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Truth and Trust

Chapter Text

 

Later, he will admit no wrong-doing in assuming the Halfing to be male –although he will feel it sometimes, as one does.

To tell the truth, all the Shirefolk look like beardless girl-children to his kind. The only hints they give to the wary traveler who braves their circling and labyrinthine roads is the length of their hair and the fact that some wear pants while others wear skirts, but not exclusively depending on the time of day or their task at hand.

It’s easier among Dwarves and yes, even Men.  Dwarfish women wear their identities in their jewelry and the charms dangling from the delicate chains decorating their ears, noses, and lips that map out their status for anyone who cares to read. Human women grow no facial hair and tend to be slighter in stature, whereas he has heard Hobbits will grow whiskers only in the last gasp of their sunset days.

Briar Baggins, their would-be treasure thief, is of middling height for his kind so that is no help and wears a pair of loose trousers under a dinner jacket when they meet. Later he will wear plain linen shirts and a blue waistcoat with shiny brass buttons that were probably expensive when he bought them in the craft-starved markets that the Halflings have twice a year. They look to be decent work, but Kili was doing better before his father even let him consider touching anything other than plaster.

He’s dark for the Shire with skin the color of walnuts and soft round cheeks that would probably bruise in a stiff breeze. He’s all together soft; soft of body, soft of mind, and soft of spirit.

Thorin does not like the idea of taking a gentle soul from the gentle hills that spawned him only to face certain death. He has too much weighing on him already and his people at least are of hardy Dwarfish stock.

All dwarves are born to be craftsmen and warriors, to wield both hammer and axe in service of their homes. They may be tinkers, toymakers, and untested youths now but that will change. The seeds of something greater lurks in each of them and is only waiting for the right chance to grow.

It doesn’t occur to him until many months and miles will have gone by that the same could be said of their Halfling, but for now all he can see is the damnable softness.

What Gandalf sees in the little man is beyond Thorin’s ken, but he’s learned something about truth and trust in his years of exile. He’s willing (for now) to sign the contract that the Halfling abandons on his polished floor.

They sing that night of the day when Erebor fell. It is a ballad his people sing often and is perhaps half-propaganda and half-hope. It’s a reminder of better days and prayer for strength to Gods that have long since left these shores.

He and his men strike out before dawn. It’s rising mid-morning when a voice catches up to them on the road and the Halfling finds them with a signed contract in hand and what turns out to be deep skepticism regarding ponies.

“I expected you’d be further along than this.” The Halfling’s voice carries from where he rides next to the Wizard. “How long did they wait?”

“We didn’t wait at all!” Bofur teases and it is truth. They’ve been riding since dawn, but the green growth around the Shire is thick and they haven’t cleared it yet. It seemed a shorter distance on the map, but the Halflings are fond of their privacy as a race and make their settlements difficult to find. Even so, he’s beginning to think there’s something to Gandalf’s claims about a Hobbit’s natural magic.

“That’s odd.” The Halfling comments, but does not explain in favor of listening to Bifur noodle about on the reed pipes he carved the night before.

The woods do not thin out and they reach no more settlements. By the time they call a halt for the noon meal, even Balin has begun to grow concerned and they confer out of earshot of the rest of the company.

“We should have reached the river by now.” Balin is gnawing on a thumbnail as he stares at the map and checks their position against the sun. “Even if we’re south of the ferry, there’s creeks we would have crossed or farmland. I’m worried about our maps now.”

“We’ll consult with the Wizard.” Thorin decides, but it’s for nothing. The Wizard is gone and has left the Halfling in his place doling out soup and travel bread.

“He went back to buy some tobacco at that last farm.” He tilts his head in a seemingly arbitrary direction. “We just passed the Boffin plot and theirs is the best pipe weed in the Shire.”

“What farm?” Thorin keeps the snarl out of his voice only by sheer force of will and judging by the look on the burglar’s face, he doesn’t manage it very well.

“It’ll be on your map as Merryfair Farm.” Baggins takes the paper and points to a location barely outside of Hobbiton and still within West Farthing. He pauses. “Master Oakenshield, is it possible that…” He quails under the look Thorin gives him and says, “Nevermind. It’s clearly nothing.”

That’s the end of it for a while, but they’re no closer to escaping the Shire’s confining woods.

The Wizard rejoins them at some point when Thorin isn’t watching, but he has their location now thanks to the Halfling’s unwitting aid and it’s several hours before Thorin realizes that it hasn’t done him a lick of good.

“Are these woods cursed?” He mutters under his breath and this time Balin doesn’t laugh at him. “We’ll miss the Ferry at this rate and be forced to head towards the bridge.”

“Ah, excuse me, Master Oakenshield?” It’s the Halfling.

What.”

He huffs at Thorin with a hand on one hip and the other scratching his head. “I just meant to ask… is there a reason we’re riding in circles?” He nods towards nothing Thorin can see at all. “Only, we’ve passed the turn-off for Bagshot Row again and if we’re going to do another loop then I’d like to pick up the handkerchief I left behind.”

The company who had up until this point been a rather merry bunch with travel songs, jokes, and wagers flying about like birdsong goes silent.

“Show me.” Thorin snarls. All his patience with this damnable Shire is gone now and he’s half tempted to leave Baggins back on his doorstep if they are indeed so close, but most of him is now afraid they’ll never escape this place without help.

“Well, all right then.” Baggins guides his pony well enough with knees and soft words rather than too much rein and Myrtle responds well to him, which is a surprise for someone who had to be picked up and put into the saddle. Thorin almost loses sight of him in the brush, but is able to keep Myrtle’s wide back-end in view long enough for Baggins to lead them out of the trees and back up the same lane they’d come down in the beginning.

Sure enough, there is the Halfling’s home sitting proud on top of its little hill and he vanishes into it to return with a fat pouch of tobacco and a rather fine-looking pipe that has an ivory bit and an intricately carved bowl.

“There now.” Baggins sighs, patting down his pockets. “Here now, what are you scowling at me for? This was your idea.”

“How long would you have let us wander in the woods, Halfling, for your amusement?” Thorin demands. They’ve lost nearly an entire day to this madness!

“So you were lost!” The Halfing bites his pipe and frowns. “I did try to ask, but you frowned at me so whenever I spoke to you. I thought you were up to plans of your own.” The frown does not last long, but rather melts into a look of sympathy that galls Thorin to his core. “Bless me, I didn’t think Dwarves would have the same problems that Men do getting around. You’re so much closer to being sensibly sized that I thought for sure you’d be able to see where you were going. Forgive me. I should have spoken sooner when I saw you were going over land. Even Gandalf sticks to the main roads around here.”

Thorin turns to glare at the Wizard, but Gandalf is looking elsewhere (at a bird perhaps) and seemingly disinterested in the conversation as he puffs on his long plain wood pipe.

The Hobbit clumsily mounts his pony and reaches out to take Thorin’s reins as if to lead him like a child!

“Now be reasonable.” He sighs when Thorin refuses to give them up. “I can guide us to the Ferry in time for the last crossing, but you Big Folk have trouble following a Hobbit’s lead even on horseback. It’s best if the others can follow you so they don’t get lost.”

It takes an effort of will, but Thorin releases his reins and allows Baggins to loop them over the horn of Myrtle’s saddle. Minty falls easily into her friend’s wake and the others follow. This time they’re in the woods for perhaps half an hour before coming out the other side to a small collection of fisherman’s dwellings populated by squinty-eyed Halflings who close their windows, doors, and front gates as his company passes.

“Pay them no mind.” Baggins advises him. “They do that to everyone, even other Hobbits. They’re descended from Stoor stock around here and it makes them a bit odd; insular even. The Ferry’s free for all to use though. See?” He points to a little crossing flocked about with Hobbits on their day to day business. “Here we are.”

“Briar Baggins!” One old fellow cries out at the sight of them. “What are you doing way up there on that creature? To think I’d see the day a Baggins went about on horseback!” He snorts and chuffs like the very idea is sacrilege.

“Just guiding some Big Folk caught in the Green, Master Hamfast.” Baggins replies. “May I ask you a favor? I’ll be away for a bit. May I leave my key with you and ask that you check on Bag End once in a while?”

“My Tomwise will see to it.” The elderly Halfling says as he accepts the key. “Aye, and keep the Sackville contingent off too. Won’t you, lad?”

“I will, Da” replies younger Hobbit, who has sidled closer to Baggins’ mount says and speaks with their hired Halfling in voices too soft to be overheard in this general clamor. He frowns and squeezes Baggin’s ankle with one hand. “Are you sure you don’t need an escort?” He turns a dubious expression on Thorin, like he’s looking at a night prowler rather than a perfectly respectable Dwarf.

“No, Tomwise. I’ve been hired for the journey.” Baggins replies more kindly than Thorin would have given the circumstances and gently extricates his boot. “Just keep Lobelia and Otho out of my things, please, and I’ll bring your family back a mathom from abroad.”

“Neighbors of mine.” Baggins explains when they are across the water and finally on their way to Bree, where Thorin originally planned to overnight. “Hamfast Gamgee oversaw rents for my father and now his son, Tomwise does the same for me. The Gamgees have worked for the Bagginses for many generations and get a little territorial.” He shrugs a shoulder. “Please forgive them their behavior. They were only looking out for me.”

“Hmmm.” Is Thorin’s only reply. His mood has improved and gets even better now that they are out of the Shire land. The Halfling made good time and they will only be a little late to their next destination.

Perhaps this won’t go so poorly after all.

