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The Return

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            Missus Matilda Clayhanger hurried through the main street of Michel Delving.  Her bonnet contained her hair but her brain spun like the winds of a hurricane!  She had to inform her friends of the drastic changes about!  Those in her path made way for her and those not, watched her rushed progress with interest; whatever could be so important?   However, she did not stop for look or gesture, so intent was she on her destination.

            As she reached the door of Bunce’s Fine Goods for Gentlewomen, she rushed through, startling those customers inside at her sudden entrance.

            “Ladies!” Missus Clayhanger exclaimed.  “You must put down your choices at once, for I am sure you will drop them from the shock of the news I have to tell you!”

            “Good day, Matilda,” Miss Rose Bunce said evenly, from behind the counter.

            “Whether it is good or not will be a matter of opinion, I think!”

            “Whatever is wrong, my dear?”  Asked Missus Glenda Lightfoot.

            “You look quite undone!”  Stated Missus Amaryllis Pott, who then turned to her unmarried daughter.  “Does she not, Orchid?” 

            “Indeed, mother,” Miss Orchid Pott agreed.  “Is your husband unwell?”

            “My husband?!”  Matilda looked at the girl like she had two heads.  “This is far more unsettling than any husband!”

            “Oh, no!” Missus Petunia Dwaling said, sounding concerned.  “Not one of your children!”

            Matilda waved Petunia off.  “They are as hardy as I am.  Although ...” Matilda unfolded her fan in a single move and fanned her face. “I could use a cup of tea.  If it is available.”

            Of course there is, and you bloody well know it.  Rose fought her eye-roll; Matilda’s fluster was not unusual.  Will there not be a day when Matilda Clayhanger did not whip up some bit of nothing into a right froth?  Rose poured a cup from the large copper urn of ready brewed tea, set out for customers, and handed it to Matilda.

            “Thank you, Miss Rose.”

            “That will be two copper,” Rose said.

            “Two copper?!”  Matilda huffed as she took the coins from her purse.  “Always the prices increase!”

            Rose raised an eyebrow.  “A cuppa has been two copper since my father opened this shop fifteen years past.”

            Matilda did not comment as she handed over the payment.

            “But what is your news?!”  Amaryllis asked.

            “Yes!  We are all attention!” Glenda insisted, as all the ladies, save Rose, drew in closer.

            Matilda took a dainty sip and sighed.  “Let me gather my strength.”  She then downed her cup and put it aside.  “Better.”

            “So, what is it?” Rose asked having gone back to behind the counter; she had new goods to organize.

            Matilda took a breath and said, almost breathlessly. “He ... has returned!”  She waited for a response and when the other ladies only stared at her, she grew exasperated.  “Have you all been struck dumb?!  Do you not understand the implications?!”

            Rose cleared her throat from the behind the gaggle of women.  “Since you have not disclosed who ‘He’ is, we can hardly know of any implications of his return.”

            Matilda turned and gawped at Rose.  “Who else could I mean, but The Master of Bag End!”

            All the ladies, again save Rose, gasped at the news.

            “I cannot believe it!” Amaryllis said, looking a bit pale at the idea.

            “I thought him ... lost,” Orchid said, blinking in her astonishment.

            “If he has come back,” Rose said, amused, “he is sturdier than I gave him credit for.”

            “But, can it truly be him?”  Petunia asked.  “With him gone so long, are they sure that a ... changeling ... has not returned in his place?!”

            “Do not be foolish, Petty,” Rose said.

            “Fairies, Goblins, and Changelings are no laughing matter!” Matilda replied.  “We have all heard the tales!”

            “True,” Rose said, adding dryly, “In fairy tales.”

            “Oh, dear,” Petunia said fretfully.  “What if a demon is now in resident in Hobbiton?!”

            “Fear not,” Matilda answered.  “The Mayor wisely thought of such matters and has ruled that Bilbo Baggins is ... himself.”

            “What a surprise,” Rose said under her breath.

            “How have you come by this information?” Amaryllis asked.

            “My sister lives in Bywater,” Matilda said. “And wrote to me!  She was there when he arrived!”

            “She saw him in person?!” Orchid was all astonishment.

            Matilda nodded.  “They were having an auction of his possessions, as they had naturally concluded he was dead, when right there, in the middle of the proceedings, Bilbo Baggins walked up, bold as brass, dressed most disgracefully with a sword at his side—” the four ladies gasped again, “—and a Dwarvish shield on his back, and declared himself alive!”

            “A sword and shield!”  Petunia was shocked.  “What would his poor mother say, rest her soul.”

            “She’d probably think little of it,” Rose said calmly, folding the new handkerchiefs that had just been delivered.  “She was a Took after all.  I’m sure she would think little of him going off, when it comes to it. My only surprise is that he didn’t run off sooner, what with her blood in him.” 

            “He is a Baggins,” Matilda said tersely.  “And they, as a family, will view his departure and return as ... less than respectable.”

            Rose shrugged; she clearly doubted that.  But the others agreed with Matilda.

            “His reputation will be gravely injured!” Amaryllis said.

            “How will he repair it?!”  Orchid couldn’t even imagine.

            “He never will,” Matilda said quietly.  “If he continues as he has begun.”

