thorin snorted contemptiously. "And you brought an army with you for that. Your generosity is only exceeded by your sincerity. Now, enough chatter. Where is my nephew?"
A subtle smile played around the Elvenking's lips. "He's alive and well, considering the circumstances of course- and all thanks to the knowledge and the efforts of my healers."
Ella released a relieved breath at that and saw how Thorin and her companions did the same.
"I am grateful," the dwarf king pressed out through clenched teeth and it was clear how much it cost him to say those words. "Will you let him go?"
"That I will. After you return to me what's mine, of course. The white gems of Lasgalen."
Thorin had expected this answer so he kept a straight face. He nodded briefly in agreement.
"Good,"Thranduil's smile broadened. "I admit, I thought it made no sense to reason with you, but apparently, I just did not have the- right arguments- before."
The dwarf king clenched his fists and a vene at his temple twitched. Clearly he wanted nothing more than to grab one of the rocks and throw it at the Elf's face in order to wipe the smug smile off it.
"Just bring him here so the exchange can take place." he snarled. "Let's get it over with."
Thranduil's dark brows shot up. "Oh, but this isn't possible. Did you think I brought him with me? He is still in my castle. Once I get the heirlooms of my people back, I will send word that he is to set free and safely escorted to you. And I will withdraw my troops as well, of course."
An angry mutter rose among the ranks of the dwarves and Thorin's face went red with rage.
"That's not how this bargain is going to work!" he thundered."I want to see him first! How will I know if he still lives? Or that you will return him to me once you have what you want?"
"I'm afraid you'll have to take my word for it," the Elvenking replied icily.
"Your word!" his counterpart spat back. " And don't we all know what your word is worth!"
Thranduil sighed, bored.
He threw a glance over his shoulder at the ruins of Dale where at least a thousand Elven warriors waited in attendance.
"It would seem to me I have the upper hand right now," he said lightly. "And thus, it is up to me to set the terms for our- negotiation. Do you want your nephew back or not? Your choice. Hand the gems over to me now and I will do as I promised. Otherwise-" he shrugged, "you leave me no choice but to take it by force."
"Thorin," Ella whispered in panic and grabbed the sleeve of his tunic. "We must do as he says. Kili will count on us, and if it's the only chance to bring him back-"
"You should listen to your pretty lady," the Elvenking, who thanks to the good ears of his people had well understood her hushed words, shouted. "She is the smart one of you two and has obviously less reservations to trust in my word."
It was exactly the wrong thing to say.
Thorin's expression froze into ice.
"Get out of here," he hissed at the Elf. "You'll get nothing from me, you hear me? NOTHING! Bring your army, I do not care. I'm not afraid of a fight!"
His words were followed by approving cheers of his companions and Ella cringed inwardly. Dwarves...would she ever really understand them?
"A pity," Thranduil said but he sounded neither surprised nor disappointed.
He pulled the reigns of his white elk. "Well, in that case, we'll soon meet again, and under less favourable conditions. Make sure you'll be prepared. I will raze this place stone by stone if I must."
The Elvenking left empty-handed, but he would soon return with the full power of his army, and Thorin shouted commands to reinforce the front gate and search the armory for armors and as many weapons as they could find.
Ella shook her head in despair as she watched the dwarves hurry to follow their king's order and get ready for battle.
How could it have come to this?
She saw Fili rush her by and quickly grabbed him by the arm.
"Fili," she gasped out. "What are we doing here? This is madness. We cannot win a war against Thranduil and we will never see Kili again if we don't bow to his terms-"
The dwarf prince turned around to her. He was very pale, his expression grim and tears shimmered in his eyes.
"Kili is dead, Ella, don't you understand?" he gasped out. " If he wasn't, Thranduil would have surely brought him with them. He knows Thorin would never rely on his word alone."
"But- but we don't know that!"
Ella shook her head and felt tears well up in her own eyes. Fili's words made terrible sense but she just refused to believe Kili should be dead.
"And even if it's true," she continued, her voice choked with tears. "Thranduil has an army out there and we- we have nothing to protect us but these walls-and no supplies for a siege. Shall we all die now- and for what? For a few cold, lifeless stones?"
She sank to her knees and buried her head in her hands.
Suddenly she felt a large, warm hand on her shoulder. "Don't be afraid," she heard Thorin's voice. "We are not as powerless as it seems. I knew this day would come, and I have not been idle. A raven is already on the way to my cousin Dain in the Iron Hills and he will soon be here with an army of his own."
She looked up at him and saw grim determination burn in his deep blue eyes. "We have reclaimed the Erebor," he said darkly. "And now we'll defend it."
Chapter 25: The Heart of the Mountain
It was unfortunate that Bard chose the same day to come and claim his share of the treasure in the name of the people of Lake-town.
Had he raised his concern befor Thranduil's ill-fated visit, the king under the mountain might have been more receptive to his request- after all, he had given his word.
As it were, with the Elven army stationed in the ruins of Dale, Thorin had every reason to believe the dragonslayer was in league with the man whom he believed responsible for Kili's death and was no longer open for rational arguments.
"This treasure does not belong to Thranduil, or the people of Laketown," he reprimanded Ella when she dared to remind him that she had vouched for his honesty. "It is ours and ours alone. And by my life, I will not part with a single coin, not one piece of it."
She shuddered when she recognized the words and the sinister tone in which they were spoken.
Thorin sounded like the dragon. He was becoming him.
The dwarves were busy preparing for battle and magnificent to look at in their shiny armor.
They were ready to fight tooth and nail to defend the Erebor even if they knew they would likely not survive the coming day.
Instead of another piece of jewelry, Thorin had given Ella something else this day- a chain mail made of mithril that no sword could pierce.
It must have been clear to him that it was the last gift she would ever receive from him and that it would do little to protect her against an army of a thousand elves, but he seemed to be determined to go down fighting and take all of them with him.
She could not let this happen.
And there was only one way to avert it.
She had to return the white gems of Lasgalen to their rightful owner. If Thranduil got his heirlooms back he would withdraw his troops, he had promised it.
There was only one problem. Ella had no idea where Thorin had hidden the necklace after their last night together, and there was no time to search the fortress for it, now.
But she had something else, had she not?
Something that was worth more to him than any other piece of his treasure.
Without a doubt he would trade anything for it.
Thorin would of course not be pleased with her intervention, in the beginning anyway ( not pleased? Who was she trying to fool here? He would be fuming with rage at what he must consider no less than treason ) but that was a risk she just had to take if it was what it took to avoid a war.
It was the best option.
Everyone would get what they wanted- Thranduil his heirlooms, the people of Lake-town their share of the treasure to rebuild their new lives, and Thorin the king's jewel.
Kili, should he still live- which was something she couldn't stop hoping- could return to his family.
And most of all- nobody would have to die.
And when it was all over, Thorin would hopefully understand why she couldn't have acted otherwise and approve with her decision, or at least; forgive her for making it over his head.
It was a lot to hope considering the state he was in, but that couldn't be helped. The alternative would be worse.
Armed with a climbing rope and a hook to attach it to the wall of Erebor's front gate, Ella tiptoed her way along the battlement.
She had waited until nightfall, when Thorin had locked himself in his study for a war council with Balin, Dwalin and Gloin and would hopefully not notice her absence within the next hours.
At first she had thought about putting the ring on, but a rapple from the high stonewall in the dark was a dangerous enough maneuver even without a blurred and distorted sight, and it would serve no one if she ended up with a broken neck.
However, this had the disadvantage that the dwarf standing on guard might detect her and unfortunately, this was exactly what happened.
Still busy finding the best spot to climb down Ella did not notice Bofur until he noticed her.
She froze in her movements, the hand that wasn't holding the rope instinctively reaching for the ring in her pocket, but then she thought better of it.
If she vanished into thin air right before Bofur's eyes, he would either believe in an illusion caused by too much ale, or-more likely considering the dwarven ability to hold their drinks- scream alarm.
"Evening Ella," Bofur said as he walked closer."Mighty cold out here tonight. You should be inside."
"I just needed some air." came her lame excuse. "The place still stinks of dragon."
Bofur moved to the wall and looked out to the ruins of Dale. "The elves have moved their archers in the position," he said quietly. "The battle will be over by tomorrow's eve. Though I doubt we will live to see it."
He turned back to her. "No one could blame a soul for wishing themselves elsewhere."
Ella followed his gaze to the rope in her hand and gulped. "This isn't what it looks like-" she began.
"He won't either," Bofur continued, ignoring her half-hearted attempts to talk her way out of this. "This is no place for a woman and he knows it. I'm sure he'd be secretly relieved should he find out in the morning that you left to get yourself into safety."
He twisted his lips into a crooked grin. "Which doesn't mean I'd want to be the one accountable for it, mind you."
He touched his hat at her and turned to climb down the stairs into the castle.