“Forgive me, Thorin.” Gandalf says over supper that evening. “I should have realized. There’s an effect Hobbits have when so many live together in a single place. Outsiders have a hard time getting in and once you’re there it’s hard to leave. The trade caravans must be met at the Shire’s borders and guided from settlement to settlement before being brought back to the Outside. You see now, why a Hobbit would make such an excellent burglar? They have magic that keeps them hidden and safe although none will ever admit to it for fear the neighbors will find out.”

“Perhaps the lad has some value to the expedition after all.” Balin allows as he watches Kili and Fili sneak around behind their unsuspecting burglar to pour an ale down the back of his collar. The Hobbit moves at the last second to spear another bit of toast off the communal platter and the ale ends up on Dwalin’s boots, much to the dismay of Thorin’s nephews as they try (in vain) to escape his wrath.

“Perhaps.” Thorin allows. “…but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

‘Truth and trust.’ He reminds himself as the Hobbit accidently slips in the puddle Kili left behind and lands hard on his backside. ‘Truth and trust.’

It will have to do for now.

Chapter Text

 

Rivendell is like most elven settlements; deceptive.

Their hosts are all smiles, agreement, and gracious manners that hide their true motivations. The valley elves are kind enough in their own way, but their leader seems to be under the impression that Thorin’s mission requires his blessing.

Elrond translates the map though, which is all Thorin requires of him even if it’s just a delaying tactic.

It becomes clear that the subject of the elves’ interest is their wizard, which is annoying but not the impediment that it could be. They have planned for this and Gandalf knows his role.  In the meantime, Thorin endeavors to keep his people close and ready to move. This is made more difficult by the fact that Elrond’s daughter has adopted his burglar as some kind of exotic pet.

No one has seen Baggins since that first meal. The elven ladies whisked him away and have yet to return him. One by one his men peel away from the open-air chamber they’ve been granted as a campsite and take turns searching their host’s sprawling home. Nori comes closest and locates Lady Arwen’s rooms, which are sequestered from the rest of the house.

“That’s where our hobbit is.” Nori reports. “I heard some of them talking. She may be acting on her father’s orders. The Halfling would make an easy hostage to keep. He’s little, cannot fight, and we can’t replace him at this point.”

Thorin excuses himself when Baggins fails to appear for the evening meal. He has never claimed to know much of Hobbits, but he has learned enough from this one to be instantly wary when they start missing meals.

There’s no one in the women’s quarters when he knocks, which is ominous and he is returning to the feast hall with more concerns than he left it with when someone catches the edge of his coat.

At first he thinks it’s a lost elf child with her long silky skirts and the peaks of her pointed ears emerging from her elaborate coiffure, but he’s never seen an elf without moon-pale skin. This is a healthy nut-brown woman with wide dark eyes and glossy sable curls framing her rosy cheeks.

Then she speaks to him with Briar Baggin’s voice and the world turns over onto its ear.

“Master Baggins?” …he bites his tongue almost immediately when she sighs at it him. It’s a familiar noise and one he’s heard the Halfling make before.

Of course.

Mistress Baggins.” He corrects himself and it sticks in his throat when she agrees with a smile of relief.

He escorts her back to the others and they speak, but later he won’t be able to remember what they said to one another because he is… he’s angry. It’s a subtle creeping emotion that swells every time he catches the subtle chime of bells or looks to see her seated amongst his company wearing the Elves’ drab gray fabric.

She seems content enough in her ill-fitting and borrowed finery, to be dressed up like a doll or someone’s pet. Did the elves have fun, he wonders? Are they laughing now?

Probably not. Elven malice takes other forms. It’s more likely that Elrond’s daughter is pleased with herself and smug with her perceived charity, which is arguably worse. The Halfling was a diversion for her –a toy at best rather than a woman grown with her own culture and canons of beauty.

She is beautiful, despite the unsuitably dull colors the Elves dressed her in or the one cheap ornament that holds her hair in place. Even the poorest of Dwarfish fathers would dress his wife and daughters in better. Perhaps the insult means little to Hobbits, who cover their cheerful clothing in intricate needlework male and female alike.

Jewelry is a rare thing in the Shire and his people have never been able to sell much of it there. His merchants do a better trade in practical things like plowshares and pitchforks. The weapons other than crossbows and belt knives in their stalls are referred to as ‘mathoms’ by the Halflings, which is a word that Thorin has only ever been able to translate as “interesting to look at, but ultimately useless.” There is little room in the Shire for impractical fripperies.

No, Briar Baggins is clean and warm after weeks of being neither. Her fringe is out of her eyes for once. The only bothersome element in her universe seems to be the way his men keep staring at her exposed shoulders and the gentle swell of her breasts. If the elves intended any insult tonight then it was not aimed at her.

She is young, unmarried, and in Thorin’s employ. By Elven custom he is her legal guardian. It’s not hard to trace the target back from there.

Thorin rubs his temples and kicks Fili under the table. His nephew favors him with a wounded look until he follows the direction of his gaze to Kili, who is attempting to feed their burglar from his own plate. Fili passes the kick onto his brother who manages drop whatever edible bit of greenery it was he was trying to tempt her with.

Dwalin catches Thorin’s look and changes seats with Bifur while Briar’s back is turned. Thus order is maintained for the duration of the meal.

Returning her to the women’s quarters is difficult and made worse by what passes between them in front of the doors there. Thorin is not proud of his actions, but he doesn’t have the words to explain the grave insult that their hosts have offered to his company through her.

Kili is idling about with a bit of copper wire when he returns to their camp. It looks to be the beginnings of an ear cuff with three bands to denote the rank of an honored hireling, someone of value and worth protecting. It is appropriate to Briar’s station within the company and Thorin cannot bear to look at it.

“Halfling do not pierce their ears, nephew.” He tells the boy. “Nor their faces. Their women wear no jewelry. Respect her ways as she has respected ours.”

“But, Uncle,” Kili is a good boy and puts his project away even while he protests. He has the pride and filial piety that suits a prince of Erebor. He, at least, is conducting himself better than his uncle has tonight. “You saw what they did!”

“The Halfing receives the Elves’ attentions in a better spirit than they were intended.” Thorin turns away so his nephews may not see that he likes the situation about as well as they do. “That was kindness in her eyes and not a slight on our company’s ability to support one another. She has suffered no insult and so by extension neither will we.”

“Perhaps one of us should fetch the lass.” Balin offers. “It’s best to have the company together.”

“Let her enjoy the company of other women for now, Balin.” Thorin doubts she is in the mood for his company at the very least. “Tomorrow, Dwalin will direct her to move her belongings to the encampment. It will be well.”

Dwalin comes back the next morning looking hunted. “They giggled at me, Sire.” He grumbles and looks over his shoulders as though Arwen’s attendants are waiting in the hallways to attack him. “And then closed the door in my face.”

Thorin acknowledges his mistake in sending Dwalin, a confirmed bachelor, on this particular mission and dispatches Gloin next, who has a wife and sisters. He fares better and returns with their Hobbit in hand. She’s wearing her own trousers again with a laundered waistcoat and a new shirt on underneath. Her hair she’s tied back with leather, which scalds the dignity of all his dwarves and they scowl at it when her back is turned. It was one thing when she wore it too short for ornaments, but now she looks like a pauper in their midst which is shameful.

The others talk amongst themselves –whispered conversations that go silent when he comes near- and he catches more than one of them lingering near the Elves’ smithy hoping to borrow some time there. It’s a fool’s errand, which he could have told any one of them. Elves forge differently than Dwarves and their tools are alien. Thorin has not missed his forge until now nor his tools. He has been a smith for over a century now while the warrior in him grew sleepy, but he is a Dwarf and the two were always meant to balance inside of him.

Copper is a fine metal, but too ruddy for her skin. Gold would suit their burglar better …with chains of fine steel to mark her bravery in the field of battle and silver charms to symbolize her clever tongue. Were he rich, he would have had a ruby cut in celebration of their defeat over the trolls and she would have worn it over her eyes to honor the entire company.

Were he rich he would have hired an army instead of a burglar.

It is many days before the Elves call for Gandalf, but he is glad when at last they do.

Finally, they can leave this place.  

Chapter Text

 

The rain has stopped by the time Thorin hears the sound of a small body moving in the darkness. Sand rustles beneath her bare feet as she collects her belongings and packs them together. She takes very little food, he notices as he watches her from the protection of his shadowy corner, just enough for a day or two.

She’s returning to Rivendell then. Good riddance.

Would that Gandalf had hired a human or a dwarf the way Thorin expected him to! The Halfling has no place among those who choose to walk through the fire for what waits on the other side. This is not the sort of journey one survives by constantly looking backwards. She nearly died today and would have fallen to her death without Thorin’s intervention.

It will always be that way. He understands now. A Hobbit’s natural gifts are no good when they are in the open and surrounded by others not of their own kind. Briar Baggins is out of her element and no matter how clever she might be, she was never meant to jump far or run fast. Someone will always have to rescue her and one day soon she will take her savior with her to her grave. Today it was Thorin, but what of tomorrow? Will it be Dwalin? Or Bombur?

…one of his nephews?

The Hobbit is a liability and wise enough to understand that truth for herself.

It is peaceful outside now. The Storm Giants have exhausted themselves and have returned to the embrace of the mountains to rest in anticipation of the next war game. She will be safe if she goes, perhaps safer on her own with her Halfling magic to guard her than all the rest of them. 

Bofur, though, Bofur has the watch and for once has not dozed off in the middle of it. He catches her as she makes to go.

