She made her way slowly across the camp, feeling the tension in the air and trying to not draw attention to herself. The camp was little more than a dozen crude wooden shacks hastily thrown together and practically falling apart. However, that was not the dangerous part of the camp, no, that would be all the orcs and wargs lounging carelessly about. There were a handful of other slaves in the camp, but they were doing their best to be invisible.
She was carrying a large bucket, having been ordered to fetch water. She huffed out a small sigh of relief when she managed to escape the edge of camp without being noticed. She headed towards the river, not bothering to straighten from her hunch. If the orcs saw her, knew that her spirit wasn't broken, it would be a death sentence for her. Instead, she settled for breathing a fraction deeper and enjoying the peace away from all the constantly watching eyes.
She had just finished filling the bucket when large hands grabbed her and dragged her behind a tree. She might've screamed but the only ones that would've heard her were orcs and she preferred to take her chances. Well, that and the fact that there was a large hand clamped over her mouth. However, when they turned her, she frowned at the dwarf she found standing there.
He held a finger to his lips in warning before removing his hand from her mouth. She didn't bother to speak, simply raised an eyebrow and waited. He pulled her down until they were both crouching, hidden from view by the large trunk. He murmured, "Are you ready?"
Her eyes widened slightly and she swallowed hard. Keeping her voice a bare murmur, she replied, "It's time?"
He nodded, "Azog's planning something big, something that he's planning on dragging everyone into, including the slaves. There will be no better time to run than in the middle of the chaos."
She nodded, tentative hope rising up to choke her. She said fiercely, "Whatever happens, no matter what, you run. Get away and don't look back. You've been here too long as it is, Frerin."
He cupped the back of her neck and pressed his forehead firmly as well, "You as well, lad. I mean it, Bilbo. Get away and don't try to come back for me. If we don't escape together, go to..."
She rolled her eyes and said quietly, "I know, go to Ered Luin and search for Thorin, Dwalin, or Dis. You know that you have a much better chance of getting away than me, but I'll do my best."
His expression turned fierce, "If you don't make it there within a week after I do, I will find a way to come back for you. You are kin to me and I won't leave you behind, I swear on Mahal's hammer."
She knocked her forehead gently with his and said grimly, "Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Yavanna's Grace on you." The words were ash in her mouth, but she prayed that the Valar would at least smile upon the dwarf who had done his best to protect her in the years ever since she had first been captured. Not daring to linger any longer, she gave him a sharp smile before scurrying over and scooping up bucket and refilling it.
Maybe, possibly, after all these years, they would finally get the chance to be free again.
* * *
They found out Azog's plans two nights later. He planned to attack a series of small towns and caravans on the night of the new moon, when there would be no light to illuminate and give away the planned attack. He emptied the entire camp of orcs and slaves. Frerin met her eyes and nodded grimly before looking away. She wanted to cry when she and Frerin were separated into separate attack parties, but kept her face impassive and her body hunched in submission.
She was sent with a small team that was supposed to attack a small caravan that was purportedly carrying a shipment of dwarven weapons. It was supposed to be only a small caravan, three of four wagons, and poorly guarded as well. Because of that, Azog only gave them an attack force of half a dozen orcs and two wargs. She was assigned to them because she had proven to be clever about picking locks and getting into areas that the others couldn't.
Their group left first, so she couldn't hear where Frerin was assigned. As she was forced into a loping run by the orcs, she prayed to Yavanna and her husband, the Smith, to please help Frerin get away and rejoin his family. She had lost hers long ago, but there was still a chance that he's were still out there. Then she had to concentrate on keeping up.
* * *
They were waiting until the darkest part of the night to sleep. They had found the caravan easily enough, the route they were taking being a well known one. There were four wagons and a handful of ponies, maybe a dozen or so figures moving around the wagons and cook fires. The orcs settled on the far side of the hill, the leader of this group being fractionally brighter and more patient than the other orcs, enough to wait for the right opportunity to attack.
She settled in a deeper shadow, waiting for them to forget about her. She had promised Frerin that she would run at the soonest opportunity and the orcs would most likely not dare to chase her, not willing to face Azog's wrath of missing this caravan for the sake of a single slave. But her conscious would not allow those innocent people to be slaughtered. She prayed that they weren't brigands, but something in her gut insisted that she save them, that it was important.