"Bombur's got the next watch." he said meaningfully." It will take a bit to wake him."
Watching him leave, Ella swallowed the lump in her throat.
It was clear that Bofur believed she was going to save her own skin but he did not resent her for it, on the contrary, he even encouraged her to do just that.
And even though he had no hopes of surviving tomorrow's battle, it didn't seem to come to his mind to do the same.
And Bofur wasn't even Thorin's kin. He was just a fun-loving fellow with a certain thirst for adventure, not much unlike herself.
Apparently, this kind of unconditional loyalty wasn't reserved for the Durins but a general dwarven trait...
"Bofur," she called after him and he turned around to her once more.
She wanted to tell him that she wasn't the coward he took her for, that she didn't do this to save her own life but the ones of them all.
But she couldn't know for sure if he would approve of her plan and so she just said: "I'll see you in the morning."
Bofur just gave her a sad smile."Goodbye Ella," he replied softly.
Once she had safely reached the ground, Ella slipped the ring on her finger and made her way towards Dale.
As Bofur had said, the elven archers had their bows ready to fire and she had no intentions to be stopped by one of their arrows.
Inside the makeshift refugee camp, weary looking people were sitting around campfires with kettles of soup on them.
It didn't take long to make out the biggest tent which Ella assumed to be the one of the Elven King.
However, when she determinedly approached it, the tent's flaps opened and out came an all too familiar figure- albeit one she had not expected to find in this place.
Initially pleasant surprise at his sight quickly turned to anger.
Where had he been all this time? And why was he here now, on the safe side, in the camp of their enemies?
The old wizard dropped his pipe and stared at her.
"Ella, child," he began and a smile spread across his weathered features. "I'm so happy to see you alive and well. What are you doing here?"
"I have business with the Elven king." she replied curtly and walked past him and towards the tent, leaving him no choice but to follow her back inside.
Thranduil sat on a big, richly ornamented chair in the back of the tent. Couldn't do without his throne, even with a battle in prospect, could he?
He stared at her in surprise, then his lips slowly curled into a faint smile.
"My dear lady hobbit, what a pleasure," he said in a honeyed voice. "I knew you would return to me."
Ella pressed her lips into a thin line in order to keep herself from giving a heated response that wouldn't serve her purpose.
"I came to give you this." she said firmly and stepped forwards to the table in front of him. She produced a bundle from her pocket and unwrapped the Arkenstone in it.
Thranduil rose from his chair. "The heart of the mountain," he whispered enraptured. "The king's jewel."
"And worth a king's ransom," Bard, who had entered the tent without her noticing, added before he turned to her. "Why would you do this? You owe us no loyalty."
"I'm not doing it for you," Ella said sharply. "Thorin values this stone above all else and in exchange for it I believe he will give you what you are owed. There will be no need for war."
Thranduil and Bard exchanged a quick look. Then, the Elven king turned back to Ella and nodded slowly.
Ella suppressed a sigh of relief. "Good," she said and looked the Elven king in the eye. "That settles that, then. Now, where's Kili? "
The handsome elf raised his dark brows and his hands. "That I do not know," he replied. "I did not lie to you about not having him here with me." He sighed. "As I said, my healers did their best to tend to his wounds and cleanse his blood from the orc poison that had tainted it, but when he was barely healed he took the first opportunity to escape from my custody- most likely in order to return to his kin. If he will make it or not I cannot say and it is no longer my responsibility."
"Then why have you not told Thorin this?" Ella gasped out. "They all think Kili is dead!"
The Elven King smiled frostily. "That wouldn't have been wise, would it?" he replied. "I did what I had to in order to avoid a war. Just like you do now, it would seem."
Ella left the tent, followed by Gandalf.
She had done all she could. It was bad news that she couldn't bring Kili home, but the good news was that he had still been alive when Thranduil had last seen him. She could only hope that he was well enough to make it back to the Erebor on his own and that he would not be ambushed by an orc pack on the road...
"Well," Gandalf said. "You did a good job. But the danger is far from over. Now, let's find you a bed and in the morning we will leave. Get us as far away from here as possible."
Ella stopped in her tracks and stared at him. "What are you talking about? I'm not leaving!"
The old sorcerer sighed. "Ella, your loyalty to these dwarves is most laudable but-"
"You talk about loyalty?" she interrupted him sharply."What about your loyalty, Gandalf? Tell me, where have you been when we were attacked by giant spiders in Mirkwood? And then when we were captured by Thranduil and imprisoned in his cells? Where have you been when we were attacked by orcs and then later, when we fought the dragon? We could have needed a bit of assistance with that, you know? But nevermind. You weren't there, and guess what?We managed without you and will continue to do so."
Taken aback by her harsh words, the old man stared at her. "I'm so sorry, Ella," he stammered. "I swear, I would have come to aid you -" he twisted his features into a pained grimace. "were it not for an unplanned stay in the cells of Dol Guldur-"
Ella raised her eyes to take a closer look at Gandalf's face. The wizard was ancient and never looked exactly as chipper as life itself, but she had to admit he really looked the worse for wear now.
"An old evil is about to rise," Gandalf began in a quiet voice. "Those orce who hunted you- that was no coincidence. There are things you do not know-"
Ella remembered his conversation with Lord Elrond in Rivendell. There had been talk of the Erebor as a place to strengthen their forces. Against who? Gandalf must have known more then he had let on, even then.
The image of a huge burning eye briefly flashed through her mind and now that she thought of it, he had known about the dragon sickness, too. Her anger returned.
"And how would I?" she snapped. "You never told us anything! It was you who sent us on this quest and now that we succeeded, you want to leave the dwarves to their fate?"
Suddenly, she saw the wizard through different eyes. The friendly old man who entertained hobbit children with fireworks was in truth a clever strategian who moved other people like figures on a chess board. For the purpose of a greater good probably, she would give him that, but in the end it did nothing to alter the fact that he had deliberately put all their lives at stake for his own mysterious agenda.
"If you had arrived a minute sooner, you would have noticed that I tried to keep Thranduil from attacking the Erebor just as you did," the old wizard replied a touch miffed. "But be that as it may, a battlefield is no place for a hobbit and I won't allow anything to happen to you. You there!" he called out to a rat-faced man whom Ella recognized as the former second of Lake-town's master.
"Find the lady a bed. And a good meal to fill her belly.She's earned it."
He took the reluctant looking man aside and talked to him in a hushed tone, doubtlessly telling him to keep an eye on her and make sure she stayed in camp- which was something Ella had definitely no intentions to do.
Her place was with the company, now more than ever.
Chapter 26: Of Love and Treason
The new day dawned cold and clear; and to the sight of Thranduil's army that had marched up in front of Erebor's gates.
The light of the early morning sun reflected by a million shiny armors and helmets made Ella squint her already bleary eyes as she stood on the parapet next to Thorin and her companions.
She had sneaked out of Dale as soon as grouchy ratface left her in the tent she was supposed to stay, but climbing back up the fortress wall had proven a good deal more difficult than climbing it down and thus, she had not slept a bit last night.
Her absence had not gone unnoticed.
Earlier this morning, Thorin had taken her aside and asked her why she had not come to his chambers as she usually did.
"I hoped to spend the night with you." he had said and there had been a hint of reproach in his voice- probably because he expected it to have been his last.
"I thought you were busy and would stay up late," Ella had replied and averted her gaze. She had always found it hard to lie under the inquiring gaze of those penetrating blue eyes. "And I needed some time for myself."
Thorin had only nodded, disappointed and not particularly convinced.
Ella had wanted to pull his head down to her to steal a quick kiss, but he had looked too stern and majestic in his armor and with the crown on his head for such an intimate gesture, and so she had simply squeezed his hand.
"There's always a next night," she had whispered with a promising smile.
And that was true, or at least, if everything went according to plan.
No one would die and there would be many more nights to come for the king under the mountain and his company.
If he would still want to spend them with her after today however, was an entirely different question...
Wide awake with fearful anticipation despite the sleepless night that lay behind her, Ella watched Thranduil riding towards them on his great elk, with Bard next to him.
The elven king displayed a confident expression- and had every reason to- with the huge army behind him and the Arkenstone in his pocket- but it vexed her still, and Thorin was obviously no different. He pulled his bow and a well-aimed arrow in front of the mount's hooves stopped Thranduil's advance.
"I will put the next one between your eyes." Thorin announced to the cheers of the other dwarves. They quickly hid behind the parapet though when the elves raised their bows in reply.
Ella rolled her eyes inwardly. Men and their childish inclination to power play.
And this wasn't even a battle. This was a dozen dwarves and a hobbit against a gigantic army. Absurd.
Let's end this farce now so we can all go home.
But the dwarves were home already. Were hers would be after today remained yet to be seen.
Thranduil kept a straight face. "We've come to tell you," he shouted in a loud, clear voice. "Payment of your debt has been offered, and accepted."