He buried himself in his blankets to shut out their whispered conversation. He doesn’t want to hear one of his men pleading her to stay, unfortunately it doesn’t work at all well.

“Am I one of the company, Bofur?” She sighs, soft and defeated. “Am I really? I wonder.”

“Of course you are, Lass.”

“Something’s been wrong since Rivendell.” Is she looking at her feet, he wonders? Or is she glaring at Bofur, daring him to contradict her? “I didn’t realize how wrong until we made camp and I set my pallet down amongst the others …only to have everyone move theirs away.” She pauses and speaks more softly so that he has to strain to hear. “Maybe Thorin was right. Perhaps I’m not like the rest of you… Shire folk are simple. We need to belong. You can’t understand, not living like you do…” She breaks off with gasp. “I didn’t mean that, Bofur. Not the way it sounded.”

There’s a silence and in it Thorin can read the story of a hundred abandoned camps, of cheap rooms that only last until someone taller wants to rent them, of following the trade fairs for a century with nothing to show of it but a worn travel case and family whose faces you can barely remember but for the likenesses you carry with you.

“No, I understand, Lass.” Bofur says at last and he means it too. Forgiveness has always been his greatest virtue. “Go now and be safe. I wish you every happiness.”

“Thank you.” She whispers. “You too. I hope you find everything you’re looking for.”

This is the end and Thorin is grateful for it, grateful for his kinsman for seeing that it is a gentle parting, and grateful that he will never have to bury a tiny body far away from the green hills of her homeland. She has one and no one should die so far away from the bones of their ancestors.

…only then Bofur asks questions, seemingly innocuous but for the things it implies.

“What’s that glow coming from under your coat, lass?”

There were three blades that Gandalf took away from the troll hoard. One is with him on the road from Rivendell, the other is somewhere underneath Thorin’s kinsman, and the last is a dagger no bigger than a human’s dinner knife and buckled into Briar Baggin’s belt where it glows with an eerie blue light that can only have one cause.

He should have known, should have known that the cave was too good to be true! The floor is too flat. Where did the sand lining it come from? What does it conceal?

The ground opens up underneath them even as he sounds the alarm.

What passes in the twisting corridors and precarious rope bridges of Goblin Town bears no mention. Most of it is a blur except for the horrific caricature of a sentient being that was the Great Goblin. There is no sign of the Halfling within the goblins’ warren and Thorin dares hope that she did not fall with the rest.

If the gods are merciful then she is on the road back to Rivendell both armed and supplied. May at least one good thing come of this.

Gandalf has the long legs of a human and is difficult to keep up with, but he and his people manage with all the hate that the goblins have to give bearing down on them and when they reach the outside the sunlight feels like a benediction. It’s a fleeting blessing though because they have spent most of the day inside the warrens and the sun is now setting.

It’s only then that Gandalf begins to count and it doesn’t take him long to notice they are one short.

The argument that follows is bitter and it soon becomes clear that their number will be reduced again down to the unlucky thirteen that the burglar had been hired in a bid to avoid.

…and then she pops out of the forest having neatly avoided the goblins and his sentries alike with a cheeky smile that he has grown to miss.

The reprieve is short and Azog’s wargs sound their hunting calls in the distance, but still he stops her before they run again. “Why did you really come back?” He asks her the same question that he asked her before his men.

“Does it matter?” She replies waspishly. He is not yet forgiven it seems.

“It matters.” He growls.

“You have big plans, O Would-Be King.” She murmurs for his ears alone and there’s a sparkle of challenge in her eyes that has been missing until now. The frightened and harried woman of the past month is gone and there is someone else in her place, someone who has chosen to be here and share his fate along with that of his men. “Perhaps I’m interested to see if you can make good on them.” She pulls her arm free of his grasp and runs.

The Orcs tree them in a stand of fir trees overlooking a rocky ledge. Briar ends up between him and the tree trunk, holding on for dear life as Gandalf kindles flame in pine cones and drops them on the heads of their enemies.

“They’re chanting something.” She whispers. “What are they saying?”

Thorin listens to the guttural language of the Orcs as they play words off one another in their broken version of Mordor’s Black Speech. “It’s a war chant.” He growls. “An intimidation tactic that Orcs favor. They improvise foul rhymes to taunt their enemies. Right now they’re comparing us to birds in a tree and speculating on ways to cook us.”

Charming.” She groans. “They don’t… actually eat people, do they?”

“Would you like a reassuring answer or would you like the truth?”

“Trolls, Goblins, Orcs, and Wargs.” She mutters. “What next? Next time we go on an adventure, I’m choosing the destination.”

“Should we survive this one, I will allow it.” Thorin replies and accepts a pinecone from Gandalf to throw just as their tenuous sanctuary cracks under the weight of several Dwarves, one Hobbit, and a wizard.

Azog smiles at him through the veil of fire separating them and his warg paws at the ground in anticipation.

Perhaps it was always going to come to this unfinished business.

The others cry out as he stands with Orcrist in hand, but this may be their only chance. Azog is relentless and hates Durin’s line more than anything. There is a chance Thorin can beat him. Leaderless Orcs will turn on one another or scatter. Either way he is faced with the choice to either die with a sword in his hand or die when he is driven off a cliff side.

If it gives his people time to escape then Thorin will choose the first. Fili and Kili are both strong and Azog doesn’t know who they are. Fili will make a fine king and a worthy heir. He will reclaim their mountain, Thorin is certain of it.

The battle goes poorly, which Thorin half expected and his grip on consciousness trembles as Azog dispatches one of his guard to finish him. It’s the last insult; Thorin, son of Thrain, Son of Thror, dead at the whim of the Pale Orc and the bastard didn’t have to lift a finger.

He doesn’t anticipate interference; not from the Halfling, nor his people, and most especially not Gandalf’s eagles.

Thorin doesn’t expect to wake and when he does he accepts it as the gift it is. It is a second chance he never expected to be offered and when he looks over to see the Halfling, his burglar, standing just outside the circle of his companions with a wistful smile tugging at the corner of her generous mouth he knows exactly what he will use this chance for.

She makes a warm weight in his arms and fits against him like a woman is made to. He breathes her in and makes his apologies. Proud, he may be, but he too can learn.

“I was never so wrong in all my life.” He makes himself let go and retreat. “And I hope you will forgive me.”

Her answering smile is one he will remember for a long time.

Unfortunately they cannot stay in one place for long even though Thorin’s left side feels like it’s on fire. That probably means he has bruised or even broken ribs, but he’s able to walk and that is a blessing directly from Mathal’s hands. The Eagles took them far from that blasted cliff and Azog’s hunting party is scattered, but Azog still lives and wargs can follow a scent through a thunderstorm. They’ve only bought themselves a little time.

Gandalf has a place for them to go and Thorin knows he can only trust in the reprehensible old bastard to lead them right because there are no other options. Their supplies are gone along with many of their weapons and almost all their valuables.

Without charity they will starve and soon.

The little Hobbit keeps easy pace with them despite the hard run she had before to catch up with them and it occurs to Thorin that she may have the best stamina of them all despite her short legs.

He tries not to close his eyes. When he does there is fire there still. There has been fire painted on the insides of his eyelids since Erebor fell to Smaug, but this is a new fire and it frames the silhouette of tiny woman with a mouth that smiles more than it frowns and a dagger that would to better service as a butter knife against the Pale Orc astride his white Warg.

He has been a smith for too long and it shows now. Azog very nearly killed him before they even caught a glimpse of the Lonely Mountain.

‘This will not do.’ He takes in the sight of his battered family and the stubborn little woman who has missed not one, but two opportunities to do the smart thing and run for home.

“Before we enter, you should know: the friend I spoke of is a very great person. You must be careful and think before you speak. He can have an appalling temper, but is generally good humored. I will introduce you slowly, two by two, I think. Mistress Baggins and I will go first and entertain him. Then you will follow in small groups when you receive a sign from me.”

“Hmm.” Is Briar’s response.

“Don’t worry.” Bofur says, patting her shoulder with enforced cheer. “Our wizard won’t let harm come to you.”

“Of that I have no doubt.” Is her rather noncommittal response.

Thorin frowns. “You do not need to go first.” It’s the best peace offering he can give. “It’s a sound tactic.”

She turns a wry expression on him. “It’s a familiar tactic, is what it is.” She drawls and he has to wonder just what his Dwarves were up to before he found his way to her door. “I’ll go.”

Dis would like her, he thinks, and that is a truly terrifying thought.

The spicy scent of her hair lingers on the collar of his coat calms him in ways that do not bode well for the future. It cuts through the stench of ashy blood that covers everything else right now. It’s an oil maybe. Something the elves gave her to use that he should hate, but doesn’t.

He watches her as she turns her head to speak to the wizard. They are thick as thieves, those two. It’s hard to believe they didn’t know each other from before.

Thorin slows his steps until Bofur draws near to him. The toymaker nods his respect.

“What conversations did she mean?” He doesn’t bother mincing words, but moderates his voice so that it does not carry far. “In the cave before the ambush.” He’s been turning those words over

Bofur sighs. “I would have guessed that you were awake.” He says. “I’ll tell you what I told her. It looks worse than it is.”

“It would have to.” Thorin grumbles. Distracted as he was in Rivendell by –everything he hadn’t noticed any change among his men. “Explain.”

“We weren’t discussing her.” A wry grin pulls at Bofur’s mouth. “We were talking about you, sir. It just didn’t seem appropriate to keep talking with the little mistress present.”

