Billa's world was one of silence.
It had happened during the Fell Winter when she'd lost both of her parents. The shock had turned her mute. At first, people had been sympathetic. After all, they had all had a horrific winter, but losing your entire immediate family in one blow was hard. But as time went on and she didn't get better according to other people's schedule's they started disappearing from her life. She'd only been a child at the time when her parents had died, but it didn't matter.
Before she knew it, 30 years had passed and she still lived alone in Bag End, the silence echoing loudly in her ears. To that day to this one, she had still been unable to speak a word, but she took solace in her books and her writing. She and the Gamgees had long ago worked out a system where he oversaw her holdings for her, only bringing matters that truly needed her attention to her. In return, she gave him a substantial part of the income. After all, being the only adopted child of the head Baggins meant that she was independently wealthy.
Not that people knew that she was his adopted child, thinking her to be his entirely. Bungo had decided to never marry and thus needed an heir to oversee his holdings. And it was true that she appeared more hobbit than the halfling that she truly was. But her father had been a dwarf, of the line of Ur. As such, it was undetermined which parent she would truly take after. Would she age like her hobbit mother or like her dwarven father? She had no answers for this, as all three of her parents had perished during that winter, long before any determinations could be made.
However, of late she was starting to suspect that she would age truer to her dwarf side than her hobbit side. By all accounts she should be a comfortably middle aged hobbit by this point, but she still looked and felt like a lass just reaching her majority. This too led to more whispers, but Billa didn't bother to try and explain. She'd come to accept that the hobbits would always talk about her and never really accept her. She knew that her Took relatives loved and cared for her, but they lived days away and could only visit occasionally. Besides, her inability to talk hindered their interactions, as much as she loved them in return.
So here she remained, a pariah in the Shire, shut away in Bag End, although people still treated her politely to her face. Still, it was time for a change, the isolation becoming nigh on unbearable. She was sitting outside on her front bench puffing on her pipe and contemplating this when fate decided to go ahead and step in.
So lost was she in her thoughts that she did not notice the man making his way slowly up the path. In fact, he startled her quite badly, making her scramble to catch her pipe when he called out good morning from where he leaned on her front gate. She shot him a small glare but it lacked any real heat to it. After a moment, her racing heart slowed and she grudgingly nodded back at him.
He asked quietly, "Could an old man stop and rest his weary bones on your bench for a spell?"
Sighing, there went her thinking time, she motioned for him to go ahead. He accepted her offer with alacrity and with a swiftness that belied his apparent age, joined her on the bench. He pulled out his own pipe and she offered him a light, which he accepted gratefully.
They sat in companionable silence for several minutes before he remarked idly, "Most people are more suspicious or at least ask more questions of strangers that suddenly appear."
Sighing internally, Billa dug through her skirt pocket for the tiny notepad and pencil she carried there. Finding it, she pulled it out and quickly scribbled 'I'm mute' before handing it over for him to read.
He raised a brow but took the paper and read the note. His second eyebrow joined the first when he read the note. Handing back the paper, he asked, "Since when, Billa Baggins? I remember you as a faunt, chattering away the day with any who would stop and listen and a few who wouldn't."
She chose her words carefully before handing the pad back to him. 'It happened during the Fell Winter, when we lost so many. No one knows why or can find anything wrong that might be causing it. Even the elves didn't know.'
"You asked the elves?"
'Grandfather asked for their help when I didn't recover in a reasonable amount of time. They had vague theories but nothing of substance to help.'
She didn't add that they had said that she was suffering from the trauma and grief of losing her family and that she might fade away entirely. Billa had been furious upon hearing that and had rallied every ounce of Took stubbornness that she possessed and regained her health, but she never again regained her ability to speak.
'Lord Elrond's son, Elladan.' Although he had infuriated her, they had somehow managed to strike up a friendship nonetheless.
"He's a good healer, although not as talented as his father is. Still, this things will either work themselves out or they won't. What about your parents?"
Her strokes were rough as she scratched out her reply, 'They died. Fell Winter. Who are you anyway?' She shoved the note at him and glared.
His expression saddened and he seemed to age as he read her note. "It seems that I have been gone too long. I am sorry for your loss, Belladonna's spirit was one of the brightest I've ever had the privilege to meet, her loss is all of middle earth's. As for who I am, does the name Gandalf mean anything to you?"
She thought for several minutes before hesitantly scribbling, 'Fireworks?'
Gandalf grinned. "That's right, I made fireworks for the Old Took's one hundredth birthday. I'm glad that the hobbits at least remember that much about me."
She shrugged, 'My parents used to talk about you, but I don't really remember anything more than that, it was long ago. What brings you to the Shire?'