Thorin furrowed his brow beneath the crown on his head. "What payment?" he yelled without lowering his bow. "You have nothing! I gave you nothing!"
At a look of the elven king, Bard produced the Arkenstone from his chest's pocket and held it high over his head for everyone to see it."We have this."
Thorin dropped his bow and his eyes went wide as he recognized the king's jewel.
Shocked outcries rose from the rows of the dwarves.
"How came you by the heirloom of our house!"
"This stone belongs to the king!"
"And the king may have it," Bard agreed. "and our goodwill. But first, he must honour his word."
So this was it, the crucial moment.
She had put everything on one card-Thorin's desire for the Arkenstone. But would it be strong enough to make him swallow his pride and make a deal with his pointy-eared nemesis?
Ella closed her eyes and sent a quick prayer to Mahal or whatever god was inclined to listen.
However, and probably because she did not really believe in their existence, they all chose to ignore her pleas.
"They are taking us for fools," she heard Thorin's hateful whisper. "This is a ruse. A filthy lie."
"The Arkenstone is within this mountain!" he yelled at his besiegers. "This is a trick!"
Now, if Thorin had taken a closer look he must have seen that the gem was indeed no other than the Arkenstone.
There was no mistaking this translucent brightness that shone and twinkled in all the colours of the rainbow. Even Ella had recognized it at first sight, and unlike Thorin, she had never seen it before.
Even the best jewelcrafters would not have been able to make such an exact copy of it, and elves weren't even good at this craft.
No, Thorin must know the gem was real. If he didn't believe it then because he didn't want to.
Would have been too good to be true, right?
She should not be so surprised. With Thorin, it was never the easy way. Still, she would have done anything to skip the next part.
"It's no trick," Ella said and stepped towards him. "The stone is real. I-" She swallowed hard. "I gave it to them."
Slowly, the king under the mountain turned his head into her direction.
"You?" he asked incredulously and very quietly.
The sound of his voice and the devastated look on his face threatened to rip her heart in two.
Ella had seen this expression before, twice actually. First in Rivendell, when Thorin had heard Gandalf and Lord Elrond speak about the dragon sickness, and then when it had looked like the chance to enter the Erebor was forever lost.
But now it was a million times worse, because all the defeat and disappointment and despair in his eyes were for her.
Worse even, it was only at this moment that she knew without a doubt that he must have really loved her, too.
He would not look so aghast and shaken if he didn't.
He had loved and trusted her more than anyone and thus, her treason cut deeper than anyone else's.
Ella had been prepared for his anger, his hatred even, but not for this, and it was more than she could take.
Part of her wished he would grab her and just throw her from the ramparts. She had half a mind to jump herself, if only to escape that haunted look in his eyes.
Instead, she settled for explanations.
"I took it as my fourteenth share," she began. "And I'm willing to let it stand against my claim-"
"Against your claim? You claim." Thorin spat with a mirthless laugh and his gaze hardened and froze into ice.
"You have no claim over me."
Ella hung her head."I guess I don't," she replied quietly. "Not any more."
She looked up at him again. "I have wanted to give it to you. Many times. But-"
"But what, thief?" Thorin hissed.
She nodded. He was right, she was a thief. She had stolen his heart. Did it count as exonerating circumstances that he had stolen hers first?
"You are changed, Thorin!" she exclaimed. "The dwarf I met in Bag End, the dwarf I fell in love with, would never have broken his word! Never doubted the loyalty of his kin! I did what I did to avert a war, to save your life because I love you and I'm not sorry for that. I would do it all over again and if you hate me for it now, it's only a small price and one I will gladly pay."
Brave words. If only they were true.
For a second, some of the ice seemed to melt in Thorin's eyes and she thought she had gotten through to him, but the moment passed as quickly as it had appeared.
Perhaps, if she had disclosed all this to him in private he might have listened, but here and now, it was a hobbit making a fool of the king under the mountain in the face of his people and his enemies.
He could not let her get away with this without losing his face.
Thorin walked towards her and grabbed her by the collar of her jacket.
"Why have you come back?" he asked and he suddenly sounded very tired. "You should have stayed with Thranduil since you have obviously made common cause with him."
From below, before the gate, an agitated voice called out to them. "If you have no longer use of my burglar then please don't damage her. Return her to me!"
He came riding through the rows of the elven archers and raised his wand at Thorin. "You're not making a very splendid figure as king under the mountain are you," he said dryly. "Thorin, son of Thrain."
The target monarch looked down at the wizard.
He let go off Ella's jacket. "You think I would hurt her?" he shouted back. "I will not sink so low. But never again will I deal with wizards or Shire rats."
He looked back at Ella who winced at hearing him talk like that.
"Leave," he growled. "Now. Before I make up my mind."
"Do as he says. Hurry!"
Quickly, Bofur was at her side and shoved her across the parapet and out of the reach of his king." You still have your rope I hope?"
"Are we resolved?" sounded Bard's voice as Ella began to once more rappel from Erebor's walls towards the castle moat."The return of the Arkenstone for what was promised."
She looked up and saw Thorin's gaze fly to the horizon as if expecting answers from the skys.
"Why should I buy back what is rightfully mine!" he thundered.
Thranduil sighed and turned to Bard. "I've heard enough," he said in a bored tone. "Keep the stone, sell it. I know people in Gondor who'd give you a good price for it."
"I will kill you!" Thorin raged on the ramparts. "On my oath, I will kill you all!"
"Thorin!" Gandalf implored. "Lay down your arms! Open these doors. This treasure will be your death."
"Give us your answer," Bard demanded. "Will you have peace- or war?"
Ella had reached the ground. She looked up once more and saw how Balin talked insistently to Thorin, telling him what had been clear from the start, that they could not win this fight.
He had to see reason. Surrender was the only way out of this.
He had to give up now, or else her sacrifice would have been for naught. She would have lost him for nothing.
Thorin closed his eyes and bowed his head in defeat. It broke her heart to see the proud dwarf king like this but still her heart leapt with wild hope. She may have lost him, but at least she would not have to see him die.
But then, suddenly and as if on cue, a raven came flying towards the Erebor and landed on the parapet in front of the king under the mountain.
Thorin looked from the bird back to the horizon where a mighty dust cloud announced the arrival of the reinforcements he had been waiting for, and slowly, he curled his lips into a grim smile.
"I will have war."
Ella stood next to Gandalf and watched on as the dust cloud settled and revealed a large number of battle-ready raised spears.
The old wizard wrinkled his brow. "Ironfoot," he murmured under his breath.
With considerably more enthusiasm, the dwarves on Erebor's parapet shouted the same name.
Ironfoot. Of course.
In her headless panic, Ella had completely forgotten how Thorin had told her he had sent a raven to the Iron Hills for help.
So that was why he had hesitated so long to resign himself to his defeat, despite the evident superiority of Thranduil's forces.
And as luck would have it, his cousin Dain had arrived just in time.
What a bitter irony.
Her brave attempt to save her friends had been pointless. All it had earned her was the loss of Thorin's love and trust.
Oh, how she wished she could turn back time now. If only she had just waited and done nothing, she would have spent last night in Thorin's arms and he would still love her.
Her place would be next to him now and she would heartily join in the shouting and cheering of her companions at the sight of the most welcome reinforcement.
Instead, she stood at the wrong sight of the gate now, an outcast, a despised traitor. For stealing the King's jewel and giving it to his enemies was no harmless crime. She could just as well have attempted to stab Thorin right in the heart.
And in a sense, she had done just that, had she not?
Her intentions had been good, certainly, but it didn't say for nothing that those paved the road to ruin. ( Another of grandma Ermentrude's favourite sayings, along with ' no good deed goes unpunished'- mostly referring to her countless own ones of which the most selfless and least rewarding one had been to take her wayward granddaughter under her wings after the death of her parents. )
So heartbroken that she felt numb, Ella saw Thorin's cousin Dain charge towards them.
"Hey Thorin!" he called out cheerfully, then he turned to the besiegers of the Erebor and encouraged them politely to, well- piss off.
In other circumstances, the lord of the Iron Hills would have made a fun sight, on his war boar, with his fiery- red beard and a battle axe almost as big as himself, but not only was she hardly in the mood to smile right now, nor did Dain exactly make the impression of being one to joke with.
The expression on Thranduil's face was still priceless.
The elven king had been so certain of his victory only a minute ago, and now he suddenly found himself confronted with an enemy army as big as his own- but way more belligerent.
The smug smile had left his features and they froze into a stony mask when Dain called him a pretty, pointy-eared princess- and other less flattering names.
The dwarves on Erebor's gate cheered and brayed with laughter. Gandalf sighed.
He stepped forward, greeted the commander of the dwarven army and did his best to defuse the situation, but his attempts to serve as peacemaker were doomed to failure right from the start.