“You will apologize.” Thorin scowls and the unrepentant bastard just smiles back at him. “Together or separately, I care not, and there will be no repetitions. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir.” Bofur sketches a little half bow and slips away to murmur in the ears of their companions. Perhaps there will be apologies, but more likely his men will just start to include her in their gossip. That will have to do.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

They stay with Beorn for longer than Thorin is pleased with, but the fault is mainly his own so he has no one to blame but himself.

“These ribs are coming along nicely.” Oin informs him as he helps Thorin wrap his chest with fresh bandages. “We’re fortunate. You could have punctured a lung. Then where would our company be?”

“Under Fili’s command.” Thorin replies and wrestles his shirt on over his head. He’s had to forgo his armor for the time being in deference to his injuries, but at least he’s not bedridden. He’ll take whatever small victories he can get.

“Aye, but he’s as glad as anyone that it hasn’t come to that.” Oin allows. “I have a tea for you, but it’s best you eat something first. The herbs are not kind to an empty stomach.”

“If you must.” Thorin sighs. He’s had about enough of Oin’s restorative teas as any soul should have to withstand. At least here there is plenty of honey to cover the taste of them. That hasn’t always been the case in Ered Luin, where sweets come at a steep price.

“I do.” Oin fixes him with a glare. “Your blood is still thin from your injuries. It needs fortification; food, herbs, and rest. Go, lad. Attend to the first and I’ll see to the second.”

“Aye.” Thorin fixes his belt and escapes into the communal area where Beorn is holding court at the table and wheedling another tale out his guests. Today it seems to be Briar’s turn and she is in the middle of recounting a familiar riddle.

“Thirty white horses standing on a hill. First they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still.” She has a good voice for story telling and speaks now in a low wet tone. “‘Chestnuts, chestnuts’ The creature said. ‘Teeth! Teeth, my precious; but we has only got six.’ It opened its mouth to show me them and so it did; all blackened stumps and broken with great big irregular gaps in-between.”

“What’s this?” Thorin is displeased when his nephews immediately hiss at him to be quiet.

“Not now, Uncle!” Fili says, all desperation. “It’s just getting good. If you ask that, she’ll start over!”

Briar colors prettily and Beorn pokes the young dwarf in the side with one of his great fingers.

“Be generous, young one.” He rumbles. “Tales are meant to be shared in full. Half a story enriches no one.” He pauses. “Unless the Dwarf Lord has heard this one already?” He looks a bit hopeful at that.

“I was telling Beorn and the others what happened in the caves under Goblin Town while we were separated.” She explains. “I met a creature there like I’ve never seen before. It spoke like you or I, but was all-together wretched. There was a goblin who knocked me off the bridge where we were separated and it fell down along with me. The creature…”

Gollum!” Kili volunteers. “You should name it Gollum. For the noise it made. Monsters need names.” He explains when everyone turns to look at him.

“There, I don’t agree.” Briar sniffs. “Hobbits don’t name dark things if we can help it. Naming something defines it and lends it power. Dark things need no help in either area.” She fixes Kili with a look and he seems suitably abashed so she adds, in a prim tone: “In any event, it called itself ‘My Precious.’ As names go, that will have to do.”

“Perhaps Hobbits are wiser than they’re generally given credit for.” Thorin observes. He takes a seat and helps himself to the bounty of Beorn’s table, since their burglar is paying their keep in stories today. “You made no mention of this on the hill. Why?”

“There was no time.” Briar admits. “And I was still rattled. It would have been a poor story.”

“And one that remains unfinished, Little Bunny.” Beorn hints with minimal subtlety, but it is a gentle hint. Of Thorin’s entire company, he seems to like Briar the best and there is no small concern among the others that when the time comes Beorn will attempt to keep her.

“Forgive me, Master Beorn.” She clears her throat and takes a drink from her mug. “As I was saying, there was a goblin who fell down with me. I was fortunate for the creature found it first because he bludgeoned it to death with a stone while singing and arguing with itself. I crept forward to see it and when the light from my blade died, I knew that so too had the goblin. I was not quiet enough and it heard me, there in the darkness. It found me and would have attacked were I not armed.”

It must have been a wretched creature indeed, Thorin thinks. He’s seen how Briar holds her tiny blade and no experienced warrior would fear her…nor any inexperienced one either.”

“It wasn’t a large creature. Indeed it was smaller than me even.” She continues, ensured of the rapt attention of her audience. His nephews certainly seem enthralled, so perhaps she did not describe the monster in her story very well before. “It was pale like the underbelly of a blind fish with wide, wide eyes that reflected any light that hit them and it rasped ‘gollum, gollum!’ in between breaths.” She mimics a horrible wet cough that sits somewhere between a toad’s croak and the creak some fish make out of the water. “It was spindly and wasted with nothing but a scrap of cloth between its legs for modesty and great big feet that flapped in the water.”

“Perhaps it wasn’t hungry or maybe it was curious, because it did not try very hard to hurt me at first.”  Briar shrugs off the vagaries of monsters. “I don’t think it knew what I was and it speculated to itself whether or not I would be good to eat. ‘Bless us and splash us!’ It cried out. ‘I guess it’s a choice feast, at least a tasty morsel it would make us!’”

“Did you not think to kill it, Little bunny?” Beorn asks, speculative. “The dark things in the mountains cannot be trusted and do not understand mercy.”

“Well, you can imagine: I did not want to be eaten, but I did not know the way out either.” Briar explains. “So I had to speak with it, to try and convince it to help me. After all, it already had a meal. It seemed to me that both a goblin and a Hobbit was too much for the creature to eat before we all went bad. The creature was sadly not convinced. It was, however, lonely. So it suggested a contest of riddles.”

Here, she leans forward in her chair and Thorin leans forward with her, snared every bit as tightly as the others.

“‘If It asks Us’It said to me, ‘and We doesn’t answer, then We shows It the way out.’ That seemed reasonable to me, but then it continued to say; ‘...but if We ask and It doesn’t answer, then We eats it, my precious. We eats it whole.’” She pauses and shrugs. “What could I say? I agreed.”

Thorin feels his hands clench around his mug at that, but forces them to relax. What’s done is done and the Halfling is here now, none the worse for her adventure. There will be nastier things in the future than little monsters under mountains and it is good to see she can handle herself better than he ever gave her credit for in the past.

“We exchanged riddles then. Many of which I’ve recounted for Master Beorn and the others, but finally the creature came to its last riddle and I must confess, I almost had no answer.” She smiles. “Would you like to see if anyone here can guess?”

“Tell us your riddle, Little Bunny.” Beorn commands with an indulgent (and somewhat smug) smile.

Briar leans back in her seats. “This thing all things devours; birds, beasts, trees, flowers; gnaws iron, bites steel; grinds hard stone to meal; slays King, ruins town, and beats high mountain down.” She recites it with a queer echo in her voice that chills anyone listening, Thorin included.

“A difficult one.” Beorn allows with a thoughtful frown and sits thinking while Fili and Kili murmur back and forth. Eventually they give up, one by one with Beorn admitting defeat last.

“I’m all agreement with you, Master Beorn.” Briar sighs and looks at her hands. “Because I wasn’t able to guess either. I thought of ogres from stories, even though I knew the answer must be different. Then I became scared and no one thinks well when frightened. It circled me as I thought and watched me with it’s great big eyes. ‘Is it nice?’ It murmured in the darkness. ‘Is it juicy? Is it soft?’ I became so rattled that I tried to cry out, ‘Give me some more time, a little more time!’, but the only thing that came out was ‘Time! Time!’” she smiles. “Maybe I was being guided because ‘time’ was the answer. Oh, how the creature howled! It was not happy and said ‘One more question! Only one more!’ Only I didn’t know anymore riddles.” She opens her hands. “I’d asked all the ones I knew, every single one I ever overheard over the fire in camp, all of them. So I said: what have I got in my pockets?”

“That’s not a riddle!” Fili objects. “Uncle, tell her. That’s not a riddle.”

“Oh, I know it’s not. The creature said just the same things. ‘Not fair!’ It cried out. ‘Not fair to ask Us what it’s got in its nasty little pocketses!’” Briar laughs. “But it just said ‘ask’ and I pointed that out so it had to accept the question, although it bargained for three guesses because I hadn’t asked a riddle. ‘Handses!’ It guessed and fortunately, I had just taken mine out. ‘Knife!’ It tried again, but was wrong. ‘String or nothing!’ was its last guess, which I thought was a bit unfair; guessing two things at once. Fortunately for me, both guesses were wrong.”

Briar shakes her head. “It was very unhappy with me and cried ‘cheater!’ ‘A promise is a promise.’ I told it and it said, ‘Did we promise, precious? To show the nasty Bagginses out? Yes, yes… but we cannot go yet. We must get some things first; things to help us.’”

“Wicked thing.” Beorn says mournfully, shaking his great shaggy head. “They will ever turn traitorous. You did not believe it would honor its word, did you, Little Bunny?”

“Not really.” Briar says. “It left me on the shore and paddled to a little hut it had made on an island in the center of the lake where it lived. It spoke to itself and the cave was shaped so that sound carries a great distance inside of it. I wasn’t intended to hear, but I did. ‘My birthday present.’ It gurgled. ‘That’s what We wants now, yes! We wants it. It came to me on my birthday, my precious.’ I heard it paw around amongst its things and still it whispered. ‘Quite safe, yes. It won’t see us and its nasty little sword will be useless, yes.’”