            Rose sighed.  Here it comes, the other shoe. “What else have you heard?”

            The others leaned closer still and waited while Matilda took a breath and said, “He ... has refused all visitors!”

            “That’s not news,” Rose said, no longer hiding her eye-roll.

            “But now he has even turned away even his own relatives!” Matilda declared. 

            “Who?” Rose asked, suspicious.

            “His closest by marriage!”  Matilda said.

            Rose chuckled.  “Anyone of sense would turn Lobelia Sackville-Baggins away.”

            “He slammed the door in her face!” Matilda was aghast.

            “In that case,” Rose said.  “He is not only sturdier but has far more wit than I believed.”

 

-----ooooo-----

 

            “Right in my face!” 

            “I know, dearest.”

            “It was shocking!”

            “True that, my pet.”

            “Who does he think he is?!”  Lobelia Sackville-Baggins was angry.  Three days had passed since Bilbo had so rudely ordered her away from his door, off his property, and to leave him be.  Only to then add insult to injury by slamming the door in her face when she protested!  “I’m still not convinced it’s truly him!”

            “The mayor ruled it so,” Otho Sackville-Baggins, Lobelia’s husband and Bilbo’s closest male relative, shrugged his shoulders.

            “The mayor!”  Lobelia huffed.  “What does he know of such matters?!  Who put him in charge?!”

            “A majority of citizens.”

            “Then the vast majority are idiots!”

            “Even Bilbo’s grandfather ruled it was him.”

            Lobelia rolled her eyes.  “Thain he might be, but Gerontius Took is still a Took!  And fools they are.  All of them!”

            Otho nodded.  “What of those friends of Bilbo, though?”

            “The Gamgees?!”  Lobelia scoffed.  “Who are they, but ignorant gardeners without a penny to their name!   What do they know?!  They should remember their place.”

            “But they agreed he was him.”

            “Coins in the right palm will always produce a desirable answer!”  Lobelia snickered.  “I will wager they have been given more than work since his return!”

            “You think he has paid for their support?”

            “I have no doubt!”  Lobelia said, closing her eyes against the thought. “He comes back with a chest, filled to the lid with treasure, buying everything in sight and surely greasing the palms of anyone who could possibly speak against him! And all the while has he shared even one cooper with us?!  His closest and dearest relations?!  NO!”

            “How do you know the chest was filled with treasure?”  Otho seemed taken by the idea.

            “It is all over Hobbiton!”  Lobelia said.  “From what I have gathered, he went to every buyer at the auction and repaid them for the return of his items.  But did he offer them what they paid?  No, he offered them twice as much and paid with gold and silver coins!”

            “Gold ... and Silver?”

            “I got a good look at it that day,”  Lobelia said, nodding.  “When Bilbo so rudely snatched those spoons away from me.  That chest had Dwarvish markings on it.  And you know how greedy the Dwarves are.  If he was able to get away from them with a whole chest and them not come chasing after him, they had to be so rich that it did not matter to them, and that can only mean it is loaded with treasure!”

            They considered the matter for a few seconds before Otho said, “Perhaps he has gone mad!  From the gold!  I hear that it’s quite a common thing among the Dwarves and maybe Bilbo has caught such a fever!”

            “Perhaps.”

            Otho shook his head.  “Then we should pray for a speedy recovery, least he spends it all!”

            “No, dear,” Lobelia said with a smile.  “We must pray that it ends sooner than later.”

            “That is what I said.”

            “No, you said recovery.  I mean ends. Completely.  Totally.”

            It took a few long moments but Otho finally realized his wife’s implication.  “You cannot mean you wish ...”

            “It would a blessing,” Lobelia said softly. “For everyone.  If he were to perish from this fever, all his possessions ... his furniture, dishes, clocks, Bag End, and ... that chest ... would go to his closest male relative.”

            “But that is me!”

            Lobelia’s smile turned unflattering.  “Yes, dear.  I know.”

 

-----ooooo-----

 

            “Do you believe him unwell?” Primula Baggins asked her mother.

            Mirabella Brandybuck nodded.  “I do.”

            “How do you figure?"

            “I wrote to him,” Mirabella said.  “Twice to be exact.  In my first letter, I invited him to visit here, as we have all missed him and wanted to welcome him home.  He wrote back, politely declining with the excuse of being quite exhausted from his adventure and was in no shape for the extensive travel to Buckland.   Naturally, I replied straight away and offered that you and I would be more than happy to visit him, instead.”

            “Agreed.”

            Mirabella shook her head.  “He wrote back, thanking me for the consideration, but stated again that he was far too exhausted to entertain, fearing he would be an extremely poor host and did not wish to insult us.”

            “That was kind.”

            “Poppycock if you ask me.”

            “You cannot believe him to be lying?!”

            “Not of lying, but deflection.”

            “Why would he want to do that?”

            Mirabella sighed.  “When I received his second letter, I was suspicious.  I had heard reliable reports that he had already traveled far and wide for nearly three days to reclaim his property.  That does not sound like someone who is ‘quite exhausted.’  And further inquiries indicate that he has been locked up tight in his smail and refusing all visitors.”

            “But could it not be said that he has become ill from the distress of coming home and finding him thought dead and then having the indignity of buying back his own possessions, combined with the arduous journey home?”