He held his peace for several minutes, blowing smoke rings and she was content to let him be. Finally he asked, "Describe your life in the Shire in a single word and then I will tell you why I am here."
She started and crossed off several words before finally settling on one. With a sigh of resignation, she wrote: Lonely.
"Now that's an odd choice for a bright young lass like yourself. Surely you have family still, even if your parents are gone."
She scowled at him. 'You said one question.' She underlined the word one several times.
He smiled disarmingly at her, "Humor an old man's curiosity."
She wrote FINE before taking the pad back and writing a long message. 'Since I lost my voice and my parents, I have been a virtual outcast. Although my family was kind at first, when I didn't get better according to their timeline, they found other things to do with their time. The Sackville-Bagginses have tried to evict me from my home several times on the grounds that if I cannot speak I cannot manage my estates. They also drug the fact that I am only half hobbit into the matter, but the fact remains the Bungo adopted me as his own so they had no legal claim. Also, the Gamgees are kindly folk who help me manage my holdings. They are worth far more gold than I could ever pay them. My Took and Brandybuck relations are kind, but being unable to speak to them makes anything more than short visits strenuous. Other than small trips to the market, I rarely if ever see anyone. The elves have been far kinder than some of my relatives, but they keep waiting for me to fade away. By all rights, I should've just died when my parents did. It might've spared me from all these years alone.'
To her surprise, he didn't immediately rebuke her or pity her. He just eyed her intently before returning to his pipe and smoke rings. Truthfully, Billa felt a little bit guilty about writing the last two sentences, but it felt good to finally get the words out into the open from where they had been festering inside of her for so long.
Finally Gandalf tapped out his pipe and turned to her. "I believe that the Valar spared you that day for a reason. What reason, I cannot know. But I know this, fate is not done with you yet. And since you've been honest with me, I will be honest with you. I am here in the Shire because I have a problem. A company needs another member for their party and I have been searching high and low for the right person to join their quest. It is a matter of utmost importance that I chose the right person to join them. I think that I might have the solution to both of our problems. They need another member and you need to get away from this Shire. Would you be willing to join their quest?"
Her heart leapt at the question. Hadn't she been wishing just an hour ago for a chance to leave the Shire, to start her life anew. However a more cautious voice whispered in the back of her mind, one that sounded suspiciously like Bungo, "Who is this company that he speaks of? What is this quest? He is long on needs and short on answers." Would they even accept a mute in their company? If they didn't find her useful, would they just abandon her somewhere in the wilderness to die?
Picking up her pad, she chose her words with utmost care, thinking each one through before putting it on the paper. 'I make no promises, Gandalf. I will need more information before I decide one way or the other and they deserve to ask their questions of me. Invite them to my house for dinner tomorrow and we'll see if it works out then. If we do not suit, I am out nothing more than a little bit of time and a meal. How many am I to expect?'
Gandalf chuckled, "Finally! A person of sense. Yes, Billa Baggins, I think that you will do nicely. There will be thirteen dwarves and myself for dinner tomorrow. They have been on the road for a long time and will undoubtedly be hungry. I think that if you prepare enough for a meal for two hobbits for each dwarf, that will be more than sufficient."
She quirked and eyebrow and wrote sassily, 'So, a small family get together then.'
"Exactly so, exactly so." Standing, he carefully tucked his pipe away into his robes and picked up his staff. "Until tomorrow, young Billa."
She nodded, watching him walk slowly away before shaking herself from her complacency. She had company coming, she needed to prepare.
* * *
She spent the better part of the day cooking. She took special care to make all the dishes that her father had loved. She knew that ever since Erebor, these dwarves had been forced to wander, although things had improved somewhat with the settling of Ered Luin. But if she could make them feel even a little bit more at home, then that was what she would do. And although she was half dwarf, she was also half hobbit and hobbit hospitality was legendary. She would not shame that part of her heritage by putting out a shabby feast.
She had just finished pulling out the last of fresh loaves of bread when the first knock sounded. Making her way to the door, she grabbed the chalkboard that she had specially prepared as she went. Opening the door, she wasn't prepared for the sheer size of the dwarf standing in front of her. He bowed and said, "Dwalin, at your service."
She smiled and curtsied to him before holding up her sign. It said simply: Billa Baggins. Welcome to my home. I cannot speak but you are most welcome.
Once he nodded his understanding, she motioned for him to follow her. Taking his cloak, she hung it neatly in the hall and then led him through to the dining room. Pulling out her notebook, she hastily scribbled, 'I'd like to wait until everyone is here for the main meal, but everything on the table is available to snack on and I can fetch you an ale if you wish.'
He rumbled, "Much appreciated, lass."