Dain paid his warnings of an approaching orc army no more attention than Thranduil had before, and neither of the opposing parties was willing to back down. The centuries old enmity between the two people was too fierce, and both elves and dwarves thirsted for the other's blood.
Thranduil ordered his archers to attack and a hail of arrows flew towards Dain's army, but the dwarves were well equipped for this. Their ballistas shattered the elven arrows mid- air, accompanied by the thriumphant cheers of Thorin and his companions.
After the second fruitless attempt, the elven warriors put their bows away and raised their spears instead when the dwarven ram riders charged, and soon the battle was in full swing.
And then, suddenly, the sound of another horn broke through the battle noise.
Elves, dwarves and men momentariliry froze in their killing business and listened in horror to a terrifying voice coming from a high bluff behind them.
It commanded his troops to attack. In the Black speech of Mordor.
An icy cold shiver crept down Ella's spine.
She knew this voice.
It had ruled her nightmares for so long that she would recognize it everywhere.
She looked to Gandalf who returned her shocked glance with a grim 'told you so but no one ever listens to me' expression.
Ironfoot bellowed a command and his men let go of their elven opponents, regrouped, and stormed forward to face the new threat. Thranduil's troops however, stood down and did nothing, seemingly content to watch their enemies run into their ruin.
The dwarves hurried to build a barrier with their shields and spears, but it was clearly a poor defence against the orc army which outnumbered them by a multiple. They would be overrun in no time.
Her eyes wide with horror, Ella caught her breath and prepared for the worst.
But then, the unexpected happened.
When the first assailants reached the dwarven shield wall, the elven warriors suddenly jumped over it like in a rehearsed, elegant dance and began to attack the orcs, soon followed by Bard's men. Elves, dwarves and men joined their forces against the common enemy.
Even so, it was a fight on knife edge.
Azog had not only countless orc warriors at his disposal, but also a few trolls with giant clubs able to pulp half a dozen men with a single well-aimed hit.
And this was only part of his army.
When another horn sounded, Gandalf turned to Ella with a concerned expression on his weathered features. "He's trying to cut us off," he gasped. "They're going to attack the city. Come with me, quickly!"
As it seemed, Bard had come to the same conclusion. He ordered his men to retreat to Dale in order to protect its inhabitants, women and children mostly, his own among them.
One of the trolls used his head as a ram to break a hole in the city wall and then orcs swarmed in like rats. Ella drew her shining blue sword and followed Gandalf into the ruins of Dale.
With a queasy feeling she watched the old man face the assailing orc hordes with nothing but his wand to his defence. Should a powerful wizard ( as he allegedly was ) not be able to summon up some kind of magic instead of trying to fight off heavily armed warriors with a wooden stick?
But then, was that his wand after all? Somehow she remembered it to look different-
Ella didn't have the time to further ponder this question.
All of a sudden, she heard the fearful screams of women and children nearby and instinctively she turned around and rushed to their aid when the first orc, a particularly big and ugly specimen, barred her way.
He lunged at her with his mighty war axe and she dodged the blow with a quick duck, then raised her own sword to block his second attack.
Steel clashed against steel with a screeching sound and the impact was so heavy that she was sure it must have torn her arm out of the socket.
With a pained gasp Ella sank to her knees.
The orc twisted his destroyed features into a malicious grin and stroke out anew, but before his axe could split her skull she let herself fall forwards and through his legs.
Mid-fall she grasped her sword with both hands and thrust it with all her might into where she assumed ( hoped ) it would hurt even orcs the most, the vulnerable flesh of his groin. Certainly no honourable tactic by the book of fighting rules but, judging from his shrill shrieks of pain, most effective.
Ella pulled the sword out and hot, ill-smelling blood showered her face as her opponent collapsed and buried her beneath him.
Beside herself with disgust and horror, she kept stabbing at the body upon her until he no longer moved. When she had finally managed to struggle free from the corpse, she was completey worn out and couldn't decide if she'd rather faint on the spot or throw up first.
However, she barely had the time to wipe the blood off her face when the next orc already attacked. It was only thanks to Gandalf's quick intervention that the battle didn't end for her then and there.
The nightmare around them continued and Ella quickly abandoned any further thoughts of heroic deeds when it became clear that it would be hard enough to stay alive at all.
Even with the advantage of speed and agility on her side, and despite Dwalin's training, she was clearly no match for Mordor's soldies, and would be well advised not to leave the old wizard's side again.
After an indefinite period of fierce fighting during which Ella had lost all track of time, the city's defenders finally seemed to succeed in driving back their attackers, albeit at great cost of life on their side. Ella tried not to look too close at the human bodies in her way; some of them were barely more than children and she was scared to recognize one of Bard's among them.
During a brief lull in the fighting she heard another war horn sound, this time coming directly from the mountain.
Thorin. The dwarves of Erebor had joined the fight.
Her exhaustion momentarilily forgotten, she followed Gandalf up a balcony in the city wall and watched from there how Thorin and her companions stormed onto the battlefield and quickly cut a bloody path through the assailing orc hordes.
For a brief moment, her heart swelled with wild pride for them, but soon enough it was again replaced by fear and worry. The presence of the dwarf king might serve to give the defenders of Erebor new hope and confidence, and they fought even fiercer than before, but the number of their enemies was seemingly endless and more were still on their way.
And she could do absolutely nothing to help them.
If the last hours had made one thing abundantly clear, then that she was by no means a great fighter. Besides, she was quite sure Thorin would set no great store by her support now, neither moral nor otherwise.
Neither now nor ever again.
The thought came along with a sharp pang in her chest. Well, she'd better get used to it. It would be like this for the rest of her life.
"They cannot withstand for much longer," she turned desperately to Gandalf. "Is there nothing we can do ?"
The old wizard leaned on his wand and panted hard. His robe was speckled all over with orc blood. Sometime during the course of the battle he had lost his hat, and now his matted grey hair stuck to his sweaty brow.
"I have called for reinforcements hours ago. Beorn and my eagles are on their way," he mumbled. He raised his eyes towards the sky and frowned. "I really don't know what takes them so long-"
"Your feathered friends better come soon." came a familiar voice from behind them.
Ella spun around and her eyes went wide. "Kili!"
And it really was him. In the flesh and alive.
Still a little pale, his face and cheeks thinner than she remembered, but all in all he looked much better than when she had last seen him.
With a loud cry of joy she stormed down the stairs and flung herself into his arms.
The dwarf prince caught her with a surprised gasp and only then she remembered his injury. "Oh! Oh Kili, your leg! I'm sorry! " she cried and let go of him.
"Never mind,"he grinned. "I'm well enough. I'm happy to see you too, Ella."
His smile took on a bitter note. " I just wished it were under different circumstances. We have only just arrived here-"
"We?" she enquired with raised eyebrows.
A faint blush rose up on Kili's pale cheeks. "We- that is, Tauriel and me. When I decided I had strained Thranduil's hospitality long enough, she insisted on accompanying me. I told her I could take care of myself but she wouldn't hear of it. Reminded me of how well that worked last time." He grimaced but the pure joy sparkling in his eyes belied his feigned annoyance. He didn't mind at all to be patronized by a certain auburn-haired she-elf. Ella fought back a smile. Not the worst foundation for a future relationship, to be sure.
"On our way here, we saw orc troops march towards the Erebor. " Kili continued. "We had hoped to arrive before them to warn you, but as it seems, they were faster-"
"It is Azog," Ella said with a shudder. "He commands this army."
Kili pressed his lips into a grim line. "Mahal curse his black soul." he spat.
He stepped towards the balcony rail and looked down at the battlefield below. "So many," he murmured.
He exhaled and drew his sword. "Thorin and Fili are down there. They'll need my help." He turned to Ella. "Go find Tauriel. She has promised Bard to get the women and children into safety, you should go with them. Tell her-" He paused and shook his head. "I will tell her myself when I return."
He hugged her briefly, then he turned around, jumped down the stairs and vanished in the hustle. "Kili wait!" she called after him. "I'm coming with you. I can fight-"
"And you have fought bravely," Gandalf agreed with a tired smile and laid a hand on her shoulder. "But we should do as Kili says. We will both feel better when we know you're safe."
Ella nodded reluctantly. She knew he was right. Truth be told, she was so tired and exhausted she could hardly stand on her legs any longer.
But then, a sudden movement on the battlefield caught her eye. A war chariot pulled by rams charged through the rows of the orcs and headed into the direction of the cliff that served as Azog's command centre.
And on it, holding the reigns, stood an unmistakable broad, majestic figure whose long raven hair waved behind him in the wind.
And Fili stood next to him, and she believed she could recognize Balin and Dwalin as well.
The breath caught in her throat. "What are they doing?" she whispered incredulously, but in her heart she already knew the answer before Gandalf confirmed it.
"They're trying to cut off the snake's head."