            “I wrote to Bell Gamgee.”

            “Oh.”

            “Bilbo has engaged her for cleaning and laundry and from what she tells, only she and her husband have been admitted into Bag End.” Mirabella sighed.  “From her account, Bilbo stays alone, waking quite early, has a light meal, hardly what a Hobbit would consider breakfast ... and no second breakfast mind you ... does not eat again until mid-day, retreating to his study or the back garden ... and only the back, never the front ... then, after having a small supper in the early evening, he sits alone by the fire, not even reading a book, and then retires late in the evening.  Only to wake and do it all afresh.”

            “How odd!”

            Mirabella nodded.  “Bell says he is quite slim, not scrawny mind you, but trim like a Ranger. He is still kind to her and Hamfast, but he is far from loquacious.  Any attempt at conversation is met with simple answers, no questions, and he lapses back into the solitude of his own mind.”

            “So ...” Prim shook her head at the description of Bilbo’s day.  “What do you think it means?”

            Her mother drew a slow, deep breath and sat. “As I said ... I do believe him unwell.  But I do not believe he suffers from a malady of the body.”

            “Suffers what then?”

            Mirabella nodded.  “He is suffering from an affliction of the heart.  He is suffering a loss of something ... or someone ... he loves.”

            Prim was confused.  “Who?”

 

-----ooooo-----

           

            Bell Gamgee knocked, but there was no answer. She knocked again, but the result was the same.  With a sigh, she balanced her large basket on her hip and turned the knob of the deep green door of Bag End and cracked it open.

            “Mister Bilbo?” Bell called.

            As with the knock, no reply.

            “Mister Bilbo are you here?”  She knew it was a silly question as soon as it left her mouth; Mister Bilbo never left.

            Bell entered the smail quietly, closing the door behind her equally as quiet.  She slowly moved through the front parlour and checked the kitchen.  No one.  The dining room next-door was the same; empty.  Bell put her basket on the floor next to the dining room entrance and then peeked into the study.  No one.

            At that moment, Bell felt a slight draft of air. She turned and followed the flow down the back passage to the back door, which was opened but a gap.  She smiled to herself; she should have looked here first.  She found Bilbo, sitting alone, of course, on the furthest bench in the back garden, staring off into the distance, towards the East.

            “Mister Bilbo?”

            Bilbo did not reply.

            “Mister Bilbo, sir?”

            Bilbo drew breath but made no other movement.

            “Sir?” Bell reached out and touched Bilbo’s shoulder.

            As if waking from a dream, Bilbo drew a quick, deep breath and shook himself, turning.  “Bell ...” Bilbo smiled.  “I’m so sorry.”

            “It’s alright, Mister Bilbo.”

            “I was ... miles away.”

            Bell nodded.  “I’ve brought your laundry.”

            “Oh.  Thank you.”

            “Shall I ... put it away for you?”

            Bilbo shook his head.  “That’s kind of you, but ... you may leave it on the dining table or ... in the study.”

            Bell nodded.  “Would you care for some tea?”

            Bilbo’s smile turned soft.  “Bell.  You are not my servant.”

            Bell raised a defiant eyebrow.  “No, sir.  I am not.”

            “Therefore, I thank you all the same.”

            “But I do think of you as ... as a friend.”

            To anyone else of Bilbo’s social status, the remark would have been impertinent, to say the least.  But then, the Bagginses were not just anyone.

            But rather than chuckle or laugh at Bell’s remark, Bilbo’s eyes became a little glassy and he turned back towards the East. “Friend.”  Bilbo nodded.  To himself. “My ... friend.”

            Bell had a funny feeling, Bilbo was not speaking of her.  “I’ll make you some tea, Mister Bilbo.”

            Bell put the kettle on and took out the tin of Bilbo’s favorite tea, and then the cup.  Despite what Bilbo said, she reasoned that she had plenty of time to put away his folded laundry while the water came to a boil.  She snatched the basket of laundry and headed to the main bedroom.

            Yet Bell found the bedroom in disarray; Bilbo had apparently found the time to finally unpack.  Oddly it seemed that Bilbo had only put away half the clothes. 

            No matter.  Bell could easily put them all away.  However, as she moved to the foot of the bed, she nearly tread upon a page of parchment laying on the floor there.  She picked it up and turned it over; it was a sketched portrait of a Dwarf.  His beard was shorter than most but still thick and full, his nose was sharp but regal, and his braids hung thick on either side of his face.   He was stern but still so very handsome.  It was the eyes.  While only rendered in black and white, the artist had captured a tenderness in the eyes that spoke of pain and loss.

            Someone from the journey?

            Clearly.

            Someone of importance, no doubt.

            A close companion.

            Their leader, maybe.

            Definitely a ...

            It hit her then; there were no other portraits of any other members of this company.  Only this one, left hurriedly behind as Bilbo rushed off.  

            She needed to leave.  

            Bell slowly knelt and put the portrait where and how she found it.  She touched nothing else and exited the room.  She put the laundry on the table and when she returned to the kitchen, the water was ready. 

            She would make Bilbo his tea before she left.  She would do so gladly.

            She would take the tea out to the garden.  So that Bilbo could have it there.

            While he looked to the East.