“So it meant to kill you then.” Fili guesses. He’s making a show of polishing one of his blades now, but it’s an old and familiar task that the boy could do blindfolded. “I might have known.”

“Yes, you’ve the right of it, but whatever it wanted out there on the lake wasn’t there when it went looking.” Briar explains. “It began to thrash about and cried ‘Where is it! Where is it?’ It paddled back to the shore and began to throw bones around, searching and searching and crying out; ‘Lost it! Lost it, my precious! Curse us and crush us, my precious is lost!’ ‘So am I!’ I told it for I was impatient. ‘What have you lost?’ It rolled about and moaned, ‘It musn’t ask us! It isn’t its business!’ We argued that a bit, back and forth. It wanted to stay and search for what it had lost and I wanted to be un-lost, after all, I won the game and it was delaying.” She shakes her head.

“What came next was inevitable, most likely. It looked at me suddenly and began to hiss. ‘We never guessed, did we? What has it got in its pockets? Hmm?’ ‘None of your business. Answers are meant to be guessed, not given.’ I told it, but it was angry by then. ‘What has it got in its pocketses!’ It hissed again and began to chase me. Oh, I ran. I ran in the darkness and it chased me, hissing ‘What has it got in its pocketses?!’ I fell then and it was on me. I thought I was done for and I gripped my blade, hoping to get in a few good whacks...”

“Hah! I knew you killed it.” Kili laughed and holds out a hand to his brother. “Pay up, Fili. Our burglar is blooded now.”

“Don’t pay him, Fili.” Briar advised the elder brother. “I didn’t kill it. It leapt over me and kept going. I don’t think it saw me, it was so blinded by anger. It wasn’t born in those caves, I don’t think, so even if its eyes had adjusted it was never meant to live in such a lightless place. It saw only a little better than I did.” She takes a bite of what appears to be a pickle sandwich as she enjoys the dismay of Thorin’s nephews, who like nothing better than a story with a little gore in it. “It ran ahead, muttering and whispering. ‘Curse it, curse it, curse it! What has it got in its pockets? Oh, we guess, we guess, my precious. It has my birthday present.’ I followed it as chased what it thought was me. ‘It says it doesn’t know the way out.’ It hissed, ‘It said so, yes, but it is tricksy It doesn’t say what it means. It doesn’t say what it’s got in its pockets. It knows. It knows a way in, it must know a way out.’”

“I see.” Beorn laughs his great booming laugh. “Clever bunny! You followed it out!”

“I did and my timing was good. We reached the back door just as the others did, but I couldn’t get past.” She shrugs an apology as Thorin and both his nephews stare at her. “All of you passed within touching distance of the creature. It was hiding behind a stone from you and the goblins chasing you, but it was between me and the exit. Oh, I was so upset. There you were, all my Dwarves and my Wizard, and I could not catch you. It wouldn’t move and I couldn’t move for fear of it seeing me until it turned its back and I …well, I jumped over its back and ran out into the light. It screamed! How it screamed in fury. ‘Baggins! It stole from us! We hates it!’ It shrieked after me. ‘We hates it forever!’” She drops her hands and smiles. “That is how I escaped the caves.”

“A fine story, Little Bunny.” Beorn praises her and rewards her with a honeycake that could feed three of Thorin’s dwarves. “You must be careful in the future. Dark things cling to their hate and they do not forget it.”

“I don’t think it would survive in the daylight world for long, Master Beorn.” Briar looks out one of the great tall windows that line the great hall. “To tell the truth, I very nearly did kill it. I had my blade to its throat and it never saw me. I could have done it, but…” she frowns. “It really was a wretched creature, deprived, and entirely mad. I couldn’t take what little it had left away. Perhaps it’s strange, but for a moment… for a moment in the weak light coming from the back door I looked at it and saw a Hobbit.” She looks up to Beorn. “Is that strange?”

“No, Little One.” Beorn replies sadly. “Even dark things came from somewhere and they all belong to someone. Even Orcs are born of their mothers. It is a difficult thing to remember that they are creatures of rational minds and beating hearts just as you and I are. Perhaps it was a Hobbit once, but I doubt it. It did not recognize you as one of its own.”

“True.” Briar allows and smooths a hand down the front of her clean mended waistcoat. Thorin’s eyes are drawn to the little wooden buttons that have replaced the little twigs and sticks that she has been using for toggles in place of the buttons she lost before. They seem to be a good fit and Thorin is pleased.

“Is that where you lost your buttons?” He asks, unable to resist and is rewarded by an embarrassed blush.

“Yes.” She toys with one of her replacements, the third one from the bottom that has a slight irregularity to its shape where Thorin encountered a tiny knot in the wood as he carved. “I fled through a crevice that was almost too tight for me to squeeze through. I might have done it better had I time, but the creature was chasing me and so I pushed so hard my jacket tore.” She turns a speculative look on him. “No one else has asked me about my lost buttons.”

Thorin goes still. He had assumed she knew who’d left that gift on her pillow. It was meant to be an offering of reconciliation, but it’s… it’s good seeing her wear the work from his hands. He likes it too well and often catches himself designing little trinkets throughout the day; things a Hobbit would value like a traveler’s spoon or a fish hook.

“Perhaps you know who this belongs to then?” She asks as she tugs the handkerchief he wrapped his handiwork in. It’s a fancy thing that Dis insisted he carry with him even though he has never used it for its intended purpose. It seemed fitting to pass it along to someone else who has been in need of one.

“I’m sure its owner intended for you to keep it.” Thorin says. “If it was left for you.”

“Hmmm, I wonder.” She turns the cloth over in her hands. “It’s a shame that they would give away such fine needlework.”

“Give us a gander.” Fili says and looks over her shoulder. “Hmmm, that’s the crest of Durin’s line. See? That’s the King’s crown there. Here now, Kili, is this yours?”

“Not mine.” Fili holds up his hands. “You know I can never keep those, no matter how many Ma gives us. I lost all mine before we ever reached the Shire and they were never so clean.”

“I see.” She looks at the square in her hand and tucks it back into her pocket. “Well then, I guess I’d better hold onto it. Perhaps its owner will want it back someday.”

“Doubtful.” Thorin mutters and would say more, only Oin comes into view then with an entire pot of his noxious tea and it is time to make a strategic withdrawal –for all the good it does. The old bastard finds him within half an hour and makes him drink the entire pot. The leaves make him tired, which is probably the point, and so he retreats to his own bed.

Perhaps he should have expected that the Halfling wouldn’t let the issue of the buttons or the blasted handkerchief slide because there’s a small square of linen folded up on his pillow when he goes to lay down.

At first he thinks it’s the one he gave to her being returned in the most final way possible, but the color is wrong when he picks it up. The texture too. Dis favors stiffer fabric that holds a crease well, but this is soft like a worn shirt.

It is from a worn out shirt, he realizes after a moment having suddenly recognized the scrap as all that remains of the fine shirt their little burglar received from her Elven benefactors. It’s been laundered and hemmed around the edges with neat orderly little stitches. There is no embroidery, no frippery about it, just plain workman-like sewing.

He shouldn’t be pleased with this. There is clearly something wrong with him that he instantly likes it better than a gift his sister undoubtedly spent hours working on, but this… it suits him. It’s functional.

He likes it.

Thorin lays it down on top of his coat as he stretches out on his pallet and it’s probably just his imagination, but the faint echo of spice follows him into his rest and soothes his dreams with the sound of soft laughter in a snug little house full of warmth and good cheer.

...and perhaps it's only a dream, but he thinks he hears voices later outside of his cubby. One belongs to his Wizard and the other his Burglar.

"Out of curiosity, my dear Briar," Gandalf asks. "What did you have in your pockets?"

"A secret." She replies all cheek and amusement. "It was a secret."

"I see." Gandalf hums and it is not entirely a sound of contentment. "I see. Then you had best be careful of it." He says at last. "I've noticed that those tend to bite."

Chapter Text

He never meant to touch her.

It’s a promise he made to himself somewhere between Beorn’s door and the darkness of Thranduil’s dungeon; a promise he broke almost at once when she appeared to him there, pinched his ear like a naughty child, and told him he was no King of hers yet.

Yet.

Part of him still clings to that word; yet.

The taste of her mouth holds him through their flight through Thranduil’s cellars, the weight of her tiny body in his arms keeps him fighting inside that damn barrel to keep his head above water even when ‘up’ and ‘down’ cease to have meaning, and the sight of her face; sunburnt and hollow-cheeked, but smiling gives him the strength to stand up and identify himself to the mystified Men of Long Lake when really his arms have all the resiliency of water-logged kindling.

Just as well, then, that the Lake Men seem more sympathetic than they are expectant of immediate miracles. They take his company into their care, feed them, and nurse the wounded. Miracle of miracles, they’ve all survived although some better than others.

For his part, Thorin has taken less damage this time and requires only rest and food. Others, like Ori, are still reeling from the Spiders and did not recover entirely under the Wood Elves somewhat lackadaisical approach to healing.

“Our women will put them out into the sun.” A gruff and dour looking man by the name of Bard tells Thorin, seated by his bedside. “We’ve suffered the spider venom before. Time is the only cure, but sunlight seems to help bake the darkness out of their victims.”

“You have my gratitude, Bard.” Thorin tells him gravely and is trying to frame an appropriate request for information about Briar when a woman sticks her head into his room.

“Bard?” She says, drying her hands on her apron. “The little one they brought with them, he’s not doing so well. Mira thought he had the venom, but he’s come over with a fever and the sweats. I was hoping to ask the big… I mean, I was hoping to ask his Majesty if there are medicines that Dwarves ought not to have.”