Yeah, battle scenes are neither my forte nor exactly my favourite, so please forgive me for keeping this rather brief and to the point.
Either way, this story is slowly drawing to a close. Thank you so much for reading and all the continuous support. It really means so much!
Chapter 28: What the Heart Commands
The battle for Dale was still in full swing when Gandalf and Ella battled their way through the ruins to find Tauriel, as Kili had told them to.
"Those orcs spring up like mushrooms after the rain," the old wizard grumbled after he had fought off another one who had tried to stop them. "The sooner we get you into safety, the better."
Ella said nothing.
Gandalf shot her a wary side-glance. "I know that look on your face, Miss Baggins." he warned. "Don't even think of it. The dwarves can do without your help and Thorin has made quite clear it is unwanted, has he not? Apart from that, the path to that hill is heavily guarded, you would never make it there unseen."
Ella's hand closed around the ring in her pocket. "Yes I would."
The wizard wrinkled his brow. "Would you now? I'm curious, how do you think you could achieve that? Grow wings and fly?"
Ella pressed her lips into a tight line. She couldn't bring herself to tell him about the ring, not even now. And either way she was sure he wouldn't approve of her plan.
Not that she had much of a plan. All she knew was that Thorin and her friends were going to confront Azog- and she remembered quite well how that had turned out last time-
"I can't just do nothing." she tried. "I have to-"
"For the last time, no!" the wizard thundered and emphazised his words with a well-aimed blow against another attacker barring their way."Leave this task to those better equipped for it, that is my last word. You would only get yourself killed and for what? Your misguided feelings for a mad dwarf king?" He shook his head. " No, I won't allow it."
"I don't need your permission Gandalf," she smiled grimly. "You're not my guardian. If it should have escaped you, I have never been very good at following orders and I have no intentions to start now."
The old wizard muttered something into his beard that sounded suspiciously like 'stupid hobbit lasses having been too long in the company of dwarves and adopted more than a few of their rather questionable traits', but before Ella could so much as think of an appropriate answer, they had reached the town square.
The place was littered all over with dead orcs, humans and elves.
Tauriel was there, and also Legolas, and in the middle of it stood Thranduil whose wide-eyed gaze roamed over the bodies of his fallen warriors- and that of his beautiful elk mount which now lay motionless at his feet- felled by a dozen orc arrows.
He looked up as Ella and Gandalf approached but did not really seem to see them, nor care about their presence.
"I never wanted this," he said quietly, and to no one in particular.
"None of us did." Gandalf said in a tone that was both soothing and imploring. "But it can be ended, now. The dwarves are going to stand up to the commander of this army, they will need your help. Rally your troops and follow them up the hill where the Defiler hides. Only together you will succeed in crushing the devil's head and end this war."
Slowly, the elven king shook his crowned head.
"I've done enough," he said with cold finality. "And at great cost of the people I have vowed to protect. Let the dwarves deal with the menace they have conjured upon themselves or die trying, I couldn't care less. My work here is done."
"No." Tauriel stepped forward and barred his way, her bow raised and an arrow aiming for his head. "You will not turn away. Not this time."
Thranduil looked at her and his crystal blue eyes narrowed in rage.
"You," he spat through clenched teeth. "How dare you talk to me like that? I have raised you like my own blood and you have repaid my trust with betrayal. You have forfeited every right to make demands on me. Get out of my way!"
The hands that held her bow tensed slightly, but Tauriel did not move. " You cannot stand back," she said with trembling lips. "The dwarves will be slaughtered."
"Tauriel is right, father," Legolas confirmed. "The orcs who attacked the Erebor were only the vanguard of Azog's army. Another troop is on the way from Gundabad, they are going to waylay the dwarves on their path to their leader. This is a trap."
Thranduil furrowed his dark brows, visibly displeased with his son's intervention. "Then they will die, so what?" he said icily. "If today, tomorrow, next year, or in a hundred years from now, what difference does it make? They are mortal."
"You think your life is worth more than theirs?" Tauriel asked, her voice choked with tears. "When there is no love in it? There is no love in you."
Thranduil dropped his gaze as if he was contemplating her words, but then he suddenly stroke out and smashed the bow out of her hands.
"What do you know of love?" he hissed angrily. "Nothing! What you feel for that dwarf is not real. You think it is love? Are you ready to die for it?"
Ella watched Thranduil draw his sword.
She knew he would strike the elven woman down and that she had to intervene, but she was literally frozen in horror and her feet wouldn't carry out the commands of her brain.
She opened her mouth to a desperate cry but at that moment, it was Legolas who stepped bravely between his father and Tauriel.
"If you want to kill her," he said in a grim voice. "You'll have to kill me first."
For the first time since she had known him, Ella felt something akin to pure admiration for the elven prince.
It was no little thing to stand up for the one you loved when you knew this love would likely never be reciprocrated.
And with standing up against his father, Legolas had stepped out of his overpowering shadow as well. No matter how all this ended today, his life would never again be the same.
Legolas turned to Tauriel and the look in his eyes softened. "I know now you will never feel for me what I feel for you," he said in a quiet, sad voice. "But this knowledge does not keep me from doing what my heart commands. If you are going to aid those dwarves, I will come with you."
"And so will I." Ella said and stepped forward on wobbly legs.
Legolas couldn't know it, but his words had touched something deep inside her that outweighed all her fears, and all sanity and reason.
She had to try and protect Thorin, no matter if he wanted it or not. It was her duty because she loved him. No one could release her from it, not even him.
Tauriel turned to Ella. She looked her over and took in her pale, blood-splattered face and how the hobbit practically swayed with exhaustion.
She reached out and laid a surpringly cool, comforting hand on Ella's cheek. Her eyes were filled with tears as she smiled and she was ever so beautiful. Kili was one lucky man to have won the love of such an exceptional woman.
"I told you once you were a curious girl, even for a halfling," she said softly. "And I do not doubt your courage. But this is something you cannot help me with."
"I led the women and children of Dale to a cave where they will be safe- for now." she continued quickly when she saw how Ella opened her mouth to protest. "But they are terribly afraid and there aren't many men left to guard the entrance. It would alleviate my heart to know you are there to protect them. Here, take this. You need to regain your strength."
She handed the other woman a small bag with a heavy canteen in it along with some packages of Lembas bread, wrapped in leaves. "Give the rest to them. And do not worry. I promise I will bring those dwarves back safe and sound."
Her smile took on a grim note. "I still have many arrows left in my quiver and my bow and my blades thirst for orc blood."
Ella watched how the slim shades of Tauriel and Legolas disappeared swiftly and gracefully towards the old watchtower where Azog was hiding.
Part of her- the part that could hardly keep her eyes open- was relieved the Elven woman had made the decision for her and took the matter into her hand.
It was reasonable, certainly- but it still felt wrong.
And besides, what would she tell Sigrid who ( hopefully ) was among the people in the cave, when she asked her about Fili? That she had left it to others to warn him when he was about to run into his almost certain death?
Ella broke off a piece of Lembas bread and chewed it, then washed it down with a hearty draught of fresh spring water from the canteen. Immediately, she felt better.
"Come now," Gandalf said softly. "Time to leave this place or we'll soon have more unpleasant company again."
The number of their attackers may have decreased, but that didn't mean they wouldn't still have to fight their way through the embattled city to their destination.
At a crossroads they were suddenly confronted with a gigantic troll who wielded a no less huge club. The monster was at least twice as big as the ones who had once wanted to cook Ella and the dwarves for dinner ( good times! ) and definitely more aggressive.
It was evident, even to Gandalf, that it would be pretty much useless to poke him with sticks and swords and so he finally decided to live up to his profession. He rubbed and fiddled about the tip of his magic wand, then aimed it at the troll and shoutet an incarnation in a voice she didn't understand.
Ella released a relieved breath. At last. That's more like it. Why in Eru's name had he not put the thing to the use it was obviously made for before?
The answer to that question presented itself when the tip of the wand only crackled like a broken light bulb.
No flashes of light came out of it, no deadly rains of fire- nothing.
The troll let out a deafening roar and Ella and Gandalf quickly jumped to the side when his barbed mace hit the ground and made the cobblestone splinter. And again. And again.
Gandalf slammed the wand into the ground and repeated his spells, but to no use. The blasted thing kept refusing its service.
The monster raised its club anew and from behind them came a terrified shriek.
Ella spun around to see a- suspiciously familiar looking, rat-faced- figure with a lace bonnet on his head who had sought refuge in the ammunition pouch of a catapult.
As she- he- writhed in panic, a coin fell off his voluptuous cleavage and landed on the lever that activated the armament's mechanism.
The catapult went off and with a loud scream, the former deputy mayor of Laketown was propelled into the air and right into the open jaw of the troll.
Ella watched the monster fall down on his knees, but she did not wait to see him choke to death on the pitiful creature who would now never become Dale's new master.