            Perhaps dreaming.

            Of his friend.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text


            Rada, daughter of Grada, hurried through the corridors of Erebor. She was not looking forward to what the kitchen mistress would say, but there was little to be done. She passed by guards who looked down at her tray and shook their heads. They knew.

            Everyone knew.

            But no one could do a damn thing.

            “Well?!” Barked Eerika, daughter of Therka, head cook and mistress of the kitchen, as Rada entered.

            Rada’s fear crested. “Nothing,” Rada said with only a quick glance at Eerika and placing the tray on the table.

            “Still?!” Eerika made no attempt to hide her unhappiness. “I was told it was his favorite and I went to all the trouble! Yet ... he didn’t even have a bite?! What a waste!”

            Rada shook her head, saying, “Only the ale.”

            Eerika pulled a face. “Of course the alcohol was drunk! Typical, sulking male!”

            “You shouldn’t speak that way of the king,” said Asta, daughter of Hesta, one of the assistant cooks.

            Eerika turned a near contemptuous look at Asta. “He is not king!”

            “He is to many,” Asta said with a shrug; she was not afraid to speak her mind.

            “Then they are foolish,” Eerika stated. “Dain has been crowned and that’s it.”

            “So he deserves no respect?” Asta countered.

            Eerika sighed. She was not a harsh woman, just when it came to wasting food. “I’m not saying that. But even if he were king, his ill behavior would still be seen as going on for far too long and it’s time people stopped coddling him!”

            "I don’t think they are,” said Tyra, daughter of Monra, one of the royal food tasters. “I think they sympathize with him.”

            “And what’s the difference?!” Eerika demanded.

            “Coddling is simply indulging,” Tyra replied. “While sympathy means they know and understand his feelings ... his pain.”

            Eerika fought down an eye-roll. “His pain?!”

            “He suffers,” Rada said.

            “And what do you know of it?” Eerika scoffed.

            Rada shrugged a shoulder. “I have seen him for myself.”

            “So?!”

            “He stands or sits by the window of his room. He speaks only when spoken to, and not always even then, and when he does talk it is with only a single word in reply.”

            “He does suffer,” Tyra said.

            “How could he not?” Asta asks of no one.

            Eerika though was not buying it. “Many of us have lost companions and loved ones! You don’t see us moping about, being waited on! Why should he be treated any different?”

            “Because they were more,” Rada said quietly. “More than companions or comrades, more than friends or lovers. They were each other’s One.”

            Eerika released a loud, hollow laugh at that and brought the entire kitchen staff to silence. “Ones?! You are as deluded as a love-struck Elf if you believe that!”

            “I take it you don’t,” Asta said, not bothering to hide her sarcasm.

            “No one betrays their One,” Eerika said sharply.

            “But,” Rada was so sad at the thought. “The stone was infectious! It had to be taken away.”

            Eerika turned a dark look onto the simply kitchen maid. “It’s not the Half-ling’s actions that I speak of!”

 

-----ooooo-----

 

             Bofur worked the small wooden pieces with quick, dexterous hands. His magnifying gobbles helping add the smallest details that many, if not all, would not even see, let alone notice. But as he always said, he’d know they were there and that made all the difference. Sure they were only trinkets for kiddies, but Bofur believed that even the smallest child deserved something special and lovingly made.

             Bifur, on the other hand, sat at the long assembly bench, putting together all the pieces of the intricate clocks they had become known for. Of course the toys Bofur made sold amazingly well, especially to the children of Dale, which was growing quickly in its prosperity. But the adults wanted more practical things and the Cousins Ur had become well known for lovely, accurate clocks for mantels and desks.

             Yet, for all their work and concentration, some things could not be forgotten.

             Bifur sighed and sat back.

             “What’s the matter?” Bofur asked quietly, still working.

            "What do you think?”Bifur answered in Khuz-dul.

            Bofur nodded, still not looking up. “There is nothing to be done, cousin.”

            “You always say that.”

            “Because it’s true.”

            “But, you of all people ...”

            “Me least of all.” Bofur stopped, removed his goggles, and finally looked at Bifur. “He would not listen to me before ... you can’t possibly think he’d listen to me now.”

            “But you understand what he is going through.”

            “Hardly.”

            Bifur did not want to be unkind, but something had to be done. “You loved him too.”

            Bofur turned uncharacteristically somber. “Yes. I did.”

            “Then aren’t you the perfect one to—”

            Bofur shook his head. “My love was not returned.”

            “I know. But ... you still know what it is to lose the one you love.”

            “It’s different.”

            “How?”

            “Because he was not my One.”

            Bifur sighed. “But love is love.”

            Bofur shook his head. “To love is divine. But the love of your One is divine love.”

            “Again, what is the difference?”

            “What is a hill compared to a mountain? Or a rainstorm to a tempest? What is the moon to the night sky filled with stars? If you can answer those questions then you can answer the difference between loving someone and the love of your One.”

            “It sounds to me as if you know the difference perfectly well.”

            Bofur shook his head. “All I know is that it would be ridiculous for me to even think of comparing my loss with that of Thorin’s despair.”

            Bofur turned back to his work and with a few calming breathes, put his goggles back on and resumed his carving, while Bifur returned to his clocks.