Finally the orcs settled into a circle, betting on something or other. Taking a deep breath, she did something that she hadn't done the entire time she'd been captured and drew on the land, asking for a bit of help to move unseen. It hummed happily under her feet and it was all she could do not to cry at the long forgotten warmth that flooded through her. Barely breathing, she crept away, praying that none of them would notice her leaving.
For once, it seemed like luck was on her side as none of the orcs noticed her departure, none of the wargs stirring at all. Creeping towards the caravan, she prayed whomever was guarding the caravan would believe her.
* * *
Fili stared out into the darkness, turned away from the fire so that it wouldn't disturb his night vision. He gripped his sword hilt absently, pushing down the urge to pace. His nerves had been on edge all day, his skin constantly prickling as if in warning. He didn't know what it was, but every instinct in him screamed that something was coming.
However, he couldn't get a read on it. He'd always had good instincts, ones that had only been further honed by his years on the road as both a wandering smith and a caravan guard. It was driving him crazy, because it felt like something incredible, something life changing was about to happen, but at the same time it almost felt like an approaching storm, dark and filled with danger.
He wished absently that Kili or Thorin was there, that or Balin or Dwalin, so that he could talk it over with them and make sense of things. Never before had his instincts been so torn, dealt with two such opposing, strong feelings. But the rest of them had been busy at their own tasks and since it was only a small caravan, there were only three guards including him. But every job, even a small job like this, was vital to the continued prosperity of Ered Luin.
His hand tightened on the hilt when he saw a shadow moving near the caravan, only to resolve itself into a slender lad, their expression a mixture of terror and determination. Fili's gut clenched and he knew without a doubt that this was at least part of what his instincts had been warning him about. Things were about to get interesting.
* * *
She crept as fast as she could towards the caravan, heading for one of the fires where she could see the outline of what appeared to be a dwarf. The fire was low enough that he wouldn't be an easy target but there was enough light that she could see that he was there. She prayed that he was a dwarf like Frerin, an honorable dwarf, and that he would listen to her.
As she crept closer, he seemed to track her movements, so she abandoned her attempts at stealth and straightened up. Gathering all of her courage, she moved into the firelight, holding out her hands so he could see that she was unarmed. His voice was low and firm when he spoke, but it lacked the twisted undertones that the orcs voices held, "Stop there. What brings you to our fire?"
She kept her voice low, trying not to rouse the caravan or the orcs attention. She knew that she had only one chance to persuade him. "I need you to believe me that I mean you no harm, but you're all in terrible danger."
He nodded, his face impassive, "I'm listening."
Relieved that he wasn't going to attack her outright, she forced herself to speak calmly and slowly, not allowing the words to pour out like they wanted to. "There's a group of orcs that are planning on attacking this caravan in the dead of night. They heard that this caravan is carrying dwarven weapons and they want them. They plan on slaughtering the entire caravan, leaving no witnesses."
There was no emotion in the dwarf's voice when he asked, "And how do I know that you're not part of this plan?"
She clenched her fists before forcing herself to unclench them and say quietly, "I am part of the plan. I'm the orcs slave. Once you're all dead, they want me to unlock any locked boxes. I have a gift for lock picking. But I couldn't let that happen. Please, you must believe me. Take me prisoner and kill me if you think that I'm untrustworthy or trying to lead you into a trap or your death. But please, don't allow yourself to be killed because you don't believe me." She muttered to quietly for him to hear, "I already have enough blood on my hands."
He studied her closely, seeming to note her thinness and her threadbare clothes. Finally he seemed to come to a decision and beckoned her to move forward. She took a tentative step forward, then another, praying that she wasn't making a terrible mistake. But something inside her insisted that he was trustworthy, so she decided to place her faith in him and pray that she wouldn't die for her trust.
He said quietly, "I do believe you, but I don't trust you. You could be a decoy sent in to soften us up, make us face an outward threat, only to stab us in the back." The despair she felt must've shown on her face because his expression softened fractionally, "I have a compromise. I'll check you for weapons and then I'll bind your hands and feet and place you within the safety of a wagon. If we all survive the night, we'll take you to safety, wherever you want to go. However, if you even attempt to do anything, I won't hesitate to cut you down, understand."