She had just fetched the ale when the second knock came. Grabbing the chalkboard, she went through the routine a second time with Balin. When Balin and Dwalin bashed heads together, she sighed nostalgically. Her father had done that with a few of the dwarves that had passed through the Shire, his booming laugh ringing out.
Yet another knock drew her from her musing and she hurried back to the door. She knew as soon as she opened the door that these two were mischief makers. First there was their synchronized bows and then Kili mangled her name. She accepted Fili's weapons with good grace, pleased that he was following the rules of hospitality. She had just set them gently aside when she turned around to find Kili wiping his muddy feet on her good furniture. She smacked him upside the head and he yelped, turning to face her with wounded eyes. Propping her hands on her hips, she scowled at him and he hung his head sheepishly. Tossing him a rag so he could clean up his mess, she turned and wrote a note, holding it up so Fili could read it. 'Could you all help me move the dining room table? I don't think everyone will fit in the room that it's in.'
He grinned and nodded, moving to talk to Dwalin with Kili trailing after him. Eying the box, she decided that he had done well enough and decided to let it go. Overseeing the moving of the table, she almost missed the next knock. Scurrying to open the door, she was knocked backwards when a group of dwarves fell in the door. Sitting up, she looked over at the door to see Gandalf bending over and peeking in the door. Sighing, she straightened her skirt and resisted the urge to rub her aching bottom, that hardwood floor was hard! She was just about to climb to her feet when a hand reached out. Surprised, she put her hand in the offered one and was lifted easily to her feet.
The young dwarf who had helped her to her feet quickly let go of her hand but offered her a shy smile. "Ori, at your service."
Looking around for her chalkboard, she sighed when she saw in pieces of to the side of the hall. Thankfully Balin came to her rescue. "Ori, so glad that you all made it. This is our hostess, Miss Billa Baggins. She's unable to speak but welcomes us into her home. If you'll follow me, she's laid out a lovely feast."
Standing to one side with Gandalf, she smiled as each dwarf introduced himself. After the last one entered the other room, she asked Gandalf, 'I thought you said thirteen?'
"The last one will be along a little later."
'I'd better save him a plate then. Excuse me.' Heading to the other room, she quickly pulled together a couple of plates and tucked them away from the ravenous dwarves. It pleased her to see them tuck so eagerly into the food, especially the dishes that her father had loved. A few were speaking in Khuzdul and she almost cried when she heard the rumbling sound, not realizing how much she had missed it. It had been so long since she had heard it that she had forgotten most of what she'd known, but just hearing it took her back to happier days with her parents, her father grumbling in Khuzdul while her mother gently teased him from his sour mood.
She excused herself with the excuse that she needed to fetch her spare chalkboard, but she really just needed a moment to compose herself. Taking several deep breaths, she pushed back the tears that threatened. She wasn't going to disgrace herself by crying over a few spoken words. She was stronger than that, both of her parents had said that she was strong and she wasn't going to disgrace them by weeping like a silly Bracegirdle.
Hurrying back, she had just reached the hallway when she was met by Ori carrying his plate. "Excuse me, what do I do with this?"
Fili scooped the plate out of his hands and tossed it down the hall to Kili. Sighing, she quickly moved out of the way. The rest of the dwarves catching on to what was going on started stomping out a rhythm, which was fine, until they started clashing the knives together. They were dwarves, surely they understood how hard it was to get an edge on soft Shire steel. Scowling, she quickly wrote, 'Please don't do that, you'll blunt them.'
She should've realized that Bofur would take her words as a challenge. He got the same gleam in his eye as her da used to right before he did something that he knew would drive her mother crazy.
"Did ya hear that, lads? She says we'll blunt the knives."
And just like that, chaos ensued. Making a note to pay Bofur back for instigating it, she allowed herself to be pulled into their antics. Dodging flying plates and cutlery, she allowed the dwarves to twirl her from dwarf to dwarf as they danced. Finally, she was twirled into a spotless kitchen while the dwarves all laughed good naturedly. It was at that moment that there was a knock announcing the final dwarf.
Eyes sparkling, she shook her head at the mischievous dwarves and went to answer the door. When she opened it, a majestic looking dwarf was standing there. He tried to stare her down, but she merely waved him into the house. He entered the house like he was expecting an ambush at any moment. Ignoring it, she shooed him forward until he reached the dining room. It was the only one large enough to hold all the dwarves anyway. While the others greeted the dwarf who's name was apparently Thorin, and why did she know that name, she went and fetched the plates from the warming oven along with a generous mug of ale.
Setting it down in front of him, Thorin nodded his thanks. Billa nodded and made her way over by the fireplace where she could watch things but still be out of the way. He had polished off half of the food before he spoke, the health of the other dwarves apparently convincing him that the food wasn't poisoned. "So this is the hobbit."