“The little one?” Bard asks as he turns in his seat. “The one who rode atop the barrels and directed the others?”

“Yes, sir.” The woman nods.

This is not good. Thorin struggles to rise even as his host tries to push him back down. “She is no Dwarf.” He explains. “She is a Hobbit and she took no wounds from the Spiders. I must see her.”

“Here now, I will help you.” Bard says and lends Thorin his arm. “Rushing will not help your Hobbit.”

“This way.” The woman leads them to a little room with doubled beds that most likely belong to a pair of human children, but suit his people more than adequately. Briar lays in one, pale and shivering. She looks at him with a bleary smile as Thorin sits by her bedside.

“I feel awful.” She confesses to him in a whisper. She looks awful too, but most of that is the pallor they took away from their days in Mirkwood and the sharp planes of her face where she once had gently rounded cheeks.

Bard takes in her pallor and feels her forehead. “I think this is the sun sickness.” He says. “Men suffer from it too when out too long in the strong sun on the river with no rest and not enough to drink. Brea, fetch me some clean water and salt. Rest and a brine draught will help her. I don’t think she is too far gone. Her speech is not impaired and her eyes are focused.”

Thorin frowns at him. “Salt water will only make her thirst worse, Man.”

“That is not wholly true, but even so: the draught will only have a little salt in it. After that we will only give her pure water. She has sweated out the salt in her blood and it must be replaced or she will suffer more.” Bard explains and kneels by Briar’s bedside to help her sit. “We must remove some your clothes, Little Mistress. How many layers must you keep to preserve modesty?”

“Let me keep my shift on.” Briar sighs, clearly exhausted. “All else you may take save my briefs.”

The woman, Brea, returns with the promised brine and a basin of cool water with soft cloths. “Please hold this, your Highness.” She says and thrusts the basin into his lap.

Between them Bard and Brea strip his pale and shaking Hobbit, wipe her limbs down with damp cloths, and force her to drink first the entire draught and then an equal measure of water.

She seems better when they are done and Bard settles her under the covers with the care of a father tending to his child. His hand lingers on her forehead. “You must rest now.” He says. “Brea will bring you broth and something sweet. You must eat both. They will restore you.” He looks to Thorin. “You will not leave?”

“No. I am not so badly off.” Thorin replies. “She has tended to my sickbed in the past. I will tend to hers now.”

“It is your choice.” Bard allows with a phlegmatic shrug. “I will move the other small one to your chamber, should you allow it, so that you may rest here if you find you need it.”

“Thank you.”

Briar remains silent until they are alone at which point she turns her face towards him and says, “You told a lie. As though Oin or Balin would let anyone else tend to their King.”

“They would not let Men tend to their burglar either were they in any condition to complain.” Thorin says and risks a touch. Her hair is soft, although damp with sweat and curls invitingly between his fingers. “Besides, I have fond memories of the way you tended to me in the Wood Elf king’s prison.”

“I boxed your ear and told you to eat your supper.” Still, she blushes and not just from the fever.

“That too.” Thorin smiles and it comes easier to him than it has in a long time. They are out of the forest and within the shadow of his homeland. He has all his men and his burglar. If Azog is still chasing them, then Thorin wishes him joy of the angry nest of Spiders and Elves his company left in their wake.

Their task doesn’t seem quite so insurmountable now.

Her eyes flutter shut as he cups her cheek and he is pleased to see her lean into the touch. “Your hand feels good.” She murmurs and a coil of heat that has no business doing what it’s doing curls up below his diaphragm. It only intensifies when she nuzzles into the palm of his hand, enjoying the scratch of his rough palms like a contented cat.

 “You’ll turn your skin raw doing that.” He tells her. “My hands are all over callouses.”

“Your beard prickles too.” She agrees with an impish smile. She’s teasing him. This is…good. It’s good. “It’s odd, kissing someone with whiskers on his face yet not a single hair on his toes.”

“My feet bother you?” He asks, flexing his toes within his boots. Hobbit feet are a bit strange to him with their curly fur and thick soles, but he finds he likes hers. They’re well-shaped like the rest of her and he likes the shape her body makes when she balances on one leg to wipe her toes clean before entering a house.

“Not particularly.” She says. “Although sometimes it makes me feel like a cradle-snatcher, then I look at your beard and think that maybe I’m the one being plucked from the crib. You Dwarves are very confusing to Hobbit sensibilities.”

“I am older than you by nearly four times over.” Thorin reproves her and tries not to think about the truth of that. She is but fifty years old and already half-way through her life. He already has two centuries behind him and another yet to go. There’s so little time.

“Aye, Gaffer.” She chuckles. “I hear you, but don’t stop doing that.” She closes her eyes as he brushes his thumb along her lower lip. “Blessed green hills, I didn’t think we’d make it out of that dreadful forest.”

“Nor I.” He confesses, glad she cannot see the look on his face right now. Sex is the last thing he feels prepared for at the moment, but his body doesn’t seem to be in agreement with his brain. “You concealed it well.”

She just hums sleepily as she drifts off underneath his hands.

He waits until her breathing has settled into the steady rhythm of deep slumber before he makes his slow painful way to the other cot. Perhaps it’s selfish… no, it’s definitely selfish, but he wants as much time as he can have with her even if it’s just like this.

Smaug is waiting and no one in his family has died a natural death in nearly a thousand years.

They have so very little time and Thorin doesn’t intend to waste a moment of it.

Chapter Text

Thranduil and Bard of Lake Town are sitting outside his gates like expectant dogs or carrion birds, Thorin cannot decide which, each with an army and each with their own demands.

“I won’t deny the Men their claims.” He tells Balin, who waits impassively at his side. There is wealth in the Mountain that was not made or collected by Dwarven hands. He’s seen the rough trinkets of beaten metal that Men make in amongst his peoples’ crafts along with Elven goods and more of the Dale’s currency than his grandfather would have kept in the vaults. “…but not while the Elves stand at their side. The men have the Dragonslayer’s traditional reward in the form of Smaug’s breastplate. They are not in such dire straits as they would have us believe. They can afford patience. That they choose not to exercise it does not endear me to them.”

“Aye, my King.” Balin allows with a strangely neutral nod.

“And I will not pay the Elves for the privilege of bread and water in the prison. Ori might have died of their so-called ‘hospitality’.” He goes on.

“Aye.” Balin nods. “That is true.”

“We have food and water for some weeks with care.” Thorin prowls back and forth. He is ready to withstand a siege. That which he values most will not be lost even if he fails to hold Erebor. Briar is small and clever. He trusts her to survive when all the rest of them fall. There is little he believes in these days, but he still believes in that.

He has to.

“Dain will come.” He says. “He will come for the Mountain, if nothing else.”

“That is my worry, my King.” Balin says at last with a pensive look. “I am worried that we trade one siege for another. Perhaps it is better to buy off the Men. They can be bought and I believe Bard will stay that way. Dain is a good man and our kin, but… the Iron Hills is not a wealthy land and his is a pragmatic soul. Moreover we will need Dale before long. Our people are not Hobbits. We do not have the gift of growing things in the good earth nor healing it after so much damage.”

“You would have me bend knee before the Elves?” Thorin snarls.

“No, sire.” Balin holds up his hands. “Only treat with the men. Allow Bard to approach with equal our number or double, if he feels threatened by our walls. Point out we are only twelve and he does not require Thranduil’s blades to take us if he so chooses. He is a good Man, Sire. He tended us when we had nothing. Surely that has not changed.”

“I wish I could agree with you.” Thorin finds a seat and drops into it wearily. “Thranduil’s poison has his ear now. Do you think the elves will go peaceably back into their forest with empty hands? Bard must think to his own folk. They have no walls to stand between them and those blades.”

They would have spoken longer, but Fili interrupts then by dashing in from the balustrades. “Uncle!” He pants. “Uncle, there is trouble. Bard and his men are back… and they have our burglar!”

This is the point where Thorin will remember it all as going wrong for Bard does indeed have a Hobbit who does not belong to him, but neither does she seem to belong to Thorin for all that he would trade his entire portion of gold for her safe return.

She is among the men willingly and she brought with her the Arkenstone.

What passes from that point on is a matter of history and can be found in any book. Thorin will write some of them, although they will be bitter to him and he will not read them again once he has finished.  

Already some accounts will have it that he died of his wounds shortly after the goblins and orcs were defeated, as was almost the case. In these versions of the story he is usually laid to rest with honor in the deep halls of his grandfather with the Arkenstone at his head and Orcrist on his breast as an eternal watchman for his people against the return of the orcs that he hated so in life.

The truth is a little more complicated.

The battle was a bitter one, every bit as harrowing as the one he once fought to reclaim Khazad-dum. He remembers it in bits and snatches, flashes of blades, and the thick scent of Orc blood. He fell, yes, under the onslaught of Azog’s son and a hundred orcs. Fili and Kil were beside him, both wounded, and it seemed for a time that this would be the end of his branch of the family tree.

Then the Eagles came and everything changed.

Dain’s people recovered him and took him into the Mountain. The healers shook their heads and Thorin wandered in and out of a pain-fueled haze. He remembers demanding the return of his Halfling from someone he thought was Bard, but may have been Bombur. Perhaps he dreamed that because she did not come. His people never found her on the field or among the wounded and dying.

Briar Baggins vanished off the battlefield that day and Thorin was glad of it for a time because it meant that she was still among the living.