            What more could be said?

            There was certainly nothing they could do.

 

-----ooooo-----

 

            “How are our defenses?”

            “They are nearly complete, your majesty,” Balin answered.

            Dain smiled. “When we are alone, you do not need to be so formal.”

            Balin raised an eyebrow; such familiarity was unthinkable.

            Dain sighed and gave up. He changed the subject. “How are the merchants, by the way?”

            “Doing well from what I am told,” Balin answered. “Dori says that the Dale cloth is not as fine, nor as varied, as it was in ages past ...”

            “It will improve.”

            “No doubt. But our people are buying none the less.”

            “Good. The sooner we can establish as many ties and connections between the City and the Mountain, the sooner we and they can settle into peace.”

            “I do not believe Mirkwood will be pleased.”

            “Men want peace with us and we want peace in this land, so ... the Elves will have to lump it! They will not do anything to upset the peace.”

            “One hopes not.”

            “And speaking of peace ...”

            Balin knew what Dain was asking. “There have been no letters from Khagal'abbad or ... anywhere else.”

            “None? None at all?”

            Balin shook his head.

            Dain drew a slow deep breath. “I will not criticize a mother who grieves for her children.”

            “No.”

            “And I cannot blame her for her decision.”

            “It’s understandable.”

            Dain shook his head. “What does vex me ... is the lack of letters from The Shire!”

            Balin cleared his throat and yet said nothing.

            Dain knew Balin too well to let it pass. “If you know something, cousin, I would hope you would share it.”

            “Well ...” Balin stated slowly. “If I am honest—”

            “I wish you would be!”

            “There have been no letters because ... there have been no letters sent ahead.”

            “What?!”

            Balin nodded. “I have been forbidden to write a single word to The Shire.”

            Dain slammed his fists on the arm of the throne and propelled himself out of it. “He is a fool!”

            “Love can make fools of us all.”

            Dain released a breath and calmed. “Especially when that love is lost.”

 

-----ooooo-----

 

            “Masons have finished the gate,” Dwalin said, pouring himself a pint of ale from the small keg on the corner table. “And work is well underway with the causeway.” Dwalin looked over at the window and shook his head.

            Thorin stood, his back to the room, staring out of the arrowslit that was the only opening to the outside. If he heard Dwalin, which Dwalin was sure was true, Thorin made no remark or gesture to show that he did.

            The room was small; tiny when compared to the royal rooms situated a few floors below it. Originally it was for the royal guards and used as their chambers and as an outlook, hence the arrowslit. Dain had offered, and then insisted, that Thorin take a room in the royal wing, but Thorin would not hear of it. He was not king and had no wish to be treated as such.

            Dwalin felt that Thorin most likely desired little more than to be forgotten.

            But Dwalin could not let such a situation continue on. He’d had enough. “How long are you going to keep this going?”

            Thorin did not bother to turn. “Of what do you speak?”

            “This!” Dwalin said, gesturing to the room although Thorin did not see it. “All this! This ...”

            “This is my life.”

            “It is no life at all!”

            “Your opinion.”

            “You’re damn right it is!”

            Thorin still did not turn. “What is your point?”

            “END IT!”

            Thorin did not move or answer right away. Several long minutes later, he turned and faced Dwalin. He wore no anger, nor annoyance; his face was neutral. Yet his eyes told of his sorrow. “The end has already come and gone. There is only existence now.”

           “Elf-shit! There is happiness to be had if you would but take it.”

           “I have taken enough.”

           “Write to him.”

           Thorin shook his head. “I took his innocence. I took him from his home and comfort. I took his ignorance of battle and bloodshed. I took his heart and repaid him with cruelty and malice. I took all that from him for my own selfish and foolish reasons. I will not now take even a moment of his time.”

           “Shouldn't it be his choice?”

           “I know him. He would forgive. He is too kind to refuse me.”

           “He forgave you already.”

           “Words to a dying man.”

           “Words to the one he loved.”

           “I ALMOST KILLED HIM!” Thorin bellowed, shaking the stone walls of the small room. “I had my hands on his collar! I nearly put them ‘round his neck! I had every intention of throwing him from the balcony to the rocks below!”

           “But you didn’t.”

           “I would have! Had not anyone intervened ... I would have.”

           “But you didn’t. And that is how he will see it.”

           Thorin did not answer. There was no need; he didn’t agree.

           “Don’t you both deserve a second chance?”

           “He deserves to be left in peace.”

           “He deserves to have the one he loves.”

           Thorin turned away to once more to stare out of the arrowslit, towards the West. “He deserves better.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text


 

                Mez, daughter of Nez, hummed a cheery tune to herself, nearly prancing; thank the Mother no one could see her.  Though frankly, she didn’t care.  Everything was in place and ready.  For both of us, she thought.  She turned a corner and bounced up to a slim door halfway down the corridor.  With a jaunty knock, she rocked on her heels, waiting.

                In moments the door slowly opened.

                “Good morning!” Mez said with a grin.

                “It’s morning,” Gitte, daughter of Yritte, said dryly.  “I don’t know about ‘good.’”

                Mez laughed.  “Some tea and breakfast will set you to rights!  Let’s go have some, because I’m famished and then we—”

                “I’m … I’m not up for breakfast.”