While Gandald was still distracted, she reached into her pocket, produced the ring from it and slipped it on her finger, then she turned around and left Dale in the direction of Azog's hideout, perfectly aware that this decision might well turn out to be her last.
She might not be a warrior, and it was unlikely that her support could do much against the pale orc and his frightening henchmen, but didn't it say that the tiniest stone could cause a landslide?
She would not stand back when the people she cared most for were in danger, she couldn't. That was just not who she was- not any more, and all because of them. She would not fail them again.
Chapter 29: A Reunion
Sorry for the delay! Always when a story is drawing to its close, I get hit by a writer's block big as the Lonely Mountain...hope you enjoy and thanks for reading!
The way to the old watchtower proved to be much longer than it had seemed from the distance, and quite literally a good deal more rocky.
Part of the problem was, that there was no such thing as a path to the top( or if there was, Ella had'nt found it ), instead the whole mountain was a big labyrinth of caves and tunnels.
The dwarves who had once built the tower had left visible signs of civilization all over the area, but most of the walls and bridges were now broken, many underground passageways turned out to be dead ends and staircases led into nowhere.
Well, but I don't have to climb all the way up, right? Ella tried to console herself as she took a short break on a flat rock next to another cave entrance that might ( or might not ) get her closer to her destination.
I just have to find Thorin and the others and warn them that they are about to run into a trap. We don't want to confront Azog now. We'll come back for him later, with reinforcements. And hopefully of the kind Gandalf had promised to provide, since Thranduil had made perfectly clear that he had no intentions to lose any more of his men in a war that wasn't his-
Sighing, Ella stoppered the water skin and put it back into Tauriel's bag. It was almost empty, and the same applied for her supply of Lembas bread.
No matter. She had to keep up her strength, and it wasn't that she planned to spend the winter up here.
She just had to find Thorin and the others. But she hadn't yet. And every minute that passed brought the Gundabad orcs nearer.
In fact, Ella had not met anyone so far, but she wasn't alone up here, that much was certain.
Her Elven sword kept glowing in a warning blue tone on the entire way, and even if she didn't see any orcs, she could definitely smell them- that particular rotting smell of them lingering in every cave and every tunnel should be enough to attract a million carrion birds.
But then, the crows found probably much richer spoils down in the valley, where the battle of five armies still raged on.
Ella got on her feet and staggered towards the cave's entrance like a drunk.
And that was the other problem.
Wearing the magic ring always meant walking through a kind of blurred, black and white fog- not exactly ideal conditions for a hike in unknown territory.
And it didn't only distort her vision, it affected her hearing also.
When she had slipped it on her finger in Dale, the battle noises around her had suddenly sounded like coming from far away, whereas now, the howling of the wind through the crevices and the trickle of melting ice from the rocks appeared overly loud.
Now and then, she heard voices whisper in a foreign tongue although no one was there, which increased the overall dream-like and dizzying feeling brought on by her fatigue and exhaustion.
And while all this were by now familiar effects, it still wasn't something one could really get used to- or endure forever without losing one's mind.
Sooner or later, Ella would have to take the ring off and show herself- preferably when she was surrounded by her companions instead of an orc pack.
As she approached the cave's exit (luckily this one had one ) the sword at her side flared up in excitement, and a moment later she could make out unmistakable combat sounds.
Carefully venturing closer towards their source, she recognized Tauriel and Legolas who were fighting a fierce battle against half a dozen orcs.
Automatically, the hobbit drew her sword to rush to their aid, but then she stopped and thought better of it.
For one thing, the two Elves looked perfectly capable of handling their opponents on their own. Unlike herself they were fresh and rested, and what was more, well trained warriors.
That they were here confirmed that Ella was on the right track and if she came forward now, there was a good chance they would send her away again. After all, Tauriel had asked her to protect the women and children of Dale in their hiding place.
But of course this had been a ruse so that she would get herself into safety instead of following them- if the orcs found the cave, there was precious little a single hobbit could have done to stop them.
No.Those people didn't need her help. But the dwarves did.
Ella had made her decision and by no means would she turn back now.
She sheathed her sword again and sneaked past the combatants- but not without tripping up one of the orcs on her way.
Unable to maintain his balance because he had just been in the middle of an attack movement, the orc stumbled over the cliff's edge with a surprised cry and vanished into the depths.
Legolas turned his head and acknowledged the "accident" with an amused raising of his brow. He shouted something in Sindarin and Tauriel answered with a derisive snort.
Another orc jumped at her from a rock cliff above and she drew her bow and shot him mid-air. He was dead before he reached the ground. With sparkling eyes and a grim smile, the auburn-haired she-elf leaned down and pulled her arrow out of his throat.
Clearly, those two were in full control of the situation. The more orcs they could keep at bay until Ella found her friends, the better.
She turned around and moved on, further up the hill.
After an hour or so of increasingly strenous climbing, with only a few scattered orc guards in her way she could easily evade, Ella reached a plateau surrounded by partially broken stone railings.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse; the sun was hiding behind dark clouds and a light snowfall began to set in.
Panting, Ella sank down with her back against the stone and took out her remaining provisions.
She had still found no sign of her companions and slowly, her confidence began to wane and give way to gnawing doubts.
Because she had, in effect, no way of knowing if Thorin and the others had made it here at all.
The last she had seen of them was on that chariot rushing across the battlefield, but it was quite possible that they had been stopped before they could reach their destination.
And even if they had made it , they had approached the mountain from the other side.
Perhaps there was a path to its top there, and if so, it was certainly better guarded than the back of it, which meant they would have to fight their way through.
Which also meant that it was quite unlikely to catch them on their way when she came from the other direction-not that she had any idea where exactly on the mountain she currently was, with all the wandering through winding caves and tunnels.
Not to speak of the permanent fuzzy twilight around her that was the effect of wearing the ring.
It only grew stronger the longer she wore it, gave her a dull headache and made her thoughts dark and bleak. Even the foreign voices in her head now seemed to whisper of defeat.
She had to take it off, if only for a short while. Just a moment so she could take a proper look around, and maybe get an idea of where she was and which way she should take.
Ella slipped the ring off her finger and instantly, her mind cleared and she could again breathe more easily.
The feeling of relief, however, was short lived.
Because the fresh winter air she breathed in carried the unmistakable acrid smell of an orc's most loyal companion.
Wargs. There were wargs out here.
At the very moment the recognition hit her, Ella heard a low, threatening growl and when she looked up, she saw it standing right above her on a snow-clad ledge.
It was a single animal, and although maybe not the biggest specimen of its breed it was still a lot bigger than herself and looked perfectly able- and perfectly ready- to tear her to pieces.
Its fearsome fangs were bared and the muscles in its short but strong legs twitched, ready to jump.
And just like misfortunes, wargs seldom came alone.
Where there was one, the pack would not be far away. She'd better get away as soon as possible.
Slowly, with baited breath, Ella took the ring out of her pocket to slip it back on her finger, but then she paused, squinting.
Something about the beast puzzled her.
It was the fur, which, even flecked with mud as it was, had an unusual warm, light-brown tone, almost golden.
And the eyes that sat in the ugly face were of a deep, iridiscent blue.
It had been for this colour that she had originally planned to name her pet after Thorin- before she had found out that it was a girl.
But that could not be.
Precious was dead.
She had died on the river, when the company had fled the Woodland realms, chased by orcs.
And she had been small then, so very small Ella could carry her around in her shawl.
The animal on the rock above her, by contrast, was clearly an adult- or almost. It was weeks ago that she had lost her pet but still- It could not be.
But then, why had the beast still not attacked?
Surely a hobbit posed no threat for an animal this size, and still it kept sitting there, crouched down to jump, but it did not jump but instead watched her as warily as she watched it, from those strange, oddly familiar blues.
Very slowly ( for quick movements were unwise when confronted with predators ) Ella rose and ventured a step closer, then another, with raised hands.
The warg flattened its ears and growled again, but it sounded uncertain rather than threatening now.
Ella swallowed and took another step towards the ledge. "Precious," she croaked. "It's me. Don't you know me?"
At the sound of her voice, the beast cocked its head and sniffed. Its eyes grew wide and its mouth fell shut and hid its fangs, except for a single bucktooth in its lower jaw. It no longer looked dangerous but downright dumb, and now Ella was sure.
Tears welled up in her eyes.
"Precious," she repeated incredulously. "It really is you. You live." She shook her head. "How on earth have you become so big?"
The warg gave a fearful yelp when a large figure clad in full armor appeared behind it like a dark shadow.
A malicious grin graced the orc's destroyed features ( he had lots of sharp teeth but practically no lips ) and an icy shiver ran down Ella's spine when she realized she had seen him, too, before. He was the leader of the orc pack that had hunted them on their way to Lake-town.
"Have you really thought feeding a warg with milk and bathing it would turn it into a puppy dog?" he sneered.