(In those days he did not allow himself to think of her lying dead somewhere, cloaked by the power of her terrible ring, invisible to all who would bury her with honor.)

It is in those hours, the final ones of his former life, that Gandalf comes to him in his sickroom.

“Greetings, King Under the Mountain.” He says and it is not a kind voice he speaks with. He sits without invitation and dismisses Thorin’s attendants with a voice no one would disobey. “I am told you had two treasures before the Battle began.”

“The battle is over.” Thorin croaks. “And now I have neither.”

“Perhaps.” Gandalf says and from his sleeve he pulls out a gem he thought never to see again outside the grasp of Men. “Bard gave me this to return to you …in trust, of course, for the share of treasure that Briar Baggins promised him.”

“He will have it.” Thorin stares at the stone. Was it always so dull? He remembers it looking brighter, cupped in the hollow of a Hobbit’s belly. He does not reach for it. “I cannot take riches with me where I go and it was her wish that Lake Town be paid from her portion.”

“Yes.” Gandalf agrees. “It was and I am pleased to see you will honor it; pleased enough to offer you a bargain that I thought I would not.”

“I have little time left for games, wizard.” Thorin sighs. “And many goodbyes to make. My heirs lay dying and soon I will join them.”

“Fili and Kili will live.” Gandalf tells him in a more gentle tone. “Thranduil sent healers of his own people, all well-versed in the arts, to see to them in honor of the Hobbit who so impressed him with her selflessness. ‘There is much to be learned’ he said, ‘from little people. We will emulate her behavior.’”

Of course. Thorin would laugh had he the breath. Even now, even in her absence, his burglar is saving that which he values most.

“So now, O King who has lost both his treasures, I offer you a choice.” Gandalf says. “Even though I am still not convinced you deserve it. You will have one of them returned to you, but you must choose which. One of them you may have in life, but the other you may only have in death. Which do you choose?”

“I choose her.” Thorin’s response is instant. There are things he must say, words he must take back, and promises he would fulfill.

“Have a care, King Under the Mountain.” Gandalf cautions him. “I did not say which was which.”

“I care not.” Thorin says. Dying has a way of putting things into perspective and he is shamed by much of his life. “If she is not in this world then I will go to the one where she is.”

“No need.” Gandalf replies and he is smiling at last. “No need, my dear friend. She is still in this one, although where exactly I have not quite discerned. I take the Arkenstone as my price for your life.”

“Take it and have joy of it.” Thorin tells him. “My family has labored under its curse too long. Perhaps a wizard will do better.”

“Perhaps.” Gandalf allows and tucks his sleeves back. “Take a breath now, Thorin, and hold it. What comes will not be pleasant, but it will be worse if you scream.”

It isn’t. He doesn’t. He lives.  

People ask him to this day what the wizard did to cure him and Thorin will not tell them. It is a secret he will take to his grave and beyond, most likely. Some things it is better not to know and this is one of them.

When he can speak again he summons those of Dain’s men who have chosen to stay with him. Balin was incorrect about his cousin. Dain Ironfoot is a good man to whom the Iron Hills are more valuable than all the gold in Erebor. He is glad to return to that ancient stronghold where Dain first settled their people and wishes Thorin every happiness.

Liutenant Freyr is of Firebeard descent and some distant kin of Gloin, thus he is trustworthy. Thorin sends him out with a set of orders that precedes all other priorities.

“Find her.” Thorin tells the grim soldier. “Find her and guard her from harm. Bring her here if she will come or take her to the Shire if she will not.”

“I will obey, my Liege.” Freyr grants him full obeisance and straightens back up with steel in his spine as he starts cracking orders to his men.

It is a full year before he sees any of them again.

Thorin is deep in the mines, inspecting a cave-in when the drums reach his ears. If he could, he would drop everything, but there are miners trapped behind a wall of rubble and no one knows yet if they live so he is forced to trust that his valet remembers the standing orders he has been given in the event that Freyr return is a successful one.

His miners are alive, if annoyed with whoever it was who set the supports in that particular vein. It is more work convincing them to report to the healers instead of starting back to work at once than it was to free them.

His people were ever obstinate.

Freyr is waiting for him at the mouth of the mine shaft and Thorin knows that he fulfilled his mission when the grizzled old veteran breaks into a smile that displays all eleven of his teeth.

“Your valet took charge of her, Majesty.” He reports. “She is resting in the chambers adjacent to yours. Poor mite. It’s been a long journey on the heels of another long journey, but she did Erebor proud.”

“She is incapable of doing less.” Thorin agrees. “You have my gratitude, Captain Freyr.”

The dwarf starts to salute and then falters. “Captain, sire?” He sounds insulted.

“Bear it, soldier.” Thorin advises him. “Or don’t be competent where I can see you. I have need of men like you in positions of greater command.”

“Yer a bastard, Oakenshield.” Freyr declares, chewing on the ends of his moustache. “To think I was starting t’like you!”

“Hah!” Thorin claps his latest senior officer on the shoulder and dispatches him to the armory to get a proper kit. “Take it up with my advisors. They all told me the same.”

She’s asleep when he finds her, curled up on her side and all over damp from a well-deserved bath. He can smell the soap from her skin and it’s the same that he uses. The servants wouldn’t have thought to procure another set of bathing tools on such short notice.

Funny, how something so simple can punch him so hard in the gut with desire.

She is fatter than she was when he last saw her sitting in front of Bard on his horse, but still not as healthy as she was when they first met. She’s let her hair grow long. It spills over her shoulders, down her back, and pools damply on the mattress behind her.

That he doesn’t care is no revelation to him. He’d have been equally glad to see her with the halo of short curls around her head that she had when he stood in her front hall and compared her to a grocer, or the singed and matted lumps she wore fresh out of Smaug’s clutches with the secret of the dragon’s weakness.

The most important this is that she is here, in his rooms or near enough to make no never mind, of her own free will. He has a chance to apologize, to right his wrongs, and beg her to stay the way he should have before.

She stirs in her sleep and he leans forward, waiting for her to wake and for his future to become clear.

-The End

Chapter Text

 

 

At first he has the little dowry chest locked up in the most secure vault within his mountain; the same one where he keeps his father’s ax and his grandfather’s formal armor. It’s nearly impregnable and withstood even Smaug’s desultory attempts at getting into the contents judging by the gouges in the stone surrounding the great mithril door.

…but he doesn’t leave it there. Fabric isn’t like metal. It cannot be locked away from greedy fingers and moths lay their eggs everywhere inside Erebor. The chest is a promise of a future for him and his tiny consort; one that might involve children if they are very blessed and Thorin is like his grandfather in this. He sleeps best when his treasures are close at hand and the greatest of them is out of his reach for now. Briar stays in Dis’ apartments for there has yet to be a wedding and his council is forcing him to adhere to the strict chaperonage laws that Durin the First’s son laid down for his own daughters.

They had nearly a year together without the burden of prying eyes. Thorin tries to remember to be grateful for that. It’s more than his father had with their mother.

He isn’t always successful, but he tries.

He commissions a large cedar box from the woodworkers in New Dale and they produce a masterpiece whose mere presence perfumes his entire chamber with a pleasant woodsy aroma and also keeps the damn moths away from his  formal robes –and, yes, a little leather case full of hand embroidered linens and little lavender sachets.

Fili and Kili are fascinated by the thing and would have gone through the boxes contents three times already trying to divine its purpose and significance to the woman they will one day call both aunt and Queen, but Thorin doesn’t share well and from what he’s gathered Shire tradition encourages him to be possessive of the wealth and history entrusted to him by his betrothed.

Briar asks to see it on occasion. If she’s testing him to see what care he has taken of her dowry, she gives no sign of it. She seems more interested in checking her work against the old patterns held within.

“I’ve a terrible memory.” She confesses to him one evening (under Dis’ indulgent, yet watchful eye). “I used to have mother’s patterns for a reference, but I left them to Drogo’s wife since she’s marrying in from the Brandybuck clan.”

Took Lace (or Tuck Lace as the accents of the men in Dale render it) is already a valuable commodity within the mountain and outside of it when Briar has produced a piece she feels proud enough to sell. The Shire exports a small amount of the stuff each year and it all bought up by human merchants who re-sell it in places like Gondor for three times its weight in gold. Thorin has been approached by no less than four families, all hopeful that Briar will be declared a Craft Mistress soon enough for their children to apprentice under her.

“Well, I don’t know about that.” Briar demurs when he approaches her on the subject. She’s seated in front of the fire in the communal parlor that serves Dis’ apartments and has a broad flat pillow in her lap that serves as the foundation upon which she’s weaving her current project out of gossamer thin stands silk that will eventually grace the collar of one of the Guild Masters or their wives. “Most of my patterns are Family patterns. I only know a few of the common ones and they’re a bit… floral for Dwarrow tastes.” She looks to Dis, who is seated in front of an embroidery frame. “Tell him.”

“I think your opinion of your own work in unjustly deflated, Sister.” Dis replies without looking up from her work. Dis is a Craft Mistress in her own right, although embroidery is just a hobby for the evenings that keeps her fingers limber and produces useful things. She, like Thorin, is a Master Smith and has no patience for false modesty –something she has steadfastly been trying to root it out one Briar Baggins. “You’re under the mountain now. None of the hens from the Shire will come to peck you if you admit that your work is worthy.”

“So speaks one who never saw my mother’s lace.” Briar replies tartly and places another pin to weave her lace around. “I suppose I could teach them the basic patterns and how to make up your own…” She posits out almost to herself.