                Mez was surprised.  “Why ever not?  We always—”

                “I was awake most of the night.”

                “I told you I would help you!” Mez said, gently pushing her way into Gitte’s room.  “Together we can—” Mez stopped dead as she looked about the room; the place was a wreck and nothing was done.  “What’s going on?!”  Why was Gitte up ‘most of the night’, if nothing was packed.

                Gitte sighed and closed the door.  “I’m not going.”

                Mez was now shocked.  “What?”

                Gitte shook her head.  “I’m sorry, Mez, but … I just can’t.”

                “You can’t?”  Mez said with a slight bite in her tone.  “Or you won’t?”

                “I …” Gitte cleared her throat.  “I don’t want to leave.”

                “I don’t believe this!”

                “I’m sorry.”

                “But we’re going home!”

                “I’m already home.”

                “But there is so much waiting for us!”

                “Is there, though?  Is there truly?”

                “Yes!  Think of the resources!  The metals!  The gems!   Our jewelry will be what we have only ever dreamed it could be!”

                “I know.  And … I’m not trying to stop you—”

                “So you want me to leave?!”  Mez was horrified at the thought.  Her stomach sunk into the lowest part of her belly.  “Alone?!”

                “No,” Gitte said, taking Mez’s hands in hers.  “I don’t want you to leave, but … nor do I want to leave Khagal'abbad.”

                Mez felt sick.  Her world was turning upside-down.  “But … I don’t want to stay in the Blue Mountains!”

                Gitte sighed again and nodded.  “Then we have a problem.”

                Mez squeezed Gitte’s hands.  “We promised to stay together!”

                “I know.”

                “It was going to be us, against the world!”

                “I know.”

                “You said that nothing could stop us!”

                “I know.”

                Mez was getting angry and she dropped Gitte’s hands.  “Then you tell me what’s changed!”

                Gitte looked at Mez as a single tear left a watery scar down Gitte’s cheek.  “We considered everything and planned for every obstacle.  Yet we forgot the one thing no one can plan for.”

                “And that is?!”

                Gitte shrugged.  “Our hearts.”

                Mez almost laughed.  “Our hearts?!”

                Gitte nodded.  “This is my home.  My heart belongs in Khagal'abbad.”

                “I thought you said your heart belongs with mine.”

                “I’m … I’m sorry.”

                Mez nodded.  “All right.”

                Gitte brightened.  “You mean … you’ll stay?!”

                Mez shook her head.  “No.  I simply meant if this is the way things are, then it’s the way things are and that’s all right.”

                Gitte’s lip quivered.  “So you are still going to leave?”    

                Mez looked away; she didn’t want to look at Gitte.  “I’m tired of scrapping out a living, of wondering how to survive if the winter’s too long; I’m tired of going without.  I’m sick and tired of hoping for better.  Better is now just a few months’ journey to the East.”

                Gitte sniffed.  “And nothing will tempt you to stay?”

                Mez turned a hard look upon Gitte.  “Just as there is apparently nothing to tempt you to leave.”  With that, Mez spun around and left. 

Mez leaned upon the door and breathed; what more could she do?  She wanted to tell Gitte that the caravan left in a few days, that if she had a change of ‘heart’ she should be there, that if she was there she would be welcomed.  She would be forgiven.  But Mez did not.  Despite the muffled sound of Gitte crying, Mez would not give in.

                Gitte had made her choice, so now Mez must stick to her’s.

                Mez walked away, the bounce in her step quite gone, and her appetite for breakfast with it.  She had much to do.

 

-----ooooo-----

 

                Captain Bodil, daughter of Tovil, adjusted her armor as she walked.  Countless mornings had been the same, it took time for every layer to find its place and settle.  No matter, it would soon be like a second skin.

                She had urgent news for her lady and she had to find her.

                She made her way steadily through the halls of her mistress, though they still bore the name of her lady’s late brother.  With said brother gone, those few who had chosen to stay behind wondered what should they call their home now?  Some believed they should leave the name; in honor of their fallen, former leader.  But some argued in favor of renaming; they had done so when after the disappearance of their lady’s father and the coming rule of her brother.  Others suggested they simply give their home a name untied to any one person, while a smaller group suggested that they abandon the halls all together and move to one of the ancient cities and start afresh.

                Her lady made the final decision. 

                Her lady said they would not abandon her home, regardless of the pain of her loss.  She would not rename their home either, feeling that it would be insulting to her brother’s memory.  She, and any that wished, would remain here and she would rule in her brother’s place.

                Her lady had emphatically stated that she had no desire to move to Erebor.  She had not even called it a return as she had been far too young when her family had fled to even remember it as home.  She’d lost her mother, her father, her oldest brother and her two sons to the cursed mountain, she would not waste another moment even thinking on the place.

                That was all well and good for Captain Bodil.  The Guard Captain didn’t care for change, and there had been far too much of that already.  When her lady made the announcement that she, and anyone that wished to, would be staying in the Blue Mountains, the captain breathed a sigh of relief.

                Captain Bodil came upon the doors of her lady’s chambers and knocked.  Time stretched and Bodil nearly knocked again when a voice called, “Come in.”

                The good captain opened the door, but was surprised; her lady was not there.