His voice, clearly not used to speak Westron, was thick with accent and sounded like something long buried. "Good thing we found her."
He reached out as if to pet the animal's neck and the warg flinched in ( doubtlessly rightful ) fear of a beating.
"Meat," the frightening figure repeated with a thoughtful nod. "Fresh and raw. That's what makes them big, what keeps them strong, just like us."
He looked down at Ella who still stood frozen in place with terror. "My father will be very pleased when I bring him Oakenshield's little plaything. Don't bother to come up. I'll come down to you."
Finally, Ella awoke from her shock-induced paralysis. "Oh no." she murmured. She had a pretty good idea who his father was, and absolutely no desire to meet him again.
Her hand reached for the ring in her pocket, but before she could slip it on her finger, a powerful blow from behind struck her temple and her world went black.
Chapter 30: The Darkest Hour
There was no sound on the mountain top except for the wind, the steady snowfall and a feeble little voice that kept mumbling as if to itself, but instead held a one-sided conversation with the big warg a few paces away.
"Stupid," it repeated for what must be the hundredth time. "You were right to leave me. Went out to warn them about the trap and walked right into it myself. Stupid little hobbit. Gandalf was right. Should have stayed where I was. But I wouldn't listen. Stupid people never do."
The animal crouched in front of her, ugly head resting on its outstretched mighty forelegs and watched over her, as it had most likely been told by its new masters.
Not that it would have been necessary.
When Ella had come to, she had found herself sitting against a stone wall, with her hands firmly tied up against the railing.
And even if there would be no bonds, she doubted she would be able to stand up. Her head swam and hurt ferociously from the blow against her temple, and that she had not dropped right back into unconsciousness was only thanks to that pain, the biting cold- and an indefinite urge not to sleep through what might well be the last hour of her life.
"It was all because of you, of course," she told her former pet. "Because I was so surprised to see you again. Made me careless. But don't think I blame you. I really don't. All my fault. Stupid."
She shook her head and groaned at the pain of it.
The she-warg watched her from her big, blue eyes, seemingly impassive. Sometimes her ( still oddly small )ears twitched, but if she understood a word of what Ella was saying or even listened to her at all was impossible to tell.
And still the hobbit kept talking to her as if she would, she had a lot on her mind, and besides, no one else was there.
"Anyway, I'm glad you're alive." she said with a small, sad smile. "Shouldn't have doubted you in the first place. You're a survivor, always have been."
A tear rolled from the corner of her eye and blended with the snowflakes on her face. "I'm so sorry I abandoned you. I didn't want to. You believe me don't you, Precious?"
As expected, there came no answer.
"Well," Ella sniffled. "And here we are. I'd say we're even now, wouldn't you agree?"
A faint howling sounded from the distance and the warg pricked up her ears.
Ella wished she had any way of knowing what was going on on the battlefield, if Gandalf was finally making progress with his promised reinforcements, how Legolas and Tauriel were doing, and most of all, where the dwarves were.
But she didn't. She could only hope they wouldn't come up here to suffer the same fate.
"Is that your friends?" she asked the warg. "I hope you did make friends. Friends are important. Care for the advice of a stupid hobbit? Don't ever let your friends down like I did."
Ella hung her head and another tear rolled down her cold cheek. "And don't fall in love. Love makes stupid people do even more stupid things."
She looked up at the warg again and smiled through her tears. "I wish you were still my friend, Precious, really I do." she whispered. "If you were, I would ask you to try and chew my bonds. Or else, you could just come here and warm me a bit. It's so cold-"
The warg gave a small sound, somewhere between a snort and a sigh, and then tentatively rose to her paws.
Ella's eyes grew wide. Had she really managed to get through to her?
"Yes," she encouraged the animal as it took a cautious step towards her. "Come to me, Precious. Good girl-"
At that moment, Ella heard a low, throaty laugh and the words died in her throat when she recognised the huge figure that stepped forward from behind a rock.
Despite the cold, Azog the Defiler wore only an armoured loincloth that showed bare, mighty thighs of the same sickly off-white colour as his scarred face. His mutilated left arm ended in a razor-sharp double blade.
"By all means, continue," he said with a wicked grin. "Such a heartwarming scene. Almost moved me to tears."
At the sound of his voice, the warg ducked her head, whimpered and pulled back. Ella released her breath, defeated. So this was it then. The end. All she could still hope for now was a quick death.
But it was a strange thing, hope. It wouldn't leave her, not even now, in the most hopeless of situations. Death, however quick or clean it may be, was final and irrevocable.
Ella didn't want to die.
But she would be damned if she showed this monster any sign of fear. She turned her head to the side and spat into the snow.
"Now, now, such a cold welcome." Azog took a step towards her, his grin still carved into his scary features. "And after all the efforts I took to see you again. Did you like Bolg? I'm sorry he had to leave for now, he was eager to meet with the Elven scum you brought along. He'll be back in no time. And now that I have you, your lover Oakenshield and his wretched kin will soon follow, and then we will have a nice little family meeting."
Ella suppressed a shudder and forced her teeth to stop chattering. "If you think, Thorin will come for me, you're wrong," she said. "He sent me away. He- we- it's over. We're over."
"Is that so?" The smile on Azog's face turned into an expression of fake sympathy. "How sad. But I think he will come any way. If not for you, then certainly for me. We still have a score to settle, he and I."
He moved even closer and the gaze of his cold, bright reptile eyes travelled over her body.
"And since you're no longer bonded, maybe you would like to experience the pleasure of being with a real man."
His smile grew broader and exposed his sharp, pointy teeth. "We could let him watch. And who knows, you might even like it."
His hot, foul breath brushed her face and Ella couldn't help but flinch in fear and disgust.
Azog chuckled lowly. "But then, I don't think so. You're such a tiny, fragile thing. No, I'm afraid you wouldn't survive long enough to actually enjoy it."
Ella tried hard to keep herself from sobbing. "A great warrior you are to threaten a helpless woman in chains " she managed with trembling lips.
The pale orc raised one of his barely-there brows. "You're right. How rude of me."
He bent forwards and, with a quick movement of the blade he wore for a hand, cut her bonds. "Better?"
Instantly, Ella's hand flew to the sword on her side, and then, realising it was no longer there ( of course not! Did she really think Azog's minions would forget to disarm her?) to her coat's pocket in search of the magic ring.
With a harsh laugh, Azog got back on his feet.
His healthy hand reached into his loincloth and he produced a small, shiny object and held it up for her to see. "Looking for this?" he sneered. "I took the liberty of securing it while you were asleep. I have a feeling my master will be most interested in it."
Ella gasped. The monster had her ring!
All of a sudden, she felt how her desperation gave way to a cold fury. It felt oddly liberating. And certainly, much better than fear.
"Your master?" she repeated, her voice dripping contempt.
A picture flared up in her mind's eye and she remembered the words of the dragon about a darkness that would spread all over the land, and then Gandalf''s, about an ancient evil lurking in the ruins of Dol Guldur.
"And here I thought you were acting on your own account. Why, I should not be surprised. Every beast needs a keeper, right? Tell me about him. A huge, burning eye, if I remember correctly."
Azog narrowed his eyes, visibly taken aback. "What would you know about the eye?" he hissed.
"Oh, I know a lot of things." Ella struggled to sit up and rubbed her aching wrists. "Smaug told me about it. The dragon in the Erebor, remember? We had a little chat, he and I. Before we killed him, that is."
The pale orc snorted. "That was not your doing."
Ella shrugged her tense shoulders. "Well, we were eyeball to eyeball and now he's dead and I'm still here, that's all I'm saying. Maybe you should take me to that master of yours so I can talk to him too. For starters, tell him how ugly and incompetent his servants are-"
It was quite satisfying to see the pale orc's face distort with rage.
She smiled. "You know what, forget what I said earlier. Thorin will come for you. And this time, he will take more than just your arm."
A horn sounded beneath them and Azog's features relaxed into a smirk.
"Nasty little wretch," he said almost tenderly. "You almost had me there. But now you will have to excuse me for a moment. I believe, my other guests have finally arrived."
He turned around to the sight of two orcs who came stomping up the stairs to the watchtower, a fiercely struggling captive between them.
Blonde hair clung in sweaty tangles to his pale, blood-stained face.
Ella jumped to her feet, ignoring the glaring pain in her head at the sudden movement. "Fili-" she cried out.
The young Durin heir raised his eyes to her, the expression in them one of utter despair.
No. This couldn't be happening. She had to stop it. She had to-
Ella stumbled forwards, but before she could reach the prince, the two orcs pushed him off and right into the arms of Azog, who walked unhurriedly towards the railing, his helpless victim in tow.
"Oakenshield," his roaring voice echoed from the rocks around him. "Watch the end of your wretched kin. This one comes first, then his brother, and you- you will die last."