She wanted to run, to flee into the night now that she'd warned them of the danger. Anything to escape from being bound and helpless once again. But something inside insisted that it was important to trust him, that he was important, that she would be best off staying with him. So she set her jaw and nodded briskly once.
Releasing the hilt of his sword, he quickly checked her for weapons, his touch light and impersonal. Once he was satisfied that she was unarmed, he motioned her to climb into one of the wagons. When they were both inside, he quickly rummaged through a pack, asking quietly, "What is your name, lad?"
Huffing a silent sigh of relief that he hadn't realized her gender, she murmured, "Bilbo, my name is Bilbo."
The dwarf pulled out a couple of objects from the pack, "Fili, at your service. I really hope that you're telling the truth, Bilbo. Sit and make yourself comfortable."
She sat between a crate and a barrel where she couldn't easily be spotted. He bound her ankles first, firmly but not cruelly, before moving behind her. She was surprised when she felt a soft cloth on her wrists instead of the coarse rope that she had expected. Seeming to somehow sense her surprise, he said quietly, "It's a dwarven scarf. It has metal in it so you won't be able to escape from it, but at least your wrists won't be raw. I'm really sorry that I have to do this."
As he finished knotting it firmly, she said, her voice a bare thread of sound, "I understand." And the truth was, she did understand his concerns, but the thought of being helpless at the hands of the orcs made her nauseous. To distract herself, she added, her voice slightly stronger, "The force that will attack is a small one, six orcs and two wargs. However, don't think that they'll be easy prey. They strike hard and fast, killing their prey mercilessly will they're still confused by the silent initial attack. They'll send a warg to each end of the caravan to further muddy things, so that you can't figure out which direction the attack is coming from. Then, while the defenders are rallying to the ends, they hit the middle that has been left defenseless."
She took a deep breath, pushing gruesome memories from her mind, before forcing herself to continue, "These three will come in silently, slitting the defenders throats from behind before they even know that there's a threat. But the true danger lies in the one that hangs back. He'll find a perch, one with a clear view of the caravan, less than a hundred and more than twenty paces away from the caravan. That one is an archer and he's got no soul. He likes to incapacitate his victims and then watch the wargs slowly tear them apart. If the wargs don't get them, the poison on the arrows do. It's a slow, lingering death that I wouldn't wish on anyone."
Her mind whispered that she wouldn't mind if Azog died like that, but she pushed it aside as irrelevant. Azog deserved a far nastier death than anything that she could come up with, although she would be more that willing to try if anyone asked her to.
The dwarf was silent for several moments before moving back around in front of her. He knelt on one knee in front of her, studying her closely. Finally he spoke, "Thank you for telling me, it might save lives tonight."
She nodded, too tense to offer him a smile although she tried. He pulled a dagger from his boot and showed it to her, "I may be insane for doing this, but something tells me that I can trust you. I'm going to leave this here. You are not to use it to try to escape or hurt anyone, but should the worst happen and we fall, cut yourself free and escape."
Gratitude filled her and she nodded shakily, "You have my word."
He set the boot knife on top of the barrel before turning and slipping wordlessly out of the wagon. Feeling her nerves stretched near to breaking, she settled herself a little more comfortably in her space, trying to listen for any sounds outside the wagon. However, all she could hear was the pounding of her own heart, so she had to give it up for the moment.
Her thoughts turned to Frerin and how he would be furious if he knew that she had risked her life for total strangers. He would've told her to run and leave them to their fate, not out of cruelty but of necessity. But it was too late to change things now, all she could do was pray that his own escape attempt was successful and that his family, whoever they were, would keep him from trying to come back for her if she didn't make it through this. She contented herself with sending a pray to the Valar for him to escape and then settled back to wait.
Nearly two hours had passed and the fires had burned low when she heard the first snarl of the wargs. Her head snapped up from where she had been nearly dozing, her blood turning to ice in her veins. Her heart rabbited in her chest and it was all she could do not to reach for the dagger, the rabbit part of her brain insisting that she needed to flee before the wargs could scent her out and tear her to pieces for trying to escape them.