                “She’s gone down to the meeting hall,” said the blonde Dwarrowdam, Ylva, daughter of Milva, as she made her lady’s bed.

                Captain Bodil nearly huffed.  “Without me?!”

                Ylva didn’t even look up, saying dryly, “It’s not like she needs an armed guard to go to a council meeting.”

                “So says you!”  Bodil huffed. “Things have changed now!”

                “In what way?” Ylva said, fluffing the bed pillows.

                “She is not just a lady, but our queen!  She is far more vulnerable to threats and attacks.”

                Ylva chuckled.  “I wouldn’t say that to her.”

                “It’s true!”

                “Not in her mind.”

                “She needs to get used to the idea!”

                Ylva gave the captain a pointed look as moved towards the sitting area.  “She doesn’t need to get used to anything.”

                Captain Bodil wasn’t backing down.  “Whether she likes it or not, she is our leader and queen.”

                “Leading isn’t the problem,” Ylva said. “It’s the title of queen.”  She picked up furs and blankets, straightening them over the backs of chairs and sofa.  “She won’t have it.”

                “But she is queen!”

                “Well … call her that to her face once too often, and I will buy tickets to that!”

                Captain Bodil curled a lip.  “I’m not amused!”

                Ylva gave the captain a cocked eyebrow.  “And I wasn’t joking.”

                The two women stood their ground, neither willing to give in, give up, or back down.  However, the time was ticking away and Captain Bodil wasn’t about to waste anymore.  She rolled her eyes and turned, saying as she left, “You’re but a maid-servant, what do you know?”

                Ylva shook her head and went back to cleaning, muttering under her breath, “I know enough not to piss off my mistress.”

 

-----ooooo-----

 

                “If there is nothing else …” Dis said, standing up and looking about the table; no one spoke.  Dis took that as a ‘yes.’  “We will adjourn.”

                The entire council stood at that and made to leave.  The meeting hadn’t been long but Dis was tried; this was to be their last gathering.  The caravan to Erebor left in just a few days, hours really if one wanted to panic, and with so much to do, most would not have time to meet again.  She wished them all luck, she truly did.  She was happy for them, for the life that lay waiting for them, for the opportunities, the sense of completion, and for the sheer adventure and promise the future held for them all; that was all any leader could want for her people. 

                She was happy for them.

                For herself?  Not so much.

                “Your majesty.”

                Dis turned and smiled.  “Olia.  We have known each other since our school days!  You can still call me by my name.”

                Lady Olia paled.  “But … that would be so … inappropriate now.”

                Dis chuckled.  “Why?”

                “Well … you … I mean, since … that is …”

                Dis put her hands on Lady Olia’s shoulders, bringing the women to silence.  “I have lead off and on for over a century.  It’s only official that I do it now.  There really is no change.”

                Lady Olia looked away.  “Much has changed.”

                Dis nodded.  “Yes.  Perhaps.”  Dis sighed.  “But let’s not add trivia to that.  Titles and names are unimportant when it comes to it.  Nor should we let them divide us.”

                Lady Olia gave Dis a small smile and nodded.  “I wish you were coming with us.”

                “I know.  But … this is my home.  I left Erebor as mere babe.  It was never home for me.”

                “But … your family …”

                Dis stood a little straighter.  “They were the only things to entice me to leave but they are gone now.  I have no desire or wish to return to The Lonely Mountain.  There is truly nothing there for me.”

                “What of your cousins?”              

                Dis scoffed and rolled her eyes.  “Don’t even mention them to me!”

                “But surely Dain would want you to come.”

                “Then why not ask?  Why send only the official proclamation of his ascension and coronation?!  And why not a single word from Balin or Dwalin?!  Not even Gloin or Oin wrote to me.  No letters at all to anyone!  But …” A bitter taste rose up in Dis’ mouth.

                All the notice they received was the official proclamation that Lord Dain of the Iron Hills was now King Under The Mountain and that Erebor welcomed all who wished to return and make their home there.   Dry official words that glossed over the words between the lines; Dain was king because the rule line was gone, dead.

                No missives or letters or messages giving any sort of account or explanation or comfort.  Not even a few lines of condolences.

                Nothing.

                “You could travel there yourself,” Lady Olia suggested.  “Ask them.”

                Dis shook her head.  “I will stay here.  This is my home.  Not Erebor.”

                “You do realize, of course, that many will stay with you.  And for you.”

                “I know.  And I wish they wouldn’t.”

                Lady Olia was surprised.  “They love you!”

                Dis smiled.  “And I them.  But I want them to decide for their own sakes alone, not for mine.  But … while, I will not ask them to stay, I will also not force them to go.”

                They linked arms and left the room. 

                “I still wish you were going,” Lady Olia said softly.

                “I know you do, my friend,” Dis inclining her head towards Lady Olia’s.  “And I love you for it.  But this is where I belong, so this is where I will stay.”

                “Your majesty!”

                Dis and Lady Olia turned and saw Captain Bodil hurrying down the hall behind them.  Dis swallowed a smile down; Bodil was always in near-state of tension at Dis’ total ‘disregard’ for her own safety.  Dis found that so amusing.

                “Something bothering you, Captain?” Dis said evenly.