In the shocked silence that followed Ella heard Fili gasp out a single word. "Run."
She leapt towards the pale orc but his two henchmen stopped her halfway to her target and held her firmly in place, with her arms behind her back.
Immobilized like this, Ella could do nothing but watch in incredulous horror as Azog raised his mutilated arm and drove the sharp blade at its stump deep into Fili's back, then pushed the dwarf prince over the edge of the railing.
She heard a terrible thud when the body hit the ground and then a long, tormented wail she didn't even recognize as her own.
And in the distance, the sound of Azog's hateful, crowing laughter.
Chapter 31: Mithril
A deafening roar sounded from below the watchtower and mingled with Ella's own cry.
The voice quivered with pain, but also with hatred and a burning rage, and she recognised it at once as Thorin's.
And so did the pale orc. "Oakenshield," he growled with a satisfied grin. "Seems I have his full attention now." He drew his mighty axe and walked towards the stairs. "After me! Time to spill some more dwarf blood and erase Durin's line once and for all."
"What of her?" one of the two orcs who still held Ella in their grip asked.
Azog turned to look at his captive and met her terrified stare with his cold, unblinking eyes. "I don't need her any more. Kill her."
Then he turned his back on her and rushed down the stairs to meet his nemesis again, as eager as if he were to reunite with a long lost lover.
Ella mustered her last reserves and tried once more to break free, but she didn't stand the slightest chance.
What little fighting spirit she had still left in her proved no match for creatures so much bigger and stronger than her, and there were two of them.
And still she kept going, determined to at least go down fighting. At least that.
Despite her desperate struggling and kicking the orcs had no more trouble to keep her in check as if she were a new born kitten.
Her captors seemed to enjoy her futile escape attempts, but at last they grew weary of the unequal battle, and one of them drew his sword and brought its blade to her neck.
"I'll cut your throat, now," he informed her with a wicked grin that showed all of what was left of his rotten teeth. "And then we will feast on your warm blood."
A low snarl in his back answered his announcement and Ella's eyes grew wide when she saw Precious standing there with her fangs bared.
The orc with the blade at her throat turned his head. "Wargs, always on time for dinner," he laughed. "No worries, beautiful, you shall get the leftovers. But we're first."
He turned back to his victim and then suddenly, everything happened at once.
With a mighty leap the she-warg crashed into his back and buried her fangs into his sword arm.
The orc gave an angry cry of pain and dropped the weapon, and in his frenzied attempts to shake off the mad beast, he caused his companion who still held Ella in his grip, to lose his balance and fall backwards.
As her captor loosened his grip on her in order to break his fall, Ella spun around so she came to sit on his lap, then pulled the dagger from his belt and jammed it in a blind rage into the vulnerable flesh of his exposed neck, again and again until he longer moved.
Then she rolled off the body, and around on all fours, just in time to see Precious finish the other orc, practically tearing him to pieces with her mighty claws and teeth.
Dinner time, indeed.
When her bloody work was done, the she-warg turned around and trotted towards her, panting and visibly out for the deserved praise.
Ella forced her lips into a smile. "Good girl," she croaked weakly.
She would have petted the animal's mangy fur but she could no longer muster the strength to raise her arms, not even when Precious began to lick her bloodied face clean, almost choking her with her bad breath in the process.
"Precious, please" she whimpered. " Stop that, would you? Listen to me."
The warg paused in her loving ministrations and looked at her with her tongue still hanging out of her mouth, making her looking dumber than ever.
"You did that very, very well," Ella assured her. "And I cannot even begin to tell you how proud I am of you- and how grateful. You are a true friend and I'm so happy to have you back. But you see, my friends- my other friends- are down there and they need my help. The only problem is, I don't think I will make it there on my own. Truth be told, right now I'm not sure if I can even get up again. Do you understand?"
The warg eyed her suspiciously, and when it dawned on her what her mistress was trying to tell her, she wrinkled her nose with an unwilling snort.
Ella sighed. "Come now, Precious. I have carried you around for weeks. If you ever considered to return the favour, now would be the time."
Precious hesitated for a moment, but then, to Ella's great relief, she lay down and allowed her to grab the fur in her neck and push herself on her back.
"Good, good girl," Ella repeated and nestled her head against the animal's neck. "Now let's get down there. Just don't throw me, okay?"
Her involuntary mount grunted in reply, got to her paws and made towards the stairs down the watchtower.
When they arrived at the bottom, it was to the sight of a dozen dead orcs scattered about the plateau, and Balin and Dwalin who knelt next to an unmoving figure in the snow before them.
The dwarves spun around and drew their axes when they saw the warg, but when they recognised the rider they dropped their weapons and gaped at her in unanimous surprise.
"Pinch me, brother," Dwalin gasped. "I must be hallucinating. I think I see Ella riding on a warg."
The battle-hardened bald warrior looked so flabbergasted that Ella couldn't suppress a grin. "Well, you got that right." she said. " Remember my pet warg? I told you I would ride her one day but you wouldn't believe me. Say hello, Precious."
The warg grunted.
"A hobbit riding a warg." Balin shook his white head and his lips slowly curled into a broad grin. "Now I've seen it all."
"Ella?" came a weak, third voice, followed by a painful coughing fit as the dwarf on the ground struggled to force himself up into a sitting position.
Within a second, her own exhaustion forgotten, Ella was off her mount's back and on her knees in front of him.
"Fili- you live! How- " her voice cracked and she shook her head in disbelief. "How could you possibly survive this?"
Because it wasn't possible. She had seen Azog thrust his sword right into Fili's chest and then push him over the railing-
The dwarf prince grimaced, a weak parody of his usual mischievous smile. "Well, I could ask you the same. Thought you would never make it down that tower in one piece. What by Durin's beard are you doing here any way?"
Ella hung her head. "The plan was to warn you that you were about to walk into a trap. Didn't quite work out as intended."
"I see." Fili nodded. " Reckless as ever aren't you, lass? But as to your question- "
He pulled his armor down his neck so she could see the shining metal beneath it.
"Mithril. " he grinned. " Seems you forgot to put it on when you left the Erebor. Thorin was quite mad when he found out. He then insisted that I wear it instead, since I'm his heir and all-"
"And it saved your life." Ella smiled through her tears. "I'm glad I left it behind."
"Still the fall earned him a broken rib or two," Dwalin grumbled. "He cannot walk any more now- let alone fight."
"Pshaw! " Fili snorted. "Give me a weapon old dwarf, and I'll prove you wrong."
He tried to get up, but the moment he put weight on his right leg he gasped in pain and quickly abandoned the endeavour.
"Seems like I have a broken leg as well," he concluded sorrowfully.
"As I said, lad, you're not going anywhere in the near future," Dwalin said softly."Thorin told us to stay here and protect you, and that's exactly what we'll do."
Ella raised her head. "Where is he?" she whispered. "And where's Kili?"
Balin shook his head. "We don't know. The watchtower seemed suspiciously deserted when we arrived, and Thorin sent his nephews to carefully scout the area. " He gave an unhappy sigh. "Next thing we saw was that the orcs had Fili, and what happened to Kili we don't even know. As for Thorin- we managed to fight off Azog's henchmen but it was him and the pale orc duelling right from the start, and the monster drove him further and further away from the combat. We would have followed him of course, were it not for his command to stay with Fili-"
"To hell with his commands," Fili hissed angrily. "You need to help him, and you need to find my brother. Just leave me a sword. I'll manage."
"I'll find them," Ella said quickly. "I have Precious, so I will be faster. And don't worry."
She forced her lips into a smile. "Help is on the way. Tauriel and Legolas are here somewhere and Gandalf promised reinforcements as well, they should arrive any minute. He is a magician, right? Magicians always have a trick or two up their sleeves."
Ella wished she were as confident as her words let on. What she deliberately withheld from her friends was that Bolg and his minions might have stopped the Elves by now, and secondly, that Gandalf's promised support was rather long in the coming.
But the situation was precarious enough as it was. No need to trouble them even more.
She rose and walked over to the warg and as luck would have it, the animal seemed to have resigned itself in its new role, for it immediately lay down so she could mount it.
"I still can't believe it," Fili said in wonderment. "Is that really your pet warg? Well, she got a whole lot bigger than when I last saw her, but not a bit prettier if you ask me."
"But I don't ask you," Ella grinned. "And truth be told, you don't look so good yourself right now."
Her smile vanished. "Hold on just a little longer. I'll find them and I'll bring them back, I promise."
"Good luck lass," Balin said in a serious tone. "Try not to get yourself killed. " his brother added. "Thorin would never forgive us for that."
From your mouth to Eru's ear, Ella thought grimly once Precious had picked up the pale orc's scent and began running.
Considering their last encounter, she had her doubts if Thorin even cared if she was dead or alive. But that didn't mean the same would be true for her.
She would find him, and she would save him, even if it was the last thing she'd do.