“…and what more did you expect to teach them?” Dis asks. She bows he dark head to bite through her thread. “The Master teaches the apprentice, supervises the journeyman, and judges those attempting their own mastery.”

“Huh.” Briar drops her gaze, but Thorin has learned that just means that the idea has been planted in her mind and only needs time to grow.

That said, Thorin’s people are fiercely determined when they find their passion and most will always love their craft above even their spouse. So Briar’s first apprentice decides not to wait upon her pleasure and instead presents herself at Briar’s feet one evening and just watches Briar’s hands with unwavering attention.

Fili and Kili break down laughing when they first hear the news, but do not laugh in Briar’s presence.

(They had better not or Thorin will know the reason why.)

“The first dwarves were born from the stone knowing their crafts.” Thorin says by way of an explanation during one of the rare evenings when he’s allowed to sit alone with his intended without Dis within earshot. She can still see them from the other side of the Atrium so Thorin is forced to keep his hands in his lap, but he doesn’t need hands to make his little burglar blush. “Their children were not.”

Briar tilts her head in polite confusion, which just so happens to bring her temple into brief contact with his shoulder. She lets it rest there for a moment with a secret smile just for him so that he knows it was deliberate. One day soon he’ll be able to touch her cheek once more and tuck her inside his coat to share his heat with her, but that day is not today so he remains on his good behavior.

“In the early days crafts were passed from a master to their children with no regard to the talents or interests of the child.” Thorin goes on. “It was not until Hemyn of the Firebeards was orphaned that things changed.” He pretends not to notice when Briar gently leans her side against his arm. This is a touch within the boundaries of courtship, but Thorin knows himself too well to believe he could keep his response equally appropriate were he to respond. “Hemyn was the youngest of five and his oldest sister had already mastered their father’s art of wire weaving. We were still flush with the power of creation and bore children more easily in those days. She had her hands full, I think, with teaching her younger siblings all at once and Hemyn’s education became neglected.”

“From the direction this story is going, I’m not sure Hemyn minded.” Briar guesses and Thorin barks a laugh.

“Good gods, no.” He shakes his head and thinks fondly of the murals painted on his walls as a child. The tale of Hemyn was one of them because it is part of the Children’s Eddas and because even then he was known for his stubborn pride. Hemyn was featured on the wall of the school room he eventually shared with Dis and Frerin. The artist portrayed him in the middle of a tantrum, all red-faced and angry as he rejected his sister’s art with the lights of Arun’s forge featured in the background.

Briar pokes him in the ribs. “Don’t stop.” She orders him. “Keep going.”

“The story has it that Hemyn was fascinated by the forge of Arun, the master swordsmith of that age. Arun was stone, even in those fruitful early days and dedicated himself to his craft: heart, mind, and body. He did not marry and sought no comfort in the arms of other dwarves. His parents were long since dead and he never craved children of his own blood. He was as alone in the world as it is possible for a dwarf to be among other dwarves.” Thorin ignores Dis’s keen stare from across the stone garden. “Hemyn would venture out of his cot early in the morning and sneak away to hide in the rafters over Arun’s bellows. There he watched the Master of his heart forge the swords and battle-axes that our soldier used to keep dark things at bay.”

“So it went for many weeks and eventually Hemyn noticed that Arun never blocked his view of the forge, even though it would be easier for him to stand elsewhere. He never turned his back to Hemyn and always held up his tools to examine them before work.” Thorin continues, warming to the story. “So one day, Hemyn descended from the rafters and approached Arun when he knew from his observations that the smith would not be disturbed by questions.”

“Arun did not look up as Hemyn approached, but rather spoke instead. ‘Little one.’ He said. ‘It is well past time that you should have come down from my roof. My art cannot be learned by watching. You must learn it through your hands.’ Hemyn’s heart soared in his chest, but even though he was willful he was still a dutiful son and brother. ‘Master.’ He said. ‘I wish with all my heart to learn at your feet, but my sister wishes that I learn our father’s art.’”

“Hemyn hung his head in grief after he finished speaking for he knew that his dream was over, that Arun would send him away, and he would return to his sisters feet to learn a craft that was not within his heart –but Arun only shook his head. ‘I am the Master.’ He said. ‘You are my student. Leave your sister to me. I will make it well, but from here on after you will leave her house openly and with respect to her. No more will you sneak away before breaking bread with your family. Am I understood?’ Hemyn fell to his knees and agreed.”

“So Arun ventured forth and requested an audience with Hemyn’s sister, Hild. He brought with him a fine pair of hardened steel clippers forged by his own hand and of his own design. These he gave to Hild as a gift when she admitted him into her workshop. ‘I am taking from you a valuable apprentice out of my own selfishness.’ He said to her. ‘However, I would not also take from you your brother. Let him learn from me and I will ensure that he will no longer be a stranger among you. Let this gift be a token of my sincerity.’”

“Hild accepted the clippers and tucked them into her pocket. ‘My brother has been unhappy these long months.’ She said to Arun. ‘I could have stopped him from going to you at any time, but I chose not to. I love the craft taught to me by my father, but he gave his heart to a sword. I cannot deny my deloved brother his heart. Teach him all that you know and join us at meals and hearth as a most precious uncle.’ So it was that Hemyn was apprenticed to Arun and that Arun -who was alone amongst all his kind- gained a second family –for the bonds of craft are every bit as tight as those of blood because they are both forged from love.”

Briar smiles for him as Thorin finishes his story. “You know, the next time someone tells me that dwarves have no poetry in their souls I think I might end up laughing in their face.” She tells him softly. “Is this why Fili and Kili start shaking and hiding their faces every time Amata comes to visit?”

“Perhaps.” Thorin sighs and wishes he was still ignorant of that particular fact. “When a dwarf truly wants something we cannot resist its call.” He takes a chance and winds one of her curls around his index finger.  “Or someone.” He adds huskily just as Dis reaches them to smack the back of his head and separate them.

The next time he is allowed to visit Briar –which is many days and several formal apologies later- Amata is seated on a little stool by Briar’s side and is seated in front of a basket of woolen fibers, a pair of needle-studded paddles, and a dogged expression. She also has the glow of a craftswoman in her element and Thorin accepts that his wife-to-be has accepted her first apprentice.

Briar, for her part, has learned early on the best way to motivate a student: to work in front of them. Today the lace pillow is nowhere to be seen. In its place a pair of the thinnest little rosewood needles Thorin has ever laid eyes on. He sits for a bit and watches Briar knit what can only be called a cloud. Little Amata eyes it with naked longing writ all over her face, but keeps the majority of her attention focused on her task.

“Balin says I must present a masterwork to the council of Guild Masters.” Briar says at length once Thorin has sat entranced by her hands for what is probably too long. “This isn’t my actual masterpiece as I understand these things, but it will do for an example.”

Thorin frowns. “Where is your true masterpiece then?” He asks. “Is it still in the Shire? I would have it fetched for you.” He’d do almost anything for her is the sad truth, but Briar doesn’t ask for what she wants the way a dwarf would. He’s learned to pay attention and guess the way he imagines a hobbit husband would.

She gives him a smile. “It’s different in the Shire. Needlework is for the family so my… masterpiece isn’t really for strangers. It’s meant to show my husband what skills I have learned from my family and what I have to teach our daughter.” Here she turns a pretty shade of pink. “It’s my wedding veil.”

That… should not make Thorin’s blood go hot, but it does. His eyes drop down to the gossamer lace spread out on Briar’s lap. He can just make out the angular shapes of… He tilts his head. “This is the pattern on my old vambraces; the ones Thranduil’s men confiscated from me.” …and never returned, but that is not the point. Briar can’t have seen that design in over two years.

“Yes.” She agrees and eyes her work with a critical eye. “I’ve altered it slightly and added corners inspired by the stonework on the statues of your grandfather. The pattern will be more visible once I’ve blocked it out properly. This is to be a long shawl rather than a veil. When it’s complete it will be fine enough that you can draw the entire thing through a ring.” A wicked smile tugs at her mouth and she leans a bit closer so that her words cannot be overheard. “You’ll do the same on our wedding day, although I beg you to use one of your rings instead of mine. I was barely twenty when I made that.”

“I will draw it through a bracelet if it pleases you.” Thorin replies and ducks Dis’ fan before she can hit him with it. He’s developing that sixth sense shared by all dwarves who have suffered through a long courtship. It’s no wonder that conventional wisdom has it that a married dwarf fights harder and better than a single one.

Briar is kind enough not to laugh at him outright, but her earrings jingle like bells as she turns her head in a somewhat theatrical cough. In a fortnight he’ll be permitted to present her with a length of fine golden chain to string from her earlobe to a ring on her lip. He’s already come up with a design that means she will not have to suffer through a piercing and the final design impressed Balin (who is acting in the stead of Briar’s deceased father) enough that he’s actually deigned to look at a first draft of their marriage contract.

If you had asked him three years ago what he envisioned his future as, Thorin thinks that even his wildest imaginings couldn’t come close to the truth. His family is strong, happy, and growing by the moment. His people have resurrected arts and techniques thought lost forever. Dwarves from the other nations arrive daily to learn from his craftspeople. The men of Dale have made the valley green again and the river runs thick with trade.

Sometimes he thinks about the Battle of Five Armies, of his wounds, and what would have happened if he had clung to his own sickened pride to the very end. How would he be received in the halls of his ancestors?

There is honor in giving one’s life for the glory of one’s people, but now Thorin thinks his death would have been a hollow one for all that his people would have sung of it for generations to come.

Erebor is thriving …and so is he.

-The End