                “We have a …” Captain Bodil looked at Lady Olia as if she'd rather not speak in front of the good lady.  However, the captain’s urgency overrode her hesitation.  “Situation, my Queen.”

                “Princess,” Dis corrected.  Now that she ruled, she decided to reclaim her title.  With so few remaining, ‘kingdom’ was not quite the right word but ‘principality’ would do.  “And what is so urgent?  Surely not another dragon?”

                Captain Bodil blanched at the idea and Dis, along with Lady Olia, could no longer hold her laughter at the look of abject horror on the captain’s face.        

                “It was a joke, Bodil,” Dis said smiling.

                “Oh,” Captain Bodil said, relaxing a bit, her cheeks a little red.  “Yes.  Very funny.”

                “You really need to loosen up,” Dis said.

                “I’ll leave you, Dis,” Lady Olia said, giving Dis a hug.  “Maybe we can have dinner tonight?”

                “Sounds lovely,” Dis said, letting go of your old friend.  “Give my best to your family.”

                “I will.”

                “Now, then,” Dis said, giving Captain Bodil her complete attention.  “What seems to be the problem?”

                “There is an … an Elf.”

                Dis nodded slowly.  “Leading a caravan or something?”

                “No.  Just an Elf.”

                “Alone?”

                Captain Bodil nodded solemnly.

                “A solitary Elf.”  Dis was so confused.  “And … he is the entire problem?”  She almost laughed again.

                Captain Bodil sighed.  “He’s not from the Grey Havens or even from Rivendell.”

                “Curious.  Does he say where—?”

                “He’s from the woodland realm.”

                “From Mirkwood?”

                Captain Bodil nodded again.

                Dis was truly confused.  “How odd.”

                Captain Bodil wore a satisfied smile.  “So you distrust him too!”

                Dis raised an eyebrow.  “I never said that!  I’m just curious as to why he would come all this way and alone.”  Dis shook her head.  “After you learn to relax, Bodil, we need to work on your diplomatic skills.”

                “But he could be dangerous!”

                “Show him to my sitting room.”

                “But your Majesty!”

                “Just … show him.”

                Dis freshened up and made herself presentable.  Unlike others of her line, she had no issue, and never had, with the Elves.  If this Elf had traveled across half of Arda to come here, the very least she could do was to greet him with respectfully.

                “I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” Dis said as she entered her sitting room

                “I’m sorry to arrive unannounced,” The Elf said.  Like all of his race, he was tall and slender with a cascade of golden hair.  He was dressed in shades of green and tan but he was weaponless; no doubt Captain Bodil had insisted.  There was naturally no way to judge his age; he could have been a few hundred or a few thousand years old. 

                “Not at all,” Dis said, gesturing to a chair by the fire.  “Would you care to sit down?”

                “Thank you,” The Elf said, taking the seat.

                “Some refreshments?”  Dis asked as she took a chair opposite.  “You must be hungry after your long journey.”

                “Thank you, but no.  I ate before arriving at the gate.”

                “And what has brought you to our gate?”

                “My father told me—”

                “Your father?”

                “—to seek out the Rangers of the North.”

                Dis nodded.  “We do see them from time to time, they watch over the lands of the Half-lings.  But they do not normally camp in the Blue Mountains.”

                “No.  But it was on my way here that I discovered something that would be of great interest to you.”

                “To the Dwarrow?”

                “No.  To you personally.”

                “To me?”

                The Elf removed a small, leather satchel slung across his person that Dis had not noticed before and held it out for Dis to take.  When she took it, she immediately saw that it was decorated in geo-metric patterns and runes.  It was obviously Dwarven.

                “Most of the Orcs of the North and Misty Mountain range were killed in the great battle of the Five Armies, but sadly not all.”

                “Five armies?!”

                The Elf nodded.  “The Ravens of Ravenhill had not all returned, and there was such a distance between Erebor and Erin Luin, yet they wanted to get messages to you all as quick as possible …”

                Dis opened the satchel and out spilled dozens of letters, missives, and messages.  She was stunned.  “Have you had these all this time?!”

                The Elf shook his head.  “The King sent them by courier as soon as the letters were written.”  Here the Elf paused and sighed.  “Sadly, months later, as I made my way west, I came upon the remains of the courier … or what was left of him and his ram; he’d been attacked by Orcs.”

                “Oh my, god.”

                “They’d taken everything of value but I found that satchel tossed aside.  Once I realized what it contained, I decided that my first priority should be to bring them to you.”

                Dis was overwhelmed.  “And I cannot thank you enough.”

                The Elf nodded.  “I think you should read them before you fully thank me.”

                Dis felt the hairs on her neck prickle but she did as the Elf said and started opening letters.  One lead to another and soon she was slack jawed as she tore through them.

                “I can’t believe this!”     

                “It’s true.”

                Dis stood quickly, rang the bell on the table by her bed and turned as the door to her chambers opened.

                “You rang, milady?”  Ylva asked.

                “Bring food. Ale. Wine. And be quick!”

                Ylva nodded and took off.

                “Now …” Dis turned back to her guest.  “I want as full an account as you can give me.  Leave nothing out.”  She returned to her seat and picked up one of the last letters she had read.  “And I want to hear more about this …” She scanned the page before looking up.  “This burglar.”