She nodded, wondering where he was going to go with this.
"She looks more like a milkmaid than a burglar. Too shy to even speak to me. Gandalf, what were you thinking?"
Billa scowled at him. Grabbing the chalkboard, she wrote quickly, 'I'm mute, not stupid. Don't insult me in my own home, dwarf, when you haven't even had the courtesy to offer me your name.'
He looked startled and she heard what sounded like a snicker hastily turned into a cough that she thought might be Kili, but wasn't entirely sure. He mumbled something under his breath in Khuzdul. Meeting her eyes, he inclined his head. "My apologies, Mistress Baggins. I am Thorin Oakenshield."
Her eyes widened. 'The king?'
He looked at her thoughtfully, "King-in-exile, although not many aside from dwarves know my name."
She ignored the polite inquiry. It was none of his business how she knew his name. 'What brings you to my smial, your majesty?'
"I wish to hire you as a fourteenth person in my quest."
Raising an eyebrow, she asked, 'In what capacity?'
He nodded, "Balin, give her the contract."
She was reading over the contract when movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. Looking up, she saw several dwarves apparently conversing amongst themselves using some sort of sign language. Iglishmek, her brain whispered with an echo of her father's baritone rumble. Coming to a sudden decision, she stood up and set aside the contract. Catching Thorin and Balin's eye, she quickly wrote, 'I'll do it. But I want to amend the contract first.'
The skin around Thorin's eyes tightened, "If you want a larger share of the treasure, I'm afraid."
She waved that away sharply. 'I want to learn the hand language.'
Thorin immediately shook his head, "Khuzdul is sacred to the dwarves."
'I don't want to learn Khuzdul. Mute, remember? It wouldn't do me any good. I want to learn the hand language.'
Balin broke in, "Are you sure you don't want to take more time to read over the contract first? It's not something to be taken lightly, facing a dragon. No one will fault you if you decide against it."
Carefully hiding her surprise over the fact that they wanted her to face a dragon, she shook her head. 'Include a clause that you will teach me the language and I'll move heaven and earth to do what needs to be done.'
Balin and Thorin exchanged looks, puzzled by her vehemence. Thorin asked, "Why is it so important that you learn this language?"
Clenching her fists, she took a few deep breaths to center herself. Her hand shook slightly when she wrote, but it was still legible. 'That you even ask shows that you don't truly understand.' She nodded at Bifur. 'He can tell you. Do you have any idea how hard it is to live in a world where you can't communicate? Where you have to write out everything and how few people have the patience to deal with that very long? Learning that language will open my world again. I won't be forever tied to a pen and piece of paper. To me, that language means freedom.'
"But only dwarves know the language."
'Then I shall talk to dwarves! I just want to be heard. Do you know how hard it is to live in a world where you can't express yourself? I am tired of being trapped in my head and shackled to writing utensils. Even if I should die by Smaug, then at least I will have fully lived for a short time.'
Thorin studied her closely, then abruptly ordered Balin, "Amend the contract so that in addition to the aforementioned terms, Billa Baggins shall learn iglishmek in order to better fulfill her role as company burglar."
Balin sighed, "All right, lass. If you're sure."
She nodded sharply and he sighed again. "All right. If you could show me to your study, we can amend this quickly and then you can sign it."
Bowing to Thorin, she motioned for Balin to follow her.
* * *
As soon as they were gone, Thorin turned to Gandalf and murmured, "I do not like this."
The wizard hummed contemplatively and said, "Understood."
"I cannot guarantee her safety. It is madness to take a lass on a quest like this, especially one that cannot speak."
"I understand, but do not dismiss her quite yet. Hobbits are surprising creatures. You can study them for a hundred years and they will still find ways to surprise you."
"If I did not need her so badly, I would walk away now."
Gandalf blew a smoke ring, "Ah, but you do need her. Remember, you're the one that tasked me with finding a fourteenth member of the company. And I have found you one in Mistress Billa Baggins."
Billa and Balin chose that moment to return, effectively ending their conversation. Thorin carefully read over the amendment before signing it and passing the quill to Balin. Balin sighed but dutifully signed as witness. Billa signed last with a flourish and a smile before carefully handing the contract back to Balin.
Business concluded, the dwarves started pulling out their instruments. Knowing that Thorin was less than pleased at her inclusion, so she tucked herself in an inconspicuous corner and listened to their merry music. Her eyes were drooping and the hour late when Thorin finally joined in the singing. The longing in their voices as they sang of their lost home made her heart ache, even as she felt herself drifting off. The last thing she remembered was strong arms lifting her and carrying her gently to bed. Then she knew no more.