Instead, she pressed further back into the space, listening carefully, barely daring to breathe. However, instead of the inevitable screams that followed the warg's snarl, there was a clash of weapons and then the cry of a wounded warg. A vicious satisfaction shot through her at the thought that someone had finally managed to end at least one of the foul beasts, but knew that it was much too soon to be counting a victory.
Moments after the warg was wounded or killed, chaos erupted outside of her wagon, fierce battle cries and the crash of weapons creating a cacophony of noise that she couldn't pick apart. It seemed to go on forever, but she knew that it couldn't have been more that ten or fifteen minutes before silence fell. It was several minutes after that when torches flared to life, letting her know that the battle was indeed over. However, which side had won? No one was speaking, only quiet grunts passing back and forth between them.
Finally, the flap on the wagon lifted and she couldn't help the tiny whimper that escaped her as she shrunk further into the space. A voice called quietly, "It's just me, Bilbo."
She scrambled to her knees and peeked around the barrel to see that it was Fili standing there, a lantern in his hand. Relief stole all of the strength from her and she slumped against the barrel. Still, she couldn't help but ask, "Your companions? The orcs?"
His mouth twisted up in grim satisfaction, "Seems like you were telling the truth after all. The orcs are dead, as are the wargs. There were a few injuries, nothing that won't heal. However, if we hadn't been warned, they most likely would've succeeded in wiping us out. We owe you our thanks."
She said tiredly, "Why don't you untie me and we'll call it even?"
He quickly moved over to her with an apologetic expression, setting the lantern on top of the barrel and looking at the dagger that was sitting untouched exactly where he left it. However, he didn't comment, simply quickly untying her and offering his hand to help her stand. She reluctantly allowed him to pull her to her feet, moving out of reach as soon as she was standing.
She asked uneasily, "So, what happens now?"
He answered quietly, "We're just going to patch up the injuries quickly and then we're going to pull out and try to put as much distance between us and the attack site as possible."
The tension in her shoulders eased at that, but she hated how her voice wavered as she asked, "What about me?"
He looked surprised at that, "You'll be with us, of course. Our destination is a town that's still a bit away, but not too far. After that, my contract is ended and I'll be free to uphold my end of the bargain and take you wherever it is that you wish to go."
She frowned at that, not sure if she could trust this total stranger. She asked warily, "Where were you going to go after the contract was ended."
He shrugged, "My plans were to return to Ered Luin, but that can wait until you are returned to wherever it is that you want to go."
She huffed a quiet laugh, it seemed like Yavanna had sent her on the right path after all, "Actually, Ered Luin is where I need to go, I have business there."
He offered her a small smile, "Well then, lad, looks like things worked out just right after all." He pulled out a bedroll and laid it out. "Why don't you go ahead and rest, you look near dead on your feet. No one will bother you, you have my word."
She twisted her hands together uneasily and he picked up easily on it, "What's wrong, Bilbo?"
She murmured, "Can, can I look outside? Just to make sure that this isn't a ploy by the orcs, to, to torture me."
His expression filled with sympathy and he moved out of the wagon, asking quietly, "Has that happened before?"
She looked away, not wanting to relive it, before hesitantly following after him. He climbed out of the wagon, but she merely stuck her head out slowly, letting out an inaudible sigh of relief when she saw that it was indeed the caravan members that were cleaning up. Anger and relief shot through her as she saw the rather mangled body of the archer being dragged to the pile with the other.
She kept her voice low, not wanting to draw the attention of the other members, "What happened to the archer?"
Fili nodded at a dwarf with an axe head sticking from his forehead, "Bifur happened. Apparently, he doesn't like sneaks."
She nodded, exhaustion suddenly swamping her, "Thank you, Fili." She moved to pull back into the wagon before hesitating, "Where will you sleep?"
He waved that aside, "I'll rest once we're safely away from here and in a defensible position. It will most likely be several hours from now. If you're still sleeping, I'll just kip down under one of the wagons."
She nodded and pulled back into the wagon, feeling suddenly overwhelmed. Laying down on the bedroll, she curled up into a tiny ball and tried to calm her mind. It was several minutes, but then the caravan lurched into motion. She huddled further down into the bedroll, trying not to panic. Everything had just happened so fast, she wasn't even sure if she could trust these people or not.
However, her long day, near starvation, and the gentle rocking of the wagon all conspired to lull her to sleep.